Author's Note: Holidays, new job, blah, blah, blah. Turns out I was totally wrong about my ability to do this during the hiatus. (Obviously, as the show has been back for weeks.) Next chapter will be much, much quicker. Promise.

Chapter 3

Ariel kept her encounter with the human a secret from her family. From everyone. If any of the merfolk knew what she had done, they would have stopped her from returning to the surface. Her father would probably lock her up, seeing it as the only way to prevent her from taking any more of what he would consider unnecessary risks. And yet, after rescuing that man, the thought of never again seeing the human world seemed more horrible than ever. She'd had a taste of their world, and it only made her want to know more.

When she got to the surface the next morning, the storm had passed away from that part of the sea and there was no sign of the ship from before. However, there was a small boat rowing her way. Ariel felt somewhat emboldened by her successful dealing with a human, albeit an unconscious one, and she did not sink down to hide from this new one. There was only the one anyway, and she was fairly sure she could hold her own.

She had not intended to let the human get close enough to make any real contact, but when the small boat got closer, Ariel saw that the human on board was encrusted in some kind of glittery substance. She was not sure how common this was for humans, but she had never seen anything like it. Mesmerized by the way the light reflected off skin and water, she stayed at the surface until the boat was right above her.

The human popped his head over the side. "Hello, dearie."

Ariel did not know what to do. The fact that this human was conscious made this a far more dangerous situation than the one the day before. She could easily swim away, and she knew that was what she should do. In fact, she was not sure why she had not already started sinking down. Maybe it was because she was still intrigued by that sparkling skin. He just did not look that scary. She steeled up her courage and said her first ever word to a human. "Hello."

He smiled at her, and the plane of water between them distorted his features in a way that made him look a bit unnerving. "Pretty, little mermaid, I need favor. And in return, I can do you a favor as well."

Ariel was starting to get a little worried. It sounded like he had come to this part of the sea with the express purpose of finding a mermaid, which was not something she had considered a possibility when she decided to engage in this conversation. Thoughts of being captured and put on display invaded her mind, but she had already come this far. "What kind of favor do you need?"

"All I need is ink from an ursula squid." He produced a glass jar not much larger than his hand. "Just enough to fill this."

That was not nearly as bad as she had been thinking, but it was still a difficult request to perform. The ink of the ursula squid held great power. This was unrelated to the source of the merfolk's power, but as a member of the royal family, it was her duty to protect all the magics of the sea. It was probably all moot anyway. She could not imaging there was anything a human could offer her that would be worth having. "And what do you propose to give me in return?" she asked, trying to sound disinterested.

"I," he began with great flourish, "will make you human."

Ariel gasped. That was the last thing she expected him to say. "Can you do that?"

He gave a weird little giggle. "Oh, yes. Easily in fact. It would only be temporary, of course, unless you wanted it to be more. But first, I need the ink."

His offer to make her human had driven everything else from her mind. It was time to come back to reality. "I haven't agreed yet."

"But you will," he said with confidence.

That was when she realized this strange man had not rowed his boat out into the deeper waters of the sea looking for just any mermaid; he was looking for her specifically. Experiencing life as a human was the dream of exactly one mermaid. Somehow, he already knew about her. She did not deny his assertion. "You said temporary, but exactly how temporary would it be?"

"Ink first," he insisted with a wag of his finger.

Ariel held her ground. There was a part of her that believed he was right and she probably would accept in the end, but first she needed to have a better idea of what she was agreeing to. "No, terms first."

The smile on his face dimmed and he narrowed his eyes a little. It wasn't scary to Ariel. It was more like they were finally engaging in real negotiations. "I can give you a month. Then it's up to you."

A month sounded perfectly fine to her. It would allow her to have this experience with minimal commitment. Still, this was the second time he had brought up the possibility of more time. "Up to me to do what?"

"If you wanted to make it a more permanent arrangement, all it would take is true love's kiss. Provided your true love is a human."

There was some shrewdness in his eyes, like he expected this true love business to have meaning to her. Suddenly she had a good idea what it was that brought her to this man's attention. Maybe rescuing that first human had been a mistake after all. Then again, maybe it would be the act that led to her getting exactly what she always wanted. She opened her mouth to set the record straight, although whether it was about her feelings for that young man or about her desire to make her humanity permanent, she was not sure.

