When Arthur is twelve, he spends entire long summer days sitting on the quiet beach drawing in the sand. His dad is busy, and he’s big enough to be trusted on his own, and so he wanders the sea side, hour after hour, digging his toes in the sucking sand at the edge of the surf.
Being twelve sucks. Being twelve when you also can breathe underwater but aren’t allowed to tell anyone sucks even worse.
Blah blah, safety of his family, blah blah, does he want his dad to get hurt, does he want to be taken away, blah blah.
He gets it, he isn’t a baby. He just wants his mom. She wouldn’t tell him to hide it, he’s sure of it, down to his bones.
He digs a toe deeper, spins again, and circles back, the rising tide already washing away his mark on the world. It’s summer, but the water is still cold. If he were a normal person, he would feel it, but Arthur isn’t normal, and he doesn’t mind one bit.
Vulko should be coming today. He comes to visit usually once a week, but he won’t make promises on which day, not even when Arthur begs him to. But it’s been six days, and that means Vulko should be coming soon.
So Arthur turns around and walks the length of the beach again, and he waits.
When Arthur is thirteen, he dreams about his mother dying.
He wakes up sweating in his bed, his blankets tossed to the floor and he surges forward to slam the window open, desperate to smell the air, to feel it on his skin.
It was vivid. Real. He dreamed about her like she looked in dad’s pictures, dressed in regular clothes and with a great big smile on her face. And then she’d been killed with one of the trident weapons Vulko’s shown him. It went right through her belly and she’d just stood there, smiling.
He stares at the ocean. The moon is high and bright and coupled with the light from the lighthouse the stars are invisible and nothing but endless sea stretches out in front of him.
“Just a dream,” he whispers to himself, the vibrating sound through his body a simple comfort. “Just a dream, it isn’t real.”
He creeps from his bed, though, and curls up with his dad for the first time in years.
“What’s wrong?” he sleepily asks, not quite awake but starting to lean up to take stock of his son.
“Nothing,” Arthur says, and curls up close, like he used to do when he was little.
“Shsssshhhh,” his dad says, and rubs his back, “It’ll be okay, go to sleep.”
And Arthur does.
Vulko starts to teach him how to fight not long after that. First just with his fists: how to hit so it hurts them, not you; how to hit so it hurts them only a little; how to hit so it hurts them a lot. And, at the same time, how not to get hit.
He comes home with a lot of sand in his hair and his clothes, and his dad rolls his eyes when he leaps up and down and shows off his rolls.
Because it’s cool. It’s so, soo cool.
And it’s also so, soo tragic that he can’t show it off to anyone.
“I know, kid. But it’s for the best. When you’re older you can make that decision.”
He doesn’t worry about what the decision is that he’ll have to make, he just soaks up Vulko’s lessons like a sponge, and when he’s given his mother’s trident, he wields it with confidence and pride, thrusting, parrying, slicing the air until Vulko slips in through his weak and meager defences and holds a knife to his throat.
The world stills.
“This is not a game, young Arthur.”
He swallows. “Okay.”
“Do not forget it. Your life depends on never forgetting it.”
Vulko pulls back and the knife disappears into his shirt somehow. He stares at Arthur, and Arthur can’t figure out why, or what’s changed. But something has.
It’s only after the battle, after Orm is imprisoned somewhere in one of the ridiculous palaces, after he holds his mother in his arms for as long as he can before she pulls away and whispers that she needs to find his father, after Mera smiles at him, after Arthur is king, that he looks at himself.
He never imagined this future. He never, even when he was a kid dreaming of being king, really thought about how it would play out. He would simply be king and that was the end of the story.
Now, though, as he stares at himself in one of the polished mirrors in the underwater kingdom he rules, he sees it for the truth. It is the beginning of the story, not the end.
He doesn’t deserve Atlan’s trident or his armor. The gold in his hand and adorning his body was created and made for another man. He feels a cheat, but has no compunction that he did what was right.
Arthur is a stranger in a strange land, and yet it is his land by birthright, if not actual birth.
He reaches out a hand and touches the reflection. His hand is still his. It still bears the tattoos he shares with his father, the rings he wears, the callouses he earned. It is still his hand.
It’s just the man behind that hand, wavering in the reflection lit by a dozen jellyfish above, that he doesn’t quite recognize.
There’s a moment of peace, a break between the endless pomp and circumstance that has become his life (a peace delegation from the Brine, dinner with the chief of military operations, reviewing the laws of state, conferences with the surface about the trash cleanup, talks with Xebel about continued cooperation in communication with the surface...) and Arthur says, “Awesome, cool. I’ll be back in a bit,” and swims like the Devil himself is behind him towards the surface.
When he gets there he spouts water out his nose and mouth like a whale and grins and whoops like a child.
He’s missed the sun. It warms his face and he floats on the surface without a clue where in the ocean he is, and without a care, either. He is here, the sea below him and the sky above, and it feels wonderful.
He floats there for something between four minutes and four hours; he loses time in the push and pull of the ocean and the wind on his face. He comes back to himself, though, when another being surfaces beside him. Not a whale or a dolphin, but Mera.
She hacks a cough out, pukes up her lung water, and glares at him with her hair streaming down her face and looking like a pissed off wet dog.
“ Cool, I’ll be back in a bit ?” She parrots at him. “Seriously? You’re king now, you can’t just disappear like that.”
“Let me guess, you put a tracker on me like Orm did to you?”
She shrugs and, after a second of obvious hesitation, floats on her back next to him. He reaches out a hand and she threads her fingers through his.
“Figures. And, yeah. Sorry. But I had to get out of there. I missed the sun. I might be King of Atlantis, but I grew up on land. I’m gonna need breaks or you’ll have a batshit king, and I’m pretty sure you guys have have had enough of those.”
She doesn’t argue, which is nice, if a bit surprising. They lay on their backs and float there, with nothing but ocean and sky for miles and miles. Nothing but each other for miles and miles.
“The sun is nice,” Mera says eventually, and Arthur smiles.