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Swept Away

Chapter Text

 

 

Somewhere off the coast of a well-known country, far from the bustling crowds and blinding lights of the cities, there is a secret gem of a place tucked away.

Past a tall mountain range and a few hundred acres of forest lies a hilly seaside town, where the streetlights buzz orange all through the night, and a cold, dewy mist breezes across every house and shop in the wee hours of the morning.

It really does seem to rain here almost every day of the year.

Claudine's rueful relatives had warned her about it when she'd finally decided she was old enough to pack up and strike out on her own. Years of stifling banquets and extravagant dinner parties had left her craving the adventures of a childhood she'd never known.

Especially when talk about a betrothal began emerging from her parents' lips.

All her years and nights of wishing it would stop, that it wasn't true, never came to be granted. It made her realize that in this world of adults and money, wishes probably couldn't come true after all.

And so Claudine had taken her fate into her own hands and left that suffocating house the moment she'd turned 18. Everyone had been angry, but she got the feeling no one missed her.

She'd heard about this town that overlooked the ocean, where whispers about magic glided across the streets. It hadn't mattered to her that she'd expended nearly all of her funds just to get herself here and find a humble little apartment with a rickety balcony with a view of the sea.

She'd fallen in love with it immediately. The smell of the ocean, the blasting of the wind, the quiet, peaceful people who always smiled and said hello. It was a dire contrast to the life she'd once known, to the property lines and business scams and mudslinging industries.

On only her first night in her little new bed, she'd already decided she would never go back there.

She found work at a florist shop on some days and a cafe on others. Wages were humble, but so was her lifestyle. She never asked for much, and she much preferred this kind of living as opposed to her old life.

Claudine quickly became the talk of the town for about a week - the beautiful, young, previously-rich girl who had traded it all away for the salty fish-smelling seaside. Even the boys who flirted with her here were leagues more honest and polite than the ones she'd known back home, and so Claudine rejected them all with equal politeness. Her love right now was for this place, this town, this ocean, and no one else.

She learned about the magic through the locals. It wasn't much, but there wasn't a soul in the town who hadn't seen or heard something at least once.

A few stories told of the forests bordering the town, how tinkling laughter and pale purple lights could sometimes be seen in the twilight hours. If one left a glittery painted rock at a stump in the grass, they could return the next day to find fresh berries in its place. And though Claudine adored the notion of faeries and forest spirits, what stole her heart more than anything were the tales of the sea.

The sightings there were rarer and less frequent than those in the woods. People only ever saw oddly-colored flashes of light beneath the surface of the water for a split second before it was gone.

Claudine can't explain why, but ever since she'd first laid eyes on it in-person, she'd felt as though the sea was calling to her.

She visited it every day, religiously. In the mornings before and the evenings after work, she would hurry from her residence or workplace to walk along the shoreline in her bare feet, relishing the damp softness of the sand between her toes. The water was always chilly, but she didn't mind. The shivers it sent up her spine and the salty air that filled her lungs truly made her feel more alive than she'd ever known herself to be. She would walk the entire length of the beach, pausing to collect the occasional broken sea shell or two.

The beach wasn't very large here. It only took her about ten minutes to travel the length of it at a saunter. There was a short dock and station where citizens could rent small boats on the calmer days, but no one seemed to take advantage of that. And the beach was only open for swimming and the like during the summer months when the water was warmest.

Her only stroke of bad luck since coming here was the knowledge that she'd come in September and just missed the swimming months by a week or so. She could imagine how the beach must have looked when it was interspersed with people and towels and umbrellas.

But she soon believed she came to prefer it this way; this quiet, calming emptiness. It was an emptiness that didn't make her feel alone, but rather it made her feel like there was something waiting for her.

The shore ended at a sheer cliff face on one end near the boat rental dock, and a series of craggy rocks beside a smaller cliff on the other. Claudine discovered early on that she could tiptoe her way across those rocks and sit at the very edge of the very last one, which would put herself nearly half a mile out into the sea. The waves didn't crash too high or too hard here, and so long as she bundled herself up accordingly, the chill of the wind and the spray of the water didn't faze her much.

She spent many hours of her weekends and days off sitting there, simply gazing out over the rippling water. It was always gray or dark blue due to the thick cloud coverage that painted the sky. She hadn't seen much blue firmament or sunlight since she'd arrived, but she didn't mind all that much. She simply loved being here.

Even on the nights when she would wake and remember how alone she was, stepping out onto her balcony to glimpse the midnight ocean always made her feel as though someone or something was with her. The vastness of the sea made her feel like there were endless possibilities and paths laid out before her, that there was no one single correct or pre-destined option.

It made her feel hopeful.

Hopeful that she could make this work, even in a town where most of the people were older and already settled. She would give it some time and reassess what her heart was feeling in a few months' time.

It was from one of her older neighbors that Claudine got the idea of fishing from. The woman's hair was beginning to gray, and her daughter was expecting a baby soon, therefore she found no more uses for her old fishing gear and supplies. Claudine was gifted all of these free of charge, and could only bow deeply and thank her in return.

There was a fish market in town that accepted catches from the locals and would pay accordingly. Claudine didn't see why she couldn't make a little extra money on the side during her free time if she already favored sitting out by the sea.

So one day she put on the sturdy grey pants and thick black boots, the puffy orange jacket and cap, and took a kit of supplies and a rod to her favorite spot on the beach.

She began by fishing in the stiller waters trapped in small pools between the rocks. There were hermit crabs and star fish hidden in the mud, and she did her best not to step or sit on any of them. She fished the little puddles and pond-like spots and discovered right away that it was a task that truly called for a lot of patience. That was a department Claudine had always been lacking in, thanks to the tight schedule she'd always had to live all her life.

But when she finally hooked her first fish after hours of waiting, the thrill of the accomplishment all felt worth it. The little snapper she caught that day wasn't enough to sell at market though, so she released it shortly afterward. She didn't plan on selling her catches until she got experienced enough to bring in a decent haul or an impressive catch.

Until then, the cafe and flower shop could hold her over.

As so, Claudine began going out to those rocks every morning and every evening, or at least one of the two. In spite of the weather, which was almost always dreary and wet, she went. Even if she caught nothing, she simply longed to breathe in the scent of the sea, to feel the refreshing breeze that filled her lungs with the tang of salt.

And every now and then, she too, thought she might've glimpsed something colorful flashing just below the surface.

 


 

A/N: I realized as I was writing this story... There really isn't much dialogue in the first half of it. I hope it can still be enjoyable.

Please leave comments or kudos!

Chapter Text

Chapter 2. Encounter

 

The waters of the sea hold many, many secrets, most of which mankind could never hope to boast of discovering. There was so much their technology would never be able to track, comprehend, or recognize.

But it wasn't just things that were kept safely hidden leagues and leagues beneath the waves.

Some of those creatures dwelled only just beneath the surface - just shy of the corner of the fleeting glance of man.

The mermaids enjoyed the warm, clear waters just as the humans did. The seas had always belonged to them, until man had begun their expeditions to claim the earth. Boats of all sorts threatened the mermaids' existence, and the once-quiet beaches were now clogged with humans day in and day out.

The humans were a natural enemy of the mermaids, viewing them as magical prizes to be caught, shown off, sold, and kept prisoner.

And so, the mermaids had learned to adapt over time, their skin and scales becoming sturdier and darker in color to match the colder waters of the fall and winter, when the humans didn't venture out to sea as much.

Mahiru was a mermaid who had been born to naturally accept and handle colder waters, and she knew that was for the better. Her friends and family had told her time and again that it was safer this way.

But that didn't stop her from loving the warm rays of the sun the few days when it did shine through strongly enough to reach the depths at which they dwelled. She loved basking in that warmth, soaking up the rays into her turquoise scales that shone a vibrant bluish-green in the brighter light.

It was only on days when the waters were calm and quiet without human activity that the mermaids let themselves float and sun-bathe near the surface.

In spite of their evolution to favor colder waters, they followed the summers as best they could. A popular trick of theirs would be to tease the sharks into nearing the shores, not close enough to hurt the humans, but close enough to scare them off for the final few weeks of sunlight.

In the humans' absence, the mermaids played, racing with the dolphins and lazing on the backs of whales.

Mahiru joined in all of these games and many more, but her favorite hobby by far was treasure-hunting. She loved scouring the shallow waters at sundown for washed-up shells or vibrant sea glasses. She'd find all kinds of colorful shells and pearls and a variety of things. She'd even heard tales of magical stones that could grant wishes, but in spite of her boundless and passionate efforts, she'd never come across one of those.

Occasionally, there was human trash that was useable to them. Most of her outfit had been crafted with such items; lost sun hats, forgotten scarves and ponchos, and the like. A bit of natural dyes from the corals had made quick work of turning the fabrics into the desired blues and greens to cover her chest and create a skirt of sorts for her tail.

She loved to weave the old raggedy threads of the humans' forgotten clothes into frills and decorations, which ended up earning her a name for herself underwater. She collected oyster pearls from ocean to ocean and added them into a necklace around her collar. By the time she was eighteen, that necklace was full.

Since her pod traveled so much, she couldn't take most of the treasures she found with her, so instead she would hide them in deep undersea caves, in crevices no human would ever dare dive to. When she returned to the same place the following years, she loved to check if her trinkets were still there or not.

It was a way for her to keep herself excited about traveling so much, about never getting to stay in one beloved place for long. She knew it was for everyone's safety.

But sometimes she just wished they could settle somewhere and call it home.

Now, Mahiru and her family have been swimming for weeks, following the humpbacks to the sunniest shorelines. There is a small cove beside a fairly quiet beach where they often rest for a day or two along their journey, and Mahiru is finding herself more and more eager to curl up in a bed of soft sea grass and sleep for as long as possible.

The cove they are headed for is one Mahiru knows well by now. It might be small, and the water may be colder than it is at most other places, but the beach here is always clean and empty. There is a human town set just behind the sand dunes, but humans rarely ventured out onto the beach here.

If not for the fact that the cove was so small and the waters so bitterly cold, she always thought this would be a fine place for her pod to call home. But it's due to all of her self-led scavenging and treasure-hunting into deeper, darker waters that Mahiru has built up a bit more of a resistance to the chill of the waves here. The others still crave the sunlight, and while Mahiru does too, she just doesn't mind the cold as much.

When her pod finally swims into the area, Mahiru closes her eyes and lets the familiar currents drift her for a moment. She remembers this place from past years. Something about the water here has always delighted her, and she can't quite explain what.

While her parents and siblings seem to turn their noses up at it, Mahiru feels comfortable here.

Or maybe comfortable isn't the right word - after all, how could any mermaid feel so comfortable this close to mankind?

But even so, she felt as though she liked this little section of the ocean, these cleaner waves where humans didn't step foot very often, and where more fish were able to swim freely.

Presently, the tired mermaids retreat to the underwater caves and begin collecting sea grass to make their beds. But Mahiru finds herself suddenly overwhelmed with the urge to explore. She forgets how tired she'd been up until now, and instead darts off to the back of the cave, her tail stirring up bubbles as she goes. She remembers the things she'd hidden here last year - a few green glass bobbles, some lost human ring that sparkled with diamonds, a couple of perfect un-chipped scallop shells marked with the most beautiful stripes and spots, and the smoothest, pinkest conch shell she'd ever seen in all the ocean.

She swims directly to the spot where she'd concealed them, apologizing to the little eels and crabs she disturbs as she begins pawing through the crevices. And just past a few barnacles and star fish, she finds her treasures cradled by a soft flow, the movement of which had kept them clean this entire year.

A trill bubbles up in her heart as she reaches in to pick up each trinket and inspect it before putting it back. It isn't often her treasures are still where she'd hidden them a year earlier. Sometimes other mermaids find them, sometimes it's humans, and sometimes they just come free due to the constant movement of the ocean itself. Her tradition is to add something new to the piles that remain, and to start over with the ones that hadn't.

Therefore, after carefully tucking everything back into place and covering it with a few fronds of seaweeds, she propels herself back toward the entrance of the cave. The rest of her family have settled down about halfway through, but Mahiru passes right over them. Her parents caution her to be careful, and when her younger siblings beg to come explore with her, she gently denies them.

She swims out into open waters, unplagued by boats or humans in any form, her body bursting with a newfound energy, forgetting all its weary travels. She glances back over her shoulder to ensure she's out of sight of the others, for surely they'd scold her for what she's about to do.

Mahiru turns her face sky bound - toward the surface.

She can already tell there isn't much sunlight today, judging by how gray the waters appear. And there are tiny rings plittering out along the water, so she knows it must be drizzling. But she doesn't care.

She works her tail, paddling until she nears those final few feet. Here, she pauses, knowing the dangers of breaching before she's checked the area. So she proceeds slowly now, feeling the water fall from the top of her head now as she inches her face above the surface.

Sure enough, thin little raindrops are drizzling down, and the coastline is gray and dreary.

But Mahiru still thinks it's beautiful in its own way. The human town has remained unchanged; the houses are still small and humble, and the streets are mostly quiet and still. And the beach is empty.

She smiles, drawing in a big breath of oxygen from the air, which is just a little bit sharper than that from the water. It sends a tingle through her lungs and all the way down to the tips of her tail fins.

She dives back down, swimming quickly and deeply before turning herself with an expert swing of her tail. She aims herself at the surface once more and then propels herself upward like the dolphins had taught her. With a squealing giggle, she breaches cleanly out of the water, letting the rain patter across her skin and scales, twisting in midair as she gazes up at the cloudy gray sky.

She lands with a good splash and sinks back down several feet into the sea, her hair swaying like strands of long, soft sea grass all around her. She knows she shouldn't be doing this so close to human territory, but she's far enough away from the others that she's confident if trouble were to arise, only she would have to take responsibility for it.

Mahiru twists her tail and swims back up, not breaching the surface this time, but instead swimming just beneath it, her turquoise scales shimmering even in the more shadowy waters.

She swims amongst the fish here, all kinds of bass and snappers which are unique to this part of the sea. When she dives down to the sand, flounders kick up dust in her face and she laughs.

Mahiru enjoys her solitude just as much as she enjoys being with the others - and perhaps a little more. She was the only one her age in the family, and she didn't even know that many others outside of her pod who were her age - none she saw often, anyway. And none of them shared her energy and her interests, so she felt it was only when she was alone that she could truly be herself - unrefined and carefree. She loves them all dearly, but after swimming hundreds of miles with them over the past few days, she takes this opportunity to let loose.

She swims as she pleases, not worrying about formations or keeping an eye on the little ones. She twists and turns and flips and spins, giggling up bubbles all the while. She splashes her tail on the surface, then drifts up to peek her face out into the open air. She opens her mouth to taste the chill of the salt-less raindrops, and overall loses track of time.

She swims across the whole section of the cove, from the cliffside where her family has lain down in the caves below, all the way across to where the rocks stretch out nearly half a mile into the water.

It's there when it happens.

As she scales the bases of the massive rocks underwater, Mahiru catches sight of a beautiful red snapper and gives chase. There's no point in racing a fish so small, as she knows they'll always win, but it never stops her from trying.

Mahiru pumps her tail and strokes her arms, and even though the fish makes a sharp turn and disappears from her sight, she continues on toward the surface. She breaches the surface with a merry laugh on her lips.

But as soon as she opens her eyes, that laugh dies more quickly than a raindrop fades into the sea.

She sees her then. A human, seated right at the edge of the rocks, only about twenty feet away from Mahiru. The girl's focus is on the water in front of her, not yet to the side where Mahiru has popped up. But the splash of her breach is loud, and she can't stop a terrified gasp from coming up either. She only hopes that she falls back into the water before the human girl can turn her head.

It all happens so quickly, and yet it feels as though it takes her hours before she finally falls back into the water.

Mahiru squeezes her eyes shut and prays - prays - the girl hadn't see her. She pumps her tail as quickly as she can, trying to get as deep as she can as quickly as possible.

But a small, stabbing pain cuts through her when she feels the tip of a fishing hook snare at the delicate membrane of one of her tail-fins. She cries out in pain, but doesn't stop swimming. She can only hope there aren't any nets set up.

But thankfully she manages to escape, though she isn't sure whether or not the human girl had spotted or heard her.

When she's finally back by the cliff-side of the cove, Mahiru eventually slows to a stop. Her heart is pounding so hard it's sending vibrations into the water.

As she catches her breath, she shakily reaches down for her tail. A small line had been ripped down one of her fins. But from all the horrible tales she'd heard about what humans could do to a mermaid, she would have to consider this a blessing.

As the fright of it all catches up with her, Mahiru feels the sting of tears behind her eyes, though in the ocean they never really fall before they join the rest of the water around her.

Even so, she wipes her eyes and lingers for a few moments in the open water, until her pulse has slowed down and she's gotten control over herself.

She'd been foolish. She hadn't checked thoroughly enough for humans ahead of time, and now she might've been spotted. This could endanger her family, and it might even forbid them from ever coming back to this cove again.

Mahiru races for the cave, passing over the others where they sleep, and slides down into the sand. She curls her tail around herself as much as she can and softly cries herself to sleep.

Chapter Text

Chapter 3. From Afar

 

Claudine can't really be certain of what she saw that day - if she actually saw anything at all, that is.

But at the very least, she'd definitely heard something.

After hours upon hours of listening to nothing but the soft lull of the waves rushing up against the rocks and shore, and the even softer hissing of the rain on the water, there was no mistaking the massive splash she'd suddenly heard.

She'd been so startled she'd nearly slipped right off her perch on the rocks. But by the time she'd righted herself and turned toward the source of the noise, all she could manage to glimpse was something blue and shiny, and a whole lot of water.

She could only assume it had been a marlin or a curious dolphin, as she couldn't think of any other fish quite that large that would be living in this area.

She'd definitely hooked something too, as her rod had been given a good yank shortly afterward. But she hadn't ended up catching anything else that afternoon.

So she'd gathered up her supplies and headed home.

But all evening long, she couldn't stop thinking about that marvelous flash of blue she'd spotted beneath the surface.

 

 


 

 

Claudine returns to her usual spot to fish the next day, and the day after that. It doesn't rain either of those days, and with the sun actually peeking through the clouds and a few patches of blue sky visible, it puts her in a singing mood.

She hums to herself as she reels in her little catches of sea bass and mackerel, but even though her intentions had been to sell her catches at market, she ends up feeling guilty and releases the fish every time. It doesn't take her much longer than that to realize that she doesn't enjoy fishing for the prospect of making a little extra money on the side; she enjoys it for the tranquility and the peace-of-mind.

She just loves being out here where no one else is, loves seeing all the different kinds of fish she can catch, loves the smells and sounds of the waves and the view of endless water.

It's the kind of life she'd always longed for - the polar opposite of the busy schedules and fancy banquets of her old life.

Here, she feels like she can actually hear herself think.

And though she still isn't entirely sure what she's searching for, it's nice to believe that it might come to her if she waits for it.

 

. . .

 


 

. . .

 

The morning after the incident with the fishing girl, Mahiru pointedly hides the nick in her tail from her family. She covers her tail as much as possible with the materials of her skirt, or sweeps it under the sand or into the seaweed when she can.

After they gather up some fresh greens and eat their fill, her family decides to move on from the cove and follow the whales. Mahiru's heart sinks at the news. She'd wanted to stay here a little longer. She hadn't thought the girl on the rocks had gotten a good look at what she was, so Mahiru wasn't afraid of staying here.

And she couldn't explain what it was, but something was begging her not to go. Not yet.

So that evening, when the water begins to darken, she musters up her courage and speaks up to her family. All her life she'd obeyed her parents and grandparents. She'd looked after the little ones and more or less raised them herself, to some degree.

But now, they all must see that desire in her eyes, that longing to break away and live her own life - if only for a little while. Because they accept her choice - so long as she catches up to them within a month, or else they would come back to fetch her.

Mahiru almost can't believe it. She cries out in glee and hugs them all in turn, promising to meet them at the designated island.

She had always been one of the most responsible and clever mermaids most others had ever met. Yesterday's blunder with the human girl aside, Mahiru vowed she would never make such a thoughtless and dangerous mistake again.

That night, she sleeps curled up at the center of her family, sad to be leaving them, but even more excited for it. She is certain that one month would come and go, and she'd be back with them before she knew it.

In the morning, when the sun beams cast their wavering light in through the surface, Mahiru hugs and kisses every one of her family members before seeing them off as they head for warmer waters and whiter beaches.

And although her heart aches a little bit, as soon as their tail fins are out of sight, she's filled with an excitement she's never know before. Surely, this is the feeling of freedom.

From here on out, she can begin writing her own story.

And she starts with a joyful swim across the cove, not even fully realizing that she's headed back toward those rocks.

 

. . .

 

The human girl returns to the same spot every day, and with the other mermaids gone now, Mahiru can't contain her curiosity. It's reassuring to know that if anything happens, she will take full responsibility without putting any of her family at risk.

But she doesn't get the feeling that this girl is dangerous in the slightest. After all, every fish she catches is released a few seconds later.

Mahiru doesn't sense any ill intent from her at all, even from the far, far distance she maintains between them.

