Tom had known that Arthur would be different. Before Arthur existed as anything more than a hope in his mother’s womb, he’d known that the child they were creating would be something the world had never seen before. But it had been okay, because Atlanna was with him. No matter what troubles came their way, they would tackle them together, and nothing could stop them.
And then he’d held his crying son in his arms as the love of his life slipped back into the ocean, and for the first time since finding Atlanna on the rocks three years ago, he felt painfully and utterly alone.
“I know, Arthur, I know,” he said into his son’s curly hair as Arthur’s tears seeped into his shirt. “But she’ll come back. She promised, and if there’s one thing your mother never does, it’s break a promise. We just have to be brave, that’s all. Brave and patient.”
It’s another year before it starts to fall apart. Arthur won’t stop crying, and Tom doesn’t know what to do. He’s not sick-- he’s driven Arthur to the town doctor twice now and the woman has no idea what to do with either of them-- nor is he hungry or overtired or wanting to play with his toys. There’s something wrong, but Tom hasn’t a clue what it is, just a nagging suspicion that Atlanna would have known.
So one morning he takes his sobbing, inconsolable son to the ocean and sits with him in the waves until the salt water washes away his tears.
“See, Arthur? It’s not so bad, is it? This world belongs to you, too. Your mother will come home soon and tell you all about it.”
Going to the sea helps. Arthur is content there, and as long as they go to the ocean at least once a day, he’s a happy, healthy child. He already swims, and they play in the water and Tom listens to Arthur’s giggles. The boy is buck naked in the ocean, a little brown sprite.
He plays with fishes. They come to him and he swims with them in circles in a way that Tom, who has lived by the sea all his life, has never seen. It’s a stark reminder that his boy, who looks like him and bears his name, is only half his, and the other half came from the sea in ways he can’t begin to understand.
And Tom is afraid he is the wrong parent for his boy.
After he tucks Arthur into bed that night, the ocean night light tossing fish and dolphins onto the walls in blue light, he goes downstairs to the kitchen and pours himself a tall drink, and cries.
A man appears on the lighthouse dock a few weeks later in the dead of night, and clutching an arm to his chest, hunched in pain. Tom sees him while he’s doing the books, trying to figure out if they’re behind, ahead, or doing alright for the coming tax, and it’s next to impossible to do the numbers while Arthur is bounding around full of energy and interruptions.
It is not storming now, and the man is dressed in dark grey, not the iridescent white of Atlanna’s royal suit. But Tom, rushing out the door with a baseball bat in one hand and a first aid box in the other, knows an Atlantean when he sees one.
The man is falling to one knee by the time Tom is out of the house, and he skids the last few feet, asking, “Did Atlanna send you,” before he even gets to him.
“Yes,” the man hisses. “I am a friend of Atlanna. She is worried for her son.”
That sets Tom’s teeth on edge and raises the hairs on the back of his neck. “Our son. Come inside.”
The man’s name is Vulko, he says as he settles awkwardly onto a chair, and his wounds are superficial. “A necessary diversion had to be created,” he says. Tom pulls back the suit’s sleeve and applies gauze to the cuts on his arm. “I can only stay briefly, but I promised Atlanna I would look in on you both. And with the ruse I have laid out, I should be able to visit regularly without observation from spies.”
This is all too much for Tom, who sits back on his heels and stares at the man. He’s an odd creature, eerie in the same way Atlanna was. Calm and collected despite the blood soaking through the bandage around his forearm, hair pulled back into an odd bun. He looks severe. Very unlike the joyous, delighted Atlanna who fell upon everything with curiosity and wonder.
They are at his kitchen table, speaking quietly to avoid waking Arthur in the room upstairs. The only light comes from the little lamp by the sofa in the other room, and it makes his lighthouse-- the home he has known and cared for nearly fifteen years now-- feel alien.
“Why couldn’t she come herself?”
Vulko looks down at his bloodied arm. “She told me she spoke of our home to you. Atlantis, where we are both from, is a wondrous place. But those who currently rule it have fallen prey to their own vices and have turned Atlantis into a place not of beauty but totalitarianism. Our home has lost its way. Atlanna is working to change that, and I will do anything she asks. But she does not have the freedom I do and she cannot come herself.”
