King Triton and his people return home after the wedding, their party diminished in number by one. Beneath the sea nothing has changed, except that the last seat on the royal dais sits empty, and the palace seems almost quiet, and Triton misses her so.
If you ever, he said at their last parting, if you should change your mind...
Triton's boons aren't irrevocable, not deadly contracts exchanged but wishes granted free and from the heart. She'd only laughed, tears in her eyes, and kissed his cheek. Stubborn and sure as ever.
Still, for a while he hopes. The trident confers more than rank and power; it also grants knowledge of Poseidon's realm and all its subjects. If Ariel were to come back, the currents would bear the glad tidings. The ocean itself would herald her return. This is why he knows she is truly gone, for the days pass into months and the sea tells him nothing. The last seat remains empty. Ariel is gone.
A year passes, and then another.
King Triton sits his throne, bears the crown, wields his trident. To his subjects he is as strong and certain as ever. It is close enough to the truth.
He does not think on the matter overmuch, for there are larger and more pressing concerns in the seven seas then the happiness of one girl who was once a mermaid. Besides, he has six other headstrong daughters to occupy what little waking time remains. The girls seem to seek him out more than they used to, as though they know he needs occasional distraction from his own thoughts. Triton allows himself to be diverted, to be cheered up, always laughing at Andrina's jokes and soothing Attina's sulks. They are good girls and he is more proud of them each day.
But he is not always occupied with his family or matters of state. On occasion he finds himself watching the shadow of the ships passing over, the crash of the waves against their hulls. Once or twice in the early hours, when the rest of the palace lies restful and sleeping, Triton swims upwards to watch the dawn. He is glad to think that this light and these rays watch over her, even if he cannot.
One such bright morning, Triton breaks his pattern and does not return to the deep. Instead he strikes out westwards, swimming sleek and strong through the waves and towards the distant shore.
A pod of dolphins gather around him, an informal honour guard that keeps effortless and graceful pace, while above a flock of gulls cry your majesty, your majesty, all hail to your majesty! Triton acknowledges his subjects with nods but spares no speech, his attention focused on the shoreline ahead where she waits.
Sitting sideways on the sand with her back to the sea, and her legs half-concealed beneath her skirts - from a distance, Ariel almost looks the same. As though she could slip down to the water and into the sea and swim back to Triton's palace and never look back.
Then she turns and smiles, radiantly happy and utterly human, and he knows this will never happen.
"Daddy," Ariel says gladly, flinging her arms around him, voice muffled against his shoulder. "I knew you'd come." For a moment she's his little girl again.
"Of course," he says, his voice almost steady, "I always will."
"I've told him all about you." For a moment he can't think who Ariel can be speaking about, but then she looks over her shoulder and her expression of pride and joy is familiar, a look that Triton has seen on the faces of other parents, on himself.
The boy has Ariel's wide blue eyes, Eric's jet black hair. He is still too young to walk, perhaps too young to speak. He sits on the sand beside Ariel and sucks on his thumb, staring at Triton with unabashed curiosity.
"Oliver, this is your grandfather," Ariel says, sweeping him up in her arms. "Say hello, hmm?" He burbles as she waves his hand for him. She lifts him up, saying lightly, "Here, Daddy. You hold him."
He takes the child gingerly at first. "Hmmm," Triton says cautiously. "Hello."
Less reticent then his grandfather, Oliver grabs at Triton's beard with a chubby fist and laughs. His own laugh rumbles out in response, surprising even himself. Warm and fidgeting in his arms, his grandson seems not so different from a child of his own people.
"There, you see," Ariel says, watching them with bright eyes, her voice tender. "I knew you'd get along."
The morning passes swiftly. They have the beach to themselves. Oliver is a handful, now scooping up seashells, now trying to eat sand.
"Now I know how you must have felt raising me and the girls," Ariel says at one point, a little breathless from saving Oliver from crawling headfirst into another rockpool.
"Oh, I don't know," Triton says, only half-teasing. "Come back to me again in fifteen years - maybe then you'll know the half of it."
While she keeps a watchful eye out for Oliver, he tells her what he can of her sisters, Sebastian's newest aria, how Flounder is doing in school, the porpoises' latest petition. In return she tells him of life in the palace with Eric, her role as royal patron of theatre and the arts, the strangeness and beauty of the world she now calls home.
The forests he can almost understand, having seen swaying fields of wild kelp and the great coral reefs. He imagines the sleek royal horses as tame, terrestrial seals. But she is describing preparations for Oliver's first birthday celebration when he stops her gently - "candles?" he asks.
"Well, they burn," she says, fumbling slightly for words. "For light, you see? Little glowing lights, made out of wax." At his prompting look she starts to describe how wax is harvested from the nests of tiny flying creatures. He doesn't quite catch the word - 'bumbles'?
"Ah," Triton says, not understanding at all. He wonders, a little sadly, if one day his news will be as incomprehensible to her as her's is to him.
All too soon the precious hours are gone and it is time for partings. Oliver consents to be held and tickled once more, and then it is Ariel's turn, hugging him tightly. "We'll come back soon, Daddy," Ariel says, "I promise."
He kisses the top of her head, in his mind's eye glimpsing the years stretching ahead like waves receding into the distance. She'll return, again and again, sometimes with Eric, always with her children. Oliver will grow and in time be joined by a sister, a brother. And Triton will be there. He'll need no messenger or signal to know when she's near the sea where he's master, where she'll never return.
Ariel walks away with the child propped on her hip. When she reaches the crest of the dune, she turns, bringing her hand up to her mouth to blow him a kiss; and Oliver waves, with one chubby hand. Then they disappear from view, beyond his protection and his knowledge.
He may never stop worrying for her and about her, wondering if she is safe, if she is well and whole and happy. Indeed, he's certain he won't. But Triton leaves the beach with a lighter heart, remembering Oliver's smile, Ariel's proud watchfulness. Perhaps he and his stubborn girl are more alike than different; perhaps she is truly her father's daughter after all.
Surrounded by his dolphin honour guard, Triton returns to the sea. This time he does not think of the last empty seat on the dais. This time Triton thinks of a cradle and a crown, a family gained, a daughter grown into a woman brave and true. He wonders what Oliver's first words will be; he looks forward to hearing them.