The shimmery man did not let her speak anyway. "I will say no more without the ink."

Ariel considered this for a moment. Until now, this had been a hypothetical discussion, and now it was time to make a decision. She had never really thought about whether she wanted to be human because it had never been a possibility before. And now that it was, it was too tempting. She tried to be reasonable, but deep down, she already knew what her decision was. It was foolish and reckless and insane, but she was going to become human for a month. Assuming, that was, this man could actually do what he said.

Hesitantly, Ariel reached her arm out of the water to take the jar from him, but he snatched it out of her reach. "No, you must bring the squid to me. If you take the jar, it will fill with water and that dilutes it. I need this ink to be full strength."

Part of her knew she should ask what he wanted the ink for, but she didn't. Because she suspected the answer would be nothing good, and she did not want to know any more than what she already did. She just needed to be sure of one thing. "I will make this deal with you only if you promise not to use the ink to hurt any of the creatures of the sea."

He made a dramatic show of placing his hand over his heart and bowing to her. "You have my word."

Ariel realized that she had said it. She came right out and said the words, "I will make this deal with you." She supposed there was still time to back out, but she just dove down to find this man an ursula squid.

In that part of the sea, Ursula squid tended to conjugate around a particular reef formation, so it was not difficult for Ariel to find one. The tricky part was coaxing the squid back to the surface without it expelling its ink into the water. She supposed this was why the man needed her. Even if he could locate and capture a squid on his own, he would immediately spook it and get diluted ink.

In order to keep it calm, Ariel sang to the squid as she guided it back to the boat. When the man saw that she had delivered, his face broke out in an almost childlike glee. He handed her the jar. Holding the jar in one hand, she took the ursula squid in her other hand and pushed it up out of the water. The squid finally became frightened and released its ink. She pressed the edge of the container into her skin so as to catch the ink as it ran down her arm. Then she gave the nearly full jar back to the man.

When she handed him the jar, he disappeared into the boat. Unsure what to do now, Ariel dropped her arms back into the sea and let the squid swim away. Her one arm was stained with ink from wrist to elbow, and she rubbed at it to try to fix that. The strange man popped his head over the side again. "Don't do that. We'll need that ink."

Ariel pulled her hand away from her arm. "So, now? It's-it's happening now?"

He shook his head. "You must swim closer to shore, dearie," he said. "If you turn human here, you'll drown."

That was not what she meant. She meant "now" as in no time to tell anyone where she was going, no time to say goodbye. Maybe that was the way it should be. She wouldn't be able to tell anyone anyway. It was better to just disappear and make her excuses in a month.

Now that he mentioned drowning though . . . Ariel was familiar with the concept; that was what was happening to the other human man before she rescued him. It just had never been something that could apply to her. She understood broadly what it would mean to become human, breathing air, standing on some kind of divided fins that did not look like fins. But she had not yet considered what it would mean not to be a mermaid anymore. She had lived her whole life in the sea with no need to ever fear the water. The idea that it would become dangerous to her, that she could suddenly lose the ability to swim or at least to swim as well as she could now gave her a moment of pause. But she was so close. If she passed up this opportunity, she would always wonder what might have been. She would rather have regrets about something she did than something she missed out on.

As she swam toward the beach, Ariel could not help but wonder if this was a trick. If he did want to capture her, she was probably playing right into his hands. First she gave him the powerful squid ink, despite the fact that she had no idea what a human might be able to do with it, and now she was following him closer to the land, the one place she was never allowed to go.

Ariel could actually swim faster than the man could row, so she was not so much following him as swimming in circles around his boat as it slowly neared the shore. As the buildings and other details of the human world came into focus, the enormity of what she was doing hit Ariel. For the next month, this foreign place would be her world. She worried that it could never live up to the majesty and wonder she had created in her imagination, but maybe that was better. That would make it easier to leave in a month.

Finally, once they were so dangerously close to land, the man stopped rowing. It was time. "Now, if you do not receive true love's kiss," He made a sweeping hand motion that ended with him pointing straight up. "and complete the transition, in exactly one month, you'll revert back to a mermaid, gills and all. You'll want to be near water when that happens."

