The rain poured down in sheets, soaking the crew to the bone. Patrick hurried across the deck, curls plastered to his forehead, working hard to keep his balance on the slick wood as the ship rocked on the waves. The pitch-black sky was lit up with flashes of lightning, thunder rolling just seconds later.
"Secure the rigging!" Captain Ray shouted against the storm. Patrick grabbed a coil of rope, made ten times heavier by the rain. He threw it over his shoulder and carried it to the ratline.
"Here!" Ted shouted, already climbing the rope ladder. Patrick handed him the coil and watched his friend scramble up towards the yardarm. Members of the crew were already balanced at the beam, ready to furl the sail.
A huge gust of wind hit, pushing Patrick back a foot along the deck. He grabbed the side for purchase, fingers slipping against everything.
"Wave!" Someone shouted, seconds before the entire ship rocked. Water poured over the side, crashing into Patrick and sending the standing crew to the deck. Patrick was slammed into the wheel of a cannon, knocking the wind out of him.
The ship righted itself, and the rigging crew tied quickly up the sail. Most of the men hurried back to the ratline, but Ted grabbed a vertical rope and slid down, hanging in front of Patrick with a splash. He reached down to offer a hand, pulling Patrick to his feet again.
"Wave!" Another man called. Ted and Patrick braced themselves against the cannon. The deck moved beneath their feet again, tilting at a steep angle. Patrick held on for dear life, closing his eyes against the needling rain. This time he was prepared when the wave hit, pushing him against Ted, who was wedged into the side of the cannon. He held his breath as the water ran over them, until his lungs burned and he almost gasped in the sea water. Finally the wave receded, and Patrick could breathe in the cold night air.
Another bolt of lightning hit, right in the middle of the crow's nest. Patrick didn't know what was louder, the crack of the lightning or the splintering of wood as the main mast split.
Patrick was dumbfounded, staring up at the mast as it shuddered and bent, the top tumbling down to the deck. Ted grabbed him by the shirt and yanked him back before the crow's nest landed on top of him.
As the upper mast fell, it crashed into the foremast, sending both massive poles falling against the ship, taking their sails with them.
"Captain!" Ted shouted, looking towards the stern. "There's a hole in the bow!"
"She's taking on water!" Someone else added.
Captain Ray took a second to cast his eyes around the vessel.
"Abandon ship!" He called.
"Abandon ship!" Ted repeated. He and Patrick got to their feet and crossed to the cockboat, turning it over and hoisting it over the starboard railing. A few other crewmates helped them attach the pulley.
"Get in!" Ted commanded. The men took no pause before scrambling into their life raft. "Patrick! Get in!"
"Where's the Captain?"
"He'll get here, but you need to get in." Ted himself was already seated, holding the pulley.
"I'm going to go find him."
"Patrick!" Ted's voice was firm but his eyes were full of fear.
"Wave!" Someone in the back of the boat called.
Patrick took the dagger from his hip and slashed the rope, sending the cockboat falling to the water. He knew Ted was shouting after him, but Patrick was already across the ship. He could just make out the smell of burning wood, a thin line of smoke coming from the door to the Captain's quarters. A lantern must have tipped from the tide.
Patrick ignored the fire and rushed up the steps to the helm. Ray was nowhere.
Patrick swore to himself, trying to see through the haze of rain. The deck tipped up, higher than it had with any previous wave. Patrick was sent sprawling across the wood, reaching for anything to stop himself. Instead, his back hit the railing and he flipped over the edge, tumbling into the relentless sea.
"Is he alive?"
"Of course he's alive!"
"Well, is he breathing?"
"Yes! He is breathing!"
"Ugh! I was just asking!"
The sun behind Patrick's eyelids was bright, hurting his eyes even as they were closed.
He didn't know what was going on, or where he was.
The smell of salt in the air, gulls cawing in the distance, the scrape of sand against his skin, water lapping at his feet.
He was on the beach. Why?
His chest hurt. He'd fallen against the cannon. The storm! Had he washed ashore?
"He's moving," a deep voice said. Ted? No, this voice was different. New. He wanted to open his eyes but it was still so bright. The voice spoke again, hardly over a whisper. "He's beautiful."
Suddenly the light dimmed, and a soft hand brushed a wet curl from his forehead.
Patrick opened his eyes.
A man was leaning over him, his head eclipsing the sun and leaving Patrick in a shadow. He squinted, trying to see. Strong eyebrows, deep brown eyes. The hunt of a stubble on a chiseled jaw. This man was the single most fascinating thing Patrick had ever seen, and he was staring into his eyes.
"Is he awake?" A woman called, and the man looked away. "We have to go!"
The man looked back down at Patrick, almost reluctantly. The finger on Patrick's brow trailed down to his jaw.
Suddenly the man pushed off, moving out of his sight. Patrick flinched in the sudden sunlight, trying to sit up and rub his eyes.
There was a splash.
Patrick opened his eyes. Between the stark brightness and the water's reflection, he could have sworn he saw something shimmering in the water.
His throat was dry and his voice was weak.
Bow - front of ship
Stern - rear of ship
Port - left side of ship
Starboard - right side of ship
Ratline - rope ladder sailors use to climb up to the sails
Cockboat - small rowboat kept on the ship
Helm - steering wheel of the ship
Patrick was exhausted.
After the strange yet intriguing man disappeared beneath the surf (he had disappeared into the water, right?), Patrick sat staring into the sea for quite some time. He would later say it was to get his bearings and work up the strength to move, but the reality was that he was enamored by this… this vision he was trying to regain. Was it a hallucination, brought on by exhaustion and sea water?
He finally stood, and realized he wasn't far at all from his family's seaside castle. It only took him an hour or so to walk home, where he was promptly berated by his hysterical mother.
"My sweet boy! You're alive!"
"We saw the storm last night," his father added. "And in the morning, debris washed ashore from the ship. When Ted and the others came in on the row boat, telling of your refusal to join, we thought for certain you'd perished."
At that, Marcy began to cry again.
"I'm so sorry to worry you all," Patrick said, truly wishing he hadn't given them a scare. "I went to find the Captain, and was thrown overboard. Has there been any word from him?"
"Yes, yes. Ted had found him clinging to a bit of wood after the sea calmed. He is safe."
Patrick breathed a sigh of relief. If he'd risked his life to save another, and failed at that, he wouldn't have forgiven himself.
"Please send word of my return to my crew," he told his father. "I am retiring to my chambers."
With that, he took his leave. Barefooted, trousers torn and shirt all but gone, he walked up the marble stairs to his personal quarters.
"Robert," he called to his manservant. "Draw a bath, would you?" The last thing he wanted was to be in more water, but he knew he wouldn't rest without cleaning himself of the salt and sand. And perhaps the warmth would ease his aching body.
Patrick moved to his desk and poured a bit of rum into a glass as his bath was prepared. Sitting in a plush chair, he closed his eyes, trying to draw back the memory of this morning. Dark eyebrows. Wet hair pushed back from his face, a few loose curls threatening to fall. The intensity of his eyes. Those eyes…
"M'lord," Robert said. "Your bath is ready."
Patrick nodded, set down his glass and walked towards the tub set against the tiled wall. His manservant, Robert, stood nearby with a decanter of scented oil.
Robert had been in his service since he was too old for a nanny. He was his father's age, possibly older, and always smiling. He had a jolly trot that he often did, which Patrick always found fondly ridiculous.
After a (longer than intended) soak, Patrick pulled on the robe Robert handed to him and crossed to his bed, falling asleep before even climbing under the quilt. He was so tired that he dreamt of absolutely nothing.
When he woke a few hours later, feeling far more rested, he got dressed and joined his parents in the dining hall.
"You've started without me," he teased, kissing his mother on the cheek.
"We sent Robert to wake you," his father explained, "but you were all but dead to the world."
Patrick sat at his father's left side, his place since he was a boy, and allowed Grace to serve him.
"How are you feeling, dear?" Marcy asked, leaning over the table.
"Right as rain," Patrick grinned. "Well, maybe not rain, after last night."
"Not funny," his father warned, but his steely gray eyes betrayed his discontent.
"Of course," Patrick replied. "My apologies."
"Your father and I have been talking," Marcy began, eyeing her husband over the candelabra. Patrick didn't like where this was going. "Perhaps it is time you retired from your sailing days."
Patrick opened his mouth to protest, but Clint cut him off. "You are getting to an age where it is no longer appropriate to be gallivanting around the open sea for weeks on end."
"I'm not gallivanting," he argued. "The Lady Blue is a merchant ship. Isn't it good that I'm keeping up relations with nearby kingdoms?"
"There are other ways to keep up relations," Marcy pointed out.
"If you're speaking of marriage--"
"We absolutely are," Clint cut in. "It's long past time for you to be wed."
"You both know my feelings on the matter."
"Yes, and to be perfectly frank, the idea of waiting for love is simply a wetnurse's fantasy." His father's voice had lost its tenderness. "Look at your mother and I. We were half your age when we were betrothed, we were practically strangers on our wedding day! But we grew together, created a life of love, and if I might say, are very happy together."
Marcy blushed in the candlelight.
Patrick knew his father was right; there were no two more in love than his parents. And most young men his age were married and producing heirs by now. Neither of his parents ever made mention of such, needing a child to carry on the family name, but they were increasingly serious about a betrothal. Patrick went along with almost everything his parents wanted, but this was something he couldn't stand for.
"I will not be forced into a marriage I do not choose!" His voice was louder and harsher than he intended, but frankly, he didn't regret it.
"You are a prince," his father declared. "You will do what is needed of you."
Patrick threw his napkin on the table.
"I've lost my appetite."
"Sir, Master Theodore has arrived."
Patrick looked up from his desk. "Thank you, Robert. I'll be down in a moment."
Robert bowed and trotted away happily.
Patrick sighed. He had hardly slept at all. After the disastrous dinner with his parents, Patrick had retreated back to his quarters and sat on the balcony that overlooked the sea. This was his favorite place.
You couldn't see any land across the water, and young Patrick was enthralled by the possibilities of what lay on the other side. He loved sailing with his father's crew, and once he turned fourteen was allowed to join a ship of his own. Ted, a young apprentice to the shipyard, was also green aboard the Lady Blue, and they'd become fast friends. On calm days, they'd climb the ratlines, race barrels down the deck, or play sword fight with wooden sticks. On rougher waters, they'd help tie down cannons and carry rope to the rigging crew. They spent weeks at a time on the water, traveling to now-familiar lands for trade and commerce, returning with exotic spices and fabrics for their mothers, and rum and tobacco for their fathers. Ted became the brother Patrick never had, and once they became of age, he joined the crew permanently. Patrick, however, wasn't technically allowed to be a sailor by trade. Instead, he was an unofficial crewmate, joining every voyage with the knowledge that he may not be able to sail again.
One would think that being a prince would grant him certain freedoms, but instead he was merely allowed to fly around a slightly larger cage.
He laid awake in bed for hours. The deep, dreamless sleep he'd been given during his brief rest that afternoon eluded him. Instead, once he did fall into a slumber, he had visions of men. Well, one man. With dark hair and dark eyes and strong shoulders and a gentle hand. Black and white shimmered behind Patrick's eyelids as he tried to follow this man into the sea, but when Patrick stepped into the surf, the man was nowhere to be found. He awoke in a sweat, unable to shake the pull in his chest and the dizziness in his head. After the argument with his parents, all thoughts of his savior were gone from his mind. But now, he couldn't think of anything else.
"Patrick!" Ted grinned as he came down the stairs.
"Ted," Patrick greeted, giving his friend a hug.
"Glad to see you made it ashore, alive and well."
"Poseidon gave a good fight," Patrick laughed, "but I won in the end."
They walked out to the market, enjoying the sunny morning. Merchants were selling fruit and jewelry and cloth, some grown locally and some imported from other kingdoms. Patrick grabbed two apples, tossing the vendor a gold coin and handing one apple to Ted. They ate and walked, greeting townspeople and watching children play. A small stage was set up along the road, mummers putting on a puppet show about a family cursed from their kingdom.
"Truly," Ted said as they came to a sandy beach. "You simply washed ashore?"
"I did," Patrick replied. "Though I must have taken in a lot of seawater, because I could have sworn I was rescued by a person who disappeared into the water as I awoke."
"Aah, a mermaid!" Ted laughed.
"I beg your pardon?"
"You can't be a sailor and tell me you don't know about mermaids."
"No, no," Patrick said, thinking. "Those were stories my nanny told me before bed."
"Many men don't believe they're just stories," Ted replied. "Captain Ray swears to have seen one swimming alongside the ship at daybreak."
"Have you ever seen one?"
Ted thought for a moment. "Possibly. You see the sun glittering off the water and your mind conjures up a magical creature. They say it's one of those things you only see when you're not looking."
"Are there, um, mermaid men?"
"Mermen, I'd presume," Ted laughed. "But sure, all sorts of merfolk, I'd reckon. Though it's just the beautiful maids most sailors look for, you know." He jabbed Patrick playfully under the ribs.
"Yeah," Patrick gave a false laugh.
It was a wild thought, something that he should laugh at and forget. The tale a drunken sailor tells his friends, or a fantasy whispered by children.
Then why did it sit like a rock in his gut? And why did he feel the urge to dive into the shallows and search for this… merman? Why could he not shake the need to see him again?
"You're not going to the surface again, are you?"
David rolled his eyes and turned to look at his sister.
"That is absolutely none of your business," he snapped.
"Um, yes it is!" Alexis' golden hair flowed out around her head. Curious thing, merfolk magic: despite the absence of gravity, her hair mostly floated around her shoulders in perfect waves. David's was always in a perfect coif above his forehead while underwater. When exposed to air, Alexis' hair simply got damp, still in pristine waves down her back. David was slightly less fortunate, his curls making their appearance when out of the water.
"How is it any of your business?"
"David," she sighed. "It's dangerous. If you get seen, it could be bad for all merfolk."
"I won't be seen," he sneered.
Alexis crossed her arms over her chest. "Just be careful."
"Go hug a blowfish," he glared, and swam out of their cave.
David headed towards shore, following the slope of the ocean floor to guide him. It had been years since he'd spent so much time at the surface, but he couldn't help it.
Once in the shallows, David swam along the shoreline, heading to the seaside castle. It had been days since that storm, and he hadn’t been able to keep away from the man he'd saved. This evening, he was sitting on his balcony, strumming a guitar and watching the sunset. David couldn't see him very well from his hiding place, clinging to the back of a large stone, but as the man sang, his voice drifted over the water.
David closed his eyes and listened to the song, slow and melancholy.
I thought I heard the Old Man say
"Leave her, Johnny, leave her"
Tomorrow ye will get your pay
And it's time for us to leave her
Leave her, Johnny, leave her
Oh, leave her, Johnny, leave her
For the voyage is long and the winds don't blow
And it's time for us to leave her
When a storm was coming, David and Alexis liked to swim to the surface and float along the waves. The surf crashed and spun around them, and Alexis loved to tumble through the water. David, on the other hand, liked to watch the storms; lightning flashing, waves crashing, and wind whipping around them. Usually, Stevie accompanied them, her black tentacles swirling below her. When they'd first met, David was in awe of her: her stony demeanor, ink black hair and long, clever tentacles. He made the mistake of calling her an octopus, and the next day his hair was flatter than it had ever been. She'd once referred to herself as a sea witch, though he wasn't sure if she was serious or not. Either way, he was certain she had hexed him, though he couldn't prove it and the next morning it was back to its old height.
This wasn't the first time they'd seen a ship caught in a storm, but it was the first time any of them had witnessed a shipwreck. It was fascinating to see the sailors scrambling around the deck, closing sails and shouting commands. Then, suddenly, the mast broke, and then the other, and then men were climbing into a small boat.
David, Alexis and Stevie swam around to the back of the ship, hoping to keep out of sight. The windows glowed orange, smoke billowing out. A man appeared at the railing, shucking his coat and jumping into the waves.
"Best to keep an eye on him," Stevie warned. "I'll make sure he gets a piece of driftwood or something. Humans are so incapable." She dove under the water, swimming towards him.
"It's going to tip," Alexis said. It was likely true, a huge swell picked up the side of the ship. A figure appeared, one that they hadn't seen before. The man slid down along the slanted deck, smashing into the railing and falling into the sea.
Without thinking, David dove in, swimming fast to get to him. The man would have been invisible to the men in the boat, sinking in the almost-black water. But David could see him perfectly: floating, almost peacefully, beneath the surf. One boot was gone, his shirt billowed behind him, curls floating around his face. He looked so graceful.
A small trail of bubbles streamed from the man's mouth, and David snapped back to reality. Flicking his fin as fast as he could, David grabbed the man and dragged him to the surface. Immediately, he began to gasp and sputter, but his eyes remained closed.
"What are you going to do with him?" Alexis asked, appearing at their side.
"I don't know," David admitted. He hadn't thought about doing anything, but he had to keep the man from drowning.
"Just put him on a door or something." Alexis gestured around. When the ship tipped, it all but flipped completely over, sending all kind of debris into the water.
"I'm not going to just put him on a door!" David snapped. "He could fall off and die!"
"Then what, you're just going to hold him all night?!"
David paused, thinking. "I'm going to take him to shore."
Alexis gasped. "That's miles away! You'll be swimming all night!"
"When has that ever stopped you?" He asked, adjusting his grip on the man. Humans were the worst floaters, even ones with such strong, broad shoulders. He shook his head. "Come or don't, but I'm taking him to land."
It had taken hours, and David actually was exhausted by the time they saw the cliffs. David had no idea where this man was from, but hoped he'd find his way home.
The morning sun was bright in the sky as David dragged the man into the beach. It was more difficult than he'd expected, having to shift himself up the sand before pulling the man. Once he knew he'd be out of the tide, David stopped. Finally he could look down at the man he'd been clinging to for hours. He was beautiful.
"Is he alive?" Alexis called from her place in the surf.
"Of course he's alive!" David snapped. He didn't tear his eyes away.
"Well, is he breathing?"
David glanced down, just to be sure. The man's strong chest rose and fell. "Yes! He is breathing!"
"Ugh! I was just asking!"
