In a different time, an era ruled by chivalry and magic, one world was more beautiful than others because its atmosphere was clear blue and it was dotted with blue green water. The land types were familiar – it had all the deserts, mountains, savannahs, tundra, and forests any green world does.
The terrain on the shore was mirrored by the world under the sea.
Near the surface of the sea, the water was clear and blue, but traveling further down through the darkening water, one would find that the sea became light again – lit up by traveling schools of luminescent fish or by clams that, like lanterns, glowed. On the bottom of the sea, the tide was like the breeze on the land and there were days as well as nights. On the sea floor, there were kingdoms where mermen and mermaids lived.
The kingdom of Atlantis was the largest empire in what the humans called the Pegasus Sea. It was a gorgeous, silver city with countless spires, stained glass recovered from ancient shipwrecks, and avenues of greenery that waved and winked in the tide.
John was the youngest Prince of Atlantis. His elder brother, David, was heir to the throne. That was fine with John, because he had no interest in politics and he was too smart-mouthed to really be diplomatic – he didn’t want to succeed his father or take any greater role in the government. His two closest friends, Ronon and Teyla, were sorcerers and outlaws, shunned by the public at large – which said something about John’s interests. He was a born rule-breaker, and he was fascinated by the sunken artifacts of human sailors. John was ravenously curious about the world above.
His ravenous curiosity was exactly why he was excited about celebrating his eighteenth birthday. The common rite of passage among mermen and mermaids was to go to the surface on their eighteenth birthday to see the world above.
Before John could surface, he had to endure an endless party in his honor as well as a show of luminescent schools of fish. There was a full choir to sing the national anthem for him, which John guessed was supposed to be his favorite song. John tried to act nonchalant, but he was impatient, waiting until the festivities ended and he could travel to the surface. There was one upside to the whole boring evening – a dolphin race, but no one would really try to beat him on his birthday so he didn’t bother entering. Night had fallen and the stars were winking through the sea above, waving and disappearing as the current flowed.
John studiously ignored his father’s final warnings about humans and he left, going toward the surface as quickly as he could. The water changed around him, becoming deeper black, until it was a lightless void around him and the stars above were the only sign of which way to go. Then the water began to lighten, becoming a clear, deep shade then a translucent aqua, until, finally, John could see the quavering shape of the full moon through the waves.
A shadow passed overhead and John kicked his tail, speeding closer. It was too large to be a shark and the sea wasn’t trembling with its call, so that ruled out a whale.
John came closer and a thrill of happiness ran through him as he saw the moonlight play on its side above – he could recognize it, he’d seen these in pieces on the ocean floor. It was a ship. John’s initial shyness dissolved as he swam closer, touching the hull with his hands. It was enormous. He ran his hands over the barnacled wood, looking for a moment at its length. Then he kicked his tail and swam up to the surface beside it.
John broke the surface and again felt the cool air on his face. From the deck above, John could hear the sounds of laughter and music. He swam around the hull, trying to find a better vantage point.
At the prow, John started, looking up at the wooden likeness of a mermaid. “What the….” A small smile played at the corners of his mouth. He came closer, looking up at it before he had to move or get pushed under.
On the other side, he found a small wooden boat hanging by pulleys and poorly covered by canvas. A length of rope dangled down into the water, languidly dancing on the tide. John considered it for a good minute, looking up at the impenetrable wall of wood and hearing the sounds of conversation on the air. He impulsively grabbed the rope and pulled himself up on it. He managed to wrestle the rest of the distance up the rope and toppled himself into the small boat. For a moment, he was worried someone might have heard the commotion but the sounds went on above without interruption.
John glanced at the rope and tentatively pulled on it in the other direction, raising the boat by centimeters. But after some time, it became apparent that no one would notice the sound of the ropes or the pulley and John raised the little boat up until his line of sight was parallel with the railing on the deck.
The deck itself was crowded with sailors, laughing and talking in the light of lamps hung up. After a spell, one voice rose over the others and John followed it to its owner. It was a young man about John’s age, maybe a little older, with sandy-brown colored hair and a mocking smile on his face. John smiled to himself, listening as the man prattled on about stars and star charts and planets, whatever those were. When the man spoke, his body was animated and lively, if his tone was sarcastic and John unconsciously wanted to come closer and engage him, whether to play along or call the man on his arrogance – John wasn’t sure. There was something simultaneously charming and annoying about him.
John studied the man’s features in the lamp light. There was strength to his square jaw and character in his wide, somewhat crooked mouth. From below, John couldn’t quite make out the shade of his eyes – whether they were blue or gray – but he could see that his eyelashes were long and his eyebrows were straight and thick. He had an almost brutally assertive air but his mannerisms and gestures were precise and even playful. John’s pulse sped a little, regarding him.
John was just thinking of raising the boat a little higher, when a man’s accented voice caught his attention. It came from near the bow and John turned to find the speaker, a man of short stature with his wild hair pulled back and a pair of round glasses perched on his nose. “Your Highness, in honor of your birthday, I’ve arranged an exhibition.”
John turned and found that the Highness in question must be, in fact, the man who’d previously arrested his attention – he looked delighted and John found himself smiling along.
“I knew that you were doing this,” the man, a prince, John realized, smugly said to the smaller man.
The small man shook his head and rolled his eyes good-naturedly. “I am not surprised. So, for your pleasure,” he gestured to a group of sailors on the bow.
“And you knew just what to get me. Now I am surprised, Radek. I see you’ve taken notes from the memos on appropriate royal gift-giving I’ve issued.”
“Fireworks, Rodney,” the small, beleaguered man – Radek – sighed, and as he sighed, one of the sailors touched a lit match to the fuse on a large rocket. John could catch the hiss of the spark devouring the fuse and then a low, baritone whistle sounded as the rocket shot into the air, leaving a glittering trail in its wake.
John craned his neck, eagerly following the rocket’s ascent. Just as the spark died in the air, there was a loud crack and an explosion of sparks glittered on the air. “What!” John gasped. Another whistle sounded and John turned to see the rocket disappear into the clouds above. It exploded in a shower of green and pink, dappling the water below with glittering light.
John’s mouth hung open in awe. A third and fourth whistle rose on the air, accompanying the fireworks’ sparkling paths across the night sky. The fifth rocket exploded in the air in a shower of golden sparks and as the sixth lit the heavy, gray clouds with green sparks and a pop, thunder rumbled in the sky. John furrowed his brow, fixing his eyes on the horizon. As he watched, a tongue of lightning illuminated the storm clouds that had coalesced overhead. A second crack and roll of thunder sounded and a sudden shower of rain fell with a hushing sound on the water.
A sudden cry came from the crow’s nest, “Squall!”
The single cry sparked a multitude of voices on the deck. A sailor sounded the alarm, the clanging bell resonating through the air. John looked on with alarm as the air of celebration on deck turned into one of panic. The small man called out and the sailors scrambled around, lashing things down and readying for the sudden storm. The wind changed direction and the rain poured down over the ship, drenching John’s drying shoulders. John turned and as he did, he caught one last glimpse of the Prince, his eyebrows furled with alarm.
A crack of thunder rolled in the sky and lightning forked in the clouds. A second clap of thunder sounded and lightning flashed out, catching the mast with a splintering crack. The man in the crow’s nest screamed, tumbling into the churning sea below and the mast crashed onto the deck, flinging splinters and drowning sailors in a canvas cover. A torrent of lamp oil caught fire – a wide swath of fire ran up the length of the deck, unabated by the driving rain or the efforts of the sailors to quench them. The flames greedily sped up the sail.
