Ariel awoke on the second day (her first morning in the palace, and oh, she had slept well, except for dreams of eels wrapping around her arms and her mouth and her soul) with the realization that she had been quite oblivious to the possibilities.
Ursula had taken her voice — her music, the loss of which had hurt more than the transformation had, for all that growing legs had felt like being flayed with razor blades, and her speech — but she hadn’t taken her words. She could still communicate. And she knew that humans could write, because she had found the books, waterlogged but still legible, and presumably that meant humans could read also.
So she signaled frantically for one of the servants, and flailed wildly at them until they got the idea that she wanted pen and ink and paper. Relieved, she sat down (sat! Such a new feeling) and began to write. It was so simple! All she had to do was explain everything--
Her hand faltered.
She could come up with the words in my head (/My beloved prince, I gave up my voice to be with you; I love you, I want to spend my life with you; where I come from, I am a princess, and you would do well with me; please oh please say you love me too; please hold me, please touch me, please kiss me. Just a kiss, and I can be with you forever./)
But when it came to writing it, her hand froze, and she could not force herself to put the words to paper.
Maybe it was part of Ursula's spell, somehow. The sea witch had mentioned body language, not writing, and maybe it was just that she thought Ariel was an illiterate nobody, but maybe there was something tied to the magic that didn't let her talk directly about it. Maybe Ursula hadn't realized it, or maybe she couldn't help it.
Or maybe, Ariel thought, there was something inside her that was afraid Eric would find her lacking.
No. No. It had to be the magic, somehow.
But how would she tell him, then?
She tilted her head and regarded the blank paper thoughtfully, and then dipped the pen in ink and set it on the paper. One stroke, and then another, and another, and she moved with more confidence and more speed.
Several hours later, she had a handful of papers with drawings on them. Nothing of the underwater kingdom, because (whatever her father might think) she was not going to risk her people by disclosing them to the humans. Nothing of who she was, or who she had been. Just what she had seen. The ship; the dancing, with Eric's snarfblatt and the dog; the statue in all its larger-than-life glory; the storm, and the lightning; Eric rescuing his dog from the flames; Eric in the water; Eric on the beach after the storm.
If this worked...
"Good morning," the prince said, and then, "oh!" when she practically fell into his arms. "What's this?"
Ariel handed him the papers, trying to indicate urgency with every gesture.
"These are very nice," he said politely, but by the third one he was frowning. "This is-- how did you-- You weren't there. You couldn't have been there."
Ariel took the papers out of his hands and turned to the last two. She held up one (Eric in the water), and the other (Eric on the beach), back and forth, and made frantic swimming gestures. Instinct had her wanting to kick her tail -- legs, dammit, she had legs now, and feet -- and she almost fell over, papers flying everywhere as she wheeled her arms in an attempt to stay upright.
"Whoa there, easy now." He caught her in his arms; she could feel the heat radiating from him, and it warmed places she hadn't realized were cold.
The drawings were on the floor now, and she didn't want out of his embrace, so she just pointed at the last one, and then made one-armed swimming motions, and pointed at him, and the drawing again, and at herself, and at him...
He looked at her in astonishment. "You're... are you trying to say you're the one who rescued me?"
Ariel nodded so hard she almost fell over again. (How did humans manage it, anyway, this balance thing, without the comfort of water around them? Air was so thin.)
"There was a girl," he said, almost dreamily, and then his eyes narrowed in confusion. "She was singing."
Ariel nodded again, and mouthed 'yes', but there was no way she could communicate 'I traded my voice for the chance to be with you' in a way that she would understand.
So instead, heart pounding wildly in her chest, she took his head in her hands and stretched up to kiss him.
It was a bit awkward, at least at first, but their lips brushed and she felt a tingle down her spine. She pulled back and tried to speak again -- surely that had done the trick? -- but no sound came out.
That hadn't done it.
(Maybe he had to be the one to kiss her, she thought dazedly -- this one didn't count because she'd kissed him -- maybe --)
And then he was lifting her chin, and bending in to kiss her, and Ariel's eyes fluttered closed. Let this work, she prayed, let this work, let this work--
Far off, there was a watery cry of despair, and something filled her throat, choking her.
And then she could talk, but she only got out "Eric--" before she crumpled to the ground, sobbing and laughing at the same time.
She had done it.
"Are you all right?" Eric said; he was crouched by his side, looking seriously baffled.
"I'm fine," she said, and laughed, and hugged him.
