.

Chapter 4: Loss and Discovery

.

Zane stared at his phone. He stared and stared at the android's glass screen, eyes trailing over a picture he had looked at repeatedly since his internment on the abandoned island.

The picture of his family. Mother and father in the background with his older brother Brad and his younger sister Emily. And there he was, in the middle, smiling and posing for the last family photograph he had ever taken with them.

And now, he was here. Trapped. For three months he had been here, surviving day to day with barely any time to dedicate towards thought or hope of rescue.

The only luxury he had to his name was his smartphone, and the pictures stored on it. His fingers trailed down the screen, as if he could touch the people within one last time.

A beep broke his thoughts, and his gaze drifted unwillingly towards the little battery icon in the top corner.

1%. Barely any power was left inside, despite his judicious and stringent rationing of the remaining life inside the sophisticated piece of technology.

Only the faint embers of his fire gave any light besides the dimly lit screen, the stars having stained the sky long ago.

He returned his gaze towards the photo and continued to stare, but with tears prickling at his eyes.

When the power died, he would be unable to see their faces any more. How long would it be till he started to forget what they looked like? How long until he could see them again?

He stared at his parents, smiling proudly at him. Father was a Notary, mother an accountant. They worked hard, and raised their family right. There were tough times, fights, and arguments of course. A divorce nearly happened, but they managed to work through it and find common ground and love again. They taught their children to be morally upstanding and to follow their dreams. They loved all of them equally.

Black hair with green eyes, Brad, despite his jock sounding name, was perhaps the smartest guy Zane knew. MIT graduate with honors! And he worked at an engineering firm that designed aeronautical systems. Soon, he would be getting a promotion to a management position!

Then there was Emily. She had just graduated high school and would be attending college! She loved her older brothers, and they loved her too. Her black hair was tied into a pony tail with two ribbons, one green and one yellow, holding it together. Those had been gifts for a birthday when she had been younger from her brothers, and she hardly ever took them off. Far more artistic than the rest of the family, she wanted to do sculpting and metalwork.

And it was her birthday today.

When Zane had turned on the phone for the evening, a notification had popped up on his calendar, reminding him of the fact Emily was turning nineteen.

To his utter shame he had completely forgotten about that, and was now forced to spending the last few moments of power regretting it.

Once more, his fingers traced over the image of his family, his touch lingering on his sister.

"Happy birthday to you, happy birthday to you," Zane began to sing softly as he looked at his family. "Happy birthday dear Emily, happy birthday to you."

His voice cracked on the last verse, and just as he finished the song the screen died.

As the light went away for the last time, his resolve finally broke, and he curled up into a ball and wept. Tears poured down his face as Zane allowed himself to cry for the first time since he had arrived on the island.

His entire body shook, his frame trembling with bottled up sorrow that had finally been unleashed.

Unbeknownst to him, something was watching him from the ocean. Something with red hair and a curious gaze.

~/~/~

It had all started off so innocently enough, in Ariel's opinion.

Her father was scrambling all of his forces for one mission or another. Whatever magical thing had happened a few months back had done a number on the defenses of the underwater realms, and a lot of repairs, patrols, and assorted jobs were needed to get everything back on track.

That meant while father was busy doing more and more king stuff, his daughters were more or less free to do what they wanted. To an extent. Her oldest sister Porphyra was doing more and more work with the day-to-day running of Atlantis while Etna, the second oldest and more militaristic of the sisters organized the troops wherever they were needed.

The rest? They did what they could to help out where ever they were best suited. Rain, the second youngest sister and closest in age to the littlest princess, worked with the various economic matters any successful kingdom needed.

Lapis and Lazuli, the twins, helped the mages and various other mystical folk with managing the smaller, less immediate problems left by the strange flux of energy that swept the world.

Venus, the middle child of King Triton's offspring, went around the kingdom singing for the citizens and playing peace maker when disputes arose and the court was busy with other matters.

Ariel even took a break from her adventuring and plundering sunken human ships to scout out places where there were too many storms that needed calming. That these spots tended to have plenty of neat stuff from wrecks didn't hurt either.

It was during one of the trips that she first spotted a man stranded on a deserted island.

Had he been shipwrecked due to one of the storms? It seemed likely, given how a good deal of junk appeared to be washed up.

He was likely a sailor. He seemed young, though. Not too young, and he had decent muscles and tan, but he was clearly 'fresh faced' as Etna would describe a rookie soldier. Perhaps a cabin boy? But no, he was too old for that.

What gave her pause was the large, black flag with white skull and crossbones on the island. She winced as she saw it being used as a tent for the man, and wondered if he had been a pirate.

Her father disliked humans. It was not hate, per say, but he found most of them cruel and arrogant, and utterly unwilling to heed his words or abide by the ancient treaties.

