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The siren’s song, a rumor of pure bliss in the form of music, of a sound unmatched by any human voice. A song so sweet it had enticed sailors to their deaths for centuries despite the many warnings that floated through every child’s story and old wife’s tale.

Really, the rumors were all exaggerations.

Mostly.

Singing was an odd passtime merfolk older than even their own long memory, and it was one that made less sense the more a person thought about it. They were creatures of the sea; that they had developed voices that could mimic human speech at all was astounding. Still, their voices were only slightly better than the average human’s. What made them extraordinary was the magic they were able to lace into their songs. One voice could entrance a single person or weave a weak enchantment, but many voices could convince a whole boat of men to forget every memory ever held dear and abandon it all for the call of a cold, watery death.

But even with that in mind, Xie Lian thought humans would still have a hard time finding him dangerous. It had been a long, long time since he’d had anyone to sing with, and even longer since he’d had the will to weave anything into those notes.

He sighed as he pulled himself up onto a rock and ran his fingers through his hair, trying to unknot the bits of coral and gunk that’d gotten tangled up into it. It was a pain, but he was used to it. The cove he lived in was close to a small fishing village, so there were a good number of nets strewn over the cove. Some of them were abandoned, some lost, and some were just waiting for their owners to return, but no matter why or how they wound up there, Xie Lian always found a way to find himself tangled up in one.

He supposed it was inevitable with his luck. Really, if there weren’t nets around to fulfil his misfortune, the universe might something more heinous like poison or predators (merfolk were pretty high on the food chain, but there were still some creatures that could feasibly make a meal of them), so Xie Lian should count himself lucky. At least, relatively.

It would’ve been more tolerable, too, if not for the fact that extricating himself was never a simple matter. He always managed to worm away before starving to death, but never without suffering lacerations and burns from the rope over his skin. His scales were fine, too thick and tough to be bothered by nets, but his delicate tail and dorsal fins were both in sorry states. They neither looked pleasant anymore nor functioned as well, their edges ragged and shredded from years of abuse.

Ah, well. That was just how things were.

Just then, a sound cut through the air, sending shivers down his spine. So unused to voices, it took him a moment to recognize, but when he did, dismay crept through him.

It was a human voice.

No, it was a human scream.

Xie Lian dove into the water without a second thought, following the source of that scream. It was long gone by now, after having abruptly dying, and Xie Lian hoped that the human it belonged to hadn’t died along with it. He was about to break the surface of the water to search the rocky shore for the distressed human, but a fluttering of cloth and hair at the corner of his vision caught his attention.

Without thinking, he snapped his tail, sending him down towards that small bundle. He wrapped his arms around it, ever so carefully—humans were too fragile, really—before slowly making his way upwards. He wanted to rise quickly, to bring the tiny human out of the water that would inevitably suffocate it, but he knew from experience that humans’ bodies reacted poorly if they rose or fell too quickly in water.

Once his head broke water, he brought the small human’s head above, as well. It was a child, a boy, with scruffy brown hair plastered across his face, which was half covered in bandages that must once have been white but had turned a greyish brown from grime and age.

But more importantly, the child’s single uncovered eye was still shut, and the steady rise and fall of the chest present in breathing humans had yet to return.

Xie Lian panicked. Without any idea of what else to try, he slapped the child’s face in an attempt to jostle or shock the child awake. He then shook him lightly, desperate for any sign that the child wasn’t actually dead yet, and miraculously, the child coughed. Water ran down his chin, and his eye scrunched before blinking open, unfocused and glassy.

Xie Lian sighed in relief and smiled. He brought the child close to his chest and said, “Don’t be scared. I’m going to take you to the shore now, okay? Please don’t be scared, and don’t squirm, please. I don’t want to drop you on accident.”

His words were soft and reassuring, he hoped, and they seemed to work. That child’s glassy eye locked on him for a moment, widening in shock at the inhuman hue of Xie Lian’s eyes, the distinct fin-like structure that made up his ears, and the course and glossy texture of his skin. But as Xie Lian spoke, he seemed to relax. He even leaned into Xie Lian’s chest and let his single eye slide shut again.

Xie Lian was almost worried he would faint again, or worse, but his breathing remained constant and irregular. He was conscious, just tired and resting, probably.

Still, what an odd little human. To see something as undoubtably monstrous as Xie Lian and yet still trust him not to drown or eat him… Sure, Xie Lian had just saved him, but was only that single act and a few words of comfort enough for this child to believe that he was safe?

Perhaps, human children were vastly different from the fully grown ones. Or maybe it was just this little human in particular.

Either way, Xie Lian had no way of knowing other than from the child himself, and he was loath to disturb his rest after the child had been through such an ordeal. Careful to move without jostling the child as much as possible, Xie Lian made his ways towards a less jagged outcropping of rocks on the shore. Then, thinking better of it, he changed course towards a small cave that wouldn’t be flooded at the current tide and wasn’t accessible from the shore.

He had no idea why that child had wound up in the water, but the scream he’d heard earlier had been too low in pitch and too loud to be from a child. The child hadn’t screamed, even falling from the shore and into the sea, which also meant that there was a human adult around. Without knowing whether that adult was the child’s friend or foe (the number of bandages and aged bruises littering the child’s body worried Xie Lian), he was reluctant to bring him back to an adult who might have hurt him. It would be better, if the child wasn’t terrified of him, to bring him back and figure out where his parents were and what had happened.

Xie Lian pulled them into the small cave and quickly located a dry patch of smooth rock. He carefully deposited the child on it, up and out of the water, before he heaved himself up as well. He regretted it a moment later when water sloshed up after him, drenching the formerly mostly dry surface.

Ah, well. That child’s clothes, hair and bandages were dripping onto it, too, so he supposed keeping it completely dry would’ve been impossible. He hoped it wasn’t too cold for the human child. Cold temperatures and water weren’t supposed to be good for humans.

Though, as Xie Lian observed the child, he did something odd. As soon as Xie Lian had released him from his grip, the child seemed to shrink in on himself. His eye grew dimmer, and he pushed himself back against the wall of the cave, as far from Xie Lian as he could physically remove himself.

That was… he hadn’t seemed scared of Xie Lian before, but, well, he supposed he couldn’t blame the child.

Even so, he couldn’t just leave the child here, and he needed to know where might be safe to take him. So, he smiled and, in his most reassuring voice, said, “Don’t be scared. I’m here to help you.”

At his words, the child peeked up at him, a dim light sparking in his eye.

“What’s your name?” Xie Lian asked when the child said nothing, simply staring at him instead.

The child’s gaze turned downward. “...don’t have one.” His voice was soft and scratchy, either from disuse or abuse, and his words muddled together as he spoke.

“You don’t have one?” Xie Lian echoed, confused. Weren’t names important to humans? Even merfolk had names for themselves, though they were far more fickle about them than humans were about theirs. A merperson could change their name a hundred times within a year, or keep the same one for several centuries depending on their mood.

Dismissing the train of thought, Xie Lian smiled and continued, “What should I call you, then?”

“...my mom called me Hong Hong.”

“That’s so cute!” Xie Lian exclaimed with light applause. “Well, Hong Hong, could you tell me what happened? Why did you fall? Did someone push you?”

Hong Hong seemed to fold in on himself again, and after the way he almost looked happy earlier, Xie Lian almost regretted asking. “...no one pushed me.”

“So you must’ve slipped,” Xie Lian reasoned, pondering. “The rocks are slippery, you need to be more careful when you play near the edge.”

“...I didn’t slip.”

Xie Lian froze. If he wasn’t pushed, and he didn’t slip, then…

“...why?”

“Why not?” the child asked, peering up at him with a single dull eye.

Xie Lian reached forward without thinking, but froze again when Hong Hong pushed himself further into the wall. He let his hand drop.

He didn’t understand. Children Hong Hong’s age were supposed to be carefree and happy, and yet, for him to already be this twisted out of shape, what must have happened to him? Xie Lian found his gaze drifting back to the molten, aged bruises marring what was exposed of his arms, face, and collar.

That was when he noticed the discoloring on Hong Hong’s leg. It wasn’t the garrish purples and acrid yellows of the other injuries, but rather, it was the angry red of a fresh injury.

“You’re hurt,” Xie Lian noted, wondering how Hong Hong had managed to remain so quiet about the injury all this time. “Is it alright if I take a look at it?”

Hong Hong tilted his head, peeking up again. “...you don’t mind?”

“Of course not,” Xie Lian said with a bright smile.

This time, when Xie Lian reached for him, Hong Hong didn’t shrink away. He stayed put, rock still as Xie Lian’s fingers traced the injury. He didn’t feel anything too off and sighed in relief.

“I don’t think it’s broken,” he concluded, “but it might be… ah, it doesn’t look right.”

“It’s sprained.”

Xie Lian blinked. “Oh, you know a lot! Do you want to be a healer when you grow up?”

“No.”

Xie Lian tutted and chided, “Don’t dismiss it so easily. Though, I’m sure you could do anything, if you really put your mind to it. You seem very smart.”

“Hmph.” Hong Hong crossed his arms, acting sour, but his cheeks tinged red. He was embarrassed.

But… he was also shivering, and his lips were blue. So perhaps, the blush wasn’t due to embarrassment but some ailment. The cave was too cold for him, and Xie Lian had just let him sit there soaked while absently chatting. He thought about attempting to build some sort of fire, to give him a bit more time to understand how he might be able to help Hong Hong, but everything in the cave was damp. Xie Lian couldn’t bring anything inside without taking it into the water, either, and the matter would only grow worse as the tide rose.

“You can’t stay here.” Xie Lian’s heart twisted as the shocked, hurt look Hong Hong shot him. “I’m sorry, I really am, but it’s not good for your health. Can I take you somewhere else? What about your family? Can I take you to them?”

Hong Hong shook his head. “Don’t have one.”

“Oh… I’m sorry. That must be terrible.” Even as he spoke the words, they felt empty. What does one say to someone who’s all alone? Xie Lian knew all too well himself that words alone wouldn’t do a thing to ease the gnawing loneliness.

“It’s fine,” he mumbled, still barely audible.

“...you still can’t stay here,” Xie Lian said slowly, a part of him raging at having to say it, but he knew he couldn’t do much for the child. Even if the child had no humans to help him, it wasn’t as though Xie Lian could even consider taking care of him himself. There were very few places merfolk and humans could both live, and nothing of the sort existed nearby. The most he could do was treat his leg and then get him somewhere he could find safety for himself.

Hong Hong still hadn’t responded to him. Instead, the child curled in on himself, placing his arms around his knees and burying his face in them.

Xie Lian sighed. At least, huddled up like that, he would be a bit warmer. “I’ll be right back,” Xie Lian said. The child glanced up at him and then, quickly, gave him a nod before folding back in on himself.

Moving slowly to keep from splashing too much, Xie Lian slipped down the rockface into the water. Once under, he took off, heading for a certain underwater cave he’d called home for many years. He bypassed the entrance and most of his meager belongings, instead rummaging through a net. (Yes, Xie Lian used the small ones to store things sometimes. He’d only gotten caught in his own nets once, okay?)

