The snapper has had a rough day so far. A bigger fish tried to take a bite out of it shortly after it began foraging this morning, and after escaping it bumbled right into a strange mat of kelp that ensnared it and left it stuck there for hours. Then something yanked it out of the water and dropped it back in, for no particularly evident reason.
The fish remembers none of this, its entire memory of the day having been thrown aside as soon as it spotted the large, red shrimp moseying about the algae-covered sea bottom. It has currently eaten three of them, and shows no signs of slowing down, hounding the ruby-shelled crustaceans through the nooks and crannies of the reef. Chasing one particularly juicy specimen, the snapper scrapes its snout against a bed of coral before it seizes upon its prey. As it gorges itself on the prawn a tiny portion of its mind considers how familiar that bed of coral seemed. It was almost as if it had seen that bed somewhere else earlier today. Something to do with that ache in its side…something…something that had nothing to do with eating or avoiding being eaten at any rate. By that metric it couldn’t be too important, and there were still more shrimp to eat.
The last thing the fish is aware of is some slight movement from the direction of that eerily familiar coral bed. Then a single coral-colored tentacle snakes up from behind it and snaps its spine like a toothpick.
Morgana gives herself a pat on the back. She’s scored big with this hunt; the plump white and yellow fish bobbing belly-up before her is one of her favorite delicacies, and she’s sure the hum-no, Thomas-will enjoy it as well. And those shrimp it was pecking at look tempting as well, she’ll take a few of those for herself.
She gives the fish an experimental heft with her hand while her tentacles idly snap out to pluck shrimp from the rocks below her. Would there be enough meat on this fellow to feed a starving human? It seems like there ought to be, it was about as long as her forearm. That was usually big enough to sate her appetite for an afternoon, but then she got to eat regularly. Maybe she’ll catch just one more. It would be bad to look stingy after all…
With six fish and enough shrimp for an entire family of scylla in tow, Morgana starts making her way upstream again. Her progress is slowed a bit compared to last time by the need to keep bits of her sizable bounty from drifting away. Surfacing once she reaches the pool, she looks around for Thomas. Thomas isn’t there.
“Thomas?” she calls, voice choked with worry.
He can’t be gone. He can’t. He promised her he’d be here when she got back. He PROMISED. HE PROMISEDHEPROMISEDHEPROMISED-
The thin, tanned human boy rounds the bend into the clearing that surrounds the pool, a smoldering tree branch held carefully in one hand. He raises his free hand in greeting.
“Just wondering where you were,” she responds meekly, embarrassed at how easily she’d gotten worked up.
He shrugs and deposits the burning branch in his hand onto a small pile of sticks and leaves near the edge of the pool, which begin crackling and popping away.
“Thought I’d start setting up shop over here too,” he says, gesturing to the blaze, “If we’re going to be friends I figure I ought to make it easier for you to find me.”
Friends eh? Not quite what she had been aiming for initially, but it was refreshing to be called that. Her kind was solitary by nature; this was the first time someone had called her “friend”.
“Ready for lunch?” she asks, hoisting up her catch.
Even at this distance she can see him salivate at the sight of the fish.
“H-how much can I have?”
She cheers internally at the opportunity to look magnanimous.
“You can have as much as you want.”
Thomas looks like he might faint.
“I have something for you too.” he says.
He reaches into a canvas bag on the far side of the fire and retrieves a small yellow fruit, one of those odd tube-shaped things she’s seen growing on the shore of some of her islands. She was fairly certain they were edible, but she’d never actually tasted one. They grew too high and too far from the water for her to get at. Now that she’s seeing one up close, she realizes it’s a bit, well, phallic looking, and she has trouble not blushing when he trades it off to her for a chubby flatfish.
“That’s my last one, but you’re welcome to it. I can’t just let you feed me without giving you anything.”
She wants to protest, to tell him that he’s the one who’s starving, but she holds herself back. She’s pretty sure that would come across as rude. Or “ungrateful”. Whatever it was they said. Why didn’t she pay more attention to her mother when she was teaching her how to talk to humans?
Thomas pulls a wooden-handled knife from one of his pockets and busies himself in gutting the fish, giving her a few precious moments to figure out how the hell to eat this strange tube of plant matter. Neither end of it looks terribly inviting, so she decides to just chomp down right in the middle. She winces. It’s awful; it tastes almost nothing like crab, which was what everything needed to taste like as far as she was concerned. She swallows her mouthful quickly and shovels the rest of the fruit down before Thomas can get a look at her face. She succeeds, just barely. Her turns back to her seconds later, a bit of surprise showing on his face upon seeing she’s already eaten his gift.