Tom closes his eyes. He’s dreamed of Atlantis many times. Atlanna used to describe it to him and Arthur both, so well he could swear he could almost see it. But not this version, not this dark part of it she protected them from. He imagines her trapped there and his chest hurts.
“Can’t you help her?”
The man-- Vulko-- hisses, “Why do you think I am here? I am here for my queen’s firstborn and her consort. To ease her mind, protect her child, and allow her to continue her work. If discovered, I will be executed.”
But Tom presses his hands to his face, and then his face to the table, hunched in silent dirtress. She had been running from an arranged marriage. And had gone back to it. And had, hopefully of her own choice, given birth to another child. Firstborn implied second born, and he wasn’t there with her to help her.
“Thank you,” he says after a long moment and a deep breath to collect himself. “Now what do we do?”
Vulko disappears for another fortnight, and when he reappears, he is uninjured. Tom breathes a sigh he didn’t know he’d been holding. This man is not Atlanna, and nothing will replace her, but he is not alone now.
“Arthur,” he says calmly as they walk to the edge of the dock to meet him, “This is Vulko. He’s a friend of your mother’s. Why don’t you show him how well you swim.”
Tom keeps an eye on them, but Vulko acts, if anything, reverently towards Arthur. And most importantly, he doesn’t abscond with him into the sea. They splash about, and Tom can hear soft, almost inaudible tales of Atlantis and legends of feats of bravery, and is happy in a heavy-hearted way that at least someone is teaching his child about the half of his heritage Tom will never be able to share with him.
Vulko is an odd man, but he does what he promises to do. He takes Arthur away for a few hours at a time every week, and when he returns him, Arthur is a happy and healthy three year old.
“Who is that strange man who comes by?” Mr. Essel is selling Tom a used tire from his backyard. It’s in decent condition, and Tom is getting desperate. He can’t afford a new one, but his truck’s starting to fall apart on him piece by piece.
It’s a small town. Tom really should have expected this. He’d introduced Atlanna to the grocer a few weeks after she’d come to him, and half the bay knew she was ‘his girl’ by the end of the week. And had a dozen fabulous and exciting explanations of where she’d come from. He never lied to anyone, they just never believed him. “She came from the sea,” they took to be romantic, not literal.
“That man, he dresses so strangely.”
“Oh, he’s Atlanna’s brother, Arthur’s uncle. He stops in to check on us.”
Mr. Essel nods. “That’s good. Family is important. Such a shame...” Essel stops when Tom glares at him. Much like Atlanna’s appearance, her disappearance has spread gossip just as fictitious despite his best efforts.
But the lie about Vulko being family becomes part of their life, easy to maintain and easier to forget that it’s untrue.
“Tell me about Atlantis.”
Vulko sends him a sidelong, calculating look. Arthur has just collapsed into bed after a long day of swimming, and Vulko had carried him home.
“Unless you have somewhere to be, of course.”
Tom pulls a beer from the fridge and offers one to Vulko, who declines politely.
“Did Atlanna not tell you things of our world?”
He takes a long pull and settles onto the sofa. Atlanna used to drink with him. She thought beer was the strangest thing and preferred tea, but she used to down big gulps of whiskey and laugh with him into the small hours of the morning. After a second, the other man sits opposite him on a chair. He doesn’t relax, though.
“She did,” Tom says. “But I’m worried I’ll forget.”
“Very well.” He doesn’t smile, but he does settle, somewhat. “There were seven kingdoms that were created during the great splintering when the united Atlantis sank thousands of years ago. Our Atlantis is obviously among them, but several others survive to this day. There are the Fishermen, the Brine, and Xebel--”
Tom cuts him off quickly with a wave of his beer. “No, no. Not that. I know all that.”
Vulko’s lip curls.
“Tell me about Atlanna. You knew her when she was a little girl. She mentioned you.”
Tom watches as Vulko’s face shifts. He goes from stoney and uncomfortable to soft and gentle, like he is with Arthur. “Yes, yes I did. I was one of her father’s advisors when he was king, and her mother entrusted some of her education to me. I was younger, then, and eager to gain a place in court. I know her very well and am honored that she calls me friend.”
