The first thing she noticed about him was the rusty, sandy red colored tattoo. It was emblazoned on the inside of his left wrist, and it consisted of a swirly, intricate design that, in whole, amounted to the sun. It was distinctly opposite of her own underwater domain.

It was just a glimpse, but with it, Ariel was entranced. And she knew, without a doubt, that she wanted a taste of the world beyond her own.

Erik. Danish prince. Fucking sweet, right? Not so much. Being a prince just meant a lot of arranged marriage talk, lessons on how to be a proper future king, and servants at your beck and call at every time of day and night to cater to your every whim. ...Okay, so admittedly, that last one wasn't so bad. But lessons on how to be a "proper" future king? And an arranged marriage? An arranged marriage? Not in the god damned 20th century. No, if there was one thing Erik would not have, it was that damned arranged marriage.

That is to say, what the hell kind of name was Ariel? And her father, Triton? Really? That was just ludicrous; not a name at all! And oh god, her sisters. Shellsea? Coral? Oceana, River, and Brooke. So Brooke was semi-normal, but it could still be water-related, just like the rest. Except Ariel. Erik wasn't sure how Ariel fit in with the theme, but he was sure it did, one way or another.

Erik, for the record, hated water. He had nearly drowned once, back when he was like four years old or something. It was a long time ago, but he sort of remembered someone pulling him from the harsh, stormy waters after the sail boat started sinking to the ocean floor. But what the hell did he know? That was fifteen years ago, and it was such a fuzzy, hazy memory, it had probably been nothing more than his imagination, or a water-logged hallucination.

Erik wrinkled his nose at the supposed memory. He was beginning to sound like those weirdos who talked about seeing their guardian angels during a miraculous life or death situation and shit. How nauseating.

"Erik, Darling, it is time for the fitting for your coronation outfit," the Queen, regal as royalty ought to be, said, gliding gracefully into Erik's room.

Erik groaned, his desk chair squeaking as wood grated against wood. Pushed away from his desk and standing, Erik glanced over at his mother. In defeat, he groaned. "I'm exactly the same size that Father was when he was crowned. Why can't I just wear what he wore?"

"Because, Erik, you are not your father. You are a different man. You will dress and act in accord, as your own man. Now, after your fitting, we've got dinner with your fiancée, Ariel, and her family, the Kelpley's."

Kelpley's?! Erik was outraged and didn't try to hide his fit of hysterics. That was the final straw. They were crazies, the lot of them. They had to be.

But Erik sobered quickly. "I told you, Mother, I will not be forced into an arranged marriage. My future queen will be a woman of my choosing, not yours, simply because she is a princess. Not even the oldest, but the youngest, I might add. Where are they even from?" Erik inquired.

The Queen cleared her throat. "Suffice to say you'll just believe me when I say they are...from a southern region you aren't familiar with."

Erik shrugged. He didn't care so much as he wanted to know why he didn't know in the first place. If he was supposed to marry this girl shouldn't he at least know what he was signing up for?

"Oh and Erik," his mother added before she left, "You must marry Ariel. You haven't a choice in this matter, I'm afraid. I assure you, however, that once you get to know her, you'll warm up to the idea. Even learn to be happy, eventually. It sounds crazy, I know, but just trust me." The Queen gave her son a sympathetic smile before she turned on her two inch heels and clicked back down the hall. And the crazy part was that Erik did trust his mother. He just didn't know why.

Ariel swished her urchin brush through her bright, lobster red hair. It swayed gently down to her waist, where her body transformed into something mythical and spectacular. Something fishy. Something...mermaid.

The scales of Ariel's tail glimmered a soft sea foam green, tinted ever so slightly with a watery blue. They gave the effect of flowing water, just as her fingernails always did. Sebastian the Crab and her best friend Flounder, a small, yellow flounder with a few small blue stripes, scuttled and swam up beside her.

"Oh, Ariel, dis is a terrible mistake! Joor fadder and mutter don't see it, but joo should not go and stay on da land! Da sea witch, Ursula, she is not to be trusted. She wants only joor most desirable of voices so dat she can rule da seas and take control over joor fadder, King Triton!" he squealed in his deep European -possibly French, if Ariel was dissecting it correctly- accent.

"Don't be silly, Sebastian," Ariel frowned. "Aunt Ursula is part octopus, not part evil."

"Like hell she isn't," Flounder scoffed. "It's only you and your family who doesn't see it. And it's only because you're related to her!"

Ariel wrinkled her small, pearl-shaped nose and placed the urchin back on her shell-crafted vanity. She picked up two small starfish that latched to her earlobes. "She's my aunt. She's not going to steal my voice. What would even give you that idea? All we're giving her in exchange for land legs is a few pet eels, a stock of shark and her favorite of Mother's mollusk rings."

"For now, maybe, but when joo leave to marry da prince for good, she will want it! I guarantee it! She always wants da most desirable aspect of her victims. Just ask poor Finnius from da Court."

Ariel pursed her full, lush lips in disbelief. "Oh, Sebastian, old Finnius lost his battle skills when he lost his eye to that hammerhead the winter after my birth. Why aren't the two of you on my side? For Poseidon's sake, I saved Prince Erik fifteen years ago! They are indebted to us!"

"So you're only marrying Erik because they owe you?" Flounder countered.