As the flames spread, a cry sounded over the others. John’s gaze swept over the deck and found the Prince – Rodney – cornered against the railing by the fire. Unthinkingly, John grasped the railing, but before he’d made a move, an explosion on the bow rocked the boat. The crates of fireworks exploded, rockets screaming as they shot in every direction, fires springing up across the boat. In the light of the explosion, John could see the heavy shape of the huge clouds and under them, the white crest of a tall wave. John cast a glance over his shoulder at the Prince but found the place he’d occupied empty. John dove from the boat and into the ocean as the wave crashed against the hull, rocking the ship.
John tumbled on the wild surf, carried by the torrent of the waves. He struggled to orient himself in the churning sea. His shoulder skated against the underside of the ship and John grabbed it with both hands, clinging to the side as the ocean rolled raucously around him. Another wave came and prized John off the side, dragging him along with the current.
He was blind in the swirling mass of foam and brine, unaware of which direction was the deep and which was the surface. Then he caught sight of a pale shape in the water. He steeled himself, preparing to swim if he glimpsed a shark fin – then the shape resolved itself and John realized what it was. It was a man, his entire body engaged in struggle, fighting against the current.
John saw a dim ray of moonlight piercing the darkness and when he looked back at the man, he saw that he was struggling in the wrong direction – the man was swimming into the depths rather than toward the surface. For a fleeting moment, his father’s warnings about humans rang in his ears. Human beings were dangerous creatures who’d rather kill a merman than hear him out…
John shook his head to clear it and fought his way through the current. He came close and saw the familiar features of the Prince. He grabbed the man around the waist and a sharp jolt ran through John’s body. His heart pounded in recognition of what it signified – but now wasn’t the time to worry about it. He grasped the Prince and with two strong flicks of his tail, they broke the surface together, the man gasping and heaving in John’s arms. The rain pelted their faces and shoulders.
“I’ve got you,” John said shakily, his voice competing with the sound of the wind. “I’ve got you.” He patted the man clumsily with one hand, keeping him above the water with the other. The man sputtered and coughed, his matted eyelashes twitching against his cheeks as raindrops fell over them. His body was uselessly limp against John.
John kept his arms clasped tightly around the other man as the ocean roiled around them. He looked around, peering into the darkness. The clouds slipped quickly overhead, obscuring and then revealing the moon. The thunder rolled in the distance, but the storm was no longer directly above them. John could see the ship far off, still toiling in the storm, but the sea was calming around him. He looked down into the Prince’s face and realized that he was lax, breathing softly against John’s chest.
“Damn,” John murmured. He scanned the distance and saw the craggy shape of the shore. He looked once more into the Prince’s face and a swell of protectiveness overtook him. The man – prince, Rodney, human – talked big game but unconscious in John’s arms, it was clear how vulnerable he was.
John cast one last look in the direction of the ship. He couldn’t bring Rodney back there and he was too rattled to think about anything but the man in his arms. “Here – hold…” John shifted Rodney in his arms, trying to clasp the other man’s arms around his neck, but the Prince was completely out. John huffed and shook his head. He shifted the human onto his back and made for the shore.
By the time John got to the beach, the surf was calm and the storm had abated. He came as far ashore as he could and deposited the man on the sand. John’s hazel eyes passed over the Prince’s wan features and he remembered the shock that had coursed through him whenever he’d touched him for the first time. He’d heard about it growing up under the sea, but he’d never thought it would happen to him. It was the sign a merman had met his other half – his soul’s mate.
John’s eyebrows furled, looking down into the other man’s face. Panic danced right along his nerves. He didn’t believe in romance. He’d never counted on love. His heart was still broken from his mother’s death and he didn’t leave himself open to feel that kind of pain again. But he couldn’t live without his mate. No one who’d tried had ever succeeded.
Beneath John, Rodney moaned. He stirred, his eyelashes flickering on his cheeks and his eyebrows knitting. His muscles tensed under John’s hands and his eyes cracked open. His eyes were blue – John’s heart thudded dully, staring down into his face. “Who are…,” the Prince croaked.
Before he could say anything more, a call sounded from further up the beach. John hesitated and, casting a look back down into Rodney’s weary face, he turned and flung himself into the sea. He didn’t stop swimming until he reached the breakers and hid among the rocks, watching the beach.
John saw the light of lanterns appear in the direction of the cry and travel the stretch of beach, their number multiplying like a school of jellyfish. A minute passed and a small party of humans trickled down the rocky shore to the Prince’s side, a crowd amassing and crouching down to tend to him. John remembered the Prince’s face and the shock that he’d felt when he’d touched him and tried not to think about what that meant. He turned and dove into the sea. It was time to go home.
Two weeks later, John’s ears were still ringing from his father’s lecture. That wasn’t new and it wasn’t chief among John’s worries. Waking or sleeping, he thought of what had happened when he’d gone to surface. He lay out on the smooth stone benches in the garden and peered up at the wavering stars high above. David tried once or twice to awkwardly cheer John up, but he didn’t get what was on John’s mind and John doubted his brother would be able to cheer him up if he really knew what the problem was.
John couldn’t get the Prince out of his head. He didn’t know what to do, but it struck him suddenly that he might know someone (two people) who would.
Ronon and Teyla were also on his father’s list of things Expressly Forbidden. They were two outlaws who lived at the edge of the kingdom, through a tangled mass of coral in a cottage made out of coral and stone. They were possessed of great magical ability, and thus, they were shunned by most mermen because of their powers. John found their magic more impressive than intimidating and while he didn’t see them as often as he’d like, they were two of his closest friends. John packed a small pouch of oysters and sea weed and saddled his dolphin for the ride.
The ride took most of the day. But when he walked through the door, they’d already known he was there. Maybe their pet eels informed on him.
The first thing Ronon asked was, “What’s the matter with you?” His dreadlocks floated around him like a bunch of snakes, the small gold bands in his hair catching light. He was a large being with a tawny golden tail like the tail of a sea serpent, his body traced with intricate tattoos and scars from his battles.
John screwed up his face at the large merman as he came inside. “Who says something’s wrong with me?” he asked.
Ronon was on a bench, sharpening his stone knives and Teyla was arranging stoneware jars of ingredients for spells. Teyla was a mermaid, the scales on her tail plum colored and lavender, iridescent fins and long strands of her coppery hair floating on the tides around her. She appeared as supernatural as she was – designs tattooed over her body, peeking out from under the wrap she wore over her breasts. Ronon shrugged his shoulders without answering and Teyla interceded. “I believe that Ronon means that you look glum.”
“Well, I’m not, thanks.” John shook his head and pushed a hand through his black hair. It immediately swayed lazily around, getting in his face and obscuring his vision. Teyla rolled her shoulders, catching Ronon’s eyes as she did. John paused for a quarter of a second before taking the bait. “Maybe I’m bored,” he suggested snarkily.
“Don’t look bored – you look depressed,” Ronon replied and Teyla knocked him lightly in the arm.
“If you are well and happy, we’re glad.” Teyla raised her eyebrows, switching gears. “How was your birthday celebration? I heard that it was a spectacle.”
A look of unhappiness came over John’s face and the ill feeling he’d been fighting on the ride over returned full force. “Don’t want to talk about that, really,” he muttered.
“Did you have a fight with your dad?” Ronon asked. Teyla sighed at Ronon’s direct method, shaking her head at the larger merman.
John groaned. “How’d you guys hear about it?”
“I just guessed.”
John squinted at the behemoth and settled near the hearth where a vent of magma made the cool water warm. “Oh, sure. We had it out.”