Ariel nodded. Since she did not intend to "complete the transition," that was good information for her to have. Be back here, or at any beach, in one month's time.

"Then it is time." Like everything else, he said this with both whimsical enthusiasm and dramatic flourish.

Ariel barely had time to register what he had said before her arm began growing hot. She looked down and saw that the ink was disappearing into her skin. Then her fins began to pull apart. She braced herself, expecting it to be painful, but it wasn't. She wiggled the two sides of her fins independently, slowly at first and then more urgently. It was already getting difficult for her to stay up near the surface. She felt her gills close up, and suddenly salt water filled her nose and mouth. That part was painful. Very painful. She flailed in the water as panic set in.

The man grabbed one of her flailing arms and pulled her up until her head was above the water. She coughed, hacking up as much seawater as possible. It was all very similar to what she had witnessed the night before, and Ariel now had a real, deep understanding of drowning.

"That's it, dearie. Through the nose."

Ariel tried to do what he said. She worked on taking slow, deep breaths of air. As she did this, the waves carried her to the shore and eventually deposited her on the beach.

She was tangled up in something. At first, she thought it was some kind of seaweed, but as she pulled at it, she realized it was all one piece. She knew about this; humans called it "cloth." In addition to being heavy and itchy, it was uncomfortable just in the way it stuck to her. She did not know how humans could bear it. She looked down past the annoying brown cloth and finally noticed her lower half. She had legs!

She stretched both of them out in front of her. At the end of each of them, there were little finger-like appendages. She tried to wiggle them, but they did not move quite as well as the ones on her hands. She looked up at the man, who had run his boat aground and was walking up to her. She started to thank him, but when she opened her mouth to speak, nothing came out.

She tried again and again, beating at her chest to show that something was wrong. "Ah, yes," the man said. "That is an unfortunate downside. Mermaid voices can only travel through water."

Ariel futilely mouthed, "I'm not a mermaid." She point to her new legs.

He shrugged. "I don't know what to tell you. Well, thank you for this—" He held up the jar of ink. "And I'll be on my way now."

Suddenly he was gone. Ariel looked around. It wasn't just the man; the boat was gone too, as if he had never been there. She was alone on the beach without the ability to talk, with no idea how to be human. She wondered how many other downsides he had forgotten to mention. No matter. She had a month and she would learn to make do.

First, standing. She did not really know where to start. She bent one knee and then the other, but that did not help much. Frustrated, she rolled onto her stomach and used her arms to push herself up. She came up to sit back on her knees and wiped the sand off her hands and onto the cloth covering her torso. She had gotten some in her mouth too, and she spit it out. Getting up to this position had been fairly easy. She shifted her weight forward onto her hands again and pulled one foot up and onto the ground. With great effort she managed to get herself onto both feet.

She stayed hunched over for a while, her hands inches from the sand, ready to catch her if she fell. Slowly, she straightened up. For a few seconds, she was doing it, actually standing up on her own two legs. Then she promptly fell over backwards. She did not really understand how humans could balance on these tiny things at the bottom of their legs. They seemed very inefficient for the task.

So she sat there, because it was just easier. After a few minutes, she saw two large creatures coming toward her. The closer they got, the larger and more imposing and more terrifying they looked. She rolled over and tried standing again, which did go better. As soon as she tried to take a step, however, she ended up face down in the sand. She pushed up. Maybe it would be better to just go on hands and knees. She wished she had thought of that earlier because the creatures were upon her now.

She looked up and noticed that there were humans, two men, riding the creatures. So they couldn't be that scary, right? When she looked even closer, she realized that she recognized one of the men. He was the one from the storm, the one she rescued. Dry and awake, his face was even more stunning than before, but that was hardly the point right then.

The point, as he dismounted his creature, was that he looked willing to help. And Ariel really needed help.

Author's Note: If you have a problem with anything in this chapter, specifically anything related to how sound travels through water, I would say to you: Just go with it; mermaids are magic anyway. (And going forward, that's my response to anything that does not work in the real world.)