The waves lapped the shore.
They walked together in their bare feet, felt sand and shells under their toes. The waves slid in, slid out, slid in, washed around their ankles before receding again.
Coral had the camera around her neck.
It had been two years since they had last seen that shore. Two years since they had felt the sand under their feet, their skin soft and new, tender against the roughness of shells and pebbles.
Two glorious years. But it was time.
Two years ago, they had made a pact.
There was a world above. They wanted to see it.
Stories had come down from above, stories passed on by those who had gone up. They were stories told by the people up there, those people who walked instead of went around swimming, and the stories were stories about those who were like themselves, people with scales, people with fish-tails. Stories of witches, of sharp dealings, of voices exchanged for feet. How strange.
They probably had other stories, too. Surely they did.
There were no witches, no unfair bargains, no prices that were too high to pay. True, not everyone got to go up there, but it wasn't as if it were that difficult. It wasn't as if it were impossible. It was a simple matter of applying for a permit and stepping ashore after their purpose was acknowledged and permission was granted. Explorers, that was what they would be. Adventurers. And they would get the information they needed to weave their own tales, write their own songs, sing their stories of the world up above.
A research trip. An academic venture. An artistic vision. For two years. An ambitious project for a pair of bards, but Pearl and Coral had always been ambitious..
Their joy was endless on the day they received the news. They pressed close to one another, they kissed, their bodies coiled together, tails sliding against one another. Always, they stayed close, glow-eyed, grinning broad and sharp in their excitement.
Then they applied for a change of skin.
It was strange. Breathing air was strange. It felt so much different than water. But like water, there was a particular taste to it, changing wherever you went. Pure, cold, and sweet at times, or heavy and thick, like silt.
The air of the beach was like the air of the sea, and it tasted good.
Hand in hand. Fingers coiled together, grasping like tentacles.
"So," Pearl said. "Midnight?"
"Yes. That's when we're done." Coral glanced down at the camera around her neck. "We'll have to mail this back to Anne."
Their housemate had asked questions about where they were going, of course. Had asked why they were leaving. The pair of them had been cryptic and coy, saying only that their job was up and they had to go home.
She asked, "Where is home?"
"A small place near the sea. You wouldn't have heard of it. But we're going vacationing first."
Oh, Anne. Such a kind woman. Very understanding, very friendly, not minding their quirks, though she did tease about their love of fish and the habit of staying in the bathtub for hours. She had been generous enough to lend her camera, going only on the promise that it would be returned, even if by post.
They would leave her a present, a memory of them. A hint.
"Well?" Pearl said, pressing a kiss to Coral's cheek. "What do you think? The lighting is just right."
Lips to cheek, soft flesh against soft flesh, plaint. "Out in the surf, then. But don't let it take you."
She stood back, kept to the shore, held the camera and watched as Pearl stepped out, pausing a moment to savour the sensation of sand and waves at her feet.
As she took the photographs Coral knew the ocean was calling. Could feel it. Could nearly taste it. It was there in the wash of the waves, pulling her like a magnet. The spells were wavering. They could go back today, they could go back right now, if they wanted to. But they didn't.
Pearl had always been the stronger one, and she could afford to be bold. Coral captured her pictures as she stepped into the water itself, as she walked in past her knees, as the sun framed her beautiful face. It tried to take her, and the magic tried to dissolve, but she made it hold.
They had so many stories to tell. But they weren't ready to go just yet.
That was what they had come for. Stories of their people. Stories of the land-people, too. Stories passed down from family to family. Stories that changed. Stories that did not change.
Humans lived such brief lives, even when left to their own devices - what songs could they possibly sing?
Songs of hope. Songs of sadness. Songs of love. The stories these people told were not different from those below the waves, really.
Coral and Pearl learned these songs, memorized their tunes, their words.
Sometimes they changed them to suit their own tastes, their people's tastes.
They missed their old bodies, their fins, their long tails. They missed their bioluminescent scales.
They missed twining together at night, coiled together in the dark, comfortable cave that they called home.
They had been shocked at the sight of themselves and at each other when they first stepped onto the beach and looked at one another. When they first looked at themselves in a mirror, and many times after that. But one became used to human bodies after the surprise wore off. Eventually.
One became used to human beauty, too.
