On an early summer day, in a hidden cove a mile from the castle, Eric taught Ariel how to swim. Her legs splashed ungainly and useless in the water and Eric held her till she could keep herself afloat. She was as miserable as she was ecstatic, and by the end of the day so overwhelmed that they went home and didn't speak of it at all.
But they returned to the cove a week later, and then a few days after that, till she was a strong enough swimmer to make it out to the rocky little island near the mouth of the cove. Eric didn't go with her every time she went out after that, secure in her safety and glad she had a place of her own so close to her home.
Everything happened so fast when they married. No one stopped to think for very long about what would happen afterwards.
Some nights Ariel couldn't sleep. Eric watched her toss and turn, push the blankets off and pull them on again, and wondered if it was better to pretend to be sleeping or to try to comfort her knowing there was nothing he could do to help. He asked her once, what kept her up at night, if she had dreams that haunted her, if she was unhappy in their home. She told him that she missed the weight of the sea.
He wasn't following Ariel the day he discovered her sitting on a rocky shelf at the edge of the island, dangling her bare toes and talking to a woman in the water; he hadn't even known she was out at the cove at all. Eric didn't know her sisters on sight but it must have been one of them, maybe Andrina, the one Ariel looked to after her mother passed, or maybe Allana, the closest to her age.
He left them as quietly as he'd come, and wasn't surprised when a week later he discovered Ariel sitting on the island and visiting with her father. Eric left them be as well, rode back up to the castle and told the cook Ariel wouldn't be joining them for lunch that day after all.
There were a lot of things about Ariel that Eric didn't know, that were as foreign to him as trying to strike up a friendship with his dressing table. He'd see her doing something so simple as taking a deep breath and realize that even the air was something rarely and surreptitiously encountered before coming to live on land. She'd changed his life in little ways, in what they did or how they ate, but for every change he made, Ariel made dozens.
Sometimes Eric really missed lobster with melted butter, or a nice plate of oysters, and then felt terrible for even thinking about it.
On days when Ariel visited the village, or took sewing lessons or horseback riding lessons or one of the many other things she was ravenous to learn, Eric rode out to the cove and swam out to the island himself. The first time he did it, all he got for his trouble was a sunburnt nose and an irritable horse. But he wasn't visiting just for the privacy or the sunshine so he persisted, day after day, until one day Triton himself showed up near the rocky shore.
"Your majesty," he said, and Triton inclined his head in acknowledgment.
"There are much easier places for a prince to go if he wants to be alone," he said, implying so much more than was said.
"She misses home," said Eric, not a word wasted, "and I don't know how to make it better for her."
Because if there was one thing he knew he and the sea king had in common, it was their desire to make Ariel happy.
Triton looked solemn, brooded for a little while, and while Eric regretted making him melancholy about losing his daughter to the land, he couldn't regret what he said. More than anything, he wanted to know how to make Ariel happier. He wanted to know Ariel.
"I don't have any answers for you," Triton said finally, not that Eric expected him to. He didn't like admitting that weakness to his father-in-law, didn't want to give him any reason to regret trusting Ariel to him, but Eric wasn't too proud to ask for help. "All I can do is tell you about my little girl."
And he did, at length and in the kind of exuberant detail that only a proud father could. Ariel was cherished in her home, so much so that sometimes Eric felt like a thief, even though he knew it had never been his choice to make, that Ariel knew her own mind and made her own decisions.
Eric had always known that Ariel could make the choice to return to the sea, that all she had to do was ask. He was as in love with her as he had been from the moment they met, but once the first delirious days of their relationship passed, he couldn't help but wonder if he would wake up one morning and find her gone. He didn't even believe that she would ever do that to him, not like that, but he couldn't help knowing that it wasn't an irrevocable decision she'd made. That her father had the power to bring her home.
If it ever came to pass, and if he was given the choice, Eric thought he would choose to have fins and a tail and join her in the sea, even knowing everything he'd be leaving behind. So if he could make that decision so easily for her, he had to believe she could make it for him, too.
The cove was Ariel's place, above all else, but it became Eric's place too. They still went together some days, to play on the sand, to look out at the sea together, to swim in the clear waters and let her have a little piece of what she used to know. But more often than that they went separately. Ariel visited her family in the only way she could and Eric came to the barest understanding of his wife's home, which was more than he'd ever had before.
There was a reason mermaids seldom came to the surface, that it was discouraged if not outright forbidden. Atina was clipped by a fishing spear surfacing too far from their sheltered cove, and Eric got dark looks from the whole family for weeks afterwards. They may have come to accept him, and Ariel's choice to be with them, but their peace was still a fragile one.
"Bring her these," Triton said one day, the waves carrying him upwards so he could push a net full of deep sea plants in blues and reds and oranges into his arms. Eric looked at them in confusion until Triton added, "To eat. They're her favorites."
She'd never mentioned them before, and on his way home afterwards he wondered if that was because he wouldn’t have had any way of getting them for her anyway.
Ariel still delighted in everything around her, finding something new and unfamiliar every day. Eric wondered if she'd ever run out of things to find miraculous, and hoped that she never did. There was a reason Ariel chose land, and he knew that for all Ariel cherished their marriage, it wasn't all him. He knew now her curiosity went back much further than their first fateful meeting, for they wouldn’t have met at all without it.
He had his pants rolled up to his knees, dangling his feet in the water and talking to Aquata about beauty products, of all things, when Ariel sat down beside him and smiled at her sister. He should have been more surprised than he was, but just as he'd accidentally discovered Ariel visiting her family, he supposed deep down he always knew that the reverse was likely just as true. He was more surprised he didn't see her coming, but Ariel was born to the water, and for all that she'd had to relearn how to swim in it, that was a thing not ever forgotten.
"I've come to collect my husband," she told her sister, and laughed as Aquata pushed a little spray of water towards her. "He's promised me a ride through the countryside and I'm not about to let him forget it."
"I would've been back in time," he said, and kissed her behind her ear and they said nothing about her discovery, or his.
He let the sisters have their goodbyes, and didn't miss the wistful look on Ariel's face when her sister disappeared beneath the waves. They swam together to shore, the afternoon sun warm above them.
He tried not to think about what she'd do when winter came.
There were questions he'd never dared to ask her, not because he didn't want to know but because he worried about how the questions themselves would make her feel, what dark thoughts they might bring to the surface. But for all the things about Ariel he didn't know, there were many things he did, and many ways in which Ariel understood him too.
"I don't regret it," she said, linking her arm with his as they walked up the trail towards home. And Eric had to believe her, because she walked on two legs with him and she didn't look back.