“That good eh?”
She smiles and nods, wracking her brain for a way to direct the conversation away from land plants that didn’t taste like crab.
“How about a shrimp while you wait for your fish?”
She picks the two biggest prawns and offers him one while crunching down on the other. Thomas pales a bit.
“I’ll uh, wait to cook mine. Thanks. Speaking of which…”
He turns back to the fire and his newly cleaned fish, which he drapes over the slanted face of a large rock at the fire’s edge. Morgana watches the strange ritual, fascinated.
“What’s the point of doing all that anyway?” she asks, still nibbling at the raw crustacean.
“It makes it taste better.”
“No way. No way anything could possibly taste better than a fresh killed fish.” She examines the half-eaten shrimp in her hand. There’s not a single thing she can think of doing to improve it. “Seems to me you’re all doing a lot of work for nothing.”
He grins derisively at her.
“Just you wait.”
“I will, and while I’m waiting, I think I’ll enjoy a few of these fine prawns, which are delicious at this very instant without the need for fires, rocks, or anything else.”
“Sshhhh,” he whispers, holding up a finger, “Hear that?”
Hear what? The fire?
There was something more than that, now that she was actually listening for it. Sort of a hissing, popping sound, like a strong current stirring up gravel.
“It’s sizzling.” He says with the kind of excited delight that makes her think it’s a sound dear to the human heart.
‘Sizzling’ eh? She liked that. Not a word she’d ever heard before, but somehow it was the perfect fit for the noise she was hearing. The ‘sizzling’ reaches a crescendo that coincides with the fish’s skin splitting open, exposing opaque flesh. Thomas is on it almost in the same instant; he juggles the charred flounder awkwardly, “oohing” and “ahhing” at the intense heat, which apparently isn’t enough to keep him from tucking into it anyway. He hums contentedly, steam puffing from his mouth as he sucks in deep breaths of air to cool his scorched tongue.
“Yeah that sure looks delightful” she smirks, amused in spite of herself at his struggles with the piping-hot food.
He swallows and shines a smugly self-assured smile at her as he crosses to the edge of the pool, peeling away charred skin and scales to expose more flesh.
“Take one bite. That’s all I’m asking.” He says, holding out a lump of flaky white meat between his fingers.
She returns his look of derision as she accepts the morsel and brings it to her mouth, completely confident that she’s about to prove him wrong.
“Holy shit.” She mumbles through a mouthful of the best thing she’s ever eaten, both hands on her cheeks.
“Still think we’re wasting our time?” he asks.
“I’m not sure, let me try another bite.” she lies, already reaching out for a second helping.
“Oh you go right to hell.” he cackles, already backing away.
“I’m serious,” she whines, feigning distress at his tight-fistedness “I need to have another bite before I can be absolutely sure it was worth it!”
Lunging after him, she manages to curl a single tentacle around his ankle, dropping him flat on his back. Undaunted, he holds the piscine repast as far out of her reach as he can.
“What you need is to admit that it literally blows everything you’ve ever eaten out of the water!” he cries, laughing.
“Never!” she cries back, managing to slide just far enough over him to seize her prize. She sinks her teeth into the charred meat eagerly; too distracted by the great revelation of cooked food to appreciate how wonderfully close their little wrestling match has brought them together. Her lunch secured, she rolls off of him and slinks back into the shallows, savoring each bite of her victory, oblivious to why Thomas’s face is far redder than such light roughhousing alone can account for.
“Alright” she says after cleaning one side of the fish of meat, “I’ll admit, that was pretty good.”
She hands the half-skeletonized fish back to him without a fight, then plants her hands on her hips and injects a hint of pomposity into her voice.
“You have my permission to continue making these.”
“Oh thank you soooooo much Madame. Not a day will go by that I’m not grateful for your ever so generous blessing in this matter.” He replies.
Though she’s sorely tempted to continue, she knows he must be hungry, and opts to let him dig in to the unspoiled side of the fish without comment. He cleans it in half the time it took her, then looks her way, licking grease from his fingers.
“You still hungry too?”
Discarding the last of the fish bones and shrimp shells, Thomas stretches out and pats his full stomach.
“I take it you got enough to eat?”
“More than enough,” he intones lazily “Forget about harvest day or the winter feast, this was the best meal of my life.”
He rolls on his side to look her in the eye.
“I can’t thank you enough.”