She had seen humans before plenty of times from afar, and heard countless stories about them. She'd seen and felt their impact on the oceans and its creatures, and just about everything associated with them was negative.

But Mahiru had always been a fair judge of character from a young age, and she didn't think this girl was a threat to anyone.

Even so, she knew better than to venture as close as she had that first accidental day.

So she was sure to keep a large distance between them at all times.

But when the clouds moved in and the water got a little darker, she dared to swim closer, knowing the shadows would conceal her from sight.

Most of what she saw of this girl was blurred from beneath the surface, but every now and again Mahiru peeked her head above the waves, making sure to keep herself out of the girl's direct line of sight.

And that's when she heard the girl's voice for the very first time.

She was singing, beautifully and loudly enough for her voice to carry across the rushing of the waves against the rocks.

It was a sound that sent a tingle through Mahiru's chest, a sound that made her heart flutter. She knew many mermaids who could sing, and she'd heard tall tales of how their voices were so enchanting they sometimes lured pirates and fishermen out into the sea with their songs. She'd even heard many of her fellows sing for herself.

But Mahiru was convinced she'd never heard a voice more beautiful than this girl's as she sat alone on the rocks at the edge of a rain-splattered ocean.

 

 


 

 

After several days, Mahiru found she didn't want to leave the cove. Her plans of exploring the ocean on her own and hunting for treasure she'd never even dreamed of all get swept away with the tide.

Or rather, carried away by the voice of a human girl.

Mahiru is absolutely entranced by her, her curiosity growing more and more by the day.

She begins learning the timeline of things in the cove.

In the mornings and throughout the day, Mahiru spends her time searching for shells and playing with the fish and dolphins.

But in the afternoon, every day regardless of the weather, that girl appears at the edge of the beach in her fishing clothes and makes her way across the rocks.

As soon as Mahiru sees her, she swims to that side of the cove to listen to her songs. It doesn't take her long to memorize the words and the tunes, so she takes the liberty of singing them herself from underwater, never loudly enough to risk being heard, but loudly enough where she can feel elated at letting her voice ring out over such lovely notes.

It's strange. Now that she has her freedom, she suddenly can't pull herself away from this cove.

And it doesn't take long for her to realize it's because of that girl.

Mahiru wishes she could talk to her, though she knows such a delusion could never come to be. She would probably frighten the girl away for good, or worse, inspire her to call in serious fishermen to come hunt for Mahiru's capture. Communicating with her directly would only cause chaos, and she knows this.

But perhaps there was some other way Mahiru could interact with this girl, if not directly.

She comes up with the idea of sending the girl fish to catch. Not only would this allow Mahiru to swim at her leisure, and discover and race fish for herself, but it would also allow her to make more accurate judgements about this girl.

She starts off by sending a puffer fish near the rocks. After a few moments, it spots the bait worm and bites. Mahiru watches from afar as the girl reels in her catch, clearly surprised and delighted to have gotten a kind of fish she'd never hooked before.

Mahiru waits anxiously, already feeling guilty for using the little fish this way. But she has faith this girl won't hurt it.

And surely enough, after letting it into a container filled with water and admiring it for a few moments, the girl stands up and carefully dumps the container - fish and all - back into the sea.

Mahiru learns so much about her just from this instance alone. This girl isn't cruel or greedy, and even if she were catching these fish to eat or sell, Mahiru is convinced she would still be humane about it.

But as she is, the girl is very careful with the creatures she catches, and very cautious about not hurting them upon release.

And perhaps, most noticeable of all, she is very charming when she smiles.

Even from afar, Mahiru can tell as much.

So for the remainder of this evening, Mahiru continues with her little game, secretly sending the girl all kinds of fish that would normally never swim this way. She ventures out a few miles into the sea just to find some interesting ones and herd them toward the coast.

And without fail, the human girl releases them each time, and Mahiru guides them back out to sea.

She does this for hours, until a heavy rain begins to fall over the water, and the sun is swallowed by clouds.

Mahiru's head is bubbling with the images of the girl's smile and the sounds of her laughter. She wants to send her just one more fish for today.

So she swims back out to sea, inspecting all the colorful species. It's a pink one she wants. Something tells her this girl might enjoy pink.

When she finally spots one, she dives down to rally it with her tail, guiding it back toward the cove.

It's when she's nearing the rocks when Mahiru hears a bit of a commotion in the water.

She looks back to find a dark mass of large fish schooling together. Their bodies are the size of her entire tail, and the rushed, ragged way they swim tells her what they are.

She smiles. She can only imagine the girl's surprise if she were to suddenly hook a tuna.

So Mahiru leaves the little pink fish to swim back out to sea, and instead turns herself toward the huge blue fish.

 

. . .

 


 

. . .

 

Claudine knew for certain she'd been seeing something in the water these past few days.

It was never much - just that bright flash of bluish-green out of the corner of her eye every now and again - but she'd been seeing it often enough to be sure she isn't just imagining things now.

After her work at the flower shop or cafe is over for the day, she'd return home to put on her fishing gear and head to the beach. She isn't really certain when or why she'd started humming to herself, but before she knew it, she was singing to the sea every day now.

She catches and releases the same kind of fish as always.

Until one day.

It's a cloudy afternoon as per usual here, when she catches her first puffer fish. She's so excited by it that she actually squeals a bit as she deposits it into the little cooler she has started to bring with her. She watches it swim around for a moment, watches it puff up and deflate. And when she's had her fill of observing it, she carries the cooler down to the lowest rock she can stand on and pours it back out into the water.

She doesn't expect to catch anything else different today.

But to her astonishment, every fish she hooks from then on is one she's never seen before.

One is an almost-blinding yellow, and another is a roselike red, and another still is dark blue with black stripes.

Her excitement only grows with each one she catches, but thoughts of selling them for profit don't even cross her mind. She just enjoys their company for a few moments each in that cooler before releasing them again.

She isn't sure what stroke of luck has come her way, but she doesn't want to stop, even when it begins to rain.

The temperature drops significantly as they sky darkens, and the chill of the water spraying her face quickly becomes frigid. The wind turns harsh and whipping, and it only takes her a few minutes to realize it would be best if she retire for the evening.

Disappointed, Claudine shakes herself off and gets to her feet to begin reeling in her line.

It all happens so quickly.

Just as she gets to her feet, a strong gust of wind buffets her back.

At the same time, a mighty tug yanks at the end of her line where it still hangs in the water. It's a force the likes of which she's never felt or ever expected to feel on her thin little fishing pole before.

It's the force of the bite and the thrashing fish beneath.

It's the push of the wind, and the wetness of the rocks beneath her boots.

With a short scream, Claudine is pulled off balance. Her body collides concussively with several of the jutting rocks, stunning her into a paralyzing pain.

And a second later, her vision goes black as she crashes into the frigid, deep waters of the sea.

Chapter Text

Chapter 4. Rescue

 

Mahiru's heart nearly stops altogether. The plan she'd been executing all day long with such wonderful success in the form of the human girl's smile suddenly comes crumbling down in a few split seconds.

The timing is all wrong.

The tuna bites the line just as the girl gets to her feet. The fish pulls her down at the same time the wind bowls her over and the rainwater makes her slip.

Mahiru watches it all unfold from above the surface, her face contorting with horror as she watches the girl slam against the rocks before hitting the water with a deafening splash, her scream cutting off abruptly.

Mahiru hasn't used her voice to do anything but sing since her family had gone. But now she cries out in a shrill shriek of terror.

"Oh no-!"

She dives down instantly and pumps her tail, heading straight for the rocks. Adrenaline courses through her, burning like acid in her blood, mixing with searing pangs of fear and dismay. She propels herself as quickly as she can swim, cutting through the water at top speed, faster than she ever knew she could.

And then she sees her.

That human girl whom Mahiru had been so enchanted by, so curious about.

The girl who had always been singing and smiling on those rocks…

Now, she is quiet and still. Her eyes are closed, and the precious air is escaping from her lungs in dozens of bubbles as she sinks lower and lower.

Mahiru swims a few strokes toward her-

And then she forces herself to a halt.

This is forbidden. Mermaids are never supposed to interact with human beings in any way. Even something as harmless as sending her pretty fish to catch would have earned Mahiru a serious punishment if she'd ever been discovered.

She'd been told this from the moment she was born - that they were not to interfere with the ways of man. Hundreds of humans are left to drown every year who could have been otherwise saved by merfolk; such actions would reveal their existence and endanger them all.

Mahiru doesn't budge for a long, painful moment.

She can't do this. She can't put her family and every other mermaid at risk because of one human girl. She can't be that foolish…

But as she hovers there, surrounded by all of her her conflicting emotions, she watches the girl sink further into the combers.

There are no other humans around to find her or even know she is missing. Maybe if there had been, Mahiru would have left her. Maybe if the girl had been conscious and able to swim a little. But as things are…

This was my fault-!

She needs to take responsibility.

So Mahiru swishes her tail and thrusts herself downward after the drowning girl. She begs forgiveness from her family as she reaches her and pauses for one more second. This girl can't even open her eyes. She'll never see Mahiru. Absolutely nothing would be gained in letting her die here like this.

So with her heart hardened by resolve and a few other things she can't really name, Mahiru reaches out and scoops her arms around the human girl.

A shiver runs through her as she makes contact - the forbidden touch of mankind. Mahiru had been told their skin would burn a mermaid.

But she feels no such pain at all.

She hugs the girl against her chest and beats her tail, pulling her up toward the surface. The second she breaks it, Mahiru struggles as she tries to lift the human girl above-water. She's hoping she might gasp for breath. But she remains eerily silent.

The heaving of the water and the hiss of the rain roar all around her as Mahiru frantically searches the shoreline for any other humans. But the storm had likely driven them all indoors. She can't just hope some humans will come by and swim or take a boat out to collect this girl while Mahiru swims off. She's entirely alone out here with her, and she has to fix this on her own.

So Mahiru commits the taboo act second only to making contact with mankind; she swims toward the shore.

A mermaid bringing herself toward a beach with a known human population so close nearby is equivalent to taking a nap in a fisherman's net. The risk of her being spotted increases exponentially with every inch closer to shore she travels.

But the mass of her guilt weighs more heavily upon her than the physical weight of the girl sagging limply in her arms.

Mahiru swims into the shallows, closer to a human beach than she'd ever ventured in all her life. As the water recedes and her stomach and tail begin brushing sand, she strains to keep going. She can't leave the girl here, as the undertow would still be able to sweep her away and cover her.

So Mahiru does the unthinkable.

She turns from a skilled, smooth swimmer, into an awkward bumbling seal, heaving the girl onto the sand far enough away from the tide where it won't be able to reclaim her.

Mahiru lies her down at long last, panting from the effort of the journey. Her tail swishes awkwardly in the rough sand, grains of it getting lodged beneath her scales. Unlike the sand underwater that is soft and squishy, the sand on-shore is hard and dry beneath her palms.

She shivers, not from the rain or the raw air hitting her delicate skin, but at the feeling of being so harrowingly exposed. The comfort of the ocean's ubiquity has vanished in seconds, and now the air is sharp and harsh all around her.

But her concerns for herself are pushed aside as she gazes down at the girl once more.

She still hasn't moved - not even a little bit. Her eyes remain closed, and there is no air going in or out of her lungs. Mahiru longs to hurry back into the water, but for some reason her fear for this girl is far greater than the fear of some other human spotting her. She almost wishes one of them would, if it meant they could come save this girl, but there aren't any other humans to be seen.

Mahiru knows she can't just leave her like this. The water in her lungs will drown her before long if it hasn't already.

I have to do something…

She's scared. She's so scared. But she knows she'll never forgive herself if this girl dies because of her.

So she sweeps her tail and moves closer to her, leaning down to lay her head over the girl's chest. She closes her eyes for a moment and tries to listen. She hears water stirring in her lungs, and beyond that the very, very weak pulse of a fading heartbeat.

"Oh no, please…"

All hopes that this girl might pull through on her own are instantly dashed, and as Mahiru sits herself back up and looks around the deserted streets, it's obvious no other humans will be coming anytime soon.

Therefore, with trembling fingers, Mahiru reaches out toward the girl and touches her cheek. Very softly, very gently - not like the desperate force she'd grabbed her with earlier in order to pull her out of the water. Her skin is soft and smooth, but terribly cold.

She moves closer still, until her scales brush against the fabrics of the girl's clothes. Mahiru cradles the girl's face in both her hands now and draws in a deep, shaking breath. Then, she dips down and presses her lips to hers, pushing all the air she can manage into her body.

She feels the girl's chest move ever so slightly, just for a split second. When Mahiru has no oxygen left to give her, she eases back and listens for her heartbeat once more. Not much seems to have changed. Her pulse is still very faint.

"No…"

Mahiru's chest is tight. She feels as though the entire ocean is pressing its whole weight onto her shoulders in guilt.

She'd done this. This sweet, cheerful girl who had done nothing but sing and smile.

Mahiru feels the sting of tears like she's never felt them before. And now, without the ocean all around her, they actually fall, slipping down her cheeks and dripping into the sand along with the raindrops.

"No…" She wipes her eyes, but more tears keep coming. "Please… please don't die…"

She tries one more time, pressing her lips to hers and breathing into her once again. When she has nothing left to give, Mahiru pulls away with a pain in her heart, burdened with more sadness than the sea has raindrops. She hangs her head and watches two more tears drip down into the sad.

And then, a sound.

It's small at first, so small she almost can't hear it over the wind and rain and waves. But then the little whimper turns into a loud, gurgling cough.

Mahiru snaps her head up just as the human girl's body suddenly convulses. Her boots kick into the sand and her hands fly to her chest as she rolls herself onto her side and retches mouthfuls of seawater.

Mahiru yelps - shocked, happy, and terrified all at once. She sweeps her tail and turns herself around as quickly as possible, digging her hands into the sand to help pull herself back into the water. The girl continues coughing and spitting behind her, making agonized sounds that sting Mahiru's ears. But she's just glad to know she's alive.

As soon as she reaches the water, Mahiru scrambles to pull herself off the sand and begins to swim, her tail making a splash behind her. She has to get away. She has to leave this cove for good and never come back-

"P…Please… Wait…"

Just before her head bobs completely underwater, she hears a thin, rasping voice. The plea is followed immediately by more and more violent coughing and choking.

Mahiru's instincts are all telling her to keep going, to disappear from sight as if she'd never existed at all.

But something else makes her turn back.

The human girl tries to lift herself up, but her arms buckle and she falls back into the sand, panting, gasping, and clearly in immense pain. Her eyes flutter open briefly, dizzily, and come to rest directly on Mahiru.

Pink.

Mahiru can't pull away.

Only seconds later, the girl's eyes fall shut again, and one last cough expels more water from her chest. After that, she lies very still.

Mahiru hovers there in the shallows for a long moment. But eventually her heart wins over her mind. She draws herself back onto shore, back to the girl's side. Her arms are crossed loosely over her stomach as if trying to put pressure on the terrible ache that must have resulted from her hitting the rocks. Mahiru can only consider it a blessing she hadn't hit her head or neck, and she doesn't see or smell any blood even now that they are out of the water.

But that doesn't mean this girl is out of harm's way. Far from it.

Mahiru drags herself close to her once more, extending her hand to cautiously brush the wet hair out of her face. At the very least she's breathing on her own now. But with the rain still falling and night fast-approaching, Mahiru knows she'll die of exposure before much longer.

"I'll save you." She doesn't even realize the words have come out of her mouth, but she means them. "I'll save you. I promise."

She pulls her hand away, leaving one last brush of the backs of her nails against her skin before heading back into the water. She swims in until she no longer feels the sand underneath her, to a spot where she can move freely.

And then, Mahiru begins causing the biggest commotion she can possibly manage.

She thrashes her tail, making loud splashes that echo off the shoreline and all around the cove.

"Help!" she screams. "Someone, help me!"

She splashes and splashes and screams and screams, until she can see the lights of a car rumbling to a stop just beyond the beach. The humans inside step out, having taken Mahiru's voice and splashing for the injured girl's. She quiets down and ducks underwater, only keeping her eyes above the surface to watch.

Two human women venture out into the rain from their car and hurry onto the beach. Mahiru watches them run to the girl and pick her up before taking her away with them.

Mahiru goes all but limp with relief and lets herself sink several feet into the water.

With all of this over with now, she swims slowly back to the cave where she'd hidden her treasures here. She curls up in the sea grass her family had used before they'd gone, and folds her tail fins over her face.

She knows she can't stay here any longer. She's caused enough trouble and endangered more lives than just her own.

Tomorrow she'll leave this cove and never return.

 

Chapter Text

Chapter 5. Sign

 

She has to leave.

She was supposed to leave.

But when the next morning comes, Mahiru finds she can't bear to desert the cove without seeing that girl one more time.

She needs to know that she survived the incident. Not knowing will make Mahiru believe she might've died after all, which could very well also be the case, too.

But she decides to wait, just a few more days, just in case that girl somehow managed to live and can make her way back out to the shore.

If Mahiru can just see her one last time, and know that she's all right, then she can move on and vanish from her life forever.

So she swims the waters of and around the cove for several days, always nearing the rocks in the evenings when the girl would tend to come fish.

But each day that passes without any sign of her only makes Mahiru's heart sink deeper and deeper toward the bottom of the sea.

"Please…" she murmurs to the ripples on the water. "Please let her be all right."

But the ocean's only answer is the quiet rush of water.

 

 


 

 

When Claudine comes to, the first thing she feels is pain - a dull, throbbing heat on her left side.

She doesn't open her eyes yet - rather, she can't remember how to. The next thing she knows, there's a heavy pressure all around her, pushing her down into the darkness. She can't move. She can't breathe. She can't do anything but sink…

And then, a voice. One she's never heard before.

It's timid, scared, desperate. It begs her not to die.

Claudine wants to know who that voice belongs to.

So she pushes through, until air suddenly pushes its way inside her body and reminds her lungs of how to work. She coughs, expelling mouthful after mouthful of sea water, her body frozen on the outside and on fire on the inside, the pain still shooting through her.

She hears the swishing of sand and the whimpers of a nervous voice. She needs to know who her savior was.

So with all of the strength left in her body, she turns herself over to glimpse them.

The disturbed sand leads a path into the water. Claudine can see a figure there, one that appears to be a person trying to swim away.

It's all Claudine can do to beg them not to go.

But her voice only works so much, and for so long. Before she knows it, she's forced into another bout of coughing, and her energy leaves her.

But just before her eyes fall shut, she sees that figure slowly turn and come back to her. Now, she can tell it's a girl.

Claudine is so relieved. She wants to thank her. But she can't find the words to make her voice work anymore. And she isn't sure if it's because of the pain and the cold-

-or if it's because of pure disbelief.

The girl in the sand before her is dressed in a decorated turquoise bikini - as if it isn't the middle of autumn in a rainstorm on a beach at nightfall. Her skin is as white as the sand, and her long black hair is slick and shining with water. Claudine knows she would've gotten lost in the lovely teal color of her eyes-

-if not for the lovely teal color of her tail.

She must be hallucinating from the pain. She must be dreaming.

Beneath layers of blue skirts and frills, a long shimmering tail rests behind the girl in the sand.

Claudine has so many questions, so much she wants to say to her. But her strength has left her entirely now, and her eyelids fall shut as her head rolls back into the sand.

But at the very least, she hears that voice one more time.

"I'll save you. I promise."

 

. . .

 

All of that, if it had even truly happened at all, had been three days ago.

Now, Claudine pushes herself up in her own apartment's bed as dawn breaks. She flinches at the soreness in her side, freezing for a moment to catch her breath.

She's had three days to replay that scene in her mind and in her dreams, but still can't even be certain if that girl had been real or not.

The two girls who had found her on the beach that night had told her they'd heard splashing and someone screaming for help. They had assumed it had been Claudine, that she'd somehow managed to drag herself out of the water before collapsing.

But she knows for a fact she hadn't. She knows for a fact she should be dead right now.

That girl - dare she believe it - that mermaid, had saved her life. Just as she'd promised.

Ever since the first day she'd arrived in this town, Claudine had longed to believe the whispers about magic. But to have actually come into contact with such a mysterious girl like that…

And she knows that night hadn't been the first time she'd met that girl. Claudine had seen her before; she's sure of it. That beautiful, shimmering blue of her scales was unmistakably the same flashes of color she'd glimpsed so many times just beneath the surface of the water.

That mermaid had been watching her for a while now, or at the very least must have been aware of Claudine's presence, enough to dive in to save her from certain death.

And Claudine can only assume such an act was dangerous enough to put the mermaid herself at risk. Surely, to be discovered by humans and exposed on their beaches could mean death for her.

Claudine prays no one else had spotted her. All three mornings thus far, she's woken with a sickening fear that she might hear news about some mythical girl who had been speared or captured in the cove. Thankfully, though, no such news ever arises.

Claudine has to wonder if the girl had left for good, swam off as quickly and as far away as possible. That would probably be for the best. She knows that.

But even so, Claudine wishes with all her heart that she might see her again.