Teyla abandoned her work and came to sit beside John on a low bench. “But it seems that that is not what is troubling you. What is it? Perhaps we can help.”
“Would’ve thought you’d be happy for your eighteenth. You’re always talking about the surface.” Ronon said. John swallowed with difficulty and shook his head, trying to look casual and feeling miserable.
“Was it not all that you expected?” Teyla asked. When John shrugged, she laid a hand on his shoulder. “You know that we are here for you if something’s wrong.”
John looked into her face and then at Ronon near the far wall, gratitude light and expansive in his chest. “Look, it’s just….” It was always hard for him to talk about feelings or anything that related. “I met somebody. A human, actually. And I found out, when I touched him – that he was my… He’s my, um…you know.”
Thankfully, Ronon and Teyla seemed to understand without him saying it. Teyla blinked, her eyebrows meeting her hairline and Ronon asked, “A human?”
“I was surprised about that, too,” John said defensively. And, unprovoked, the image of Rodney lying on the sand, looking pale and vulnerable in the moonlight, rose in John’s mind’s eye. He guiltily shifted his gaze to the hearth, avoiding his friends’ stares. “Have you ever heard of that happening before?” he asked shiftily.
“Not a lot of humans and mermen meet,” Ronon pointed out – which wasn’t exactly helpful either.
“I have heard of it happening once before, but,” Teyla grimaced, “I cannot say that it ended happily. What will you do?”
“What can I do?” John asked. “All I can do is look up at the castle….”
“Then you know where this human lives?” Teyla asked.
John’s face colored. “Uh, yeah. Someone had been to the surface. They knew of him.”
Teyla considered it for a while before speaking. “There may be something that we can do,” she said finally, her voice hesitant.
John’s heart began to race. He pressed his hand to his chest as though it could quiet the knocking of his heartbeat. “What is it?” he asked.
Teyla’s gaze went to Ronon and Ronon folded his arms over his chest. “It’s a spell that can transform a merman into a human being for a year. Give you time for the Prince to fall in love with you,” he answered when she didn’t.
“And what then?” John asked. If he got the Prince to fall in love with him over the course of the year, he’d be in exactly the same place he was right then only a year later. But imagining himself living on the land, feeling the air on his face and seeing the sky above him, the Prince by his side, John had to look away.
“Winning a human’s love will transform a merman into a human for good.” John balked at Teyla’s words, his heart pounding. “And if it does, it will break any spell we could cast on you.”
“So I just have to...to, um, get him to love me?”
“Yeah. But the spell’s powerful. It’s the most powerful spell we know.”
“And it could be dangerous.” Teyla interjected.
John shook his head. “I’d do anything.” He was shocked, feeling the truth behind his words. He’d grown up wanting the sky and fast ships and the foreign objects that filtered to the ocean floor. And now, more than ever, he was convinced that his destiny was on the shore.
“Even if you could never return from the shore?” Teyla asked heavily.
John hesitated, imagining his friends and his family – his father, who had always cared for him even if he was unreachable, or David, who’d looked out for him even if he was distracted. If anything, the flaws in their relationships made the idea of losing them more painful. And there were Ronon and Teyla, who were his best friends – more, because they were more like family to him than his family. His mouth was suddenly dry. He wet his lips. “Let me think about it.”
“Whatever you decide, John, you should not rush into it. It is perhaps the most important decision you will ever make.”
John nodded and, feeling numb, said good-bye.
John thought about it for two days. He considered it carefully, and then looked for random signs to tell him what he should do. In the end, he scratched the words Go and Stay in two sides of a discarded clam shell. When he threw the shell into a basin, the word Go winked at him through the bubbles. But he’d already known what he would do.
He waited until nightfall before going. He didn’t want to say good-bye to his father or his brother, knowing that he may never see them again, so he left without a word, carrying a small bag of pearls and human artifacts he’d collected from shipwrecks on the ocean floor. He went through the coral forest back to Ronon and Teyla’s cottage. When they saw him, neither looked surprised.
“You’ve decided?” Teyla prompted him.
“Tell me what to do,” John said.
Ronon pushed a large parcel on him and grabbed another by the entry. “We’ve gotta go to the shore,” he said. As the large merman left the cottage, Teyla took one of the parcels he’d left and pulled the strap over her shoulder.
“Why do we have to go to the shore?” John asked.
“Because when you are human, you will not breathe under water. We must be close enough that you can swim to the beach.”
John made a face. “I know that – about the…breathing.” Teyla only cast him a humoring glance and passed him in the door. At the side of the cottage, they got on their dolphins and rode to the surface, John in the lead and Ronon and Teyla following. From high overhead, John looked down at his father’s kingdom before resolutely turning away and moving on with his friends.
“There is something important that you must know,” Teyla said as they came up to the jewel-blue shallows. “When you become human, you’ll be granted legs to walk, but you must sacrifice something in return.”
“What?” John asked. He thought he was already sacrificing a lot, but he hadn’t come to back down at the last minute.
“Your voice,” Ronon said.
“Hold on a minute!” John exclaimed. “My voice? How do I, um…. If I can’t talk to him, how can I…?”
“Woo him?” Ronon asked.
“Seduce him?” Teyla suggested.
John’s face was on fire. He frowned petulantly. “Whatever. That, you know, whatever.” He tried to clear his head and felt a little faint.
“We cannot help you with that,” Teyla told him, her tone matter-of-fact. “That part you must do on your own. If you succeed, and he comes to love you for who you are, your voice and your legs will be your own. Forever.”
John’s throat felt tight with the beginnings of panic. There was no way… How could he ever do that? Woo, that was a terrible word, and seduce was possibly even worse. He imagined Rodney’s face again, his light breath tickling John’s skin, and a thrill of desire ran through him. But even thinking about it was mortifying.
“Are you having second thoughts?” Teyla asked.
“No,” John answered resolutely. “I’m sure. I want to do this.” They were in sight of shore, the bottom thirty feet below them and clear in the moonlight. There was a secluded inlet surrounded by a high outcropping of gray colored rock and perched on the rock, spreading endlessly along the coast, was a magnificent castle. It was the Prince’s kingdom. The milk-colored sand on the beach glittered in the moonlight.
“We should be good here,” Ronon said. He dismounted his dolphin and began setting up the spell.
The last and only time John had ever been so far in was on the night of his and the Prince’s birthday. He floated in the cool shallows, his black tail brushing the sandy beach as he watched as Ronon and Teyla begin their incantations. It only occurred to him as light appeared between them, arcing in patterns and racing across the water toward him, that he should be talking a hell of a lot more if this was his last shot for a while. “Hey, I just thought—” As he spoke, he felt his voice vibrating along his vocal chords, carried out of his mouth. And not only could he feel it and hear it, he could see it – his voice was a spark separate from himself, carried on the air to where Teyla held open a small trunk.
John clapped a hand to his mouth and couldn’t gasp in surprise. He was mute.
Ronon waved a coral wand toward him and pain seized John, starting from his fins and traveling through his tail. His tail failed him and he tumbled back into the cool water, gritting his teeth against the pain. The water rushed over his head and John blinked his eyes in the stinging brine. He reflexively gulped and uselessly mouthed salt water. Suddenly, he felt his friends’ arms around him, pushing him up to the surface. What had felt shallow before – eight feet – was suddenly deep.
“It’s all right,” Teyla said softly. “We have you. Breathe.”
John coughed and spat the water out, gulping for air. He looked from Teyla to Ronon and then down at his tail, where instead of shining black scales and translucent, charcoal fins, there were only two vulnerable-looking appendages downed lightly with black hair – and what the fuck was that between them? He looked wildly between his friends for answers, but they weren’t paying attention to him. They beached him on the shore and John collapsed back on the firm sand, breathing heavily.