No, but you could try. Starting with a nice, deep, tongue-heavy kiss.
“Just trying to do the right thing.”
Thomas pokes at the largest skeleton in the bone heap.
“I was so damn hungry I was starting to dream of the way these things would taste. They were even better than I expected.”
He shifts back to a sitting postion.
“All the same, some part of me is going to miss those little fruits. I was just starting to like them.”
Morgana puts a finger to her chin in thought. Somehow she wasn’t sure that the one she’d eaten was really the last one around here. She felt like she’d seen a tree heavy with fruit rather recently, but where? Where, where, where…oh that’s right.
“There’s an islet off the western shore that still has fruit on it you know.”
“Yeah I saw that too. It was never really an option for me though.”
“Well, even at low tide, it’s gotta be a hundred yards from the shore to there, and the water is pretty deep.”
Morgana sizes the young human up and compares him to her memories of the sea in that area. The water was a bit deeper than he was tall, but not by that much.
“I’m not sure I follow.” She says.
Thomas furrows his brow at her, as if he’s just realized he’s talking to an idiot.
“I can’t swim.”
“You can’t swim?”
“I can’t swim.”
“Then how did-“
“I grabbed onto a piece of the mast and kicked like my life depended on it.”
“But you’re a sailor.”
“And you’re a Scylla. Glad we’ve gotten that straightened out.”
“I’m being serious. How can a sailor not know how to swim?”
“Because all he does every day is work to keep his ship afloat. Why would he go jumping off of it?”
“Because it’s sinking maybe?”
Thomas sighs and looks away.
“Well, the thing is, if you fall overboard, you can’t really expect to be saved. The wind’s not going to change direction just so you can turn around and pick up your friend. So they all say to just man up, sink down, and be done with it. Turns out that when a sailor actually hits the water he clings to life as stubbornly as anyone else.”
Morgana stares at him, aghast.
“ ‘Sink and be done with it’? What kind of sick attitude is that?”
Thomas hangs his head.
“Well, the idea is that drowning quickly is better than starving to death floating in the middle of the ocean or getting grabbed by a-“
He cuts himself off prematurely, a look of shame crossing his face.
“A what?” she asks, though she has a sneaking suspicion as to what he’s about to say.
His head sinks lower still.
“A shark or something. I know that probably sounds lame to you but ocean-going predators scare the hell out of humans.”
She’d been certain that he was about to bring up the sort of nasty rumors about monsters that were probably what had made him so afraid of her at their first meeting. But that is neither here nor there, and another excuse to spend time with him is staring her in the face.
“Would you like to learn?”
He looks back up at her.
He bites his lower lip, looking decidedly hesitant.
“I’m not sure I really want to get back in the water any time soon.”
“Come on now,” she chides him, “You’re on an island. There’s water on all sides. You’ll get along easier if you can swim, and I’m a great teacher!”
She is, in fact, not a great teacher. Or a teacher of any kind. She’d once tried to train a dolphin to do tricks, but it had gotten bored with her rather quickly and rejoined its pod. She’s certain she’ll have better luck with someone who can actually talk though.
“I don’t know…” he says warily, still chewing at his bottom lip.
“With how hungry you’ve been, can you really stand to watch all that lovely fruit rot on the ground?” she reasons.
He stares at the ground between his knees for a good long while before he responds.
“Fine, but we go at my pace.”
Excitement wells up in her chest, and she has to take a moment of her own to keep from pulsing her camouflage in elation.
They seal their agreement with a handshake, droplets of water sent flying by Morgana’s overenthusiastic jouncing.
“We’ll start tomorrow at midday,” she declares, “Do you know how to reach the lagoon on the far side of the island?”
“The one with all the yellow coral growing in it?”
“That’s the one.” She nods.
“I think I can manage that.”
“Good!” she says, clapping her hands together, “I’ll see you tomorrow!”
Morgana pulls herself into the deeper waters of the pool and starts making her way downstream.
“Where are you going?” Thomas calls after her.
“To get ready for tomorrow!” she calls back.
Thomas’ reluctance to enter the lagoon is evident in everything from the way he clings to the rocks at its’ edge to the suspicious look he gives her as she bobs impatiently a few feet away.
“Any time now, sailor.”
“I haven’t had the best luck with water lately. Give me a moment.”
“You’ve had more than enough moments,” She chastises, gliding toward him through the blue-green water, “get in here before the day’s out.”
She holds her hand out to him, hoping that putting the pressure on will get him to take that all-important first leap of faith. He eyes her warily for a few seconds more, then gulps visibly and places his trembling hand on hers. Sensing her opportunity, she takes a firm grip on him and starts backing into the lagoon.
