Can't believe I finished and uploaded this chapter instead of working on homework. Where are my doggone priorities? As if I don't have enough OUAT fics on my plate already. Oh well. This will be another sort of long work, so expect many more chapters. Enjoy!

Mermaids have to be careful whenever they breach the ocean surface. Their humanlike skin consists of tiny scales the same shape and substance as their tails; it glitters and twinkles in the sunlight. Seabirds are sometimes drawn to it as they are to shards of glass, forsaken jewels or metal trinkets strewn across a beach. Human eyes can catch the light, too, which proves far more disastrous.

So Belle was careful to swim at a deep level until she met the rock shelf of her hidden cave. Feeling along the wall, she soon reached the shielding darkness of the recess. Only then did she dare rise up and poke her head above water. Cautious still, she looked around. No sign that anyone—human, mermaid or other—had slipped in recently. There was nothing but a tunnel that extended about half a league before ending in a smaller, landward entrance half-submerged and clogged with marina detritus. The inside walls sloped down into outcroppings that let Belle to climb up and lounge on the wide ridge. The curved ceiling shaded her. Once she stretched out and pushed her now flattened brown hair out of her eyes, Belle flopped over and pulled aside a large rock that blended with the rest of the cave. Its removal revealed an abscess, the contents of which remained protected in darkness until Belle withdrew them.

She should've remembered to shake the water off her hands first, but Belle was too eager to examine her treasures. They'd been waterlogged to the point of ruin, it seemed. Nonetheless she'd tried to dry them in the hope that something of their original forms could be salvaged. She tugged out a short stack of leather-bound, crinkled books, and ran loving wet fingers over their covers. She waited a moment with bated breath before opening the book on top.

Her heart fluttered, then sank. The pages were stained with smeared lettering that was beyond legible. Each leaf felt as brittle as a dried shell, warning her to handle them with extreme care. She turned them over to discover the same tale: whatever story or information the book contained was lost. At least until Belle found a page decorated with a once detailed illustration of . . . something. She squinted hard at it. There was lots of green and blue and streaks of brown. In the very middle of the page a collection of brown and gray splotches formed a shape Belle gradually recognized. It was a castle – a land castle, not like the royal palace in Atlantica or the other lofty fortresses the nobles of King Triton's kingdom occupied, including her own family. Narrower, taller, sharp and pointy, whereas the sea castles sprawled with handlike protusions thanks to the coral used to build them. Belle wished she could discern the castle's surroundings. The blue must have been sky, and the green and brown . . . some kind of forest? But she noticed another streak of blue, darker and with an eel's body. It slithered through the mess. Wait, she knew what that was. It was . . . a river! She gasped and giggled, delighted with herself. Oh, if only she could have seen the picture when it wasn't a swamp of ink and seawater.

She kept her eye out for more illustrations, but her interest always returned to the bleeding letters. Pictures were helpful in deciphering the subject and content of these books, but they couldn't replace the import Belle knew she would've gained from the written word. What things could they tell her that pictures could not? Was it a history of the castle and the kingdom it resided in, or one person's story? Maybe of the king who lived there, or a princess, or a servant who observed all from a discreet distance and spilled the truth of their lives here, free of the veil of bias. Belle desperately wanted to know. After a while she sighed and set aside the tome in exchange for another. The same story, except this one had no pictures. The tips of her reverent fingers traced the wrinkles and obscured lines of the pages. Just feeling them ignited a spark of enjoyment. She loved how dry they felt. How weighty and grounded, yet so fragile. She loved them for all these things. She loved the mystery and dreamed more than anything else of someday reading one and learning how they looked, felt and smelled without salt and moisture imbedded in them.

This dreamy mood swept Belle away from the world, and it made her oblivious to the movement near her tail. By the time her instincts alerted her to another presence, it was too late. Something grabbed and dragged her down. Belle dropped the book on the dry shelf before the waters closed over her. She vigorously flapped her tail and twisted until she was free and she could meet her attacker face to face.

Bubbles of laughter—actual bubbles filled with girlish giggles—billowed into her face. "Admit it, I got you!" cried the red-haired mermaid swimming beneath her, well out of arm's reach.

Belle huffed. "Don't you think we're getting old for this?"

The pretty creature, Ariel, flashed her friend a pearly smile. "Ariadne would be impressed with my stealth and tracking skills. She might even let me oversee the scavenger hunt at the next Summer Festival."