"Well stop!" God, she was so annoying. Why did she have to follow him all the way here? The man took a sudden deep breath, head shifting slightly. "He's moving." The sunlight danced on the scruff of beard, glittering auburn. Freckles peppered his nose. "He's beautiful," David heard himself whisper. He leaned forward and brushed one of those perfect curls from the man's face.
The man opened his eyes.
His eyes were deep pools, rich brown like the polish shell of a cowrie. They would be beautiful anyway, but with the sunlight streaming in, they were mesmerizing.
Those hypnotizing eyes flickered over David's face, taking him in.
"Is he awake?" Alexis called again. He looked over at her, head bobbing in the shallow water. Her mouth was set, nervous. "We have to go!"
He looked back down at the man. He didn't want to go.
His hand was still touching him, fingers on his hairline. David let one finger linger, running down the side of his lovely face.
He pushed off, moving quickly to the water before sliding smoothly beneath the waves. Against his better judgment, he let his tail flick out and splash the surface.
His arms felt empty and useless.
At sunrise, Patrick walked along the beach.
In the morning, he walked along the canals.
In the afternoon, he took a rowboat around the inlets.
In the evening, he walked along the cliffs.
At sunset, he sat at the end of a dock.
At night, he was on his balcony, alone.
It had been a week since Patrick had woken on the beach with that man-- no, mer-man. Every night, he returned to Patrick in his dreams, just out of reach. During the day, he consumed all the lore he could, from books and old sailors and mummer's shows. Some of it contradicted itself, and some of it was utter nonsense, but one thing was true for every one he heard: merfolk kept as far away from humans as possible.
Nevertheless, Patrick kept looking. He had to find him.
"Where are you?" He asked into the water. It was dark so dark he could only just make out the end of the dock. His legs dangled off the edge, boots off. "Did you save my life and disappear forever? Will I ever find you?"
Though Lady Blue was now at the bottom of the sea, her crew were planning on setting sail in a fortnight. Captain Ray was commissioning a new vessel that was currently being built in the shipyard.
His mother had already forbidden Patrick from going with them-- it was fearful enough to imagine him back in the hands of the fates, but the idea of being aboard a maiden voyage had tipped the scales out of Patrick's favor. He wasn't yet sure if he would comply or disobey his own mother. Perhaps his mysterious merman lived in deeper waters, and Patrick could only see him again if he were far out to sea? He couldn't live a life ashore if that were a possibility.
That night, in another fitful sleep, he dreamt again of his merman. Black and white shimmering against deep blue waters. Dark hair and eyes, mischievous and clever. That pull, like a rope tied around Patrick's spine, drawing him closer and closer.
Tonight, he was falling from the ship again. But instead of crashing into the sea, his merman caught him, cradling him safely. Patrick had clung to him tightly, relishing in the feeling of being held. The merman's hand brushed wet curls from Patrick's eye, and murmured "He's beautiful."
Patrick awoke feeling like he'd been sleeping on a bed of stones, uncomfortable and unrested.
Dawn had not yet broken, so he took to the balcony with his notebook, writing down what he could remember from his dream.
He went back and reread all of the entries since the shipwreck. Each one was similar: either Patrick was falling from the ship, or submerged in the icy waters, or in some sort of trouble. The merman was always there, rescuing him.
He set down his book and thought about that. In the faery tales, it was always the damsel who needed saving. The handsome prince or strong woodsman or clever rake would save the fair maiden from peril. He never imagined he’d be the one needing saving.
But he did, didn't he? In a way? To escape the expectations put upon him by his parents, Patrick had run to the sea. And once he realized it wasn't an endless ocean, that he would eventually reach the other side, he remained intent on finding adventure anywhere he could.
And then, when he needed saving the most, his merman had come.
Maybe the best way to find his merman again was to need saving, again.
He couldn't wait a fortnight until the new ship was ready. Even if he did, he wasn't keen on testing his idea by being a man overboard. No, he needed to make sure that, while he may seem like he needed saving, he was actually safe.
That afternoon, he climbed up to the top of the cliffs that faced the western sky. He and Ted would often come here in their youth, first to dare each other and then to show off to friends. Straight down from the ledge was an inlet, the water dark and daunting. But those waters held a secret, and what looked like a terrible end was actually a ruse. Though the plummet down was terrifying enough, the water below was deep and empty, with a soft and sandy bottom. No rocks, no undercurrents, and no danger.
He kicked off his boots and tore off his shirt, leaving just his breeches. Stepping to the edge, Patrick took a deep breath.
The water was cool and calming as Patrick sank down. It felt deeper than he remembered, but soon his feet brushed the soft sand. Pausing for just a moment, he pushed off the bottom and let himself slowly float upwards. Opening his eyes, and ignoring the sting of salt he was long used to, he saw the sunlight filtering in through the water above.
Suddenly a burst of movement to his left caught his attention. He couldn't see clearly enough to know what it was, but in an instant, a vice gripped his bicep and dragged him to the surface.
When he broke into the air, Patrick took a gasping breath and shook the water from his eyes. In front of him, holding his arm tightly, was the merman. Him .
Instead of gentle concern, though, his dark eyes flashed with fury.
"What are you doing!?" He growled.
Oh, to hear the voice again…
"It's you!" Patrick breathed. "I've been looking for you!"
"By leaping off of cliffs?!" He didn't care that the merman seemed angry, he was here . Patrick had found him.
Patrick blushed. "Yes," he admitted. "I was hoping maybe you'd, um, come and…"
"You tried to kill yourself to see if I'd save you again?" The fury seemed to shift towards annoyance. Had Patrick made a mistake?
"I wasn't trying to kill myself," he defended. "I used to jump here all the time. It's actually quite safe."
The merman stared at him for a moment, before flicking his eyes to their surroundings. "So you pretended to put yourself in danger," he said slowly. Patrick suddenly felt like a fool.
"Yes," he said sheepishly.
The merman growled, flexing the fingers of the hand Patrick was now realizing was still holding him up. He turned, dragging Patrick along as he swam to a large rock protruding near the cliffside. Is this how he was taken to shore after the storm? Pulled behind the merman like an albatross?
The merman jerked Patrick forward, close enough for him to grab the stone. How was he so strong?
"There," he said, voice still low with anger. "You're safe again." He turned and dove back into the water.
"Wait!" Patrick cried out with panic. He couldn't just leave now, when Patrick had finally found him.
After a breathless few seconds, the merman's head popped up a few meters away. He didn't say anything.
"Please don't go," Patrick begged. "I've only just found you."
"You haven't found me," he said in a flat voice.
"But I have!" Patrick insisted. "I've spent the last week looking for you!"
"Why?" He sounded tired, cautious.
Patrick paused. What could he say? He wanted to prove himself to not be crazy? He wanted to thank the man for saving him?
"Because you're the most beautiful thing I've ever seen," he finally admitted. "And I haven't spent a single moment not thinking about you."
The merman surged forward, stopping just outside of Patrick's reach. "Well here I am!" He shouted, letting his tail raise up behind him. It was magnificent, onyx and opal swirling together, the fin nearly translucent in the sun. "Get an eyeful of the magical beast!"
With the harsh words, Patrick's eyes snapped back to the merman's icy gaze. "What?"
"That's what you want, isn't it? A chance to tell your tale? Well now you've seen the creature, let the maidens fawn over you!"
Patrick was perplexed. Is that truly what he thought? "I-I don't care about that!" He sputtered. "I just want you! I mean, to see you. Talk to you." He couldn't get the words out right.
The merman's voice softened, but was no less careful. "Why?"
"Because you saved me. I would have died out there, but I woke up on the beach, safe and alive. And then you disappeared."
The merman seemed to think about this. He looked around them, as if to check for other people who may be watching. Then he dipped back under the water for a moment. When he reappeared, he seemed slightly more satisfied. "Fine," he said. "But not here."
"I know where we can go," Patrick said quickly. "There's a cove not far from here, it's secluded."
The merman nodded, and Patrick pushed off of the rock, swimming towards the cliff wall. After a few strong strokes, he looked over his shoulder to see the merman where Patrick had left him.
"You coming?" He called.
"Are you… climbing up the cliff?"
"No," Patrick said. "Just follow me." He turned to continue, and suddenly the merman was next to him. "You're fast," Patrick laughed.
"No," the merman replied, bored. "Humans are just incredibly slow."
They continued swimming for a few minutes, slowly crossing the inlet. The merman seemed to be restless, moving back and forth between the cliff and Patrick. Each lap took the merman mere seconds, when it took Patrick almost ten minutes to cross the space. And he was considered a strong swimmer.
When they made it to the wall, Patrick took a left and led the merman to where some trees and foliage were overgrown, their branches reaching into the water. To the unaware, it looked like nothing more than overgrowth, but Patrick knew better. He took a deep breath and ducked under the water, blindly swimming into the dark. After a few strong kicks he turned up and broke through the surface on the other side.
It was much darker inside the cave. Treading water, he looked around for the merman. Did he follow him in?
By the time Patrick's eyes had adjusted and he moved over to the coarse sand, the merman finally appeared. He stayed close to the entrance.
"My friend and I found this place years ago," Patrick explained. He smiled at the memory of himself and young Ted exploring the cave like they were mighty adventurers.
The merman didn't respond. Patrick cleared his throat. "So, um. Thank you for saving me. That night." The merman nodded. "How did you know I was there?"
"I didn't." Patrick was glad it was dark, so hopefully the man didn't notice the shiver as his deep voice echoed around them. "I was watching the storm."
"It was a bad one," Patrick agreed. "Worst I've ever sailed in."
"I've seen worse," the merman said casually. "That hurricane last autumn."
"You were in that?!"
"I've never seen a shipwreck," he said softly. His voice was still unsure, as if he were waiting for Patrick to… he didn't know. Attack him? Exploit him?
"I've never been on one," Patrick laughed.
"I saw you fall," he said at last. "You weren't awake when I pulled you up."
"And you just… swam me to shore?" The man didn't respond. "We were at least a day out from port." It didn't seem possible, but Patrick saw his shoulders raise in a shrug. "Why?"
"I couldn't let you drown." Simple as that.
"Who was with you?" Patrick tried to seem casual with his questions, but he was dying for answers.
"What… what do you mean?"
"I heard another voice," Patrick insisted. "A woman?"
"My sister," he snipped. Was he upset that Patrick knew she was there? Or that she was there at all?
They sat in silence for a few moments. Finally Patrick opened his mouth to ask another question when the merman spoke.
"I have to go," he said suddenly. He turned towards the opening of the cave.
"Wait," Patrick called, standing. "Can… can we meet again?" This couldn't be the last time.
The merman paused, thinking. "Tomorrow. Back here. Midday."
"Okay. Um, I'm Patrick, by the way."
The merman looked over his shoulder. "David."
Patrick watched him slip beneath the dark water and disappear.
Just after breaking his fast, Patrick left for the cave. It was late morning when he arrived, but he couldn't risk missing David.
Last night, just like every other night, he dreamt of David. But this time, David wasn't coming to save him. Instead, Patrick was underwater, trying to catch up to the merman who was swimming away from him. His strong tail kept David at a distance, and no matter how hard Patrick kicked, he couldn't catch up. When he awoke, he felt frustrated and helpless.
Patrick kicked off his boots and perched himself on a smooth rock, reaching into his satchel to pull out a pear. He looked up, seeing the thin streams of sunlight shining through cracks in the cave roof, and took a bite out of the sweet fruit. When he looked back down, he nearly jumped out of his skin.
David was there, a few meters closer than he sat yesterday.
"You came," Patrick choked, trying not to inhale the fruit.
"I said I would," David said. Patrick didn't care if David didn't seem particularly happy to be here; Patrick was thrilled to see him. "You're dry."
Patrick looked down at himself stupidly. "Oh, yeah. There’s, um, a path?" He turned and pointed further back into the cave, where the floor sloped up. "It lets out near the top of the cliff."
"Clever." David smirked, a quirk of the lip revealing a single dimple.
"I thought so," Patrick smiled back, like it was a secret between them. He took another bite of his pear, and didn't miss the way David's eye followed his hand. "Do you want one?" Patrick asked, pulling a second fruit from his bag.
He didn't wait for a response, instead standing and walking to the water's edge with his hand outstretched.
Nervous, like a wild colt, David inched forward in the water. Patrick took a few more steps, wading in knee-deep. David came closer, and Patrick waited. He was patient; he'd wait hours for David to make his way to him.
Eventually, David made it to the shallow water. For the first time since that morning on the beach, Patrick could see more than just his face. He couldn't help that his eyes were drawn down, across David's broad chest and strong stomach, to where his skin disappeared into an intricate design of black and white scales. His tail must have been incredibly strong, holding him up to the same height as Patrick. He reached forward, four silver rings glinting on his fingers, to take the pear.
David retreated quickly, but not nearly as far. He stayed closer, resting waist-deep in the shallow pool. Patrick watched him take a tentative bite of the fruit, his eyes rolling back in pleasure.
"That good?" He chuckled when David moaned.
"You have no idea." He took another bite. "Nothing that grows under water tastes like anything but salt."
"Have you ever had a pear before?"
It was an innocent question, but the look David shot him was deadly. "Of course I've had a pear before," he scoffed. "It's just been a while." Patrick nodded, wanting to know more but afraid to ask. What other human food did David eat? "A few months ago, Stevie turned up with some tomatoes. She said they 'fell off a boat' but she probably stole them somehow."
"Is that your sister?"
David froze, as if he were caught saying something he shouldn't have. "Ah, no. Um, she's just a friend."
"How many of you are there?" The question left Patrick's mouth before he had a chance to stop it.
David cocked an eyebrow. "Why are you asking?"
"I'm just curious," he said honestly. "If it's just you three in the whole ocean, it must be pretty lonely."
"No, there are plenty of merfolk around." David didn't seem particularly proud of that fact. He lowered his voice. "Doesn't make it any less lonely."
Patrick sighed, his chest aching at the thought. "I know what you mean."
David shot him a disbelieving look. " Do you? Because you always seem to be having a lot of fun with the people you're around."
"I… what? You've been watching me?"
David blushed, looking away. "That's not what I said," he stammered.
"You have!" Patrick leapt to his feet, full of excitement. "You've been watching me this whole time I've been looking for you!"
"Well, I didn't want you to do anything stupid to nullify my good deed!" David defended. "You know, like jumping off a cliff!"
Patrick laughed. "Argue all you want, but it doesn't change the fact."
David just huffed and took another bite of the pear.
"To answer your question, though," Patrick continued somberly. "I know exactly how easy it can be to be lonely in a room full of people when those people don't really know you."
"Okay, Sailor," David challenged. "Tell me."
So Patrick did. He told David about growing up watching the sea, wishing he could chase the horizon. He told David about the suffocating feeling of being ashore, because at home he had a life he was expected to fit into. He told David about the first time he sailed with his father, feeling free for the first time in his life.
"I know it sounds ridiculous," Patrick sighed. "Not to mention completely selfish and unappreciative of the life I live. But sometimes, no matter how wonderful my life may be, sometimes I just feel so…"
"Trapped," David finished. Patrick looked over, surprised. "What?" David huffed out a cynical laugh. "Can't a merman feel like the entire sea just isn't enough?"
"No," Patrick said quickly. "It's not that at all. I just didn't realize that my refuge could be someone else's prison."
"Yeah, well." David looked down at his hands, picking at the stem on the top of the leftover pear core. "I should go."
"Will you be back tomorrow?" Patrick could hear the hope in his voice.
"Yeah," David said with a small smile. "I'll be back tomorrow."
As Patrick watched him swim slowly towards the opening, he called out. "Goodbye, David."
David turned and smiled. "Goodbye, Patrick."
David came back to the cave every afternoon for the next three days. Every morning on his way there, Patrick stopped by the market and picked up a different food for David: dates, figs, cashews and a nectarine.
They talked more, about the sea and their friends and families. They talked about animals, pastimes and ideas. To Patrick's delight, they had quite a lot in common.
"With the exception of this last one, I actually enjoy sailing through storms," he said.
David looked up from the pomegranate he was picking through. "Why?"
Patrick shrugged. He'd never thought about it too much. "I just like storms. I like the energy. I like the rush of the fight, working hard to stay afloat while Poseidon tries to pull us under." He tried not to remember how he had almost lost the fight.
"I understand," David told him. "That's why I like them, just to lay back and watch. The intensity and power." He tosses the fruit rind to the dry sand. "The ocean commands respect."
"That she does," Patrick agrees. They sit in comfortable silence, David stretched out in the shallow water, and Patrick leaning back against a stalagmite.
Over the last few days, David had gotten more comfortable with Patrick, at least a little. He sat closer every day, and stayed longer every afternoon. Some days they talked a lot, and some days they barely spoke. Neither seemed seemed mind; Patrick just liked having the company. Not to mention that with David in shallow water, Patrick was able admire his tail in greater detail. It was twice as long as his torso, and so intricately detailed with the black and white design that it looked hand-painted. Patrick had never seen something so beautiful.
Suddenly, David sat straight up. "Someone's coming," he said, voice serious. Patrick craned his neck to look back at the path behind him, but David shook his head. "No, in the water."
Ice grew in Patrick's stomach as he watched David stealthily slide under the surface. Had someone seen them, seen David come to the cave? There were plenty of people who would exploit someone like David for a bit of gold. Did he put David in danger?
It seemed like hours, but was only minutes later, when David re-emerged, looking particularly bothered. Right behind him was a woman. She was beautiful, with a sharp face and long black hair laying gracefully around her shoulders. She looked unimpressed, maybe even a little smug.
"So this," David scowled, "is Stevie. Apparently she thinks I need a chaperone."
"I just wanted to make sure you weren't hooked by some fisherman." She eyed Patrick and gave a smirk. " Are you a fisherman, Patrick?"
"Um, no," Patrick said, feeling a blush rise up his neck. She knew his name? "Just a sailor."
"Hm," was all she said.
As David made his way back up to his previous resting place, Stevie swam alongside him. She was clearly protective of him, peering around the cave and keeping a keen eye on Patrick, all while staying within arms length on David. The closer to shore she got, the better Patrick could see her in the low lights. He'd never seen a mermaid before, but upon seeing Stevie, he still wasn't so sure he had.