“Here, wrap this around your hips,” Teyla said, pulling a sheaf of cloth from her pack. “Humans take great offense to seeing that portion of your body.” John finally opened his eyes and looked up at his friend, shaking his head incredulously. “I do not know why,” Teyla said impatiently.
John wound himself up, wanting to complain about better warning and almost drowning, but before he tried to say a word, he realized that he’d done it. He was lying in the sand with his human legs akimbo. The sky was an endless, deep blue overhead and John was seeing it as a human did. He was a human. John sat up abruptly, pushing himself up onto his feet in the low water and he wobbled, crashing back into Teyla and Ronon’s ready arms. Luckily, they managed to catch him, holding him up securely between them. He cursed silently and furled his brows. Standing was way harder than it looked.
“One step at a time,” Teyla said supportively. “Your weight and balance will be different from when you are in the sea.”
John shot a smart-assed look at her, regrouping. He pushed himself back up on his feet, Teyla and Ronon’s arms outstretched in case he fell again. John’s knees shook and his ankles flexed awkwardly. He took a breath and took a step. His new legs were strong but balancing was difficult. When he wobbled, he overcorrected, expecting the weight and pressure of water and finding the lightness of air instead.
John took another tentative step onto the shore. His feet dug into the white sand and his mouth went wide in silent laughter. He was standing – walking. He took several more steps, a palpable feeling of delight overtaking him. He was actually doing it. He turned to look at his friends and saw that the rising sun was laying the sky with jewel colored clouds.
“We shouldn’t be here when the sun rises,” Teyla said. “We will meet again, John.”
John furrowed his brow and came over, wading waist-deep into the gentle waves. He wanted to tell them that he would miss them until then, but even if he could say the words, they’d stick in his throat. He awkwardly quirked a smile at them.
Ronon grinned and engulfed John in a sudden hug. “Good luck,” he rumbled. Teyla joined them with a small chuckle, wrapping her arms around the two. “I wish you luck, my friend,” Teyla said, her voice ruffling the strands of John’s hair.
John’s green eyes stung but he withdrew with a smile. There were voices coming from the distance and Ronon and Teyla cast him parting glances and smiles before diving away. A moment later, he saw them break the surface a hundred feet out and in the distance on the beach, where a path was beaten into the stone face, a group of humans appeared, carrying nets and lobster cages.
John watched them warily as they stalled in their progress, looking at John with blank expressions. John was glad that he’d tucked the cloth around his hips.
“Boy!” one of the men called. “Do you need help?” John cast a look toward his friends, but Ronon and Teyla were gone. “I think he’s been shipwrecked,” a second man said beside the first man. That was it – that was definitely what John needed. John gratefully pointed at them and emphatically nodded his head.
The plan, if it could be called a plan, was going off without a hitch. It was even going too well. After one of the fishermen sympathetically draped a jacket over John’s shoulders and another ran ahead back into town, they led him to a small stone gate at a stone path to the beach.
The fishermen agreed to take John to a guard post because the Prince had offered a reward for any information on his rescuer – a mysterious young man from the sea. So John followed the fishermen through the paved streets of the kingdom, peering curiously at the possessions and manners of the humans around him. In some ways, it was a lot like the kingdom he’d grown up in, but in a lot of ways it was different.
They made way for and weaved around gigantic four legged creatures, which as far as John could understand, were the land-faring equivalent of dolphins. They even saddled them with wagons and drove their carts about. Early dawn gave way to a pristine, blue morning – the sky unbelievably beautiful overhead as they marched through the streets to the sentry post.
The guard, taking a quick look at John and getting nowhere with questions, gestured for the group to follow him through a huge gate at the end of the stone lane. They passed through the darkness of the gate and came out into the sunlight in a wide pavilion at the foot of an enormous bridge stretched over a stream. The castle towered over the bridge, gleaming in the morning sun. A shiver of anticipation ran down John’s spine, feeling ecstatic and sick at once.
The group crossed over the bridge and climbed a wide set of stairs up to an equally enormous door, where another servant joined their party. John followed the conversation closely, still amazed that no one had discovered that he didn’t belong there. The servant led them through a labyrinthine arrangement of halls, corridors, and parlors, until they were standing in front of a large wood door twice John’s height and width.
The door opened and John started, recognizing the small man from the ship. The wire-rim glasses he wore were gold instead of the silver ones he’d worn on the ship, but he appeared unhurt. “This is the young man?” he asked, squinting at John.
John wanted to bow backward. He forced a lopsided smile instead. He liked to think that he looked nonchalant.
“I understand that you are mute,” the small butler – John remembered suddenly that his name was Radek – said. John hesitated then shrugged his shoulders. Taking that as his answer, Radek nodded. “I’ll take you in to see His Highness.”
And this was it. John’s heart leapt. He felt the beat of his heart trembling through his entire frame. He followed the butler’s narrow back through the door and into a bright, airy room. Tall, open windows made up one wall. The opposite wall was floor to ceiling bookcases crammed with books and loose papers. At one of the windows, a telescope pointed off to the side, directed an unknown spot. At either end of the room, there were dark wood staircases that made the upper shelves accessible.
“Radek, could this conceivably wait?” John followed the sound of the voice to a desk by the window. His heart hammered, recognizing the broad back in the chair facing away from them. “Unless you’re doing what I asked, and I don’t see how you possibly could be—”
“Your Highness, this boy was found by fishermen on the shore—” Before Radek could finish, the Prince’s head popped up and he turned around in his chair, stumbling on the leg of his desk as he stood up.
John’s eyebrows shot up under the fringe of his black hair, color rushing to his face. The corners of his lips quirked up as the Prince came over, peering into John’s face. He looked hopefully into the Prince’s blue eyes.
“Oh my god,” the Prince said, gaping.
John restrained himself from squirming, because, yes, it was him and the Prince recognized him and it seemed that there would be no need to actually do any of the disgusting touchy-feely things Teyla and Ronon had told him he’d have to do. No need to woo, romance, coo at, serenade, or seduce. All the seducing was done for him. And he hadn’t lost his dignity doing it.
“You look wrecked! Were you shipwrecked?” The Prince walked around John, the short heels of his boots clicking on the marble floor. “Why are you naked?”
John reflexively closed the dingy fisherman’s coat around himself and, damn it, Teyla was right – humans really didn’t like that portion of his anatomy. He narrowed his eyes at the Prince, immediately annoyed.
“What?” the Prince asked. “Why aren’t you saying anything? It’s all right if you’re mute with awe – but I am only human. I just happen to be the crown prince of the richest and most influential nation in the world.” And, yeah, maybe as far as the Prince knew it, his kingdom was that great – John had seen better.
“Your Highness,” Radek interrupted, “he is not mute with awe. He is mute, that is all.” He adjusted the frames of his glasses on his nose.
“What? He’s mute?” the Prince asked Radek. “You’re mute?” he asked John. John shrugged half-heartedly, feeling bowled over.
“Yes, he’s mute, Rodney,” the butler said as though his charge was driving him crazy.
The Prince’s face fell. “Then it can’t be him,” he muttered. John’s mouth sagged open, ready to protest it, but his tongue worked soundlessly. “I remember the man who saved me said something.”
Radek looked sympathetically at the Prince, his forehead creasing. “I see,” he said. He touched John’s elbow. “I’ll show you out.”
John jerked back as though he’d been shocked and, in one way, he was. He’d thought the Prince had recognized him. It had seemed so easy. What the hell would happen to him if he couldn’t win the Prince’s affections? He couldn’t go back to sea. Even if he could…he didn’t want to, at least not yet.