The worst of these 'bald apes,' in his opinion, were pirates. Pillagers, looters, and despoilers. Some even dared to kidnap mermaids and use them as slaves or keep them as pets. The king always retaliated in those cases, devastating their ports and sinking the ships.

Ever since his own wife had died to a group of pirates King Triton had held immense coldness and little mercy for those who flew the Jolly Roger.

This man though did not feel like a pirate, though. There was no stink of blood or metal about him, and his hands, while calloused, did not look suited to holding a weapon beyond his wooden fishing spear. And even then, he was clearly a novice with it.

So, Ariel had watched him. At first, it was to see if he was a pirate or other sort of threat. Though stranded, he might try to harm anyone who approached him.

When it was clear he was not doing anything other than surviving, observing the stranded man took on another, more personal purpose.

Study. Of all her siblings, she was the most fascinated by the mortals of the dry world that bordered her own. She loved their artifacts and tools, which were all so ingenious and intriguing. Not to mention useful. How many of Atlantis' own inventions were mere copies of things humans had made? Most of them, if Ariel was to be brutally honest.

The way he walked on those 'legs,' the way he ate food by cooking it first, the odd clothes he wore to cover himself, how he splashed and stumbled about in the water as he tried to fish, and of course, the way his muscles moved and shone with sweat when he exercised.

So what if she liked to watch a handsome man work out! Was that so wrong?! She was a healthy young adult, damn it! She had rights! And hormones! Lots and lots of hormones!

Anyways! Back to the issue of the human. What had really caught her attention was a moment late at night when she went to learn how humans slept. Before getting into a makeshift bed of ferns and leaves he stared at a tiny contraption in his hands that gave off a faint light.

The expression on his face was melancholic, if not outright depressed. Then, the light faded and he put the item away and went to bed.

Intrigued, she had wanted a closer look, but refrained. The next night, she had eagerly wandered a tiny bit closer to the island to see if he had the light making item again. But he didn't use it.

A whole week passed before he used it again, and once more his face showed deep regrets and loneliness. She guessed that he only used it once a week. Did it take that long to recharge? Was it based on magic, or some other principle?

And now, a whole three weeks of observing the stranded human later, he was now curled up on the beach and sobbing with the most heartbreaking sound she had ever heard in her life.

One thing most did not know about merfolk, and even they themselves often didn't really realize, was that they were minor empaths. When people spoke or sang, they could feel the sincerity of emotions and the true intent in their voice. The same was with crying. A merfolk could tell how much pain and sorrow a person had with uncanny ease.

And the human in front of her had more pain coming from him than she had felt in years. Not since her mother, Queen Athena, had passed away had such anguish poured forth from any one person.

It tore at her heart, and Ariel couldn't help but draw nearer in an unconscious effort to soothe the man.

Despite coming closer, the human didn't notice her, not even when she was practically on the beach itself of the tiny island.

It was only when her movements caused splashes against the rocks did he look up, eyes bleary with tears and puffy from crying.

"What the- are you a mermaid?" he asked, in bewildered awe. Ariel nodded mutely, suddenly very aware of how close they were.

The man crawled towards her in a daze, knees splashing the foamy edges of the water. There was something clutched in his hands, and to Ariel's eyes it looked to be a rectangular piece of dark metal. Was that what had given light? It had suddenly gone dark, and then the human had begun to weep.

All of a sudden a hand reached out and touched her hair and the youngest daughter of King Triton stiffened in shock. She had been so distracted by the item she had ignored how quickly he had reached her spot in the shallows.

But despite her fears, the man did nothing except stroke and fondle her crimson tresses.

"So beautiful," he murmured, fingers trailing through her hair. Ariel shivered, goosebumps running down her spine.

It felt good! Now she knew why Venus was always combing her hair!

A snort of disbelief came from the human and her attention snapped back to him.

"Ha. Ha ha. Hah ha ha! A mermaid! I finally went crazy from loneliness!" the man laughed. Despite his apparent mirth only pain was held in his voice, and Ariel reached out and patted the hand currently resting on her head.

"No, I'm real," she said softly, taking his hand and holding it in front of her. She pressed it against her chest, so he could feel her heartbeat.

The young human's face turned red and he tried to pull away but she held him there. Why was his face starting to resemble her hair color, anyways?

"Can you feel it? I'm real. You're not alone."

He stopped struggling as her warmth and heartbeat were conveyed to him. Tears appeared anew at his eyes, and he whimpered pitifully. Ariel pulled him into a comforting hug. His shirt rubbed against her, the unfamiliar materials not that uncomfortable on her skin. Much nicer than cotton or wool, for certain!