Most of the items in it was garbage like rusted tools, discarded knicknacks, and bits of shells Xie Lian found pretty, but some of them had value. Namely, what he was looking for, a small iridescent shell of a clam. He opened it to inspect the paste within, too thick to be dissolved within the water. Satisfied, he snapped it shut and sped out of the cave to make his way once more to the one where he left Hong Hong.

First placing the small shell of medicine on the rock, Xie Lian pulled himself up and winced at how much water he brought up with him. “Sorry,” he laughed.

Still in the same position he’d been in before, Hong Hong shifted to peer up at him.

Curiously, he watched as Xie Lian picked up the shell and opened it. He collected the paste on two fingers, but before reaching forward, he asked, “May I? It might sting a bit.”

When Hong Hong nodded, Xie Lian proceeded to start smearing it across the injury on his leg. He expected Hong Hong to shrink back or flinch, the medicine did smart when applied topically, but he did neither of those things. He sat dully, entirely unaffected.

“Medicine?” Hong Hong guessed, eye widening.

Xie Lian nodded and smiled. “Yup!” He went to collect more on his fingers. It was near empty, just about enough left to finish treating that leg. If it was broken, then it wouldn’t have been quite enough, but if it was just a strain… the medicine should clear it up within a day or two when it might’ve taken weeks on its own. It was one of the few treasures Xie Lian had left to his name, one that he’d been saving for a while now.

He wasn’t sad to see it go. In fact, he felt sorry for it, sitting and collected grime in Xie Lian’s cave. He hadn’t found a good use for it until now, so he was glad it was finally getting to be useful.

Oddly enough, the child didn’t seem to share these feelings. When Xie Lian moved to apply the rest, he shifted away, and Xie Lian paused.

“What’s wrong?”

Hong Hong shook his head. “...medicine is expensive. Are you sure…” He trailed off. He didn’t finish the thought, but he didn’t have no.

“It’s fine,” Xie Lian insisted. “I don’t have anything to use it for.”

At that, Hong Hong’s expression turned dubious, he eye sliding downwards to Xie Lian’s torso and fins. His skin was covered in fading scars, almost invisible on his pale skin, but the tears in his fins and tail were far more noticable. Though, some fish naturally looked like that, so…

Still, this child was a bit too perceptive.

Xie Lian laughed it off. “Ah, those were all shallow. I have trouble with nets sometimes. None of them were really worth wasting the medicine on. They’d heal plenty well enough on their own.”

“Are you sure you won’t regret wasting them on me?” Hong Hong asked.

“It’s not being wasted.” Decidedly, Xie Lian smeared the rest of the medicine across the child’s injury. He ignored the half-strangled noise of protest that made its way from Hong Hong’s throat. “If it helps someone, then it isn’t a waste. It could be anyone at all.”

“...even a monster?”

Xie Lian glanced inquisitively at the child as he snapped the empty shell shut. “...are you calling me a monster? Or yourself?”

“You don’t seem like a monster,” Hong Hong replied, his nose scrunching as he spoke.

Xie Lian smiled. “And you don’t seem like a monster to me, either, Hong Hong.” Then, he held out his hand, but he was careful not to draw too close. “Will you let me take you somewhere safe?”

“...there’s probably… I…” He seemed to fumble for words for a moment before, finally, “The beach by the cliffs. I know where to go from there.”

Slowly, Hong Hong took his hand, and taking that as permission, Xie Lian pulled him into his arms again and slipped back into the water. Exiting the cave and making for the place Hong Hong had pointed out was slow going, with Xie Lian having to tread the surface as he swam to keep Hong Hong’s head above water and mostly comfortable. He had stopped shivering, which Xie Lian took as a good sign at first, until he noticed the pallor of the child’s face had only grown worse.

Too slow for his liking, they arrived at the shore Hong Hong had spoken of. It was a bit where the rocky shoreline was more sloped than steeped, making it difficult for Xie Lian to fully draw near without scraping himself across the bottom. Instead, Xie Lian pulled them as far up as he could, until the water was only about two feet deep.

“You can make it the rest of the way on your own, right?” Xie Lian asked, peering down at Hong Hong. With the water shallow enough, the waves shouldn’t knock the child over, and he would be able to wade the rest of the way to dry land. Still, Hong Hong didn’t move. In fact, his grip on Xie Lian’s arm only seemed to tighten.

“...mhm,” he mumbled his answered after a few moments of silence.

Xie Lian titled his head, the concern that he was growing so familiar with spiking. “Are you sure?”

Finally, Hong Hong nodded and slowly unlatched himself from Xie Lian. It took only another minute for him to extricate himself from the seawater. To Xie Lian’s surprise, Hong Hong didn’t so much as limp or cringe in pain when he placed weight on his leg. The medicine was good, but it wasn’t so good as to completely heal an injury like that in so little time. The child’s apparent tolerance of pain brought a frown to Xie Lian’s lips.

Surprisingly, when Hong Hong reached dry land, he stopped and turned back. Despite Xie Lian’s best effort, his hair and clothes were soaked. Xie Lian hoped he could find a change of clothes and a fire soon.

He looked as though he wanted to say something, but instead, with his eye dull and his face expressionless, he turned away from Xie Lian and started uphill, towards where Xie Lian thought the small fishing village was.

It tugged at Xie Lian’s heart, one familyless soul aching for another. Before the child could walk off and out of sight, Xie Lian called out, “Hong Hong! Please live! If you do, I’ll make you a promise!”

His footsteps halted, and he glanced over his shoulder.

“If you live,” Xie Lian continued, “then I promise, if you should need it, then every night, I will sing for you. And no matter where you are or what is happening, you will hear it, and it will protect you.”

The words must sound empty to the child. For all Xie Lian knew, they might be. He hadn’t managed to weave magic into his voice for many decades, but for some reason, he felt that he could make this promise. He might fail—he was very good at failing, honestly speaking—but he couldn’t leave that child alone without trying anything. He would sing, and through his song, he would try and make that child’s life better. Even if only by a little bit.

Still, not even fully aware of what Xie Lian was truly promising, Hong Hong smiled.

“Thank you.”

-/-/-

Xie Lian watched from his perch on a rocky outcropping as the moonlight reflected off of the dancing waves. It wasn’t exactly close to the village where the child most likely resided, but if Xie Lian was actually able to fulfill his promise, then distance shouldn’t matter.

When he first opened his mouth, the fear that his voice would deaden almost stilled his tongue entirely. But miraculously, slowly, the first note sounded. It was off-key and shaky, but it was a note nonetheless. Xie Lian continued, letting one note after another slip from his lips, and as the song slowly started coming together, his voice grew clearer and cracked less often.

Xie Lian almost cried when the power that had eluded him for so long electrified his core, his skin, and his throat. He might’ve let himself, too, if it wouldn’t have disrupted the song. Too scared that he could still fail and never be able to fulfill his promise to that child, leaving it broken like so many other promises he’d made, he desperately clung to that song and poured his everything into it.

He sang of protection, of family, of warmth, of tranquility. They were distant memories for him, tinged with nostalgia and regret, but they were likely things that child had never known. So long as it might bring a smile to the child’s face and drive away the terrors that dulled the light in his eye, Xie Lian would sing of it.

I hope you have good dreams, Hong Hong, Xie Lian thought, and I hope you’re well enough that you won’t hear this tonight.

Somewhere, a small child stirred from his dreamless sleep. His bed was the ground, only slightly dirtier than he was. When he pulled his bruised self up, the only thing he had to see by was the moonlight that filtered through the decrepit wall.

Clear and beautiful, a song filled the air.

He wanted to cry.

Instead, he smiled.

Chapter Text

In a plot twist that would surprise absolutely no one, Xie Lian was stuck in a net. Again.

Judging from the lightening and darkening of the waters around him, he’d been stuck for about two days now. Which, he would admit, was slightly worse than the average time he spent in nets. Most of the ones left in the cove unattended were worn and frayed, so after some worming, the bindings of the net would snap against his coarse scales. And in the rare event that the nets were newer, fishermen would come by at least once a day to unload their haul, and Xie Lian would be able to free himself after nearly giving some poor soul a heart attack.

Neither situation was the case this time. The net was new and robust, making it difficult for Xie Lina to untangle himself from once his luck managed to get him caught in it. Since it was so new and nice, he assumed someone would be by to check it or pull it up, but even after two days, the net remained untouched.

He sighed and tried to squirm again, hoping it might loosen something, but moving only forced the ropes to further twist and strain around his wrist and fins. Xie Lian had to bite back a whimper and, giving up, slumped onto the ocean floor.

Moving hurt, and he was tired. Maybe, it was time to just give in and lay here. He’d already tried every trick he knew to escape, and nothing had worked. He was entirely at his luck’s mercy.

He wasn’t too hopeful. His luck had never been kind to him.

Just as Xie Lian’s eyes slid shut, he felt the current shift, and something in the water tasted… different. He couldn’t quite place it, so he sluggishly opened his eyes to figure out what might be the source.

He was greeted to flowing, dark hair and the glinting of a knife.

He tried to struggle away from it, but that only made his earlier problem all the more relevant when the ropes dug painfully into his wrist and tail. Suddenly, a hand, an actual human hand, was on him, holding him down and keeping him from thrashing.

Xie Lian wanted to scream, but it caught in his throat when the pressure around his wrist and tail suddenly eased. With a powerful snap of his tail, he propelled himself back. Dully, he noted that he thought he’d felt his tail hit something.

He turned, slowly, ready to fend off an attacker. Then, his tired brain caught up with him, and he realized he was free of the net, without a single additional scratch on him.

He hadn’t been attacked. He’d been rescued!

...and he’d repaid his savior by smacking him in the face with his tail.

If it were possible, Xie Lian really wanted to drown himself.

But first, he needed to apologize. And before that, it seemed his rescuer might be in a bit of trouble, himself. Now that Xie Lian was looking at them, they were entirely limp and just… sort of floating within the water. Had he actually managed to knock them unconscious? His rescuer was a man, probably. It was always slightly tricky to tell with all the fabric humans always insisted on covering themselves with. More importantly, though, he had two legs, which… wasn’t good. They were pretty far underwater, and to lose consciousness here meant death for humans most of the time.

Determined, Xie Lian snapped himself forward to scoop the person up and shoot up towards the surface. He tried not to go too quickly, and, well, that was easy to accomplish. Between the weight of his passenger, who probably only weighed slightly less than he did, and the state of his tail, his pace felt abysmally slow.

It didn’t help that his vision was growing hazy, and his tail felt like lead. He’d gone too long without eating, and not even adrenaline could fix that.

Still, even with everything trying to tug the both of them back down, Xie Lian managed to breach the water’s surface. As soon as he did, he pulled the human’s head above water and started making his way towards the shore, which was blessedly close.

The moment he got the both of them up onto the rocks, before he could even check if the human was breathing, the world around him turned black.