She has spent the past three days resting up at home. The girls who'd found her had taken her to the hospital the night of the incident, and Claudine had spent the night there and been treated for mild hypothermia and a concussion. But somehow she hadn't broken or fractured any bones, though her left side still stings enough to make her believe she had.

She hasn't gone to work in the past three days, but she believes she's well enough to get out of her apartment today. So she's very cautious in getting herself up and out of bed to prepare herself some breakfast.

As much as it makes her head ache to move around so much, it also feels better to not be sedentary.

It takes her some time to eat and get dressed, but eventually Claudine ventures outside. The morning is cool and cloudy again, and the air smells like rain, though none has begun falling yet. The streets are mostly empty as per usual, save for a few cars and older folks walking their dogs.

Claudine's eyes fixate immediately on the sea, as if she thinks she might miraculously happen to see that girl with her sparkling blue tail from afar. But of course she doesn't.

She reports into work at the flower shop, where her manager - a sweet old woman - welcomes her back and begins asking her a million questions about that night. Claudine mentions nothing of the girl from the sea; she simply sticks with the story her two human rescuers had told - that Claudine had fallen off the rocks and managed to swim to shore and call out for help.

That version satisfies everyone who asks her about it.

But only Claudine knows the real truth of what she saw.

The day of tending to, selling, and cutting flowers comes and goes, and at 3 o'clock Claudine takes her leave. She doesn't go home to change, as she doesn't plan on fishing today. She simply wants to watch the water.

The air is cool against her skin as she heads toward the beach, and she pulls her shawl more tightly around her shoulders. Her orange dress billows in the wind as her shoes finally make contact with the sand.

As usual, no one is on the entire stretch of the beach except for her. The water is calm and lulling, and the sea birds are squawking overhead as they drift on the breeze.

Claudine passes by the spot where the girl had dragged her to safety. The sand has mostly been smoothed over by the tide by now, but she can still remember the exact place. She keeps her eyes on the water as she heads for the rocks, but the surface remains still and undisturbed.

When she reaches the rocks, Claudine slowly begins traversing her way across them. It's much more difficult in her flats than it typically is done in her fishing boots, but somehow she manages to make it to the edge. Slowly, she sits down at her usual spot and gazes out over the water.

The sea is more gray than blue today, and she scours it as far and as deeply as her eyes can manage, searching for a shimmer of turquoise.

She closes her eyes, and she waits.

As if she really expects some magical girl to pop out of the water and greet her.

As if a mermaid - if she even truly existed at all - would risk showing herself more than she already had.

She was probably long gone by now, and Claudine knows that. But that doesn't stop her from wishing.

She waits for a long time, resorting to song in her vigil, wondering if a muffled voice from beneath the water might sing back at her.

But it never does.

She doesn't glimpse any flashes of blue or hear any playful splashes today.

Before she knows it, the daylight is fading. Claudine heaves a long sigh, and admits defeat at last. She removes her hand from beneath her shawl where she'd been clutching it all the while, and reveals what she's been holding in her palm.

Three loose flowers she'd picked up from pots around the shoppe - one white, one pink, and one yellow.

She leans forward and finds a good spot to press them between the rocks, caking a bit of mud and sand around them to ensure they won't blow or wash away.

When she's satisfied, she staggers to her feet and makes her way back to shore.

And that night, she dreams again of a beautiful girl with a shimmering tail.

 

 


 

 

After several days pass by, and Mahiru still hasn't seen or heard the human girl, she finally decides to give up. The knowledge that she had inadvertently caused the girl's death will burden her heart for the rest of her life.

On the third night, Mahiru curls up in the underwater cave in her worn bed of seagrass and sand. She huddles up in the dark waters and sleeps, with images of the drowned girl's face filling her head. She almost feels as though she can hear her sweet, pretty voice singing echoes in the back of her mind.

When she next wakes, the water is still dark, as it typically is just before sundown. Mahiru knows better than to travel the ocean alone at night, so she lingers and dozes in and out of consciousness all night long, until the first rays of dreary morning sunlight begin filtering down through the surface.

She eats an unsatisfying meal of what usually is her favorite sea grass salad, and prepares for the long journey ahead of her, to nowhere in particular. Or maybe she should just follow after her family after all.

Before she leaves the cave, she swims back to the crevice where she'd hidden her treasures. She regrets having nothing to add, as this will be the last time she ever visits this cove. With a sigh, Mahiru turns away and begins swimming out to sea.

It's just a fruitless hope that has her moving toward the surface again, one final thin little thread pulling her. As she lifts her head above the water, she gazes back at the little human town as the orange streetlights begin flickering to life in the early-morning mist.

She scans the beach from one end to the other, disheartened to find it utterly empty. Her eyes travel to the rocks that stretch out into the water, but there is no familiar human girl sitting there. Mahiru's heart aches terribly.

"I'm so sorry…"

She turns away, fully intending to leave this place behind forever.

But as she does so, something catches her eye.

It's very small, almost unnoticeable from this distance, but by some stroke of fate she doesn't miss it - a tiny dot of colors amongst the wet grey and brown rocks.

She's looked at those rocks plenty of times in the past week, and she knows for a fact that had never been there before.

The dull numbness that has been filling her body since the accident is suddenly livened up by a tiny little trill of hope.

She checks the beach and the nearby town once more before changing her course and heading back toward the cove. She ducks below the surface to be safe until she nears the rocks, then slowly lifts her face up again.

And there, tucked carefully between the jutting rocks, sit three flowers.

Mahiru has seen land-flowers before, if only rarely. She knows they are very different from water flowers, and she knows three of them of different colors could never sprout in such a spot overnight.

And it wasn't just any spot. It was her spot.

Mahiru's heart lifts, and a smile passes over her lips for the first time in days.

It's a sign. A gift.

"Oh-!" She brings her hands to her mouth and cries for joy, swishing her tail beneath herself. "She's alive! She's alive-!"

Mahiru dives down into the water, using her gleeful mirth to fuel her before she turns and pops back up again. Cautiously, she swims closer to get a better look at the flowers. Their petals are thin and wet from the drizzle and spray of the sea, but they are the most lovely things she's ever seen.

Well, perhaps there was one thing even more lovely.

Mahiru needs to let her know she'd seen the sign.

She quickly dives back underwater and darts across to the other side of the cove to the cave. She reaches into the spot where she keeps her treasures, and paws through them.

She chooses a piece of clear white sea glass, a tiny yellow pebble, and the smooth pink conch shell. She gathers them into her arms and swims back across the way to the rocks.

She'd almost expected the flowers to be gone, vanished like a figment of her imagination. But they're still there, swaying in the breeze, waiting for her.

Mahiru lifts herself halfway out of the water and leans against the rocks, carefully laying her treasures in place between the crevices. Then, she gently removes the flowers that had been left for her. She cups them in her fingers and cradles them against her lips, breathing in the sweet foreign scent. She knows the salty ocean water will eventually wear them away, but that isn't going to stop her from treasuring them for as long as she lives - even if only in memory eventually.

She reaches up to her hair, to the little bundle of white tulle she'd found somewhere and clipped into place with a barbed shell. Now, she arranges the three flowers into place around it, making sure they're tight and secure.

And as the first cars begin rolling along the streets, Mahiru ducks quietly back beneath the water and swims to her cave with her flowers in her hair, and joy in her heart.

Chapter Text

Chapter 6. Three Colors

 

The next morning, Claudine is relieved that most of the pain in her side has subsided by now, but she still has no desire to put on her fishing gear after work today. It isn't that she's scared of a repeat accident occurring, but rather something else.

It makes her devastatingly sad to know the mysterious girl who had saved her life had had to flee for her own safety. Claudine feels she won't be able to enjoy going out to her usual spot where the rocks meet the sea - not if it means she's only going to end up waiting for something that will never come.

She readies herself, gets dressed, and eats before walking the ten minutes to the cafe today. The sun is actually managing to break through a little this morning, but Claudine hardly gets to enjoy it before she has to go inside the building.

It's another uneventful day serving customers pastries and coffee, and she finds herself sighing an awful lot underneath all the plastered smiles.

She hadn't always been like this. When she'd first moved here, Claudine had adored these jobs and this town in general. Only now that she'd met that girl - and lost her - is she plagued by this melancholy.

"I didn't even get to learn her name…"

The sun fades away by lunchtime, and Claudine mulls through the rest of her shift until 3PM. She believes it would be best if she simply returned home early today and had some time to relax.

And yet, before she knows it, she finds her feet have taken her back to the beach.

She sighs, but starts toward the rocks.

The wind blows the clouds around a bit, until a few rays of sunlight manage to slip through, painting the ocean a little bluer than it normally is here. She makes her way across the rocks as the familiar sounds of water and gulls ring through her head. She keeps glancing to either side of herself, hoping to catch another fleeting glimpse of turquoise to no avail.

At last, Claudine makes it to the last rock and slowly sits herself down. She looks sadly to where she'd left the three flowers yesterday-

-and can't stop herself from gasping outright.

Gone. The flowers are gone. Even though she'd very specifically tucked them away, so that no wave or breeze or creature could take them.

Surely only the dexterous fingers of a person could've managed the feat.

Her heart beats a little more quickly before the logic tries to kick in. Although no other people in this town seem to come to the beach in this season, it wasn't impossible to consider someone might have happened to venture out here last night and find the flowers.

But then, something catches Claudine's eye that lets her heart flutter even faster.

In the rocks where she'd left the flowers, things have been left in their place. She reaches out to pick them up.

First, a shard of sea glass, so clear and shiny it'd put any crystal to shame.

Next, a smooth golden pebble, the color of the warm sunset over the ocean.

And finally, a pale pink shell about the size of her hand.

Claudine can't properly explain the emotions that come over her in that instance, but before she knows it there are tears spilling down her cheeks. She gathers the little treasures close to her chest and sobs, though her lips are curved into a wobbly smile.

"Thank you…"

She can only wish her words might somehow make it across the water to reach the person they're meant for, wherever she may be.

Claudine cries for a few moments as she gazes out over the sea, to where the sun is slowly making its way toward the horizon.

With all three of her gifts cradled lovingly in her lap, Claudine breathes in deeply and begins to sing.

 

 


 

 

Mahiru is so overjoyed by the message brought to her by those flowers - the message that the human girl is still alive. And the fact that she remembers Mahiru.

She knows she should be worried about that; about a human having seen her and clearly knowing what she was.

But something tells Mahiru that girl would never reveal that to other humans or wish any harm upon her. No one who would bring secret flowers for someone would ever want to see that person hurt.

Mahiru is giddy all day long, constantly reaching up to touch the soft petals of the flowers in her hair. She swims out to join a pod of dolphins, leaping and racing with them.

Then she floats near the surface and basks in the rays of the sun that manage to slip through the clouds. She dozes, letting the water rock her in a lazy lullaby for a long while, her mind presenting her with images of that human girl, alive and well.

If only Mahiru could see her for herself…

Once again, she believes she can even hear the echoes of her voice singing, carrying out across the water to reach Mahiru, as if she's singing for her

Mahiru listens to the familiar tune, the one she'd learned the notes and words to by listening to the girl sing.

The song comes to an end, and the voice tapers off with it.

Mahiru sighs and blinks her eyes open to the blurred vision of clouds past the water.

And then the voice comes again, in a different song this time - one Mahiru doesn't know.

Meaning, she can't possibly be imagining it if it's a song she's never heard before.

With a gasp, she swims to the surface and lifts her head out of the water. The voice rings out twice as clearly now, gliding over the waves and wind as if coming straight to her.

It's not a daydream.

Mahiru whirls around to face the shoreline, her eyes following the stretch of rocks.

And there, seated at the edge, is a girl.

She isn't wearing the usual gray and orange fishing gear this time, but rather she is wearing lighter colors.

Three colors, specifically.

A white dress, a pink shawl, and the familiar curl of her silver hair turned yellow by the sun.

Mahiru reaches up to touch the three flowers in her hair in turn. Her heart soars.

A joyous laugh bursts from her lips as she dives back into the water and begins to swim toward her. All at once, the rush of the water around her seems to fade, until all she can hear is the hum of that beautiful voice.

She follows the source of that song, right up to where the rocks meet the sea.

Only then does she stop, hovering below the surface. The singing voice has grown quiet.

Mahiru's heart pounds, and a moment passes. She swallows, knowing full-well that if she reveals herself to this girl again, there really will be no turning back.

Perhaps glimpsing Mahiru once briefly in the darkness after nearly drowning to death could have been justified as a dream.

But to see her again now in daylight, beyond the shimmer of a tail fin, would change everything.

Mahiru doesn't move except to bring her hand up to the flowers swaying in her hair. Perhaps just this is enough. Perhaps-

"It's all right."

She gasps at the sound of a voice coming from above the surface. The words are muffled slightly by the lull of the water, but Mahiru can still make them out. The human girl's silhouette is blurred, but Mahiru can tell she is looking right at her.

"It's all right," she says again softly. "I know... it could be dangerous for you. You don't have to show yourself. I just wanted to be sure you could hear what I wanted to say to you."

Mahiru feels boundless jitters shooting through her whole body, like little sparks from electric eels traveling through her.

This girl is talking to her. But she's still being sure to let Mahiru know she isn't forcing her to do anything she might not want to do. For this girl, it will just be enough to speak to a blue shadow beneath the water.

But for Mahiru, that won't be enough.

So she draws in a deep, deep breath, gives her tail a few swishes, and lifts her head above the surface.

 

 


 

 

Claudine hadn't expected her to still be here. She'd assumed after leaving the sea shells behind, the mermaid girl had swam off for good.

But when she sees the slight disturbance in the water, the sparkling ripples heading her way, Claudine's heart beats faster than she'd ever known it to before.

She wants her to know she doesn't have to reveal herself.

"…I just wanted to be sure you could hear what I wanted to say to you."

She pauses, just for a moment, keeping her eyes fixated on that unmoving shadow.

But then, it stirs, and the next thing she knows, she hears the soft splash of water being breached.

Claudine loses all the words in her throat in that instance.

A dazzling girl lifts herself out of the water, holding onto the base of one of the rocks to help lift herself up as far as her navel. Her skin is white like sand, her dark hair is long and flowing like sea grass, her clothes are soft and ruffled like waves.

And her eyes. Her eyes are a silvery-blue, like the ocean on a cool winter morning, deep and endless.

Claudine forgets how to breathe altogether.

And Mahiru experiences the very same enchantment.

The girl whom she'd only glimpsed from a distance, or on the verge of death, weak and sickly and wet and in pain…

Now, her skin is glowing with a faint sheen of sea spray, her hair is dry and curly in the wind.

And of all the colors and hues of the ocean, this girl's eyes are the loveliest pink Mahiru has ever known.

She holds herself up out of the water, suspended just a few feet away, gazing up at this otherworldly creature. Surely, she can't be human. She must be an angel.

Mahiru feels her arms begin to tremble under the weight of holding herself up, so very slowly, she lowers herself back into the water a little, keeping just her shoulders above the surface.

Claudine finds herself moving forward to try and follow her as much as she can. She eases herself off over the edge of the rock, gripping the surrounding boulders and tapping her shoes onto solid footholds.

And a second time, the wetness of the rocks makes her slip.

And a second time, Mahiru leaps forward to save her.

"Ah-!"

Before the girl can lose her grip entirely, Mahiru lifts herself up again and catches her in an embrace, gently pushing her back toward the safety of the rocks. Just like last time, she doesn't even think. Her body just moves on its own.

The human girl sighs a little shakily as she lets her go, once again leaning back against something solid.

Both girls remain speechless for a long moment, unable to take their eyes off each other.

But eventually, Claudine finds herself overwhelmed by the elegance of this girl, and she can't possibly stay quiet any longer.

"You…" She remembers the gifts she'd been left, and quickly turns around to fish them out of the rocks, presenting them now in her lap. "You're the one… who gave me these, aren't you?"

Mahiru tries to talk, but no sound comes. She simply nods. The human girl cups the shells and sea glass with care in her hands. Her eyes are glowing.

"And you're… the one who saved me that night, aren't you?" The girl shakes her head. "What am I saying? Of course it was you. I could never forget…" The smile on her lips curves into something more curious now as she peers down beneath Mahiru into the water.

Mahiru blushes a little bit, but she understands what she's asking.

Yet Claudine can tell the girl is getting nervous, and she quickly lifts her gaze.

"Ah- I'm sorry. You don't have to. This is already… more than enough."

"N…No…"

Both girls seem equally as shocked to hear words coming from Mahiru's lips - Mahiru in particular. She blushes again.

"I-I mean… I don't mind… You've seen before already, after all…"

So she musters up some courage and takes hold of the nearest rock, checking down the beach one last time before slowly heaving herself up out of the water.

Claudine watches, mesmerized as if put under a spell.

Light, frilly blue and green materials fall down from the girl's waistline, providing a long skirt of sorts for the porpoise-like tail underneath. The scales are the colors of the sunlit ocean waves mixed with the piercing blue of a summer sky. Water glistens on every one, catching in the faint sun beams, sparkling as if she's been sprinkled with glitter. The fins of her tail are a very pale blue, almost white in color. One fin has a small nick torn in the membrane, but Claudine is so dazzled by her beauty she hardly even notices it.

For a long moment, Claudine can't remember how to speak again. All she can do is admire the sight before her - a being surely more beautiful than any nymph or faery from the stories she'd always read.

The other girl's face becomes pinker and pinker with each passing second as she waits in silence.

But just as Claudine is about to say something at long last, a blaring car horn blasts out somewhere in town, startling both of them.

Mahiru squeaks and leaps back into the water, while Claudine looks back across the expanse of rocks and sand, fearful someone might have spotted them. But there's no one. She exhales, looking back toward the spot where the water is still rippling. A few seconds later, the girl pokes her head out again timidly. Claudine looks down at her sadly.

"I'm sorry. I shouldn't have asked you to do that. It isn't safe for you…"

"You didn't ask me to," she replies sweetly. "I did it on my own. As long as no one else saw, it's all right."

Claudine hesitates. "But still… I know you probably shouldn't even be speaking to me. You probably shouldn't even have saved me in the first place…"

She looks away, and Mahiru's heart sinks.

"P-Please, don't say that! I couldn't just stay back and do nothing. A-After all…" She swallows, and the human girl looks back to her. Mahiru steels herself and finally confesses. "After all… it was my fault you got pulled in…"

Claudine blinks, puzzled.

"Your…?" And then she remembers the tiny cut in the girl's tail. She gasps. "Oh! I-It was you? Were you the one caught on my hook?" A look of mild horror crosses her features, and a hand flies to her mouth.

"N-Not exactly," Mahiru explains. "Though I did end up snagging myself, but that wasn't your fault. You see…" She swishes her tail beneath herself in embarrassment. "Do you remember that day… how you kept catching all different kinds of fish?"

"Yes. It was the strangest thing. I'd never seen so many species before." Claudine blinks. "Wait. Did you send them to me…?"

The mermaid nods.

"I-I'm not even sure why I did it. I just… I'd never interacted with a human before, a-and I thought you seemed like you might like those fish… I really liked how gentle you were with them, and you didn't kill them either." She sinks down into the water to her chin. "But then I got carried away…"

Claudine tilts her head.

"What kind of fish did you send me?"

"…A tuna."

And then, something else she never expected happens.

The human girl throws her head back and laughs.

"A… A tuna?" she giggles. "Oh my gosh, I can't even imagine what I would've done with that!"

"B-But… that's what made you fall…"

"The wind knocked me over," she corrects. "And I slipped. That's all." The human girl smiles honestly, but Mahiru knows her little 'gift' of the tuna had also played a part. She still feels responsible.

"E-Even so…" she says softly. "If I could… I'd wanted to tell you I was sorry. That's why I was so happy to see the flowers you'd left me." She touches them where they're still tucked into her hair. "I was so happy you were alive. So I left you those shells, b-but I didn't think you'd come back…" She lowers her gaze into the water. "I'm… I'm really sorry… You almost died that night… because of me…"

Mahiru dips her face into the water and sniffles a little bit. She hears a bit of shifting coming from the rocks and looks back up to see the girl has moved as close to the water as possible. She's still smiling.

"What's your name, if I may ask?"

Mahiru wipes the water off her face.

"Mahiru…"

The human girl smiles a little more.

"Mahiru… Please don't apologize for what happened. I came back because I wanted to see you… and I wanted to thank you for saving my life."

Mahiru sniffles again, and the sting of tears comes up behind her eyes.

"B-But… if not for me you wouldn't have-"

"Like I said," she grunts, lifting her chin. "That wasn't your fault. It was an accident. But you did save me. Even though you absolutely could've turned a blind eye. Even though bringing me onto the shore and getting other peoples' attention was endangering your life… you still saved mine. I really can't thank you enough."

Mahiru is quiet for a long moment. The human girl is smiling back at her with such truth in her eyes, there's no room to believe she might be faking that gratitude for any reason. Mahiru eventually manages to smile back.

"What… What is your name…?"

The human girl tucks a lock of sliver hair behind her ear.

"Claudine."

