Two things I forgot to mention last time: 1. This takes place pretty much straight after the first one ended and 2. Unfortunately I was distracted from my love of Ariel and Belle by the Kigo behemoth, but now I am back where I belong. And doing more art of them again too!
"Meet the (Mer)Parent"
The growing light of pre-dawn filtered through the uncovered windows of the humble cottage bedroom, banishing the night's stifling darkness. Two human forms and one feline occupied the makeshift double bed that owned the majority of the room's space, created by pushing two single beds close together.
Abruptly one of the human residents of the bed sat bolt upright in shock, their eyes opening widely, their mind awakening, although only to a state of confusion and fright.
Reflexively, Belle's hand shot up to her throat as she gasped. The dream—no, the nightmare—had been so vivid, she had felt as if she had been truly drowning.
After a few steady, calming breaths, Belle allowed herself to relax a little. It had only been the trickery of her overactive subconscious. It was not real. She was not underwater, struggling to breathe as tentacles coiled crushingly around her body. She was alive. All was peaceful.
Worried, she glanced to her side, hoping her sudden movements had not disturbed Ariel's sleep. But the younger woman was still resting serenely, hugging her pillow tightly, overflowing auburn hair half-covering her face.
Cheeky had moved one of his ears and opened his eyes fleetingly, but quickly settled again, snuggling back into his beloved master's legs.
Belle gazed at Ariel for a long moment, a smile of relief mixed with adoration growing upon her lips. Eventually, her eyes shifted to the bedroom window, where the dull light of the sun's distant approach had begun to permeate the darkened room.
After enduring such a realistic and disturbing dream, Belle doubted she would be able to return to any semblance of restful slumber. Slowly, quietly, she emerged from underneath the beds' covers, hoping not to perturb the two remaining there.
This was rather difficult regarding the smallest sleeper, as he glanced up again when he felt his leg-shaped pillow slip away.
"Sorry, Cheeky boy," Belle whispered sincerely, before standing carefully. Wooden floorboards tended to creak at the most inopportune times…
The now wide-awake cat glared at his master for a brief moment, before rising for a full-body stretch. Deeming it too early to accompany Belle wherever she may be heading, Cheeky then took all of two paw-sized steps to press himself against Ariel's legs instead.
Belle playfully rolled her eyes at the feline. "Typical."
Glad that at least Ariel seemed oblivious to any goings-on, as the other human had continued sleeping uninterrupted, Belle exhaled a breath she did not realize she had been holding, before silently creeping out of the room.
All seemed still as she stealthily shuffled from the living room through to the kitchen, with no obvious signs that her father, Maurice, was already up and about. Belle guessed he was either sound asleep in his own bedroom, although she could not currently hear his trademark snoring, or in the basement which he had claimed as his invention workshop.
The ageing Maurice still often worked late into the night or early hours of the morning on his latest contraption, even having established a temporary bed there so he would not have to move too far away from his work in case he awoke with sudden inspiration. Although proud of her father's work ethic and mechanical genius, Belle was not as approving of Maurice's tendency to forgo a good night's sleep for the sake of his current projects, or the fact that he sometimes forgot about mealtimes altogether. Luckily he had such a diligently caring daughter to cook for him and remind him to eat properly!
As she opened the heavy oak door that separated their cottage from the outside world as inconspicuously as she could, Belle felt instantly refreshed by the salty sea air that rushed at her. It was arguably a tad chilly to venture out wearing only her sky-blue nightgown, but Belle did not care. She wanted to clear her mind, go for a relaxing shoreline stroll, banish the intense unease she felt when remembering her nightmare.
It had been a wonderful coincidence that they had found this quaint, isolated and newly vacated cottage by the sea; Belle did not want to have to live in the heart of the nearby town, Ariel even more reluctant to do so, as the newly transformed human had encountered unsavory people there, lessening her eagerness to understand and possibly befriend them. She would journey there if absolutely necessary, though, for Belle or Maurice's sake, but otherwise, Ariel was determined to mingle with other humans as little as possible, at least until they proved themselves kind and trustworthy.