“Hang on!” he cries, trying to maintain his footing on the reef.
“I am.” she smirks, continuing to pull him into the water.
“I’m not ready!” he protests, doubling over in his final frantic efforts to stay dry.
“You are.” she insists, giving a last little tug that sends him splashing into the lagoon with a yelp.
He writhes in panic at losing his footing, his breathing reduced to short, terrified gasps. She ignores his frantic movements and wraps a pair of tentacles around his waist, then another around each of his legs, supporting him and keeping his head well above the surface.
“Relax,” she says, looking him dead in the eye, “I won’t let you sink.”
He makes a feeble lunge back toward shore, getting nowhere.
Thomas takes a deep breath and ceases his futile struggling against the water, trembling in her grasp. She gives his hand a reassuring squeeze and repeats herself.
“I won’t let you sink.”
He nods and finally releases the breath he’d been holding. They float about in silence for a while, letting the gentle currents push them about. Morgana savors their closeness with guilty relish, reveling in the way she can feel each of his heart beats as they fade from a panicked staccato back to normal. That’s right, relax. Your lover’s got you. Nothing bad can happen. But what if something did? What if the tide kicked up and a wave made it over the reef? Gods, that would just be perfect. The perfect excuse to hold him nice and close, hugging his face to her bosom, whispering assurances to him until the danger had passed…
Thomas’ voice brings her mind lurching back to reality.
“Yes?” she responds, hoping she doesn’t look as flustered as she feels.
“I’m ready to start learning now.”
Thomas was quite ready to start learning, but Morgana has slowly realized she was severely underprepared for teaching. Moving through the water is so natural, so effortless for her that trying to explain it to someone who nature didn’t build for life in the sea has proven to be nothing but a head ache. After several dead-end attempts at getting him to swim like a scylla, she’s finally had to settle for just supporting him with her tentacles and letting him figure out how to paddle himself.
He’s rather clumsy.
“Try not to splash so much. You look like a fish caught in a tidepool.”
At the very least he’s able to move through the water with some kind of efficiency. Her real problem is getting him to stay afloat while he does so. A great deal of her lesson was wasted trying to get him to inflate his swim bladder before she finally realized that humans lacked that particular organ. He’s got almost no fat on him too, which isn’t helping with his buoyancy.
“Like this?” he asks, changing his stroke slightly.
“That’s…better, I suppose.”
He still looks clumsy to her, but she supposes the same thing could be said of her on land.
“Let’s try something different for a moment,” she says, drawing him back toward her, “What you really need is to be able to keep your head above water.”
“That sounds reasonable,” he replies, “Air is essential to human life after all.”
“Be serious. Now I’m going to let go of you, and I want you to try and swim straight upwards. Don’t overdo it, just enough that you can breathe, okay?”
Reluctantly, she unravels her tentacles from around his torso. Not just because she was thoroughly enjoying getting to hold him, but also because a small part of her can’t help but be worried about him even though she’ll be right next to him if he has any trouble. He doesn’t, though the jerky way he treads water has her tempted to grab him almost immediately.
“Hey,” he says breathlessly, “This isn’t so hard!”
“Yeah, you’re a natural.” She replies while praying to any god listening that he doesn’t sink.
He takes a few strokes in a circular pattern around her. He’s still almost vertical in the water, so he doesn’t go very far, but it’s better than when they started.
“Alright now let’s see if you can swim back to shore.”
With enthusiasm, if not necessarily grace or agility, he turns toward the nearest edge of the lagoon and starts making his way toward it. She follows him like a mother hen, ready to catch him at the slightest sign of distress. It takes him a while, but he makes it.
“And that’s a good day,” she declares as she gives him a pat on the back, “I think we’ve earned some dinner.”
“I was just about to say that, what’s on the menu?”
“Since you’re an expert swimmer now, why don’t we head out to that island and have some of that fruit you’ve been pining after? Meet me on the western shore and we’ll swim over together.”
Thomas turns and begins trudging toward the overland path to the west while Morgana makes her way to the edge of the lagoon and the sea.
Morgana can’t help but be amazed at how quickly Thomas scrambles up the fruit tree. He may be an oaf in the water, so much so that she had to carry him part of the way to the islet, but on land he moves with awe-inspiring speed.