“Wait.” The Prince’s voice broke into John’s thoughts and drew his green eyes. The Prince – Rodney – folded his arms over his chest, tipping his head toward the desk and a playing board arranged on its edge. “Do you play chess?”
John glanced at the butler then back at the Prince. He didn’t know what the game was, but it looked like a variation of a game they played under the sea. He wryly grinned and nodded. If that was what he needed, he could play chess until the sun set.
“I hope you’re not terrible,” the Prince said conversationally, weathering John’s annoyed glance without appearing to notice it. He gestured to the table as Radek pulled another chair up for John to sit. “I guess we’ll keep you for a while.” He snapped and pointed at the butler. “Oh, and for the love of god, get him some clothes.”
The first day was chess and billiards with breaks for John to put on clothes and for the two of them to eat the lunch Radek brought in to the library. The second day was darts and a competitive card game the Prince hoped to excel at because of his greater experience. The third day, Radek brought clothes specifically for John, but he forgot to take the Prince’s clothes John had on loan, so John kept them.
The fourth day, Rodney prattled on for two hours about mathematics and John felt affectionate and annoyed, listening to him bluster. He wanted to rib him, but he had to rely on his face to do the talking – in some ways, the inability to talk was a relief – no one expected him to say anything, but in most ways, it was just inconvenient. For someone who talked as much as Rodney did, a silent companion was a perfect match.
On the fifth day John was human, he caught sight of Ronon and Teyla in the surf as he sat on a balcony with Rodney, trying to throw crumpled sheets of music in a basket by the door. He waved at them when Rodney’s back was turned and they waved back before diving under the waves.
By the end of the first week he’d stayed there, Rodney was calling John over to his library every day. John awkwardly tried his best to be beguiling and desirable but if Rodney noticed it, he didn’t show it.
On the last day of the week, Rodney told John about the squall on his nineteenth birthday and the stranger who had saved his life, and John tried not to roll his eyes at his obliviousness. It was touching that Rodney said that he’d do anything to meet his rescuer and formally thank him (possibly with a cash reward or a soft position at court).
“I don’t know if I would recognize him even if I saw him,” Rodney said forlornly as the evening spread over the sky and dyed the clouds on the horizon gold and plum. John bit back his frustration and shook his head.
John didn’t know how to let on that he was the man in question. Would Rodney believe him even if he explained? John tried to excise the thought from his head and just consider the moment. At the moment, he was human, he was near Rodney, and he was happy. He was stupidly happy considering everything he’d given up and the daily frustrations of being mute.
He smacked Rodney’s arm with the back of his hand, ignoring the look of offense plastered on the Prince’s face. He pointed to himself, willing Rodney to get it, but Rodney made a face at him, flicking his eyes at the sky. “Maybe you think you could recognize the person who saved your life the moment you saw them. Which probably isn’t even true. I defy you to recognize the person who fished you out of the water, whom you only saw for a moment when you were sodden and suffocated. At night, with an overcast moon.”
John groaned silently, smacking his forehead. Beside him, Rodney peered into his face with an expression either confused or impatient or both. For a self-proclaimed genius, Rodney was pretty slow sometimes.
Rodney settled back in the settee they were both on and John’s mind tipped the situation on its head, looking at it from every direction. For a week, he’d been playing it safe and easy, which was good. It was great. But Rodney was actively looking for his rescuer, his mysterious, magnanimous stranger. It suddenly occurred to John that he may be doing Rodney a disservice by not trying to show him that John was the man he was looking for. Rodney could be looking for ages, for someone he’d never find.
John peeked at Rodney from the corner of his eye, studying the Prince’s profile. He tried to imagine how he’d feel if he was rescued and abandoned in short order. Of course, the Prince didn’t know what John had felt – he had no reason to guess that there was a greater significance to their meeting. After the initial shock John had felt, the designation of his mate, there were no other shocks or sensations. Even if there were, a human wouldn’t recognize it for what it was – a human might not feel it at all.
But Rodney was earnestly looking for the man who had saved his life. Didn’t John owe it to him to deliver the man in question to him? And in doing so, he might win Rodney’s devotion, his voice, and his lasting humanity in one fell swoop.
John’s ignored the rattling of his quick heartbeat and narrowed his eyes. Yes, he thought decisively, he owed it to both of them to let Rodney know.
Since his attempts to show Rodney that he was his magnificent rescuer were all horribly, terribly misunderstood in the three days he spent trying, he had no other option. John figured he should go for a two-pronged attack: if possible, inform – if impossible, seduce.
The problem was that John didn’t know the first thing about seduction. Sure, he’d had his fair share of romantic advances – it was always pretty surprising when it began going in that direction – but he had no practical experience seducing a man.
What empirical evidence had shown him was that fawning was the proven method – but John steadfastly refused to fawn. First, Rodney’s head was big enough as was, and if anyone else fawned over him, the mass of his head would exceed cranial capacity, leading to a messy explosion. Second, that was just embarrassing.
So while Rodney was bossily trying to teach him piano (boring), John flirtatiously smiled at him, knocking his shoulder and batting his eyelashes. It was almost a little nauseating, but as Rodney smacked his fingers and replanted John’s hands in the right places, John dutifully restrained his glare as much as he could and smiled in what he told himself wasn’t obviously sarcastic.
Rodney stared into John’s face and blinked his blue eyes. His charming, crooked mouth shaped like a bow. He opened his mouth in surprise.
John knit his brows, wondering if it was seriously working. He’d never seduced someone before, but he was sure that glaring and making faces wasn’t the best method to get the job done. He blinked back at Rodney and, remembering what he was doing, awkwardly summoned a saccharine smile. An attack of nervousness caught him like a rogue wave.
“Are you…,” Rodney shook his head, coming closer to look into John’s face. “Are you drunk?”
John snapped his mouth shut. In a bout of potent wrath, he unconsciously balled his fists, accidentally hitting the piano keys as he did with a discordant clang.
“Oh, that’s terrible! Are you?” Rodney demanded. He sniffed at John, stirring the strands of hair as John’s nape, and John swatted at him impatiently. “It would explain your terrible playing.”
You think everyone’s playing is terrible, John wanted to retort, because it makes your playing better. But he settled for accidentally pushing the Prince off the bench instead.
Rodney fell to the rug with an alarmed shout that brought Radek in like a shot. John would have laughed out loud if he could – could being the operative word.
John met Ronon and Teyla three weeks after he’d gone ashore and despite their questions about how it was going and if he’d bagged the Prince and despite John’s ineffective miming, the truth was that the only progress John had made with Rodney was that he’d learned the fingering for the first part of some staid sonata Rodney was enamored with.
Prince Rodney was oblivious and Prince John was terrible at wooing. He was actually pretty sure he turned a little green when he tried it. He wasn’t what they called a bar wench – bar wenches were made of stouter stuff than him. John didn’t know whether to feel lucky or irritated at Rodney’s obliviousness. On one hand, it was definitely less awkward that Rodney didn’t get it.
One thing that land living had on living under the sea were the baths. Humans knew how to enjoy water. Rodney showed him the palace gardens with their singing fountains and reflecting pools and, at John’s insistence, they’d splashed each other in the shallow water. John hadn’t even bothered pretending to be annoyed when Rodney held John in the spray of the fountain, drenching his clothes.