Mahiru repeats the name like a prayer.

"C-Claudine… C-Can I call you Kuro-chan?"

Claudine blinks in surprise. She's never been given a nickname before. It makes her heart dance.

"I would love that."

Mahiru smiles back. "Kuro-chan, I-"

But then, the roar of an airplane passing distantly overhead spooks her again, and she ducks back beneath the water. When Mahiru finally pops back up again, she notices the sun has just set and Claudine has begun to shiver.

Likewise, Claudine frowns at all the things that are scaring Mahiru. Both come to the same decision.

"Maybe we should-"

"Ah-"

Both of them stop.

"G-Go ahead."

"No, after you…"

They both smile. Claudine goes first.

"Maybe we should… head back for tonight."

"Yes…"

The waves roll up against the rocks a few times. Each girl touches the gifts the other had given her.

"Do you like them?" Claudine wonders.

Mahiru beams at her.

"Yes! They're lovely! I'll never forget how they smelled before I soaked them with salt water." Her eyes wander to the trinkets in Claudine's lap. "And do you like those?"

"I love them," Claudine replies. "These are the most beautiful things I've ever seen."

"I'm glad!"

Another gust of wind blows, and Claudine pulls her shawl tighter around her shoulders. Mahiru's smile fades away.

"Then… I suppose this is goodbye…?"

"I suppose," Claudine sighs. "But… perhaps only for tonight?"

"Eh…?"

Claudine gives her a hopeful look.

"I mean… I would like it very much if I could… see you again… Mahiru."

Mahiru feels her heart jump like a dolphin.

"Y-Yes! I-I would love to see you again too, Kuro-chan!"

Claudine is relieved the feeling isn't just one-sided.

"Then… same time tomorrow? Or do you have somewhere you should be?"

Mahiru shakes her head. "I'm on my own for the time being. And I think…" She gazes up into Claudine's eyes, pink like sun-kissed seashells. "I think… this is the place I should be right now…"

"Funny," Claudine says. "I think this is where I should be right now, too."

Another breeze flows between them as the two girls share an unspoken promise; a promise not to tell, to keep it their little secret.

Mahiru dips her head.

"Then… I'll see you again tomorrow... Kuro-chan."

And Claudine dips her head in return.

"Yes. I'll see you tomorrow, Mahiru."

Slowly, Claudine gathers her treasures and gets to her feet, and Mahiru has to wonder how she can use them so well. She can't imagine having her tail split in two and having to stand her full weight on it.

She lingers there at the edge of the rocks, watching as Claudine makes her way back toward the shore.

And as Claudine goes, she keeps glancing back to find Mahiru hidden there following her with her eyes. She smiles and gives her a tiny wave. Mahiru timidly raises her arm and waves back.

Both girls move apart slowly until they can't see each other any longer.

All for the rest of the evening as they get ready for bed - one in a warm softly-lit bedroom, and one in a cool underwater cave aglow with stalagmites - they keep telling themselves it hadn't just been a dream.

After all, the sheer joy that's blossoming in their hearts is unmistakably real.

Chapter Text

Chapter 7. Secret Place

 

 

When morning comes, both girls wake with a giddy tingle in their chests.

Claudine glances to her nightstand, where she'd fondly arranged the treasures Mahiru had given her, and smiles.

Likewise, as Mahiru is pulling a comb shell through her tresses, she keeps touching and playing with the flowers in her hair.

Claudine gets ready for work, already planning on which flowers she'll take from the shoppe to bring to her secret friend today.

And Mahiru begins hunting the surrounding waters for the prettiest rocks or shells.

For each of them, the day seems to go by excessively slowly in contrast to the excitement speeding through their veins.

Mahiru manages to find a dazzling orange shell streaked with whites and pinks. She swims up to the surface with it and holds it up to the scarce sunlight, which causes the shell to glow in a beautiful gold. Content with her find, Mahiru takes it with her and swims back down.

Claudine is limited in what she can take from the shoppe, and asks her manager if she may bring along some flowers from the plants that haven't sold in weeks. She's granted permission, and Claudine happily picks a few blue and purple pansies, as well as one white lily. She tucks them into her trench coat pocket and continues with the rest of her day until 3 o'clock finally sets her free.

Mahiru has learned the exact position of the sun by now to know when Claudine will be arriving, so she swims in close to the rocks and waits for her, cradling the shell to her chest.

I hope she likes it…

And as Claudine hurries down the quiet afternoon sidewalk, she checks the flowers in her pocket as her shoes meet sand.

I hope she likes them.

But as she makes her way onto the beach, she hears voices from behind and turns around. There are a few people farther down the beach nearer to the dock where the boat rentals are. It's the opposite side from hers and Mahiru's meeting place, but Claudine still isn't willing to risk her friend being seen by others.

She swiftly makes her way to the rocks and begins traversing across them. Even before she reaches the edge, she can see a blue shadow there waiting for her. Mahiru peeks her face above-water just as Claudine reaches her.

"Kuro-chan!"

"Mahiru!"

They both smile softly at one another, hearts soaring, as if they almost hadn't believed the other would really come again, and overjoyed that they really had. But the moment ends abruptly when Claudine remembers the other people on the beach.

"We can't stay here," she says. "I don't want anyone else to see you." She glances nervously down to the far end of the beach. Mahiru follows her gaze and sinks a little further down.

"B-But…" She fidgets beneath the water, clutching the shell she has yet to give. "I want to… I want to see you, Kuro-chan…"

Claudine's heart flutters as she slowly sits herself down, trying to get as close to her as possible.

"I know. I want to see you too, Mahiru. But if it means you'll be put in danger-"

"W-Wait!" Mahiru squeaks. "Follow me!" She swims back a little, then begins skirting the rocks, heading away from the side open to most of the beach.

Claudine stands up and follows her from solid ground, climbing over the rocks as she tries to match Mahiru as closely as possible. Mahiru waits for her, gradually swimming around the line of boulders toward the cliffs on this side of the beach. Claudine maintains her balance, making sure to be careful of where she steps.

Gradually, Mahiru guides her back toward a small corner of the beach, just a small patch of sand tucked between the cliff and the rocks. She pauses in the shallows, watching Claudine hop down the last few rocks until she's on the shore once again. She looks back over her shoulder, surprised that she can't see any of the rest of the beach from behind the rocks.

Which means, no one else can see them either.

"My…" she says. "I had no idea this little spot was here. This is perfect for us." She turns back to the water where Mahiru is still treading several yards out. There isn't a strong flow coming into this little spot, so the water is fairly still and calm. Claudine can see her tail rather clearly now even beneath the surface.

She knows Mahiru must not be comfortable coming onto land. Therefore, Claudine steps out of her shoes and begins wading into the sea toward her.

Mahiru jolts when she realizes what she's doing.

"K-Kuro-chan! Wait! Y-You don't have to-! I-It's too cold!"

Just as Mahiru says the words, Claudine feels a harsh shudder shoot through her body. She only goes in up to her knees before stopping.

"Just this much is fine, then." Where she's stopped, she's now only a few feet away from Mahiru.

Mahiru bites her lip a little nervously.

"Are you sure…? Wh-What if you get sick…?"

"Then it will have been worth it to be able to see you again." Claudine smiles as she reaches into her trench coat's pockets and presents her gift. "I brought you some more flowers."

"Ah!" In spite of her worries for Claudine's wellbeing, Mahiru can't help but gasp in excitement at the sight of the flowers. "Th-Those are blue! I didn't know flowers could be blue!"

"Flowers can be any color," Claudine chuckles. "I was worried you'd be tired of seeing blue all the time, living in the ocean and whatnot."

"N-Not at all!" Mahiru swims up a little closer. "They're marvelous!"

"I'm glad you like them."

Now, the two of them are only a few feet apart. Mahiru's tail meets the underwater sand a little, and she glides up closer to Claudine, floating a little awkwardly in the shallows.

"I… brought you something too…" She lifts her arms out of the water to reveal the orange-stripped shell.

Claudine beams.

"Mahiru! It's beautiful!"

"Y-You really like it?"

"I love it!"

Both girls reach forward to exchange gifts. Mahiru touches the flower petals incredulously, feeling the different textures of each one. They feel different from the ones in her hair, especially the white one, whose petals are about as thick as her tail fins. Claudine turns the orange shell around in her palms, rubbing her fingers over the smooth little ridges.

"Wow," she sighs. "The ocean is full of so many beautiful things."

But she isn't looking at the shell when she says it.

Mahiru blushes.

"S-So is dry land, it seems…"

Both girls smile and giggle.

"There are thousands of different kinds of flowers," Claudine tells her. "Most of which I've never even seen before."

"It's the same with shells and sea stones," Mahiru says. "There are even legends of there being magical ones that can grant wishes. I've never found any of those, though."

"Are you a collector?" Claudine guesses.

"S-Sort of." Mahiru swishes her tail, and it kicks up a cloud of sand underwater. "I hide whatever I find all around different parts of the ocean as I travel."

"That sounds wonderful. I wish I could see them all. Ah, but that doesn't mean you should start going out to swim the whole ocean just to go find them and bring them back to me, all right?"

Mahiru laughs.

"Don't worry. I won't go too far form here." From you…

For a moment, the sounds of the tide and wind are the only things. Both girls look away into the water.

"So then, Mahiru…" Claudine says, clearing her throat. "Are there… are there others like you…?"

Mahiru doesn't reply right away. She tenses up a little bit as her mind throws her into darker thoughts again.

She shouldn't be talking to Claudine like this. She shouldn't be seeing her. She shouldn't have come back.

But doing all of those things only endangers herself.

However, if she were to reveal that there were others, it could put them all at risk too. If Claudine told other humans about them, if she ever turned around and betrayed her…

Mahiru shakes her head, and her heart clenches in her chest.

Claudine's heart aches too at the sight of her reaction. She takes a step closer to her into the water.

"I'm sorry. You don't have to tell me. I didn't mean to make you feel like I might be putting you in danger."

"N-No! That's not it. I-I know you would never…" Mahiru looks to the tentative hand Claudine has reached out to her with, but refrained from touching her with. Mahiru swallows and inhales deeply, then reaches out to place her hand in hers. "I know… you would never hurt me, Kuro-chan. I just know it."

Claudine's eyes widen as Mahiru makes contact with her first. The fact that she is the one at greater risk between the two of them, and that she'd been the one to close the distance between them, makes Claudine's eyes feel watery.

Mahiru's hand is small and soft in hers, her skin smooth and glistening. Claudine places the shell in her pocket and slowly reaches out with her other hand to cover Mahiru's now.

"I won't," she says firmly. "I won't ever hurt you, Mahiru. I can promise you that."

Mahiru's eyes widen now, too. Claudine's hands are so warm and soft around her own, not dry and rough like she'd expected them to be after so many years living in direct sunlight. In only seconds, the smile returns to her lips. Claudine's promise gives her courage.

"Yes…" she murmurs. "There are others like me. A lot of us. I have a big family and a lot of younger siblings."

Claudine smiles as Mahiru comfortably opens up to her.

"So you're a big sister, then?"

"Yes!" Mahiru swims a little closer to her, lifting herself up as much as she can. Claudine bends down a little, keeping Mahiru's hand in hers.

"Somehow that doesn't surprise me," she says. "You've got that nurturing air about you, Mahiru."

"R-Really?"

Claudine nods. But even she can see by now that Mahiru is having difficulty constantly craning her neck to look up at her. So Claudine lets go of her hand and wades in up to her stomach. Now, Mahiru can swim freely all around her without getting her tail stuck in the sand.

"Kuro-chan!" she cries in nervous excitement. "Y-You're not too cold?"

"Just a little. Tell me more about your family."

"Right! Well you see, my grandmother…"

Mahiru begins circling her as she speaks, sometimes swimming on her front and sometimes on her back. Claudine has to admit she's a little more engaged in watching her than she is in listening to her. Just a little bit.

But she still listens seriously and offers her comments and reactions to the descriptions and stories Mahiru tells her.

Mahiru talks for a while, and only when her throat starts to hurt a tiny bit does she realize it's the most she's talked all at once in a long, long time. Perhaps ever. She finally ends with a story about her youngest sibling.

"Ah, I-I'm sorry!" She stops swimming and bows her head in apology. "I was rambling! I-I don't know what came over me. I just… felt so comfortable talking to you…"

Claudine only smiles back.

"Don't apologize. I loved hearing about your family, Mahiru. They sound wonderful."

And although she's smiling, Mahiru sees a bit of sadness in Claudine's eyes. It's too late to stop herself before she's already asking.

"What about your family?"

Claudine flinches a little bit, and Mahiru instantly regrets it.

"Ah, b-but you don't have to tell me if you don't want to!" She swims up to her and grabs Claudine's hand in earnest, giving her a squeeze.

But Claudine just chuckles again.

"It's all right. I'm just sorry to say my stories aren't as fun as yours. My family isn't like yours at all…"

This time, it's Mahiru's turn to listen as Claudine pours her heart out. She finds herself feeling angry listening about the parents who had tried forcing Claudine to do so many things she didn't want to do. Mahiru doesn't let go of her hand all the while, even after Claudine has finished.

"That's awful," Mahiru says.

Claudine shakes her head.

"It's all right now, though. I've moved here away from all that. This town is very beautiful and calm. And I've actually… made my first friend here…" Her cheeks tint a little pink, almost matching the color of her eyes.

Mahiru tilts her head.

"You made a friend? Who's that?"

Claudine says nothing. She just keeps smiling at her. Mahiru squeaks.

"M-Me? You mean me?"

"If I might be so bold as to think of you that way… then yes."

Mahiru can't explain the wave of happiness that washes through her. It's like the warmest, gentlest tide she's ever felt.

"O-Of course! I want to think of you as my friend too, Kuro-chan!"

"Then please go right ahead."

Another moment passes between them, and they say nothing. They just keep holding onto each other's hands.

But then, a sharp shiver suddenly makes Claudine gasp as the chill of the water finally catches up to her. Mahiru instantly starts to fret.

"Ah-! Y-You should get back onto dry land! You'll catch your death if you stay in here so long! A-And it's getting dark out-" She puts a hand on Claudine's back and urges her to turn around, then slowly begins pushing her back toward the shore.

Claudine is baffled; it's the first time Mahiru has ever touched her so surely like this, with such familiarity. Like a friend would.

The thought makes her so giddy that she lets Mahiru push her as far as she can toward the shore, until the shallow waters restrict Mahiru from being tall enough to keep touching her any longer. Claudine turns back to her where she's hovering on her belly in the shallows, staring up at her with compelling eyes.

"Please, Kuro-chan. You should go home and warm yourself up…" She's sad just to say it, simply in telling her to go. But she just wants her to be all right.

Claudine understands as much. She doesn't want to risk anything that might endanger Mahiru, either.

"All right," she complies. "But… would you mind…?" She glances from Mahiru to the water and back again.

Mahiru nods instantly.

"O-Of course! Of course I'll come see you again! I've got nowhere to be! My family is letting me do as I please for a few more weeks, s-so I can…" She realizes she's babbling again and lowers her voice, but not her eyes. "I can come see you tomorrow."

Claudine smiles.

"Really? I'm so happy." She backs out of the water and steps into her sandy shoes once more, wringing out her wet clothes as much as she can and never taking her eyes off Mahiru all the while.

Mahiru watches her too, churning her tail slowly, still holding the new flowers to her chest. Claudine reaches into her pocket to pick up her new shell, too.

"Goodbye, Mahiru," she calls with a little wave of her hand. "I'll see you tomorrow."

"Y-Yes! Goodbye, Kuro-chan." Mahiru raises her arm and waves in return.

Both linger a little longer than necessary, still lost in each other's eyes.

Then, at long last they turn and head off in their respective directions.

Tomorrow can't come quickly enough.

Chapter Text

Chapter 8. Drowning

 

 

As soon as she wakes, Claudine is bursting with energy and excitement. She all but jumps out of bed at the first light of dawn and starts her day, showering, dressing, and eating with a bounce in her step.

She leaves her apartment early, but not so she can head straight to the cafe. Since she can't bring any flowers from the shoppe to Mahiru today, Claudine had decided on trying something else.

She'd begun decorating her entire apartment with the little trinkets Mahiru had brought for her, and now Claudine glances back with a smile at the little shells she'd placed on the kitchen windowsill before she locks the door and heads out.

She bounds down the steps to the sidewalk, but instead of heading toward town, she turns and makes her way toward the forest. There's a bit more sunlight today than usual, and fewer clouds. It makes her heart feel all the lighter and merrier.

It only takes her a few moments of walking to pass by the last of the little houses and step into a softer place. The trees here are thin but numerous, and even though it's autumn there are still plenty of leaves and plants thriving.

She'd debated picking wildflowers to bring Mahiru, but she can assume flowers can only survive so long in the ocean. She wants something sturdier; something Mahiru will be able to remember her by even on the days where Claudine might not be able to come to see her, something that will never wilt or break apart.

The stones she finds aren't nearly as pretty as the ones Mahiru had found on the ocean floor. Unlike the smooth, pale-colored rocks that had been perfectly rounded by the continuous flow of waves and water, the forest rocks are dark and ragged and covered in moss. But it's the permanence Claudine wants from them if nothing else, so she gathers up three and puts them into her coat pocket before exiting the forest.

Today, she is brighter and merrier with her customers than ever before, presenting each and every one of them with a smile even more delightful than what she usually would show.

And in the meantime, out in the depths of the sea, Mahiru scours new recesses and trenches in search of the most beautiful treasures possible. She dives deep into darker waters where the sunlight almost doesn't reach, searching for anything she thinks might strike Claudine's fancy.

All day she searches, occasionally swimming back up to the surface to glimpse the position of the sun.

In the end, her haul consists of a small purple stone flecked with white speckles, and a perfectly-preserved pink pearl.

It's a little strange. All of the trinkets and bobbles she'd found would typically get stored in all of her secret treasure troves around the different corners of the sea.

But now Mahiru is bringing them all straight to Claudine.

She'd swam out a good few hours from the cove, so now she pumps her tail and begins making her way back.

And just a little while later, Claudine finishes up her shift and hangs up her apron before taking her leave. With the stones still in her coat pocket, she hurries out into the streets, crossing over to follow her usual daily path toward the beach.

To her relief, there is no one else on it today, but she still keeps an eye out and makes sure no one is watching her from afar as she makes her way over to the far end. But instead of climbing out over the rocks that lead into the water like she'd used to, she instead makes her way through them, staying on the shore. It only takes her a moment to come out on the other side, where their secret little corner is perfectly concealed.

Claudine stands on the little stretch of sand and gazes out to sea, waiting. It doesn't take long before she starts to sing, letting the wind carry her voice out over the water, letting it reach the one it's meant for.

And even from miles and miles away, through the thickness of the water, Mahiru still hears that voice calling for her. It makes her swim a little faster, a little harder. Anything to see her even one second sooner.

It feels like hours, but she doesn't slow down, not until the familiar cove and shoreline are visible when she pokes her head above-water. Mahiru only begins to decrease her speed as she nears the jutting rocks, but she doesn't swim to the edge of them this time. Rather, she weaves between and around the submerged boulders and heads for the little corner of the beach, blocked off from anyone else's view.

She spots Claudine from a little ways off, and knows she's been spotted too when Claudine starts to wave to her. Mahiru gives her last burst of energy and slows down as she reaches the shallows. Claudine runs into the water to greet her, bending down to wrap both arms around her shoulders.

"Mahiru!"

Mahiru lifts herself up as much as she can to return the hug, giggling as she catches her breath from the swim.

"Kuro-chan!"

The water splashes softly around them both as they maintain the soft embrace for a moment. Neither can really explain the urge for it, but neither really care to. Mahiru finds herself straining up a bit more to be closer to her.

She's so warm…

But then she gasps with a start and pulls herself away.

"K-Kuro-chan! You're getting all wet again!"

"It's all right. I don't mind."

"B-But you'll get sick!" She uses the same excuse as yesterday to turn Claudine around and get her moving back toward the shore. Mahiru might not know everything about humans, but she does know they typically can't handle cold temperatures and water very well.

She swims back toward the sand as far as she can until only her stomach and tail remain submerged. Claudine is only in up to her knees by now as she starts wringing out her clothes. She looks back down to Mahiru, hovering right at the edge, and frowns.

"We can't be close like this…"

Mahiru can see it in her eyes that she intends to come back into the water, so she quickly shakes her head.

"Th-Then I'll come out!"

"Eh?" Claudine tilts her head, her eyes widening in shock. "Mahiru, I really don't mind going in-"

"N-No, it's fine." Mahiru swallows hard, but she's resolved herself. "I'll come onto shore."

Now it's Claudine's turn to deny her.

"Mahiru, you can't. If someone were to see us somehow it would be too obvious to see what you are. At least in the water we can pretend you're a human girl. But out here-"

"It'll be fine!" Mahiru insists. "No one will ever find us here anyway. In all the years I've swam through this place, I've never seen another human in this spot."