David had flesh across his chest and abdomen, only turning to scales where a human man would wear his trousers. Stevie, on the other hand, had black, slick skin from her bosom down, covering her stomach and leading down to her… tentacles?
"It's rude to stare," she deadpanned, using a tentacle to flick water at him.
"Oh, no, I'm so sorry," Patrick stammered. "I didn't meant any offense, I just--"
"Leave him alone," David snapped. "He's nice."
"Oh, he's nice," she repeated with great sarcasm. "Well he must be nice if you've been spending all this time with him. You haven't been to the surface this frequently since--"
"Yes, well," David interrupted, shooting her a look. "We all have our hobbies." He looked over at Patrick. "She's a barnacle, so good luck shaking her now."
"Oh, I don't mind," Patrick replied honestly. "It's nice to meet some of David's friend's."
Stevie snorted, and David sneered at her. "Ah, yes," she said, fighting a smile. "One of David's many, many friends."
"Don't you have a baby seal to curse or something?" David asked.
"Ooh, is that a pomegranate?" Stevie asked suddenly. She took off towards the shore, tentacles crawling across the sand until she got to David's discarded rind.
"Do you want one?" Patrick reached into his satchel. After the first day with the pear, he made it a point to bring multiples of any food. So far David hadn't asked for more than Patrick had given him, but he wanted to be prepared to give David anything.
Stevie snatched the fruit and ripped it open, seeds flying in all directions.
"Do you have to eat it like a shark?" David asked, flicking a piece of pulp from his arm.
"Sorry we didn't all take etiquette lessons are children," Stevie replied.
"Wow," Patrick laughed. "What does merfolk etiquette entail?"
Stevie looked at David with an eyebrow raised.
"Same as all etiquette classes, I'd assume," David sniffed.
Patrick didn't push the subject. David didn't talk too much about merfolk, or his life in the as a merman. Patrick didn't mind, as the specifics of David's upbringing weren't what was interesting. Even if Patrick did want to ask questions, what right did he have? He had yet to tell David that he was a prince. He just liked being Patrick, and liked him being David.
Later on, as they were leaving, Stevie eyed Patrick again.
"I think I'll come back with David tomorrow," she said.
"That would be lovely," Patrick smiled.
"Bring more fruit," she demanded. "You'd hate to anger a sea witch."
With that she turned around and splashed into the water.
Patrick looked at David with wide eyes. "Is she really a sea witch?" He asked quietly.
David shrugged. "Your guess is as good as mine."
From the entrance, Stevie's cackle echoed around the cave.
"All I'm saying is that it's not fair that Stevie got to meet your cute lil sailor man, and I haven't."
Alexis was perched on a stone in their home cave, peering into a salvaged shard of mirror from some old shipwreck.
"First of all, I never invited her," David said for the fortieth time. "She just followed me there."
"He is a cute little sailor man, though," Stevie put in, just to needle David.
"And secondly, how do I even know he wants to meet you?"
Alexis scoffed and twisted to look at her brother. "Rude, David! Why wouldn't he want to meet me?"
"Probably because they just sit around making heart-eyes at each other," Stevie mumbled.
David grabbed the sea sponge he was lying on and threw it at her head. "We absolutely do not!"
"Omigod, David," Alexis gasped. "Do you think he could--"
"No!" He cut her off. "He's only interested in me because I'm some magical creature. If I were just some guy, he wouldn't be giving me a second thought."
"Well if that's true," Alexis starts.
"It's not," Stevie interjects.
"Then I don't see why he wouldn't want to meet more merfolk. He hasn't even seen a mermaid yet!"
David sighed. She had a point.
"Fine," he grumbled. "When I see him today, I'll ask if he wants to meet you."
Alexis clapped her hands. "Oh yay!"
"So my sister wants to meet you," David said shortly after swimming into the cave. Just like every other day, Patrick was already there, waiting.
David would never admit it, but he usually stayed under the water when he first arrived, watching. He did it the first day, because he still wasn't sure if he trusted Patrick just yet. But Patrick had just sat there, polite and innocent, eating a piece of fruit and waiting for David to arrive.
Every day since then, it's been the same: Patrick sitting on the sand and waiting, while David watched. He knew it was hypocritical, not wanting to be on display but sitting back and observing someone else. But David knew he wasn't interested in Patrick because he was a human, and he hoped he wasn't wrong in believing that Patrick didn't care about his tail.
"Oh?" Patrick asked, digging into his bag. David was curious what Patrick had brought him this time; everything he'd had so far was delicious and reminiscent of happier times. Well, other times, at least.
"Yeah, so… I'll probably bring her tomorrow?" He secretly hoped Patrick would say no, but David knew he wouldn't.
"That sounds great," Patrick smiled. God, he had a great smile, with that little dimple on the side…
"You say that now."
Patrick chuckled again and tossed something to David. It landed in the water in front of him.
"What is this?" He asked, picking up the fruit.
"It's a plum," Patrick told him.
A plum. David was sure he'd eaten one before, but he couldn't remember. But once he bit into the purple flesh, the rich juice exploding over his tongue, any memory of a food that wasn't a plum was gone from his mind.
He wasn't lying when he'd said that nothing from the ocean has any flavor. Sure, there are plenty of edible plants growing underwater, but outside of the salt taste, it was like eating… well, seaweed. And it's pretty low on protein, too, so they supplement with fish, which, when uncooked, tastes like absolutely nothing.
He'd once asked Stevie if she thought it was cannibalistic to eat fish, but she just said "Yes," and took another bite.
So when Patrick first offered that pear… David knew better than to accept anything from a human. Especially a human who had gone so far out of his way to find him. But he could smell the sweet fruit from across the cave, and it had been so long since head eaten anything that grew from the earth. And then he kept bringing things, other fruits and seeds and nuts, even giving some to Stevie. How could he say no to such hospitality? He wanted to return the favor, somehow.
"Um, I was thinking," David started, feeling more nervous than he should. "We've spent all week hiding in a dingy cave. Maybe I could take you to some place I like to go? It's a little ways away, but not terribly far."
He glanced up, and felt his stomach flutter when he saw Patrick's fond smile.
"That sounds great, David. Did you want to go now?"
"Oh, no, I was thinking maybe the day after tomorrow? I don't want to drag Alexis around."
Patrick nodded, picking at his own plum. The corners of his mouth were turned down, but David knew it wasn't a frown.
"You also might need to row a boat," David added, almost sheepishly. "I've never been there by land.
"I can definitely row a boat, David," Patrick teased. "Maybe I'll bring a picnic lunch?"
David felt his eyes go wide. "Yeah?" He asked eagerly, then cringed at himself. "Um, if you want to, that is."
"Oh, I definitely want to."
David was swimming back and forth across the underwater cave. "Alexis, I will leave you here!"
"Oh my god, David! Relax!"
She swam out from behind a curtain of kelp, fluffing her hair.
"Did you polish your shells?" He accused, looking at the clamshell bra she wore. It was light blue, to match her iridescent tail, but somehow looked shinier.
"Well I wanted to look my best!" She huffed. "It's not everyday you get to meet a human!"
"It's not going to be today, either, if you don't hurry up!"
Alexis glared at him and huffed. "I'm ready!"
David rolled his eyes and swam out of the cave. He didn't look to see if Alexis was following him; he knew she would be.
By the time they made it halfwayto the cave, Alexis was already complaining.
"You didn't say it was going to be so far!"
"You followed me to the beach that day, you knew how far I was going," he snapped.
"And it's not even sunny! My hair doesn't look as good when it's overcast," she pouted.
"We're not even going to be outside," David told her. "We're meeting him in a cave."
"Ew! Is it all dark and musty in there?"
David stopped and turned around. They were already just outside the inlet that led to the cave.
"Okay, you asked me to bring you here," he said, pointing at her. "Please don't be whiny, I don't want Patrick to decide he doesn't like me based on you."
Alexis scoffed. "David, everybody likes me."
"C'mon." He turned back around and led her to the shallow tunnel under the mangroves.
Just as always, Patrick was there waiting for him. This time, David didn't wait before surfacing. "Sorry I'm late," he said, ensuring his tone was not apologetic. "Someone had to preen herself like she was a cleaner shrimp."
"Omigod, ew, David!" She smacked his arm, but then her voice turned curious. "Do you think we could get some of those?"
"No idea," he replied, exhausted. "Patrick, this is my sister, Alexis."
"So pleased to meet you," Patrick said, like a perfect gentleman.
"Likewise," Alexis giggled, swimming up close and doing a little shimmy, her tail raising up behind her. Such a show-off.
"I wasn't sure if you'd like any," Patrick started, opening his satchel, "but I brought some grapes."
"Oh yum!" Alexis cheered. "I haven't had grapes since we've been down there."
David's blood turned to ice. Please shut up, he silently begged.
"Down where?" Patrick asked casually.
"Down there, silly," Alexis said with a flip of her hair. "Atlantica."
"Oh!" Patrick seemed surprised and curious. "Where did you live before that?"
Just stop, just stop, just stop!
Alexis looked at her brother with a raised eyebrow. "Does he not know?"
Alexis was staring at him. You have to tell him, she said with her eyes. David squeezed his shut, hoping to block out the whole conversation.
"Is everything okay?" Patrick asked. Bless him and his genuine kindness.
"So Alexis and I," David started, still not looking up, "weren't always mermaids. We were born as humans."
He finally opened his eyes. Alexis was nodding along, eating her grapes, while Patrick looked absolutely confused.
"We were cursed," David said.
He told Patrick the whole story, about how his father, King John, ruled over Holsathia. He was a kind and benevolent king, never taking more than he was allotted, always taking care of his kingdom. But his sorcerer, Eli, became jealous. He was tired of living in John's shadow, and wanted John to allow him to use his magic for their benefit. Finally King John got tired of Eli's constant meddling and asked him to leave.
"He should have banished him," Alexis said solemnly. "At least that has a layer of magical protection."
"Dad didn't want to use magic to hurt someone," David pointed out. "Even Eli."
Eli, angry and vengeful, returned to the palace and called out King John. After giving the king a chance to grovel at the feet of the sorcerer ("Which Dad would never do because he is way above negotiating with rogue magicians," Alexis put in), Eli cast a spell over the family. He cursed them all to the depths of the sea.
"How have I never heard of this?" Patrick asked, perplexed. "We've been doing commerce with Holsathia for as long as I can remember."
"That's the tricky part," David explained. "He hexed the kingdom. Eli had a son and a daughter, so he hexed everyone to think that they were us. No one has even realized we're gone."
"Which is ridiculous because I am way cuter than Klair," Alexis huffed.
"And I'd like to think I'm more likeable than Sebastian, but I don't want to get my hopes up."
Alexis threw a grape at her brother. "Of course you are."
"That is terrible, David," Patrick said earnestly. "I'm so sorry that happened to you."
David shrugged. "Yeah, well. We all have bad days sometimes."
Patrick visibly winced, probably hearing the ice in David's voice. "Is there any way to break the spell?"
Alexis opened her mouth to respond but David shot her a stern look.
"No." His voice was serious, and he kept his eyes on his sister.
"There has to be," Patrick insisted. "There are no unbreakable curses."
"Obviously there's one," David snapped. He really didn't want to keep this conversation going. He also didn't want to know what Patrick thought of him now, the poor little cursed prince, unhappy about being a merman. There was a reason he had kept it from him.
He hoped to god that this didn't change anything.
Patrick awoke with the dawn.
He was rather excited for his day with David. He hadn't felt this giddy about seeing him since the day David had agreed to return to the cave. Well, he'd been incredibly excited to see him every day. But today was different, for a few reasons. Today, David was taking Patrick somewhere important to him. That meant that David actually wanted to spend time with Patrick, and didn't see him as an obligation or some pesky human who wanted him for his magic.
Though, Patrick supposed, things were a little different now. Now he knew that David was once a human. Was a human, just one under a curse. He was surprised by this admission, and wondered if David had ever planned on telling him if Alexis hadn't let his secret slip? It's not as if Patrick had any room to be hurt by the omission: he himself was keeping a part of him secret as well. Perhaps, now, Patrick could confide in David that he was truly a prince. After all, David was a prince as well!
But would David find it disappointing to be spending his time with a prince when he himself was banished? Would he no longer want to be around Patrick, because it reminded him of his life lost? Patrick didn't want David to see him as some sort of reminder of what he can no longer have. Maybe that's why he was going all out on this picnic luncheon: he hoped to prove to David that he was still worthy of his time.
By the time he arrived at the dock, basket in hand, his mind was tired of thinking. He was grateful for the small rowboat and the need for concentration to navigate to the meeting spot. David had told Patrick to meet him on a small island about five hundred meters off of the coast. It was on the other side of the harbor than their cove, and Patrick hadn't been there since he was a child. It wasn't uncommon for boys who were not yet of age to take a rowboat out to one of the small islands dotting the coast. It was the farthest they could go while still staying safe. This particular island was one of the farthest from shore, which didn't surprise Patrick in the slightest, knowing David's aversion to attention.
"Hey, Patrick!" He looked up the dock and saw Ted sitting on a barrel, talking with some of the other members of the crew. "I haven't seen you around much lately."
"Oh, you know," Patrick said, grasping at excuses. "No ship to work on."
"Not yet," a shorter man, Emir, pointed out. "But Captain wants it in the harbor by Sunday."
Patrick grinned, but it didn't feel real enough. His mother had made it abundantly clear that he would not be stepping foot on a ship for at least a month after the storm ("Allow any negative energies to clear away," she'd explained), yet for the first time in his life, he didn't feel the pull to the sea as strongly as he had before. He didn't feel as if he needed to be out on the open water for adventure and interest.
"We're celebrating on the morrow," Mutt, a shaggy bearded fellow added. "At the Wobbly Elm!"
"You'll join us, yeah?" Emir asked.
"Of course," Patrick promised. "I must be going now, though." He hoisted the basket into the other hand and moved to pass them.
"Ooh, his royal highness has a lady waiting," Emir teased. No one on the ship cared for his title, but they did address him as such when making fun.
"And who is this fair maiden?" Mutt asked.
"Perhaps a mermaid?" Ted added.
Patrick's stomach dropped. He knew Ted was just bringing up their last conversation, where Patrick had confided in waking up to a beautiful stranger on the beach.
"Something like that," Patrick muttered through a false smile and passed them.
He found a boat tied to the end of the dock and climbed in, settling the basket in by his feet. He felt foolish. Maybe this was a mistake. He didn't need to create a whole meal of it, turning it into some excursion.
He thought on this, chewing at his lip, the whole trip to the island. When he got there, he pulled the boat ashore and made his way to the other side. The entirety of the land was smaller than his chambers, and within a minute he was standing on the opposite beach. David was sitting there in the surf, trees and sea plants hiding him from view of the harbor, looking out onto the horizon.
"Hi," Patrick said, sitting on the sand near him.
"Hey," David replied, looking up.
Patrick got a sudden flashback, hitting him like a tidal wave: David, above him on the beach, the sun bright behind him, leaving Patrick breathless. He had to blink hard to regain his bearings. He looked across the sea.
"This is beautiful," Patrick said.
David nodded. His hair was dry in wild curls; he'd been here a while. "I'd forgotten how much I missed the sun." Patrick noted the sadness in his voice. Unsure of what else to do, he reached out and let his hand land softly on David's shoulder. The merman looked over and smiled crookedly, making Patrick's heart pound in a way that didn't quite make sense.
"Well," David said suddenly, pulling Patrick from his concern. "Shall we go?"
"Y-yes, yes!" Patrick sputtered, standing and wiping the sand from his pants. "Where to?"
David chuckled at Patrick's enthusiasm. "Bring your dinghy around and I'll show you."
Patrick pulled his boat back into the shallow water and climbed in, rowing to meet David. The merman gestured for him to follow, and so Patrick did. The sea breeze blew gently, ruffling his curls, and the sun shone brightly over him. They were relatively close to land, so the water was bright and blue, and clear enough for Patrick to see David's tail, even at a distance. David swam under the water, much slower than his normal pace. He must have been able to sense that Patrick was behind him, maybe he could hear his oars break the surface, because he never turned back to check. He wished that, somehow, David could be in the boat with him. He wanted to row across the water and enjoy the beautiful afternoon with David, with his sharp eyes and clever smile.
He found himself asking the same questions he asked in the week after the shipwreck: why? Why was he so drawn to David? Surely it wasn't simply because he was a merman, or a cursed one at that. Why did he want to spend every day with him, listening to stories and sharing ideas and thoughts? Surely he had felt similarly to his other friends, Ted in particular, wanting to spend time with him and play or work together. But this felt different, deeper. He wasn't sure...
His thoughts were interrupted as David led him into a thinner outlet, more like a the mouth to a small river. His boat fit easily, but the crystal waters looked almost too shallow for David. Patrick deftly navigated as the river narrowed, following David upstream until it finally widened into a lagoon. The water was a bit deeper, but a beautiful turquoise color, with a dozen or so spots where the sand touched the surface, covered with green mossy plants. On the Northern side of the pool, a few large rocks protruded from the water, worn smooth with time. David grabbed the rope from the front of the boat and pulled Patrick over to them.
Carefully, Patrick stepped out onto the lowest stone, wide and flat like a platform for him to sit. It was only a few inches above the water, and David pulled himself up to sit at the ledge.
"So I couldn't help but notice your basket," he said playfully.
"Oh, just you wait," Patrick teased. He pulled out a small woolen blanket, laying it out, before removing the contents of their picnic lunch. Today, he was trying to show off a little: a wedge of white cheese, a large salami, two small loaves of crusty bread, a jar of brined olives, a jar of strawberry preserves, and a bottle of wine. Curious of his reaction, he glanced up at David to see his eyes shining with awe. "What would you like first?" he asked, proudly.
"The cheese," David answered quickly. "No! The bread! There's no way to get that underwater without ruining it."
Patrick pulled out a plate and knife and sliced off a hunk of bread, handing it to David. While cutting pieces of meat and cheese, he kept an eye on David.
Carefully, as if examining a foreign object, David turned the bread over in his hands, feeling the hard crust and spongy center. Finally, he tore off a piece and popped it in his mouth.