Maurice was just happy to have a tranquil setting for his work, and the company of his beloved only child with him, regardless of what country he was in or the questionable scruples of the residents in the nearest town. Occasionally he had braved the sea for an invigorating swim since settling here, and this, along with the significant trek from their former home in another country, had caused him to lose a little excess weight, much to his ever-worrying daughter's delight.
Belle understood whole-heartedly why Ariel avoided accompanying her to town, and only wished for Ariel to feel safe and protected. So she usually went alone, riding Philippe most days, who enjoyed trotting back and forth along the sand immensely. Ariel was reluctant to go into too much detail regarding her time spent in that nearby establishment, and Belle was not eager to ask any questions that may make her companion uncomfortable. She did not mind the task of going to town by herself, but did not engage the locals any more than what was necessary.
But… if Belle let her mind wander too much, she could not help but try and determine who it was, or who they were, that had treated Ariel so badly? The baker? He had a grumpy disposition. The blacksmith? He seemed to like leering at young women… The older women in town with the tendency to gossip? Would they have snidely insulted Ariel for an apparent lack of intelligence, when she was only a mermaid trying to learn the ways of the exotic human world? This line of thought would only lead to Belle becoming angry, to want to seek out those that caused the suffering and somehow punish them… But that was pointless. She did not want to stoop to their level. So, Belle deemed it best to go about her business as quickly as possible, buying or bartering for food and other such necessities, before promptly returning home. Naturally the villagers already found the foreigner aloof and odd, but this was no surprise. By now, Belle was well used to being an outcast.
Sighing, Belle absent-mindedly kicked some sand as she casually strolled along the shore. They had only settled here a couple of weeks ago, but when Belle was in town, it felt just like she was back in her home village in France. Although, nowadays she was more purposefully distant, instead of managing it by accident before. It was frustrating, disheartening… why could people be so condescending, so selfish, so… small-minded…
Taking a deep breath, Belle shook her head gently before sitting heavily upon the sand. Why was she becoming so agitated? She may not even have to venture to town today. Sure, she was irate at the nameless ones who had contributed to Ariel's suffering, when the brave ex-mermaid had ventured to town, just beyond a year ago… and it did remind Belle so much of her previous provincial home…
But life was so much better now! She had found a kindred spirit in Ariel, for one matter, someone to share her life, adventures, and knowledge with. Someone who still found her bad jokes amusing, her random clumsiness endearing. Someone who had felt so different, and alone, just as Belle had…
Maurice had been so wonderfully understanding about everything, including the snap decision to move to another country, and near the ocean. He had not discussed the nature of his daughter's relationship with another woman in detail, but he knew that Belle was in love. But it did not matter to him, she was still the same quirky and caring girl she had always been, and Maurice loved his daughter unconditionally, no matter what. He had quickly grown to care for Ariel too, like she was a second daughter, almost.
Living so closely to the beach too, was indescribably lovely. Not just for herself, as she had never experienced life outside of provincial France before, but because of how happy it made Ariel to be here, despite memories of that nearby town.
Belle sighed again, before lying down upon the sand, her hands clasped together in front of her chest, her weary eyes gazing up at the brightening sky. Perhaps it was her dream that had made her so anxious. Belle knew it was but a dream, or rather, a nightmare, but it had all been so dramatic, so miserable, so… full of death.
She closed her eyes, trying to ease her mind by focusing on the sound of the lapping waves. Belle had dreamt about the balcony episode before. Many times. She knew partly the recurrence of such a dream must be because of her harboring feelings of guilt regarding Gaston's death. Even though she knew, in her clearer waking hours, that it was not entirely her fault. It had been an accident. She had not meant to kill him… Even after what he had done to Ariel… so callously… and he had seemed poised to attack Belle next. So it could have been deemed self-defense, also…
And Ariel… remaining lifeless… Belle guessed it was the subconscious manifestation of her greatest fear. Losing Ariel. Especially after only just having found one another… It was such an intensely crippling feeling, that raw, unbridled grief. Perhaps Belle kept dreaming it too because she had already felt it. Ariel had actually died, in her arms nonetheless. But she had miraculously revived, unlike in the dream's version of events. And Belle treasured every day, every moment, with the young former mermaid, and knew she would never feel any different.
