He looked up, away from the little thing lazily airing its wings on the back of his hand, and his vision was filled with red.
It wasn’t blood. It was something much, much warmer.
Everything else forgotten, Xie Lian threw himself at that warmth. He heard a soft exhale, arms wrapping around him, and then the both of them were topping over.
He landed softly, San Lang cushioned under him. He looked different, now. The silver jewelry across his neck and the bracers were new, as was the wicked scimitar strapped to his waist. He wore no bandages across his face now, replaced with a sleek black eyepatch. He’d changed his hair, too, ponytail forgone for loose locks and a single braid.
But Xie Lian hardly cared that he looked different. His skin was still as pale as it was in death, but he was in front of him, solid and real. He knew him. That black eye shone with it, with him, until there was no doubting that this could be anyone but his San Lang.
Somehow, San Lang had done the impossible. San Lang had returned to him.
He was sobbing, he knew, both his tears and the seawater clinging to his skin drenching San Lang’s clothes. Not a single sound managed to claw its way from his throat, not that it could, and his shoulders heaved with the intensity of his emotion. He couldn’t hear anything above the roaring in his ears, the desperate but soundless chanting of San Lang’s name as his lips moved but his throat remained unusable, but he was aware of a soft touch tracing soothing circles into his back, of fingers threading through his hair. It was overwhelming, to be so close to someone, to feel warmth after only having known cold, dark waters for so long. His mind was in such disarray that he could barely put two thoughts together.
Slowly, he became aware of a soft voice in his ear. It whispered, reverently, words of love, of regret, of apology, of warmth.
“I’m sorry, Ge ge. I took too long, didn’t I?”
“I’m happy Ge ge recognizes me still.”
“Shhh, Ge ge, you don’t have to cry. I promise, I won’t leave again.”
“Sorry, I should’ve tried to find you sooner.”
“Ge ge, I’m glad you’re still here. I was worried you’d go on ahead without me.”
Xie Lian wanted to answer. He wanted to answer San Lang more than anything in the world, wanted to tell him that he shouldn’t apologize, not ever, not to him, and that he’d done nothing wrong. He wanted to tell him that he was just happy he was here. He was happy to not be alone, and that the person filling his heart was San Lang.
But he couldn’t, and that only dragged more choked, mute sobs from him as he buried his face into the fabric of San Lang’s shoulder.
It took him some time to fully calm down, and when he did, he still had a bad case of sniffling and hiccuping. San Lang continued speaking quietly to him, reassuring and reinforcing his words with comforting strokes of hands on his back. When the tears finally stopped falling, San Lang sat up, pulling Xie Lian onto his lap.
He brushed his fingers over Xie Lian’s cheeks, rubbing away the wetness. Then, he started carting his fingers through his hair. Xie Lian melted into the touch, and his tail curled around San Lan’s legs.
“Do you feel better now, Ge ge?” San Lang asked.
Slowly, Xie Lian nodded. He couldn’t even find it within himself to be embarrassed. At some point, the ghosts of the ship had dispersed into the ship’s cabin, leaving the two of them alone on the deck.
San Lang smiled. “Good. Ge ge, sit back for a second?”
Silently disappointed, Xie Lian slithered out of San Lang’s lap.
“Thank you,” he said lightly, moving his hands as he spoke. “This is what I wanted to show you.” His hands seemed to move in time with what he was saying, making odd patterns and shapes. Xie Lian honestly had no idea what he was doing.
His confusion must’ve made itself evident, because San Lang laughed before explaining, “It’s a language, sort of. One where you can used your hands to talk. I learned it from a foreigner. I thought Ge ge might find it useful?” All the while, his hands never stopped moving as he spoke.
Realization slowly dawned on him. San Lang had found a way to fix it, his voice, or at least half of the problem of losing it. This wouldn’t restore his power, but he would finally be able to communicate again. He could tell San Lang all of the things he’d wanted to say.
Again, he found himself throwing himself at San Lang, arms wrapping around him. Under Xie Lian’s weight, there was no way for San Lang to stay upright, and they both wound splayed across the wooden deck once again.
San Lang laughed. “I take it Ge ge is pleased with this idea? I figured, since you live in water, it would be easier and more practical than teaching you to write.”
Xie Lian nodded enthusiastically, his grip tightening on San Lang. The man only laughed that chiming, beautiful laugh of his, and Xie Lian never wanted to let go.