"Ohmahgah!" he moaned, eyes rolling back in his head. He took another fast bite, chewing it slowly. Once he swallowed, he looked back up at Patrick. "I haven't had bread since... this." He motioned to his tail, swaying back and forth in the shallow. "Even before, really. I tried to avoid breads as much as possible for a while."
"Why?" Patrick handed him a thick slice of salami.
"I was tired of girdles," David shrugged. "And didn't want to have to ask the tailor to take out my seams again."
Patrick was perplexed-- David's body looked perfect. He could feel himself flush at the thought, a feeling so unlike any he'd had before.
"You don't, ah, seem to need any sort of…" he shoved an olive in his mouth to keep himself from speaking.
David chuckled nervously. "Thanks," he said. "But I have to say, swimming as a means of travel is very good for your musculature."
Patrick just nodded and looked around the lagoon. They were surrounded by mangroves, making it feel like they were the only two people in the world. Even without spending the day with a cursed merman, this place felt magical.
After they each had plates of bread with preserves, meat and cheese, and olives, Patrick uncorked the bottle of wine.
"I got this bottle last year on a trip to Aarhus," Patrick explained, pouring two glasses. "It had come from Brittany." He handed a glass to David, who swirled it around like a sommelier.
"Excellent vintage," David said upon tasting it. "The French have always had a way with grapes."
Patrick nodded. He didn't know much about wine, outside of the basics of white and red, and general quality. He was glad, though, that he'd chosen a bottle that lived up to David's standards.
They sat in the sun, eating and drinking and talking and laughing, and the sun made its way across the sky. Soon, David slid into the water, resting his arms on the stone near Patrick's feet. Patrick, feeling warm, pulled off his boots and untucked his shirt.
"How deep is it here?" He asked, peering into the water. He could see a starfish meandering across the sand.
"Deeper than it looks," David admitted.
That settled it. Patrick turned and walked to the farthest part of the stone.
"What are you doing?" David called.
Patrick flashed him a devilish smile and took off in a sprint towards him. When he reached the edge, he launched himself into the air, curled into a ball, and splashed into the pool.
When he emerged, he shook the water from his eyes and grinned at David.
"I'd do you one better," David laughed, "if I could climb up the rocks."
"I don't believe you," Patrick teased, and got a splash in the face in return. Laughing, he laid back, letting his body float in the water. "This feels amazing," he sighed, letting his arms and legs stretch out. David moved over to float next to him, staring at the blue sky.
"There's so much I'd forgotten I missed about being a human," he said after an extended pause. "Alexis and I used to lay in the courtyard and imagine shapes out of clouds."
"I used to do that," Patrick said. "I always insisted I saw dragons and chimera, but all I could see were bunnies and kittens." He heard David laugh through the water plugging his ears. They'd finished the bottle of wine and Patrick, not usually one for drinking more than a glass, was feeling warm and soft around the edges.
They started to float apart slowly in the light current, and every so often he would feel David's hand on his arm or wrist, pulling them back together. Their shoulders bumped, and elbows brushed, and before Patrick even realized it, he had reached over and grabbed David's hand. Their fingers interlocked, fitting together like two pieces of the same puzzle. Neither of them said anything, they just continued to float along, hand in hand.
Patrick dreamt of David, just as he had every night since the storm. Most had been the same dreams of David rescuing Patrick from peril, with the one exception of the dream where he could not reach David under the water.
Tonight was completely different. Yes, it started the same, with Patrick sliding down the wet dock, falling to the ocean. David appeared, grabbing Patrick before he hit the water. But this time, as he was cradled in the merman's arms, Patrick could feel the heat from his skin. He could feel the stubble of David's jaw scraping his temple. He clung on tighter, needing to be closer. Then he looked up at David, who brushed a stray curl from his eye and whispered, "Beautiful."
And then Patrick placed a hand on that stubbled jaw and kissed him, feeling David's strong arms wrap around him. And he felt so secure and so safe and so right. He kept his lips pressed to David's, tasting the salt, running hands through his damp curls. He sighed into David's mouth, who tightened his grip, holding them impossibly closer. He couldn't get enough, wanted more, needed more, closer...
Patrick awoke in the dark, his heart pounding.
At dusk, Patrick stepped outside of the palace doors to Ted, who was waiting. Robert had offered to fetch them a carriage, or a pair of horses, but they preferred to walk. Despite neither of them having any true obligations while the new ship was being built, they hadn't spent any time together since the day after the storm.
"So how is your fair maiden?" Ted asked with a sly smile, elbow nudging Patrick's ribs.
Patrick's heart dropped to his stomach. Ever since waking from that dream this morning, he felt out of sorts. Even at the lagoon with David, where they'd met again this afternoon for a bit, Patrick felt ill at ease. It wasn't David specifically, but suddenly Patrick was well aware of things. Things like the edge of his strong jaw, the heat of his skin, the shine of his eyes… He'd felt the same pull as always, his subconscious need to be near David, but this day, it almost frightened him. What did it mean, the dream? Was it just a flippant image of many thoughts and ideas played out? Or did it have a deeper meaning, the way old crones insisted?
"Patrick?" Ted's voice pulled him from his panic. What was he to say? Ted had seen him take a picnic basket onto a row boat, so denying anything would mean more questions. But Patrick wasn't ready for anyone, even Ted, to know about David.
"All is well," Patrick placated with a false laugh. Thankfully it seemed to satisfy Ted, who changed the subject.
They arrived at the Wobbly Elm, where music could be heard from outside. On the outskirts of town, it was more of a speakeasy than any other tavern around, the only place to allow women and turn a blind eye when things get rowdy. Patrick had been a few times, but it wasn't somewhere he frequented.
Inside was hot and loud; a man with a mandolin sat in a corner, a woman with a tambourine singing next to him. Emir and Mutt sat at a low table with Captain Ray and a few other crewmates, and Ted and Patrick joined them. Moments later, a beautiful woman with brown curls walked up to their table.
"Gentlemen!" Emir drunkenly shouted. "This beauty is Heather the Goat Herder!"
"Huzzah!" Mutt cheered, raising his pint.
"More ales, boys?" Heather asked, winking at Ted.
"Yes, please," he said with a blush.
When she walked away, Emir started razing. "Master Theodore has eyes for the beer wench!" He laughed.
The other men at the table started jeering and teasing as well, while Ted politely brushed them off. Heather returned with a tray of pints, passing them around before collecting a few coppers from the table. Patrick lifted the cup to his lips, looking around the crowded room. Men in various stages of inebriation sat around, ladies walking around or sitting on their laps. A few young girls were dancing near the musicians, two men clapping to the beat as they watched.
In the far corner, a few sailors from another crew sat, enjoying the company of some maidens. One of the more strapping men, Jake, had a girl on his lap. She was petite and black-haired, wearing a black dress that was unlike any of the other girls' garments.
She turned and looked over her shoulder, and caught Patrick's eye.
Patrick nearly choked on his ale. Her brown eyes went wide with recognition and she turned to whisper something in Jake's ear. He laughed and kissed her neck, and she stood, walking towards the door. When she walked past Patrick, she cocked her head slightly, indicating to follow her.
"Is that your maiden?" Ted asked quietly. He must have seen her with Jake.
"Uh, no," Patrick said quickly. "I'll be right back."
When he stepped out of the door, it took a moment to locate Stevie. She was standing under a shade tree, almost completely shroud in shadows. He rushed to her, looking her up and down. She looked as she always had from the top, albeit with dry hair. But instead of her slick black skin covering her, she wore a black linen dress, chest to ankles. And below her skirt she had two human feet, bare in the dirt.
"Are you… did… are you cursed as well?" He asked, trying to untangle his thoughts.
"No," she said honestly. "I told you I was a sea witch. This is just… a perk of the magic."
"Does David know?" He asked.
"That I can turn myself into a human for a night? Yeah."
"Then you can help him!" He said, almost too loudly.
Her eyes turned down, suddenly sad. "No, I can't." He gave her a quizzical look and she sighed. "I tried, when they were first cast out. A lot. But the curse is too strong. It doesn't work on David or Alexis."
A balloon of hope Patrick didn't know he held deflated in his heart.
"So if you could, like, not tell any of the sailors that I normally have tentacles," she said, biting her lip, "that would be great."
"Of course!" Patrick said quickly. "I would never."
She nodded, then moved past him to reenter the tavern.
"Stevie," he said quietly. "If you can turn merfolk to humans…"
She huffed out a laugh, giving him a knowing look. "Only for a night, Sailor," she said. "But yes, it can be done."
Without another word, she talked back into the Wobbly Elm. A minute later he followed, rejoining his crew at their table. He tried to join in on their merriment, but his mind kept turning over Stevie's words.
It can be done.
Seeing Stevie, on land and two feet, sparked something in Patrick. He'd heard tales of witches and sorcerers before, of course, and every child wanted a unicorn or magic wand. Some kingdoms, like Holsathia, even had magicians working with the king to protect their land and people. So while this particular curse seemed incredibly powerful, Patrick couldn't believe it was unbreakable.
He and David still met up every late morning, spending all afternoon in the lagoon, swimming and lazing. Patrick brought his fishing rod one day, and tried to impress David by catching a clever fish hiding in the reef. David, of course, dived down and returned with two fish in his hands, just because he could. Patrick gave up trying to out-do a merman in any water activity.
In the late afternoons, after they said goodbye and Patrick rowed back to the harbor, he began going through town again. Like the week after the storm, he was searching out information about magic. He asked a few elderly women who were knitting together, but they didn't have much more than any child had heard from their nanny. The drunken old men in the taverns told wild stories, but like those of the merfolk, they seemed to be woven tales instead of truth.
One evening, as he was heading back home, he passed a mummer's show.
"The king refused the sorcerer," one dwarf narrated, standing in front of two little wooden puppets. "And the sorcerer placed a curse on the king and his family!"
Patrick stopped in his tracks. He watched one puppet point a tiny wand at the other as the dwarf threw confetti at it.
"He cursed them to spend their days in exile," the narrator continued, the 'king' puppet running offstage. "And the sorcerer charmed the kingdom to accept him as their new king." A small paper depicting a crowd appeared by the remaining puppet, a cheer ringing out behind the curtain. "And the true king was never heard of again."
A thick curtain fell over the stage, and the dwarf removed his hat, holding it out for coins. The passers-by clapped, tossing a few coppers their way, and left.
A man and woman stepped out from behind the stage and began to fold it up.
"Wait," Patrick called. "That cannot be the end!"
The previously cheery dwarf sneered at him. "Go ask your wet nurse for the faery tales."
"No, I mean," Patrick stopped, frustrated. "Where did you hear that story?"
"What's it to you?" The woman snapped, placing the puppets in a trunk.
Patrick dug in his pocket, pulling out a small coin purse. "All this gold is yours," he promised. "If you answer my questions."
"Jocelyn," the man said, eyes on the pouch. "I think we can indulge the boy a bit."
Jocelyn glared at him. "Fine, Roland." She looked at Patrick. "Let's go."
Twenty minutes later, Patrick was sitting in a dim corner of an inn, crammed around a small table with the mummers.
"So tell me," Patrick said, leaning forward. "What do you know of this curse?"
"No no." Roland wagged a finger at him. "Food and drink first." He waved over the barmaid. "Pints around and a roasted hen!"
"Now then," Jocelyn said as the alewife left for the kitchen. "What do you want to know?"
"Everything," Patrick told him. "Was this Holsathia?"
"Aye," she replied. "Many years ago."
"The King's sorcerer became jealous and mad for power and banished the King from the land," Roland added.
All of this was information Patrick already had. "And if the kingdom was charmed, how do you know about it?"
"We have our sources," Jocelyn said elusively, shifting to let the barmaid set down a platter of chicken on the table.
"It was the bog witch!" The dwarf exclaimed.
She smacked the back of his head. "Idiot!"
"Okay, we know a bog witch," Roland told Patrick, leaning in as if it were a secret. "She enchanted her bog, so no other magic can be cast there."
"What does that mean?"
"It means," Jocelyn rolled her eyes, "that despite being in Holsathia, she was not affected by the sorcerer's identity charm."
"So she knows that the sorcerer is not who he says he is." This was promising, maybe she could help break the spell.
"She said that the new prince is much taller and more vain than the true prince," Roland admitted.
"And the false princess is small and cruel," Jocelyn added.
This was getting off track. "Okay, but how is this curse broken?"
Roland, Jocelyn, and the dwarf all looked at each other and burst out in laughter. Patrick clenched his jaw in frustration.
"A curse from a sorcerer as powerful as Eli is nigh unbreakable," Roland said in a sober voice.
"But could it actually be unbreakable?"
"I've never heard of a truly unbreakable curse," Jocelyn thought aloud. "I don't think even Eli is powerful enough for that."
For mummers, they sure didn't give a lot for him to go on. "Okay," Patrick sighed. "Where can I find this bog witch?"
The dwarf cackled again. "The bog witch cannot be found!"
"Veronica only presents herself to those whom she wishes," Jocelyn added. "The enchantment protects the entire bog from more than just spells."
"Besides," Roland said. "She lives in Holsathia."
Patrick slumped back, feeling defeated. Holsathia was at least a two-day sail from here, in the best of weather. He could make it there and back within a week, but with no guarantee to find this enchantress. And he didn't care to leave David for that long.
"Well, thank you for all of your information," he said resigned. He pulled out the purse and dropped it on the table, saving a gold coin for the barmaid. He stood as the dwarf scrambled for the money.
"That's for all of us, Tippy!" Jocelyn snapped.
Patrick stepped out into the cool air of the night. Now that he knew the curse wasn't unbreakable, he needed to find out how to do it.
Patrick was going to break this curse.
The evening after his dinner with the mummers, Patrick took to the library of the castle. Not sure of where to even start, he went to a map of the kingdom. There, to the south of the harbor, was a small estuary. Using his finger, Patrick traced the line of the river, stopping when he found where it widened. He grinned. David's lagoon.
Patrick traced the river farther along, finding where it wound around, coming close to his own stables. He made a mental note to ask Robert to have a rowboat brought nearby.
The next morning, Patrick took the horse Robert had summoned, a small boat strapped to the cart behind it, and went in search of the river. Once he found it, he hitched the horse to a nearby tree, allowing room to graze, and put the boat in the water. He floated lazily along the river, arriving in a third of the time it took him normally.
Patrick steered the boat to the bank, anchoring it to a tree before kicking off his boots and diving in. He'd arrive much sooner than he was expecting, so David wasn't here yet. Every day they swam, or sunned themselves on the rocks, or relaxed on the sand. Patrick brought food, and they spent the lazy summer days just being together and doing absolutely nothing. He hadn't been this relaxed since he was a child.
Patrick was lying on the sandbar when David swam up. He couldn't help the flutter in his stomach as David's eyes lit up, mouth splitting into a grin.
"You beat me here," he said with amusement.
"That I did," Patrick agreed. "I found a shortcut."
"Clever." David's eyes flashed. Damn, if Patrick hadn't felt like he was on fire before… "Oh, I almost forgot! There's a storm on the horizon."
"Okay?" Patrick furrowed his brow.
"I was thinking…" David looked away and scowled in thought. "If you wanted to meet up again this evening, maybe we could watch it? Together?"
Patrick broke into a wide smile. "I would love that."
That night, after excusing himself from dinner with his parents, Patrick left to meet David in their cove. This time he brought along a lantern, since the sun was close to setting.
To his surprise, Alexis and Stevie were waiting with David.
"Good evening," he greeted, a little unsure.
"Omigosh, are you, like, so excited?" Alexis asked, swimming closer.
"To watch a storm?" Patrick chuckled. "I suppose so."
"Uh, you're going to be doing more than watching it," Alexis replied, giving him an incredulous look.
"I...am?" He had no ship to take out to sea.
"So Stevie told us that you know about her little hidden talent," David explained.
"Surprise!" Stevie shouted. "You get a tail!"
Patrick stared at the three of them, not quite understanding. Stevie had a conniving look on her face, and Alexis looked up expectantly. David, on the other hand, was housing an excited smirk.
"Do you want to come out with us, and actually get to experience the storm?"
Patrick blinked. "Wait, you mean--" He looked at Stevie. "Are you--"
"Gonna turn you into a merman for the night?" She finished. "Yes. Now get in the water."
Patrick did as he was told, taking off his boots and shirt before walking in waist deep. He chuckled nervously as Stevie approached him, but felt wholly better when he felt David give his bicep an assuring squeeze. Stevie held out a hand towards Patrick, murmuring some unknown language under her breath.
The water around him started getting warmer with her incantation, bubbling and churning. His legs felt unnaturally hot and began to tingle from hips to toes. Suddenly he felt more like he was floating in the water, not standing, and when he looked down…
There, instead of his linen-clad legs below him, Patrick was looking at a long scaled tail. It was blue, rich like hydrangea flowers, the wings of a magpie. In the low light, it shimmered magnificently. Except that the light wasn't low.
Patrick looked up, eyes moving from the water to the cave around them. Everything was brighter, in higher detail. His lantern on the sand was lit to the same level it had been, but even that was easier to see. Patrick looked to David's eyes, a beautiful deep brown like melted chocolate. He gasped.
"Intense, isn't it?" David asked quietly, though Patrick could hear him as if he were shouting.
"Every sense is magnified," Patrick marveled, unable to tear his eyes away. Flecks of honey and caramel decorated David's eyes, his skin smelled of salt and heat. It was intoxicating.
"Yeah, humans are pretty basic," Stevie pointed out. "C'mon."
Patrick looked over at David hesitantly, but was encouraged by his understanding smile. He took a deep breath and slid beneath the water. When he opened his eyes, the old-familiar sting of saltwater was missing, and everything was crystal clear, and as bright as it was on dry land.
"It's pretty incredible," David smiled. Patrick could hear every word clearly, as if they weren't under water. In fact, he'd completely forgotten he was actually under the water until he opened his mouth to speak.
"Unbelievable," he sighed, then clamped his hands over his mouth. No bubbles had emerged, no strangled sound, just his voice, clear as a bell. He shook his head and laughed with disbelief.