It had seemed for a moment like something might happen when they were standing in their sodden clothes, panting and laughing (either out loud or silently). John had felt Rodney’s palms on his arms through his shirt and heat coursed through his body, making him throb. He’d smiled wryly at Rodney and Rodney had replied with a weak smile of his own. John thought for a long moment about kissing the Prince’s lips, but Rodney released him at the last minute and stepped back, nervously nattering about wet clothes and pneumonia as he climbed out of the fountain.
As silly as John found Rodney’s worries about their soaked clothes, the manservant Radek had arranged for John (a kindly man named Beckett) brought a large tub into John’s room and ushered John into a warm bath as soon as he slogged in. A little over twenty minutes later, Beckett was sitting by the fireplace, mending socks, and John was enjoying the perfumed water and the slick feeling of the soap on his skin when the door to John’s room flew open.
“I have an idea!” the Prince announced, freshly changed and ruddy. Just as suddenly as he’d come in, Rodney stopped short, tripping over his own feet when he registered what was in front of his face.
John was lounging amid mountains of foam with a lopsided smirk on his face as he flicked at the bubbles around him when Rodney had come in, but John’s gaze snapped to the Prince like an overstretched band when he heard the Prince’s voice and the brightness of his smile amplified. He eagerly shoved himself up on the high rim of the tub, his naked chest shining and slick as he greeted him.
Rodney’s face burned with color and he was rooted to the spot. His mouth worked without uttering a sound. John grinned at Rodney, gesturing at Beckett for a towel, and Rodney regained his ability to speak. “Oh, oh my—” he sputtered.
John stood up to his full height, the soap gliding down his body and revealing absolutely everything. They were close enough that he doubted Rodney would have some superficial problem with his nudity.
Beckett’s eyes went wide with shock as he looked up at Rodney, gaping. “Y-Your Highness!” he exclaimed. “I have to protest your coming in like this! Don’t you think the poor lad would appreciate his privacy?”
John’s eyes darted from Rodney to Beckett and he leaned back with a sort of fussy nonchalance as he crossed his arms over his chest. Rodney’s face couldn’t get any redder. John was amused and a little proud at the brightness of Rodney’s improbable flush.
Beckett hustled forward and wrapped John’s hips in a long, white towel (despite John’s brief, stormy downward glance at it being done for him). Just as quickly, John’s attention was diverted from him back to his friend. He wanted to prompt Rodney, but the Prince’s blue eyes remained fixed on John’s bare, soapy torso, his unhappy mouth forming shapes but no words.
John’s eyebrows shot toward his hairline and he clapped loudly. If Rodney wasn’t bringing any brilliant ideas up, John still could. His hands shaped the air, drawing imaginary figures. Rodney followed the motions of his hands with skepticism as John gripped the air and twitched his hands.
“Salt shaker?” Beckett helpfully asked.
John fiercely shook his head and tried to politely ward him – but Beckett was as dedicated to covering his nakedness as Rodney was to staring at it. John made the motion again, gripping imaginary reins and twitching them.
“Boxing?” Beckett tried again.
“Horseback riding?” Rodney asked.
John snapped (a bad habit from Rodney) and pointed at the Prince. He grinned ecstatically. If Rodney had any idea, good or bad, it should be that one. Horseback riding was one of John’s favorite activities on land – they didn’t hold a candle to dolphins, but they were a hell of a lot easier to hold onto.
Rodney finally managed to drag his eyes from John’s naked chest and he made a face. “Horseback riding?” he asked again. He groaned at John’s emphatic nod. “Fine. But for the record – my idea was totally better.”
On the first of the month, Rodney came into John’s room early in the morning, standing expectantly over John’s bed and demanding that he get his things together to go on a trip. “Oh, why am I telling you,” he huffed before running off to find Beckett.
It was half an hour later before John caught Rodney and fired a look at him demanding enough that even Rodney got the gist of what he wanted. “Elizabeth Weir is performing in the capital of Athos,” Rodney told him.
John gestured widely with one hand, widening his eyes at the Prince and shaking his head. So?
“Of course we could send for her to come here, but that would take so long. We’re going to intercept her – no waiting at all.”
John rolled his eyes. Of course that was Rodney’s logic. But wait… He twitched his hands in the air, nodding and shaking his head, making faces.
“I don’t… What is that? Are you miming a grain refinery?” John slapped Rodney’s arm and the Prince rubbed at it, pushing John’s shoulder in turn. “It is not my fault you’re terrible at communicating.”
“If what you are asking is where Athos is in relation to the castle, it’s a three days’ ride away,” Radek said smoothly from the doorway of Rodney’s library (where John had chased the Prince down). John triumphantly nodded his head, throwing a preening look at Rodney just to get his goat. “It would be quicker by ship, but…”
“We all know that I refuse to travel by ship,” Rodney interrupted. He sniffed. “I don’t think that’s an absurd request.” His face assumed a stony expression and John surreptitiously studied his features. He remembered his brief struggle on the beach and thought that he didn’t blame Rodney for being shy of the water. His mildly unpleasant experience was nothing on Rodney’s.
“I came to tell you that everything is packed and your guard is assembled,” Radek said more sympathetically than he needed to.
“Ah!” Rodney exclaimed, clapping his hands together. “Excellent.” He patted John’s shoulder and darted off in the direction of the main hall. John sighed soundlessly, flicking his eyes at the ceiling for the smiling butler’s benefit, and, smirking, followed suit.
The ride in the coach that John had looked forward to proved mainly disappointing. The carriages didn’t go very fast and while John could appreciate the wildness of bumping over the rutted dirt roads, it got a little old and nauseating after a while. They passed the time playing then arguing over card games. John got sick of Rodney’s cheating and refused to play for a half hour until the boredom got to be too much.
Around three in the afternoon, Rodney fell asleep on John’s shoulder, his head heavy on John. It brought back the memories of holding him the first night they’d met and John’s heart felt sodden and painful in his chest. He experimented with shifting around, trying to wake him and dislodge the feeling from his heart, but Rodney remained sound asleep.
After night fall, they stopped at an inn for a rest. They were both too tired for anything but falling into their respective beds. John fell asleep with the phantom feeling of his friend’s head on his shoulder, Rodney’s breath softening over John’s neck. He gripped the mattress with both hands and, swallowing, willed the throbbing of his groin away.
The next two days passed in much the same way and on the third, they drove under the great gate into the kingdom of Athos. John was curious about other human kingdoms but Rodney seemed impervious to any suggestions that didn’t involve pianos. The Athosian theatre, named simply the Theatre of Athos, was an enormous, grand structure with beautiful architecture. John and Rodney had the King’s balcony at their service, and John settled into a plush seat beside Rodney for the duration of the show.
Elizabeth Weir, arguably the most famous composer on the continent, fulfilled all of Rodney’s expectations. John stole glances at the Prince throughout the show and, reaching out once, tapped Rodney’s fingers in time with the beat, reminding him of when Rodney had played Weir’s arrangement for him.
Rodney looked over in surprise. His face flooded with color and John felt his heart pick up pace. After a moment, Rodney’s fingers twitched and he tapped John’s wrist in time. The concert was over too soon and when the lights were flickering and bright again, they went back to the castle where they were staying the night.
The king was a man called Halling, an enormous, meditative man Rodney had met on many occasions. John hung back while Rodney and Halling talked, his head full and preoccupied. They had an opulent, well-attended dinner and afterward, Halling had a servant take them to their rooms. Rodney lingered in John’s rooms after the servants had left and, after the door had closed on the servant’s bemused look, suggested they play a game of cards.
John shrugged his shoulders and flipped his jacket open to show that he had no cards. “I have some,” Rodney said, falling back into the chaise in front of the fireplace. John sat beside him, kicking his feet up on a nearby armchair despite Rodney’s narrowed gaze when he did. Sitting that way was just better.