“And the man she was betrothed to? The one she ran from and then went back to? Do you know him very well, too?”
Tom has never felt jealousy towards the man Atlanna is now with. He loves Atlanna with the conviction of a man who’s met the love of his life, and he knows without question that she loves him the same way.
Vulko looks away, and Tom knows he has been right to worry.
“I do. I am also in his court. Orvax Marius is his name and he is king of Atlantis.”
“That’s all you have to say?”
Vulko’s lips are pursed and his face is white. “He is king, and his word is law. Their marriage is political. Her father arranged it when she was younger than Arthur is now; it is through Orvax’s marriage to Atlanna that he is royal and sits on the throne, not through his own blood. It is why he needed her back and why he stopped at nothing to ensure it.”
Tom puts the beer onto the coffee table, uninterested in finishing it. “But she’s queen, can’t she--”
“A queen’s power is in her ability to produce an heir, historically. The king holds the military in his hand and controls the law, the order, and the justice of Atlantis. The king’s belief is that Atlantis is superior to the other kingdoms, and superior as well to the surface world. Atlanna’s father is dead now, and she has few allies left.” This time Vulko does look at him. “She makes her moves known to me, and I make them for her. I am as much her hand as I am my own. This is how it must be for now.”
“And Orvax doesn’t know about Arthur.”
Vulko straightens and then stands up and begins to make his exit. “So long as I am able, the king will never know.”
He gets a call from Arthur’s school. It comes through to the lighthouse’s landline when he’s at home tinkering with the wiring of the portable storm radio, and he picks up, dragging the cord with him over to the kitchen table.
“Tom Curry,” he says, and then listens as a woman from Arthur’s school tells him his child is unnatural.
“You listen to me,” he spits back, “There’s nothing wrong with my boy, and that’s that.”
Eventually he gets the details. There’d been a class trip to the aquarium. He remembers signing the permission slip, but he admits he didn’t recall the trip details. There’d been an ‘incident’ with the fish and sea life.
Tom’s heard enough. He pulls Arthur from school and they eat ice cream cones at the end of the dock until, eventually, Arthur says around a mouthful of vanilla swirl, “You’re not mad?”
“Nah, boy. Not at all. Those fishes like you, and they’re better than most people, anyhow.” And after a minute, he says more. “You know, if you wanted, I imagine Vulko could take you to Atlantis.”
Arthur nods, and Tom’s heart falls. “I know. He’s told me a bunch of times.”
“And what do you think about that?”
Arthur shrugs. “I don’t know.”
Tom doesn’t know, either. He wouldn’t willingly send his child, his only child, into a place where his wife doesn’t feel she is safe, a place she ran away from. But that place is his heritage. And maybe it’s not so bad as Vulko makes it out to be. Maybe Arthur could find a home there and not feel so different.
He claps a hand onto Arthur’s shoulder. “You, my boy, are getting big. And you know what big growing kids like you need?”
The ice cream cone in Arthur’s hand has long since disappeared, but the sticky remains are still lingering about his mouth, evidence of childhood not yet. “What?”
“To learn how to throw a punch. Not always gonna have a shark at your back, are you? Gotta learn how to take care of yourself and others when those around you want to do harm.”
Tom teaches Arthur how to wrestle, how to pull a bigger man off a littler one, and teaches him right from wrong to go with it.
Arthur is ten now, no longer a baby but a growing boy, and he’s already stronger than Tom. He wishes, not for the first time, that he had a way of contacting Vulko. Teaching Arthur to control his strength is something he can only do so well. They’ve broken a few dozen eggs already this week practicing gentle touch, and he’s pretty sure Mrs. Mazzil who has twenty hens thinks he’s up to something weird, but he hasn’t the foggiest idea what.
But Vulko doesn't come. He misses the usual weekly meeting, and Arthur pouts around the lighthouse and kicks the water at the beach when the visit, sulking and angry.
“He’ll come next week, I’m sure. We just--”
“Need to be brave and patient. I know! I’ve been brave and patient! When is mom coming home!”