"C'mon," David nodded towards the opening to the cave. Stevie and Alexis were already waiting on the other side. Patrick followed David, his tail moving effortlessly as if he'd been born with it. He supposed it was like walking, a movement he never had to think about.
They swam for about an hour, but it felt like nothing with how quickly their tails propelled them. Well, that was the case for Stevie and Alexis. Patrick had to stop every ten minutes or so to watch a passing school of fish, or observe a coral formation. David patiently waited for him, smiling like Patrick was a child in a menagerie.
Soon, the sea began to darken, and Patrick could feel an intensity in the water. He held his hands out in front of him, feeling the water pass over his fingers.
"It's the storm," David explained. "It brings the sea alive."
Soon, a roaring sound emerged overhead, and Patrick just knew it was rain. He could sense the wind and the waves, as if the sea were an extension of himself.
When they caught up to Alexis and Stevie, the ocean churned and agitated around them, making Patrick feel like a ship on the sea instead of a merman within it. They were near the heart of the storm; not a hurricane, like it seemed, according to David. Just a regular old thunderstorm.
The four of them surfaced into the deluge. The waves were massive cliffs on either side of them. Alexis shouted over the noise that she and Stevie were going to 'play,' whatever that meant, and the two of them disappeared into the surf.
"What do you want to do?" David asked, getting close to Patrick's ear. His breath tickled Patrick's neck and his body felt electric. "The girls like to get caught up in the currents and let the water take them."
"Whatever you usually do," Patrick offered. He wanted to do whatever David wanted, whenever he wanted, always.
"Okay," David grinned. He grabbed Patrick's hand and leaned back, floating on his back.
It was the first time they'd held hands since that time in the lagoon. Patrick had wanted to, oh had he wanted to, but after his own hesitance the next morning, confusion swirling in his mind, David had kept a respectable distance. Patrick hated it.
With David's hand tight in his own, Patrick leaned back as well, letting his long tail keep him buoyant. David was right: humans are terrible at floating. He held on to David as the water below them started to move, a wave lifting them up to the clouds. Wind whipped their hair, rain battering their faces, but all Patrick could do was laugh. He felt like alive for the first time, letting the water crash around them, clinging to David for dear life but without any actual danger--he could breathe water! This was fantastic! They rode the waves until they were gasping for breath, laughing so hard they'd be crying if not for the water already soaking their faces. When lightning flashed or thunder rolled, Patrick felt dizzy with energy, feeling like he was the storm. It was incredible.
Alexis and Stevie joined them after a while, the four of them floating as the storm dissipated and the sea calmed. Despite it being the middle of the night now, and still completely overcast, Patrick could see as if were dusk. Still holding David's hand, they took off towards Patrick's kingdom of Alsen. Patrick could feel himself slowing down, tiring from the long trip and all the excitement. David didn't seem to mind, slowing his own swimming to match Patrick's pace. When they were in sight of land, Stevie led them to an old rickety dock not far from the cave.
"I know this place," Patrick said when they were close. It was off of an abandoned property, the old grounds keeper's estate before the new one was erected when Patrick was a child. This was another place where he and young Ted used to explore.
He swam up to it and laid his arms over the weathered wood, resting his head in his hands. He was far nearing exhaustion.
"Yeah, about the spell," Stevie said, looking almost guilty. "It really wipes you out."
Patrick nodded in his hands. "I'm okay."
"For now." David's voice had an edge of concern. "Let's meet at midday again tomorrow, so you can get some rest."
"Can we meet here?" Patrick asked as he looked up. Besides the cave, this was the closest meeting spot they'd found yet, and it was much more preferable to a dark stone cavern.
David tucked a smile into his cheek. "We can meet wherever you'd like."
David was at Patrick's side, and Patrick turned to face him. "Thank you, David," he said earnestly. "This was honestly the greatest night of my life."
David looked away sheepishly. Even in the darkness, Patrick could see his blush. "It was nothing."
Patrick shook his head. "It was not nothing."
He held open his arms, hoping to convey his appreciation. David moved forward, tucking himself into Patrick's chest. Patrick took a sharp breath; the feel of David's skin pressed against his made his heart thrum, and he knew David could feel it. He knew it because he could feel David's heart thundering between them. Patrick had never felt so safe and secure and right as he did right now.
"Okay boys!" Alexis called, breaking the trance the two of them were in. Patrick pulled back, hoping no one noticed the flush burning down his face and neck.
They moved to shallower water and Stevie began to speak under her breath again, hand outstretched towards him. Just like before the water bubbled and churned around him, and his tail felt like it was on fire. The sky began to dim, and the world quieted down. No, the world wasn't changing, Patrick was. His feet rested gently on the sandy bottom-- he was human again.
Stevie continued her incantation, and the water around her swirled just as it had for him. She didn't look much different from the waist up, but when she finished speaking she calmly waded to the shore. Her tentacles had transformed to bare feet.
"Come along, sailor," she called without looking behind her. "Let's get you home."
Patrick trudged out after her, feeling the weight of gravity pulling him down. He turned when he stepped on dry land.
"Goodnight, Alexis. Goodnight, David."
"Goodnight, sailor!" Alexis waved with one finger before diving into the water.
"Goodnight, Patrick." David stayed watching them as they made their way across the grass.
"You really don't have to escort me home," Patrick said. He was increasingly tired with every step, but he didn't particularly want Stevie to know exactly where home was.
"Who said I was?" She looked over her shoulder at him and winked. "I have to make sure you at least make it to town. After that, you're on your own."
He peered at her mischievous grin. "Headed back to the Wobbly Elm?"
"Mayhaps." She sighed dramatically. "A young witch can do as she pleases."
They walked in silence, Patrick getting heavier by the step. If he laid down right here, he was sure he'd fall asleep on the dirt.
When they reached the fork in the dirt road that separated their paths, Patrick said goodnight to Stevie and headed up the hill towards the home. There were a number of cottages along this path, so he knew she wouldn't know he was going to the castle. Once inside, he trudged up the marble staircase, feet bare and dirty (he'd left his boots in the cave with his shirt). He was glad no one was awake to see him, for he looked a right mess. When he reached his chambers, Patrick laid right on top of his bed and fell into a deep, peaceful slumber.
In this dream, he and David were both mermen, dancing together around the sea.
When Patrick awoke, the sun was high in the sky.
"You're highness?" Robert was calling from his chamber door. "It's nearly midday."
Patrick vaguely remembered Robert trying to rouse him in the morning, his usual time for waking. Patrick must have asked him to return before later on.
"Yes," he mumbled from his bed. "I think I'll have tea on the balcony."
"Shall I run you a bath?" Robert asked, eyeing the prince's filthy feet hanging off the end of his bed.
Patrick laughed and raised a hand to his hair, which was stiff with salt. "Please."
After a hot tea, a short bath and an apple on the way, Patrick made his way to the old dock. Unsurprisingly, David was waiting for him.
"Hey sleepyhead," David teased as Patrick walked the length of the dock. He laid down on his belly, letting one arm hang off into the water. He moaned in response. "How do you feel?"
"Like I swam home from the middle of the sea," Patrick replied. David chuckled again. "I'm sorry, I didn't even think to grab any food on my way here. I don't pass the market on this path."
"Don't even worry about it," David said with the wave of his hand. "I'm not in this for the food."
Then what are you in this for? Patrick wondered. He was afraid to know the answer
"Besides," David continued. "I think I've eaten more in the last week than I have since being cursed."
"Then it's only fair that you bring me something next time," Patrick joked.
"Well, maybe instead of that," David said, looking down to pick a bit of algae off of his tail. "Maybe you could come down for a visit?"
"Yeah," David replied. "I mean, if that's something you'd want. Stevie says you should wait a few days before being spelled again, but if you were interested…"
"David." Patrick put his hand on the merman’s shoulder. "I'd love to come visit you."
David smiled, that dazzling half turned grin that made Patrick's stomach flip. "Maybe the day after next?" He offered. "We can relax in the lagoon tomorrow."
"Sounds perfect," Patrick agreed, rolling over onto his back to stretch. David dipped under the water for a moment and resurfaced on the other side of the dock. Putting his strong hands on the wood, he hoisted himself up next to Patrick.
"How long can you be on dry land?" Patrick asked. "You know, before you get too dry?"
"As long as at least part of my tail is in the water, I'm fine." David lifted up the end of his tail, shining in the sunlight and dripping with water, to make his point. Patrick just nodded, too tired to make any words. The two of them just lay there side-by-side on the dock, soaking in the warmth from the sun. It was only a matter of minutes before Patrick's hand found David's, and held on tight.
Minutes later, he awoke to David lightly shaking his arm. When he opened his eyes, the sun had moved quite a bit across the sky.
"Oh, no," Patrick said, sitting up and squinting down at David. "I'm so sorry to have fallen asleep like that."
"No worries," David smiled. He sat upright, reaching over to tuck a curl behind Patrick's ear. Patrick felt his face flush.
"Go home," David said softly. "We'll meet again tomorrow." Patrick nodded, not particularly fond of the idea of leaving so soon. "And maybe…" David looked down nervously, running a knuckle over Patrick's hand. "Could you bring your guitar?"
"My guitar?" He wasn't sure he'd ever told David that he played. "How did you--wait…" he grinned slyly. "You saw me playing. Back when you were keeping an eye on me."
Now it was David's turn to blush, under his bronze skin. "Mayhaps," he admitted, chewing on his lip and not meeting Patrick's eye.
Patrick leaned closer, bringing their faces impossibly close without actually touching. "Then my guitar you shall have."
Later that afternoon, after stopping by the cavern to retrieve his boots and lantern, Patrick lazily walked through the palace. Despite his late sleeping and nap, he was still far too tired to attempt any studying in the library. He got an idea. He was thinking about how well he could see as a merman, and the way David looked last night. Then again in the sunlight this afternoon, the way his eyes almost glowed with warmth.
He wandered into the kitchen, opening the door to the pantry. It was exactly where he'd left it.
"Did you bring it?" David called as soon as Patrick's boat came into view.
"And hello to you, too!" Patrick laughed as he rowed towards the flat rocks. David held the rowboat still while Patrick stepped out, carefully setting down his rucksack and guitar. David tied the boat to a nearby mangrove.
"I brought you something," Patrick said, fishing in his bag.
"Yes," David looked at the instrument. "I asked you to."
Patrick smiled. "Yes, but I brought you something else." He waited for the merman to pull himself onto the rock before handing over a small block wrapped in paper.
When he opened the small package, David's eyes lit up.
"Chocolate?!" He looked like a child on Christmas. Patrick nodded gently. "This is a great delicacy! Are you sure? Where did you get this?"
"David, I'm a sailor." Patrick withheld the fact that this particular bar of chocolate was part of a goodwill gift from some Duke, but wasn't a complete lie. He had gotten chocolate in foreign ports before.
Careful, Patrick watched as David broke off a small piece of the bar and lifted it to his lips. His eyelids fluttered shut as he moaned, a sound so full of ecstasy that Patrick drew in a sharp breath.
He was mesmerized; of all the magic Patrick had encountered in the past few weeks, watching David each chocolate was easily the most enchanting.
He watched David eat the whole thing, never turning his eyes away once. When he was finished, having been in his own little world the whole time, the merman looked up.
"What?" He asked sheepishly, blushing under Patrick's eye. "Do I have some on my face?" He darted out a pink tongue over his plump, perfect lips.
Patrick let out a strangled noise. "Erm, yes." That wasn't a lie, there was a smudge of chocolate along David's bottom lip.
David reached up a hand and wiped, on the wrong side of his face. "Did I get it?"
Patrick scooted forward and held out a hand, pausing inches from David, who nodded. Moving closer, Patrick ran his thumb just below the supple skin of David's lip. They stayed frozen, inches apart with Patrick's hand cupping David's jaw.
David's deep brown eyes flickered to Patrick's lips, and felt a tightness in his belly. He leaned forward, just a fraction of an inch.
A splash off to their side startled both men, who jumped away from each other. A fisher bird emerged from the water with a small fish between its beak. Patrick chuckled nervously and moved back towards his guitar.
"I've got a perfect song for you," he said, strumming lightly.
"Oh?" David smiled, but it didn't reach his eyes. Had he felt it, too? The pull? The spark?
Patrick cleared his throat and sang, an old sea shanty.
Come all you young sailor men, listen to me
I'll sing you a song of the fish in the sea
David scoffed and used his tail to flick water at Patrick. He laughed and dodged the droplets, but didn't stop singing.
They met in the cave again, because Stevie wasn't too keen on performing magic in the middle of the day where anyone could see. That was fine with him, he'd meet Stevie in a dungeon if it meant he could be a merman again, even for just a little while.
This time, Patrick was well prepared for the magic; the churning water, the tingling skin, the heat of the transformation. He was far more nervous and excited to visit Atlantica, to see the place David called home. Well, home for now. He would find a way to break this curse.
Once he was turned, Patrick wasted no time in diving fully under the water. He knew merfolk could see better than humans, even under water, and this had been proven the other night. How much better would Patrick see in the light of day?
The answer was indescribable. They traveled along the same path they had taken the night of the storm, so Patrick recognized the same rocks, plants, and structures. But with the sunlight streaming in, it was like a whole new ocean floor. Colorful fish dodged around coral, bright foliage bloomed like a painting. At one point, a dark shadow caught his attention ahead of them; a whale and her calf were swimming leagues away, majestic in the sea.
They didn't travel nearly as far as they had last time, but instead of keeping to the surface they swam along the sand. They descended slowly, and though he could tell the water was cooling and the light was fading, he could see just the same, and felt no discomfort. Soon, towers and spires came into view, glowing golden in the low light.
"Atlantica," David finished.
"Let's take him to the seahorse stables!" Alexis suggested. "The little sea horsies are, like, so cute. Or maybe the coral anemone gardens."
"I'd rather not lead with the palace, only to end with our disappointing little cave," David said. His voice sounded flippant, but his worrying mouth showed his true concern.
"I'd love to see your home," Patrick said gently, putting a hand on David's arm. David smiled meekly and nodded.
They continued towards the palace, but turned before they arrived, heading towards what looked like a massive reef. Once they got closer, Patrick could see openings in the sides, with merfolk swimming in and out. It was like the tenements of larger cities.
"I changed my mind," David declared, pulling back on Patrick's hand. "Let's go to the seahorse stables."
Patrick stopped and turned a furrowed brow to David.
"I just…" David started, speaking rapidly, "it's just a dingy little cave and I just realized how unimpressive it is and, like, no one wants to see that."
Patrick understood. David was a prince. He'd once lived in a castle, surrounded by unimaginable wealth. And now, not on his own accord, he was reduced to living in a reef cave with his family. He was embarrassed. Patrick understood, but he didn't agree: there was nothing embarrassing about David or his situation.
"If you'd rather show me something else," Patrick said carefully, "then we can do that. But if it's simply because you don't want me to see where you're currently living? You must know it doesn't matter to me where you live. But I truly don't care what we do. I just want to spend time with you."
David tucked a smile into his cheek, dimples popping. He bit down on his lips and nodded. "Okay."
Taking Patrick's hand again, David led him down towards the reef. They stopped in front of two identical openings, both the size of a large doorway, and each covered by a curtain of kelp.
"Home sweet home," David muttered, holding back the curtain and letting Alexis and Stevie through. Patrick followed.
The cave inside was small, about the size of Patrick's balcony, lit up by luminescent shells adorning the walls. Two separated halves of a giant oyster shell lay side-by-side as beds, sea sponges for cushions. Next to one of the beds was a small vanity made up of a coral structure and an old looking glass.
"It's really nothing," David said of the modest accommodations.
Patrick looked at him in awe. "This is probably the most interesting homestead I've ever seen," he said honestly.
"Day-vid! Is that you?" came a voice from behind another curtain. This opening was in the wall, adjoining it to the cave beside them. Suddenly the kelp whipped back and another mermaid swam in. "Such precipitousness to see you whilst the sun is still ensconced in the sky!"
This woman was a sight to behold. She was older than David and Alexis, no doubt their mother, with a long black tail. Unlike David's, it was not lined with another color, but that wouldn't have been needed; this woman had gilded herself with gems and jewels that could make a gypsy blush. She wore a beautifully tailored white jacket (was that made from a ship sail?), and had gold and silver around her wrists and neck. David had mentioned his mother's affinity for glamor, and he was not wrong. Even her hair was fantastical, with bright pink locks that seemed to move on their own accord. (David later explained that she often made wigs out of soft corals and anemone)
"Oh, hello you!" She grinned at Patrick, flashing David a knowing look. "How do you do?" She stuck out a ringed hand for Patrick to kiss.
"Patrick, this is my mother, Moira," David introduced.
"I believe you mean Queen Moira," she corrected, her tone playful but her eyes serious.
"Oh yes, what a wonderful kingdom of lost treasures pilfered from shipwrecks you have," he said with a roll of his eyes.
"Now David, your Mother is quite right." A merman swam in through the doorway. He was obviously David's father, sharing the same strong eyebrows and same swoop of hair, though his was much more silver than David's. His tail was a strong steely gray, almost silver in places, with a fin so light it could be lavender. "Just because we're living here for now, doesn't mean she isn't the Queen."
"That's literally what that means," Alexis said from her perch in front of the vanity.
"And this is my dad," David said, ignoring his father.
Patrick glanced at Stevie, who seemed to be thoroughly enjoying this family dynamic.
"Johnny," David's father introduced himself, grinning and shaking Patrick's hand excitedly. "It's a pleasure."
"Oh the pleasure is all mine," Patrick replied genuinely. "I am so happy to meet you, your majesties."
"Well," the queen preened at the title. She looked at her son. "Alexis was right, he is a button."
They ate-- a bland seaweed dish that David had bartered for with a handful of sun-bleached sand dollars. Twyla, the smiling mermaid with a chartreuse tail, promised them that she "had a really good feeling" about this mix, the Harvest Meadow salad. After she turned to talk to another mermaid, Alexis made a face and dumped her seaweed into David's bowl. Patrick wondered if Twyla had ever seen a meadow.