Of course, he had to let go at some point. Thankfully, San Lang seemed happy to indulge him. He nuzzled into Xie Lian’s neck, an unrepentant smile coloring his features. He didn’t seem to mind Xie Lian’s fishy smell, or the raised and coarse texture of the gills cutting across the contours of his neck, or the way Xie Lian’s ears (he called them that, but they weren’t exactly ears) bumped into his cheek.
After some time of simply letting Xie Lian cling to him, San Lang inclined his head to whisper in his ear. “Ge ge, you’ve been out of water too long.”
Xie Lian shook his head mutely, mouthing, ‘Don’t care.’ This time, it was his face buried into San Lang’s shoulder and neck.
San Lang snorted. He probably expecting that response, because in the next moment, he was shifting Xie Lian into his arms and standing in a characteristic feat of strength. Xie Lian felt an overwhelming, welcomed sense of deja vu as he soundlessly yelped and clung to San Lang’s shoulders.
Then, San Lang placed one foot on the railing and catapulted the both of them overboard.
It wasn’t a long drop, not really. Unfortunately, the memories of cradling San Lang’s too still form were far too fresh in his mind, even after all the decades that had passed. He almost felt himself start slipping with panic, clutching at San Lang and trying to reach out and grab the railing, or turn them so he’d take the hit, instead.
A part of him knew it was just water below them, but he couldn’t help but remember the human he’d sent careening over the cliff, whose neck had snapped, of it being San Lang instead, of how hard the men must’ve pushed San Lang into the rocks to made his skull crack like—
Humans were really too fragile.
But, no, they hit the water, a cool reprieve, and San Lang smiled at him, his hair fanning out behind him in the water. He was… well, not alive, not anymore, but he was here and he was warm and he was smiling.
It was better than a cold, bloody corpse.
He looked far more picturesque in the filtered, shimmering light of the water, his hair fanning out behind him and swaying to the whims of the current. With only the eyepatch, more of his face was visible, and Xie Lian quite liked the change. His skin was smooth and soft, features angular and defined. Most merfolk thought humans ugly, but Xie Lian couldn’t agree, not when San Lang was in front of him and healthy and okay and vibrant and beautiful.
Xie Lian wasn’t quite sure what possessed him in that moment, but before he could even think about the action, he had grabbed the fabric at San Lang’s shoulders and tugged them close, their lips mashing a sloppy, wonderful kiss.
Of course, reality caught up to him when a strangled noise made its way from San Lang’s lips, and then he realized.
That was bad.
He pulled away, about to dart off and bury himself in shame, but San Lang grasped his hands and clasped them tightly. He leaned forward, their foreheads brushing against one another and a silent question posed in his lone eye.
Slowly, Xie Lian nodded.
With that, San Lang titled Xie Lian’s head back with a soft tug of fingers on his chin, and their lips pressed together again. This time, it was softer, less clumsy, but more insistent. It was… an odd sensation, now that Xie Lian was more aware, but not an unpleasant one.
They parted, and San Lang beamed at him. It almost stole Xie Lian’s breath away; he’d never seen San Lang’s smile shine quite that brightly.
Had… was this something that San Lang had wanted all along? Did… he love him?
Wait, Xie Lian’s mind interrupted, Breathing. That’s important.
Belatedly, Xie Lian started trying to count back to how long they’d been underwater, how long humans could go without air. San Lang gave him a puzzled look, perfectly unaffected, and Xie Lian shook his head before gripping his shoulders and snapping his tail to shoot them upwards.
They broke the surface of the water a moment later, and San Lang’s deep laugh filled the air.
“Ge ge,” he said, “I don’t need to breathe anymore, remember? We could’ve stayed down for longer. Please, don’t panic on my behalf. I’m not a weak human anymore.”
The statement was supposed to reassure him, he knew, but it felt more like a punch to the gut. Words couldn’t express how much guilt had followed him, clawed at him, after San Lang’s death. He was happy to have him back, but as a ghost whose soul was eternally bound to earth, never able to pass on again? He hadn’t wanted that.
San Lang, meanwhile, brushed Xie Lian’s temple with his thumbs. “Ge ge, don’t look like that. It’s fine. As long as you’re here, I want to stay by your side, no matter what. Isn’t that okay?”
Weakly, hesitantly, Xie Lian nodded.
How could he possibly say no to that? San Lang was here. For him. He didn’t want to throw that back into his face, or seem ungrateful.
And the worst part was… as awful as a part of him found the idea of San Lang damning his own soul for Xie Lian’s sake, another part of him was so, so sickeningly, selfishly happy. It was the tired, lonely part of himself that he wanted to bury forever, the same one that took his country, his victory, his people, his vassals, and his parents for granted and lost them all because of it.