"No," Ariel sighed, a dreamy expression coming over her. "No, but that's why Mother and Daddy are allowing it. I'd never get to explore their world otherwise! This is such an exciting opportunity for me, I couldn't possibly pass it up! A wonderful prince that I love and a whole new world to explore." Another dreamy sigh escaped Ariel's slightly parted lips.

Flounder swam up, backward, around the spot he'd just been idle in. "What about me? Sebastian? All of your merfriends? Is a new world worth all of that?"

Ariel didn't answer.

Erik's coronation outfit was...itchy. It was ugly; it was too loose above the waist and too tight below. And it. Was. Fucking. Itchy.

"Mother, I absolutely refuse to wear this awful rag," Erik snarled.

"Oh son," the Queen laughed airily, "it is funny how you think you get to choose! This is all dictated by tradition, and who are you to change tradition after so many long, conforming centuries? Why, no one but another Gardener fit to take the crown! A formality, really, what with the way Parliament is truly in control, now. You will never be anything more than a formality, dear. Never do any real work, but always treated the way only the finest should."

Erik didn't fail to notice the way she'd managed to weasel an insult in there. Only ever a formality? That basically meant that, not only was he never needed, but because of that, he was more or less meaningless. No real importance whatsoever.

"I don't even want to be the god damned king! I don't have the same holier-than-thou attitude royalty is supposed to have! Mother I don't think you understand - I. Don't. Care. About. Denmark."

Mother Gardener pressed her lips together so tightly they disappeared into a thin, white line. "No, Erik, I don't think you understand. You have a responsibility. You have a job. You have a purpose."

Erik threw his hands in the air in exasperation. "And the contradiction speaks! You just told me the exact opposite!"

"No, Erik, I told you how things are. Now shut your precious mouth and let the nice tailor and seamstress here fix up the size of this outfit." She patted his chest on top of one of the pockets, and he felt something dig into his chest. And he knew—just knew that it was the ring meant for Ariel. Erik said nothing.

Erik sat down at the fancy, formal dining table, the long white table cloth brushing the top of his knees. Spite, anger and malignancy still coursed like adrenaline through his body; rushed through his every vein, every fiber, spreading and pulsing like the heat of a raging wildfire. He was of no use, but he had a purpose. He wasn't needed but he had a job. He was unimportant but he had a responsibility.

And there was the ring of the doorbell; the signal assigned to inform them of the Kelpley's arrival. God, that name alone grated against every one of Erik's already raw nerves.

Erik's father calmly left his seat and headed for the door as his mother came hurrying in to take her place at the table beside her husband. "Sit up straight, napkin in your lap neatly, look dignified!" she snapped at Erik.

"Erik, say hello to your bride-to-be, Ariel." Erik's father had since entered with a large family of followers and stepped aside to reveal a beautiful young woman in a willowy, light blue dress.

Erik quickly left his seat, sending it toppling to the wooden floor at his feet. He'd stood in such haste that he was embarrassed. He cleared his throat and moved forward, taking Ariel's dainty hand in his own and giving it a gentle shake. She gave a breathtakingly white smile that reached all the way up to a pair of eyes so deeply blue they reminded Erik of the ocean—and he didn't mind. "Pleased to meet you," she said in a voice that rushed over him like the tide.

"Hello, son," her father said, extending his hand next. As any father would, he looked rightfully apprehensive. Erik took his hand with a firm shake.

"You must be Ariel's mother," Erik greeted with another gentle shake of a dainty hand, finding his manners once again. One by one, he was formally introduced to Ariel's sisters, his future sisters-in-law.

None of them looked a thing like their parents. Triton was a fellow who looked on in his years, with silvering hair, a withered beard that could've made any respectable hobo jealous, and a couple of surprisingly scarred hands. His wife, Waverly, looked as elegant as his own mother, though far more kind and less uppity. Though Erik didn't fail to recognize that she has wave in her name. With raven black hair in a loosely done bun and a slim figure too fine for her age, Erik understood why all of their daughters were such beauties.

Shellsea and Coral were both blonde, Oceana, River and Brooke were all varying shades of brunette, but Ariel was the only redhead in the bunch. All of the girls –and wow, they'd have several- had the same fine, slim figure as their mother; dainty, frail-looking frames that appeared almost too fragile to touch. And the thing that caught Erik the most was how all of them, every member of the family, had those same deep, ocean blue eyes as Ariel. Albeit, Triton's had a tinge of stormy gray raging around.

"Well, may I say that you two have the most beautiful daughters," Erik's mother said politely, noting how all of the girls were wearing the same dress with minor differences. How a woman so heinous could be so pleasant was beyond Erik.

Erik made a point to pull out the chair beside his for Ariel. She smiled, then stumbled a bit when she made a move for her chair. Erik caught her arm. "Thank you," Ariel said breathlessly.

Erik nodded and took his seat. Food began to pour in from the kitchen and onto a number of large, shining silver platters until a dinner fit for only royalty lay beneath the enormous crystal chandelier that hung overhead. Small talk was made and a feast was had.

"Mother, where's the fish? You know how I love salmon," Erik said.

The entire guest family gasped and looked down conspicuously at their plates. Father Gardener cleared his throat. "The Kelpley's do not eat fish, son. Sort of the way vegetarians do not eat meat."

Erik blinked. He'd never heard of such a thing. "Oh. Okay."

Ariel straightened her shoulders. "Erik, I am just so excited for our impending nuptials, aren't you?" Blatant change in subject matter.