They played until the fire was smoldering on the blackened grate, little more than cinders. Their initial Machiavellian machinations floundered and when they finished their game, they ended up idly playing slapjack, jostling lightly as they tossed cards onto the small table John had dragged over from under the window.
John’s body was warm from the fire and the closeness and his breath became harder without his realizing it. An edge of excitement raced along his nerves as he smiled at Rodney and pushed his shoulder with his own. John felt his face growing hot.
It was a silly game, but it involved a lot of touching. There was less slapping than a lot of jostling, and one nudge overcorrected sent Rodney onto John, pushing him down into the soft cushions of the couch. As suddenly as the storm had descended all those weeks ago, John’s heart and body came vibrantly alive beneath Rodney’s weight. His hands clasped the Prince’s shoulders without his meaning to and Rodney took a shaky breath that sounded like a yelp.
“Oh, um, sorry,” Rodney stuttered.
John swallowed, not letting go of the Prince’s arms, and for a surreal moment, he remembered clearly Rodney’s frame against his in the ocean and on the sand of the beach. He furrowed his brow and arched his spine to touch Rodney. The simple contact made his nerves thrill. He would have moaned if he could.
Rodney gasped against his shoulder. John could feel his body shaking beneath his hands and he wondered if he, himself, was shaking. He’d never wanted anything so much.
“Sorry,” Rodney mumbled again, and at odds with his words, his hand curved on John’s shoulder. “Sorry.” He pressed closer and John laid back to accommodate him. They both shifted until John’s knees hugged Rodney’s hips – every time Rodney’s body flirted with John’s, John gripped his shoulders and pressed into the touch, seeking him out. They couldn’t possibly pretend that it was accidental anymore, but for the same reason they only moved by millimeters, Rodney’s mouth didn’t touch John’s.
John wrapped his arms around Rodney’s shoulders and it seemed that a look of faint recognition passed over Rodney’s face. His whole frame jerked when Rodney lightly touched his crotch. John clapped a hand over his own mouth, feeling Rodney’s fingers touch and stroke over his length through the cloth of his pants. His chest hitched erratically as Rodney’s fingers trailed over him.
And suddenly, they were gone, Rodney pushing himself up off the settee with energy he usually only reserved for conversation. “Oh – I’m-I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have,” he stammered. “We’re friends and…I don’t want to….” He looked miserably at John. “I don’t want to ruin that. You know that I promised myself that if I ever found the-the man from the sea, I would…”
John’s mouth formed the words to argue – that they weren’t ruining anything, that Rodney was holding out for him, but before he had a chance to regroup, the Prince was already out the door, leaving John alone.
It was storming the next morning, a steady, drumming rainfall from a stone-gray sky. John woke from the crack of thunder in the distance, his face mashed into his pillow. His groin throbbed as usual but it usually went away if he ignored it. He took a deep breath and pushed himself into the soft blankets, trying not to remember everything too quickly.
The night before, after Rodney had fled, John had pressed a hand over his aching member until the ache subsided. He’d tried to find Rodney but the Prince’s room was empty and he couldn’t find him anywhere. John’s heart ached with unhappiness, his eyes stinging.
Why the hell did Rodney have to be such an idiot? Why couldn’t he see what was right in front of his face? John had been there all along and, like an idiot, Rodney kept looking. It didn’t seem to matter what John did.
The door clicked open and John rolled onto his side to see his guest, expecting Rodney’s penitent face. Instead, he found a meek servant with large eyeglasses staring at him in surprise, evidently expecting him to be asleep. John nodded at her, trying and failing to summon a smile. After she left, John got out of bed and got dressed, steeling himself for the rest of the day. He’d do it today, he thought, he’d find a way to tell Rodney who he was… He would find a way to tell Rodney everything and he would see where the chips fell.
John went down to breakfast with a grim air, but he was surprised to find that Rodney wasn’t among the people assembled at the breakfast table.
“Ah, good morning,” Halling greeted John from the head of the table. He gestured to a servant to bring a plate for John. “I hope you slept well.”
John nodded absently. He recognized Elizabeth Weir in the chair beside the King. John looked around in confusion, sitting, before he turned again to the King to try to mime his question.
Elizabeth smiled and saved him the trouble. “I understand that you are His Royal Highness’s companion,” she said warmly. John nodded and Elizabeth glanced at the King with a mischievous look. “You’ll probably be wondering where he is. He ran off so suddenly this morning.” John shot an alarmed look at them, but Elizabeth didn’t seem to understand his expression. “A messenger came to tell him that a young fisherman arrived at the kingdom the day you both set out for Athos – they believe that he saved the Prince’s life when His Royal Highness fell overboard in a storm.”
“He arranged for you to follow by carriage before he left,” the King said, smiling. “But I don’t suggest you depart until the storm abates.”
John stood up from his chair, fixing the two of them with an impatient look. Elizabeth sobered, cocking her head as she looked up at him and Halling’s brow creased. John gestured to the doors then his chest.
“I’m afraid I don’t understand. Your Majesty?” Elizabeth asked.
“I doubt there’s any way for you to catch up now,” the King said. “The Prince departed by ship…he should be back in his kingdom by nightfall.” John nodded his head, pressing his hand to his chest. “If you’d like, I could arrange a ship for you.”
“It must be small and fast if you hope to overtake him,” Elizabeth said from the King’s side. Yes, yes, John wanted to say. “Do you have any ships like that?” she asked the King.
“We do, but I’d still suggest that you wait.” When John shook his head, the King called a servant over and, following a short conversation, the servant asked John to follow him to the docks.
“Good luck,” Elizabeth told John sincerely. John nodded his thanks to the both of them and followed the servant out.
As the King had predicted, the sky was dark with slate-colored storm clouds and driving rain fell from them in sheets. Briefly, the memory of his first trip to the surface came back to John, but he was too distracted to think about it too long. He wanted to catch up to Rodney before he met the fisherman who’d claimed to save Rodney’s life. He wasn’t sure what would happen if he didn’t.
At the dock, the servant commissioned a brawny sailor with a bald head and thick salt and pepper beard to ferry John back to the kingdom. He had a wooden yacht called the Daedalus as sleek as an eel and much faster. The sailor drove a hard bargain and John saw the servant lose more coins from his purse than were left in it.
“Water’s going to be rough,” the sailor cautioned them. “Are you sure you want to go out in that?” John nodded his head and the sailor heaved a shrug. “Fine. Come aboard.”
The deck was slippery beneath John’s boots as he climbed onto the ship. His coat was drenched completely though and his clothing clung to his frame.
The sailor pushed off from the dock and piloted the boat through the choppy water, the spray of salt crashing over the prow as he cut through the waves. He released the main sail and wind roared against the canvas, filling the sail and driving them forward. John walked unsteadily to the bow of the ship, laying his hands on the railing as he peered into the curtain of rain.
As the yacht slipped through the rough surf, lightning arced in the clouds overhead. “Hold on!” the sailor called over the wind. “You don’t want to fall overboard!”
Damn it, John thought, they had to get there faster. They had to overtake the ship. Everything would be harder, worse, if he didn’t catch Rodney – if he didn’t find a way to tell him what had happened.
The weather worsened and a wide swath of rain obscured their path in either direction. “Damn it,” John faintly heard the sailor mutter. John should have waited until the storm had passed.
Thunder rumbled and lightning crackled in the clouds. The prow of the ship dove through the froth of a tall wave and John stumbled onto his knees, keeping hold on the wooden rail. The froth washed across the deck under John’s knees, soaking his pants through.