But San Lang was warm, and Xie Lian wanted to bask in that for the rest of time.
So, for just a moment, he allowed himself to forget his thoughts—to be a little selfish, to want happiness for himself—and leaned forward to kiss him again.
As time passed, the clawing, nagging voice that had been ever present in Xie Lian’s mind like a thorn had gradually grown quieter and quieter, drowned out by the soft timbre of San Lang’s voice.
They spent most of their time together. They’d both been alone most of their lives, and they were tired of it. San Lang’s company had almost become as necessary to Xie Lian’s existence as the water he lived in.
They didn’t have a ceremony or any other formal declaration of their love. There was no point, not when they both already knew how they felt for one another, and the rest of the world hardly mattered. Who would have even attended? San Lang’s corpse crew?
Still, Xie Lian found himself trying out the word ‘husband’ to describe San Lang, and he found he rather liked it. When he gestured that to San Lang, the ghost pirate beamed back at him.
“Ge ge, my beautiful husband,” he echoed.
Xie Lian couldn’t help the smile he returned.
‘San Lang?’ Xie Lian signed, his fingers growing more fluid as he grew more accustomed to the motions associated with each of his words.
San Lang glanced up lazily to follow the movements of Xie Lian’s hands. He was good at knowing when to watch, when Xie Lian wanted to tell him something. He hardly ever had to tap the ghost’s shoulder to get his attention.
“Yes, Ge ge?” San Lang asked, his hands busy sharpening his scimitar.
Corpses mulled about them, going about their tasks. Not that… well, it was an interesting sight. Ghosts inhabiting decaying bodies didn’t have much dexterity, their flesh having stiffened and started rotting long ago, so when they tried to do things that required fine motor movements like tying knots or securing lines, it often took two or three of them.
‘Why did you decide to become a pirate, of all things?’ It was slightly uncomfortable to sign like this, half leaning out of the wooden tub San Lang had set up on the deck of his ship for him. Xie Lian had tried to argue that a wet blanket was fine, but every time he did, San Lang would just pick him up and throw him overboard again.
Jumping up and onto the deck was hard… so eventually, Xie Lian resigned himself to the tub, even if it was cramped where the wood dug into his arms and he spoke through excited gestures.
San Lang burst into laughter at his original question, almost dropping his famed E-Ming. “Ge ge hasn’t figured that out yet?”
Slowly, he shook his head. Should he have?
“Ge ge,” San Lang said, “think carefully. What benefit does my becoming a pirate only to set up shop in this little cove have?”
That was a good question.
Truly, Xie Lian couldn’t think of a single satisfactory answer. It might serve as a good hiding place, but the location was hardly strategic. There were no major ports or town nearby to smuggle supplies from. There also weren’t any common shipping lines that ran through this area, meaning no lucrative targets for a pirate ship to plunder. The ship would have to travel a long distance for supplies or loot, which was far from ideal.
After some time, he gave up and shook his head.
As if expecting this answer, San Lang’s expression twisted momentarily before fading into a small smile. “Ge ge, I’ll give you a hint. How many nets have you run into in the past few years?”
‘...none?’ Then, slowly, the realization finally dawned on him. ‘You became a ghost pirate just so I wouldn’t have to deal with nets anymore?’
San Lang grinned. “Un. All nets deserve death.Figuratively speaking, of course. If nets were alive, I’d kill them before turning them into ghosts so I could do it again.”
Well, whoops. Xie Lian had accidentally given his husband an undying vendetta against nets. That was something he hadn’t been expecting.
‘You really became a pirate just to scare all the fishermen away?’
It was an odd but effective way of going about it. San Lang always could’ve just gone and burned the village down, and if they tried to return, he could’ve just done it again and again until they got the message. Xie Lian knew San Lang well enough to know that this was the sort of strategy he might prefer, but it was also an idea that left a sour taste in Xie Lian’s mouth.
Even if their nets had given him more trouble than he cared to remember over the past centuries, that didn’t mean he wanted them hurt or dead. Even controlled fires and pillaging, only used as a scare tactic, had a good chance of killing someone no matter how carefully executed. But…. rumors of the famed Hua Cheng deciding to make their cove his base, seeing the massive pirate ship that could steamroll over their tiny fishing vessels without so much as chipping its hull, the horrific looking corpses with missing limbs and flesh hanging over the railing and drooling at them…
Yeah, that would scare any sane human away.
Xie Lian frowned, another problem coming to mind. ‘But that wouldn’t get rid of all the nets that were already in the cove, would it?’