"Yeah, sure," Erik grumbled. She was gorgeous, he could admit, but he still wasn't thrilled with any arranged marriage, no matter how easy she was on the eyes.

Ariel wrapped a small, frail hand around his bicep and placed the other on his forearm, which lay resting beside his plate as he took a bite of turkey. "Erik, does our marriage upset you?" she asked, sounding genuinely concerned.

"Arranged marriages don't exactly tickle my fancy, dear," Erik said nonchalantly.

Ariel removed her hands, a graceful frown playing on her lips.

"Son, it would do you well not to disappoint my daughter," Mr. Kelpley rumbled.

Erik flushed red and stared down at his plate, suddenly entranced by the last sliver of chicken and his yet-to-be-touched pile of mashed potatoes and gravy.

"Now dear, be kind," Mrs. Kelpley said, patting her husband's hand. "It isn't the poor boy's fault that he's unhappy with the arrangement. And he's taking it quite well for a man of his age. You can't expect so much of him."

"Ariel, sweetheart, I assure you Erik will come around. If you would just give him a bit of time," Mother Gardener comforted.

Erik cleared his throat. "Yes, Ariel, I'm sure that I will come around...in time," he agreed begrudgingly.

Ariel gave a flitting sigh and continued with her meal.

By the end of the dessert course, things felt more than a little awkward to everyone at the table. So Mrs. Kelpley made a declaration. "Erik, would you be a darling and show Ariel around the grounds? Let her explore a bit? That would be just lovely."

Erik nodded and pushed his chair back. Being the gentleman he was raised to be, Erik pulled Ariel's chair from the table and took her hand. Leading her into the foyer, Erik said, "I don't mean to be rude, Ariel, but an arranged marriage isn't exactly in my er, ten-year plan."

"Ten-year plan?"

"Maybe not ten years exactly, but you know, there are things I wanna do. I'm only nineteen, Ariel. Getting married is barely in my twenty-year plan. All I'm thinking about doing with girls right now is having one-night stands, flings, and...well, that's about it."

Ariel looked greatly disappointed. "Erik, I know this isn't exactly...typical, but I was really hoping it could work. I've liked you for a long time."

Erik dragged the heavy, groaning wood doors closed behind them, leaving them in the windy night air. "What do you mean you've liked me for a long time?" he asked.

"I-I uh...I mean that you're the prince of Denmark. Obviously I've heard of you before. I don't know, I guess I've sort of watched you from afar? You've always seemed unattainable in the lonely sort of way. Like you were too sucked into that loneliness to ever get close to someone."

Ah, one of those girls. Erik definitely wasn't in a place for that. He stuffed his hands in his pockets. "Hate to break it to you, but I'm not lonely. I've got plenty of friends. Silas, he's my best friend. He's off at University right now, though," Erik admitted with a shrug. He conveniently left out the part about how he'd give anything to be off at University right then, with friends, partying, celebrating, living up his life like a nineteen-year-old should.

Ariel looked pointedly at Erik. "I'm not so sure."

Erik let out a breath he hadn't even realized he'd been holding. Her voice was so beautiful it was making him dizzy. "Ariel, give it up. Just because you want to marry me doesn't mean I fancy marrying you."

"But why not?" she whispered sadly. Ariel had stopped several feet from the edge of the cliff at the far corner of the Gardener property - a place Erik never went.

He cursed her for distracting him so much that he'd ended up here. But then Erik studied Ariel. Really studied her. The red hair, the starfish earrings that looked so life-like, her sea foam nails and eyes of the ocean...

Erik sputtered and pulled away. He hadn't even realized he was leaning in toward her! Erik cleared his throat. "Sorry, I don't know what came over me," he apologized, despite the obvious glow her cheeks now had.

Ariel floated around herself airily in her watery haven. "Oh Flounder, Sebastian, Erik kissed me!" Ariel was ecstatic; she'd been floating in a hazy, happy sort of high in the hours since.

"Tsk, tsk, tsk," clucked a craggily, ugly voice. "Dear, it is not what it seems."

Ariel spun to face her aunt, Ursula, a sister to Triton and a witch of all seven seas. Eight ink black, grimy tentacles seemed to ooze from her waist as she scuttled forward. "Ariel, my sweet dear niece, don't you know? Your mother, she's part siren. You were the only daughter to receive strong siren genes."

Ariel furrowed her brow. "I don't understand."

Ursula chuckled darkly. "My dear, I know. So I'll explain. You have the voice of a siren, Ariel. You are not only granddaughter of Poseidon, daughter of Triton, but you can seduce any of your choosing. Any male, that is. The slightest change in your tone can drastically change the emotion of your victim - erm, that is, he who is under your spell."

Ariel shook her head. "Aunt Ursula, what's your point?"

Ursula outright laughed, wicked and rude. "Girl! Are you not listening? I'm saying Erik will never love you, only your voice!"

Ariel took a sharp breath, water rushing past the small gills that would have replaced her nostrils if she were a land walker. "Don't lie to me!" she shrieked harshly, sending an old, cracked vase from a sunken ship she'd excavated toward her aunt. But things don't travel as fast in water as they do in air, and Ursula simple scuttled a little to the right, avoiding the shattering glass.

Ariel did, however, find some small satisfaction when a smaller shard found its way into a suction cup near the top of Ursula's fattest, foremost tentacle.