They decided to forgo touring the palace for today, Patrick felt that it had been emotionally difficult enough for David to have his home exposed, and didn't want to rub in the fact that he no longer lived in luxury. The seahorse stables were a sight to behold though: gates intricately carved in stone, majestic beasts the size of land horses swimming back and forth in their stalls. Alexis and Stevie fed them seagrass fruits from their hands while Patrick pet their noses. Expecting the soft suede of a mammal, he was surprised at the rough texture of their skin.
Their excursion lasted a shorter time than the night of the storm, to Patrick's dismay. By the time they made it back to the cove, he wasn't nearly as tired as before. Maybe because it was still daylight, or maybe because they hadn't travelled as far, or had to physically fight the waves so much. He hoped, though, that it meant he was getting used to this body. This change. Stevie never seemed to be fatigued from it-- maybe he could become more resilient to the magic's effects. Maybe he could do this more frequently. Maybe he could do this forever.
Patrick wasn't as dead to the world when he awoke that morning. He'd gotten home before sunset, so he was able to break his fast at a normal time. He was still weary, no doubt about that, but as he and David had planned to meet at midday again, he had the morning to himself.
Taking to himself in the library, Patrick pulled out a number of geographic books from the archive. Maps and topography of nearby kingdoms over the centuries pressed into pages before him. It took longer than expected before he found a map of Holsathia that was detailed enough for his need.
The eastern coast, the one along the sea shared with his own kingdom of Alsen, was cliffed and rocky. But this map, though yellowed and outdated, showed a small area along its northern border that peaked Patrick's interest. He pulled out another map, one more recently carted, and looked. Yes, near its border with Cimbria, it was without cliffs, it's shore looking more forested. Could this be where the bog witch lived? If so, it was much closer to Patrick than he'd expected.
He found yet another tome, this one about native flora and fauna. According to this edition, there was an abundance of plants that grow strictly in the marsh. Good, Patrick thought. More likely that these wooded areas on the map were, in fact, swamplands.
Asking Robert to leave the books as they were, he mounted a horse and took off towards the docks. There he found Queen Marcy's Pride, the new ship that had been brought to harbor. Her crew was walking up and down the gangplanks, hoisting pallets and rolling barrels to stock the ship.
In all of his preoccupation with David, he had forgotten the ship was to set sail on the morrow.
Shaking his head to clear his thoughts of disappointment for not being a part of her maiden voyage, Patrick climbed aboard and sought out her Captain. Ray was in his quarters, looking over a list of exports.
"Patrick!" He grinned. "Coming to join the crew?"
"Not this time, no," Patrick replied. "I actually had a question about your schedule."
"Ah, yes! We are sailing to Getsor tomorrow, returning in a fortnight." Ray took a book from his shelf and flipped through it. "Then we are on to Holsathia."
Yes! "I would like to join that excursion," he insisted.
"We'd be honored to have you! Come find me when we return to port."
He shook the Captain's hand and left the quarters with a lightness in his step.
"Patrick!" Someone called as he descended to the deck. Ted walked by with a load of canvas.
"Ted! Hello!" He couldn't help but be exuberant.
Ted smiled back at him. "Will you be seeing us off when we depart?"
"Absolutely." He wouldn't miss it.
"Will you be bringing your maiden, too?" He winked, that genuine good-guy kindness Ted always had. But Patrick's own smile faltered a little.
Ted furrowed his brow. "Patrick, I must ask," he said, his voice low. "I know you denied it once, but… was it that girl from the Wobbly Elm? Because I must say that I have seen her there before, and since. And every time with that sailor Jake."
Patrick chuckled. "No, no," he waved him off. "Stevie is a friend, true, but nothing more."
Ted's expression relaxed. "Good."
"Actually." Patrick picked at his thumbnail, trying to gain the courage to speak. "My 'maiden' is actually no maiden at all." He looked into his friend's kind but confused eyes. "It's a gentleman."
Ted paused for a moment, then his eyes widened. "And this... gentleman . He makes you happy?"
Relief flooded through him. "More than anything."
"Then I look forward to the day we shall meet." Ted grinned and clapped a hand on Patrick's shoulder.
"Thank you, brother," Patrick sighed, pulling his friend in for a hug, despite the canvas. "I'll leave you to your work."
"Aye," Ted agreed. "I'll see you tomorrow."
"I won't be able to meet until later tomorrow evening," Patrick said as he handed David a grapefruit.
"My old crew is setting sail on their new ship." He tried to hide the disappointment from his voice.
"Their maiden voyage," David pointed out. "Do you wish you were with them?"
Patrick paused to think. He really didn't care for the thought of not seeing David for an entire fortnight, but he still missed the sea. Perhaps not as much as he once had, now that he'd experienced it in so many new ways, but he still felt the longing. Though if he had a choice?
He placed his hand over David's. "I'm happy to be exactly where I am," he replied honestly.
The sun was bright and warm as Patrick stepped out of the carriage. It had been a while since he was at the harbor in ceremonial uniform. He turned and extended his hand to the carriage door. His mother took it, and he assisted her as she stepped out in front of the cheering crowd. No matter how he felt about being the prince, there was no denying that the people loved their Queen.
Marcy waved at the people as her husband stepped out behind her. Together, the three of them walked along the dock, which had been covered in a long carpet from shore to the gangplank. At the end of the carpet, Captain Ray stood with the crew.
Patrick tugged at his coat. He had been to a number of christenings over the years, but never for a ship he would eventually set sail on. Never standing in front of his own crew in his full regalia. He felt embarrassingly out of place. He should be on the other side of the carpet.
Stopping at the gangplank, King Clint turned towards the crowd.
"I name this ship Queen Marcy's Pride," he spoke with a voice loud and clear. "And may she bring fair winds and good fortune to all who sail on her."
Ray stepped up the plank to retrieve a bottle of champagne. It had been tied by a length of ribbon to the gaff before their arrival, and tucked out of sight. He handed it to Queen Marcy with a bow. She graciously accepted it.
"I christen thee Queen Marcy's Pride!" She shouted, and released the bottle. Everyone was silent as it swung out and smashed into the side of the ship. An uproar began as onlookers cheered and applauded.
One by one, the crew bowed before the King, kissed the hand of the Queen, shook hands with Patrick, and ascended the gangplank. With each greeting, Patrick's spirits dipped lower and lower. A bead of sweat dripped down his back, making his skin itch, and he fidgeted awkwardly. He couldn't wait to leave this place.
After what felt like hours of standing in the sun, the sails were dropped, catching the wind, and Queen Marcy's Pride began her maiden voyage. They stood at the dock until she left the harbor, then retreated to the carriage.
"Well that went beautifully," the King said, reaching a gloved hand over to take his wife's.
"It was," she agreed. Marcy smiled at her husband. "Today is going to be a very successful day."
Patrick didn't respond. He unbuttoned his coat and loosened his sword belt, letting the breeze cool his face.
Yesterday, unsure of how long the christening ceremony would last, David had suggested meeting late in the evening. "Perhaps we could watch the sun set," he'd offered.
But now it was hardly into the afternoon and Patrick was restless. To be productive, Patrick headed once again to the library. Taking his own parchment, he began to plan out his future voyage: once he arrived in Holsathia, he'd have to charter travel along the coast to the wetlands. Using the map, he looked for different routes depending on his means of travel. He was going to tell David his plan tonight. He was going to tell David that in three weeks' time, he'd depart in search of the way to break the curse.
By the time he had an adequate course planned for sea and land, Robert was entering the library.
"Your highness," he said. "The King and Queen have requested your presence for dinner. They ask you to begin dressing."
"Thank you, Robert. Please offer them my regrets, as I will be otherwise occupied."
"Um." At this, Patrick looked up from his work. "They instructed me to, if you were to decline their offer, advise you that this was not, in fact, a request." Robert cleared his throat nervously.
Patrick understood. His parents were requiring him to join them for dinner.
Well, it was not the night of a party, no planned celebration. They would just have to get on without him for once.
Patrick cleared up the maps and returned the volumes to the shelves. On his way to the stairs, he passed his father's study.
He stopped, hearing his father's voice.
"Ah, there you are." The King was stepping into the hall. "George is working hard in the kitchen. You'd better change and get prepared for dinner."
"My apologies, father," Patrick said. "You will have to sup without me."
"I don't think that will be sufficient tonight," Clint said solemnly. "Your mother and I have invited an important guest this evening."
"Then send my regards."
"You will join us tonight." His tone indicated that this was an order.
"But I have plans this evening," Patrick protested.
His father gave him a stern look. "You have a duty to your kingdom, and to this family."
Defeated and with nothing else to say, Patrick turned and stormed to his chambers. Robert was finishing filling the bath with hot water when he arrived.
"The Queen's order," he said sheepishly. Patrick just nodded. It was useless to argue with Robert, who was only doing his duty.
He wished that he could send Robert to the old dock with word to David about this delay. The thought that David would be waiting for him, thinking he'd abandoned their plans, left a nauseated pit in Patrick's stomach. He'd heard some kingdoms used crow's to relay messages, or doves, but it would be of no use.
Patrick remained angry throughout his bath, and while Robert attended to his dressing. But by the time he ascended the stairs, starched coat and freshly shined boots, he only felt forlorn. Whoever this important guest was, Patrick was determined to remain at dinner as long as was polite before excusing himself. He asked Robert to have Miguel get his horse ready and waiting at the door.
When he entered the parlor where his parents took guests, he found them seated on an ornate couch by the fire. Across from them saw a petite girl with long auburn hair. She kept her eyes low as she politely chatted with the Queen.
"Ah, Patrick," Clint said, standing as his son entered the room. "Please, come meet our esteemed guest. Lady Rachel has come from Odense."
The small girl (no, woman) stood, eyes still on the floor, and curtseyed. "It's an honor, your majesty."
"Odense," Patrick said, surprised. "That's quite the trip for dinner."
Lady Rachel glanced up at him, before looking back down.
"Actually," his mother interrupted. "We've invited Rachel to stay with us for a few days. A week, perhaps." The girl nodded at the Queen's words. "We thought, with your friends all being asea, you may want some company."
Oh. So that's what this was. Rachel hadn't come for some coincidental visit, she'd been summoned. For courting. Patrick was being matched.
He clenched his jaw. No, Rachel was completely innocent in this. He had no reason to be upset with her in the slightest.
"The pleasure is mine, Lady Rachel," he said cordially. He gave a slight bow and gestured for her to sit. He took the armchair beside her. "You must be tired from your travels."
"A bit," she admitted. "But I am ever so pleased to see more of the world. Odense is landlocked, so this was my first time aboard a ship so large." She smiled politely.
Grace soon came to announce dinner, and they all took their places in the dining room. George had prepared a feast, complete with four courses and a dessert.
"Patrick," Marcy said after their entrée plates were being cleared. "Why don't you take Lady Rachel to the balcony while we wait for our dessert?" It wasn't a question.
Patrick stood and offered his hand to the girl. She took it, and let herself be led through the doors. This balcony was large, the second-largest of the palace, and could house a twelve-person dining table when the occasion called. This evening it was mostly cleared, except for a bench near the center. Patrick released the woman's hand and walked to the half-wall overlooking the water. The sun was nearly set. He felt sick.
"The view is lovely," Rachel offered.
"Yes," Patrick agreed. "There's nothing quite like gazing out into the sea." Except being in it. Being one with it.
Rachel gave a few more comments, while Patrick placated the conversation with flat responses. He was angry at his parents for forcing him into this-- both of them into this. They couldn't have known about David, about… how he felt. But they knew he was not interested in being matched. In being suited or courted or betrothed at all.
But mostly, he felt nauseated at the thought of leaving David with no word. Of David giving up and heading back into the ocean. Or worse, of David waiting all night. He felt anxious to end this evening and rush to the dock, feeling that he'd rather jump over the balcony and swim there than wait any longer.
Grace came to collect them, and they returned to the table as four small tarts were being placed. They were strawberry, and all Patrick could think of was how David looked eating them. How the sweet juice ran down his chin. How he'd thrown one at Patrick for teasing him.
Finally, the meal was over.
"What a lovely dinner," Marcy commented as they walked back to the parlor.
"Indeed," Clint agreed. "Shall we carry on with coffee?"
"No," Patrick said suddenly. Three sets of wide eyes looked at him. "I mean, um. Lady Rachel had such a long journey today. It would be rude of us to make her overextend herself on her first evening here."
"Of course," his mother agreed. "We have all week to get to know each other."
They all bid Rachel goodnight, and the moment she was up the stairs, Patrick pulled off his coat.
"Where are you going?" His mother asked, shocked by the sudden movement.
"Out." Was all Patrick could say.
He all but ran to the doors, throwing them open and thankfully finding Miguel, the stable master, waiting nearby with a horse. Patrick climbed into the saddle and kicked, sending them flying down the path to the gates.
It was fully dusk by the time he reached the dock. In the dim light, he could see the shape of a man sitting at the end. David.
Patrick leapt from the horse and all but ran down the length of the dock. He collapsed at the end next to David, not caring that his boots were splashing in the water.
"I am so sorry," he panted. David did not respond, so Patrick ventured a nervous glance his way.
David's jaw was set, eyes fixed on the horizon. "What happened?"
"I got caught up with things at home," Patrick told him. "My parents had a dinner guest and insisted I stay."
David nodded. Patrick knew he was disappointed and hurt, but he hoped to god that he wasn't angry. Patrick didn't know what else to say, but finally David broke the silence.
"She's a lovely girl."
Patrick's head snapped up. "What?"
"The girl you were with on the balcony." He still wouldn't look at Patrick.
"She was a guest of my parents," he insisted.
"She seemed quite drawn to you."
Patrick could hear the hurt in his voice. He had to be honest, no matter how terrifying that was.
"She has come from Odense under the assumption that I was to court her. My parents had invited her in hopes to marry me off."
"Why, though?" Finally, David looked at him. Even in the dark Patrick could see the hurt etched in his skin.
Patrick knew that David was aware of their situation. He knew that Patrick hadn't told his parents about them. They both knew how unorthodox this whole situation was.
"I am a prince," Patrick confessed in a breath. "My parents intend me to settle down, using the shipwreck as an excuse to remain ashore to do so. Lady Rachel is just the first of probably many suitresses until I find a satisfactory match."
It hurt as much to speak the truth as it had to retain it.
David nodded slightly, face turned away. Patrick wasn't sure, but he thought he saw a single tear roll down his cheek.
"Please say something," Patrick begged in a whisper.
"I… I can't do this anymore."
Before Patrick could process his word's, David slid into the water and disappeared into the darkness.
Once again, Patrick found himself alone on the shore, reaching out to David. "Wait!"
This time, he wasn't sure David heard.
In the morning, Patrick returned to the dock. After sitting alone for more than an hour, he left. The cave was just as empty. He pulled an apple from his bag and left it on a stone, where David would see it when he came. If he came.
By late morning, he had rowed to the lagoon. The waters were still, the only sounds were bird songs. There, Patrick left an orange.
When he returned home that afternoon, he was greeted by his mother.
"You've had a busy morning," she mused.
"Aye." He wanted nothing more than to collapse in his bed, but he knew his mother would have another suggestion.
"Why don't you see if Lady Rachel would like a tour of town? I've had Miguel set up the open carriage for you both." She's in the day room with her needlepoint." Marcy paused. "Perhaps you might change into something a little less…" Patrick looked down at his old riding boots, pants dirty and wet to the knees. "Unkept."
Robert was cleaning his chambers when Patrick arrived. "Taking out Lady Rachel?" He asked, jogging over to assist the prince in his change.
Robert was immune to Patrick's foul mood. "Mayhaps, if the lady joins the household, my wife Gwen could be brought on as her chambermaid. She's awful lonely while I attend his majesty, even had a male cousin come from Hilgehaven to keep her company."
Patrick nodded. "I'll see what I can do." That seemed to make Robert happy, despite the promise being moot. Rachel would not live here.
He returned to the day room to find Rachel looking out the bay windows.
"M'lady," he said, startling her. She jumped slightly, and blushed.
"Your highness," she replied meekly.
"Tis a beautiful day. Would you care to join me on a carriage ride around town?"
"It would be my pleasure," Rachel smiled.
Patrick extended his elbow and led her through the front door and into the carriage. He sat beside her, making sure to leave a respectable distance.
The carriage driver was used to the typical path taken during tours, so Patrick didn't have to guess where they were going. Moving through the market, trailing into some shallow woods, and circling the bay, Patrick gave polite conversation about their lands and exports. Rachel asked thoughtful questions and seemed genuinely interested. She would make a handsome wife one day. Maybe in another life, he'd consider her for himself. But that was not the life he wished to lead.
Patrick couldn't help but gaze out at the water every time they were close. Canals, inlets, the harbor and the sea; his eyes were scanning.
He felt like he had in the week after the shipwreck. Every minute, he was distracted by the thought of David. Finding David. Only this time, he wasn't so optimistic.
"I can't do this anymore," he'd said.
The words haunted Patrick, echoing constantly in his head. Surely David couldn't mean it with such finality. It had been weeks of seeing each other daily-- perhaps after a few days away David would come back?
The next morning, when Patrick arrived at the cave, the apple was still there. Untouched.
Lady Rachel left on Saturday, six days after her arrival.
Every morning for each of those six days, Patrick visited the dock, the cave and the lagoon. He replaced any withering fruit with a new piece, but every time he returned, it was still there waiting for him.
Every afternoon for each of those six days, his parents insisted Patrick take Lady Rachel out for some sort of activity. They rode horses, traveled to the market, or hired a harpist to play for them.
Every evening of those six days, a grand meal was served for the four of them. Lady Rachel sat beside Patrick and politely conversed with the queen while the prince silently ate. Rachel was becoming more open, more comfortable at their palace, but she was still meek and quiet.
Every night of those six days, Patrick sat alone on his balcony. His journal remained untouched, his guitar cold and abandoned. He had no will to do anything; he just looked at the sea.
The day after David had left, Patrick felt hurt, worried, frustrated and angry, mostly at himself. But as the days went on, those feelings faded to nothing at all. By the time they were bidding farewell to Rachel, he was completely numb.
He spent all day Sunday in bed.
