Things change- or maybe they do, after the wedding.
He's still Eric, obviously- he still loves the sea and running with Max down the beach and howling over her latest gaffe. ("You did what with the corkscrew?")
It's just that she starts to realize that's not all there is to him.
Not at first though- at first it's all passion and playfulness and pride to be holding his arm as he introduces her as his wife.
He's so beautiful, and she loves how good it feels to hold and touch him; have him between her brand new legs.
As the crown prince, his most pressing responsibility is to try to get an heir on his young wife.
So they are very responsible. Usually several times a day.
She lays next to him languidly on their bed after and tames her love-mussed hair with a dinglehopper, humming, and Eric chuckles indulgently, running a loving hand down her body. She belongs to him, and he to her, and now no Sea Witch or parental disapproval can separate them ever again.
It's not all sex and fun tours of the kingdom though- Eric spends most his days helping to run the country with Grimsby, who is always full of benevolent praise and advice. He'll solemnly listen to and settle disputes between his subjects, inspect sources of concern and complaint, and confer with other Impressively Titled Men before passing new decrees or commissioning new projects.
It's strange to witness him acting in an official capacity most of the time now, instead of indulging her as his guest. Sure, he still approaches everything with charm and easygoing humor, but he uses words that are even more tongue twisty than anything Scuttle's ever come up with, and so many of them revolve around the human concept of money : Primary Industry, Socioeconomic Pressures, Foreign Trade, Class Mobility.
The dismissive way he wrinkles his nose and always waves away her questions starts to irk her.
"Aw, come on, Ariel- you're actually frowning! Don't you worry yourself over our boring human ideas- I'd rather forget all about it and just enjoy hearing you sing. Or... we could go to bed and you can get my mind off the trade deficit a different way..." he says with a grin, wiggling his brows suggestively.
He falls asleep quickly after, and Ariel wonders why their bodies feel so much heavier up here.
She adores that humans are endlessly creative creatures- perhaps they have to be, bound to the surface as they are. They're surrounded by air, and yet can't wing through it and soar as birds do. Nor do they dare to truly dive into the sea, merely floating, ensconced in wooden hulls. It surprises her to learn that even the depths of their earth confound them: too dark; too cold; too deep to draw a breath; the very air turned to poison. Surely someday they will design something that will let them push past the boundaries of their bodies the way they've fashioned shoes and wheels and boats.
Their inventions have always fascinated her- such clever solutions to problems! Why find a crab to cut something if one can forge scissors? Or search for seaweed when you are hungry if you have some in a crafty container in your dwelling instead?
What's starting to trouble her is that these countless innovations seem to make as many new problems as they solve, and try as she might to learn all about everything, there's always something that she's ignorant of.
Even peasants understand how to use cutlery! Now, start with the outermost fork for the first course-
Surely you've developed the good sense to use shoes outside by now!
My dear, you mustn't concern yourself with such cerebral matters- tariffs only apply to other human kingdoms, after all.
She starts to notice the snide whispers and looks; frowns instead of indulgent smiles.
Eric's dark looks of embarrassment before he has to explain and apologize and try to extricate her from situations.
Grimsby's verbal nudges start getting more frequent, often accompanied by his politely pained smiles before he makes yet another "little suggestion".
Ariel's never been one to shy from a challenge- perhaps once she learns to be a good, proper human wife Eric can be proud of, this will all pass like a summer squall. After all, their love made the impossible possible. The very legs she stands on are proof of that.
Eric loves everything about ships, so as often as he can manage to get away from his duties, he goes out to greet vessels at the docks: get the news from other kingdoms, welcome the weary crews and hear about their journey and manifests. She's up earlier than usual one morning, and spotting the excitement in his manner as he leaves the palace grounds, Ariel hurries to follow. Maybe there will be some new trinkets to bargain for or instruments on this ship. That recent chocolate import had been pure heaven...
It's the smell that hits her first when she arrives at the docks, and her eyes widen.
She claps her hands over her mouth in horror when she sees sailors wheeling cartloads of bodies down the gangplank towards the market. Tuna, plaice, sole.
She's a good distance behind him, but Eric still hears her scream.
"But Chef Louis quit! I thought, I thought-"
"That because we no longer serve seafood in the palace my whole kingdom would just... just give up our primary industry? Really, Ariel? These fishermen have families to feed! Fish have always been a staple food here!"
"I don't- I don't know what staple food means, but-"
He scoffs, scornful. "Of course you don't! You don't have a twinkling of understanding about how our markets and our whole economy depend on these ships. I'm sorry, Ariel, but fish aren't our friends- they're food. I'm almost positive you didn't know any of the catch personally, so if you could just try to separate-"
"-As if that makes it all right?" she interrupts, appalled. "If merfolk pulled a whole ship of people you didn't know personally down to the depths to feast on their flesh, you would be comfortable with that?!"
His mouth drops open in stunned horror. "...Merfolk eat the drowned from shipwrecks?!"
She gives him a disgusted look, reeling back. "Of course not! We're not barbarians! Only savage species consume those who think and feel, and even they don't kill more than they can eat! I was trying to illustrate my perspective in a way you would understand!"
She inhales suddenly as a thought strikes her. "You knew how I would feel. You just tried to hide it from me so I wouldn't protest. 'Don't worry your pretty little head about the markets, Ariel.'"