"You little wretch! I was going to help you by removing your voice so Erik would love you! Now, I'll take it by force!" Ursula wrapped a nasty, graying hand around Ariel's throat.

Ariel reached up and grasped at Ursula's hand, raking her nails futilely at the scabby, cratered scales. Ariel felt as if her sight was suddenly twice what was average, and began noticing the strangest things in the most vivid, surreal way. Like the small crustacean bones in Ursula's teeth, the hilt of a dagger that stuck like a sore thumb from Ursula's smallest tentacle, the edges of her vision blurring, colors running together, Flounder's outline, Sebastian's accent...black.

Ariel woke up alarmed. Where was she? Calmly as she could, Ariel took in her surroundings. Above her was a pure white canopy, silky in appearance. It draped across dark wood banisters at each of the beds' four posts. The blankets laid across her body were the same shade of pure white. Across the room several yards away, a set of two large, glass doors with thick wooden frames hung open, with decorative curtains of -again- the same pure white.

Ariel wondered what the material was that seemed so airy, like it was floating on the rays of sun slanting in across the cherry wood floor.

Then she gasped; she wasn't underwater! In fact, she was on land and in the most comfortable bed; more comfortable than even her own calm shell on the ocean's closest continental shelf.

"Hello?" she called. But no sound came. She tried again and then again. But the only thing emanating from her vocal chords was utter silence.

Ariel slipped herself out of the bed and found a thin, satiny nightgown covering her delicate frame. She hurried to the door and peered out into the hall. It was empty, so Ariel darted down in the direction of the sound she was faintly beginning hear.

Ariel soon found herself in a very large, round, fancy-looking room where Erik and his parents sat. "Silas is coming in tomorrow for a visit before the start of the winter term," he was saying as she entered.

"Oh, hello dear!" Mrs. Gardener jumped from her seat and crossed the room to Ariel. "My poor girl, you were found washed up on the shore late last night! Are you okay? How do you feel?"

Erik got a kick from seeing his mother, who was so often cold toward him, becoming so motherly around his future bride-to-be. This was a concept not lost on Ariel.

Ariel grabbed at her throat, trying to signal that she couldn't speak.

"Oh, darling, give the girl a pen and paper," the king said, shoving said items into his wife's face.

Ariel took them gratefully and scribbled out her message.

"You can't talk? You must've swallowed too much salt water and scratched up the inside of your throat. I'm sure it will return to you in no time," she said, patting Ariel's upper arm.

But days passed, and no voice found its way back to Ariel's throat. She was kept in the room she'd first woken up in, allowed only a few minutes a day to roam, in hopes of encouraging her voice to return and her wrist to heal. It hadn't registered with Ariel originally, but somehow, her wrist had been broken. She knew it must've been because of Aunt Ursula.

Ariel had plenty of time to think in the days that followed. She was assured that her parents had been informed and encouraged her newfound time on land. This allowed Ariel to come to terms with her Aunt's betrayal. Ursula had stolen her voice as Sebastian had said she would, no question. Why, Ariel had no idea. What would she do now?

"I hear you enjoy ballet," Erik said, interrupting her thoughts. He stood against the frame of the door, his shoulder digging into the door jamb.

He looked large and imposing to Ariel, his physical opposite. His hair was dark and swept across his forehead. His eyes were stark green, like seaweed, Ariel thought, and his lips were thin, almost colorless. His biceps strained against the fabric of his white button-down.

Ariel, voiceless, nodded her head, encouraging his first real interest in her.

"Could you dance for me?" His voice broke across the silence that hung in the air between them.

Dance for him? Ariel had never danced a moment in her life. Not truly, not with legs. But Ariel wanted to please Erik; he was the only thing she felt tethered to in this world.

Erik straightened, shoved his hands in his pockets, as Ariel's body began to move. There was no background music to her movement, but she seemed to flow seamlessly. Her bare feet padding soundlessly on the floor, her hair flying around her; Ariel had another worldly sort of beauty to her that Erik couldn't place, and, against his every fiber, he was finding it more and more intoxicating.

Ariel's dancing ceased and Erik had this funny sensation of being breathless. He felt free of...of everything. Like he was floating. He coughed, trying to rid himself of the feeling. "You're good," he admitted.

Ariel blushed, embarrassed, and nodded her thanks. She slowly crossed back to the bed and tucked herself back between the mattress and the thick, fluffy comforters. Erik shifted from side to side before making up his mind and shuffling across to the bed. He sat on the edge and began picking at a loose thread on the top blanket. Loose threads were a rarity in a castle.

"My mother wanted me to come and tell you that a date has been set for the wedding. It will be in one months' time. They will start fitting you for your dress shortly."

Ariel nodded in understanding, waiting for Erik either to continue or leave. He usually left. This time, he continued. "I know what you are, you know. A mermaid? I know," he began, casually slipping the ring from his mother onto her finger. "I saw you a few nights ago. You snuck out to swim in the pool by the east wall." Suddenly, the contours of Erik's face sharpened harshly and his tone turned accusatory. He dropped her hand. "I don't know how you're doing it, but you can believe me when I say I will find out. You...you're a monster - an abomination! And I won't be a part of any marriage with a creature of the water." Erik leaned in to Ariel and if he hadn't had the look on his face that he did, she would've thought he was going to kiss her again. "You disgust me," he hissed.

Erik looked Ariel straight in the eyes, and it was clear Erik never had any other intention. He had planned from the beginning to find a way to end this engagement. And Ariel was terrified.