It had all been so bewildering, so confusing. Until Ariel had, eventually, explained the nature of the magical spell that had transformed her into a human. She had not told Belle about who had cast this spell, or for what price, or why she had wished to become human in the first place. Belle could only guess that Ariel was still not entirely comfortable discussing it, perhaps she harbored her own emotions of guilt and remorse… But, at least now it was understood, somewhat, why Ariel had been resurrected on that fateful day back at the abandoned castle in the French countryside.
Unbelievably it was because of Belle herself that Ariel was still amongst the living, and still human. But Belle could not care less about her role in the events, she wished for no accolades. All that mattered to her was that Ariel was indeed still alive, still with her, making Belle's own life worth living.
Yes, Belle had often dreamed about the balcony incident, and Ariel's death. But one aspect of her recent nightmare was new, never having entered her subconscious world before. Belle blinked her alarmed eyes open as she suddenly remembered… tentacles.
Writhing, squishy, crushing tentacles. Ugh. Weird. Maybe I shouldn't have had that second glass of wine after dinner…
Perhaps it was the wine, or her new locale by the sea… when Belle had learned of Ariel's mermaid heritage, she had joked about not being fond of creatures with tentacles. Did it have something to do with that?
Belle shrugged to herself, closing her eyes again. She would not worry too much about the appearance of a strange tentacle monster in the realm of her dreams. She knew the mind, and more particularly the subconscious, could be a bizarre place.
She focused instead on positive thoughts now, of pleasant memories shared with Ariel back at the castle, or since… and wondered what adventures and happiness awaited them in the future.
Calmed by those helpful thoughts and the serene sounds of the ocean, Belle soon drifted into a light doze, and no nightmares were to disturb her this time.
The sun's warming rays were just peeking above the horizon when Ariel awoke. Not that the unfortunate girl had awoken naturally, but rather from the wet but rough sensation of Cheeky licking her face.
As she sat up, yawning, Cheeky began to purr instead as if to say 'good morning' or perhaps 'took you long enough to wake up'.
"What? Hasn't Belle fed you already?" Ariel asked sleepily, absent-mindedly stroking the cat's head. "Or are you just in an affectionate mood? Well, you're nearly always in an affectionate mood…"
As her senses focused, Ariel noticed the empty bed beside her. Not that Belle's absence was particularly unusual, as she was an early riser. Perhaps she had errands to run in town? But, oddly, Ariel could not smell any breakfast cooking, or coffee brewing. Belle always had a large mug of the tasty caffeine beverage upon awakening, regardless of her day's agenda.
Cheeky suddenly jumped from Ariel's bed onto the nearby windowsill, startling the young woman out of her thoughts. As if he could read the redheaded girl's mildly concerned mind, Cheeky informed with a curt 'Mieh' that he could see his master outside, slumbering on the beach.
Not that Ariel understood his feline language. Still, she peered outside in interest, curious as to what the cat was staring intently at.
There was Belle, quite a distance away, sprawled out and snoozing upon the sand. "Why is she sleeping out there?" Ariel wondered aloud. Cheeky answered by beginning to purr once more.
Ariel suddenly smiled before springing off the bed with enthusiasm. "I'll surprise her and Maurice by making the coffee this morning!" She informed Cheeky, who would have worn a doubtful expression were his feline features capable. "I know it's going to be better than last time," Ariel continued, half to herself, half to a following Cheeky as she left the bedroom and made her way towards the kitchen. "Belle said it was fine, but I could tell by the look on her face that she wasn't very impressed… she just didn't want to hurt my feelings…"
Cheeky leapt up onto the small, round table in the center of the cozy kitchen as easily as any cat could, despite his senior age. He watched with passive impatience as Ariel began to prepare the morning brew. How about feeding me first? The cat silently pleaded.
But Ariel was too concerned with concocting the perfect coffee to heed Cheeky's breakfast concerns. "Hmm, was it… more sugar and less milk, or… more milk and less sugar?"