He looks away for a moment before he glares and gestures angrily. "Well, you've known all along why we send boats out, and that we eat every kind of seafood here! And yet you never asked about it before we got married- even after you had your voice back! It should be enough that we don't serve even some of our traditional dishes in the palace anymore! Dishes I grew up eating! You can ask that sacrifice of me, because you're my wife. You can't ask that of my people! And I won't ask them to give up their livelihood to spare your feelings, nor will I permit you to come down here and scream at them for doing the same jobs they've done for years!"
She steps back, pressing a hand to the ache in her chest. "...Sacrifice? You call not eating fish a sacrifice?"
She can taste saltwater, but she knows it's her own tears, and not the sea.
Her legs tremble with the remembered agony of a tail rent in two.
Grimsby had once teasingly recited some proverb about marrying in haste and repenting at leisure that now seems uncomfortably true.
The ugly incident at the docks has put her and Eric at odds, a furious impasse. Her royal husband now sleeps in a guest chamber, they dine in strained silence if he shows up at all, and the nasty whispers of the servants are constant.
He thinks her complaints are utterly unreasonable, and he resents that she's forcing the issue now.
To be fair, she resents herself for the same thing.
Really, she'd known that first meal, when she'd had to rescue Sebastian right at the table; had to look away as Eric and Grimsby ate. And while it's true that human foods are often elaborately prepared to look nothing like their original state, she can admit now that she'd purposely ignored them consuming ritually stuffed crabs before her, too focused on her own plight, on charming them and getting that kiss.
She'd made that choice.
But she thinks he's being unreasonable too: he knows –-they all know-- exactly what she used to be.
And she knows that humans aren't spineless and savage- they understand that sea creatures are thinking, feeling creatures. They saw them act in her defense at the wedding, have been told how her best friends are a crab and a fish.
But they steadfastly choose to remain harpooning fish eaters, as her father had once raged, despite all that. Despite her being here.
And they have the nerve to call fish cold blooded.
It hurts, knowing that Eric's had the power to make decrees and educate his people, and has deliberately chosen not to. That he's tried to keep her ignorant and sheltered- maybe partly to keep from hurting her, but mostly so they wouldn't have to change.
Ursula had relied on her ignorance too, manipulating her to sign that magical contract without realizing she'd been set up to fail. She'd barely been able to look at it, nonetheless read, before she'd hastily signed it with a ghastly fish spine Ursula had conjured.
And it seems she was still holding the bones of dead fish when she'd signed her name next to Eric's.
She hates admitting that maybe they'd been too impetuous, too caught up in the giddy sense of triumph to actually consider what this marriage would require of both of them. To really understand who the other person was before they'd sworn forever.
But at least this time she'd read instead of merely skimming the formal words. It may be legal and binding, but there's an obvious loophole that means it isn't unbreakable.
Her heart is another matter, as is her pride. But she knows she's survived those shattering before.
The buoyancy of the ocean will be a balm after constantly failing to keep up with the frenetic pace here; her loving friends and family will ease the hurt and loneliness; her father rules all the ocean, and loves her dearly no matter how she's defied him.
And his trident can give her her tail and her freedom back.
"Eric. I need to talk to you. I've decided to go home."
He swallows and sets down his fork. There's no mistaking the flash of relief that crosses his face before he frowns. "...To visit?"
She lifts her chin and shakes her head sadly. "You've made it clear that you don't want your people to change. This time, I won't either."
"But- You can't just- you're my wife. Human marriages are legal and-"
"-binding between a man and a woman, I know. But I learned my lesson and read the contract in full this time before signing. So if my father returns me to being a mermaid..." she shrugs and smiles. Eric drags a hand through his hair and exhales shakily, obviously staggered.
"Ariel, I- I'm sorry. You know that I love you, but my people- they have to come first."
"I do know that now. And I'm sorry, too. Sorry I couldn't be the princess you needed, give you the things you required. I thought I loved you enough to give up the sea and my family, every part of myself to be part of your world. But I was wrong about that last part."
He shakes his head haplessly. "But... What am I supposed to tell everybody?"
She smiles and runs her fingers through his hair. He really is beautiful, as perfectly sculpted as that statue of his was, and sadly, just as rigid. But she will always remember, and be grateful she had the chance to love him for a little while. "Tell them I was lost at sea. It will be close enough to the truth."
She has no need for her gowns or shoes or the little flute he'd taught her to play, but she takes the wind instrument anyway and one fork as a keepsake, a reminder, before she strides into the water for the last time.
Her father emerges immediately when she calls, as if he's been waiting, as if he's known all along.
"Daddy, I was wrong. You know I loved Eric enough to change... but he didn't love me back the same way. So I'd like to go home. And I swim so much better with a tail than legs," she says, glancing up at him through her lashes as she ducks her head.
But there's no rebuke or anger. He only looks sad before he smiles and cups her cheek. "Of course, Ariel. The sea is always your home. Always. And we've missed you terribly."
She laughs as she wraps her arms around his neck in a joyous hug. Gives him another beaming smile when he lowers his trident to the water and sends its magic to her.
She's felt the horror of drowning only once: her lungs filling and her limbs flailing hapless and useless in the water. This is the exact opposite, letting out a long held, stagnant breath as she heads down from the surface, leaving only seafoam floating atop the waves; the cacophony of the human world muffled once more.
And as the saltwater washes over her gills, she thinks it tastes like joy.