-/-/-

He woke up to the feel of his cheek press against something hard and cold. In fact, it seemed as though the entire surface he was laying on was that way, unforgiving and scraping as he shifted. He was breathing air, he realized, and it was such a shock that he bolted the rest of the way to awareness.

Despite the fact that he clearly wasn’t in water, his skin didn’t feel like it was dry. He blinked and pushed himself up, glancing downwards to notice a soaked cloth falling from his shoulders. Apparently, someone had pulled him up out of the water, but then was considerate enough to lay a wet blanket over him to keep the air from wreaking havoc on his skin and scales.

The light around him flickered, and a bit belatedly, he realized he was in a cave. A fire had been built up not too far off, its smoke filling the air and warming it, but it was far off enough that Xie Lian couldn’t feel it. He glanced up, and sure enough, there was opening in the ceiling that allowed the smoke to vent out.

Whoever had set this up… they were clearly very smart.

“You’re awake?”

Xie Lian started, his head snapping to where a person—a man?—was wading his way towards the ledge where Xie Lian and the fire resided. To his utmost embarrassment, Xie Lian found he couldn’t even look at the person. He was too busy drooling at the freshly caught fish strung up over his shoulder.

The man snickered, and Xie Lian’s gaze was drawn up to his grinning face. “Hungry? Do you want them cooked, or nah?”

Xie Lian opened his mouth, but unfortunately, it only hung there, the words dead in his throat. He was so confused. Why was this human here? Feeding him? Pulling him up on shore and away from water where he was helpless, but giving him a blanket?

Was this… the same human who’d rescued him earlier?

Seeing as he wasn’t answering, the human titled his head, then divided the fish up in half. He started towards Xie Lian, and when he drew near, Xie Lian shrank back out of surprise. The human seemed to notice this and paused in his step. Instead of coming any closer, he left the fish on the rock at his feet then walked towards the fire.

They were still reasonably within Xie Lian’s reach, so he slid forward to take one. He’d never actually tried cooking them before, but he was so hungry that had the human given him cooked fish, he would’ve eaten them anyway.

The moment the fish hit his tongue, Xie Lian thought he’d died and gone to heaven. Really, he’d been eating fish for centuries. It shouldn’t taste that good, but he supposed days of not eating would make anything taste amazing.

He put away the first fish almost embarrassingly quick, barely stopping to pull out the larger bones that might scrape his throat. By the time he was done, his fingers and mouth were sticky. He felt his face burn. In the water, eating had never created this much of a mess.

He glanced to the human, and to his utter horror, he was watching him with wide, curious… eye. A singular eye, the other wrapped in bandages. His hair was bound up, the loose ponytail just barely brushing his shoulders, and the damp fabric of his clothing clung to his frame. Looking at him, Xie Lian realized he wasn’t quite an adult yet despite his height. His face was too round, and when he had spoken earlier, then was still a youthful timbre to it.

“You can use the blanket to clean up, if you want,” he said, snapping Xie Lian from his thoughts.

Xie Lian glanced down to it, cold and heavy over his tail, and for the first time since waking, he spoke, “...wouldn’t that get it dirty?” Then, he almost slapped himself. For his sake, it had been drenched in ocean water then laid over him, tail and all. It would probably smell like fish even after it dried out.

“I can wash it.” The human shrugged.

Almost demurely, Xie Lian used the blanket to clean his face and hands. They felt much better clean, the sticky feeling being too foreign to be at all pleasant. He eyed the remaining fish, but he couldn’t stand the idea of making himself more of a spectacular than he already was. He wasn’t about to pass out anymore. He could eat later.

He glanced over to the human, who was, thankfully, too busy skinning and skewering the other two fish to be paying attention to him. It was sort of odd, actually. Xie Lian had never thought about how humans cooked their food, but using a stick to prop it up against the fire was surprisingly smart, since laying it on the ground would get it dirty and placing it directly in the fire would burn it. Humans were quite impressive, in their own way.

To his embarrassment, the human’s eye slid up to meet his gaze. Xie Lian quickly looked down and hoped the human didn’t mind being stared at.

“...if you don’t want to stay, you can leave,” he said, after a moment of silence hanging between them. “Sorry about dragging you up here. Didn’t wanna leave you on the shore while the tide was going out, and I… well, I’d feel bad just chucking you back into the ocean when you weren’t awake.”

Xie Lian shook his head. “No, thank you! That was kind of you. And… are you okay? I think I…” He trailed off, the words, ‘Sorry about knocking you out and almost accidentally drowning you after you saved me. I swear I didn’t mean it!’ not sounding quite right.

The youth, however, seemed to understand, and he only laughed. “I’m fine, I’m fine. Jump a bump on my head. It doesn’t even hurt.”

“I’m glad,” Xie Lian replied, but he wasn’t entirely convinced. Even if his fins were long shredded, the power and muscle behind the tail were still impressive. True, Xie Lian didn’t think he’d hit him with all his strength, which definitely might have killed him, but he’d been too panicked and foggy to gauge how hard he’d actually struck. No matter what, though, it had to have hurt.

Another human with a concerning tolerance for pain and bandages covering half his face came to mind.

Hesitantly, Xie Lian asked, “Hong Hong?”

“You recognize me?” His eyes danced, and not just from the flickering fire between them. “I haven’t heard that name in a while.”

“You’ve gotten so big!”

Hong Hong snickered. “It’s been six years. Of course I’ve gotten big now.”

“Six years?” Xie Lian echoed. Had it been that long already? He honestly didn’t keep track of the passage of time that well, the days and weeks and months and years all blending into one another, but it seemed odd to have definite proof of the time that had passed sitting right before him. “But humans aren’t supposed to grow that much in only six years, are they? Last time, you fit in my arms, but now you’re almost as big as I am.”

He hummed. “Growth spurt? Do you not have those?”

“No, we do, but they’re… they take a while,” Xie Lian replied.

“That makes sense,” he replied. “It’s been years, and you haven’t aged at all.”

Xie Lian chuckled. “Of course not. I’ve lived for centuries, and by our standards, I’m still young. It’d be strange if I looked any different after only six years.”

“There are others?” he asked, raising an eyebrow.

Xie Lian froze. It wasn’t an unreasonable question, and he shouldn’t be surprised by it, but the sudden mention of others—of his old friends, family—was like ice down his spine.

Hong Hong seemed to realize this. “My bad, I’m sorry I mentioned it. Please forget about it.”

“No…” Xie Lian smiled, and he hoped it didn’t look as pained and forced as it felt. “I just… it’s been a long time since I thought about them. Yes, there are others. A lot, in fact, but most choose to live much deeper and away from humans. The chances of a human running into one are almost nonexistent.”

He chuckled at that. “I must’ve spent all my luck, then, since I got to meet you twice.”

“...Hong Hong?” Xie Lian was shocked, honestly, and absolutely sure he hadn’t heard right.

“That name’s kind of embarrassing,” he cut in, snapping Xie Lian out of his shock. “You… you can call me San Lang, if you want.”

“San Lang,” Xie Lian echoed, testing the name out. Then, he grinned. “I like it! It’s… soft, kind of.”

Hong-er, San Lang glanced down and poked at the fire with one of his sticks. Was it Xie Lian’s imagination, or was his face growing red?

Suddenly, San Lang swiped one of the skewered fish from the fire and held it out towards Xie Lian. The movement was so abrupt that Xie Lian started back, but he blinked before slowly reaching out and taking it from San Lang.

“...that should be easier to eat,” he said, “if you’re worried about making a mess.”

Xie Lian glanced between it and San Lang before hesitantly biting into it. It was odd. Xie Lian had never tried cooked meat before. It was much drier and tougher, but that meant it was easier to eat. It retained a pleasant smoky taste from the fire, too.

“This is good!” he exclaimed, excitement coloring his tone.

San Lang smiled in return. “I’m glad.”

Xie Lian finished nearly all of it in less than a minute. He paused when San Lang offered him the next cooked fish, before shaking his head. “You need to eat, too, don’t you?”

“I’m fine,” San Lang insisted. “You were trapped for a few days, right? You should eat. I can catch more for myself later.”

Xie Lian frowned before pushed the fish back towards San Lang. “No, I can catch more later, too, and lot quicker than you can. You already saved me, gave me two, and all I’ve done is nearly drown you…”

“Don’t worry about it.” Still, San Lang looked between Xie Lian and the fish, as if he wanted to thrust it back again, but then he only sighed and bit into it. “How about I eat one, and you eat the rest? I’m really not hungry.”

“I’m not really hungry, either, so you can have it,” Xie Lian insisted.

Only, that was the moment that either his luck or his body decided to utterly betray him, and his stomach let out a practically deafening growl.

“Pfft!”

“Don’t laugh!” Xie Lian cried, his face lighting up like a tomato.

“Sorry, sorry. My bad.” Although he said that, San Lang was still grinning fiercely, not a hint of actual remorse to be found in his expression.

Xie Lian felt like throwing himself into the water and seeing if it was possible for merfolk to drown (it wasn’t), but before he could dwell on it too much longer, San Lang stood and retrieved the still raw remaining fish that Xie Lian had yet to touch. He polished off the last of his own fish, tossed the stick into the fire, then selected a new one from a small pile Xie Lian was only just then noticing. He then proceeded to start prepping the fish, making sure to remove the scales and fins.

Right, humans had a hard time with those. No wonder the fish was so soft and easily eaten despite the tougher nature of cooked meat.

After he finished, he threw the scraps into the water and skewered the last fish. After he propped it up next to the fire to cook, he leaned back against the cave wall.

“You really have grown up,” Xie Lian remarked, which earned him a raised eyebrow. “Ah, not that I mean you weren’t smart or capable for your age before, you just seem a lot… more so. I’m glad that you can take care of yourself now. I think I’ll rest a bit easier at night knowing that.”

“Mn, thanks.” Without saying anything else, San Lang poked the fish still roasting by the fire. Apparently deciding it was done, he plucked it up and held it out for Xie Lian.

He wanted to protest still, but the gnawing in his stomach was growing too difficult to ignore. Hesitantly, he took the fish from San Lang, coarse and cold fingers brushing soft and warm ones as he did.

Huh. Humans were surprisingly warm.

He bit into the fish quietly, and San Lang was equally silent. Xie Lian wondered if he’d said something wrong and made San Lang uncomfortable. His childhood hadn’t been pleasant for him, Xie Lian knew that much, so perhaps it’d been inconsiderate of him to bring it up and remind San Lang of it.

He dropped his arm, letting the now empty stick rest against the scales of his tail. Under the fire's light, they shone more than they normally would. They were a soft, pure white, somehow managing to remain far more clear and pristine than Xie Lian felt, and flecks of color sparked to life and died across them in time to whatever tempo the flickering flames set.

Xie Lian shook his head, guilt now gnawing at him more than hungry had. “I’m sorry, San Lang. I think I’ve said a bit too much, haven’t I? I really need to learn when to shut my mouth…”

“Why are you apologizing me?” When Xie Lian glanced up, San Lang was frowning. “Gege, to me, your words are precious. You don’t need to apologize to me for anything.”