Abandoned nets were common. Sometimes, fishermen lost track of them, or a storm would unexpectedly roll in and misplace them, or the net would grow too worn to be reliable and the fishermen would just toss it instead of attempting to repair it. The cove used to be littered with them, to the point that Xie Lian found himself stuck in one almost every month.
“No, it wouldn’t,” San Lang agreed. “That why I swam around for about a year or so picking them all up.”
How on earth had San Lang managed to swim around the cove for a year without Xie Lian noticing?!
Ah, well, Xie Lian could hazard a guess. He’d couped himself up in his little cave, only dragging himself out when he needed to hunt for food. He stayed in a fairly confined area of the cove, then returned to the solitude of his cave almost as soon as he’d managed to catch something.
He really wished he’d gone out more. Even shortening the lonely, lonely time after San Lang’s death by just a year, reuniting with him just a year sooner, would’ve hung the stars back in his sky that much faster.
“Sorry, Ge ge. I didn’t bump into you in all that time,” San Lang apologized.
Xie Lian shook his head. ‘I’m just happy you're here now. No need to apologize to me.’
“Un, this husband feels the same way.”
Xie Lain smiled at him, his hands still at his sides.
‘San Lang, I want to sleep with you.’
San Lang, on the other hand, raised an eyebrow at him. “Ge ge, didn’t we already—”
Face heating furiously, Xie Lian waved wildly, cutting off whatever San Lang was about to say. Forgive him, he was formerly an eight hundred year old virgin. It was still embarrassing for him, okay?
He took a moment to recollect himself before signing, ‘No, I meant like… actual sleep. I want to sleep in the same place as San Lang.’
“Oh.” San Lang frowned, but it was a frown of thought rather than displeasure. “Hm, that might be tricky. Ge ge can’t sleep in my bed. I can’t get enough water into it to not worry about it drying out before we wake up.”
‘And sleeping in the tub would be uncomfortable.’ That had been an experiment that had lasted about five minutes before the both of them had noped out. The tubs were only built for one person, not two people and one massive tail. San Lang was almost falling out the top, with Xie Lian squished under him. They weren’t even able to comfortably get anything started in a position like that, so sleeping would’ve been out of the question entirely.
San Lang hummed in agreement and crossed his arms. “You won’t let me sleep underwater with you, either.”
‘San Lang wasn’t built for it!’ He may not be able to drown anymore, but it was just wrong to see him, looking so human, underwater for any length of time. The last time they tried, Xie Lian nearly had a panic attack, forgetting that San Lang no longer needed air, that behind a still chest and cold limbs, a soul still resided in his dead flesh.
“Hm… I may have an idea,” San Lang said.
Xie Lian sat up straighter within his tub of water. ‘What is it?’
“Will Ge ge wait for me in the water? It may take me a moment.” Xie Lian’s question still unanswered, San Lang only smiled.
Ah, well, he would find out soon enough. He nodded his assent and shifted back in the tub as San Lang approached it. He stooped to snake his arms around his tail and torso, and Xie Lian clung to his shoulders as San Lang pulled him out of the tub.
No matter how many times he did this, Xie Lian would never cease being impressed with San Lang’s feats of strength.
Sometimes, when San Lang did this, he simply dumped Xie Lian over the edge of the railing. Of course, that was only when he was in a rush, or when Xie Lian mentioned not minding the minor discomfort of drying out so long as it didn’t become serious. Now and most often, though, he was careful and gentle, setting Xie Lian carefully on the railing so he could push off and jump into the water himself.
He relished the feeling of the ocean on his skin for a moment, a feeling that couldn’t compare to the cramped tub, before he bobbed his way back up to the surface to wave at San Lang, who hadn’t followed him into the water.
He smiled back down at him and said, “Ge ge, I’ll be back in a moment.”
Xie Lian nodded before ducking back under the surface of the water. He was eager to see what San Lang was going to do; the ghost never ceased to awe and amaze him, filling his once dull days with mystery and excitement he hadn’t known since his time as a prince.
He darted around in the water, managing a few backflips to help work out the kinks in his tail. As much as he appreciated being able to spend time with San Lang on his ship via the tub, it was still uncomfortable to stay folded up inside of it for so long.
The wait didn’t last long. Warm arms snaked their way around his shoulders from behind with a soft hum of San Lang’s voice to tell Xie Lian it was him, but something about the texture of the sound gave him paused. It sounded… a bit different than normal.
Xie Lian spun himself in San Lang’s arms, closing his eyes and planting a kiss to his brow. Then, he pulled back, curious about why San Lang sounded different.
What he saw punched the breath from his lungs.