He returned the embrace. It was tight, almost painfully so, but Ariel could tell there was no maliciousness in it, only a strong desire to be close to another person once more.

"You're real," he muttered. "You're real."

He then laughed bitterly. "My sister would have loved you. She loved the story of The Little Mermaid. Knew the whole movie by heart. Even liked the original fairytale."

Ariel frowned, confused. Some of his words were strange. And a story about mermaids? She knew humans spoke of them, but the way he said it made it seem like she should know about this particular one as well.

After a moment the human slumped in her arms, and a soft snoring could be heard coming from him. She gave a small smile and carefully extracted him from herself. She then rolled him out of the surf back onto dry land. Hopefully he was far enough inland the tide wouldn't sweep him away.

Finally deposited, Ariel turned away and swam back into the ocean. But she had a new mission, now. She had spoken to a real human! And he clearly needed her. So, she was going to take care of him! Maybe even help him find a way home!

But why did her chest tighten, and her cheeks become warm when she thought about the human?

~/~/~

Zane was woken by a wave rudely slapping him in the face.

He groaned, feeling weak and sore all over. His eyes ached, and not just from the piercing sun. His mouth tasted like sand and there was some in his ears as well.

And in the palm of his right hand, he could still feel the cool metal of his android smartphone.

Last night returned to him, and he snorted. Really, a mermaid appearing before him? And she looked just like Ariel from The Little Mermaid series by Disney? He had finally lost it. It only took three months before he went bonkers. What was next, carving up a coconut and calling 'Wilson?'

No, that was stupid. The only name fitting for a coconut was 'Armando!' Duh!

He simply lay there, depression keeping him from moving. There was no more power in his phone. No more chances of him seeing his family until he was rescued.

If he was rescued.

It was all too likely he was going to die here.

He had barely enough food at any given time. The coconuts were running low, and the wild onions tasted like shit. His attempts at fishing went poorly, and he only caught a few at a time, if any at all.

Firewood was growing scarce as well. He tried to drag more and more of the pirate ship up, but by now all the small, easy to handle pieces were on the island with him. The rest was all too far off, heavy, or a combination of the two.

Water was also a problem. Squalls came through every other week or so and filled up the chest, but that was far too hard to predict or plan on. His treasure chest could only hold two weeks of water, and that was if he drank one and a half cups a day. He could feel dehydration setting in at times, only to be staved off by the blessing of rain, where he just lay down with his mouth open to catch the fresh falling water.

Sickness was a constant fear for Zane as well. He once ate a fish that he shouldn't have, and spent an hour puking. Scratches and the like were hard to deal with as well. He scraped his knee badly on some sharp corral at one point, and he used up two whole bottles of rum disinfecting the wound, then had to tear his shirt to make a bandage.

If hunger, thirst, or exposure didn't kill him, an infection would.

At least he had a decent tan, now. And muscles. He wasn't a flabby, pasty white geek anymore. Now he was slim, trim, and athletic! That was about the only benefit he'd gotten from this whole endeavor.

Now if only he could grow a proper beard! His family did not grow facial hair well. Moustaches looked a little too 'child-molesty' for their liking and beards looked patchy and crude. His own beard looked like a ferret, or perhaps a particularly ugly poodle, had died on his chin.

His stomach growled loudly.

He sighed. He didn't want to move. His heart was just too heavy, and he was having immense trouble mustering up the will to continue trying to live. What was the point? Was it worth it, trying to wait and hope for rescue?

A splash cut through Zane's depressed thoughts. Then another. He frowned, eyes still shut.

That sounded a tad too large for a mere wave. It almost sounded like something was close to the shore. Something big enough to cause waves to displace.

"Are you awake?"

Zane's eyes shot open. A voice. A female voice! The same one from his dream about the mermaid! Had it been real? Was there someone else out there? Or was he finally going crazy as he feared?

With agonizing slowness, Zane looked over towards the beach to his left, and gazed out at where the question had come from.

His eyes widened and his jaw dropped.

"Bwuh?"

A red-headed mermaid with a blue-green shell-bra and foam-green tail lay in the surf, watching him with concern.

"Is everything alright?" she asked. Zane continued to stare. He watched her lips move incredulously, unable to believe his eyes. She was talking. She was talking to him!

He reached out with his left hand, arm shaking, and she held out her hand as well. He clasped it, feeling its softness, her palm against his.

It was real. She was really here! There was an actual Holy Hell All Gods Be Damned mer-frikken-maid in front of him who looked almost identical to Ariel!

She scooched closer, almost completely out of the water as she got closer to him.

"Did you lose your voice? Can you understand me?" she inquired worriedly.

The following words out of Zane's mouth made him want to slap himself.

"Why are you so beautiful?"