The second week went slower than the first. Monday, Patrick went back to all of their meeting spots: the plum on the deck was covered in bees drinking the sweet juice, the strawberries in the cave had gone soft, and the apricot at the lagoon had a line of ants to it.
David had not been there.
He spent the rest of the day in bed.
Tuesday, at Robert's suggestion, Patrick did get up and into the bath. He also ventured to the kitchen in search of something to eat, despite not having an appetite.
"Patrick! There you are."
He turned to see his mother walking down the corridor. She paused when she got close.
"Goodness, are you ill?" She reached up to touch his face. "Shall I call the doctor?"
"No, no." He brushed away her caring hand. "I'm not ill." Not in a way a doctor could fix, he finished in his head.
"Perhaps you should get some fresh air, that always does you good." He nodded, having nothing to say. "You seemed to get on well with Lady Rachel."
"She was fair," he agreed.
"But not a match." She thought for a moment. "Why don't we reach out to our ambassador to Sedalia? Have him send word of appropriate maidens? Or perhaps Holsathia, I've heard their princess is not yet betrothed."
At the word of David's kingdom, Patrick jerked away. "No!"
"I mean, no. No thank you. I will be traveling to Holsathia with Queen Marcy's Pride in a fortnight."
Up until this point, he hadn't been sure if that was still his plan or not. But as he said the words, he knew he meant them. Despite David's feelings on the matter, or his feelings towards Patrick, Patrick still felt the same way. He was still determined to break the curse, even if it was the last thing he could do for David.
Marcy didn't suggest any more visits for the time being, and for that Patrick was thankful.
It's officially been 1 month of this fic being published! Thanks for sticking with us ❤
Alexis swam into the cave and tore back the kelp curtain, letting sunlight in.
"Ew, it's like a sea witch's cave in here, David!" She screeched.
"Do you mind?!" David grumbled, turning over to bury his face in the spongy cushion.
"What is your problem? You've been moping around all day!"
"Go away, Alexis."
"Did something happen with your little sailor man?"
David threw a shell comb at her.
"Ugh!" She growled before whipping back out of their cave.
A while later, David wasn't sure how long, Stevie came slinking in.
"Like this look on you," she snarked. He drew down his woven seagrass blanket and glared at her. She was unfazed. "You gonna tell me what's going on with you?"
"Fine," she sniffed. "I'll just spell it out of you."
"You can't do that," he mumbled, then paused. "Can you?"
"You wanna find out?" She quipped.
David groaned. He really didn't. "Fine," he said. "It's about Patrick."
"I figured as much," she sighed. "You two break up or something?"
"What?!" He sputtered. "No! We weren't-- we never-- we weren't something to break up!"
"So that's a yes, then."
He just groaned again, this time with much less anger. Stevie knew him. She'd been his only friend and confidant ever since the curse (and ever, to be quite honest). She could see past his walls.
David felt a nudge as Stevie climbed in the shell with him. He scooted to give her and her tentacles room, pulling the blanket over both of their heads.
"What happened?" She asked quietly.
"He's a prince," David admitted.
"David, this isn't news."
She was right. Ever since he'd returned to watch Patrick on the days after the shipwreck, David knew he'd find him at the palace. He'd hoped Patrick was a hand or courtier or something, but he'd seen the way others regarded him. David had guessed that Patrick was royalty since the beginning, but he didn't want to admit it to himself. He knew the demands of a prince, and selfishly wanted Patrick all to himself.
"He didn't show up when we planned to meet yesterday. Which, I know, don't give me that look. Things come up. But then I went to see if I could see him, see if something happened…"
"And nothing!" David huffed. "He was on the balcony with a pretty girl. She had this long beautiful hair and was so pretty and was watching him with this look of, I don't know, love! They just looked so perfect standing there, like a painting that would adorn a great hall."
"Who was she?" Stevie prompted, getting David to quit spiraling.
"Some Lady that the Queen had invited. She's been playing matchmaker with Patrick, trying to find him a wife."
She didn't respond, but David felt Stevie's hand shift over and take his. He gave it a squeeze.
"He's the prince," he continued. "The only heir to the throne. He deserves to have some cute little maiden fawn over him and produce his heirs. He doesn't need me to distract him."
Stevie leaned up on her elbow defensively. "He said that to you?!"
"No." He grabbed her arm and tugged her back down. "He didn't have to say anything. I took myself out of the equation for him."
"Oh, David…" Stevie shifted over and nuzzled her head into his shoulder. He felt his eyes prickle with hot tears.
They lay in silence for a while before David mustered up the courage to speak again. His voice came out as a thick, choked thing.
"I was going to tell him," he admitted. "I was going to say that… that I…" His throat closed before he could finish. Stevie just tightened her arm around him, and they lapsed back into silence.
In the first weeks after they were cursed, David spent far too many days sitting just off-shore, watching. He was amazed that, despite the strikingly obvious differences in the appearance, no one seemed to notice that David and his family were gone. Life in Holsathia carried on as it had before, with lavish parties and esteemed guests of honor.
Night after night, he watched Eli and Sebastian and Klair fool the people of his kingdom, not one of them ever the wiser. When he returned to Atlantica, David remained silent and brooding, ignoring all of Alexis' inquiries about life above.
"If you're so interested, then you go up!" He'd snapped.
She stopped asking after that, and he felt guilty. He knew she wouldn't. Couldn't. It hurt too much. Alexis had been close with Klair, or so she thought, and was absolutely devastated by the betrayal. More so than their dad had been, who thought of Eli as family.
David couldn't say he was all that surprised, but he was the cynical one.
"Where have you been?" Alexis asked when he swam into their cave after sunset.
"Out," he mumbled, crawling into bed.
"I haven't seen you this moody since that time Sebastian broke up with you," Alexis sighed. "Remember that? You spent a whole year listening to musicians playing The Ballad of Bridget's Diary and eating those Italian monk's soft pretzels."
"It was not a whole year," David insisted. "And I will not feel shame about the monk pretzels."
The truth was he was acting the same now as he had the last time his heart had been broken: spending all day staring at the one thing he couldn't have. He spent the whole week watching Patrick visit their meeting spots, leaving him tokens. He watched Patrick take his maiden around the kingdom, never straying far from the water's edge. He watched Patrick sit alone on his balcony, staring into the sea.
This time was different, though. Sebastian had used him and abused him and dropped him without a second thought. It had hurt. But even then he'd known Sebastian wasn't worth it.
But Patrick… Patrick was worth the pain. Because Patrick was good and kind and caring and made David feel important and worthy.
Then David did the stupid thing and fell-- fell into feelings. Or whatever. And it would never work because he was a cursed merman with a caravan of baggage and Patrick was a prince. So he broke his own heart.
And on top of all of that, he felt guilty. Because he knew what Alexis had thought. He knew what his parents expected. They wanted Patrick to break the curse.
David had wanted that, too. He tried to not want it, but he did.
Because there was a way to break the curse. And that was True Love's Kiss.
Eli had wanted to create something so close to unbreakable, and knew just how to do it. The day they were banished, Eli told them they would never again be creatures of the land as they were before. David and Alexis, both selfish and vapid and flippant about the way they treated others, had hearts of stone. They were unlovable. So the curse seemed impossible to break, because who would love someone like that? So until someone actually did love either David or Alexis, truly and as they were, they were to remain cursed.
And how he'd let down his whole family. They'd be stuck in this curse forever, and the only chance they'd had to break it he let slip through his fingers.
He must have been projecting, because Alexis poked his arm. They were sitting around a stone table near Twyla's stand. Alexis and Stevie were munching on sea grapes, but David didn't have an appetite lately.
"You know, we don't care," she said casually.
"About what?" He didn't have the energy to look at her.
His chest tightened at the name, and he saw Stevie move swiftly in his periphery.
"Ow!" Alexis whined. "What I mean is, we don't care about the curse. Like, whether or not Patrick--"
"Stop saying his name." David's voice came out through gritted teeth.
"All I'm saying is," his sister continued, "that's it not on you. To break the curse."
"I literally is."
"But not you alone!" Alexis turned in her seat and tugged David's arm so they faced each other. "David, it's not all on you, okay? I know you're my big brother and you want to protect me or whatever, but… you don't have to take all the responsibility here."
Logically, he knew she was right. Eli's curse mentioned both of them specifically. But it still didn't mean he felt any less responsible.
"I just don't want to see you like this," she added quietly.
"Well, this is how you have me," he replied, but there was no bite in his words, and he let his sister rest her head on his shoulder.
Fun fact! Soft pretzels were invented by medieval Italian monks!
Stevie sat in her cave, concentrating.
It was much darker than David and Alexis' home; mermaids needed so much light, almost as much as humans did. Stevie was able to see perfectly fine in the almost-blackness of her own home, as most non-merfolk creatures could. She could look around and clearly identify the various souvenirs that adorned her cave-- remnants from shipwrecks, items from lost civilizations, forgotten treasures. She didn't care much one way or another for humans, but their stuff was pretty cool.
But for now her eyes were closed, and she let her body feel the water. Just like the merfolk, she was connected to the sea, like an extension of her tentacles. She could feel what the sea felt-- the shift of the tides, the movements of schools of fish, and even the ships passing along the surface. Most of it was an incessant buzz in the back of her mind, constant and easy to ignore. But when she concentrated, when she let herself become attuned, she could feel what the ocean felt.
Today, she was waiting for Queen Marcy's Pride to return home.
A fortnight ago, she went to the harbor for it's departure. Staying underwater and out of sight, Stevie watched Patrick and his parents christen the ship before it set sail. She wanted to get a feel for it, the way the boat moved in the water, especially if Patrick would be on future voyages. Stevie didn't care much for humans, but she may be developing a soft spot for this one.
Which she will never admit.
Now, though, she was waiting for Queen Marcy's Pride to return. She knew the habits of sailors, and how they spent their first night ashore at the taverns, and hoped that despite not sailing this time, Patrick would join his crew in celebration.
Finally she felt it. Almost like a vibration, an ebbing at the back of her mind. Good, they'd returned safely.
Later that evening she set out for shore. When she got to the dock, she began her incantation, the one taught to her by her great aunt Maureen all those years ago.
"Scala verto caro
Cauda fieri crura
She felt the familiar warmth, the water bubbling around her. Soon, bare feet touched soft sand and she walked up the beach to the Wobbly Elm.
Taking a seat in the back corner, Stevie sat quietly and watched. Jake's ship went out on a voyage days ago, not that she was here for him. He was attractive enough, sure, but he was still a dumb human.
No, she ordered a pint from Heather (another favorite from land) and waited. At some point, a man who could not hold his ale well approached her.
"What's a fair maiden like you doing in a place like this?" He slurred, eyeing her inappropriately.
"Minding her business and staying clear from the likes of you," she replied haughtily.
"Aw, cmon now." The man leaned forward on her table. His breath smelled like beer. "Give us a smile there, lass."
Stevie smirked and leaned closer, as if to tell a secret. She opened her mouth wide, showing off an array of sharp, needle-like fangs filling out her smile. The man's face turned ashen at the grotesque display, stumbling back from her table. Other patrons looked their way at the sound of his surprised yelp, and by then Stevie had retracted her fangs and smiled politely at them all.
Attention shifted from her again as a group of sailors came barreling through the door.
"Bar wench!" The short one called out.
"She has a name," another one said, shoving his friend.
They all crammed around a table, and Heather attended to them. There were a dozen men at least, but Stevie's eyes were on one.
Patrick looked miserable. His face was pale, his eyes were bloodshot with twin moons of dark blue underneath. He looked as if he hadn't slept since that night David left.
She watched him for a while, as he interacted with his crew. 'Interacted' was a generous term: he stared at his pint glass while his friends laughed and talked around him. Every so often one would look to Patrick, who would look up and respond, but that was it.
While she watched, Patrick glanced up and made eye contact with Stevie. His pale face went impossibly more bloodless, before flushing to a deep red. Without excusing himself from his table, he stood and walked over.
"Stevie." His voice was hoarse.
"Your majesty," she replied. He winced.
"I… I don't know what happened," he admitted, wringing his hands. "I don't don't what I did. But I'm sorry. I'm so sorry." He looked up at her, eyes glassy. "Please know I never meant--" he cut himself off.
"I know," she told him honestly.
Patrick nodded and, without another word, turned and left the tavern.
"How do you think Patrick is doing?" Stevie asked casually. She was picking at the peel of an orange, a souvenir she brought from her last visit ashore.
David's head snapped over to her, glaring.
"What?" She feigned innocence. "I'm just making conversation."
David sighed. He hadn't mentioned Patrick since that first day, under the safety of the blanket, tucked away in his bed. And for two weeks, Stevie had let him wallow. But now, it was enough. If it were anyone else David were hung up on, she'd tell him to get over it and move on. But this was Patrick, and she knew how David had felt, what he'd thought. What he pretended he didn't want. She wasn't going to let him off the hook.
"Like, what do you think he's doing?" She continued. He groaned.
"Courting many a fair maiden, I suppose. Princesses and duchesses and ladies." It sounded like it hurt him to say such things. She knew he'd watched Patrick parade some girl around in the days after.
"Yeah?" Stevie encouraged. "Having the time of his life?"
"Yes," David sighed. "Time of his life."
She paused for a moment before sitting upright. "I think you're wrong," she told him. "I think he's just as miserable as you. Maybe more so." David glared at her. "What? You think you have a monopoly on being melancholy?"
David pushed himself up on his hands. "You went and saw him, didn't you?"
He shot her another glare, but it softened after a moment. "Well?"
"Do you really want to know?" She asked.
"Yes," he replied. "But no."
She scooted closer, voice soft with love. "What if I told you he was happily courting every maiden in Alsen?"
David closed his eyes. "Then I'd be grateful," he said, voice strained.
"And if I said he was just as agonized as you?"
He let out a shuddering breath. "That would be most unfortunate. But it is in his best interest that he is not… distracted by someone like me."
"And you know what's best for him?"
"I know what's bad for him," David insisted. "And that's me."
"And you've made this decision for him," Stevie added, not letting him off the hook.
He didn't answer for a long while, just sat watching a clown fish weave in and out of an anemone. Finally, Stevie pushed herself up and began to swim away.
"Where are you going?" David called after her.
"You're an idiot!" She called back.
Stevie walked along the dirt path until it became the cobblestone street. She passed by carriages and horses and people, but didn't give them any pause.
When she got to the castle gates, she flagged down a soldier. She wagged her fingers in front of his face, watching his eyes glaze over.
"I must speak with the prince," she told him.
Stevie's spell roughly translates from Latin to:
Scales turning into flesh
Tail becomes legs
Change the body
Become something new
"Your highness." Robert was standing in the doorway to Patrick's chambers.
"You have a visitor."
Patrick nodded and stood from his desk. It was likely Ted, who had called on him yesterday afternoon. Patrick had left the tavern in such an unexpected rush the night before, Ted had said, that they were all concerned.
When he reached the top of the staircase, Patrick saw that it was not, in fact, Ted. Instead there was a black-haired girl standing barefooted at his door. The hem of her dress was still wet.
He hadn't been sleeping well, was this a hallucination?
"You're highness." She gave a sarcastic little curtsey. Yes, it was definitely her.
He continued down the stairs. "What are you doing here?" He asked when he made it down to her.
"We need to talk," she said seriously. "About David." Patrick glanced nervously at Robert, who just smiled from his place against the wall. Stevie caught his gaze. "Don't worry about him, he's fine."
Patrick looked back at her, then at Robert again. His eyes looked a little unfocused, foggy. "What did you do?" He looked around, no other staff was in the hall. "How did you get in here?"
Stevie waved her hand to dismiss this. "Just a little charm, it'll wear off soon. But listen to me. David--"
"David doesn't want to see me," Patrick finished. Stevie sighed.
"David is foolish, this we know. But he's also been hurt. A lot. And not just because of this curse. So he is defensive and protective and self-sabotaging. And he thinks he's doing the right thing by you, by letting you be free to marry some maiden."
"But I don't want to marry some maiden!" Patrick heard himself shout.
"Does he know that, though?"
"Probably not. I'd hope so. But he won't let me explain. He hadn't been ashore since…"
Stevie interrupted him. "Do you love him?"
He blanched. "What?"
"Do you love him?" She repeated.
Patrick swallowed and looked her seriously in the eye. "Yes."
"Then go to him."
He shook his head sadly. "How?"
"Can you get a boat?"
"Yes?" He replied, unsure of her intent.
"Then I'll do the rest," she said firmly. "Tomorrow at sunrise you'll see the beacon. After sunset, it won't return." She stepped forward and lowered her voice. "Do not miss this opportunity."
Patrick nodded dumbly and watched her walk to the doors.
"Stevie," he called, and she turned. "How is the curse broken?"
"You haven't figured it out yet?" He shook his head. "True love's kiss."
Ted and Patrick stood side-by-side in the pre-dawn morning.
After Stevie left the night before, he got right to work. Almost immediately, Robert returned to himself, and he was put to task. By midnight, Patrick had chartered a small schooner and was having it stocked for a multi-day journey. He'd had called upon Ted to ask, before even a greeting, "Would you care to meet my gentleman?"
So here they were, two of the oldest friends, waiting on the sunrise and an unknown beacon.
As the sky began to lighten, Patrick's nerves unraveled, leaving him jittery and impatient. Soon, as the sun crested the horizon, a beautiful arc of color bloomed across the sky. Despite the clear night, a rainbow shone brightly overhead.
"There," Patrick pointed to where the rainbow touched the water, far out to sea.
They worked swiftly in tandem, both with years of sailing experience, to drop the sails and untie from dock. Patrick stood at the helm, steering their small ship towards the end of the rainbow.
Hours later they seemed no closer to it, though looking back they were leagues from shore. Patrick was surprised once again at the speed in which a mermaid could move, for this journey took half the time when he swam to David. He didn't care, though, as the end point was still the same: David.
They'd been chasing the horizon for half a day, but suddenly they could see where the rainbow touched the water. It was as if it poured itself into the sea. Ted released a rope to untether the sails, allowing the schooner to slow. As if by magic (and it probably was), their boat stopped right at the place where the rainbow met the sea.
Patrick looked around in the water, then kicked off his boots.
"What are you doing?" Ted asked, watching him remove his sword belt and coat.