“Look out below!” he cries before tugging a bundle of the oblong yellow fruits free. It drops to the ground with a heavy thud, a few of them breaking free from the bunch. He’s hot on its heels, returning to the ground only a few moments after it drops. He plucks the biggest of the fruits from the ground and holds it aloft like a trophy.
“Victory!” he declares.
Morgana gives a perfunctory clap at his success, trying to be happy for him in spite of the revulsion she feels at the thought of eating those horridly un-crab-like things. He walks down to the shallows and offers her part of his bounty, but she waves him off.
“I don’t want to hunt on a full stomach.”
He nods, perhaps convinced, perhaps privy to the fact that she dislikes the odd produce. She excuses herself to the sea to find herself some dinner, leaving him alone on the islet for a while. When she returns, a bundle of seagreens in hand to test her theory that land dwellers won’t be able to stomach ocean vegetables, she finds him sitting with his back against one of the smaller trees on the islet. At a distance he appears to be dozing in the evening light, but as she closes in on him she sees that he’s staring despondently at the sunset.
“I’m back,” she says gently, “What’s eating you?”
“I miss my home.” He says softly.
Morgana winces internally at her own bluntness. Of course he misses his home. He’s young, but he’s not a child. He’s built at least a decade’s worth of life in some far-off place that’s now closed to him, possibly forever. He must be miserable, even if he’s not showing it.
“Where is home for you?” She asks, feeling she should say something, though as soon as the words leave her mouth she realizes that asking a homesick boy about his home may not have been a good idea.
He smiles sadly at her.
“Noblis. It’s a big trading city on the coast. My house was up on a hill near the edge of town.”
“Was?” she asks, then kicks herself for possibly bringing up another unhappy memory.
“Dad never came home from The War. I was the eldest son, so it was up to me to put food on the table. The town smith had promised me an apprenticeship when I turned fourteen, but that doesn’t quite pay enough to support a mother and three children, so I went to sea instead. High-risk ventures like trade voyages pay better than any other job a peasant kid like me can get.”
“Are…”, she hesitates, certain that the question she wanted ask will add another mark to ‘acts of tactlessness’ tally. He looks at her expectantly. Too late to take it back now.
“Are they going to be okay without you?”
She doesn’t quite understand why such an old human should have to care for four others, but he seems to think it the natural thing to do.
“Sure,” he says, grinning a little more enthusiastically, “I bought an insurance policy when I signed on with my ship. They all said it was a dumb idea and that I was wasting my money, but it looks like it may have been the smartest idea I ever had.”
He finishes off the last bit of his fruit and tosses the peel to the side before shuffling in his seat to face her.
“Alright, you’ve heard my story; I think it’s only fair that you tell me yours.”
“I’m afraid it’s not very interesting.”
“I’d still like to hear it.”
She twirls a finger idly through her hair as she thinks.
“Well, I was born further south of here, in the reefs near a big volcanic island…um…I staked my claim here when I was twelve, I’ll have been here 8 years at the end of summer-“
“Twelve? Why so young?” he interjects
“My wanderlust hit me, same as everyone else. Isn’t that normal?”
“Hardly. Didn’t your parents have anything to say about your leaving?”
“My mom said that I was the only one who would know when it was time to strike out on my own. She gave me my breathing jar, my inkwell, and a big hug and sent me on my way.”
“Just like that?”
“Just like that. Scylla are a solitary people.”
“What about your father?”
“What about him?”
“Well, wasn’t he, er, didn’t he have to be, you know, human? What did he say about his daughter leaving so young?”
“Nothing. He’d passed away long before that.”
“Oh. I’m sorry.”
He fidgets with his fingers for a moment before he continues.
“What was he like?”
“I only have a few memories of him, but they’re all good. Mom told me he used to say that we were the only good thing that ever happened to him.”
“I see.” He says after a while, “Well, I suppose that makes us two of a kind.”
He pushes himself off the ground, shuffles to where she’s resting in the shallows, and stoops down to wrap her in a hug. Shocked, she nearly jumps away from him, but manages to fight off the urge. Undaunted, it manages to find its way out in the form of that familiar tickle in her skin that accompanies an involuntary camouflage change. She can’t be troubled with trying to control it this time, instead closing her eyes and hugging him back.
“I guess we’ll have to watch out for each other then.”
She holds him tightly until she finally manages to get her colors back under control, then a little longer for good measure before she releases him.
“Come on, let’s get you to the mainland before we lose the light.”
Smiling, he wades into the water beside her and begins his clumsy paddling back to shore. She follows him, extending a single tentacle underneath him for support, heart swelling with excitement at what the future may bring.