As Erik exited, Ariel had to wonder to herself why it was that she was such a target for people. Aunt Ursula, Erik, forget all the merkids in the kingdom that used to ostracize her for being a princess. She just didn't get it. She was kind, she was generous, she was never rude or mean, she was a model child in every way. So why did it seem like everyone hated her?

Then came the fittings for her dress.

When Ariel saw the dress that had been designed for her, she was horrified. Yes, it was gorgeous, but in the worst way. It started just low enough to show the top of her breasts. It was made in a similar fashion to a bra, each cup made to appear as a seashell with the clever use of thousands of small, pearly sequins. Below that, it had a high empire waist that clutched her tightly, with hardly a bodice to speak of, before flowing into a gown made of a bottom layer of silk and an upper layer of taffeta. Only, the gown was tight down the entire length of Ariel's legs, until it reached her ankles. There, it flared out widely, as if mimicking the shape of a fish tail. Or a mermaid tail.

Ariel couldn't gasp her fear, so instead, she just cried. Painful, saltwater tears leaked from the corners of her eyes. Too bad the queen mistook the tears as those of joy. Mrs. Gardener threw her arms around Ariel happily, telling her that she just couldn't wait until they were family. Ariel, even in the midst of her horror, her sadness, her fear, had to wonder if the queen's obvious desire for a daughter had anything to do with Erik's anger. If his mother had wanted him more, would he have turned out differently? Would he be out to ruin Ariel the way that he was?

Ariel sat through several dress fittings, hours of hair styling and make up application, all just to find out how to make her look her best on the day she was to wed Erik. But Ariel had no belief that day would come. Erik hated her. How she'd garnered such hatred Ariel didn't know, but if that look in his eyes was anything to go off of, there was going to be no changing that.

Something else occurred to her, as well. She couldn't properly say "I do" without her voice—and Aunt Ursula held that captive. Ariel was going to have to sneak back to the sea and figure out a way to make her Aunt return her voice. Not that, she supposed, it would really matter in the end, it would only be a formality. But maybe if she could just talk to Erik, make him understand….

It was late, Ariel made sure of that. She crept passed the old grandfather clock and checked it: 1:48. After being confined to that room for so long, it was rather invigorating to be sneaking around the way she was. She didn't really fear being caught, either, as the castle was so huge and there was such a small chance that she would meet up with any of the Gardeners.

Passed the dining room where she'd first formally met Erik, through the hall he'd lead her down that night, and out of the same doors he led her from shortly before he'd kissed her. She headed the same route they'd taken that night, knowing the easiest way to get close to her watery kingdom was to dive over the side of the cliff and swim from there.

Ariel passed through a small garden she suspected was the work of that underpaid, overwhelmed, uninterested sous chef of theirs, and started down the path that wound between what must have been hundreds of Cypress trees. She came out at the cliff, hidden from the view of the castle and in a small clearing. The lush, green grass was dusted with a light sprinkling of sand and early morning dew. Ariel wriggled her toes and sighed. She didn't want to have to give up that wonderful feeling.

Ariel took a deep breath, and then ran for the edge of the cliff, diving like she should've been on an Olympic team. What she didn't notice was her audience: Erik.

Erik had heard Ariel's less than stealthy attempt to sneak out of the castle, and had followed her out, seeing what she was up to, what he could use against her to end this ridiculous arrangement their parents had made. She'd gone the way they had the first night they'd met, and headed to the exact place where Erik had made the drastic mistake of kissing her. He'd played it off as simple sexual attraction. After all, he may have hated everything Ariel was, but he was still just a regular 19-year-old guy at heart, and she was a beautiful young….well, she wasn't really a lady, now was she? She was something else, something unnatural and disgusting. Sadly, it didn't make Ariel any more of a pain on the eyes.

Growing weary of her subtle advances and attempts to change his mind, Erik had settled on the decision to follow her, knowing that surely he could find something that could be used as blackmail or proof of what he'd seen that night in the pool.

Erik's mind traveled back a week or so to the moment he found out Ariel was a mermaid. He'd been walking along a corridor to the kitchen in the east wing of the castle. He'd always favored that part of the castle because of its more updated, modern feel. It had actually been added on specifically for Erik himself, to accommodate his athletic needs. All of the rooms were custom built as fields of different sports where Erik could go, gather a group of friends or hire a team if need be, and practice.

At his request, most of the walls to the outside were made of glass, so any passing through could admire the nature outside—or admire Erik, who, if the mood was right, would take a quick dip in the outdoor pool. It was a rare thing for him to do, but Erik had always been determined to be the best in every sport, so he refused to let even his swimming get too rusty. He may have hated water, but he'd at least made sure after his drowning incident to learn how to swim.

Erik had cast a quick glance out and almost hadn't noticed anything. Had he not seen her flaming hair, he might not have even done a double take and recognized the fish tail for what it was. He'd stopped in his tracks and turned, pressed against the glass, amazed and horrified. He knew….he'd known from the beginning that there had to have been something up with that family. Now he understood what his mother had meant when she said they were from a southern region he wasn't familiar with. Ariel and the rest of the Kelpley's –god how that name still appalled Erik- were from the sea. They were fucking merpeople. It even explained their god awful names.

Erik was shaken out of his thoughts when he watched Ariel fly over the side of the cliff.