Cheeky sat down on his furry haunches, doubting he would be fed anytime soon.
In her strange state of being half asleep, but somehow vaguely aware of her surroundings, Belle found it odd when she suddenly heard a male voice calling out her name.
It was not her father's, she knew that much. But what other man would currently be speaking to her? It sounded familiar, yet somehow distant.
Am I dreaming again? What now…
A large shadow enveloped her form as she lay upon the warming sand. Was it Philippe? Had he seen her dozing here, and cantered over to greet her? But what of the voice? Philippe could not talk, at least not in the human language…
In her mind's haze, Belle deciphered an annoyed "Geez mon!" Wait, it was Sebastian then? Why was she dreaming about the diminutive crab? And that imposing presence looming over her; had Sebastian grown enormous since she had last seen him? Strange, his voice did not sound any deeper… surely it would be, if he had become larger…
A pincer prodded her cheek before the voice let out in a huff, "Wake up already! Dis is getting embarrassing!"
Abruptly, Belle's eyes sprang open, and she could clearly see Sebastian only inches from her face, as her head lay on its side upon its sandy pillow. He was his regular size, no bigger than a wine glass. He was glaring at her with a mixture of anxiety and impatience in his eyes.
"Huh? Wha? Sebastian…?" Belle murmured, wondering indeed why the crab was here, and seemed angry with her. Then again, he had always had a short temper…
Wait a minute, what's Sebastian doing here? Hadn't he gone back to Ariel's home under the sea… and… to see her father or something?
A new, different male voice attempted to gain Belle's attention as she stared vacantly at the crustacean in her dazed state.
This voice obviously belonged to the large shadow which now covered her, shielding the sun from her… which meant they had to be… in the water?
Belle scrambled upright in an instant, suddenly very much awake. She stared in awe at the being before her. He was a muscular, older man… no, merman… with flowing facial hair and a sharp, piercing gaze. A simple yet elegant crown sat upon his head, and in his right hand he tightly gripped a large, golden, fork-like weapon.
Somehow, this stranger was familiar to Belle… her mind flashed back for a split second to a portrait painting she had discovered back at the castle… but all she could manage in reply at this time was a confused squeak. "Buh?"
"It took you long enough to wake up," Sebastian scolded, but Belle was not listening to the crab. This merman appeared incredibly strong, despite the fact he was obviously not young, and his weapon looked powerful too… Belle swallowed hard, feeling foolishly intimidated.
"May I present His Majesty, King Triton of Atlantica," Sebastian abruptly announced, sounding as pompous as ever.
Belle could not seem to comprehend Sebastian's words this morning. She continued to stare at the now introduced King Triton, sitting rigidly upright upon the soft sand.
Finally, Sebastian noticed the woman's evident unease. "Relax, mon. He's not going to bite, y'know."
To Belle's relative relief and Sebastian's surprise, King Triton burst into hearty laughter. "A merman, taking a bite out of a human? Sebastian, dare I say you were land bound for too long, hmmm?"
Sebastian merely shrugged, and although King Triton seemed amiable currently, Belle could still only manage an incoherent "Huh?"
A very loud, overjoyed squeal of "Daddy!" distracted the beach trio, as they all turned to witness Ariel drop two mugs of coffee in shock before racing over to them. Despite the absurdity of such a thought emerging within the current situation, Belle could not help but momentarily lament the loss of her coffee, now soaking, unsalvageable, into the sand.
Without pause, Ariel leapt into her father's waiting arms, not caring that her night clothes were to become drenched as she lunged into the sea's shallows.
"Oh, Ariel!" Triton tightly returned the embrace. "I thought… you were gone forever… that I'd never see you again…" Tears were beginning to well in the great merman's eyes as he desperately clutched his youngest daughter. "But then… Sebastian came back… and…"
Ariel pulled back, so she was able to look directly into her father's dark green eyes. Her own eyes were becoming moist too, as she attempted to blink back her own tears. "It's OK, Daddy. I'm fine… I'm… I'm so sorry…" She buried her face within his ample white beard and began to sob. "I'm sorry."
