Disclaimer: The Little Mermaid, all characters, places, and related terms belong to Hans Christian Andersen and Walt Disney Pictures.
Coldness and Burning
She had never feared the water before. In the past she glided smoothly through it, leaving bubbles in her wake. Even in its cold depths, and when it moaned during a storm, she had been at home.
But as she unexpectedly found herself no longer in the boat but in the lagoon, a brand new fear caught her. She could not tell what was up from down. Her eyes could see nothing in the mucky darkness. Most frightening of all, she still could not breathe under water. Helplessly, she thrashed about desperately.
Something grasped one of her arms, drawing her up, and Ariel's head broke the surface moments later. Coughing and sputtering up the water that had gotten into her mouth, she felt herself sinking back. Her mouth opened in a soundless cry for help, not understanding why the water would not let her go.
"Hang on!" a voice spoke above her, and her other arm was taken in a firm grip. Slowly Ariel was lifted up again, and her feet found the muddy rocky bottom. For a moment she lowered her head, stared at the water lapping at her waist, and closed her eyes. She became aware of her heavy breathing and her body stiffened with fear.
"I've got you," the words were assuring and calming.
Yet she did not relax.
Her name pierced the dark, foreign emotions surrounding her like a beacon of light. The girl looked up to discover Eric before her, dripping wet, his hands steadying her, his face awash with concern.
"Are you okay?" he asked worriedly.
Slowly she nodded. She was okay, now that she realized she could stand, could breathe again, and with Eric here. The girl gave him a tiny smile.
He sighed deeply and his shoulders relaxed, freed from an invisible weight. Lifting his left hand from Ariel's arm, he gently brushed away the wet red hair plastered over her forehead. Ariel watched him wonderingly.
Abruptly he withdrew his hand, something flickering in his face. "Let's get you out of the water," he said in a strange voice. His eyes darted about, avoiding hers. "Don't want you to catch cold," he added as he started helping her towards the shore.
Only then did Ariel realize she was shaking from head to toe: because of the cool night, her now-fading fear, from Eric's touch, or disappointment at how he had nearly kissed her before the boat tipped over – she did not know. She lifted the skirt of her dress a little, which was making it difficult for her to walk, the wet garment feeling so heavy.
Soon they waded out of the water and onto the bank. Gratefully Ariel sank down on a fallen log at Eric's direction. She hugged herself tightly. As the girl's breathing calmed and her heart slowed, her body relaxing, she wondered for the first time what had caused the boat to flip over. The lagoon had been peaceful until that moment. She could not understand what had happened. Clearing away the question with a slight shake of her head, she watched with mounting curiosity as Eric gathered pieces of wood about the area and put them in a pile.
A light wind picked up, and Ariel shivered. Swiftly she rubbed her hands together, trying to warm them. It was strange how cold the water had left her. In the past when she'd snuck up to the surface, there had only been light and warmth to greet her. But now…
She jumped at a strange sound and, looking around nervously, silently gasped as an orange glow appeared and slowly grew amidst the wood Eric was kneeling by. It burned brighter, stronger, spreading as the prince blew on it. Soon the all the wood was engulfed in this orange glow.
Transfixed, she stared. She felt she had seen something like this thing before…in one of her books perhaps. An image of a lady with dark hair, face wistful while resting against her hand, gazing at a small yellow light, came to the girl. Ariel's eyes lighted. Was this a…a… fire?
Excitedly she rose to her feet and moved towards the flames. How queer it was, making her warm and she had not touched it! What did it feel like? And she reached out a hand to find out.
Suddenly her hand was snatched away. Startled, she discovered Eric holding her hand firmly. The expression on his face was one she could not comprehend. A frown touched his brow as he gazed at her.
"You'll burn your hand," he said.
Burn? Is that a bad thing? Ariel wondered. She looked between the flames and her hand, before her questioning eyes returned to Eric.
He seemed to sense her puzzlement. "The fire is too hot to touch. You will get hurt if you do," he explained.
Her face lighted with realization and she nodded. How fascinating! Then she pointed at her arm, rubbed it with her free hand, and then gestured to the fire. Eric followed her animating hand, confused. She did it again, and then a third time.
"You wanted the fire to help dry you off?" he asked slowly.
She gave him a smile and affirming nod.
A small smile touched his face. "If you put your hands near it like this…," and holding one of her hands in each of his he held them at a safe distance from the flames. "Just be careful not to get too close."
A comfortable silence, broken only by the wood crackling in the fire, fell over the two for some minutes. Staring into the leaping flames, Ariel grew content as her hands slowly warmed up. The wind tickled the back of her neck, and a chill raced down her spine.
"Still cold?" Eric said in a low voice. He shifted closer and brought their joined hands towards him. Placing her palms together, he began to vigorously rub his hands over them. Almost instantly Ariel felt the cold lessen from her fingers. Soon they were nice and warm, and the feelings spread up her arms.
Slowly she lifted her gaze from her hands to Eric, a concentrated expression on his face. How kind he is, she sighed to herself. Thank you, Eric.
Unexpectedly he raised his head and their eyes met. His hands stilled over hers. "Ariel…" her name came in that same low tone.
She tilted her head slightly to one side, and her heart skipped a beat. Yes…
His shoulders slumped, and he suddenly had trouble holding her gaze. "Back there, in the boat –" he broke off and swallowed hard. "I-I-I shouldn't have done that," he went on.
Ariel watched a range of emotions cross his face, unable to understand until his next words:
"When we almost—"
In one swift movement he released her hands and was on his feet. He ran a hand through his damp hair. "I'm sorry," he said hoarsely and walked away from the fire.
Quivering breaths escaped the girl's lips. She followed Eric's retreating back before looking at the fire. Unbeknownst to her, her cheeks were becoming strangely wet. All Ariel was aware of was how cold she felt inside, and that her heart lay at her feet.