Claudine thinks it through for a moment. There's still a part of her that doesn't like the risk. But so long as they stay close to the water and she could help Mahiru get back to safety quickly, perhaps it could be fine.

"All right."

"Yay!" Mahiru slaps her tail fins in delight. She uses her arms to pull herself up as far onto shore as she can, swinging her tail from side to side to move herself forward. Claudine crouches down a little to take hold of her arms and gently help pull her out all the way.

Now, she can see just how dazzling her tail is beneath direct sunlight. The gown and frills of her blue skirt are understandably soaked and limp, but her scales shine brightly underneath, like hundreds of tiny, sparkling shells. Claudine marvels at her figure, and admittedly forgets to breathe for a few seconds. It's Mahiru's timid prompting that gets her to snap out of it.

"Kuro-chan…?"

"Ah. I'm sorry. I just…" Claudine sits down fully beside her now, bringing her gaze back to Mahiru's eyes. "You're so beautiful, Mahiru."

Mahiru nearly squeaks as a heat rushes up to her cheeks. Blushing above-water sure feels very different than blushing below it. Her face feels so much hotter now.

"N-Not at all. There are plenty of mermaids much more beautiful than I am…"

"That seems unlikely," Claudine scoffs. "I doubt any of them could compete."

Mahiru blinks, surprised and happy to see this bolder, more confident side of Claudine. She likes it.

"Th… Thank you…"

"You don't need to thank me for speaking the truth."

"E-Even so…" Mahiru swishes her tail in the sand bashfully. But doing so kind of throws her off balance sitting up, and she sways a little bit. Luckily, Claudine is right beside her, wrapping an arm across her back to help keep her steady.

"I guess it's a little tough to sit up like this when you don't have knees to bend," she chuckles. "Just lean against me, Mahiru."

"R-Right… thank you…" Mahiru accepts the offer and rests her side against Claudine's, feeling a little guilty about getting her clothes wet again.

But Claudine doesn't seem to mind one bit. Her eyes are fixed over the ocean for the moment, but Mahiru finds she can't stop herself from staring only at her…

"Oh, that's right." Claudine turns back to her excitedly and reaches into her coat pocket. "I brought you something."

Mahiru feels a trill of excitement as she leans closer to look.

Claudine produces three little rocks, but they aren't like any of the ones Mahiru has ever seen before. They aren't as dark or sharp as the underwater rocks of cliff faces or trenches or volcanoes. They're a bit lighter than that, which tells of how much sunlight they've seen. And they're covered in soft fuzzy green grass, which is also lighter than most sea grasses and weeds Mahiru knows of. Claudine offers one to her with a bit of a shrug.

"They aren't nearly as pretty as the ones you bring me."

But Mahiru shakes her head vigorously.

"N-Not at all! They're lovely, Kuro-chan! I've never seen anything like these before… C-Can I touch them?"

"By all means," Claudine smiles. "They're yours, Mahiru." She carefully transfers the rocks into Mahiru's hands.

Mahiru is dazzled by the sensation of the green fuzz on them. Touching it out here in the open air feels different than it must've felt to touch them while being underwater, too. All of these new feelings, as small as they may be, fill her heart with joy.

"I love them. Thank you, Kuro-chan. Ah! I-I have some things for you, too."

Mahiru rearranges the folds of her skirts and tucks the forest stones safety into a hidden pouch, then pulls out the purple stone and pink shell she'd found today. It's her turn to place the treasures into Claudine's palms, and for Claudine to marvel at them.

"I've never seen colors like these before…" she murmurs. "These aren't like the ones you can find in gift shops or anything like that."

Mahiru feels fidgety and happy as she drinks in Claudine's smile and the sparkle in her eyes. After a moment of admiring the sea stones, Claudine tucks them into her coat pocket for safekeeping.

"Thank you, Mahiru. I'll add them to my collection from you."

"So will I!" Mahiru leans a little more closely into her now, resting her head on Claudine's shoulder as they gaze out over the water.

The blue sky is beginning to turn red and gold with sunset. The sounds of sea birds and the rush of water drift around and above them. It feels so wonderful and nice, Mahiru doesn't even fully realize how outlandish all of this is. A mermaid and a human, bringing gifts to one another in secrecy, sitting on the beach together to watch the sunset. It's unthinkably risky and foolish and dangerous - for both of them...

And yet, it would seem neither appears all that eager to stop.

Even being so blatantly exposed like this, Mahiru feels safe enough to close her eyes as she rests against Claudine's warmth. The ever-present scent of saltwater that's been surrounding Mahiru her entire life finally fades away long enough for her to catch a different scent. It smells like flowers and sunlight and air.

She breathes Claudine in as deeply as she can, trying to commit her scent to memory, so she may recall it even when she's dwelling in the deepest ocean caves…

"Mahiru?"

"Ah- y-yes?" She blinks her eyes back open and looks up to Claudine, whose eyes are puzzled.

"Are you all right? Being out in the open like this, I mean. If you've changed your mind and want to go back-"

"Ah, no! I don't mind it. We're hidden away enough that I don't think anyone would see us…" She looks down into her lap. "A-And besides… I feel safe when I'm with you, Kuro-chan…"

Hearing those words from Mahiru warms Claudine's heart to no end. She pulls her in a little closer, silently vowing to keep her safe no matter the cost.

"All right," she murmurs. "But if you start to feel uncomfortable-"

"I'll let you know," Mahiru agrees, resting her hand over hers. Claudine smiles, brushing her thumb over the backs of Mahiru's smooth, damp skin.

"What about your body, though? Is your skin all right to be out in the open sunlight like this? What about your scales?"

"Oh, don't worry about that!" Mahiru assures her. "It's not like I'll shrivel up or anything. My skin might get a little dry, but there's so much water soaked into it, I could sun-bathe for probably a whole day without needing to get back in!"

"Sun-bathe?" Claudine blinks. "You do that?"

"W-Well, usually only on deserted islands and places without humans… but yes, my people love to sun-bathe! Though it does make our hair all wrinkly and limp…"

"I know the feeling," Claudine chuckles. "No matter what worlds we may come from, it seems hair troubles still follow us all."

They share a small laugh. Claudine has kept an arm around her shoulders all the while, but now Mahiru slips an arm around her back in turn.

"I think your hair is lovely, Kuro-chan. It's so curly and wavy. I wonder if it would straighten out if you went swimming in the ocean."

"I'm sure it would be a mess either way."

They laugh again.

The sun begins to sink over the water, dyeing the ocean in a greenish-blue while they sky turns orange. Mahiru finds herself seeking Claudine's warmth more and more by the minute.

"Sorry," Claudine says. "I just have one more question for now."

"Sure, Kuro-chan."

"Being out here doesn't stifle you, does it?" Claudine turns to look at her with a hint of concern in her seashell-pink gaze. "The air, I mean. You can breathe fine, both in and out of water?"

"Ah, yes! I'm not exactly sure how it works myself, but oxygen is oxygen for us!"

"Thank goodness," Claudine sighs. "I was a little worried you might be pushing yourself."

"N-Not at all!" Mahiru says quickly. "I'm completely fine right now, Kuro-chan! I love doing this with you-"
She cuts off right as she finishes saying it, feeling heat rising up to her face again. But Claudine's face turns a similar shade of pink, and she smiles back.

"I'm glad. I love doing this with you too, Mahiru."

Mahiru feels her heart flip a little bit, like a shell turned over by a gentle wave.

For a moment, pink and silver mingle. Mahiru feels a twinge of something she can't really explain go through her chest.

"And…" she murmurs. "I suppose you can't breathe underwater, right? Even if you hadn't gotten hurt before falling in?"

Claudine shakes her head.

"Unfortunately, no."

Mahiru sighs. "Of course not… there are just so many things I'd love to show you…"

"It's the same for me," Claudine admits. "But you can't exactly walk back into town with me."

"Not really…"

The wind blows between them, lifting locks of their hair up to brush against their backs.

Both of them feel it. That slight, faint aching in the bottom of their hearts.

But both know better than to focus on it long enough to let it breed thoughts in their minds. They both know those are feelings they should never even begin to consider.

By now, Claudine can feel that Mahiru is starting to tremble in an effort to remain sitting upright beneath the weight of her upper half. So she keeps hold of her and slowly lies herself down on her back in the sand. Mahiru yelps as she's slowly pulled down next to her.

"K-Kuro-chan? A-Are you all right?"

"Yes. I just thought this might be a little more comfortable for the two of us."

Mahiru has to admit it feels better to have the weight off her hips now that her whole body is lying straight. But looking down at Claudine now makes her heart hurt. She can't help but remember the last time she'd seen her lying on her back in the sand, her eyes closed and her chest terrifyingly still, her pulse dwindling by the second-

"Mahiru?" Claudine softy calls her back into reality, back into the present moment. Mahiru is still braced up on her elbows, not fully able to relax beside her with such images flashing through her mind. Claudine must understand the troubles plaguing her though, because she reaches up slowly to cup Mahiru's cheek.

"Don't worry. I'm fine now, thanks to you."

Mahiru exhales, leaning her face into Claudine's touch. Slowly, she lowers herself down now, hesitantly resting an arm across Claudine's stomach. Claudine doesn't protest at all. She just drapes an arm over her back in return.

So Mahiru rests her head in the very same spot as last time, right at the center of her chest. And this time, she's so relieved to hear Claudine's heart beating strongly and steadily. It's surefire proof that she's alive right here and now, together with Mahiru. She nestles into her warmth, closing her eyes for a long moment to listen.

Claudine keeps her eyes on the darkening sky for a while, letting her thoughts and her heart run wild. She doesn't want to think about this - about what they're doing, about what they might be feeling. She just wants to enjoy her time with Mahiru as much as she can right now.

They lie in silence until the sun has set completely, and the chill of her damp clothes and the night air finally catches up to Claudine. In spite of Mahiru's warmth blanketing her, she starts to shiver.

Mahiru hears the change in her breathing, feels the tremble in her chest, and she slowly sits herself up. Claudine pushes herself up as well, and their eyes meet.

Something begs them to move, to act.

But they both push it down, knowing it would only result in disaster.

Though they've only properly met and started seeing each other a few days ago, they've known one another much longer than that.

Claudine had known Mahiru even before she'd seen her. She'd known the beautiful shimmer of her scales, the playfulness of her splashing, the brightness of her presence.

And Mahiru had known the charm of her silhouette from beneath the water, the sweetness of her songs, the tenderness of her heart.

Now, they're both treading into dangerous waters, depths that could easily swallow them whole until they drowned.

Both girls force themselves to draw back.

Claudine stands, removing herself from of Mahiru's immediate range for both their sakes. But she still crouches down to take her hands and guide her back to the water.

Once Mahiru is comfortably submerged, Claudine lingers there for a moment. Mahiru gazes up at her as the orange streetlights flicker on and bathe her in light.

They hesitate, both wanting more, but knowing they can't dare to ask for it.

So another wet, clumsy hug will have to suffice, even though neither lets go for a long moment.

But at last they part, their voices no louder than whispers.

"Goodbye, Mahiru."

"Goodbye, Kuro-chan."

They both know it should be a final farewell, that they should end all of this before it can truly begin.

But they've both already sunk too deeply, been swept away by the pull of that warm and dangerous undertow.

And even though they know they are only sealing their fate, they both also know they'll come back here again tomorrow to willingly drown a little deeper.

Chapter Text

Chapter 9. Promise Me

 

 

It rains the following day, but that doesn't deter the two friends from meeting.

Claudine takes a few more flowers from the shoppe, as well as one more stone that's almost entirely black. As she pulls her rain coat around herself tightly, she heads for their secret corner of the beach.

Mahiru had spent the day finding her a few more shells and sea glass, and waits for her now in the shallows. As soon as she spots Claudine coming down the beach, Mahiru's heart beats a little faster, and she sways her tail in excitement.

Claudine hurries the last bit of the way, weaving through the rocks until she comes to the smoother sands.

Mahiru is already swimming toward her.

Claudine wades into the water in spite of the jarring chill it sends through her. Because even the frigid wetness of the wind and rain and ocean aren't nearly enough to keep her away from Mahiru's waiting arms.

Claudine dips herself down as much as she can as Mahiru pulls herself up close, looping both arms around her shoulders.

"Kuro-chan! You came today, too!"

"But of course~"

For a moment they just hold onto each other as the wind and waves billow around them. But then Mahiru suddenly yelps and pulls away.

"Ah, K-Kuro-chan, you're soaked! Let's go to shore." Mahiru quickly begins pushing at her back to get her out of the water.

"No need to worry," Claudine says as she's nudged along. "Everything I'm wearing is waterproof."

"B-But still! You're going to get sick for real this time!" Mahiru pushes her as far back to shore as she can before the receding water limits her movements. At that point, Claudine turns around to embrace her, gently pulling her out the rest of the way so they may sit together like they did yesterday.

The wind stirs up sand all around them, and the rain constantly gets in their faces as they get as settled as possible. Claudine clutches her coat to her chest and wipes her face on her sleeve. But Mahiru seems completely unfazed somehow, and it begs the question.

"You aren't cold or anything, are you?"

Mahiru shakes her head.

"Not at all! We don't feel the temperature shifts as severely as humans do, it seems. The rain's never bothered me since I'm surrounded by water usually anyway! But I do prefer sunnier days…" Another strong gust of wind cuts through the rocks and buffets them, making Claudine shudder harder. Mahiru can't help but worry. "Kuro-chan… maybe you should go home for today. The storm might only get worse, and it could be dangerous…"

Claudine has half a mind to protest. They'd waited all day to see one another, after all. But as soon as she sees the frightened concern in Mahiru's eyes, Claudine's words die in her throat. She heaves a long sigh.

"You're right…" She opens her arms, and Mahiru nuzzles right into them, giving her a good squeeze.

"I'm sorry," she murmurs. "You came all the way out here in this storm to see me and I'm already sending you away…"

"For my own good," Claudine reasons. "You're right that I really will get sick if I keep this up, and then I won't be able to come and see you at all."

Mahiru hugs her a little tighter.

"I don't want that…"

"Then the feeling's mutual. And you're right to send me away today." After a moment, the two of them ease apart a little. Claudine tucks a wet lock of Mahiru's hair behind her ear. "And you'll be okay in all this? Isn't it cold in the water?"

"Not to me," Mahiru smiles. "And most of the turbulence for any storms happens near the surface of the water. For us, if we just swim down deep into calmer waters, we can avoid everything easily until it's passed. The only thing is, it gets a little dark if you can't find a glowing cave."

"And nothing will come after you?" Claudine asks. "Isn't it dangerous to be so deep you can't see properly?"

"You get used to it! I used to be bad with the dark when I was little, but over the years I've learned how to navigate pretty well! And don't worry! We really don't have any predators in the ocean. Not even sharks! I've been told that since we look partially like humans, most sharks tend to avoid us. The biggest scare I ever had in the deeper waters was bumping into a whale! A-Ah, but what am I doing? I can tell you another time!" Mahiru gives her a gentle, coaxing push. "You need to go home, Kuro-chan."

Claudine's heart sinks a little. She'd been very happy to hear Mahiru start telling stories about herself. But the rain is beginning to soak through even her waterproof clothes now, or so it feels.

So with a sigh, Claudine dips her head in defeat. She helps Mahiru back into the water, where they share one last hug.

"I'll have to give you your presents tomorrow, then."

"That's okay! I can wait." They let go of one another, but Mahiru holds her gaze. "But if you end up getting sick or not feeling well for some reason, please don't come, Kuro-chan. I'll know, okay? Just come see me whenever you get better. I'll wait for you. I promise."

Claudine feels something warm curl around her heart, as if Mahiru's words had manifested there.

"And the same to you," she replies. "If it's too dangerous for you to swim to the surface and come here, then please don't, Mahiru. Even if it means I'll miss you for a few days, I'd much rather you be safe." She smiles, letting every emotion that fills her heart pour into it. "I'll wait for you too, Mahiru. No matter how long."

Mahiru can't tell if there are tears running down both their faces now, or if it's just rainwater. Even so, she swims back up to hug Claudine around her waist one more time before letting her go.

"Goodnight, Kuro-chan."

Claudine slowly begins backing out of the water, though she keeps her eyes on Mahiru for as long as possible.

"Goodnight, Mahiru. Be safe."

Mahiru watches her for as long as she can too, before turning away and swimming back out toward her little cave. She moves by the glow of the stalagmites and prepares herself a large salad for dinner. Eating alone had bothered her for the first few nights after her family had gone, but after that she really hadn't minded.

And yet, ever since she'd started seeing Claudine and talking with her, she's been feeling that aching emptiness again…

Claudine hurries home too, shedding her wet clothes right away, though being careful with the flowers and stone inside her pockets. She takes a long hot shower, and by the time she's eaten and lain down for bed, she doesn't believe she's caught a cold or anything of the sort.

And she, too, begins to feel an ache she's never known before.

She'd been glad to break away from her suffocating family and live on her own. She'd never minded not having company before.

But ever since she'd met Mahiru, she's found it more and more difficult to sleep at night. She just keeps wishing Mahiru were there.

Both girls curl up alone again tonight. But it's the first time it's ever hurt so much.

 

 


 

 

Luckily, the storm passes overnight, and the next day is brighter. The sun isn't exactly shining, but it's certainly leagues more enjoyable than yesterday had been.

Claudine realizes she'd neglected to tell Mahiru she didn't have work today, but she's also willing to use that to her advantage and surprise her.

So after dressing and eating, Claudine takes a few moments to pack a lunch and a towel into her bag, as well as yesterday's flowers and stone, before she hurries out.

No one is on the beach, so she hurries to their secret base. Claudine lies out her towel and sets her bag on it before hoisting herself up onto the rocks and making her way out.

She sits in her old spot on the edge; the spot where she'd first started catching glimpses of Mahiru. She clears her throat, then begins to sing to the rippling blue waters.

And Mahiru is so astonished to hear the hum of her voice that she coughs on her breakfast.

"Kuro-chan? This early? Oh, I'm not even ready!"

She finishes eating hurriedly before pulling a shell through her hair a few times, then quickly polishes her scales with a smooth stone.

And in seconds she's off and swimming at top speed, dashing through schools of fish and around turtles as she follows the sound of that beautiful song. She stays below-water until she sees the line of boulders, then steadily slows herself to a halt.

The fact that Claudine is singing to her means not only that she's here and well, but also too that - quite literally - the coast is clear of other humans, which lets Mahiru know it's safe to show herself. When she lifts her head out of the water, she finds Claudine sitting there on the rocks where she'd first laid eyes on her.

Claudine smiles upon seeing her, but before she can end her song pre-maturely, Mahiru joins in with her. They finish it together before letting the last notes drift off to sea.

"Surprise," Claudine says.

"I'll say!" Mahiru splashes her tail merrily. "When do you have to leave, then?"

"Not until sunset," Claudine reports proudly. "We can have all day together."

"Really? A-All day?" Mahiru is almost bursting at the seams with excitement, and it makes Claudine's heart flutter.

"Yes."

"I can't wait!"

So Claudine stands and makes her way back across the rocks toward the shore as Mahiru swims alongside her. Then it's the usual routine of Claudine wading in to take hold of her and carefully pulling her out onto the sand. Claudine sits down on her towel just as Mahiru throws both arms around her in an exuberant hug.

"All day! I get to spend all day with Kuro-chan!"

Claudine hugs her back.

"I'm very glad for it, too. Now, yesterday you were telling me something about whales."

"Oh, yes! Well, you see…"

And so their day full of storytelling begins.

Mahiru tells her all about her family and friends, as well as all the amazing creatures she's seen and met and played with throughout the oceans she's traveled. She tells of how she swims with the dolphins and rides on the backs of whales, and how different waters have different feelings and scents to them.

She tells her of how the mermaids live, how they sleep and eat and spend their time. She tells of all her secret treasure troves she's hidden around the world, all the peculiar and dazzling trinkets she's found and hidden away.

Mahiru talks all morning long, and Claudine listens in fond, adoring silence, chiming in on occasion to laugh or make a comment or ask a question. But for the most part, she just loves listening to Mahiru talk so confidently and excitedly.

They only pause for a moment to exchange their daily gifts.

Around noontime, Claudine begins eating some of her lunch, and offers Mahiru a bite of her sandwich. Mahiru tries the foreign food, but makes a face so pricelessly conflicted it's impossible for Claudine not to laugh.

"I'm sorry," she says, patting Mahiru's back for her as she forces herself to swallow. "I guess these flavors aren't for you."

"P… Probably not…" Mahiru chuckles and shakes herself off a little from the strange taste.

"What do you eat?" Claudine wonders. "Just sea grass?"

"Well, some of us eat fish and crabs too, if we have the like for it! And it might not sound like much, but the sea salads actually taste really good! You can mix all different kinds of grasses together to create different flavors! Ones that grow in dark places are more mild, and ones that get more sunlight have more flavor! And depending on what region of the ocean they grow in, they all taste different! It's really incredible!"

Claudine continues eating bemusedly as she listens to Mahiru go off rambling again. She'd clearly never had anyone else to tell such stories to like this.