Patrick stood on the railing and looked down. "Calling upon my gentleman," he said, and stepped overboard.
The water felt colder to his human flesh, but he didn't let the shock settle. He knew from experience that David would be able to sense his presence, just as he'd felt David through the water on the few occasions he was transformed.
"David!" Patrick called, then thought better of it. He stuck his head into the water and shouted again. "David!" His voice was garbled and the sound came out as a burst of bubbles, but he knew it was heard. It had to be.
He called out a few more times, scanning the depths below and struggling to tread water in the surf.
"What are you doing?!"
Patrick startled and turned around. David was there before him, just his head and shoulders above the water.
"David," Patrick breathed. Just as beautiful as he remembered.
"What are you doing here?" David repeated. He looked annoyed, but his voice was intrigued.
"I came for you."
"Because you wouldn't come for me!" Patrick laughed. He felt giddy.
David sighed. "Why did you want to find me?"
Patrick swam a little closer. "To tell you that I don't care," he said. "I don't care that I'm a prince. I don't care that you're a merman. I want to be together. I don't want some maiden. I want you." David gaped at him, but he continued. "I'll have Stevie transform me every day if I have to. I don't care what it takes." He dared himself to swim even closer. "I want to be with you, David."
David's response came as a broken whisper. "Why?"
Patrick chuckled. "Isn't it obvious, David? I love you."
David's deep brown eyes opened wide. "What?"
Patrick reached out and grabbed both of David's shoulders, letting the merman keep him afloat. "I love you, David."
He leaned forward and kissed him. Patrick kissed him. He felt David startle a little under his touch, but suddenly he felt strong arms around his back, pulling them closer.
David's mouth was soft and warm and tasted like salt. Patrick wasn't sure if it was the sea he was tasting, or his own tears of relief and happiness.
"Patrick," David said hoarsely when they parted. "I love you so much."
Patrick grinned and kissed David again.
The water around them began to warm up, and he felt bubbles tickle his skin. They parted again, only slightly, and David clung to him as they watched the water churn and bubble.
"Oh my god," David muttered, sinking into the water a bit more. "Oh my god!"
"What?!" Patrick asked, tightening his grip.
"My tail," David sputtered, eyes wide. "My legs!"
Sure enough, Patrick felt his own legs and feet knocking against David's, long and elegant in the water.
"The curse," David said in disbelief. "You really--"
Patrick cut him off with another kiss. He had no idea he'd be so cavalier with his affection but with David he couldn't help himself.
"We broke the curse," he corrected.
David smiled shyly, kicking his legs around. "I'd kiss you again, but I seem to be having trouble keeping my head above water."
"Yeah, humans are terrible at floating," Patrick laughed.
David's face faltered. "Wait, if the curse is broken, then what about--"
As if waiting for his question, the sea began to bubble again. A large swell grew below them, like a whale coming to surface, and a huge bubble carried Alexis and their parents to them.
"What is going on?!" Moira demanded, looking around at them. She seemed to be struggling to keep afloat.
"Honey, I think the boys…" Johnny started, then looked at David and Patrick with affection.
"Ugh, why can't I swim?" Alexis grumbled, moving her arms around erratically.
They all looked up to see Ted leaning over the railing, a rope ladder extended to the water. Patrick had completely forgotten about his friend and the boat altogether. He laughed and grabbed hold of the rope with one hand, leading Alexis to ascend. He watched as the three of them navigated leaving the water, fumbling with gravity and new legs.
"Patrick," Johnny said, pausing at the ladder. "I don't know if I can ever thank you for what you've done for us."
"No more than what David's done for me, sir," he replied honestly. Johnny nodded and climbed into the boat.
The sun was shining bright and warm above them as they sailed to Holsathia. Moira and Johnny were sitting in chairs brought from the cabin; she was still wearing her white jacket, and had a long elegant black skirt. Johnny was wearing dark Grey slacks, and had a woolen blanket thrown over his bare shoulders. They were both barefooted.
Ted stood at the helm steering the ship. Alexis stood nearby, and he explained to her all the intricacies of sailing while she giggled and flirted. She was also barefoot, in a light blue dress that stopped just above her knees, and had Ted's coat over her shoulders for warmth.
David stood at the bow of the ship, watching the waves cresting on the surface. He was also shirtless, as he'd always been, but wearing black trousers that were intricately embroidered with white in the same design as his tail had been. Patrick made a mental note to ask about them, but for now he couldn't bear to do anything but touch him. He stood holding David, close enough that his chest was pressed against David's back, with his arms around his waist.
"Looking at the sea?" He murmured into David's ear.
"I just can't believe it," David admitted. He turned in Patrick's arms, laying his own over Patrick's shoulders. "I can't believe you."
"My nanny used to tell me stories about Prince Charming," Patrick pondered.
"And so you became him," David mused.
"No," Patrick responded seriously. "I found him." He leaned forward and pressed a chaste kiss into David's beautiful mouth. "I found you."
"I think technically I found you," David teased and kissed him back. It was probably not appropriate or polite to be so affectionate in the presence of David's parents, let alone them being the true King and Queen of Holsathia. But frankly, Patrick didn't care.
"Is that a storm?" He heard Alexis ask. David and Patrick turned to see the horizon looming ominously with dark red clouds.
"No, no, I know that," Moira said, standing.
"Yeah, it looks familiar," David added.
Johnny's voice cut through the wind.
"Eli?" Patrick repeated, feeling his stomach turn to stone. "How do you know it's Eli?"
"That's what his magic looks like," Johnny replied gravely. They all stared at the dark red clouds, churning and thundering insidiously. The storm on the horizon seemed to grow by the second.
"It seems like he's gotten more powerful since we last saw him," David admitted.
"Okay, so what do we do?" Ted asked, standing next to Alexis protectively.
"Only thing we can do," David replied. Patrick reached over and grabbed his hand. "We have to confront him."
They continued on at full speed towards the storm. The wind stayed at their backs, keeping them moving. But as they got closer, a thick red fog overtook them. The sails flattened and the boat slowed to a stop.
"What is happening?!" Moira shrieked.
Ted leaned over the railing. "Even the waves have stopped," he said. Patrick looked; sure enough, the water around them was eerily still.
"I guess Eli wants us to wait here for him," Alexis shrugged. Her usual upbeat attitude was gone.
"Like sheep awaiting their slaughter?!" Moira gasped.
"I don't like this any more than you, dear." Johnny laid a comforting arm around his wife. "But we don't have much of a choice at this point."
"I wish Stevie were here," David muttered.
"Well lucky you."
Everyone in the boat turned to look along the port side. Stevie was there, a swell of water holding her up at eye level. She was still in her natural state, tentacles crawling onto the dry deck.
"Did I just summon you?!" David gaped.
Stevie gave him a look. "No, you twit. I was already on my way."
David scoffed, but before he could respond, Ted spoke.
"You!" He said, pointing. "You're a mermaid too?!"
Stevie looked offended. "Absolutely not!" She snapped, looking over herself. "I'm a cecaelia!"
"Yeah, nobody knows what that means," David told her.
"You're lucky I'm reserving all my magic to save your royal tail," she glared. "Or you'd already be bald."
David's hand flew to his hair as Moira gasped.
"Okay, okay," Patrick interrupted. "We're all here. So what do we do?"
"We're not all here yet," Stevie said, watching the sky. Patrick turned to follow her gaze, seeing a small bird flying through the still air. It grew as it got closer, swooping towards the boat. The sea bird landed gracefully, perching on the deck. It eyed them all suspiciously, if a bird could be suspicious.
"You brought us… a bird?" Alexis asked.
"I didn't bring you anything," Stevie replied.
Suddenly a plume of smoke enveloped the gull. A dark purple cloud, almost blue, rose quickly to the height of a person, and dissipated. In the bird's place stood a woman with dark skin and closely shorn hair. She was wearing a brown, roughspun dress that touched the floor.
"Ronnie," Stevie said cordially.
"Stevie," the woman replied.
"Wait," Patrick interrupted. "Are you Veronica? The bog witch?"
The woman in question stepped forward and pointed a long finger at him. "That," she said sternly, "is offensive." A suspicious eye looked him up and down before turning towards the others. "Your majesties," she said with a curt nod. "So happy to see you on dry land."
"I'm sorry," Johnny extended his hand. "And who are you?"
"I'm Ronnie, I live in your kingdom. Probably the only one who knew of what happened to you."
"Oh thank god," Moira cried, collapsing against her husband.
"And you're a witch?" Alexis asked, looking between Ronnie and Stevie.
Ronnie turned and gave another glare to Patrick as she addressed Alexis. "That I am," she replied. "I live in the marshlands on the outskirts of Holsathia." She looked back at the royal family. "I enchanted my lands to prevent spells or charms from breaching it. When Eli cursed you, I think I was the only one to know. As soon as the curse was broken, I could feel it, like a change in the air. Stevie sent word with a particularly agitated eel to meet you here."
David wheeled around to look at his friend. Stevie just shrugged shyly. "I knew I wasn't strong enough to fight him alone."
"You're not alone," Patrick insisted. "We are not letting him win."
They had a plan. Ronnie charmed the schooner to sail despite the oppressive fog, and they carried on towards the storm. Towards Eli. As they got closer, they saw red-hot lightning bolting through the clouds. They came upon a large rock jutting up from the water and stopped the boat. They could see land from here.
Suddenly, a huge flash blinded them, the ocean quivering with power. Before them, in the water, was Eli. He had grown, was four times the height of the schooner's mast, easily, and held a gold scepter. It was topped with an ornate ruby, intricately carved in the shape of a rose. The gem glowed with magic.
"Look who came back," Eli laughed, his voice deep and loud from his size. "Look who broke the curse."
"Eli," Johnny called, stepping forward. "You stole my throne, deceived my people and hurt my family. And I won't stand for it!"
"What are you going to do about it, Johnny?" Eli taunted. "No one remembers you. No one cared about you. Just you and your capricious wife and narcissistic children."
"You won't get away with this!" Moira shouted. Eli laughed again, his belly making waves.
"Dear Moira. I already have."
"No!" David grabbed Patrick's hand tightly, pointing a finger at the sorcerer. "We broke the curse. You lost."
Eli's smile turned to a sneer as he looked down at them. "You may have broken the curse, but I'm still the more powerful one." He looked over at Johnny. "Do you want to fight for the throne?"
"No," David declared. "I'm the one who broke the curse. I'm the one who outsmarted you. I beat you, and I'll do it again! I'm the one you want."
"Son, no!" Johnny protested.
"Very well!" Eli agreed. He pointed the ruby at the ship, and a bolt of red lightning hit David. He lifted him, guided by the scepter, and held him over the water at Eli's height.
David struggled against the magic, and Patrick watched as his legs formed together into a tail again.
A small grunt sounded next to Patrick and Eli was startled by a jet of water spray at his face. It wasn't strong, but it did the job of distraction: David dropped and tumbled into the sea.
Eli looked down at Stevie, who was fuming, her hands in front of her, sparking with magic. Patrick kept his eyes on the water, eyeing David as he watched the interaction.
Eli, thoroughly distracted, placed the ruby end of the scepter into the water and began to stir. The gem glowed brightly as the water spun, creating a cyclone. Patrick could feel the ship being tugged by the current.
Patrick looked at Ronnie and Stevie, who were looking at each other. They both nodded. Ronnie gracefully lept from the boat to the stone, from which they were slowly being pulled away. Stevie followed.
He turned to Ted. "Take the boat and get out of here," he commanded.
"But what about--"
"Just go!" He shouted, and climbed off of the ship and onto the rock.
The water swirled faster and stronger, and Patrick watched as David was dragged into the current. Without any sense of self-preservation, Patrick dove in after him.
He surfaced in the whirlpool, spinning around and around.
"Patrick!" David called, practically slamming into him. They wrapped their arms around each other tightly. "What are you doing?"
"I've already lost you once," Patrick told him. "I'm not gonna lose you again." David nodded in understanding, not wanting to argue.
They spun down, getting closer and closer to the now-dry ocean floor. Above them, Eli seemed to be preoccupied by the witches; from here, they could see swarms of birds diving down at the sorcerer, a smack of jellyfish wrapping their tendrils around his arms and stinging.
The cyclone deposited David and Patrick on the solid ground, giving them a reprieve. Patrick looked over at David, his set jaw and dark, terrified eyes.
"He's so strong," David whispered.
"And we're stronger," Patrick promised, pulling him in for a brief but fierce kiss.
They looked around trying to find anything they could use to fight with. A shadow moved past them in the water, and Patrick looked up.
The Lady Blue, waterlogged and broken, floated by in the current.
Patrick had an idea.
"David, I need you to go to Stevie."
"I am not leaving you alone with him," he said firmly.
"Listen." Patrick crouched down next to where David was sitting. "I have an idea. I just need a little help getting a ship to sail."
David looked over at the ghost ship passing by. He nodded in understanding. "Okay." He looked back at Patrick. "Please be safe."
"David," he whispered, cupping his jaw. "I will come back to you. I love you."
Patrick pulled him in for a tender kiss, and felt David's breath hitch as he swallowed a sob.
They paused at the wall of water, waiting for the ship to pass again. As it came near, Patrick grabbed one of the ropes hanging off the side. His shoulders wrenched as he was pulled into the water, but he held his breath and gritted his teeth and pulled himself up. With his weight and the uneven current, the ship swayed and burst through the water. He was still stuck in the whirlpool, but at least he could breathe
The deck was slick with algae, and Patrick fought to climb to the helm. It was raining now, and the red clouds overhead were almost black. He tried to steer the ship out of the cyclone, but the current was too strong. He'd have to wait for David.
After another circle around, Patrick felt the wood rumble beneath his feet as the ship started moving up along the wall of water. In no time at all, he was cresting the waves on the surface.
Eli was still overhead, scepter in hand. Stevie and Ronnie were on the rocks, using all their magic to fight against him, but it was a losing battle. Eli had become more powerful than the both of them together. Luckily they had him distracted, not even noticing Patrick and the ship. Ronnie kept an eye on his broken boat, using a sliver of her magic to increase its speed. Eli's storm had caused the fog to dissipate, and the winds filled Patrick's waterlogged sails. He was sailing faster than he'd ever had before.
The mast had broken during the shipwreck all those weeks ago, but it was still attached at the base, tipped like a fallen tree. The gaff and crow's nest had snapped off, leaving a jagged spear jutting from the front of the ship.
As Patrick steered towards Eli, the sorcerer finally noticed him.
"You pitiful, insignificant fool!" He cried out. "So much for true love!" Eli twisted his large body to face the boat, holding out the glowing scepter.
It was the perfect move; in an instant, Patrick turned the wheel at the helm and the ship tilted. The broken mast speared right into Eli's belly, running him through.
Lightning began to strike Eli-- no, lightning was coming from Eli, shooting out in all directions as his body fell forward. Patrick ran and lept from the side of the ship as the sorcerer crashed into it.
Patrick fell into the water as his ship sank for the second time. And for the second time, David swam to him and grabbed on, pulling him to the surface.
The waves caused by Eli's fall threatened to pull them apart, but the two held strong. They watched in shocked silence as the ship sank, bubbled and fleeting zaps of electricity rose to the surface.
Suddenly, a gust of wind passed over them, taking away the storm clouds. David cried out and thrashed in the water. Patrick pulled back just a bit, and felt a kick in the shin.
"Ow," he said without thinking, then looked at David. "Your legs!"
"He must be dead," David replied somberly.
Trying to keep afloat, they turned to look behind them, where Ted was sailing the schooner in their direction. Stevie and Ronnie were already on board.
David and Patrick climbed up the rope ladder and collapsed on the deck.
"You two okay?" Alexis asked as she wrapped them in woolen blankets.
"Yeah," David panted. Patrick nodded.
"Ronnie," he said, looking at the witch. "Thank you."
She raised an eyebrow. "I didn't do it for you," she told him frankly.
"I know," Patrick smiled, and rested his head on David's shoulder.
"Well," Ted interrupted, looking at Johnny and Moira. "Your graces, I believe it's time to return you to your throne."
Patrick stepped through the doors and onto the balcony.
"Your majesty," he said.
David turned around from his place at the railing and smiled. "Your grace," he teased.
Patrick walked up to him and handed David a glass. "Brought you some champagne." David nodded and took a sip, looking back over the sea. "What are you thinking about?"
David paused, pensive. "Since the minute we were cursed, I wanted my life back. The fame and fortune, parties and notoriety. But then I met you, and…" he turned and reached for Patrick's hand, who willingly gave it. "None of that stuff was important anymore."
"I know what you mean," Patrick agreed. "The ocean once seemed like the only place I could be myself. I didn't know what it was I was looking for."
"I didn't know what my life was missing," David added.
Patrick stepped closer, wrapping his arm around David's waist, pressing a kiss into his neck. David's arm crossed Patrick's shoulder, and he turned them around to face the large windows looking into the ballroom. It was full of people, dancing and laughing and having a wonderful night.
Ted and Alexis were dancing near the musicians, and Stevie was by the kitchen, flirting with one of the courtiers. She was still barefoot. Captain Ray and the crew were sitting and eating, along with the household staff from both royal families. The King and Queen of Holsathia were seated at a table with the King and Queen of Alsen, both sets of parents enjoying each other's company. Even those of smaller nobility were in attendance of this banquet, from both kingdoms.
Everyone was having a grand evening, but none more than the two alone on the balcony.
"I think tonight was a success," Patrick told David.
"They seem to be having fun."
"Of course they are," he mused. "They're celebrating you."
"They're celebrating us," David corrected, pulling him tighter. "I love you, you know."
"I'd hope so," Patrick smiled. "It'll would be hard to run a kingdom with someone who didn't."
"I suppose you're right," David agreed, and leaned in for a kiss.
"And I suppose I love you, too," Patrick added.
"Good," David replied. "Or this would make an awkward wedding."
Patrick rested his head on his husband's shoulder, watching the guests at their reception celebrate.
Nothing could be more perfect.
Thank you all for reading!
This had been the most fun of any fics I've written!
And extra love to my beta-baby, YouWereAlwaysGonnaBeTheOne ❤