Triton struggled to regain his composure, his voice trembling slightly as he soothed: "Don't worry about that. None of that matters now. You're safe, you're alive… that's all that matters, OK?"
Ariel pulled back again, trying to smile through her tears. "OK."
"I came as soon as I could," Triton continued, his voice steadying. "After Sebastian returned, I couldn't help but share the wonderful news that you were alive with the entire kingdom…"
Ariel's eyes grew a tinge of concern. "What did everyone think? I mean, about the human thing…"
Clearing his throat, Triton answered rather quietly, "I, er, haven't explained that part yet."
His daughter could not help but lower her gaze. "Oh…"
"Well, we'll tell them in time!" The King of the Sea sounded as upbeat as he possibly could, smiling warmly at Ariel. Indeed, Triton did not care at this time that his youngest daughter had become a human, lived among them for over a year now, fraternized with them… despite his warnings and misgivings regarding the land-dwelling people. He knew in his heart that Ariel had only had pure intentions, and after believing her to be dead for so long, his hatred and mistrust of human beings seemed to melt away as he held his precious child close. The ageing merman's views of humanity had begun to mellow the instant Sebastian had returned to explain Ariel's disappearance. Well, at least, he could now make exceptions to the rule for certain upstanding, good-natured humans.
Speaking of which… Triton thought to himself as he tore his gaze away from his beloved daughter for the first time since they were reunited.
"I believe I have you to thank for returning my daughter safely…Belle, isn't it?"
Belle had relaxed upon witnessing the emotional reunion between father and daughter, allowing herself to smile, finding herself happy just because Ariel was. But now that Triton's attention had returned to her, Belle stiffened again, muttering only "Guh?"
Triton raised a bushy eyebrow before beckoning for Ariel to come closer so he could whisper in her ear: "From Sebastian's report, I thought Belle was an intelligent human. I'm afraid it doesn't seem that way at the moment."
Ariel could not help but giggle for a moment before whispering in reply, "Oh Daddy, she's just nervous. And probably still half asleep."
Triton chuckled quietly. "If you say so."
Ariel left her father's side and returned to the sandy shore to kneel beside an overawed Belle. "You can relax, Belle," Ariel began as she slid an arm around the stiff woman's shoulders, "Daddy knows you saved my life, so he already likes you."
Finally Belle tore her gaze away from the impressive merman and looked at Ariel, who was trying to encourage her with a gentle smile.
"Erm…" Belle slowly stood, Ariel rising along with her. Returning her eyes to meet Triton's, Belle then abruptly curtsied in her nightgown. "Forgive me, it's an honor to meet you… er, Your Majesty."
"At last, she speaks," Sebastian sighed, crossing his pincers.
"Please," Triton laughed lightly, "forgive me also. I guess I did sneak up on you sleeping there." He glanced briefly at Ariel, his daughter's attention now focused on Belle as she smiled proudly, before continuing, "It's true, Sebastian has told me everything. I, and all of Atlantica are indebted to you. You need not fear me."
Belle exhaled a very loud sigh of relief. "Uh, thank you, Your Majesty. But you don't me anything." Triton nodded in approval of her modesty. After a moment Belle began again, "And, well, the way I reacted, it's just that… I remember how wary of humans Ariel, Sebastian and the others were when I first met them, and… I thought…"
"That I was… going to blast you with my Trident?" Triton finished for her, before bursting into hearty gales of laughter.
Ariel and Sebastian joined him in his mirth, but Belle was considerably less amused. "Aha…ha ha…" she managed nervously, self-consciously scratching the back of her head.
As Sebastian let slip a jolly snort, Ariel opened her eyes and noticed the pained expression upon Belle's face. Immediately halting her own giggles, her grip firming upon Belle's tense shoulder, Ariel quietly assured: "Daddy's only kidding."
The crab still chortled, however. "Where's dat sense of humor now, mon? Da look on your face is priceless!"
Wiping away a stray tear of laughter, Triton forced himself to settle. "Ahem. Oh, my… I guess I haven't laughed like that… at all, actually… since Ariel disappeared." The mighty Sea King awarded Belle his most sincere gaze. "I hope you understand… I didn't mean to worry you."