And Mahiru keeps talking about everything she can think of until Claudine has finished eating and the sun has started to sink a bit lower. Only then does she realize her throat is getting a little bit sore from talking so much.

"Ah! I'm sorry! I've been talking this entire time!"

"It's all right. I really don't mind one bit."

"B-But I want to know more about you too, Kuro-chan!"

At that, Claudine flinches, but only a little.

"There isn't much to know about me, really. Humans live in houses like you've seen, and all they seem to do is work and argue. Though some of them are kind, the ones in power are always corrupt, if you ask me. I don't think your societies work like ours do."

Mahiru shakes her head.

"We have elders and a few that everyone has heard of or knows about… but we don't have any all-powerful rulers or anything like that…"

"And it's better that way. Trust me."

Mahiru is quiet for a minute, trying to imagine the kind of world Claudine has described. She can't even fathom it.

"And you'd even said your parents weren't the kindest people, either..." she sighs

Claudine shakes her head slowly.

"I left them. They were too controlling."

"And your friends?"

"I never really had any," Claudine admits. "I was kept at home for most of my life. I never really got to meet or speak to anyone my own age. Not until a few weeks ago when I met you."

"R-Really? Me?" Mahiru gasps. "I-I was your first friend…?"

Claudine nods, then pulls Mahiru into her arms again.

"And I wouldn't have it any other way."

A few more hours pass, and they simply talk, though Mahiru has taken the reigns again for the most part. Her freedom has allowed for her to have so many more experiences than Claudine ever could have dreamed of. Most of the stories Claudine has to tell just come from books.

Before much longer, they find themselves lying down once again, Claudine on her back and Mahiru huddled up into her side, resting her head against her shoulder. Presently, she's just finishing up a story about one of her younger siblings.

"It was the highest she's ever breached!" she sighs. "She looked just like a dolphin! When she came back down she flopped right on her belly, but she didn't even cry! I was so proud of her…"

Claudine smiles warmly.

"You're such a good sister, Mahiru."

"I-I just try my best for them."

"I bet they miss you right now…" Claudine speaks the words without really considering the consequences. Her smile fades, and her heart starts to hurt suddenly. Mahiru shifts a little bit, lifting herself up onto her elbow to look at Claudine properly.

"Kuro-chan…?"

Claudine blinks and shakes her head a little. The last rays of sunlight are fading.

"Sorry. It's just… we both know you'll have to go back to them soon… right…?"

Mahiru's eyes sadden.

"Yes… In just a few weeks I'm supposed to go and meet them again…"

Claudine smiles up at her, but Mahiru only sees pain in her eyes.

"That's nice. I'm glad you have people waiting for you."

"S-So do you-!"

But Claudine shakes her head.

"I don't have anyone waiting for me. Once you go, I'll be alone again." Claudine pushes herself up now, supporting Mahiru with her. "I plan to keep living here, though. So… do you think you can promise me one thing, Mahiru?"

Mahiru doesn't like this. Her eyes are starting to swell up and sting, and her throat feels tight.

"Kuro-chan…"

Claudine's breath starts to tremble, too. She keeps trying to smile, even after her tears have started to fall.

"Promise me… you'll come visit me… on your travels each year… Promise you won't forget about me…"

Mahiru chokes, and she starts crying heavily. She wraps her arms around Claudine more tightly than ever before and weeps.

"I won't… I could never forget about you… Kuro-chan…" Her whole body starts to shudder and heave with sobs. Claudine shakes against her more quietly and doesn't let her go.

The sun sets on the two girls, taking its last light with it. Mahiru still refuses to let her go.

"I'll never… I'll never forget you, Kuro-chan… because I-"

She stops herself with a small, strangled gasp.

She can't. She absolutely cannot say such a thing. Even if it's how she truly feels; it will only hurt them both even more.

But when Claudine draws away from her, just enough to bore her drowning gaze into silver, her only request is to hear those three terrible words.

"Please…" she whispers. "Mahiru…"

And so Mahiru breaks for her.

"I love you… Kuro-chan…"

And then, there's a soft pressure of lips bumping against her own.

When Claudine kisses her, Mahiru can taste the salt of her tears.

She kisses her back with all her heart, clinging to her clothes with shaking fingers.

Claudine sobs softly against her lips before pulling away slowly.

"Thank you, Mahiru. I love you, too…"

Mahiru wails softly and hugs her again, wishing she didn't have this tail to stop her from picking Claudine up and running away with her.

Claudine regrets having made her say those devastating words, and she regrets having said them back to her.

She should've known better. From all the fairytales she's read, she knows this can only end in tragedy - even if they'd left things off at just friendship.

But delving into the depths of an emotion as powerful as love meant there was no turning back, no escape.

Now they would only ache for the rest of their lives.

Mahiru would swim the oceans only longing to come back to this cove.

And Claudine would live her life of working and living alone remembering bits and pieces of their short time spent together.

They would meet maybe a few days a year if they were lucky, if nothing happened to prevent it.

But would that ever be enough?

As they cling to each other and cry their hearts out now, neither one thinks so. Having willingly given in to such a taboo kind of love - one hidden in such deep-rooted secrecy - could never end happily. At least, not in the ways they might hope for.

One human and one mermaid.

Coming from two entirely different worlds, there was never any hope for such a fairytale romance.

Their love had been doomed from the start, and they both know this.

But at the very least, they have a few more weeks left together.

And so, as they wipe away their tears and part ways for the night, both girls share the same agonizing determination in their hearts.

They will keep coming back to see each other, until the bitter end.

Neither can bear to think about what might happen after that.

And so the days counting down to their inevitable tragedy have begun.

Chapter Text

Chapter 10. Wish

 

 

Both girls seem to have come to a mutual agreement; that if they must eventually part ways for an unforeseeable amount of time, they might as well fill the few remaining days they have together with as many memories as possible.

Claudine takes off from her jobs and spends her mornings searching for as many flowers and stones she can find to let Mahiru remember her by.

Mahiru does the same, scouring the nearby waters for all of her old hidden treasures and seeking out as many new ones as she can.

They spend the afternoons and evenings alone together.

They lean shoulder-to-shoulder and talk until they're certain the other will be able to remember their voice, even long after they're gone.

They sing together, engraving the lyrics of their love deep into their hearts.

They kiss, more times than they should, and yet it still never seems to be enough.

They curl up together in the sand, savoring each other's scent and warmth and presence.

They let themselves get closer and closer for all the time they'll be forced to spend so far apart.

They do all they can possibly think to do together like this.

Claudine runs her fingers through Mahiru's thick black hair, traces them across her pale bare shoulders, and then up to cup her puffy tearful cheeks.

She gazes into her eyes long enough to still see them even when she closes her own.

She admires the layered ruffles of her top and skirt, the glossy smoothness of her scales, the soft sway of her fins.

She commits every part of her to memory, counting her many blessings that she'd ever been lucky enough to come across the most beautiful girl in the world.

And Mahiru thinks the same things as she engraves Claudine into her heart as well.

She lets her fingers trace through the wavy curls of her hair and all down her back, hoping she'll be able to remember the sensations of her clothes.

She breathes in her scent like sunlight as she gets lost in her eyes, pink like coral.

And when Claudine drifts off to sleep sometimes from the long days of being with her, Mahiru lays her head on her chest and listens to the soft beat of her pulse.

The days pass one by one. Claudine comes to her, rain or shine, and Mahiru is always there waiting. They try to keep laughing and singing and sharing things with one another.

But as the final days pass them by, their hearts are only filled with the deepest and most hollow sadness.

They've just spent another entire day together in their secret place, laughing and talking and trying to say as many things to one another as possible so that they'll have enough memories to choose from. The day had been cloudy and overcast, and likewise, the twilight is cold and gray.

And even though Claudine has worn plenty of layers of clothes, she still begins to shudder before very long.

Mahiru feels no such chill, but it pains her to see Claudine pushing herself to stay here just so she can be with her another moment longer.

Somehow, they'd both managed to avoid crying all day.

But now, as the weight of another passing night's presence looms over them, Claudine begins to hiccup softly. Mahiru can do nothing more than pull her close and bury her face in her shoulder. Claudine clings onto her, knowing it will be one of the last times.

"I'm sorry…" she gasps. "I should be trying to enjoy these last few days I have with you, and yet…"

Mahiru shakes her head, and only seconds later she finds herself crying too.

"It's okay… The way I see it… the fact that you're so upset by us having to leave one another… just speaks to how much you love me…" She can barely get the words out with how choked-up her throat has become. She can feel Claudine shaking, and she knows it isn't just from the cold.

"I love you, Mahiru," she whimpers. "And I know I shouldn't… or at least if I did, I shouldn't have told you… because now… now it's only going to hurt us both so much more-"

"Don't say that," Mahiru begs her. She eases back to cup Claudine's face in her hands, smiling a wobbly smile through the tears. "I'm the one who told you I loved you first, so if anything, it's my fault… But you know…" She wipes her eyes, and then brushes her thumb across Claudine's cheek to catch a few of her tears. "Even if it hurts… I'm glad we fell in love, Kuro-chan. These were the best days of my whole life!"

"Mahiru…" Claudine's heart beats heavily, and it feels like it might just shatter altogether. She leans her face into Mahiru's palm and softly kisses her wrist. "Me, too… Before I met you I'd… I'd never had so much fun. I'd never felt like my life had a purpose… Even if I can't stay with you, at least I can live knowing that you'll come back to see me some day. And that will be enough."

"I will-!" Mahiru cries. "I'll come back every year, no matter what-! I'll do anything just to see you again…"

"And I'll be waiting," Claudine murmurs. "I'll always be waiting for you, Mahiru…"

The words fade into the sea as both girls bury themselves in each other's arms again. Neither dares to speak the more frightening thoughts shrouding their hearts.

There's always the chance that something horrible could happen within the course of that year before they could see one another again - something that could prevent them from seeing each other forever. An accident, an illness - anything could take one of them away from the other, and they would never even know about it until they came back to this fated spot only to find it vacant. The excruciating pain of not knowing would surely be enough to destroy whichever one was left waiting endlessly at that shoreline.

Their worlds were simply too far apart, too different.

But even if Claudine's parents came for her, or she was forced to move elsewhere and had no way of letting Mahiru know she no longer resided in that hilly seaside town, she would find her way back to the sea at any cost.

Because she knows Mahiru would be scouring the earth's beaches in search of her forever if she had to.

And she would. Mahiru knows her own friends and family would never be able to stop her from searching for Claudine again.

After all, the love she harbors for her is very different than the love she harbors for them. This is the kind of love she never thought she could find or have. And yet, to find it in a human girl of all creatures…

"I wish…" Mahiru's voice cracks as it spills into Claudine's hair. "I wish I could stay here… with you… forever…"

Claudine holds her tightly.

"I know… But... I couldn't do that to you, Mahiru. You have an entire world to explore in that vast ocean. It wouldn't be fair for you to have to live only in this area just for my sake. You have a family. You have so many adventures you still have to go on." She eases back from her now, and can only pray her smile is more genuine than devastated. "It makes me so happy that you would even consider something like that. But I'd never be able to bear the guilt of knowing I'd more or less confined you here." She leans in closer to her, leaving a small kiss on Mahiru's forehead. "I want you to be free and live your life. Without me."

"No-" Mahiru sobs, grabbing fistfuls of Claudine's clothes. "You'll… You'll always be with me, Kuro-chan… no matter what… I won't forget you… I promise…"

Claudine kisses her lips and sighs, letting go of as much of the pain as she can.

"Thank you, Mahiru… Thank you for saving me that day. Thank you for coming to see me. Thank you for loving me. I'll never forget you, either. I'm sure next summer will arrive before we know it and I'll see you again…"

Mahiru tries to smile, but she just can't. With a heartbroken sob, she throws herself at Claudine and falls with her into the sand, wailing into her chest.

"I-It's not fair-! I wish… I wish…"

And it's then, with Claudine's quivering arms around her and the moon casting a silver glow over the night, when Mahiru discovers their answer.

With a sharp gasp, she suddenly pushes herself up, and lines of tears drip down onto Claudine's clothes. Startled, Claudine hesitantly reaches back up to her.

"Mahiru…?"

Mahiru's heart starts to pound, and her eyes glaze over for a split second before she snaps back into the present. Claudine still has tears in her eyes and all down her face, and she looks so terribly beautiful there in the sand, reaching up for her. Mahiru scoops her into her arms and helps her up as best she can, using her tail for balance in the sand.

"That's it-" she mumbles. "K-Kuro-chan, that's it-"

"What?" Claudine gently thumbs a lock of hair from Mahiru's face, tilting her face so she may look into her eyes. "What do you mean, Mahiru?"

Mahiru has stopped crying. Her eyes have taken on a sort of flickering, like the beginning sparks of a fire.

"Do you remember… I've told you about how I've searched the oceans for treasures, right? For stones and shells and anything else I can find…?"

"Yes…" Claudine searches her gaze, and that spark has started to ignite a tiny flame in Claudine's heart, too.

Mahiru squeezes her shoulders.

"And… do you remember I'd told you… there were stories about magical stones that could grant wishes…?"

Claudine isn't sure what feelings come to her now. It's so much all at once it almost feels like nothing at all. But it isn't long before she can tell her stomach is churning, and it suddenly feels a little harder to breathe.

"Mahiru…" She shakes her head slowly, but doesn't tear her gaze from hers. "You can't. It's too dangerous. You'd be traveling the ocean all by yourself. A-And you don't even know where those stones are or if they're even real-"

"But I have to try!" Mahiru cries. "I-If there could be a way that we could be together, then I have to try, Kuro-chan!"

"Mahiru, please-" Claudine gives her a gentle, firm little shake. "Please… You don't have to do that. Even if the stones did exist, it could take you years to even find one. All that would be time wasted from living your life-"

"It wouldn't be wasted," Mahiru protests. "Not if it means I could actually be with you in the end somehow, Kuro-chan."

"And I can't tell you how much I appreciate that thought," Claudine says. "Really, Mahiru. I want nothing more than to be with you, too… But who knows what searching for such a stone could entail? At least if we just keep to our original plan, we can still see each other in the summers. But if you go out looking for that stone… what if you never come back to me…?" The tears start falling again, heavy and burning. "I... I don't want that, Mahiru… I'd rather be able to see you a few weeks a year than never again for the rest of my life…"

"Kuro-chan…" Mahiru admits her resolve wavers upon seeing Claudine break down all over again. Maybe she's right.

But…

But if it meant they could be together-

"Mahiru." Claudine sniffles and gives her a stern look now, even through the tears. "You have to promise me you won't do something as dangerous as looking for that stone on your own. Maybe after you've met back up with your family you can look for it together as you travel. But please…" Claudine pulls her into a deep, shuddering hug. "I can live with being apart from you, Mahiru. How I can't live is without you entirely."

Mahiru locks both arms around her and swallows thickly.

"Kuro-chan…"

Her words make sense. But what Mahiru hadn't told her about the rumors of the stones was that they were very, very dangerous. She could never risk bringing her family along on such an expedition. If she was going to do this, she was going to do it alone-

"Ah-"

A sudden whimper from Claudine has Mahiru snapping out of her thoughts. The wind batters them particularly harshly, and Claudine starts to shiver violently. A steady rain begins to fall.

"K-Kuro-chan!" Mahiru gasps. "You need to go home!"

And she knows Claudine must really be freezing, because she doesn't even protest. As Claudine pushes herself shakily to her feet, Mahiru begins dragging herself back toward the water.

But in spite of the frigid temperature, Claudine still helps her get there, wading in up to her knees. Her teeth chatter as she hugs herself tightly, a numbing chill seeping into just about every inch of her.

Mahiru longs to give her one last hug, but she doesn't want to spread even more water onto her.

"Kuro-chan!" she begs. "Please. Go home and get some rest-"

"Mahiru." Again, Claudine says her name firmly, and even though she's trembling uncontrollably, her eyes are serious. "Promise me."

Mahiru swallows, swimming slowly as close to her as she can. Claudine stops hugging herself for a moment just to cup her face. Likewise, Mahiru cradles hers and pulls her down for one last kiss.

"Kuro-chan…"

Mahiru lets her go and slowly eases back. Her heart breaks as she watches the dreadful realization creep into Claudine's eyes. She shakes her head in dismay.

"Mahiru-"

"I'm sorry, Kuro-chan-!" Mahiru turns and dives into the water, just before Claudine can reach out to try and stop her.

"Mahiru-!" Claudine tries to follow her as far as she can, but in only a few steps the bottom falls away from under her, and a freezing surge of water rushes up to knock her back. Her body's already gone numb, and it takes all her strength just to stagger backward toward the shore. She can just barely see the ripple of the water to mark Mahiru's trail. The surface breaks, and a glimmer of blue appears for a heartbeat in the darkness.

"Wait for me, Kuro-chan! I'll be back! I promise!"

"Mahiru-!"

"I love you!"

And those are the last words Claudine hears from her before she disappears.

And she's so overwhelmed by the fear and the cold and the tears that she doesn't even get to say it back.

Chapter Text

Chapter 11. Fire

 

 

Mahiru uses every shred of strength she has within her not to look back.

Even long after she's left the cove behind, she can still feel the sting in her eyes that tells of tears. But they don't fall like they do when she's with Claudine - no - instead, the sea dissolves them before they can even really begin.

The liberation of feeling them fall used to shed at least a fraction of the weight of her pain. But now, as she swims deeper and deeper, Mahiru is granted no such mercy.

She can only imagine how much Claudine must be weeping right this very moment.

She can still feel the slightest tingle on her tail fins in the places where Claudine's fingers had brushed against her in an effort to hold her back, to prevent her from leaving like this. Claudine had always been such a gentle and caring girl, so for her to be desperate and heartbroken enough to grab for Mahiru like she had can only speak to just how agonizing her pain was.

Mahiru will never forgive herself for hurting her, for denying Claudine's promise like that. Not until she's found that stone and made her wish - the wish that will let them both be together forever.

She isn't even sure how such a wish might be granted, but her love for Claudine has blinded her to anything short of trying to find a solution. She knows she's hurt her terribly, but she believes it will all have been worth it if she can just somehow find the magic…

But as she swims on and on, scouring the ocean floor for something she isn't even sure she'll recognize, she can't get that last, dismayed look Claudine had given her out of her mind.

It's all right, Mahiru vows. I'll make it back to her. And we'll make that wish.

She wants to believe she'd die trying to achieve such a goal. But she knows the pain of never knowing what happened to her would eat away at Claudine to the point of complete devastation. Mahiru knows she can't let herself get hurt, or worse, because it would only make her lover suffer infinitely more terribly.

I'll do it. I'll find that stone and make it back to her.  No matter how long it takes. She'll wait for me. I know she will.

And so, Mahiru swims.

For days and nights, in dark waters and rough waters, in dangerous and unfamiliar ones.

And all the while, she never thinks to turn back.

She knows it would never be enough to simply see Claudine a few days a year when her family passed by the cove. It would be far too agonizing. Of course, she would rather stay with her always. But she knows if she ends up dying in the process of seeking that wish, it will all have been for naught, and their story would end in tragedy anyway.

No… it can't… I won't let it…

So she swims.

She follows the sea bed from smooth white canvases to brown, muddy landscapes.

She delves deep into trenches where not even a sliver of light shines through.

She ventures close to new lands, risking the nets and hooks of the humans that live there.

She travels for days and nights on end, often forgetting to eat or rest. Her body aches and yearns for recovery, but her mind and heart are set.

She pushes herself to her limits and then beyond them, searching every nook and cranny of the vast ocean, no matter how harrowing the journey.

But every time she feels like she might give out, she remembers Claudine.

Her soft, gentle smile. Her tight, warm embrace. Her patient, loving heart.

And every time, without fail, Mahiru finds herself settling down to rest.

Because she knows she can't let her love become an obsession that drives her over the edge. She won't let herself be foolish and selfish enough to die for Claudine, even if some righteous part of herself believes it might be noble to do so.

But her heart knows it would only destroy the both of them.

Death would mean they would be much more than mere oceans apart. Death would mean the ultimate separation, and the absolute destruction of any hope of ever achieving their dream.

So Mahiru keeps her head as best she can, and brings herself to eat and sleep whenever she can find a safe cave or crevice to do so.

Every time she closes her eyes, Claudine is there.

But every time she opens them, she's gone, and Mahiru is faced with the harsh and lonely reality of what she's chosen.

But it will all be worth it in the end...

And so she continues in her search that may very well be endless, a search that takes her countries away and leagues deeper into the sea than she's ever gone before, searching for something she doesn't even know exists at all.

But there is always just a faint thread of hope tugging at her heart.

She thinks of Claudine often, dreams of her, sings her songs, and touches the flowers swaying in her hair. All of the other gifts Claudine had given her had been left at the cove - in Mahiru's secret little treasure trove. All of that seems so far behind her now.

But she keeps going.

For the sake of both hers and Claudine's happiness.

Even if they must be apart now, Mahiru will find a way back to her. With or without a magic stone.

She can only hope it's the former.