Coral was not strong. She knew it. Her magic was not as practised, not as sturdy as the spells her dear Pearl wore. Her human body was softer, more fragile. So she let the waves kiss her feet, but she did not step in; she hung back with the camera and took photographs.
Pearl came to her eventually, her feet sandy, her dress dripping wet. "It's no good if you just take pictures of me," she said. "This is supposed to be a gift from both of us. Let me take one of you." She smiled.
Strange, those fleshy lips, those small white teeth. Strange, but strangely pretty, like sea-rounded pebbles.
Coral kissed her. Then she slipped the strap off from around her neck. "If you insist," she said.
She walked down along the beach and let her lover take her photograph in the dying light.
Books. Paper. Ink. Stories.
So strange. So fascinating.
Oral stories were not dead. Humans spoke those stories, told them, sang them, changed them, passed them on. But they also set their stories down, and locked them up in libraries.
Coral loved libraries.
She spent hours in them, reading the human stories, delighting in them even as she diligently committed them to memory. Stories of humans. Stories of those who were not human, too. Stories of those who were both, sometimes.
She found the book with the story of one like her. It was odd, bizarre. She disliked it. That Andersen fellow didn't know anything about sea-people. It went back on the shelf. Instead she went seeking other stories.
Strange, that humans were not sure if her people existed or not. At least, that was what they felt, if the books they wrote told the truth. Odd, that they had such implausible images of the people below the waves. But it was for the better if they stayed a mystery.
They would always be a mystery.
Pearl took a different approach. She turned from the books, from the paper, and kept to what she was best at: voice. She absorbed herself in music, she attended concerts, she listened and she loved.
The radio, she declared, was the most wonderful thing that humans had ever created. But, she hastened to add, it was no substitute for live music.
Anne had a piano in her home. They would take turns in the evenings, after supper of fish as always, playing it with joy. Songs with words. Songs without words. They committed them to memory as they learned them. Later, in the privacy of their room, beneath the covers, they would whisper to one another, keeping their heads close as they speculated how they might replicate the piano's sound on their native instruments.
Anne watched as they played. Listened. Smiled, and put the tea on. "I never would have thought," she said, "that I would get lodgers who could sing like angels."
"Or mermaids," Pearl said. Coral's eyes widened. Pearl winked at her.
"Yes, or mermaids. You'd charm any sailor, the pair of you."
There was no need for charming anyone. They had each other.
Coral returned to Pearl. Her feet were wet, sandy. Her dress was wet at the hem; a wave had come and washed at her, nearly sweeping her away, grasping at her magic and forcing her toes to grow webs. She beat it back with a word.
"Well!" Pearl said as she handed her the camera again. "It almost took you that time."
"Yes. I'm finished, I think."
They returned to the hotel together, that seaside place where they had stayed on the night they arrived, and would stay - or so they said - overnight. From there, they mailed the camera as they had said they would, packed it, penned dear Anne's address in neat letters. And in the box, they also packed their gifts: a pearl necklace. A coral hair comb. Sealed it tight and safe.
They went to their room that evening, staying until the moon was high in the sky. Then they checked out, the odd scheduling easily explained away with a lie. No, this was their schedule, there was nothing amiss.
They walked down to the sea together.
Coral looked up. It was a new morning. A dark, inviting morning, like the dark, inviting depths of their home. Her fingers twined with Pearl's for a moment, and then she released her.
They said not one word. For the moment, Pearl was silent, quiet, contemplative. They turned to each other, and Pearl's eyes were already glowing in the dark, and in that moment, in that form, she looked more beautiful than she ever had. Overwhelmed, Coral cupped her face and kissed her, slipped a tongue into her eager open mouth and felt her teeth growing larger, becoming long and pointed and gorgeous.
Her fingers were growing webs. Her feet were unsteady.
"Come on," Pearl breathed, her sharp teeth making her voice sound strange in her soft human mouth. "Let's go."
One glance back at the lights on the shore. Then again toward the ocean and the moon glittering on the horizon. They stepped into the waves, further and further. They let the ocean take them, let it drag them out. Their legs fused, their lower bodies became beautiful tails, their eyes grew wider and wider and wider.
As they sank down into the sea together, Coral reached for her love. They coiled together, wrapped around each other, embracing as they returned home.
They had so many stories to tell.