When Leo awoke, he was no longer in the air bubble at the bottom of the pond.
He was lying on the pond floor, sand and silt settling into the crooks of his elbows and his collarbone. He felt it more than saw it. It was dark.
His head hurt, and the darkness and confusion set his heart to racing. He was breathing underwater–not using his nose or his mouth or his lungs, but something else on his neck, gills, they must be gills–and it was effortless, but he was afraid he’d forget how to do it, he’d let water into his lungs by breathing the wrong way, and then what? Then it was really the end.
His breathing turned to gasps.
“Leo, please calm down,” a voice said from the darkness.
Aristea. It was Aristea’s voice.
Leo’s memory of recent events flooded back to him. It didn’t slow his heart rate down. “Aristea?” he tried. He spoke from somewhere deep below his sternum, in that muted, bubbly way Mer people did.
“Put on a light,” Aristea said.
“How? Can you do it?”
“Hold your palm open,” Aristea said patiently, ignoring his request. “You’ll feel it in your veins. Let it bleed.”
Aristea’s instructions were just as vague as any elderly wizard on a magical quest, but Leo didn’t complain. He tried to calm the tremors in his hands, tried to breathe in and out slowly, and opened his palm toward the sky. Just like Aristea said, his veins started to itch, like something wanted to come out. So he let it, letting out a breath as little beads of light splintered out from under his skin and coalesced together in his hands like a party full of fireflies.
It was nowhere near as bright as the light Aristea had cast when he first fell down here, but Leo supposed there was a learning curve. It was bright enough to illuminate Aristea, and himself.
Leo looked down at his body.
He was naked. His torso was angular and shimmery like the other Mer people’s, covered in scales and gills. His hands were webbed, his nails indigo blue. And, from the waist down, he was a fish. A big ole fish. From the looks of it, his tail was a deep, opalescent, seaweed green, with many small cilia at the fishtail base.
His chest was masculine, with small pecs. His arms seemed a little broader, too. He felt his face, realizing the bone structure had changed. He picked up an old, littered potato chip bag from the pond floor, squinting at his reflection in the aluminum packaging.
“Oh my god,” Leo breathed.
He looked like himself. His real self, the one in dreams and the one he doodled. The one he knew deep within his spirit.
“Your time is up,” Aristea said. “Mer people, when turned, experience their Mer forms, but unless it’s under one of the right moons, it won’t stay. You better swim up so you’re prepared when you turn human again. Oh, and here’s this.” Aristea handed him a plastic shopping bag tied tightly closed. He could tell by the shape of it that it held his clothes and his costume, which felt like something that had happened a lifetime ago. In a way, it had.
Just as Aristea said, Leo began to feel off. Vibratey, discordant with himself, in a way that suggested it would only build from here. Kind of pukey, too.
There was so much left to say, so much left to learn, so much he needed to do. For now, though, his lips were burning, his hands aching, so he gave Aristea a quick wave before power-swimming toward the surface faster than he’d thought possible.
Just as he broke the surface, light exploded from his hands, enveloping him in a swath of white, and warming him from the inside out.