He didn't even think about how the drop wouldn't kill her, or how it could very well kill him, and he certainly wasn't thinking about his hatred for her or her domain, because without a second thought, Erik was chasing her over the cliff, falling, dropping, hoping to meet her and cushion her crash.

"Ariel!" he called out, his voice being ripped from his throat, resulting in a ragged sort of quality.

Even falling, Ariel's head managed to whip around, eyes wide, staring at Erik in shock. Then everything in front of Erik went black.

Ariel sped toward Erik's slowly sinking body, her tail propelling her forward until she was clutching his body close to hers. She summoned a little bit of her mermaid magic and blew a bubble which she quickly caught and placed over Erik's mouth before he could swallow too much water. She was thankful that the water made it easier to get him on her back and swim back to the underwater castle of Triton, her father. She was more grateful that Erik was still breathing.

Ariel could swim about as fast as a cheetah could run, so she made it back in good time, swimming into the coral reef with Erik passed out on her back. She nodded hello to a school of blue tangs and a passerby sea turtle as she swam through the palace door, eyes searching frantically for her father.

She waved her free arm frantically to gain Sebatian's attention when she saw her friend scuttling along.

"Ariel!" he cried. "Is dat a human on joor back? What is he doing here? What are you doing?"

She grabbed her throat and opened her mouth, trying to signal to him that she couldn't speak.

"Follow me, I am taking joo to joor fadder. I told joo dat wicked witch was out for joo!" he told her, turning and scuttling in the other direction.

Ariel nodded and swam behind her friend, wishing his small size didn't make him so slow.

When they reached the King's Throne Room where he sat upon his sturdy, sea shell throne, she swam quickly up to him, ignoring the fact that he was in the middle of discussing war strategy with his second-in-command via Water Shimmer. When he saw Erik on her back, Triton quickly swiped his hand through the small, watery portal, dissolving it.

"What happened?" he asked, concern evident in his voice.

"King, Sir! Joor dodder cannot speak! It was dat heinous Ursula! She stole Ariel's voice!"

"Sebastian, that is ludicrous," the King dismissed. "Ariel, tell me what happened and why you've got Erik there on your back unconscious."

So Ariel tried to signal to him, just as she had to Sebastian before, that she had no voice to speak of—or with.

"Out with it, I don't have all day," her father growled.

When Ariel gave him her most desperate, exasperated look, it must've diminished his doubt, because his anger quickly turned to one of the guards at the entrance. "You!" he yelled, pointing to the guard on the right. "Arrest Ursula immediately and take her straight to the Coral Cells!"

Triton moved away from his throne and swam up to Ariel. "I'll get it out of her how to return your voice as soon as she is locked away. Until then, let's help out Erik, here."

Triton would not allow Ariel to be there while he escorted Erik away for help. She had no idea how they could possibly help him. He was human, not a merman. How were their doctors supposed to help him? The most they could do was supply him with a constant source of bubbles, which would only give him a few minutes of air at best.

Ariel sat on a sandbar just in front of the castle with Flounder and Sebastian, attempting to tell them her story by drawing it in the sand because it was faster than writing out the words.

"What in the sea is that?" pointing a fin at a poorly drawn stick-mermaid.

Sebastian faked a cough. "I think it's supposed to be her. I think she's saying that Erik figured out her secret."

Ariel smiled and nodded her head and began to draw the side of the cliff that she had jumped over and Erik tipping over the side of it.

"He followed joo?!" Sebastian exclaimed in astonishment.

Ariel nodded her head enthusiastically, red hair splaying out all around her.

"I can't tell if that makes his guy an idiot or a serious romantic," Flounder wondered aloud.

Ariel held up one finger.

"The first one?" Flounder guessed.

Ariel nodded yet again.

"Why do you say that?" he asked.

Ariel traced her finger through the sand, spelling out the word "HATE" in all capitals.

"He hates you?" Flounder asked, sounding surprised.

Ariel nodded then looked down sadly, shrugging her small shoulders. "Ariel!" a loud voice boomed behind her, shaking her from her musings. Her head whipped around and she found that her father was swimming side by side with Erik, who was now clad in drenched clothing and an oxygen tank. She silently thanked the seven seas that it was the middle of summer and they weren't deep enough in the ocean for Erik to freeze.

"We had a few of these spare tanks from a ship wreck a few leagues away, so Erik here will be fine. Thanks to you, he hardly swallowed any water. You did great, my daughter." Triton smiled widely, though it was hard to see behind is bushy white beard.

"I just need someone to show me the way home," Erik said, his voice muffled by the weird container-thing that covered his mouth. Ariel wasn't familiar with the scuba habits of humans, funny enough, so she wasn't sure what it was called, but she knew that must be what was giving Erik oxygen.

"Yes, yes, that's right. Now that you know our secret, I suppose you understand why we want Ariel to marry you and create a bridge between our worlds with the two of you," Triton said to Erik.

If Erik wasn't so scared of the merman, he'd have given Triton a piece of his mind and let him know he'd be no part of that bridge he hoped for. But Triton scared the hell out of Erik, so he opted instead to nod and say, "I understand completely. I just wish I'd known sooner what I was getting into. I didn't even know about the marriage until just before the dinner, even when my parents knew."

"Yes, we apologize for that, but due to your fear of water and the night my daughter saved your life, we thought it best not to mention until you'd had more time to get used to the idea of the marriage. One big shock at a time, you understand," Triton explained.

Erik's eyes bugged out of his head. "What do you mean Ariel saved me?"