He knew San Lang could control his appearance to an extent. He could shift between human and demonic, male and female, young and old. He often used this ability of his to hide the scarred socket of where his red eye used to reside, and it always threw Xie Lian to see two inky black eyes staring back at him. Not that he would comment on it. If San Lang was more comfortable that way, then that was all Xie Lian cared about. He could grow himself a third eye, and he would love him all the same.
It was far beyond what Xie Lian had thought San Lang capable of.
He still wore the same tunic he had earlier, the fabric heavy with water and swaying around his torso with the current, but he was bare from the waist down. Gone were his two human legs, replaced with scarlet scales adorned with unblemished fins and robust tailfin that was built for speed.
It wasn’t exactly right. Any of the merfolk would look at those still human ears, the whites to the eyes, the smooth skin, and the rounded black nails and rightfully think this was some sort of shifter or imposter. But the tail was mostly right, and as Xie Lian traced the soft, human skin of his cheek downwards to his neck, the texture grew rougher until he encountered the raised ridges of gills.
“Does Ge ge like this?” San Lang asked, carefully. His voice was crystal clear despite the water, meaning he’d gone so far as to give himself the throat of the merfolk, too. He’d be able to speak and breath underwater as though he’d been born to do it, the same way Xie Lian used to be able to. “I can change back if Ge ge finds this disrespectful.”
Slowly, Xie Lian shook his head. ‘No, not at all! This is amazing, San Lang. I didn’t know your shifting ability was this good.’
“Happy to please,” San Lang breathed, sounding genuinely relieved.
‘Is that why you haven’t done this yet? You were worried about offending me?’
“I know, from what you’ve said, Ge ge’s people don’t like humans or ghosts. I don’t blame them, really, but I thought it might be offensive for a former human and a ghost to pretend to be one.”
Xie Lian could only shrug. ‘My people aren’t here, so what does it matter? And I don’t mind. I’m happy it means I get to spend more time with you, in fact.’
“Ge ge has a good point,” San Lang said with a small, sad smile.
Xie Lian leaned forward and brushed their foreheads together for a moment. Instead of signing anything else, he took San Lang’s hands in his own and started leading him forward.
San Lang’s movements were clumsy and unpracticed, and Xie Lian could tell that using only one lower limb to swim instead of two was proving difficult for him.
That was fine. A little practice would fix it, and regardless, it was… a little cute. San Lang was always so good at everything, having something Xie Lian could offer him guidance and coaching on was a refreshing change of pace.
And they had all the time in the world.
When the sun sank below the horizon, they settled into Xie Lian’s cave. It was out of the way and dark, so San Lang sent out a few silver butterflies which dimly lit the cave as they settled in. They were almost more vibrant and beautiful in water, the glittering light they gave off bending and twisting in the water, never settling in the ever shifting movement of the water.
They tucked themselves into the little alcove Xie Lian used to sleep in. The space was a little small for two, but pressed together as they were, neither minded. San Lang was warm, another mark of his remaining humanity, as Xie Lian curled up against him.
When he glanced up to San Lang, he didn’t seem very tired. He watched Xie Lian with bright, alert eyes, not a hint of drowsiness to be found. In truth, Xie Lian wasn’t quite tired enough to sleep yet, either. He just wanted to be close to San Lang for a while.
Slowly, he disengaged his hands so he could speak again. ‘San Lang… Can I ask you a question?’
“Anything,” San Lang replied almost automatically.
‘I’ve been thinking, all this time, what I can do to make up for your death.’
“Ge ge has nothing to make up for,” San Lang said. His voice was hard, more insistent than Xie Lian was used to hearing it. “It wasn’t your fault. You gave up your voice, your power, for me. You shouldn’t have to apologize to me for any of it.”
Xie Lian shook his head. ‘Even still, you damned your soul for me. You stayed when you should’ve moved on. I’ve stolen any chance of being reborn from you. If I were to die, I’d leave you all alone here.’
“I won’t let you die, not ever, and I chose this,” San Lang reminded him, his hand brushing through Xie Lian’s hair. It was comforting, and he found himself leaning into it as he listened to San Lang’s soft assurances. “If you do die, I’ll find you again. Ge ge, to me, the most important thing is that you just remain yourself. If you do that, I don’t need anything else. I just want a happy ending, too.”
At that, Xie Lian felt tears sting his eyes. How could he respond to that? Perfect, brave San Lang, ready to fight against the flow of death to change the course of their story. Xie Lian wrapped his arms back around him, pulling his warmth closer to him and basking in it.
He couldn’t complain. He’d always been weak to happy endings.