"Your life's ambition, no doubt." Belle tossed a wary glance around even though they were beneath the sheltering swells. If Ariel managed to follow her here, who could say no one else had? "Are you sure you weren't followed?"

"Absolutely." Ariel performed a restless loop-de-loop around the older mermaid. "Your secret is safe. But I'm a bit upset you didn't think to share it with me in the first place. After I showed you my treasure trove—"

"I know, I know." Belle ducked her head and dropped toward the sandy bottom of the cave. There wasn't as much room to swim around given the breadth of the cave and how close they were to shore. That meant she had more difficulty escaping Ariel's accusing aquamarine eyes, or the hand that clenched around her wrist and hauled her upwards when she tried to retreat. Belle's only defense against Ariel's inquiry and feigned hurt was a sheepish smile. "I just didn't want to jeopardize you further. It's one thing to hide away all the things you found in that cave—at least it's at the bottom of the ocean. But this place—it's more dangerous for just one person, let alone two."

Ariel surrendered her pout for a coy smirk. "I'm not afraid of being seen by a human, if that's what you mean. I thought you weren't, either."

Oh, her friend was incorrigible. Against her better sense, Belle laughed. She should have approached this situation with much more seriousness. That's how a responsible mermaid, particularly one endowed with the friendship of Princess Ariel, ought to behave. The young royal, on the cusp of her sixteenth birthday, was more of an influence on nineteen-year-old Belle than she liked to admit. Still Belle laughed and couldn't really regret her foolhardy comradeship with the daredevil princess.

"I'm not so much afraid of humans as I am of your father."

Ariel waved away Belle's words. "Don't worry so much. He's not going to find out so long as we're careful. Now, stop holding out on me and show me what you have!"

Belle did. She showed Ariel her own collection and instructed her on how to handle the delicate items. The younger mermaid showered the books with smiles like the ones Belle knew she'd given them, but before too long Ariel's interest waned.

"How can you lie here and stare at them for so long when you can't read or even see the pictures properly? At least I have that globe and those other gadgets. I'm still trying to figure out how that thing with the numbers and the black pointers works. You need to come by again and take a look at it."

"Oh, I'm no good with things like that." Belle shook her head while returning the books to her secret nook. "That's why I like these so much, I guess. I'm putting things together with my imagination instead of my hands." She spared a second to look at said hands—lovely but inept. Her glass harmonica and garland-weaving skills left much to be desired. "I can spend hours imagining what they can tell us about the human world. But I need to keep looking for more that are in better shape."

Ariel had since rolled onto her back and started caressing the damp rock they rested on with one hand. The other wrapped her coral-colored hair around her forefinger, as it often did when she mulled over something. Suddenly she gasped and propped herself up while letting her tail slip back into the water. "Hey, I think there's still an unopened chest in the cave. Maybe there are books in there. It's worth a look."

The suggestion brought on a surge of hope Belle didn't want to quell just yet, even if sense told her to. She broke into a smile. "All right. A quick look, and then straight back to the palace. I don't care if you're convinced your father is in the dark—I can't handle any more of his disapproving grimaces."

The princess' silver laugh filled the cave. No one in all the kingdom had a voice as lovely and pure as Ariel's. It enchanted merfolk and mostly certainly would've enchanted humans if given a chance. From time to time Belle despaired a little at how low and rough her own voice must have sounded in comparison. She didn't envy Ariel—at least she tried not to. It just would've been nice if she possessed a special talent of her own to make mermen's heads turn. Alas, she had only her hungry curiosity for all things human and land-bound, which Ariel fortunately (or maybe unfortunately) shared in. For that Belle could never resent the sweet princess who flapped her tail to splash her before diving deep and fast.

The older mermaid followed closely behind, though her movements were not as graceful. Ariel's lithe form shot through the water like an arrow and nearly lost Belle a few times. A voice in the back of Belle's mind whispered that if she didn't do all she could to keep up with her, Ariel would someday land in more trouble than she would be able to handle. The thought pushed Belle to boost her speed.