“Oh, Arthur,” Tom says, and he wishes he had an answer, but he doesn’t, so he just picks up his son as if he were small and holds him. Over Arthur’s salt-crusted hair the sea is still, and they have no visitors for days to come.
When Vulko does come again, it is at night once more. This time Tom is asleep, but the creek of a floorboard has him awake and downstairs with his baseball bat in an instant.
Vulko is standing at the threshold of the kitchen in the dark.
“Arthur was worried about you,” Tom says as he flips on the light. Tom was worried, too.
Vulko’s eyes are dark, red rimmed and the skin of his face is purple with exhaustion and something else, too. Tom drops the bat onto the sofa and closes the distance. They’ve been circling each other for years now and are both wholly dedicated to raising Arthur with a foot on both land and in sea. But even if he’d only met Vulko today he’d have been an idiot not to see something was terribly wrong.
“Shit. What happened? Is Atlanna alright?”
Vulko bows his head and Tom’s stomach clenches.
“Things have gone wrong in Atlantis. Orvax is aware of Arthur’s existence, but I have convinced him the boy is not worth the trouble to kill. I cannot say more.”
Tom drops himself bodily onto the sofa to join the discarded baseball bat. It was useless and so is he. “Jesus. Just tell me. Is she--”
“Nothing I can tell you will help you, Thomas Curry. And nothing I tell Arthur will help him, either. What we must do has not changed, and what Atlanna wants for her son has not changed.”
“Then why are you here!” He doesn’t mean to raise his voice, but he can’t help it. He can’t help but imagine a hundred different terrible things happening to his beautiful, strong, brilliant Atlanna, trapped with some horrible man under the sea where Tom can’t get to her.
Vulko is quiet and then says, “Your son’s birthright is to become king of Atlantis, possibly more. To unite the land and sea in a way we have not seen in generations. To right the wrongs that have happened. I will do everything in my power to see his has a chance. Anything in my power.”
“So tell me the truth. Please.”
“I will tell you what I have always told you. That Atlanna loves you and that she believes she will return to you both one day. Now please, may I sleep in your bathtub? I am weary and cannot return to Atlantis, not tonight.”
“Are you hurt?”
Vulko shakes his head. “I am uninjured. But I do not want to be in the sea.”
Tom nods, helps him fill the bathtub with salt water, and closes the door for him. He is not sure he wants to know what would make a man like Vulko hide from the ocean.
In the morning Vulko is still at the lighthouse, damp and eating a raw fish on the edge of the dock. Arthur spots him before he’s eaten his breakfast and is out the door like a shot.
“Take a waffle, at least!” Tom shouts, but it’s of no use.
When Arthur comes home again he’s grinning wide and spins in circles around Tom. “Vulko showed me how to fight! How to really fight, like an Atlantean! Like mom!”
Tom grabs onto his spinning, bouncing son and pulls him into a tight embrace. Soon he’ll be too tall for this; he has been rocketing up inches at a time. But for now he can hold onto his boy and pretend he’ll be like this forever, safe and young.
It is not a coincidence that Vulko has begun to teach Arthur how to defend himself, and Tom swallows what it means and does not think about it.
Things go on, and on, and somehow Tom is older and Arthur is older, too. His boy is almost a man, now. He’s begged Tom for permission to get tattoos, and Tom waved a hand. “You’re a big lad, you can do what you like. Just don’t pick something you’ll regret. Tell them Tom said it’s okay at the shop, they can call me if they don’t believe you.”
And Arthur came home with black lines running up his arms that suit him.
Then, after he meets with Vulko miles up the coast where no one will bother them, he comes home with Atlanna’s trident and anger and hurt running through him so deep it makes Tom pause.
“Where did you get that?” He asks. He tries to keep his voice neutral but is certain he’s failed.
“Vulko gave it to me. He said it was mom’s.”
“Come on,” Tom says, and pulls his son back towards the dock. He always feels better out here, even on a cold day, looking out towards the water, towards Atlanna. He stands with his arms crossed until eventually Arthur plunks himself down on the end of the dock and his legs dangle over the edge, the trident balanced across his lap. Tom bends down to join him, settling far less gracefully onto the wood. Age is starting to catch up with him.