Her long and lonely journey continues for many days and many nights. But she is sure to let her love fuel her, not blind her. She eats, rests, thinks of Claudine, and then continues on with a rekindled determination.

But mermaids are social creatures, and the weight of being so terribly alone and scared has begun to take its tole on her. Before she knows it, she finds herself weeping again, the tears being taken instantly by the sea.

It's then she realizes she may have let this fantasy of hers run its course.

It's then she begins to wonder if she should turn back empty-handed.

It's then she begins to realize she could have been spending those last few days with Claudine, and instead she'd left her wearing such a hurt expression.

It's then she begins to realize that perhaps just seeing her a few days in the summer is truly far better than never seeing her again at all.

And it's then - as she hangs her weary head and begins to turn away - when she glimpses the faintest, and most peculiar light, glowing in the deep, deep recesses of the sea.

 

 


 

 

The night Mahiru leaves her, Claudine lingers on that cold, windy shoreline for as long as her body can stand to bear. She just keeps hoping - praying - that in just a few more moments, Mahiru will turn around and come back to her.

But she doesn't.

Even after Claudine has waited another hour in the freezing rain, huddled up against one of the boulders and shuddering to no end, Mahiru hasn't returned. The orange streetlights nearby can't even provide much guidance for her with how strong and dark the storm has become.

Claudine clings to the boulder and sobs for a long, long time.

But Mahiru doesn't come back to her. She fears she never will.

Those last three words she'd ever said to her keep replaying in Claudine's mind, and her heart breaks a little more every time.

It takes half her remaining strength to eventually turn away from their secret spot, and the other half to make it back to her apartment, limping and sobbing through cold, deserted streets.

When she does finally make it back, she collapses to her knees in a heap of soaking-wet clothing, shuddering and choking.

"Mahiru… Mahiru…"

Claudine hadn't gotten the chance to say it back, but she just has to hope she's right in believing Mahiru already knows.

It takes her what feels like hours just to be able to lift herself off the floor, let alone shed her clothes and try to warm herself up a little. She doesn't eat, and when she tries to sleep, nothing comes of it but the image of Mahiru swimming away out into the darkness. Claudine curls into her bed, sobbing as her eyes catch sight of the shells and sea glass on her nightstand.

"Please…" she whispers. "Please come back to me safely…"

Before much longer, she loses consciousness, and doesn't regain it until long after daybreak.

Waking is agony, just in knowing that she probably isn't going to see Mahiru again.

There is the slightest, tiniest sliver of hope that perhaps she had turned around after all, and may be on her way back, if she hadn't returned already.

But in the weeks Claudine had been privileged to know Mahiru and fall in love with her, she believes she knows her well enough to understand how powerful her sense of conviction is. She knows Mahiru won't stop until she's found that stone that may not even exist at all. She may spend the rest of her days chasing that unobtainable dream, without so much as even getting to hear Claudine tell her she loves her one last time.

But that is just how deep Mahiru's love for her is, and in all the agony she's been buried beneath, Claudine can actually feel a tiny ray of light in that thought.

But it isn't nearly enough to chase away the suffocating shadows that drag at her heart and shroud her mind.

She finds it hard to move, let alone get out of bed or eat. Not only is she pained by Mahiru's sudden departure and the fear of worrying for her, but it would seem that the hours upon hours of lingering in the frigid rainstorm all night have finally caught up to her.

She feels worse than she had the morning after she'd concussed her head on the rocks and nearly drowned. In fact, she might prefer that agony over this deep and shuddering hole in her heart.

No matter how much she tries to eat or rest that day, nothing ever feels better.

It's when evening comes that her body feels the routined urge to make her way to the beach. And even though Claudine knows it in her heart that Mahiru won't be there, she gets dressed anyway.

She gathers all of the gifts Mahiru had ever given her and places them gently into her bag to take with her. She leaves her empty apartment behind, and wearily steps out into the cloudy evening.

It hadn't stopped raining much since last night's storm, but at the very least it isn't falling so heavily now. Claudine pulls her hood up over her hair and sets her course toward the beach.

The streets are quiet today, but she can still glimpse people inside the shops and restaurants, talking and eating together, smiling and laughing. It drives home all the harder the fact that Claudine is utterly alone in this town - the town she'd run away to in order to make something of herself.

And yet, the only real relationship she'd managed to kindle had been with a girl who lived in the sea.

She should've known better.

She should've known better than to have sought her out again after Mahiru had saved her.

Claudine knows she should have just left it at that and stopped trying to delve into realms beyond where her feet could tread.

Not only had the sole relationship she'd managed to forge here be with a mermaid, but it had been the most irrevocable relationship of all.

To have fallen in love with a mermaid…

Though she'd had no choice in the matter, Claudine really was a fool.

She steps out onto the sand now, which has been soaked and speckled brown by the relentless rainfall. She coughs and shudders as she staggers through the rocks, swaying more than once from the effects of her illness.

When she finally makes it to that little patch of sand, her heart and mind work against her to envision Mahiru's form waiting there for her. But when she blinks it all vanishes.

Claudine wipes the tears from her eyes and drops down into the wet sand. The contents of her bag rattle a little bit, and she opens it to pour them out.

She lines them up - all the little shells and shards of glass, ranging in all different shapes and sizes and colors and textures. As she looks them all over, she recalls each instance when Mahiru had given them to her, and every story she'd told her of where and how she'd found them.

Claudine weeps softly as she recalls her giggly voice which sometimes stuttered in the most adorable way, her lovely tail that ended in the small nick Claudine's own fishing hook had marked her with, her silver eyes like the sea on a cloudy dawn, her warm embraces that had used to feel so timid, but that had grown more honest and joyful over time.

Claudine wants her back. More than anything.

And although she'd told Mahiru it would be better for them to simply see each other briefly in the summers, deep deep in her heart Claudine knows that isn't what either of them truly want.

They both want to be together. Really and truly together.

And she hates to admit it, but if there really was some magical stone that existed that could possibly grant them that wish, Claudine wishes Mahiru will find it and bring it back to her.

But it's terrible and selfish of her, to wish such a dangerous burden on her, even if Mahiru had gone willingly. Claudine wants there to be a wishing stone, but much more than that she wants Mahiru to be safe and come back to her, with or without one.

Everything tears at her from the inside out - the fear, the guilt, the hope.

She should've known better than to let this begin…

But it hadn't exactly been anyone's choice for them to have fallen in love.

She shouldn't be wishing Mahiru to find this stone if it could put her at risk…

But Claudine wants to hold onto hope that there might be some way they could overcome all of this.

And yet, last night may very well have been the last time Claudine might ever have seen her.

She knows that. She knows it, and it's killing her. The thought that Mahiru may have swam out to meet her death for the sake of their star-crossed love.

All of these thoughts and countless others crash through Claudine's mind like an angry sea, even though the one in front of her eyes is mostly still and calm. The sound and scent and chill of rain fills her senses, and her tears fall into the foam of the tide to mix with the salt of the ocean.

She lingers all evening, and well into the night. Only when pitch darkness sets in over the sea does she gather her things and push herself to her feet.

But she leaves behind one small stone that Mahiru had given her - just in case. A sign to show that she's still here; that she's still waiting.

Claudine returns to her apartment and cries herself to sleep until there are no tears left to shed.

 

 


 

 

And so, her days continue in misery and a poignant, painful longing.

She doesn't go back to her jobs; she doesn't have the will to do anything other than hope and wait and pray for Mahiru's eventual safe return.

She knows that wallowing in her grief will do her no good, and yet she can't help herself.

Every evening, Claudine returns to their secret place and waits for hours, before leaving behind another shell or stone in the sand.

It continues for days, and then weeks…

Until she has nothing left in her bag.

By now, every single gift Mahiru had ever given her is laid out in a line across the sand.

It's been two weeks now.

They were supposed to have had a few more days together, and then by now Mahiru would have left her and gone back to reunite with her family.

But Claudine isn't even sure if she'll be able to do that anymore. She may never know if Mahiru is all right, simply because she just has no way of knowing other than seeing her again for herself.

But she'll wait. No matter how long it might take.

"I'll wait for you…Mahiru…"

Claudine falls softly onto her back in the sand and closes her eyes as the rain begins to fall down on her.

The sky is drained of its light and color, and the night grows dark and cold.

. . .

 


 

. . .

It burns.

It burns so horribly that Mahiru feels the skin of her hands is starting to sear clean off.

But she doesn't stop.

She pumps her tail with all her might, letting her love for Claudine fuel her more strongly now than ever before.

Because she'd found it.

A small, clear stone of ever-changing color, one that emits a hazy, beautiful glow. Of all the rumors she'd ever heard about such a stone, she knows this has to be the one.

Further proof had been discovered upon touching it, as it had burned her fingers instantly. That had been the confirmation that she'd succeeded. After all, something as powerful as a wish-granting stone could not be so easily obtained, even after such an arduous journey to find it. The one who sought to use its powers must pay some kind of price.

So it burns her.

Every second of every beat of her heart and stroke of her tail.

She'd tried tucking it into her skirts, but it had burned right through them and slipped free. She'd tried lodging it between her scales, but it had charred them to an agonizing degree.

And so she has no choice but to hold it in the firmest grip her hands can manage.

Sometimes, she makes the mistake of looking down, only to see the flesh of her hands has turned bloody and red. Not even the cold waters of the sea can combat the excruciating heat it gives off.

And she doesn't dare to set it down, lest it disappear altogether. Now that she's gotten ahold of it, she isn't going to let go for anything until she's brought it back to the person who she knows is still waiting for her.

So Mahiru swims.

Day in and day out, slowing down only when her body can't possibly go any longer. But even when she's forced to let herself drift for a moment, she never relinquishes her grip on that stone.

She'd hoped that maybe at some point the pain of the burns would become so great that it would simply numb her, but she's granted no such mercy.

It's testing her; testing how badly she wants this wish of hers granted.

And when it comes to the possibility of being able to be with Claudine forever, even the perpetual searing of her flesh doesn't make her waver.

As soon as she's able to, she swims on, through all the unfamiliar waters, past countless beaches and lands and towns, following the ache in her heart that pulls her back toward the one she loves most in this world.

Every second is agony - physical, mental, and emotional.

But she doesn't stop. She's going to be with Claudine forever.

Now that dream is truly within her grasp; if only she'll still have the hands left to grab it with.

She just keeps pushing forward, following her instincts and her heart.

Until at long, long last, she begins to recognize the chasms beneath her, the corals dotting the sea floor, the taste of the water here.

It's the dead of night, and her whole body is on fire from the sting of her burden. But past all of that pain, she can feel it.

This is her sea. These are the waters that will lead her to her cove.

She pumps her limp and aching tail, telling herself just one more time will be enough. Just one more time will bring her to Claudine.

She's getting close. She knows it. She knows it…

She can't go on much longer.

So she conjures up the voice she hasn't used in so long now, and begins to sing Claudine's song. To remind herself of what is waiting for her just a little farther ahead.

But her body has been pushed far past its limits, and the heat of the stone is draining her energy and replacing it all with that excruciating burn. Mahiru feels the very last stroke her tail manages, and then nothing comes after that.

Even when she tries to command her body to move, nothing works.

It's all she can do to pour her remaining strength into her charred fingers to keep hold of the stone. Her eyes fall shut, and the waters around her fade to black.

 

 


 

 

Claudine falls into an uneasy sleep there on the beach that night. She hadn't meant to lose consciousness here, but she was just so exhausted she'd had no choice in the matter.

Now, she wakes to find herself waterlogged by a heavy downpour, one that no one could ever have slept through unless they'd been as enervated as she was.

As she pushes herself up, a deep, shuddering blast of thunder cracks over the ocean and shakes her to her core. Lightning strikes far off over the water and lights up the sea in a bright yellow blaze.

But somehow, in spite of her terrible sickness and how weak her body has become, she is struck with an unmistakable urge to move. It's a tugging at her heartstrings, a driving conviction that surely only something as deep and pure as love could breed within her soul.

Someone is calling to her from the distant, heaving horizon.

She gets up. More quickly and surely than she's been able to move since the last time she'd seen her.

"Mahiru…"

She's near. Claudine just knows it. Her heart has never lied to her before - especially not when it came to Mahiru.

Her mind is whirling as quickly as her pulse is now. She needs to go to her, by whatever means necessary.

"Wait for me, Mahiru."

She leaves everything in the sand, and only turns back to crouch down and write a message with her finger. It's more of a promise for herself than anything else. She needs to see it with her own eyes.

Once she's read it over, it hardens her heart.

Claudine wipes her eyes as she stands again. Another blast of thunder jolts her forward, and she begins to run.

Panting and sobbing and drenched with rain, she races across the expanse of the beach, her shoes getting lodged in the lumps of wet sand over and over. At one point she stumbles and skids headlong into the wet desert grains. But she pushes on in spite of the ache in her head and in her veins.

She runs across the entire stretch of the beach, until she comes to the little dock at the far side. The boat rental station is locked and closed-off at this hour of the night, but she pushes through the chains barring her way and rushes out to the edge.

A small row-boat is tied there, being rocked and battered by the waves that are beginning to grow angry in the storm. And it isn't that she's blind to the dangers; she has acknowledged them, but she's simply ignoring them.

Her love for Mahiru isn't an obstacle blocking her better judgement; it is a deep-rooted and unfathomable emotion that ignites her very soul, a flame that keeps her warm in all this downpour. Her love is no burden, and she certainly isn't afraid to risk her life if it means she might somehow save Mahiru's.

So she loosens the rope before stumbling into the rickety, rain-soaked boat, and once she's gotten herself seated, she uses one of the oars to hit the rope until it comes loose altogether.

The ocean heaves beneath her, and Claudine grips the handles of the oars with all her might as she beats the heavy waves and steers herself out toward the place where that thread in her heart is tugging her toward.

"Mahiru…"

Her voice is swallowed up by the crashing of the water around her boat, and the roar of thunder overhead.

 

 


 

 

Fire.

Mahiru has seen it before from the safety of the ocean.

She's seen its hungry red flames tearing through forests and cities.

She's felt its raging heat on the winds that had swept its embers out to sea, smelled its sickening, suffocating air.

But she's never felt it before.

Not until now.

She isn't sure how long she blacks out for, but by the time the pain has forced her back away, she's sunk nearly to the bottom of the ocean, dragged down by the weight of her tail. With her eyes blurred by tears and darkness, she tries to make sense of where she is.

She can tell there's a storm raging overhead due to how the waters are swirling, even below the surface. The once-gentle combers of the cove she loves so much are now churning and racing.

She'd been carried a little ways out back to sea in her relapse, but somehow had managed to keep hold of the stone. Now, she uses that pain and that longing to push onward through the final stretch.

Claudine isn't here now at this hour of night, in this storm, but Mahiru will gladly curl up in the shallows and wait for her until morning, even if it meant the stone would burn her to her bones.

Kuro-chan…

She's done it. She can finally see her again. They can make their wish and be together now…

Mahiru paddles herself until she can make out the shadows of the rocks below the surface. Now, she lifts her head out of the water, breathing in the cold night air and the scent of the rain. Thunder growls and lightning flashes, and the sounds of rainfall hiss across the sea.

She sets her eyes on that little patch of sand they called their own, able to make out that it's empty even in the darkness.

And she's glad for it. She would rather Claudine be in her bed staying safe and warm through all of this.

She can't even begin to imagine the look on Claudine's face tomorrow when she finds Mahiru has returned. It makes her heart so happy just to think about it.

"I'm back… Kuro-chan…"

By now, the pain in her hands really has gone numb, and as she swims up to the shallows, she checks to ensure the colorful stone is still within her grasp. It crackles like the lightning in the sky, shifting all different hues through the dark water.

As Mahiru gives her tail a few final strokes, a melancholy feeling settles over her heart.

She's done it. Her journey is over. She's made Claudine wait for her long enough. Now it'll be her turn to wait until morning, and then she'll be able to see her once again...

But it's then, after giving herself one final push, that she can finally see the shoreline.

Her heart throbs.

They're all there.

Every single treasure Mahiru had ever brought for her is lined up neatly, telling her just how faithfully Claudine has been waiting for her.

Mahiru swims up closer, clutching the stone in one palm as she uses the other damaged hand to crawl up onto the sand and halfway out of the water.

And then, whatever glimmer of hope and happiness had been beginning to twinkle in her heart is swallowed by a chilled and harrowing abyss.

For there - in front of all the shells and trinkets - a message has been freshly-written in the sand:

I'll find you. I promise. I love you, too.

And it feels as if the entirety of the ocean slams over her all at once.

A blast of thunder shakes the earth, and a flash of lightning splits the sky.

"Oh, no…"

Mahiru snaps her head around to look out to the far side of the beach, to the little docks where the boats always sit.

One of them is missing.

"Oh, no-"

It's all she can do to keep hold of that burning stone as she wrenches herself out of the sand and back into the water. She dives in and swims as hard as she can with the little strength she has left.

The fire burns her body now, both inside and out.

Kuro-chan…!

The thunder comes again. Then the lightning.

Mahiru's only wish now is that she isn't too late.

Chapter Text

Chapter 12. One Last Time

 

 

The wind and the rain batter Claudine just as intensely as the ocean batters the boat. At the very least, the waves aren't big enough to break, but the force behind them is more than enough to send her jostling every other second.

With all her might, she pumps the oars, beating them down against the surface that is constantly surging up at her. The sea knocks her in every direction as she struggles to put force into her arms and churn the oars.

She's soaked to the bone, every inch of her trembling and shaking, from not only the frigid spray of water and downpour of rain, but also too from the all-encompassing fear that grips her like sharp talons and doesn't let go.

It's entirely dark, save for when flashes of lightning blaze through the sky and illuminate the raging sea in a terrifying yellow glow for just a few split seconds. The thunder continues blaring, seeming to get louder and louder with each stroke she makes.

But even so, the turmoil of the sky and the tumult of the sea combined still can't match the storm raging inside her heart.

Every inch of her aches with that heavy, sickening dread of knowing you'll never see someone again if you don't act right now, no matter how foolish it may be. Her body is all but numbed from the freezing temperatures of the raging ocean in the dead of night.

And yet, there is still a fire that courses through her veins to melt the ice of that terror, just long enough to allow her one more push of the oars.

The ocean heaves again, and she shrieks, but somehow manages to work the boat to remain upright.

She doesn't even realize until she's too far out that she's lost her sense of where she's trying to go. The tugging that had been pulling at her heart has now been entirely replaced by a deep, petrified fear.

But she still knows Mahiru is close.

How close, she isn't sure, but in all the numbness the fear has created within her, this conviction is the last thing left she can actually feel.

"Mahiru-"

She pours her strength into her arms and rows another few feet farther out, then draws in a deep breath to shout.

"Mahiru!"

Even at the highest volume she can muster, her voice is barely anything against the hiss of rain, the surge of water, and the cracking of thunder. Her heart is pounding through her whole body, making both her head and her chest feel as if they might burst.

Another roar of thunder deafens her, and a strike of lightning blinds her. The wind pushes her, the rain pelts her, and the cold takes hold of her.

But even so, she doesn't stop.

"Mahiru!"

She calls out again and again, desperately trying to scour the deep waters below for a familiar flash of blue. Everything is too dark for her to see properly, but still, she searches.

"Mahiru!"

She chokes, coughing as her body seems to remember all at once how sick she is, how far beyond her limits she is.

The storm howls, and a flash of lightning splits open the sky so brightly it seems as though it's right on top of her. The thunder blasts so loudly it causes a reverberation in her ears, and for a second she can't hear anything at all. She just feels the throb of her pulse beating against her skull and her ribs, the internal shuddering that causes her grip on the oars to slip from the rainwater.

The ocean surges again.

And this time, it takes her.

She feels the very instant when the boat heaves too far to one side, and no matter how hard she pushes her weight against it, it isn't enough. Her heart all but stops as the terror of what's happening sinks in and engulfs her with that helpless weightlessness of falling.

And then the impact.

Her back slams into the water, forcing the last desperate breath of air from her lungs. And before she can do so much as even try to move her arms or kick her legs, the weight of the boat crashes down on top of her.

She's forced down - farther down than she has any hopes of overcoming now. Her body is no longer obeying her. Her senses are numb and blank.

The only things she can feel now are the gentle rocking of the combers beneath the surface, slowly coaxing her down, down, down, into their frigid, drowning depths.

 

 


 

 

Mahiru swims as hard as she can.

Even in spite of the fact that she'd gone on such a long and arduous journey all on her own for weeks on end.

In spite of the fact that she'd barely stopped to eat or rest.

In spite of the fact that she hadn't stopped at all on her way back, and has been swimming nonstop for days and nights at a time.

In spite of the fact that her body is so exhausted and in pain that she knows it might give out at any second.

In spite of the fact that her hands have been burnt so badly that she's almost certain she'll see bone if she looks down at them.

But none of that will stop her from getting to Claudine.

She shoots past the rocks of the cove and into the open waters. But she can't see much like this, so she has to bring herself above-water to frantically search for a boat. It's a horrible push and pull, because she can't see from afar underwater, but when she breaches the surface she has to stop moving.