Ge ge? That was… an odd thing to be called, but also… kind of endearing, too. Though, it did make him realize something rather important.

“I never told you my name!” he burst.

San Lang, surprisingly, broke into laughter. “I didn’t know if you had one. I thought you might be like me.”

“No,” Xie Lian replied, his chest tightening at the mention of San Lang’s childhood again. “My parents named me Xie Lian. Merfolk do change their names a lot, or not all at, depending on the person. I’m one of the latter. I wouldn’t know what to change it to, after all…”

“Xie Lian,” San Lang echoed. The way he said it, it sounded like something dear. Xie Lian didn’t know how to feel. His name really didn’t merit such a soft, reverent tone. “I like it. It’s a good name.”

“Ah… thank you,” Xie Lian managed. It felt weird to be complimented. Quickly, he decided to change the topic. “What were you doing swimming around in the cove, anyway?”

San Lang raised an eyebrow. “I was looking for you.”

“Wha…” Xie Lian blinked. “Why?”

“You hadn’t sung at all for a few nights. I thought something might’ve happened.”

Well, he wasn’t wrong, but… “San Lang, do you hear my voice every night?”

“Yeah.”

Xie Lian’s heart sank. San Lang might not know this, but with the way he’d weaved his magic into the song, he should’ve only been able to hear it if he needed it. Whether he just needed comfort, to stave off a night chill, or a ward against misfortune—those effects will only be present when they were required. If all was well, then Xie Lian’s song would be just that. A song, with nothing extraordinary to it. Unless San Lang was within earshot of it, the magic wouldn’t carry the song to him, either.

Such conditions were the hallmark of merfolk magic. It made their spells stronger when needed, but conservative when not.

Of course, with Xie Lian being the sole one to weave the magic, it couldn’t be all that strong. The amount of misfortune it would be able to ward off was limited, but back when San Lang was so small, it was the only way he could think of to help. He’d assumed that, now that San Lang was grown and able to take care of himself, he wouldn’t hear the song at all or need its effects.

Apparently, that wasn’t the case. Even as capable, intelligent, and mature as San Lang had grown to be, misfortune still clung to him.

Now that Xie Lian was paying closer attention to his appearance, he noted that the bandages covering half his face were still dark with age and grime. His clothes were still patched and worn, and bruises still littered what was visible skin, stark against the paleness of it.

He wondered how, in his elation that San Lang had grown up and seemed much less the scared, helpless child he’d met before, he’d missed that not everything might have changed.

This time, though, he wasn’t dealing with a child.

“Can we meet again?” Xie Lian asked. He didn’t know if it would help, or why it would help, but something in his heart tugged at the thought of never seeing him again. He wanted to see that, even if San Lang’s luck hadn’t changed, the human was still breathing and laughing.

At the very least, the child he’d met all those years ago hadn’t smiled, but the young man sitting in front of him—his smile shone and laughter poured freely from his lips.

A beautiful grin still painting his features, San Lang asked, “Are you sure, Gege?”

“Of course I am!” Xie Lian insisted. He was never sure of anything, but this was an exception.

“Okay, then,” San Lang said. “Let’s meet again, Gege.”

Chapter Text

“Ge ge… you didn’t have to bring me this much.”

Xie Lian beamed at San Lang. “Nonsense! You helped me out so much, I need to pay you back at least a little bit.”

“I’d say the reverse would be more accurate,” San Lang said, sighing. He eyed the large pile of fish, most dead but some still flopping and gasping on the rocks.

It’d been some weeks since they’d started meeting like this, and every time, Xie Lian felt compelled to bring him something. He knew the human didn’t have a lot, and Xie Lian had way too much time on his hands to collect pretty shells and catch fish.

This was probably the most he’d brought at once… but last time they met, San Lang had brought him a hair pin from the market. He’d claimed it was almost worthless and it hadn’t cost him much, but to Xie Lian, it was a marvel, the likes of which he’d seldom seen. Human things were always so interesting, and what Xie Lian had to offer was… lackluster, in comparison.

San Lang frowned at the pile of fish and crossed his arms. “We can’t eat all this, can we?”

“Ah…” Xie Lian blinked. He hadn’t thought about that. “I don’t think we can.”

“...”

“You don’t happen to have any friends that might help us eat all this?” Xie Lian asked tentatively.

San Lang snorted. “Nope. I’m assuming Ge ge doesn’t, either?”

“Not really… So what should we do?”

“I guess… we can dry some, and then try to eat as much of the rest as possible.”

Xie Lian paused. “Dry it?”

“Yeah.” San Lang knelt near one of the fish that had only recently stopped squirming and poked it. It shot back to life, flopping and gasping, before stilling again. “It’s when you hang them out in the sun. It’ll dry all the moisture out of it, so the meat won’t rot as fast and you can keep it for longer.”

Xie Lian wrinkled his nose. “That sounds… like an awful fate for a fish.”

“Probably,” San Lan laughed. “I’ve never actually tried it with fish. No idea how well it works or if it’s any good. It’d probably work better if we had salt…”

“There’s plenty of salt in the ocean, though.”

An amused grin cracked San Lang’s face as he shook his head. “Nah, I can’t use that kind of salt. I’d need dry salt.”

“Oh, I see…”

“Well, Ge ge, should we try and eat all this?”

Xie Lian nodded brightly. “Un!”

-/-/-

As the sun set and the light of day faded, they passed the time in each other’s company. San Lang built up a fire and cooked the fish the same way he had at their second meeting, and Xie Lian eagerly helped him polish a good chunk of them off. Cooked fish was still a marvel to him, and every time San Lang made it for him, it seemed to taste better and better.

Of course, there was no point in building up a fire close to the shore only for it to be snuffed out by the tide, so they wound up back in that cave. San Lang had draped a wet blanket over him once again, and Xie Lian found that he was starting to enjoy the cool weight of it on his shoulders.

“Hm… looks like we managed to eat most of it,” San Lang stated, eyeing the much smaller pile of fish. “I don’t suppose Ge ge is still hungry at all?”

“No, I don’t think I could eat any more if my life depended on it.”

“Same,” he hummed, then shrugged. “Guess I’ll just bring it back with me. Someone should want it.”

“San Lang lives with others humans?” It was an odd thought, actually. He never spoke of other people, and whenever Xie Lian noticed him wandering the shores, it was always by himself.

He only shrugged. “There’s a village nearby.”

It wasn’t really an answer, but he knew San Lang well enough by now to know that when his words didn’t say much of anything, it was because he didn’t want to say anything. So, Xie Lian dropped the topic and instead asked, “Do you think you could trade the fish for something that won’t go bad so quickly?”

“Hmm, not a bad idea. Wonder if anyone will actually give me a half decent price,” he remarked, appraising the fish with a new shine to his eye.

Xie Lian nodded and smiled. “Good!”

Then, all of a sudden, the easy air between them faded. San Lang grew quiet, refusing to look Xie Lian’s way. He wondered what thoughts might be stilling his tongue, but right when Xie Lian was about to ask him what was wrong, San Lang spoke first, his voice betraying his hesitance.

“...does Ge ge mind if I ask him a personal question of my own?”

Xie Lian blinked, then shook his head. “No, not at all. San Lang can ask me anything.”

“You know why I don’t live with humans,” San Lang said, and yes, Xie Lian remembered all too well the molten bruises that had marred San Lang’s face and arms and legs as a child. If humans were responsible, then Xie Lian couldn’t blame San Lang for wanting to distance himself from them. “But I still… I don’t know anything about Ge ge, about why you don’t live with other people like yourself.”

Xie Lian opened his mouth, then… just… couldn’t say anything. It was like his own mind had abandoned him, noping out for greener pastures.

“You don’t have to answer,” San Lang added quickly. “I’m sure it’s not an easy question for Ge ge. I’m sorry.”

Xie Lian glanced his way, and his heart clenched at the fear and regret that flickered in San Lang’s single visible eye. If it was San Lang, then…

Slowly, he shook his head. “No, no. It’s alright, San Lang. I want you to… to feel like you can ask me anything. If it’s San Lang, then I don’t mind sharing.”

It would be alright to share, even if only a little bit. Xie Lian had seen San Lang’s past, seen his scars, and although he didn’t know the full story behind them, it wasn’t hard to guess. He already knew so much about San Lang, it was only fair that San Lang know his story in return.

“A long, long time ago, The King and Queen of the merfolk of the Eastern Sea gave birth to a child,” Xie Lian started, tentatively. Again, he glanced to San Lang, whose eye shone in the firelight. Emboldened, he continued, “This child was very talented, and fortune smiled on him. He had two friends, two vassals, who he trusted with his life… their names were Mu Qing and Feng Xin, and they were as dear to him as his own family. But, then, when the child was just broaching the age that the merfolk consider adulthood, a war broke out between the prince’s kingdom and another kingdom of merfolk, and a plague began to eat his people alive.”

This part, now, was much trickier to tell. He felt his throat clogging, as though it’d been somehow stuffed with cotton, but the words kept coming all the same. “His vassals tried to urge the prince to resort to… to black magic, to call in the help of those we expelled for harming their own kind with the magic their voices can weave, but the prince refused. Even though their enemies were using such magic to create the plague, the prince insisted that the noble heart would win in the end. To use magic against one’s own kind was too great of a sin, and the prince was too naive to want to dirty his own hands. He stuck to this, until the very end, when his kingdom was overrun and he was cast out.

“So… that is why I’m alone,” he finished. “It’s because I was too weak to make the best decision for my country, and when it and my family died, there was no place left for me any longer. So I… I’ve been alone ever since. My vassals… I hope they’re still alive, but they left my service long ago. And my parents, they… they… I couldn’t…”

Finally, his voice cracked and choked away. His face felt oddly wet, and with a start, he realized he was crying. He hadn’t cried in so long, he’d almost forgotten what it felt like. And now, he couldn’t stop. The sobs tore themselves from his throat unbidden, as though a dam had been broken, and tears streamed freely down his face as his form heaved.

But suddenly, there were arms around him. Warm, warm arms.

“San Lang,” he hiccuped.

He was so warm, warmer than anything else Xie Lian could think of that lived in the ocean. Were all humans this warm?

“I’m sorry,” San Lang said. “I made you remember something painful. I’m sorry, I’m sorry.”

Hesitantly, tentatively, Xie Lian reached up to let his arms encircle San Lang’s back. The blanket slid from his shoulders, the cold weight replaced with only San Lang’s warmth. Xie Lian buried his face into fabric of his shirt, and for once, he didn’t think about how the salt clinging to his skin or in his tears might stain it.

“San Lang, San Lang,” he repeated, like it was his lifeline, and San Lang’s grip on him only tightened. “You don’t… you don’t need to apologize to me. Thank you. Thank you. I thought… I thought, when you heard that, you would…”

You would be disappointed in me, just like everyone else.

