Escaping the buzz the castle is at the moment, Ariel makes her way through the crowd of servants. The atmosphere is busier than usual, and the light pink decorations that have been hung – rather tastefully, she has to admit – on seemingly every corner she turns, only add to the goal of suffocating her. She doesn’t have long before the guests’ arrival and even less time before she needs to go help Melody get ready – provided she’s able to find her daughter.
There is just something she needs to do for herself first.
The familiar smell of salt surrounds her as soon as she steps out onto the courtyard. Her heart leaps in her chest as it always does, with foolish hope and childish longing as it would need to leap over the meters of stone running around the castle, too, in order to fulfill its desire to join the waves the sound of which she can barely hear. She’s fled the walls of the castle only to find herself trapped between them and the one built 12 years ago. She is literally trapped between her current and past life, unable to reconcile with either of them.
She is happier than she’s ever been. Their kingdom is flourishing, and after years of trial and error while ruling by Eric’s side, Ariel can now proudly say she has had her part in it, too. She’s grown from a spirited girl to an independent woman, from a blushing bride to a self-assured wife. She has a loving husband who treats her as an equal, and she’s a mother to a lively little girl she loves more than she thought physically possible.
She’d do anything to keep Melody safe; it isn’t about that. She knew there were no guarantees about how long the decision to prevent Melody from connecting with a hidden part of herself would need to last. Only Ariel didn’t know to be afraid it would take 12 years. And she didn’t take into consideration that she would be hiding a part of herself, as well, for all that time.
At first, Melody was simply too young. Some years later, she wouldn’t have understood. Now she wouldn’t believe her.
Ariel will tell her daughter eventually, of course. After Melody grows out of her rebellious phase and trusts her mother based on her word alone. Or hopefully, even sooner once it would be safe to show her.
For the time being, though, it is easier to pretend she isn’t keeping secrets from Melody. Easier to outright lie than to come up with elaborate excuses to all the questions to which the answer is excruciatingly simple.
She can’t tell her daughter a part of her home is at the bottom of the ocean, so she pretends there is no home. No family on her side to meet. It spares her from explaining how painful it is to be away from her father and sisters – how Eric needed to lie for her when Melody once asked about her grandparents and Ariel was too focused on not choking on her heart to answer.
Taking a deep breath to replace the air she accidentally exhaled in sync with her past self, Ariel lets her eyes roam the yard she’s been walking across, headed to the furthest corner where no one will hopefully come looking for her. The sky is lit in brilliant colors; it is exactly the type of sunset she would’ve swam up to the surface for in her teens. She watches the fluffy clouds slowly float towards her from behind the wall. Since the piles of stone are preventing her gaze as well as her body from reaching the ocean, she can’t see how the day’s last beams of light sparkle before getting swallowed up by whitecaps, but if she closes her eyes, she can still picture the scene. The only thing capable of penetrating the wall are the memories growing fainter and fainter in her mind.
She can’t say whether the pain lessens or increases with each passing day. The pain of being away from the ocean and her family diminishes somewhat, as she grows accustomed to her new norm. But then the realization that she can no longer remember the lyrics to one of her favorite songs to sing with her sisters or the last time she managed to defeat a powerful current hits, which makes the distance hurt all the more.
No matter how successful she is at ignoring her pain during the day, it haunts her in her dreams. Eric’s touch is the only thing keeping it at bay. That is something she hasn’t had before, and it is the only thing that makes her homesick for something else than the ocean.
Eric understands. Ariel hasn’t told him, but he knows. She could never hide it from him – the way she jumps every time she hears a seagull, the way her eyes shoot out to the ocean every time they ride a carriage to the town, the way even the most luxurious bubble bath doesn’t relax her anymore. It did, at the beginning of her life on land, as it was something new and exciting, wrapped in something familiar; it felt like the perfect combination of her past and current life. But now when that is the closest she can get to real waves, it feels like mockery, like a cruel imitation of what she once had.
Staring at the puddle with which her beloved ocean has been traded, Ariel almost doesn’t notice Max who has apparently followed her outside. The dog makes a beeline towards the bottom of the wall, clearly not having picked up on his master’s avoidance of water for the past 12 years nor on Ariel’s current somber mood as it splashes around without a care in the world.
With a fond smile and a sigh, Ariel presses her hand against the cold stone of the wall – it should be warm, given how sunny the day was. Maybe it is just the ache in her heart that chills her.
Truthfully, Ariel isn’t sure if the wall is for Melody’s sake anymore rather than her own. It was built out of love and fear, for protection. To keep Morgana out. Instead, Ariel knows Melody feels it was made to keep her in. She understands that. She feels it, too.
“I miss you, Daddy”, she whispers to the breeze carrying with it the sounds of the first party guests arriving. “I wish you could be here with us.”
Coupled with the stress of the ball, the yearning builds a hazardous combo. Her self-control compromised, it only takes a moment of whimsy to break it. With a quick glance around to ensure Max is her only companion, Ariel kicks off her heels and steps into the puddle, letting the waves caress her sore feet. The delicate skin is no match against the chilliness of the water, even if after hours of teetering on pinching heels it now feels soothing. It still doesn’t feel right when it isn’t her tail, but after all these years, it’s elating. She hasn’t indulged herself, afraid of encouraging Melody – and perhaps of encouraging herself even more. She is the princess consort; she could find a way around her own ban if she so desired. She dreads the day her resolve will break. She needs to protect Melody, and she doesn’t trust herself to be reasonable when the pull of the ocean follows her into her dreams, the crashing of waves forever sounding in her ears and the salt running through her veins.
“Mother? What are you doing?”
Melody’s voice is unexpected, and Ariel starts, faltering with her answer. But really, it is so ironic she should’ve seen it coming. She can’t afford to give in to her selfish desires when she has something much more valuable to love than the ocean.
Squeezing her soaked feet back into her heels, Ariel gathers her hems and calls out to Melody that she will be right up. No more fooling herself into believing in something that cannot be. The brief moment of serenity having passed, she turns her back on her pain and rushes inside to her daughter.