Belle tried to smile back, shrugging her shoulders, attempting now to appear unfazed by the 'blast you with my Trident' comment. Clearly though, it was too late for such feigned nonchalance. Believing she should try and conjure something meaningful to say, Belle then opened her mouth to speak, but before any sound came out, Triton spoke again.
"Oh! Ariel… I have some wonderful news!" His eyes were now gleaming as his attention returned to his daughter. Ariel took a step back toward him, her comforting hand leaving Belle's shoulder. "Since Sebastian returned with the news you were safe and well, Atlantica has been a tidal wave of activity… Everything that was put on hold due to your disappearance has gone underway again, and, well… Attina is getting married!"
Ariel squeezed her father with another enthusiastic hug, exclaiming: "That's fantastic!"
Belle felt awkward again, shifting her bare feet restlessly upon the sand. She had no idea who Attina was, but figured they must be important to both Ariel and King Triton.
"That Duke… what was his name…" Ariel, unaware that Belle was faltering again without her assistance, began to murmur to herself, excited for her sister's impending nuptials.
"The Duke of Silver Reef," Triton reminded his daughter, and Ariel's eyes lit up.
"That's right! Attina was dating him before…" Ariel's voice softened and her eyes lowered. Before I left… "Uh, before…" She glanced back at Belle, who was listening intently to the father-daughter conversation, her expression one of utter confusion.
Relieved from the distraction from her current remorseful thoughts, Ariel piped up: "Attina is my oldest sister."
"Oh… OK," was all Belle managed in reply, although her perplexed state had lessened. Of course… she told me she had sisters…
Bemused, Sebastian climbed onto Belle's nearest foot. "Y'know, in all the time I've known you, this must have been the least you have ever said in a conversation," he whispered up at the human, wearing a cheeky grin.
Glancing down, Belle frowned a little. What is this? 'Pick on Belle Day'? She briefly fantasized about kicking her occupied foot out, thus sending Sebastian hurtling into the ocean. Not to be in any way harmed, of course, but to remove some of the puff from that tiny crustacean chest.
"Ariel, you must come home, Attina's engagement party is in three days! And everyone is eager to see you," Triton was speaking again, unable to keep the glee out of his voice. "It will be a double celebration, for you and Attina! Atlantica will party like never before!"
"Oh Daddy, that sounds wonderful but…" Ariel glanced behind her, toward Belle, again. "I… I don't want to… it should just be Attina's celebration." She still harbored tremendous guilt from allowing the Sea Witch to remove her from her underwater home, and her family, for so long. Least of all to be a human! Ariel did not feel as if her homecoming deserved a ceremony of any sort…
Misreading her reluctance, Triton smiled with a hint of cunning. "I had a feeling you would not like to come back… on your own." Ariel returned her gaze to her father's, who winked back at her. He then turned to face the human girl on the beach once more.
"Ariel trusts you… as does Sebastian. Belle, I too, will trust you, and warmly invite you to Atlantica to celebrate with us."
Ariel grew a beaming smile. Her guilt melted away as she entertained the thought of escorting Belle through her family's underwater kingdom. Sebastian nodded as if he had known the invitation was imminent all along. Belle however simply stared in shock, mutely pointing to herself as if to ask 'who, me?'
Letting go of her father, Ariel lunged at Belle this time, excitedly embracing her. The force almost knocked the surprised standing woman backwards onto her rear, and Sebastian leapt off before he was sent involuntarily flying.
"Uhhh… uh… thank you… Your Majesty…" Belle managed to stammer, attempting to regain her balance.
"Daddy, you're the best!"
Triton smiled warmly at Ariel's words, and how his daughter seemed to fill almost to bursting with joy at Belle's invitation. Sebastian, safely back on the sand, placed his claws against his sides. "Now dis… dis is going to be interesting."
Next chapter: So how does Triton explain Ariel's disappeance to the rest of their family, and Atlantica? Hint: He doesn't tell the truth (ONOES)