But in San Lang’s grip, there was only warmth. Xie Lian hadn’t known how much he missed it—how much he’d never known he needed it in the first place—until he was sobbing in San Lang’s embrace.

He thought, if anything or anyone could ever become home to him ever again, it might be this person.

It took him some time to finally calm down, and once he did, San Lang pulled away. He retrieved the blanket and laid it gently back over Xie Lian, and he wanted to protest. What had felt nice before now was only a cold reminder that San Lang’s warmth was out of his reach, and he missed it already. But, with the way his skin had started to ache, he knew it needed the dampness back.

“Are you okay now?” San Lang asked, his voice soft.

Xie Lian nodded, and oddly, it didn’t feel like he was lying. His heart felt… lighter, somehow. Where there had only been tension and pain, there was now numbness and exhaustion, which were much better by comparison. “I’m okay, San Lang. Thank you for listening.”

Thank you for not leaving me.

At that, San Lang smiled. To Xie Lian, it was brilliant.

“I’ll always be here for you,” he vowed, and Xie Lian’s heart nearly burst. “So long as you want me here, I won’t leave.”

It was strange. In practice, they’d only known each other for a few weeks, but Xie Lian felt he could trust that promise. It felt… it felt…

Like, if there was anyone in the world he could trust, it was San Lang.

“The same goes for San Lang,” Xie Lian returned. “As long as you want me to, I’ll always come and find you.”

Something sparked in San Lang’s eyes, and he almost looked as though he wanted to spring forward and bring Xie Lian into his arms again. He wanted to tell him to, but he had no idea what could’ve been holding San Lang back. He wouldn’t push; he only wanted the affection San Lang wanted to give him.

“Ge ge… since you told me so much…” Now, San Lang’s face twisted, the softness replaced with something else. Fear? Hesitance? San Lang was the boldest, most imperturbable person he knew. What could he possibly fear? “...I want to show you something, but it’s… it’s unsightly. I understand if Ge ge doesn’t want to see.”

Xie Lian shook his head. Whatever San Lang wanted to show him, he was sure it couldn’t compare to the countless gruesome sights he’d seen in his long, long life. “Whatever San Lang wants to show me, I want to see.”

San Lang gave him a shaky smile. Slowly, he reached for the bandages covering half his face, and Xie Lian’s breath froze in his lungs.

Never once had he asked to see what San Lang was so obstinate about hiding under them. He feared the worst, that his face had been horribly mutilated by some unspeakable cruelty. Not because it would make San Lang any less beautiful to him, but because it would serve as more undeniable proof of San Lang’s pain, of how much he’d suffered at the hands of others.

So when the bandages fell away, he could almost sigh in relief. There was faint scarring, but all the wounds that had caused them seemed to be shallow and wouldn’t have taken long to heal. They wouldn’t have pained San Lang for long.

But even still, despite it not being nearly as bad as San Lang was making it seem, his hand twitched as though he wanted to reach up and cover his face again. He kept shooting Xie Lian quick, fear filled glances, and it tugged at Xie Lian’s heart. He wanted to reassure San Lang, to ease whatever was causing this anxiety, but he couldn’t figure out what San Lang—brave, brave San Lang—was so scared of.

That was when he noticed the hue of the eye San Lang kept covered. It was a bright, striking blood red.

“What a pretty color!” Xie Lian burst.

San Lang blinked, and for once, Xie Lian could watch his expression shift across his entire face. “Eh? Eh? Pretty?”

“Yes, yes! Of course it is!” Xie Lian pulled himself forward, towards San Lang, and reached out. Than, he thought better of it and asked, “May I?”

Dully, San Lang nodded. Xie Lian cupped his face with both hands, all to get a better look at the eye San Lang was so scared of. It was really very pretty, at least in Xie Lian’s mind, the hue of the red deep with flecks of a darker crimson ringing the iris and flecking out from the dark pupil.

“I’ve never seen this color in a human before,” he remarked. Though, to be fair, that didn’t mean much considering that he rarely spent time with humans. Though, he hadn’t seen that color in any of the merfolk, either, except for those who had sunken to using their magic to harm other merfolk.

“That’s because humans shouldn’t have an eye like this,” he said, his words sounding forced. “This is why… why I’m alone. This eye marks me as someone who only brings misfortune to those around them.”

Xie Lian pulled back and frowned. “San Lang, will you listen to my song for a moment? I want to test something.”

“...of course,” San Lang agreed, though he sounded hesitant. Xie Lian was glad he trusted him.

Xie Lian cleared his throat, trying to keep it from tightening and closing on him. He’d been able to sing daily for the past few years, sure, but now that San Lang’s sharp eyes—both of them!—were on him, his stomach felt like it was being set ablaze.

He managed to begin, the song hesitant and shaky at first, but when he glanced to San Lang and found that fear and anxiety were still coloring his eyes, he felt a new surge of confidence. Now wasn’t the time for panic, not from him. His music would come, and when it did, it would help San Lang.

The magic woven into the notes leaving Xie Lian’s lips was almost purely probing. It coiled in the air, searching. The danced over San Lang, but he didn’t react to it at all. Xie Lian would be worried if he did, though, since ordinary humans wouldn’t be able to sense magic.

Aside from the probing spell, he did weave a few notes of soothing into the melody. He hoped that they would calm San Lang’s nerves somewhat.

Finally, the magic finished its work and sprung back to him. As it conveyed everything it learned through a song of its own, one only Xie Lian would be able to hear, he frowned. The magic dispersed, and Xie Lian let the notes die in his throat.

He glanced to San Lang again, who seemed to be refusing to say anything, refusing to so much as look at Xie Lian. The song didn’t seem to have helped him calm down at all.

Slowly, Xie Lian pulled himself closer to San Lang again. “May I?”

He glanced up, greeting Xie Lian with mismatched eyes. “Mn.”

“You’re not evil,” Xie Lian said firmly. With permission received, he cupped San Lang’s face again, forcing him to meet his gaze. “San Lang, you’re not evil. The eye has no magic, no aura by itself. It’s simple a part of you, a part of the way you were born. Your luck is a little bad, and that may have caused your eye to form that way. I can only imagine what other humans have told you about it, but just know that they’re wrong. And…

“I can fix your luck, at least a little bit. I’ll keep singing for you, and I’ll sing a song a of luck and fortune.” He didn’t know how much of it he had to spare, but whatever he had, he felt it should be shared between the both of them.

San Lang’s eyes shone, glazing over with wetness, and Xie Lian was sure he was about to start crying. He didn’t, though. “Thank you, Ge ge… Xie Lian.”

This time, it was Xie Lian’s turn to hug him. It had been so long since someone had called his name, since someone had trusted him.

San Lang laughed, but it sounded so much more fragile than how he typically laughed. “Ge ge, you lost your blanket again. It’s not good for a fish to be out of water, right?” Still, even chiding Xie Lian, his arms wrapped around him to return the embrace, and he clutched Xie Lian like he was the last person on earth.

“Who are you calling a fish?” Xie Lian asked, feeling a smile tug at his features. If San Lang was joking, if his voice was growing lighter, if he still wanted to touch Xie Lian, then everything was alright.

“Excuse this ignorant one, Ge ge,” San Lang apologized. If his face wasn’t nuzzling into the crook of Xie Lian’s neck, he was sure San Lang would be wearing a shit-eating grin. “You still need water, though, correct?”

“Ah, yeah. We don’t actually drink normally, we absorb the moisture through our skin. Because, you know, we live in water,” Xie Lian explained. “So if I stay out of water for too long, my organs will start to shut down.”

Without saying a word, San Lang dislodged himself from Xie Lian. Then, to his utter shock, San Lang managed to heave him up into his arms, one behind his shoulders and one under the bend in his tail, which wasn’t an easy feat for a human considering that merfolk tended to weigh nearly twice as much as them.

Xie Lian squealed and clutched at San Lang’s shoulders to stabilize himself. “San Lang?”

Quietly, San Lang walked them to the edge of the rockface, where stone met water, and unceremoniously dumped Xie Lian in.

The seawater was a shock of cold compared to the heat of San Lang’s arms, but it was also familiar and soothing on his skin, which had been uncomfortably dry at that point. Xie Lian blinked for a moment, still processing, before he flicked himself back up to the water’s surface with a snap of his tail.

His head bobbed up, and thankfully, San Lang was still there, standing at the edge.

“San Lang, why?” Xie Lian complained.

“You just told me you could die by being up here!”

Xie Lian shook his head. San Lang was being too dramatic. He tried to pull himself back up onto the rockface, but to his shock, San Lang knelt, grabbed his shoulders, and pushed him back into the water. He was careful, but still, Xie Lian hadn’t been expecting that. He slipped back down below the surface before snapping up again.

“San Lang! I want to come up with you,” Xie Lian said. “The blanket was fine! Really, it’s a very smart solution. I can stay up for hours with it!”

“But you didn’t tell me it was dangerous, and you wouldn’t, would you?” San Lang crossed his arms. He still hadn’t covered his face again, and Xie Lian found it fascinating to watch two eyebrows knit themselves together on his forehead. “The blanket won’t work forever, right? So until further notice, you’re not allowed up here.”

“But San Lang, if you come down here, you’ll drown,” Xie Lian pointed out.

At that, San Lang smirked. With one quick motion, he lowered himself to the rock face so that he was sitting directly on it, his legs dangling under the water’s surface. “We can talk like this, can’t we?”

“Yes!” Xie Lian brighted, pulling himself over to rest against the edge of the water. Like this, everything below his shoulders was in the water, which was much more comfortable, and he was still close to San Lang.

They stayed like that as they continued to speak well into the night. They were both raw from opening each other’s hearts to one another, so their topics from that point on were light and fun, each careful to dance around anything that might bring painful memories for the other.

Eventually, with San Lang forgetting about it entirely, the fire smoldered, and they wound up speaking in the dark. And, with neither of them really noticing, their hands wound up entertwined in one another, San Lang’s warm and soft to Xie Lian’s coarse and cold. And, just like that, they both drifted off, each smiling in their dreams.

Chapter Text

Blood.

Xie Lian paused at the taste, faint but distinct in the water around him. It was alarming, largely because there weren’t that many creatures living in the cove that were large enough to produce so much blood that Xie Lian could taste it in the water. He frowned and swam against the current, following the sickening copper assaulting his senses.

If it was some sort of dolphin or porpoise, he’d try and help it if he could, and put it out of its misery if not. Humans… well, they were a bit harder to put down, emotionally speaking, so he hoped he’d be able to help.

Soon enough, the taste of blood in the water diverged from the current and lead Xie Lian to a rockface, instead. Steeling himself, his head broke the surface of the water, the wind immediately whipping at his dripping hair and sending a shiver down his spine. He ignored it, however, to inspect the rock face.

He was fairly familiar with it. It was one of the few that wasn’t too steep to climb, not that Xie Lian had ever thought about trying. Although climbing it was feasible, because of the way it sloped, it would be impossible to jump from the top into the water without clipping the rockface. Climbing down would prove painful, so trying it was as good as beaching himself.