Today was Ariel's sixteenth birthday. The kingdom had more than one reason to be a flutter with excitement over the occasion. For one, it would be the last royal sixteenth birthday celebration until one of King Triton's daughters had a child. The king therefore decreed a lavish spectacle with banquets, performances, parades and a ball. No expense was spared for the youngest daughter. Her sisters seized the opportunity to lovingly tease her for what could be interpreted as nepotism, which immediately flustered Ariel to the point of making her cross. Of course as the youngest it was expected that her father spoiled her the most, but that wasn't the whole story. She was also the most reckless, the most recalcitrant, and the most insubordinate of her family. Her father loved her very dearly, but he'd endured many a headache after worrying and then lecturing her for her behavior. And today, one of the happiest occasions in Atlantica's history, King Triton showed signs of enduring yet another headache in his daughter's presence. It embarrassed Belle a little that she was witnessing it as well, but his majesty had summoned her.

"My dear Ariel," said King Triton, trying to tamper gentleness with firmness, "my decision has been made. There is no arguing your way out of it. It's for your own good."

"It's not fair!" Ariel cried. "Everyone else gets to do it by themselves!"

"That's because they have more sense and less stubborn curiosity than you."

Harsh words, but probably necessary ones. Belle couldn't fault the king for being honest with his daughter, particularly when he felt so concerned for her.

Ariel endeavored to swallow her shrill tone and tears, and Belle immediately felt her alliance shift again. In terms of logic, assigning Ariel an escort for when she went up to the surface made perfect sense, but she knew how much this hurt her friend. It stung to know her father didn't trust her despite the fact that his fears had grounding in experience.

"Daddy, I promise I'll behave. I promise. I'm sixteen now—let me prove I'm responsible!"

King Triton's deep, ponderous eyes watched the distressed princess. Belle thought she saw their resolve weaken a smidgen. "I wish I could believe that, dear. I really wish I could. But how many times have I found out about you wandering off to parts of the kingdom that are not safe for a person of your status? Or safe for anyone, honestly?"

Had it been any other day, Triton would have employed a more booming voice and a more aggressive stance. Today, however, this exercise in parental control weighed heavily on him. He leaned on his muscular hand on the armrest of his giant clam shell throne. Belle studied his weary figure until his gaze flitted to her, to which she responded by staring at the floor. Triton was a good ruler, but he had something of an infamous temper. Even if it meant deflecting some of his aggravation away from Ariel, Belle did not want to become a target of his anger by provoking him.

After a quiet moment, a still upset Ariel raised her head to meet her father's eye. "Who's it going to be? Not the entire army, I hope."

Sighing, the king ran his fingers through his long white beard. "I was thinking your sisters could go with you. Not all of them—just the ones I know who will keep you in line."

Ariel's cheeks turned pinker and pinker with rage. "This is horrible, Daddy. I'll never live this down—my own father doesn't trust me on the day when I'm finally being considered an adult."

"Adulthood is not merely a matter of numbers," her father retorted. "It's also about actions. About doing the right thing even when you're tempted to do otherwise. You have to earn respect and trust now."

"Then . . . then . . ." Ariel whipped her head around, frantic. When her eyes fell on Belle, an icy stab of terror impaled the older mermaid through the gut. Oh, no. She wouldn't, would she?

"Then, Daddy, let Belle be my escort. I trust her with my life, and you can, too. She won't let anything bad happen to me . . . or let me do anything bad." The small hint of a repressed giggle tainted Ariel's tone as she pronounced the last portion of her plea. Belle crumbled inside. Oh, this would not end well. She would happily accompany Ariel to the surface, but to pretend that she was the most promising antidote to Ariel's impish ways would have been a devastating lie, and one that would make Belle blush if she dwelt too long on the thought of it.

With the king's attention suddenly fixed on her, of course, Belle held her composure. She knew how to reel in some self-restraint at court, what with her noble status and her father's attentive grooming. Personally Belle was tired of conversing with high-born merfolk who thought they knew and understood more of the world than they did. A presumptuous thing for a nineteen-year-old mermaid to think, yes, but Belle had a few advantages to justify her feelings. She'd read more than most people she'd met, and it was evident in the limited range of topics they tried to entice her with: recent courtly affairs like marriages and inheritances, the tides, and the latest shell or seaweed ornaments with which to adorn their otherwise fairly naked bodies. Belle remembered seeing pictures of human clothes, which were at the same time laughably outrageous and immensely fascinating. The climate above water must be more unstable and less forgiving for humans to require so many different types of garments, and for so many different occasions. Belle appreciated their diversity, though, which was more than could be said of the fashions of Atlantica's nobility. But it wasn't fashion that interested Belle. It was history and accounts of far-off places that she was eager to converse on. Why did hardly anyone else share her curiosity? Why only Ariel? It made her seriously wonder now and then if there was something wrong with them.