“Yes, that was your mother’s.”
Arthur’s hands are white-knuckled over the weapon. He won’t remember the attack on their home, he was too young. Tom reaches down and touches the metal briefly. Atlantean steel, she’d told him, was stronger than even a diamond. The last time he’d touched this weapon it was merely to hurtle it towards Atlanna so she could defend them.
He doesn’t rush Arthur. That’s never worked. His boy needs to come to things in his own time, and that’s alright. Tom understands that all too well.
Eventually, though, Arthur speaks again. “He said they killed her. He said she’s dead, dad.”
There’s no question who ‘he’ is, and maybe Tom had already known. But he will never give up on Atlanna. Never.
“Is that what he said?”
There are tears welling up in Arthur’s eyes, and Tom pulls him close so they are sitting flank to flank, father and son.
“He said they sacrificed her to the trench! It’s some horrible place that people don’t come back from.”
“So she might be alive out there. Vulko could be wrong. Your mother promised us she’d come back, and Atlanna, Queen of Atlantis, never broke a promise to me once.”
“No. Enough of this. I won’t argue with you about your mother. She loves you so much, Arthur, and so do I. Let that be enough for today, okay?”
Arthur nods, but keeps his grip on Atlanna’s trident. “Okay.”
“Good boy,” Tom says, and kisses the top of his head.
Arthur grows up. It happens in the blink of an eye, but the boy Tom remembers has been replaced with a man. He moves out of the lighthouse into a place of his own after he graduates high school and picks up odd jobs working on fishing ships and the docks.
He’s doing alright, his boy. Atlanna would be proud.
He’s surprised to find Vulko waiting for him when he comes home from a trip out in his truck, which is still rattling along despite the rust.
“Figured you’d be done with me now,” Tom says jovially as he puts the metal beast into park. “Arthur’s got a place down in town now, thought you knew.”
Vulko inclines his head. “Yes. He’s also made it known to me he has no interest in going to Atlantis or taking his place at the throne. He told me, quite forcefully, that he wants a normal life.”
Ah, Tom thinks. The crux of the issue has finally arrived. “And you want me to convince him otherwise, is that it?”
“Won’t you? It is what Atlanna wants for him; he is her firstborn and it is his birthright.”
“Is it? Is it what she wants for him? She tell you that from the trench?”
Vulko shudders and pales. He looks like one of those semi-translucent fish they pull up from the bottom, out of place in a world of sunlight.
“What Atlanna would want for our boy is for him to grow up strong and kind and loved. And he has, thanks to you, too. What he does now is his choice.”
Vulko looks crushed, and Tom can’t say he blames him much. From what it sounds like, Atlantis is as horrible as it is beautiful. Arthur would no doubt bring much needed change. But he would never condemn his child, grown or otherwise, to a life he didn’t want. “Look, maybe Arthur will change his mind in time. He’s still young. You’re always welcome here, in the meantime. Arthur might kick you out, but I won’t.”
“Thank you, but Atlantis needs me.” He doesn’t leave though. He stands close to the dock and looks up at the lighthouse like he’s committing it to memory. “They are crowning Atlanna’s other son today. His name is Orm.”
Ah. “And what is he like?”
“Nothing like Arthur. And while he was once very much like his mother, those parts of him have died. He needs me. I fear I have spent not enough time with either child.”
To Tom this feels far too much like a goodbye. Somehow, even though Atlanna has gone and Arthur has moved out, he never thought Vulko would disappear. The man has been a staple of Arthur’s life, and by extension Tom’s, for fifteen years.
He closes the gap between them and pulls Vulko into a hug. The man returns it, after a moment of hesitation.
“Until next time, Vulko. You take care of that other boy of Atlanna’s, alright? He might not be my son, but he’s hers, and that means something to me, too.”
“Be well, Thomas Curry. You are a good man.”
And like that, Vulko dives into the sea,
Tom takes a deep sea breath, goes up to the lighthouse, and puts on a pot of coffee. Tomorrow is a new day.