Still, at the top of that rock face, a pale hand laid limply between two rocks.

Xie Lian would’ve helped any human, but a simple fact had ice flooding his veins and spurring him forward with shaking fingers.

San Lang hadn’t met with him today.

It was so unlike the human. If anything, it was always Xie Lian who lost track of time, leaving San Lang to wander rocky shores until they bumped into one another. There hadn’t been a single day in the past months where they hadn’t managed to find one another.

Even only suspecting it was him…

Without a second thought, Xie Lian hoisted himself up onto the first ledge, his scales scraping against the jagged rocks.

How much blood could humans lose before it became deadly? Xie Lian didn’t know, but the amount of it trickling down the rockface and into the water only served to fuel his panic.

One ledge at a time, Xie Lian painstakingly made his way higher and higher. His tail was, for once in his life, absolutely useless. More or less, climbing the cliff involved pulling himself halfway up, then using the weight on his tail to swing himself the rest of the way up. The thick scales of his tail could take the abuse of smacking against the rockface time and time again, but after so much clawing and scaping and rolling, his fingers and stomach had started going raw.

All the while, Xie Lian called up to that pale, limp form. “San Lang! Is that you? Are you okay?” He repeated it, over and over, but no matter how much he called, the hand didn’t so much as twitch. It did nothing to warm the ice flowing through his veins.

He reached the last ledge, a stone’s throw away from the top of the rockface where the human lay, but as Xie Lian reached up for the top, he realized that his fingers could only just barely brush it. With a cry of frustration, he knew he wouldn’t be able to find enough leverage to hoist himself up that last bit. Instead, he slid across the rocks before reaching upwards again, this time towards that pale hand.

Their fingers brushed, and Xie Lian felt like crying. They were cold. Humans were supposed to be warm.

Now that he was directly under him, the rocks were slick with more than just the spray of the sea, staining Xie Lian’s iridescent white scales.

That’s when he noticed. A small outcropping of rock that wound up to the top, large enough for a human to walk across. It would be tight, but if Xie Lian was careful, he could slide his way across it and reach the top.

“Please be okay,” Xie Lian said, his fingers lingering over the human’s for just a moment before he left.

With the wind still whipping at him, drying out his hair and scales to an uncomfortable degree, crossing the ledge was a fine line between hugging the rock face and teetering over the ledge. It wasn’t easy to maneuver, and even his tough scales starting to grow sore because of the battering. Eventually, though, he was able to make it to the top without falling and having to start all over.

Once he reached the top, he scrambled towards where the human lay. He was face down on the rockface, bloodsoaked hair fanning out around him and hiding his face from view. It didn’t seem that anything else was bleeding, not from what Xie Lian could see, and he sighed in relief. If he only hit his head, then it was likely he was just unconscious.

Xie Lian reached him, immediately placing a hand on his shoulder to turn him over and check him for further injuries, when pain shot through his arm. On instinct, he threw himself back, clutching at where an arrow now protruded from his bicep.

He pulled it out, red trickling freely from the wound.

Two humans emerged from the treeline, both laughing to one another.

“Hey, the bastard was right! It did fucking come out for that useless demon. I guess monsters watch out for one another, huh?” one—the younger of the two, by Xie Lian’s best guess—remarked.

The other man, the elder of the two, only snorted. “Figures. First helpful thing it’s ever done… Come on, let’s hurry up before that thing runs away.”

Xie Lian frowned, confused by what they were saying. He knew they were talking about him; it was fairly typical of humans to refer to him as such, but they were acting as though there were two inhuman creatures. Xie Lian skooted, as best he could with only one truly functional arm, to place himself between San Lang and the two men.

“I just want to help him,” Xie Lian tried, hoping to whatever god would listen that they would heed him. “Could you forget you ever saw me? I promise, if you let me help him, or help him yourselves, I won’t ever bother you. I’ll leave the cove, if that’s what you want.”

“What do you know?” the elder snorted. “It talks.”

Xie Lian’s stomach dropped. There was no reasoning with these men, he could already tell, and the taste of blood in the air burned his tongue. If he wanted to save San Lang, then…

Trying one last time, Xie Lian pleaded, “Please leave. I don’t want to hurt either of you. I just want to help him.”

Both men burst into laughter at his words. The younger of the two reached behind him for another arrow, but the elder knocked his hand away before he could.

“It’s already hurt,” he snapped. “It doesn’t have any fucking legs, either. How’s it gonna run? Use your head, boy. If it bleeds to death, its value’ll go down. How’ll you pay me back, then? Bleed yourself into the cove, too?”

It had been a trap. The realization made the burn on Xie Lian’s tongue all the more intolerable. Whatever happened to him was fine, but why did they have to drag San Lang into it, too?

Still, he couldn’t focus on that right now. As the two drew near, Xie Lian shifted his attention to the elder. He was the one who spoke with more authority and arrogance. Lop off the head and spare the body. Or, at least, it was worth trying.

So when they drew near enough, approaching without the slightest bit of caution, it was the elder who found his legs swept out from underneath him in one quick strike of Xie Lian’s tail. His body crashed into the ground, but he managed to cushion his fall and prevent his head from bashing against the rocks, as Xie Lian had been hoping for. Knowing he would recover after a few moments, Xie Lian steeled himself and sprang forward to grab the man’s neck.

It snapped almost instantly under the press of Xie Lian’s fingers.

That was the thing most humans didn’t quite seem to understand, it seemed. When they saw him, they saw a dainty, harmless and beautiful creature. They didn’t see something with five times their strength, forgetting that his kind made a name for themselves by luring in men and dragging them, drunk on song alone, to an early grave at sea.

He expected, with the elder dead, the younger would lose nerve and run, but that didn’t happen. The young man stood transfixed, mouth gaping, until his expression twisted.

“You-! How dare-!” Forgoing words, he charged Xie Lian with a deranged cry. Landlocked as he was, Xie Lian had no way to outmaneuver the blow, only able to raise his arms to guard his face from the incoming hit.

Still, after landing a punch and knocking Xie Lian back, a grin cracked across the man’s face. He went for another blow, but too focused on his newfound advantage, he failed to note how close the two of them were to the edge of the rockface. Before his next blow found its mark, Xie Lian had his fingers wrapped around the man’s wrist, jerking him over the edge before the man could even think to scream.

The fall wasn’t dangerous, not normally. Painfull, yes, but not deadly. Not unless one, like that young man, fell headfirst and upside down, skull and neck cracking upon impact with the ground below.

Xie Lian didn’t bother to check if he survived. The sound of shattering bones and squelching flesh followed by deathly silence was all the confirmation Xie Lian needed. He tried to ignore the elation fluttering up in him at having killed twice in one day.

“San Lang,” Xie Lian breathed, the name falling from his lips with ease. He was, at the very least, relieved to finally be free to help him.

Heedless of the sluggishly bleeding hole in his arm, Xie Lian grasped the human’s shoulder and turned him, careful not to jostle him too much.

What greeted him were two mismatched, lightless eyes.

Xie Lian sobbed, hoping it was some kind of joke or mistake, but no, his eyes weren’t deceiving him. San Lang’s face was slack and frozen in shock and pain, he was cold to the touch, and his limbs were far too stiff. There was no rise and fall of his chest, no twitching to his fingers, no soft beating when Xie Lian laid his ear over his heart.

It was only a corpse now.

Blood matted his hair, loose around his head, and now that Xie Lian was paying close attention, there was blood soaking the legs of his pants. He understood what had probably happened all too well. San Lang’s legs had been slashed from behind, then his head bashed against the rocks, but Xie Lian didn’t have the heart to go digging through his matted hair to find the injury that would confirm his suspicions.

Xie Lian pulled the human’s head into his lap, wishing his scales were softer, though he supposed it wouldn’t actually make a difference. He brushed San Lang’s hair out his face, and he started trying to wipe the blood off, as well, but his vision grew too cloudy to see, until the dam burst and his tears fell, unabated, onto San Lang’s face. They mixed with drying blood, diluting it and causing it to run down San Lang’s skin with renewed vigor.

“I’m sorry, San Lang,” Xie Lian laughed. “I’m… trying to clean you up… but I think I’m only making it worse.”

He tried to brush the blood and tears away from his thumb, but it only wound up smearing it across pale, cold cheeks. Xie Lian sobbed. It wouldn’t matter what he did. Everything he touched would crumble regardless of what he did. If he hadn’t met this child—now no longer a child—if he had saved him and then never spoken to him again, never sang for him, would he still be alive?

It was his fault. It was always his fault.

He sat there, the human pulled into his lap and dyeing his pearly tail scarlet, until his tears ran dry and his throat burned. His scales and skin ached, but it was a distant and dull feeling. Vaguely, Xie Lian knew he should return to the water before the wind whipped and dried his skin beyond the point of recovery.

But that would mean leaving San Lang out to rot.

Mermaids didn’t revere the dead as humans seemed to. Still, it felt wrong to leave him. He was a human, and he deserved to be treated as such. Unfortunately, the only ways Xie Lian knew of humans treating their dead was to burn or bury them, neither of which was an option for him. The most he could offer him was a burial at sea, but something about setting the human’s corpse adrift to be scavenged and eaten made Xie Lian taste bile.

Even in death, Xie Lian failed him.

He sat there for longer still, with thoughts such as those swirling through his mind, an endless chain of misery and grief and self-loathing that went unbroken like a storm without end. Dully, he combed the corpse’s hair with his fingers, arranged its clothes, and tried to clear its ashen face of blood. Anything to make it look a bit more like the San Lang he knew, and less…

“My, you really are out of sorts, aren’t you?”

Xie Lian’s gaze sluggishly tracked that voice back to its owner, an odd looking character with a mask that both smiled and cried. He wore white and only white, the same shade of funerals and the ashen hue of the human’s skin. In his grasp, he carried a small lantern, the purpose of which Xie Lian couldn’t parse. It was broad daylight out.

“I’ve been standing here for so long, and yet you’ve paid that hunk of dead meat more attention,” the figure whined. “Surely, the rumored Xie Lian of the merfolk is more attentive than this?”

Xie Lian’s lips pursed, and he felt dizzy. “...you’re not human.” A human wouldn’t know his name, nor the rumors surrounding him.

“Not for some time,” the figure responded, and somehow, Xie Lian knew his smile grew beneath his mask from his tone alone. “No, I’ve been like you’re little friend here for a long, long time.”

Here.

As in, when the figure was referring to San Lang, he wasn’t referring to the corpse at Xie Lian’s side, but rather something else near the figure. Xie Lian’s gaze fell to the lantern still hanging in the figure’s grasp. It was difficult to fully see in the light of day, but now that he was paying attention, he noticed it casting a faint blue hue over the figure’s otherwise colorless robes.

It was the flame of a soul, a remnant of the dead’s memory and spirit that had yet to depart. The very beginnings of a ghost if nothing was done.