Even though her mind buzzed with such musings, Belle withstood the king's stare with a dignity that somehow continued to impress others. If only they could guess what occupied her thoughts while she awaited judgment under their scrutiny. Ugh, why did most everyone fail to penetrate the surface of things, including hers? For Belle, appreciation would have outweighed humiliation. She wanted to meet someone who could intuit her frustration with the people around her and their lack of enthusiasm for the wider world. Fear, it seemed, kept most merfolk deep below the surface. If it was a question of bravery, Belle wished she could summon up enough courage to share with all of her kind so they could finally be free to explore the world above, plumb the annuals of its history and meet its inhabitants.

King Triton's voice plucked Belle out of her heated meditations. "Lady Belle, I know you are my daughter's beloved and trusted companion. You are also the child of a widowed father, so you may be able to understand my concern. Sir Maurice has recounted to me your accomplishments and qualities."

Belle didn't know what accomplishments he was talking about, but she allowed the king to continue.

"I do not lightly entrust my daughter's well-being to anyone. If you agree to accept this special task, you will be burdened with a great responsibility. Are you prepared to take on such a yoke?"

Whether she was or not did not feel like it was her question to answer. Then again, who could? But Belle grasped the weight of a different kind of responsibility when she looked at Ariel. Her friend's eyes, as clear and bright as the underside of the ocean surface when the midday sun beams through it, pleaded silently with her. They overflowed with desperation and hope. Ariel wanted so much—not just this, but what the event signified. They had snuck up to the surface a handful of times with the utmost discretion. This, however, would be the first visit condoned by the king and the law. It touched Belle that Ariel trusted only her with this occasion, and that it meant so much to have someone there who would both understand her desire and not be so compelled to restrain her from seeing as much of the surface as she could for this all too fleeting moment.

Belle preluded her answer to the king with the briefest smile to Ariel. It was gone when she turned back to Triton. "Yes, your majesty," she said, imbuing her voice with sincerity. "I would give my life to protect Ariel. You have my word that I will not let anything happen to her."

About fifty leagues away, and about a hundred leagues downward, the inside of a crystal ball danced with the images of Princess Ariel and her friend Lady Belle floating in the presence of his majesty, King Triton, ruler of the Seven Seas. Black and purple tentacles held and caressed the smooth globe. A husky chuckle filled the dark chamber.

"There she is," the Sea Witch chortled. "Would you like to look?"

On the damp wall to her left, the lean figure of a man—well, a man in the broadest sense—set himself on his feet and sauntered over to where her heavy body rested. His dark eyes eerily reflected the soft enchanted glow of the ball. Scaly lips turned up in a sneering smirk. "Which one's the lucky princess?"

"The redhead. She's turning sixteen today. The sharkbaits allow the royal princesses to visit the surface on their sixteenth birthday so they won't complain for the rest of their long lives."

"How considerate." The imp gave a closed-mouthed giggle. "Why her, though? Why not any of the others?"

The Sea Witch let the ball roll across puckering suction cups, dousing the ball in slimy kisses. Her pale, almost lavender-colored flesh twinkled in the ball's light while the slick black skin of her many legs glistened. "She and her friend are an eccentric pair. I've been watching them for some time. They're utterly infatuated with humans. The princess in particular will be an easy target."

The imp, often referred to as the Dark One, scoffed in mock surprise. "Eccentric mermaids? Perish the thought."

"Oh, I'm sure you'll find them quite amusing. I know I have!" The Sea Witch released a cackle that reverberated off the walls into a hollow echo no creature, on earth or in the deep, could've heard without shuddering.

The Dark One shrugged. "If you say so." Then he leaned in and wagged a sharp finger at her. "Just remember that I'm not here to entertain you. Once I fulfill my end, I'll return in a day's time to collect my reward."

"Of course, of course." The tentacles rolled the ball down into the apex of the Sea Witch's body until it was swallowed into the mysterious recesses of her boneless limbs. Darkness fully enveloped the pair of sorcerers now, but both could still see the other. "Have no fear, my friend. You provide the humans and the catastrophe, and I'll provide the squid ink."

The Dark One spread his hands. "Then we have a deal." He clapped his spindly hands together, and in a puff of smoke he was gone. A ghostly giggle lingered behind him.