"You can talk?"
"Oh Eric, Eric, I wanted to-- I didn't know how-- I couldn't--" She breathed. Start from the beginning, Ariel, you silly girl. "I couldn't talk until you kissed me. It was part of the deal."
"Deal?" he echoed sceptically.
She started talking, and it all spilled out now. Every detail, from her father's actions to the deal with Ursula to the moment she walked into the palace.
And when she was done, there was dead silence.
Ariel twisted her hands together, waiting.
Finally Eric gave himself a little shake, like he was breaking free of an enchantment, and said, "Okay, wait -- you're a mermaid?"
"Yep," Ariel said cheerfully, nodding.
"And King Triton is --"
"My father, yes."
A quiet "heh-hem" alerted them to Grimsby's presence. "Your Highness," he said to Eric, "we need to talk."
Eric scrubbed his face with one hand. "Sure... of course." He stood, smiled at Ariel, and rested his hand on her shoulder for a moment before leaving.
"How much did you hear?" she heard him ask Grimsby as they walked off.
"Enough," was all she could hear of Grimsby's response.
Ariel put her hand on her shoulder where Eric had touched her, and smiled blissfully.
Not even half an hour later, Scuttle flew into the window, shook himself, and squawked until Ariel went out on the balcony. "I overheard them talking. The human and the other human. They were talking about you, kid!"
"Yeah?" Ariel said absently.
"Oh yes, the prince couldn't stop talking about you, and they mentioned your proficiency with the dinglehopper... kid, I think you have it made!"
"Though they did know about you being a mermaid -- well, you used to be one -- obviously you aren't any more -- and --" Scuttle did a doubletake. "Ariel, you can talk!"
Ariel laughed and twirled around. "He kissed me, Scuttle! He loves me. It's all working out."
"Good for you," Scuttle said, and patted her on the head before taking flight again, warbling something that might have been a song.
The next morning, Eric suggested to Ariel that they go for a ride. "All right," Ariel said cheerfully. "Are we getting married?"
"Er... no, not yet." He rubbed the back of his neck awkwardly, looking a bit embarrassed. "Come on."
They took the carriage to a foreboding place with high walls and a large iron gate that swung closed behind them with an ominous clang. Ariel glanced about her nervously. "What is this place?"
Eric, looking about as uncomfortable as she felt, helped her down out of the carriage. "Ariel, you know I love you, right?"
"Of course. That's why the kiss worked."
"And I only want the best for you..."
"What's going on?" Ariel asked suspiciously. Without warning, she was grabbed by two large burly men who held her arms with an iron grip. "No! Eric--"
"It's okay," he said, "you'll be safe here. Taken care of."
"But wait, Eric, what--"
He got back into the carriage and looked at her with sorrowful eyes. "I really thought you were the one."
"I am! Oh, let me go... Eric, please, I am!"
"Not for me," he said, and clucked at the horse and drove off.
Ariel's captors took her inside, where she could hear distant eerie noises, moaning and sobbing and shrieking. "Where am I?"
A woman appeared out of nowhere, taking Ariel from her captors. "Don't worry, darling," the woman said soothingly. "You're safe here."
"Come along, now, there's a dear."
Ariel frowned. There had been a sign on the outside of the gate. "What's an 'asylum'?"
"Your new home."
"But what is it?"
"Never you mind about that, dear," the woman said, patting her like a child. "It's just a place for people like you to be safe."
"Like me?" Ariel frowned, suddenly remembering the word from one of her (now destroyed, oh Daddy!) collection of books. You were sent to an asylum if you were... if you were... oh, no, no, please no. "I don't belong here!" Ariel shouted. "I'm not crazy."
"Of course not," she said, blandly soothing and obviously not believing a word.
"When my father hears about this--" Oh, but her father wouldn't; she had no way to talk to him. "I need to get out of here, I need to go back..."
"Come along now," the woman said, and led her to a small cell-like room, with a slit of a window as the only indication of an outside world. The door was shut behind her, and there was the unmistakable snick of a lock sliding home.
Ariel flung herself on the bed, sobbing. This wasn't how things were supposed to work! She was supposed to marry Eric; she loved him and he loved her.
Ariel could feel the pull of the ocean, but it was distant and weak. This place was too far inland.
She was going to die here, and no one -- not her family, not Sebastian, not Eric, not anyone -- would ever know.
Far off, she could hear the sound of the sea witch's laughter.