“San Lang!” Xie Lian cried. He tried to throw himself towards that figure, but he only managed about to get about a foot of distance. He wasn’t built for this. If they were in the water, he’d have already dragged that figure, ghost or no, to the bottom of the lake and sealed him there to drown for eternity. But here, where he could barely move, he was useless.

Only… he still had one weapon left to him, didn’t he?

A tune at the forefront of his mind, Xie Lian gathered power to unleash at the tip of his tongue. He’d make sure the ghost regretting attempting to trap San Lang’s soul.

“Ah, I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” he warned. A lone finger traced the edges of the lantern, dark energy swirling around it. Just from that alone, the faint light of the flame started to flicker.

Xie Lian’s mouth snapped shut as his eyes narrowed. Flames of the soul were notoriously weak and easy to corrupt or shatter. They were benign by nature, not yet filled with enough resentment to be anything powerful, but just enough to keep them tied to the earth until someone offered them a proper send off.

The figure burst into laughter. He pulled his hand away from the lantern and let the corrupted energy dissipated. Xie Lian couldn’t help but sigh in relief.

He’d already gotten San Lang killed. The last thing he wanted was for anything to happen to his soul because of him, too.

“You can talk, you can talk. Just no singing,” the ghost said. “Trust me, I’ll know. You merfolk are really something! Who knew you had so much power?”

“What do you want?” Xie Lian asked, tired of the figure’s drivel. That he was still here, talking with Xie Lian and holding San Lang’s soul hostage… he wanted something. In all likelihood, he was the one who’d told the humans about his and San Lang’s… friendship, and he was the one who’d planted the idea of hurting (killing) San Lang to lure him out. As long as this ghost had something he wanted from him, then there was still a chance that Xie Lian could retrieve San Lang’s soul from him.

Whatever the ghost wanted… Xie Lian had nothing. At least, he had nothing that was worth more than what little remained of San Lang. Whatever the price was, he’d pay it.

It was the least he could do, at this point, and even the thought itself was sour. That was all he could ever do for San Lang, wasn’t it? The absolute least. He hadn’t been able to help him when he was a child, nor when he was a teenager, and now, he was dead, his soul taken hostage, and the only person Xie Lian could blame was himself.

“Hmmm, quite the astute man, aren’t you?” The ghost laughed. “I do have something I want, actually. Bet you can guess what it is already?”

Xie Lian stared blankly at him.

The ghost just snorted. “No? Fine, fine. I’ll enlighten you, then. I want your voice.”

“My…” Xie Lian’s throat went dry. “My voice? But…”

It was the one thing he had left of his former home, of his former friends and family, of his own kind. Without it, Xie Lian wouldn’t have anything.

But… San Lang was worth his everything, wasn’t he?

Steeling himself, Xie Lian replied, “You can have it. Just… return San Lang’s soul to me.”

“Good, good! Lovely! Astounding! Marvelous! What a perfect white flower you are, uncaring for the stains others make on you, sacrificing yourself with a smile,” the ghost laughed, and it was a twisted, broken thing. “How utterly expected of the prince of a dead country! Very well, the soul is yours.”

With that, he unlatched the lantern’s little door, allowing Xie Lian his first look at the little ghost fire within. It flickered, then darted free. Xie Lian’s breath caught in his throat as he watched it dart around for a moment, worried it would soar away or fade, and he’d never see—but, no, that was what he wanted, wasn’t it?

San Lang… San Lang was dead. His soul should pass on, so he could be reborn. Hopefully, into a life where he would never have the misfortune of meeting Xie Lian again.

To his surprise, once the little ghost fire gained its bearings, it floated over to him. As it approached, Xie Lian hesitantly held out a hand for it, and it shuddered before settling gently over it. It was strange, how light a soul felt when Xie Lian knew how weighty holding a soul—San Lang’s soul—in the palm of one’s hand truly was.

He brought the flame close to his chest. It wasn’t hot to the touch; ghost fires were never were, often burning cold instead of hot, but knowing it was San Lang, some who was once so, so warm, it just… felt wrong.

“Well, you got what you wanted,” the ghost sang. “Now, it’s my turn.”

Suddenly, pain shot through Xie Lian’s neck. He wasn’t unfamiliar with pain, but this… this was all consuming, so overwhelming that all other thoughts and feelings fled his soul in terror. He buckled on himself, clawing desperately at his throat. He didn’t register the feeling of his clawed nails digging into skin, of blood dripping down his neck. He’d rip his own throat out if it would just make it stop.

He opened his mouth to scream, but nothing, not even a choked sob, managed to wrench itself free of his lips.

The pain died a moment later, and Xie Lian blinked back to awareness. The skin at his neck still stung, his fingers dipped in his own blood, but compared to how much it had hurt before, the pain hardly registered. The little ghost fire was darting around him, licking his hair and face harmlessly with its flames.

It was worried.

Xie Lian smiled. At least the little ghost fire retained some of what made San Lang, San Lang.

He opened his mouth to reassure it, to tell it that he was alright, but no sound came.

Slowly, Xie Lian lowered his hands to rest on his lap. Blood slowly fell from his fingers, staining his once clear tail a deeper shade of crimson. Ah, right. I won’t ever speak again, will I?

The little ghost fire was still buzzing around him, practically radiating nervous energy. At this rate, Xie Lian was worried it would burn itself out. He offered it his best reassuring smile, since he could no longer offer it any words of comfort, and he held out a hand for it.

It slowed, and seeming to understand, it glided obediently to rest in Xie Lian’s outstretched palm.

“Ah, well, now that I have what I want, there’s not much point in staying, is there?” the ghost mused. Xie Lian shot him a glare.

He only laughed it off then started striding towards Xie Lian. He cupped the little ghost fire protectively to his chest. He couldn’t speak anymore, but he could bare his somewhat impressive fangs towards the ghost. When he tried to circle around him, Xie Lian whipped himself around to follow his movements, but a sudden wave of dizziness sent him reeling instead.

Oh, Xie Lian thought, that’s not good. I think… I’ve been out of water for too long.

His veins pumping pure adrenaline, he’d barely noticed up to this point. But this was the longest he’d been free of the ocean, and considering he’d come fairly close to dying once before when trapped on land, that wasn’t a good thing.

And there was no way to quickly get back to water. That’s why those men—in actually, it was more likely the ghost who’d thought it up—chose this spot. Once Xie Lian managed to scramble up the rockface, it’d be impossible to jump back down without killing or maiming himself on the rocks.

“Ah, now, there’s my problem. You see, I’d love to just leave you up here to shrivel up like a prune and die, but if you die, all this is for nothing since your voice won’t be usable anymore. Quite strange, actually, merfolk’s voices. They’re still connected to the soul of their owners, even after removing them, and breaking that bond destroys the voice and its power,” the ghost monologued, like Xie Lian didn’t already know that. Still, it was someone difficult to roll his eyes at him when they were instead rolling into the back of his head.

He felt himself tumble over, the gravelly ground scraping his skin. It was difficult to feel anything, but he tried desperately to move his limbs despite their lack of inclination to listen to him at the moment.

San Lang… San Lang… where is… San Lang…

He felt a cold, wrong grip on him, one that chilled his spine and made his head reel more than dying did. It started heaving him, but to where, Xie Lian couldn’t manage to open his eyes to find out.

“So, now, I have to save your life. Unfortunately.” The ghost’s voice continued prattling, an annoying knocking at the edge of Xie Lian’s consciousness.

Then, Xie Lian felt cold and nothing else.

-/-/-

When he came to, he was floating. He blinked, the water a cool relief against his eyes. He felt… not great, but merfolk were fairly resilient creatures. Even if his organs had decided to quit on him due to the lack of water, once he was back, everything should’ve sorted itself out with few long term repercussions other than maybe a few decades off of his lifespan.

Then, he remembered.

He snapped up to the surface with a desperate flick of his tail. The moment his head met air, he started searching frantically for that little ghost fire. He hadn’t dragged it down into the water with him, had he? If he had, he might as well drown himself right then and there, since he doubted he’d be able to live with that knowledge.

But, no. There it was.

It floated above the water lazily. Xie Lian waved frantically to it, but even as panicked as he was, he tried not to smack that water’s surface. He wasn’t sure how much water it would take to snuff out a ghost fire, but he never wanted to test that.

After a moment, it seemed to notice him. It flared and then darted over to him. Again, Xie Lian held out a hand for it, and it rested itself comfortably on it.

“...Ge ge?”

The voice was small and weak, much more akin to the little Hong Hong he knew from what felt like both yesterday and an eternity ago. He wanted to sob. Brave, bold and grown San Lang had been thrown back to being little helpless Hong Hong again.

“Ge ge?”

He shook his head, unsure how to make the little ghost fire understand he couldn’t speak anymore. He’d dealt with a few in the past. They were often confused, as they mostly consisted of the recently departed who had yet to orient themself. The best thing for them was to spend some time talking with them, until their confusion faded enough for their souls to pass on.

But, now, he couldn’t even do that much, could he?

He supposed, if there were ever a time to try and find one of his own kind again, now would be it. He couldn’t seek help from humans; most couldn’t even see ghosts, yet alone have the knowledge to help one pass on peacefully. There were other creatures out there, but none that would be easily sought out. That only left his own people, but…

He couldn’t take the little ghost fire with him underwater, and he knew for a fact that no other merfolk would come anywhere near this place solely for the fact that it was Xie Lian’s own residence. And to leave the little thing on its own, with the chance that it could be stolen or eaten by another ghost or demon… Xie Lian definitely wouldn’t be able to live with himself if that happened.

He found himself back in the cave the two of them had spent so much time in. He curled up in the shallows to sleep, where he could still feel the tide lapping at his skin, but there was enough air for the little fire to dart around him and float as it pleased.

It seemed to only be capable of saying one word right now, only ever echoing its call to Xie Lian, but he could never answer it.

He spent a full day listening to it, watching it, and occasionally, he would try gesturing to it. Unfortunately, it seemed rather hopeless. That little fire wasn’t fully aware of things yet, had yet to fully recall that it was human. Asking it to understand Xie Lian’s wild game of gestures was too much, and it only ever spoke one word. Communication, it seemed, would be impossible.

He had to answer the gnawing in his stomach, though, when it grew more pervasive than the anxiety clawing his throat.

He was worried, you see, because the little ghost fire followed him everywhere, clinging to him like a young child might their mother. He was terrified that, if he dove down into the ocean, it would try to follow him and snuff itself out. But… if he let himself starved to death, then the ghost fire would still likely meet an unfortunate end. No matter what Xie Lian did, the outlook was never good.

Luckily, he discovered that although the little ghost fire did follow him without prompting or coaxing, it seemed to know well enough not to try to follow him into the water itself. It bobbed along the surface, careful to keep a safe distance from the churning waters. Xie Lian tried to stay near the surface, where he was close enough that it could still detect and follow him. When he’d dove deeper before, he surfaced later to the shock of the fire darting around in the distance, as though in a panic as it looked for him. From that point on, he tried to stay where it could find him easily. He didn’t like seeing it distressed.