She scours the cove for something. Anything.

"Kuro-chan!"

The stone continues blistering her hands, but she hardly even feels it anymore. Nothing compares to the fear for Claudine's life.

After a few seconds of finding no signs of her, Mahiru dives back down and swims out a hundred more yards. The ocean swirls around her, and the sky breaks and pours down from above.

It's the worst possible scenario for Claudine to be out here on her own. Mahiru knows it's only a matter of time before something terrible happens.

She propels herself to the surface again and cries out at the top of her lungs.

"Kuro-chan!"

The wind and the thunder smother her voice, and the rain beats down on her. She scans the water, hoping, praying…

A flash of lightning illuminates the world for just a second.

But it's still long enough for her to glimpse a small shape swaying on the waves farther out.

Mahiru dives immediately and makes a beeline for the direction of the boat, all the while somehow still managing to clutch the burning stone in her palms.

Please… please let me be in time-!

She can feel the blinding sting of tears behind her eyes even with the ocean all around her. She can barely catch her breath at all anymore with how hard she's been swimming, and now her throat begins to close up and choke.

Please… please…

She has to break the surface again, panting hard and desperately shaking her head to dislodge the tears from her vision.

"Kuro-chan-"

She turns to find the little boat just a few dozen yards away-

-just in time to watch it capsize.

"No-!"

She screams, plunging back down into the water and beating her tail ferociously. Even above the sounds of the storm and the sea, she hears the huge, heavy splash of the boat flipping and slamming down against the water.

Mahiru sobs as she finally makes out the shadows in front of her. The small, battered silhouette of a girl sinks slowly toward the bottom.

"Kuro-chan!"

Mahiru shrieks and races toward her.

Claudine isn't moving at all, and she's sinking by the second.

It's just like that first night she'd met her. Only, at that time, Mahiru hadn't been so irrevocably and devastatingly in love with her.

With a few final strokes of her tail, she reaches her at long, long last.

Mahiru hooks an arm around her waist and tries to pull her upward. But suddenly, the stone begins to burn even harder, even beyond the numbness it had settled on. It's so searingly painful Mahiru actually recoils and lets Claudine go.

"N-No!"

Instantly, she grabs hold of her again, but the stone sends an even stronger blaze through her veins.

"Fine!" she screams. "It isn't even a choice for me-!"

She drops the stone without a second thought, the prize she'd sought out so ardently, letting it drift slowly down back toward a place where she very well may never find it again.

But even if her entire journey ends up being for naught, she doesn't care. So long as she can save Claudine one last time, she doesn't care about anything else.

Mahiru tries to grab her once more, but to her dismay, her hands are burned beyond use. She can't even curl her fingers or find purchase on her at all. She tries again and again to grab hold of her, but every time Claudine slips right through her fingers.

"No, no-!"

Mahiru tries again and again, terribly aware of the fact that Claudine is sinking lower and lower. She dives down to swim beneath her now, supporting Claudine's weight on her back and pushing up toward the surface.

But her body is so tired, even the surge of adrenaline can't do anything for her now. Mahiru barely manages to lift Claudine a foot higher before her energy is sapped away all at once.

The thunder blares, making the water around her shudder as she sags beneath Claudine's limp weight. Mahiru desperately turns herself over and tries to catch her, scrambling to make her hands work as she fumbles for a grip on her.

"Kuro-chan-"

Her beautiful, sand-colored hair that had always been so dry and curly is now a soft flow of straight locks drifting all around her.

Her eyes are closed, and her face is stark and pale, save for the redness of her cheeks where she'd surely been crying so, so much.

Her lips are parted slightly, and with a whimper, Mahiru watches the last little bubbles of air leave her.

Her chest is vacant of breath, and her body is void of any movement at all.

"No…"

Mahiru tries again to move her tail, but nothing happens.

"No… K-Kuro-chan…"

She brushes her charred hand gently over Claudine's cheek, but even just that much makes her flinch and sends a pang of agony through her.

"No… please no…"

It can't end like this. It can't.

Not when Claudine isn't even able to open her eyes and see her one last time.

Not when she won't even be able to hear Mahiru's voice.

"Kuro-chan…" She bows her forehead against hers and weeps. "I love you… I love you…"

She can feel it. How Claudine hasn't got much more than a sliver of life left in her. Her pulse wavers, and eventually fades.

Mahiru's voice breaks out in a wail, even louder than the thunder.

"Kuro-chan-!"

A soft, eerie glow catches the corner of her eye.

The stone is still sinking slowly beside them, radiating its heated, colorful light. Mahiru's heart breaks at the sight of it, and what she'd believed she could achieve with it. She remembers all the things she'd told herself she would wish on it once she finally found it.

I wish Kuro-chan and I could be together forever. I wish we could see each other every day for the rest of our lives. I wish we could be happily in love forever…

But now, although none of those wishes have changed, there is one that she would rather see granted, if the magic truly did exist.

"Please…" she whispers. "Please… save her…"

Even if it means we can't be together. Even if it means we won't be in love. Even if it means we never even met…

"Please-!" she cries. "Save Kuro-chan!"

An explosion of thunder erupts from the sky and seems to shake the entire ocean. Mahiru pours the last of her strength into trying to hold onto Claudine in whatever way she can. There's another bright flash, much brighter than any lightning would appear from beneath the surface.

And that's when she realizes it wasn't lightning at all.

Rather, the light comes from below them.

When Mahiru turns her head, the glow suddenly bursts forward from that little stone, enough light to fill the entire cove. She yelps, instinctively reaching her hands up to shield herself, but realizing she's lost her grip on Claudine in the process. When she tries to touch her again, Mahiru feels only water.

Perhaps it worked after all.

Perhaps it took her.

Perhaps it's brought her to a place or a time far away where she'd never even met Mahiru at all.

She can only hope that - wherever she'd gone - she'd been given another chance to live.

At the very least, Mahiru still retains her memories for the moment, but she isn't even sure if she'll be able to keep those.

So she thinks through them all as swiftly as she can, as if it may be for the last time:

The first moment she'd seen her there sitting on those rocks.

The first time she'd heard her sing.

All the times she'd watched her play with the fish.

The time she'd saved her from the sea and brought her to shore.

The first time she'd said her name.

The first time she'd brought her gifts.

The first time she'd come onto land with her.

The first time she'd sat with her, and talked with her, and opened her heart to her.

The first time she'd kissed her - and all the times after that.

Whatever magic this is, Mahiru hopes it will at least let her keep the memories.

That's fine… As long as she can live… So please…

It's a few seconds later when she realizes her body is no longer throbbing with the dull agony of her endeavors. Even her hands have stopped burning, and when she dares to bring them into view, she's astounded to find the skin and muscle have all been healed.

Suddenly, it feels as though she'd never embarked on such a harrowing journey in the first place.

Maybe she hadn't.

Maybe time was rewinding.

Maybe she'd soon find herself back with her family, and the cove where she would have met Claudine would never exist at all.

The light is still surrounding her, and she can't make sense of anything other than the fact that she's still in the water, though she isn't sure if it's in the same place anymore. She strokes her tail and tries to look around, squinting in the brightness.

And it's then she sees that she hasn't been left alone after all.

There's a girl - with flowing sand-colored hair and pink cheeks that match the color she knows to be hidden within those delicate, closed eyelashes.

Mahiru gasps.

"Kuro-chan!"

She swims straight toward her as quickly as she can. The light is blurring her vision beyond much more than Claudine's face. But little by little, more and more of her comes into view.

And she doesn't look quite like she used to.

Mahiru's hands fly to her mouth.

"Kuro-chan…"

The layers of clothes she'd been wearing have vanished and replaced.

Her neck, shoulders, and arms are bare, though her chest is now covered by loose, ruffly pink fabrics.

Her stomach is bare as well, slim and pale and white.

Mahiru's heart stops for a second, and then begins to pound all over again.

"Kuro…chan…"

And then, those beautiful coral-pink eyes flutter open to meet silver.

 

 


 

 

Claudine can't make sense of anything for a long, long time.

One moment, she's surrounded by cold, dark, unforgiving waters, being dragged down into the sea by her own weight as the pain stings through her body so sharply it numbs her altogether.

And the next, nothing is cold or painful anymore.

Her first thought is that she'd perished, drowned as she probably should have so many weeks earlier.

Everything is suddenly warm and bright and gentle now. Even with her eyes still shut, she can sense the brightness of light.

Nothing hurts. Nothing is dragging or pushing her down. She can breathe. She finds the strength to open her eyes…

The light is all around her, swirling and dancing in all different waves of colors. It's so warm.

But her eyes don't even bother to admire such a dazzling, magical sight.

For they soon come upon something even more beautiful.

Her heart jolts.

"Ma…Mahiru…?"

She's there, floating in the rainbow light, her tail the same brilliant blue Claudine remembers, her clothes the same adorable green ruffles, her hair the same lovely swirl of black, dappled by the three familiar flowers.

And her eyes - still a lovelier silver than the ocean blanketed by crystalline snowfall.

Her lips part, and her familiar voice cries out.

"Kuro-chan-!"

Claudine can't really move, in spite of how badly she wants to.

But it seems Mahiru has the energy and mirth enough to move for them both.

She swims to her in only seconds and throws both arms around Claudine in such a tight and powerful hug it bowls them both backward in the water.

"Kuro-chan! Kuro-chan-!"

Claudine catches her as best she can, squeezing her hard. Her heart beats like never before, and tears come welling up.

But they don't fall. Instead, they become a part of the ocean surrounding her.

That's when she realizes her arms are bare, that she isn't wearing the same clothes she'd been wearing before. She can still feel fabrics falling around her chest past Mahiru's weight on top of her, but it isn't what she's used to feeling.

As the light finally fades, Claudine finds herself halfway to the bottom of the ocean in the middle of the night. She gasps, watching bubbles fly up from her lips and travel to the surface. Mahiru senses her distress and eases back from the embrace.

"Kuro-chan-"

"M-Mahiru-" Claudine chokes. "I-I can't-"

"Yes, you can." Mahiru rests both hands on her shoulders with a gentle, tender touch. Her eyes are soothing, and her smile is calm. "You're all right, Kuro-chan. You can breathe. See?"

Claudine is captivated by her eyes for a long moment, still in disbelief that she'd found her again, that she'd come back, that she's safe-

"But… how…?"

Now, Mahiru glances downward a little sheepishly.

"Well…" She tapers off, clearly not sure of what to say.

Only now does Claudine tear her eyes away from Mahiru's face and follow her gaze.

She finds her own chest covered by flowing pink fabrics that sway in the water - a fit and design bearing a striking resemblance to the Mahiru's tulle.

But that isn't all that's changed.

Claudine's hands fly to her mouth.

A tail.

A beautiful pink tail now resides where her legs used to be.

The scales are the colors of a sunset sky, each one dappled with a tiny hint of orange all the way from the tip of her tail up to her hips. The scales at her navel where they meet skin are rimmed with gold.

She blinks. But it doesn't disappear. None of it does. Even after several long seconds of stunned silence, she doesn't wake up from whatever dream this may be.

Eventually, Mahiru swims up close to her again, her eyes and voice nervous.

"Kuro-chan…?"

Claudine finally lets her hands fall away from her mouth. She looks back up at her, utterly bewildered and in awe.

"Mahiru… I'm-"

"I-I'm sorry!" Mahiru throws herself at her again all at once, holding her tightly and burrowing her face into Claudine's neck. "I'm so sorry, Kuro-chan! I-I didn't mean for this to happen! I-I just wanted to save you-"

"Mahiru-"

"I didn't know it would change you!" she wails. "I-I didn't know it would take your legs away! I just wanted you to live!"

"Mahiru-"

"And now," she blubbers. "N-Now you can't have your life back… Now you can never walk on land again! Now you can never-"

"Mahiru!"

Claudine grabs her shoulders and pulls her away so she can give her a good, stern look. Mahiru whimpers and trembles and sobs as she wipes her eyes over and over.

"K-Kuro-chan- I-"

"Thank you."

"…Eh…?"

Claudine doesn't say anything else right away.

Instead, she just leans in and kisses her.

Mahiru squeaks, but after a few seconds she gradually uncurls her arms from her chest, and instead wraps them around Claudine's waist.

By now, the storm and the night have passed. The first few rays of morning sunlight begin filtering in from the surface, dyeing the water gold.

By the time they part from their kiss, Mahiru has stopped crying, but Claudine has only just begun.

"Thank you… Mahiru…"

Mahiru shakes her head.

"B-But-! You can never-"

"Dummy." Claudine bumps her forehead lightly against hers. She chuckles a little, and though it's interrupted by a sob, it's a happy sound. "I told you before, didn't I? I have no one waiting for me in that world. No one who will miss me. No one who needs me. No one who loves me. The only place where I have those things is here. With you."

Mahiru feels like her heart is about to burst. All of the guilt and fear she'd been filled with upon seeing Claudine like this is now melting away beneath the warmth of her loving, heartfelt words. She can see it clearly in Claudine's eyes that she's telling the genuine truth.

"You saved me again, Mahiru," she whispers. "You saved me… and we both got our wish. Now we can be together. Forever."

And hearing Claudine finally say the words Mahiru has been waiting for all this time finally lets her realize it's all so wonderfully real.

With a sobbing laugh, Mahiru throws herself at Claudine all over again, and Claudine catches her with waiting arms, twirling her around in the water. Their scales brush together, catching in the light and making a purple sort of shimmer.

When Mahiru casts her gaze down to where the stone had fallen, there's no sight of it any longer. She smiles, and just squeezes Claudine tighter.

Their hearts beat merrily as one, and their tails curl together.

They hold each other until the sun rises fully, bathing them in the warmest light imaginable.

When the tears have finally all been shed and added to the sea, the two girls ease apart enough to find each other's eyes once more.

"Kuro-chan?" Mahiru fidgets a little bit. "Are… Are you sure you won't have any regrets…?"

Claudine doesn't hesitate for a second in kissing her forehead.

"Not one."

"Even if you can't walk again?"

"I won't need to," she replies. "After all, I've got an entire ocean to explore together with you. I thought I might be a little flimsy in getting used to this, but it already feels so natural. And the water isn't cold, either."

The more she talks, the brighter Mahiru's smile becomes.

"I'm so glad…" She wraps her arms around Claudine again and presses up close to her. "I'm so glad, Kuro-chan… I'm so glad you're all right."

"I'm so much better than that," Claudine murmurs, nuzzling into her shoulder. "I'm with you, Mahiru."

Mahiru giggles and gives her another squeeze before slowly easing back again. She stares fondly into Claudine's eyes, that somehow seem even more beautiful now. Claudine allows herself to get lost in Mahiru's eyes, too.

And then a kiss, one more tender and sweet than all the ones before, and with even more of a passion.

When at last they part, their hearts are singing.

"I love you, Mahiru."

"I love you, Kuro-chan."

They take hold of one another's hands, and begin to hum a familiar little song.

Together, they turn to face the endless ocean before them, and swim toward a brand new adventure - to where their future waits.

Chapter Text

Epilogue.

 

 

"H-Hey! Be careful with that!"

Mahiru has hardly gotten a second of rest since they'd arrived at the warm, glistening waters along the coast of Japan. Her little siblings have been so excited to finally be done with all the traveling for the next few months of summer, so they've been darting all over the place and touching everything and anything.

Presently, Mahiru has one sibling under each arm and is chiding her youngest sister not to poke her fingers at an eel.

"Seriously," Mahiru frowns. "You'll get bit!"

Don't worry," a chuckling voice says. "I've got her."

Mahiru sighs in relief as Claudine swims overhead, her pink scales glittering in the clear blue waters. Claudine swims to the tiniest mermaid of the bunch and gently coaxes her away from the disgruntled eel in his coral. Mahiru gives her other siblings a gentle scolding before releasing them, and they all swim off together to play a game. Claudine joins her now with a helpless smile and gives her a kiss on the cheek.

"I don't know how you do it."

Mahiru chuckles.

"I'm so glad I've got you to help me now, Kuro-chan."

For a moment, they lean against one another and fondly watch the littler mermaids playing together. It isn't only Mahiru's siblings and family here, but several other groups of mermaids as well. They always migrate here for the summers and stay for several months before moving on.

It's a place Mahiru knows well from her childhood, but it's the first time Claudine has ever seen it.

And she absolutely loves it. Particularly because she gets to experience it with the love of her life.

They've been living and traveling together for a whole year now. After Claudine had been changed, she and Mahiru had swam out into the ocean to meet up with Mahiru's family as she'd promised them she would. They'd all been so overjoyed to see she'd brought a girlfriend along, though Mahiru and Claudine never told them she used to be human. That much was their own little secret.

Her siblings had immediately latched onto and loved Claudine, and she'd loved them back twice as much.

And so Mahiru had gotten to swim the many waters of the world together with her, showing Claudine all of her favorite places.

She'd shown her the secret treasure troves she'd hidden in years past.

She'd shown her how to swim with the dolphins and ride the whales.

She'd shown her how to jump high out of the water and do spins and twirls.

She'd shown her how the water changed colors at different times of day at different angles from different parts of the planet.

And with each passing day of new experiences and fun, and each passing night where they would curl up together in their soft sea grass bed, they just kept falling more and more deeply in love with one another.

Even now, after a whole year, that love has never done anything but grow ever stronger.

Over their time together, Mahiru has fashioned several accessories and pieces for jewelry for Claudine, including a pink pearl necklace and several skirts and bobbles to decorate her tail.

And very soon, she hopes to give her one more thing.

Only a few weeks ago, the group had swam past that little cove beside the misty seaside down. Claudine and Mahiru had spent a few nights there alone together for the sake of memories, and caught up with the others later to continue on to here.

But while they were there, Mahiru had made sure to revisit her secret treasure trove and take out one thing in particular. It's something she'd found a very long time ago and had taken with her simply for the sake of collecting her treasures. She'd found it long before she'd ever met Claudine, but now it will surely come in handy like she never thought it could.

She's kept it tucked away in the folds of her skirt all this time to Japan, waiting for the right moment. By now, her heart has been racing so hard for so many days, she's certain she won't be able to last any longer.

It's a miracle she even makes it through supper tonight, it being a plethora of different grasses - which Claudine has acquired a very enthusiastic taste for.

It's when the sun begins to set when Mahiru finally taps Claudine gently on the shoulder and beckons her away from the others. Claudine smiles and tilts her head curiously, but doesn't say a thing as she accepts her hand and follows along.

Mahiru leads her out into a clear, open spot where no one else is around. The rays of the sunset are filtering down, surrounding them in pinks and yellows through the water. Mahiru hasn't let go of Claudine's hand all the while, even after they've come to a halt. Claudine inclines her head again and gives her hand a squeeze.

"Mahiru?"

"E-Eh?" She snaps out of the fuzziness that's been clouding her head, and looks up at her girlfriend sharply. "Ah, s-sorry."

"It's all right. I'm just a little worried. You've seemed a bit distracted lately." Claudine moves a bit closer to her and cups her cheek before pressing a kiss to the bridge of her nose. "Are you all right? Can I help in any way?"

"I-I'm fine!" Mahiru blushes. "I'm fantastic, actually! B-But there is… one thing you could do… i-if you want to, that is."

Claudine smiles sweetly.

"Anything for you, Mahiru."

Mahiru gulps and slowly reaches down into her skirts. Her fingers curl around the little diamond ring and pull it out at last.

"Th-Then would you… marry me…?"

A gasp bubbles up from Claudine's lips as she brings both hands to her mouth. Her eyes widen and fill with tears as Mahiru presents her with the beautiful silver ring. She blinks, feeling an incomparable warmth beginning to blossom through her chest. Her heart pounds so hard it causes little ripples in the water, and her whole body begins to tremble.

Mahiru waits nervously, and her heart is beating probably just as fast as Claudine's is, if not faster. She can feel her face getting hotter and hotter until finally she can't bear it any longer.

"K-Kuro-chan-"

"Mahiru!"

"E-Eh-?" Mahiru is suddenly bowled over backwards into a full flip as Claudine throws herself at her in a tight, affectionate hug. They tumble through the water, and when they finally right themselves Claudine wastes no time in kissing her full on the lips. Mahiru finds herself more dizzy from the kiss than from the flipping. She folds her arms around Claudine's shoulders, her trembling fingers combing through her hair. When they part, Claudine's eyes and smile are beaming more brightly than the sunlight.

"Yes! Yes, I'll marry you, Mahiru!"

Mahiru half-laughs and half-sobs, too overjoyed to do anything more than kiss her again. Their hearts flutter as the warmth of their love fills every inch of them, pooling particularly sweetly at their lips.

They drift together for a while as the sun goes down, and eventually part long enough for Mahiru to slip the ring onto Claudine's finger.

"I love you."

"I love you, too."

And so their new journey shall begin.

The tale of a girl who had been swept away by the sea does not always end in tragedy.

Sometimes, all it takes is the spark of an unyielding passion to face any dangers life may throw your way, the flame of a warm, tender, unparalleled love, and a dash of magic to prove that wishes really can come true.