“Told you to hold on!” the sailor called out.
The ship bobbed on the raucous waves, the sailor keeping the sail under control with gritted teeth. The nose rocked on the tide, first shooting high toward the black sky and then diving through the cresting waves. John held onto the railing with both hands, shivering in his soaked clothes. There was no way to get his bearings. The boat wrenched and rolled under John’s feet, bringing him to his knees over and over.
Then a wave crashed over the side of the ship and as it bobbed back down, the craggy black points of a rock appeared just beyond its hull. The sailor shouted furiously, steering aside in time to avoid the rock. “Why’s the lighthouse out?” the sailor snarled.
Now and then, through the torrents of rain, the black maw of the breakers was visible in the churning froth of the tide. It sent a chill down John’s spine. John glanced at him over his shoulder and kept his hands clamped on the railing, his face stormy.
Then, through the storm, John could see a large shape on the rock. He couldn’t make it out – its exact shape unclear through the rain, the mist, and the ocean spray.
It’s a ship, John thought to himself. The rising beat of his heart strangled him. It was a wrecked ship.
“God damn lighthouse,” the sailor growled. “We’re running blind out here.” He handed John a lantern that hung on the rail beside him. “Hold this up for light. It’s not much, but it’ll have to do.”
As the yacht cut through the waves, the thunder’s rumble rolled over the sky, growing more distant. As the pelting rain abated, a thick fog rolled in across the water. They picked forward at a slower pace. John’s heart thumped wildly, wanting but unable to call for Rodney in the mist. Pieces of the wrecked ship – the ship that may have carried Rodney – bobbed on the current, sometimes scraping the hull of the yacht.
John swallowed and swallowed again, his eyes prickling as he peered into the mist. Then he caught sight of something bobbing in the water – something small and undefined. He smacked the sailor’s arm and pointed, but when he’d turned back, the fog had closed in over it.
“I don’t see it,” the sailor said. “What is it?”
John ran back to the prow, peering into the fog. The drifting cloud of mist rolled on the water and imparted another glimpse of what John had seen – it was a human being, a man, draped over a piece of broken wood. John beat his hand on the railing to get the sailor’s attention. But no sooner had he done so, than he’d recognized Rodney’s favorite coat as the man slipped off the wooden plank. John pushed the lantern into the sailor’s hands and flung himself overboard.
“What, are you crazy?” the sailor shouted, the end of his words were muted by the sound of the ocean filling John’s ears as he dove into the sea.
John came up for air ten feet from the yacht. He looked around wildly, grabbing a piece of the wreck, and saw that the fog had closed in on all sides, blocking out sight. He could hear the sailor’s shout carrying on the water. Small waves slapped John’s face as he peered into the dark water around him.
There, he saw the pale color of Rodney’s shirt and he dove into the water, pushing through the tide with his arms and his legs. He caught Rodney’s arm and yanked him up against him, kicking for the surface with violent, uncoordinated motions. They broke the surface and John gasped for air, Rodney coughing and hacking in his arms.
John slapped around and managed to grab a piece of the wreck, wrestling Rodney’s arms over it. He framed the other man’s body with his own. They were carried on the waves, Rodney heaving under John and John pressing his cheeks to Rodney’s back to feel that he was really there.
“How…?” Rodney coughed. “How did you know?”
The black shape of the breakers pierced the white haze around them, close at hand. Frustration and determination welled in John’s chest and he pressed himself firmly around Rodney’s shoulders, kicking furiously toward the shore. His human legs were nowhere near as useful as his tail had been, but the breaker slid closer in the mist, its shape like the hump of a whale’s back. They came up on it and John prodded Rodney to struggle up onto the rocks.
John’s muscles ached as he pushed Rodney forward. As he did, he lost his grasp on the plank of wood and water closed over him. He fought back up to the surface and suddenly felt a hand gripping his coat and pulling him onto the rocks. It was Rodney. John clawed his way up onto the rocks with Rodney’s hand tight on his lapel. Rodney collapsed back on the rocks and carried John with him, heaving with great, gulping breaths.
“How did you know?” he gasped again.
John clenched his eyes tightly shut and blanketed Rodney, not caring for now how heavy he was or how close their bodies were. He took shuddering breaths, hearing the faint call of the sailor far off in the distance.
When he finally caught his breath, he realized that Rodney’s left hand was still wrapped tightly in his coat and that the other was stroking John’s hair. He pushed himself up and looked into the Prince’s face, furious and helpless all over again. But when he looked into Rodney’s face, all he could remember was the bleak terror he’d felt when he’d seen the ship in pieces on the rocks.
Rodney’s eyebrows knit and his mouth dropped open. “It was you, wasn’t it?” he asked softly. “You saved me before.”
John’s entire body shuddered with bittersweet gratitude. He nodded his head. His fists clenched in the wet fabric of Rodney’s coat.
“You saved my life.” Twice, John absently wanted to remind him. “I almost thought you had a tail,” Rodney said shakily.
John set his jaw and surged up, pressing his mouth to Rodney’s salty lips. Rodney’s mouth was pliant and smooth under his. Rodney’s hand went from John’s hair to his nape as the Prince tilted his jaw and opened his mouth to John’s. It was warm and soft and wryly sweet – everything John had imagined it would be.
The ocean glittered around them, a golden path of light slipping over the sea. A whirlwind of sparks danced over the black rocks and lit on their intertwined bodies, gilding their slick skin.
As they parted breathlessly, John heard himself say, “I love you.” He stilled completely, a shock coursing through him. “I…,” he muttered just to hear himself again. His chest throbbed with joy as open and boundless as the sky or the sea. He’d won Rodney’s love and he’d won his voice. He laughed out loud, startling both of them with the sound.
“You,” Rodney blinked in surprise, “you can talk? You aren’t mute?”
“You knew that though,” John huffed. And before Rodney could use that big mouth of his, John covered it with his own.
“Wait, wait, wait, wait, wait,” Rodney interrupted breathlessly. He pushed John back by the shoulders, holding him there for a moment. “Me, too. I also…what you said. Before about loving.”
John rolled his green eyes around. Rodney just always had to have the last word. He kissed the loud mouth he’d come to like so much, his lips curving up in a grin.
After they’d finally called out to the sailor and after he’d helped them back into the ship, they’d sailed inland through the mist and made it back to the kingdom. Word spread quickly about what had happened and a carriage rattled to meet them before they’d climbed all the way to the city gate.
In the carriage, Rodney laid his head wearily on John’s shoulder, talking about the rewards he’d pay to John and Caldwell, the sailor who’d risked his yacht for what became a rescue mission. John laid his head against Rodney’s temple and could have cried for happiness if he thought he could live the embarrassment down. So instead of crying, he endured the heat of the flush in his face and the bounding happiness of finally having what he’d wanted all along.
Radek was pale with worry on the steps of the castle but he managed to play it off well enough. Even John’s manservant, Carson, came to meet them at the door with warm towels and fresh clothes. They bathed and went to bed together, Radek and Beckett’s raised eyebrows no deterrent.
Of course, Rodney wanted the whole explanation and John gave it to him.
A month passed and Rodney dug a wide gold band from his pocket, fingering it nervously. John nearly took it from him before Rodney managed to ask if he’d marry him. The answer was obvious. No one would ever do what John had done if the answer was no. They were engaged three short months until they had the ceremony on the beach for the mermen and mermaids who wanted to attend.
Everyone agreed that it was a beautiful ceremony. John and Rodney hardly noticed. They only came out of their room for the exchanging of the vows. And for their honeymoon, they stayed in the castle – neither of them would fare sailing.