Even with little awareness of what all had happened, or what he was at this point, what was left of San Lang still wanted to stay by his side.

Oh, little one… it’s probably best for you to just pass on. I’m sure your next life will be better.

And, somewhere in the back of his mind, another voice added, Because I won’t be there to ruin it.

Then, a different voice, soft and chiming, weak and broken.

“Ge ge? Why… are you… crying?”

The voice only made the tears flow more freely, silent sobs tearing at Xie Lian’s now useless throat. He tried to prompt the little ghost fire to speak again, but whatever spark of awareness had possessed it seemed to have fled. Or, perhaps it just couldn’t understand his mad gesturing.

Days and days past, and nothing changed, and Xie Lian couldn’t think of a way to break the stagnation. He fed himself half heartedly, only feeling a spark of joy when the little ghost fire flared as though excited, but it quickly faded when he tried to compare it to San Lang’s smile.

He’d left the body on that ledge, hadn’t he?

He returned to the ledge, carefully edging his way up again with the fire hovering anxiously at his shoulder, but there was nothing at the stop but a few dark smears over the rocks. Even the bodies of the men Xie Lian had killed were gone. A villager must have found them, and hopefully, all three were given a proper burial.

He slunk back to his cave, again falling asleep in the shallows to the soft flickering of the ghost fire’s light.

Days turned to weeks, until a full month had passed. With each passing day, the fire grew dimmer and dimmer, darted around less, and it flared less and less.

What was wrong? Xie Lian couldn’t figure out what might be troubling it, no matter what he tried.

Finally, it spoke again. “Ge ge… I’m sorry… I have to leave.”

Xie Lian felt his heart break in two as he smiled. This was good. It seemed, nothing was wrong, after all. The fire simply remembered what it used to be, who it used to be. If it was leaving, that was a good thing. Passing on was only natural for the dead.

“...but, Ge ge… please believe in me. I’ll come back to you.”

...what?

Come back?

Why?

Xie Lian shook his head. He wanted to tell it not to, not to waste its second life on attempting the impossible. Once it passed on, there shouldn’t be anything left of who it was, of San Lang. It would become someone else, and hopefully, the new life would be in a place far, far from here.

Before he knew it, the little fire’s blue light had faded from the cave, and he was alone.

-/-/-

“Hey, San Lang?”

“Hm? Yes, Ge ge?”

“Have you ever wondered about the stars in the sky? Why they’re there, how they got there?”

“Mn, not really. They’re just there, aren’t they? They were meant to be there.”

“Pfft… I suppose that’s one way of looking at it… but my kind, we have a myth that surrounds them.”

“Oh? A myth from the merfolk?”

“Yes. It’s very old, though.”

“Does Ge ge want to share this myth with me?”

“...Of course. San Lang, I have a lot of things I want to share with you.”

“Then go ahead. We have all the time in the world.”

“Ahaha… I wonder about that…”

“Don’t worry, don’t worry. What was that myth you wanted to share?”

“Okay, okay. So, once upon a time…”

“...”

“...please don’t laugh. I’m not good at telling stories.”

“My bad, my bad. Please continue, Ge ge.”

“Okaaaay… Well, a long time ago, one of my kind fell in love with a human.”

“Oh?”

“But, you see, merfolk live a very, very long time. So as she watched on, the human she loved bloomed and withered.”

“Like a flower.”

“Yes, exactly like a flower.”

“Is that how you see humans, Ge ge?”

“Mn… I think, sometimes, yes. But you and your kind can accomplish more than you think.”

“Really? You think so?”

“Of course! You pass your knowledge on, from parent to child, and you build and build, bit by bit, until you have something astounding.”

“Ah, Ge ge thinks well of humans, then.”

“...do you not?”

“...you called us flowers. I would say we’re more like bugs.”

“...Ah, I suppose that makes sense, too.”

“How does the story end, Ge ge?”

“I already kind of told you the ending... The human she fell in love with died, and the mermaid was driven to madness.

“She tore out her scales, screamed her throat raw, and shed so many tears it turned the ocean salty.

“But she sang and screamed so fiercely and passionately, the magic wove into the very sky and earth.

“Each of her tears became a star, and each of her scales became children, the birth of the rest of the merfolk.

“Through her loss, my kind was born, or so the story goes.

“She had always been alone. And the human she met had been the only thing to fill that void.

“Then, the human died, without much mention. Not even the story itself pays the human any mind.

“In the end, only the mermaid cared.

“The ending is supposed to be happy, because she was able to paint the sky with stars, and her children filled and ruled the ocean.

“But I’ve always found it a sad story.”

“Because they were both alone in the end?”

“Yes… San Lang, I’m rambling, aren’t I? I’m sorry. I’m probably boring you.”

“No, Ge ge. Not at all. I can see why you’d think it was sad… but at least they cared for one another.”

“You think so?”

“Mhm. And, if you don’t like the ending, it’s just a story. Why don’t you change the end?”

“...change the ending?”

“Yeah. In the end, the story only exists because someone told it. The mermaid and the human only exist because the story exists.

“So, if you just change the ending when you tell it, isn’t that basically giving them a happy ending?”

“I’d never thought of it like that.”

“Ge ge, what kind of ending do you want?”

Chapter Text

Slowly, Xie Lian’s life returned to its old rhythm, as though San Lang had never existed. The reminders of him faded, turning to dust with the passage of time, until not one thing to remember him by remained. Xie Lian sometimes wondered if he’d imagined the meeting, the person, just to fill the gnawing hole in him.

He didn’t know how many years, how many decades, might have passed. Without a human at his side, the passage of time was irrelevant.

“I’ll come back for you.”

No matter what, those words refused to leave Xie Lian. He tried to shake them off as a pipe dream, a hopeless fantasy. It wasn’t worth clinging to, not when any shred of happiness given to him made it all the more painful when it was gone. It was better to keep one’s expectations low. You couldn’t miss what you didn’t know, after all.

He shook his head, trying to focus on the school of fish swimming ahead. They were faster than him, of course, so he had to be careful not to spook them if he wanted anything to fill his stomach. Unfortunately, he snapped his tail a bit too forcefully, disturbed the water a bit too much, and the school of fish scattered in hundreds of directions before Xie Lian could manage to sink his clawed nails into a single one.

His sighed and wondered if he should just give up on eating for the day, or maybe he could dig around in the mud for some kind of mollusk.

That was when he noticed an odd shadow in the water, accompanied by the blurry outline of something running from the ocean floor to its surface. He squinted, trying to make out what it might be, but it was too distant.

It was large, he knew that much.

Curiosity—a chance to break the monotone—overtook him, and his hollow stomach forgotten, he carefully made his way towards the shadow. Still, he proceeded with some caution. He kept to the ocean floor, where it would be easier to hide, and he spared a few cursory glances over his shoulder to ensure he wasn’t being stalked by another potential threat.

When he drew near enough, he noticed a few things. First, the thing only swayed with the currently minutely; otherwise, it was actually more stationary than anything that long and thin had any right to be under the sea’s tugging and pulling. Second, as he drew even nearer, he could practically taste the sharp, unfamiliar minerals of metal in the water. It wasn’t made of anything from around here, and that fact, coupled with the unnatural shape, could only mean that it was something humans had made.

He finally stopped swimming a close distance from it before he started curiously circling the metal structure. It had a thick metal base, with four offshoots that had dug themselves deep into the ocean floor. At its top, a metal chain snaked up through the water to meet a much larger shadow, high above the floor and close to the water’s surface.

An anchor, his mind supplied, the part that still remembered all the things San Lang had told him about sailing. It moores the ship, to prevent it from drifting off at sea.

He shook his head. A ship? But why? All the ships that Xie Lian had seen in the cove were small, barely wide enough to accommodate two or three people and a modest haul of fish. To need an anchor of this size, the ship it was connected to wouldn’t even compare. It had to be massive.

But what would such a large ship be doing all the way out here? As far as Xie Lian knew, there was only a small fishing village nearby. He hadn’t grown so apathetic to the passage of time that he’d completely missed the humans shooting so far ahead in their advancements, had he?

He glanced around the water, but no, the ship had no nets cast, which was even stranger still. What would humans need for a ship if not to fish?

Come to think of it, it’d been some time since Xie Lian had even seen a net in the cove. Exactly how much had changed without him noticing? He would admit, he wasn’t the most observant, nor had he particularly cared up until now… but it was still a curiosity.

Taking a moment to weigh his options (deciding, eh, he was bored; what was the worst that could happen?), he shot himself upwards with a few snaps of his tail, following the chain’s path up to that shadow at the surface.

As he approached, he could make out more and more details, starting with the little crustaceans that had made the ship’s hull their home and growing clearer and clearer until even the grain of the wood was visible. Xie Lian stopped just under it, glancing around to make sure he was still safe, then hesitantly swimming to one side to parallel the curve of the ship’s hull upwards and towards the surface.

For the first time in a long time, his head broke the surface of the water.

It was night, and the air stung at his throat. He could breathe it, but he wasn’t originally built for it, and he’d grown far too used to the familiarity and ease of being underwater. There hadn’t been a point to surface until now, but he was regretting letting the parts of him that could breathe air fall into such disuse while his gills did most of the heavy lifting.

He took a few moments, a few breaths, to acclimate himself again. The discomfort grew more and more distant, his lungs slowly figuring out how to inhale and exhale once again. He traced the grain of the hull’s wood, the water gently lapping at it, and listened for any sound that might tell him why the ship was here or who was on it.

Voices. Those were the first thing he noticed, many merry voices and words tangling through one another into an impossibly incomprehensible garble. Xie Lian could make a word out here and there, but not much more than that.

Still…. It was nice to hear voices again. Even his own would’ve been welcome if that were still at all possible.

Curiosity (loneliness, another part of him whispered) got the better of him. The ship’s deck wasn’t too far from the surface of the water, so Xie Lian dipped back under only to propel himself upwards, high enough to where he could grasp the edge of a dip in the railing. He hoisted himself up part way, just so he could see over the edge and peer into what might be going on.

As he thought, there were many people on the ship. Only… they were a more grotesque sight than he’d been expecting. Most of them had unnatural, ashen hued skin. Some did not have skin, missing it in large chunks, but their flesh was too dried and rotten to bleed. Many others were missing eyes, parts of their skulls, limbs, fingers, holes in their torsos—if a body part could be seen, someone was missing it.

It’s a ghost ship!

They weren’t human at all, but Xie Lian had forgotten. Without his voice, he’d be completely blind to malevolent auras, unable to sense them in the slightest. His one saving grace was that, without a voice, there was no noise of shock or horror for him to contain.

He was about to let go of the edge, to drop back into the water and high tail it the hell away, when a silver butterfly landed on his hand.

“Ge ge?”

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—someone—much, much warmer.

Chapter Text

“Ge ge?”

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.

Oh.

Oh no.

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?”

Um.

Well.

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.”

‘A year?!’

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.

But… this…

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.