Salt Water and Soy Biscuits
Colors are so bright on the surface.
Too bright, like a stick of artificially flavored high-fructose-corn-slobber hard candy, shades of eye-searing yellow and lime. Underwater, every hue is pleasantly saturated and dimmed, suitable for your large eyes with their permanently-dilated seadweller pupils.
And that's just one of the things you can think of that makes the surface pale in comparison to your home beneath the waves. The weather is mercurial; hot and windy and dry and never just right, never the right amount of warmth that makes you feel comfortable and safe. The fauna is skittish; you were used to swimming with schools of tuna and giggling at the occasional eel. Here, an Urchull will start running if you eyeball it the wrong way. The denizens are harsh yet worn, like concrete that's been rubbed up against too many times. People are hard and tired and painfully gray here, yet they still reflect sunlight, sometimes painfully. They need to reflect sunlight, need to act like they're content with their mundane land-dweller lives and everything is A-okay.
Some of them haven't even seen the ocean.
You're not sure how anything in their world can be okay.
For you, the sea is possibility, the unknown, a vast void of opportunity and escape. It's very hard to corner a fish when they were raised in endless escape. On land there are very few places to run.
But you're good at running, aren't you, Rinne? That's why you came here in the first place.
You gnash your molars. Seadwellers are very good at running indeed. Especially from their problems.
'Stuff' in Maraqua got too complicated. Drama, relationships, crime, spending long nights in your reef with an ashen heart. Unable to cry because the ocean would leech your tears away. And what use is crying when you've nothing, not even tears, to show for it?
You ran away. You ran away from Ellie and Arro and Rini, most of all, oh Fyora you could never face Rini again.
Good thing, too. They'd never look for you here, in Shenkuu. Not in the city where they rely on light of lantern and moon to feel warm. It's in the mountains, as far from salt water as you could think, far from the sea's warmth that comforts like a blanket and wipes away your tears before you drop them.
Kind of like a mother. You never had one of those either.
You manage to lay low in Shenkuu for a week and a half. Get a job at a teahouse down on its luck. Wages are probably worse than you could get from an hour at the money tree, but the Koi shopkeeper reminds you of Rini. Bittersweet, so you wouldn't dream of leaving.
She doesn't pry into your story much. All she knows is your name (a false one -- Des) and your place of residence. Incidentally, you live in a small studio right above the teahouse. The Rini-shopkeeper goes home every night to a warm bed and hearth and family, leaving you to sleep on a bamboo mat above the teahouse and gaze at the wall, wondering what you're doing with your life.
She, Tamako, becomes the closest thing you have to an acquaintance. You're kind of a hermit and the height of your socialization is "May I take your order?" once every few hours. Sometimes you go to the supermarket to buy instant noodles, peaches, and peanut butter. You don't talk to anyone there either.
Your voice becomes rusty with disuse. Your gills feel dry and your feet sluggish. You wake up, eat peanut butter, pace for a few minutes, work for a few hours, sometimes smile, go upstairs after work, eat noodles, go to bed, rinse, and repeat. No relationships, no drama. Isn't this what you wanted?
You miss Rini. You miss Rini so much it hurts. Hurts your eyes and your fingertips and your bones, and you cry so much your sobs sometimes feel like heartbeats.
Tamako is worried. You barely have a proper conversation with her each day, about dumb topics like the weather or the batch of soy biscuits she left in the display case too long. But she is worried. Sometimes she puts a hand on your shoulder and winces at the bones protruding from your skin. Chides you about eating more. Sleeping more. Smiling more. Living more.
Why? you ask yourself. She has her own happy family. Why extend her notice to a standoffish stranger so totally out of her element in every way?
One day, Tamako snaps. You're pouring tea into cracked little saucers to dip those awful soy biscuits in, when she slaps your fin so hard the teapot smashes into the floor. You stare into her angry eyes in shock, and on impulse you shove her. Hard. Hard as you can.
There's fire blazing in Tamako's eyes, an amber inferno of frustration and anger and something else you can't name. She takes your fin and wrings it hard, as if to snap you back into life.
"What's wrong with you? Why don't you talk?" she demands, still clutching your fin in her iron-vise paw.
You glare at her, saying nothing.
"Talk," she says firmly, softer now. Her eyes widen when she looks down at your fin and sees a sliver of blood from where the broken teapot sliced you.
Sighing, Tamako leads you to the back room, where she washes out your cut and wraps it in gauze that smells like old chai tea. She's quiet as she works. Her lips are mashed together in a gesture so mom-ish that you can't help but laugh.
When the snort bubbles from your lips she looks up at you, suddenly very old and very tired. "I've never heard you laugh, Des, and I barely see you smile. And to me, that is the sign of a fundamentally unhappy person."
You wonder as to the requirements of being 'fundamentally' unhappy.
She's watching you expectantly.
So you decide to talk.
"I ran away from home. Too much, you know? Everyone was pressing in on me. Too much pressure and I'd thought I'd explode, like a volcano. I miss home. I miss people. I even miss pressure. I miss Rini and I miss proper seafood and I miss the sting of salt water on a cut. I miss my reef and my family and..." The words flow from your lips like they've been trapped all this time, all in a rush that you can't control. To your horror, the cursed tears make tracks down your face, pooling near the corner of your mouth. Reflexively, you use your tongue to swipe them away.
Tamako is staring at you again, observing you like a particularly interesting specimen. You've spent the past two weeks totally taciturn, and now there's more emotion than you know what to do with.
She reaches up and swipes tears from under your eyes.
A millisecond later she crushes you to her chest in a bone-smashing hug. A soothing and placating hug, though whether it was to soothe you or herself you couldn't decipher.
"You're lonely, Des. Lonely and homesick and I think you need to go back home," she sniffs. Why is she even crying? Is this a land-dweller thing; cry when someone else cries because chances are you don't get enough salt water anyway?
It's too much. Again. You've failed again and it's time to run away.
You twist out of Tamako's hug, pushing her flailing limbs away. She's shocked that you would wriggle out of her precious hug, apparently. Her eyes narrow in suspicion.
"I need to go, I'm sorry. But uh, thanks."
You rip the bandage off your cut as you bolt out the back door of the teahouse. There you go again, running away from your problems and shutting down your emotions when others' threaten to overflow. The salt water burns your open cut as you use your fin to rub the tears on your face.
You don't mind the sting.
It takes three hours, some pocket change, and a bit of pleading before the Eyrie Cab deposits you in your destination. Altador, coastal city, no mountains or reefs and sight. But plenty of salt water.
You walk down to the ports to watch the trading ships leave for the evening, their sails reflecting bits of dying sunset light as they float away.
Your feet kick and splash in the water as you watch them go. Maybe you will make a new life here, away from Rini and Tamako and others who show any scrap of pity to you. Maybe you will just refuse to talk to anyone ever. Save yourself from the sting of salt water.
On your palm, the cut has already begun to scab over.