"The day joor sail boat flipped due to da sudden bad wedder, Ariel had gone off widout permission. We found her trying to get joo back to shore. Precocious liddle ting, Ariel was," Sebastian spoke up.

Erik's eyes widened even more and he stared at Sebastian. "Did….did that crab just talk?" he stammered.

"You just found out merpeople exist, but you can't accept talking animals?" Flounder scoffed, his gills fluttering in annoyance as he spoke.

"But….but how!"

"Simple, young man. Not all animals have this ability, of course, but should one be in the realm of a supernatural creature such as ourselves, they gain certain unusual qualities such as speech or, in some cases on land, walking on two legs. Things of that nature. Because Sebastian and Flounder belong in our realm, they can speak. Mind you that they do not manage this in the expected manner. They appear as normal sea creatures, do they not?"

Erik nodded, oddly intrigued by the information spewing out of Triton.

"This is because they are. It is the magic of the merpeople that allow them to speak. For Flounder, his voice comes out of his gills. For Sebastian, it's the cracks that separate the different sections of his shell."

"So are you saying that, outside of merpeople, there are other supernatural creatures out there? Are you talking, like, vampires and werewolves?" Erik asked, momentarily forgetting that he was underwater, the fear seeping from his body as he learned more from the old man.

"In a manner of speaking, yes. Humans have quite strayed from the truths of these creatures though, with merpeople being one exception. There is only so much you can do with what we truly are, after all. For example, werewolves actually originated from shape shifters, old Indian genes that helped them become one with nature, become closer to the animals they respected. And vampires don't actually experience bloodlust, nor are they able to smell your blood unless you've acquired a physical wound. Generally speaking, they are quite like your land creatures, camels, that can go for long periods without water. In the same way can vampires go without blood for extended periods of time. They will usually be the type of people who will see your cut and suck on it to stop the blood flow. Their saliva not only helps close the broken blood vessels more quickly, but that little bit of blood can last them for several days, if not weeks. It is quite easy for them to simply attain the small amount of blood they need from already injured animals or something of the like."

Erik could hardly wrap his head around what he was hearing. These creatures….they all actually existed. They weren't just stories –misguided stories, at that- but they were truly walking the earth, just as he was.

"Now, I expect you are ready to get home. You've had quite the night, young man, and you must be exhausted." Well, when he mentioned it, Erik did feel like he could just go lie down on a sandbank and drift off to sleep for days on end.

Ariel grabbed her throat, motioning to her father she wanted her voice back.

"What are you going to do about Ariel's voice?" Erik asked. "Do you know what caused her to lose it? It's been gone since we found her."

"That," Triton scowled, "was the work of that sea witch, Ursula. I plan on taking Ariel to her cell and forcing her to give Ariel her voice back."

"Can….can I come with?" Erik asked carefully. He hated being underwater, it was making his heart race, but Ariel had saved him. And not just once, but twice. If it hadn't been for her, Erik wouldn't have cheated death the first time, much less the second.

Triton frowned and glanced at Ariel, who smiled and nodded. Triton sighed and rubbed his chin for a moment. "I suppose. But after that, we really must get you home."

"Yes sir," Erik nodded.

So the group followed Triton passed the walls of the castle and out a mile or so to the Coral Prison. One of the guards led them to Ursula's cell—the smallest, worst solitary confinement cell the prison had. Erik felt a morbid sort of curiosity as he swam through the prison. It was built entirely from coral; all kinds of coral in all sorts of different colors. It was built very similarly to the prisons on land, but instead of smooth metal, the merpeople used jagged-edged coral and manipulated it into the shapes they needed for their architecture.

They suddenly stopped, and Erik nearly trampled Ariel.

"Ursula," Triton spoke. "Would you care to explain to me why you stole my daughters' voice?"

"Why, whatever do you mean, dear brother?" her scratchy, disgusting voice asked, feigning innocence.

"Don't play games, Ursula! We know what joo did to Ariel!" Sebastian lashed out, trying to squeeze through the coral bars to pinch at her grimy tentacles.

Ursula cackled. "No matter, there is only one way to reverse the spell now." She peered maliciously through the bars and stared right at Erik. "And he would never accept."

"What are you talking about?" Triton roared.

"The only way you can restore Ariel's voice is if she kisses a human whom she cares deeply for, and trades places with him. In other words, Ariel would become human, and Prince Erik over there would be a merman."

"You lie!" Triton yelled, driving his trident down into the sand. "Reverse your magic spell this instant!"

"I told you, you old fool, I can't," Ursula sneered.

"I'll do it," Erik spoke up suddenly.

They all turned to look at him in disbelief. "We can't allow that," Triton said, shaking his head. "There must be another way."

"What about dat traveling witch, Phoebe?" Sebastian suggested. "She is around right now, perhaps she could be of some help."

Erik breathed a sigh of relief. He'd always harbored a sort of schoolyard crush on the mystery girl who'd saved him, but he had no desire to completely up-haul the life he had above. Not even to have her speak again.

As they swam away, they could hear Ursula cursing them, telling them she would never be able to help you.

Contrary to what she said, however, Phoebe's diagnosis was quite different.

"She only told you part of the truth," Phoebe revealed, her melodic voice floating around them. "You see, it works similarly to what Ursula spoke of, however neither of them would be limited to just land or sea any longer. Upon the kiss, they would both be bestowed the capability to move between our worlds as they pleased. Should they be fully on land, they would transform back into humans. Should they come in contact with salt water, they would immediately revert to their mer-state."

"Is it really that simple?" Triton asked skeptically.

"Surprisingly, yes," Phoebe told him. "Ursula's magic has far more loopholes than she's aware of. Her spell only covered that the kiss would allow them to reverse forms, but not that they had to maintain them."

"That's great!" a delighted Flounder exclaimed.

"Son, we would never ask you to return to the sea to take advantage of what this magic would do to you, but as the king of my people and ruler of my kingdom, I ask that you help my daughter. I know she loves the land, but I also know she does not want to entirely give up the sea," Triton expressed to Erik.

Erik looked to Ariel; she had a sad sort of hope in her eyes, pleading him to do this for her. And….it was the least he could do. She'd saved his life twice, and he was indebted to her. "Let's get me back to shore. If I try to kiss her underwater, I'll inhale too much water."

Triton nodded. "Fair enough. I will lead the way. Ariel, follow us."

The swim back to shore held an awkward silence, but the more Erik thought on it all, as surreal and unbelievable as it was, he felt more excited and thrilled than he ever had. It wasn't much unlike the feeling he'd had when he watched Ariel dance that day. And the water, he found, wasn't all that bad. Now that he knew he'd never again be in any danger of frowning, he felt quite free in the liquid empire. He found himself even quite willing to kiss Ariel. She was a real beauty, and this gave him a real purpose, a whole new world to explore and experience at his own leisure. His mother had told him he had no purpose. Well, now he did. And it filled Erik with such a sense of self-importance that he thought his head was probably expanding along with his ego.

They reached the shore and Erik set his feet on solid ground happily before noticing the way Triton and Ariel had to flop around to fully reach dry land. He submerged his feet once more in the icy water and helped pull them from the water. He watched as a dull, glowing light surrounded the lower half of their bodies before removing their tails from sight and revealing legs.

Erik shed the oxygen tank and mask and took a step toward Ariel, offering her his hand and helping her up. Once she was at full height, which wasn't much, he wrapped his arms around her waist and looked into her eyes. "I think I'll enjoy this more than I expected to," he whispered to her before capturing her lips with his own. When their lips met, Erik's heart felt full in a way he'd never experienced, but for Ariel, the kiss was everything she'd always dreamt about.

When they pulled away, there was a thin, willowy light flowing between their mouths. They both looked at Triton who just stared on with intrigue. It faded a moment later, and on Ariel's temple appeared a small tattoo similar to the one on the inside of Erik's wrist. However, instead of a sun, it was a small series of waves and instead of a rusty, almost maroon-red, it was a sea green with dashes of blue.

"How interesting," Triton spoke. "It must be a side effect of saving each other's' lives. Erik, are you aware of how you obtained your tattoo?"

Erik shook his head. "I was always told my parents got it inked on me when I was young as some sort of symbol of my status. Like, the Egyptian god of the sun, Ra, was the king of their gods, and I'm to be the king of the country. Kings used to be considered Gods among men. But I didn't exactly save Ariel's life, just her voice."

Triton shook his head. "There is some sort of connection between the two of you. I'm not quite sure yet what it is, and my theory for that may be incorrect. I'll have to consult Phoebe when I get back. But I believe it's got something to do with the sacrifices you have made for each other that has caused them to appear." Triton finally turned to his daughter. "Ariel, can you try to speak?"

Ariel opened her mouth and coughed before weakly saying, "Maybe?" When the word was audible, though just barely, her face lit up. "My voice is probably just coarse from being out of use for so long," she suggested.

Erik looked at her with a smile. "Glad I could help."

"Well, I believe I am no longer needed," Triton clapped. "I suggest you go inform your parents of all that has gone on recently. I've got to go let your mother know," he voiced to Ariel.

"I will!" Ariel volunteered. "I've missed my voice, and maybe using it will help it begin to return. I'll see you soon, Daddy."

"Yes, soon, my princess," Triton grinned, reaching to hug his daughter. "Sounds grand," Triton smiled. He then turned and walked into the water, his legs shimmering until they disappeared around the moment the water met his knees.

Ariel was already walking toward the castle. When she realized Erik wasn't following, she stopped and turned. "Aren't you coming?" she asked.

Erik looked up at her, then glanced out at the ocean. Since the kiss, likely because of it, he felt this sense of being drawn to the water. A sort of new affinity for it. He looked back at Ariel, who came back to stand in front of him. "It's alright, darling, I understand the way you feel." She reached up on her tiptoes and pressed a kiss to his lips. "Don't be all night. I imagine your parents will want to hear from you, as well."

He nodded, "I'll just be a little while," he acquiesced. He leaned down to her and gave her a soft, sweet kiss. It was as if the water had taken all of his molten hate and liquefied it into burning love—or at least passion. Maybe just a dusting of love, because Erik wasn't actually sure what love truly felt like just yet.

When they pulled away, Ariel began walking backwards up the sand toward the large, cracked concrete steps that interrupted the steep land and led up to the castle that loomed above them, looking gothic and beautiful in the moonlight. "I won't wait up," she giggled, winking at her fiancé.

Erik began walking backwards toward the water. He felt a pull deep inside him, dragging him out to the water. It was electrifying. "Good. I'll see you in the morning, love," he tossed at her from over his shoulder as he turned and dove into the new world that now shared a part of him.