Two figures walked down the beach side by side. Their steps matched with little effort, both of them moving in unison as if they were two halves of a whole. One wore a bright red vest and dark-colored pants tied with golden silk ribbon, while the other was clad in a hooded cloak as pure white as fresh snow.
Behind them, the sun danced on the water's surface, igniting the crystalline blue in streaks and flashes of crimson. Fire and ice existing beside one another, silhouetting the two companions.
Their steps slowed as they reached the middle of the beach, and the one in the cloak pulled off his hood. A breeze slid past, tossing his hair, and the silvery-blue strands glimmered as if they were spun from fine ocean spray. He took in a deep breath, his eyes slipping closed as the familiar taste of salt settled on his tongue.
A sharp laugh sounded from beside him, breaking the tranquil moment.
"Finally. I thought you were never going to take that dumb thing off! You know there's no point, now, right?"
Ao Bing's gaze flicked to the side. A smile sat on his lips, but something troubled rested in his eyes. "I know. It's… just a habit," he informed.
The man next to him strolled with his arms across his chest, a mischievous glint in his wide brown eyes.
"Oh. I thought maybe you were still feeling guilty. Because the whole town knows who you are, now. And what you tried to do."
Ao Bing winced at the blunt statement. "Nezha…" he groaned, as if he'd been punched in the stomach. The words were true, and his friend was really only teasing, but that didn't make it any easier to handle. He would rather forget that day, if he could.
Nezha quirked a brow. "And they don't care . Really. I used to do shit like that every week. Sometimes twice . They all screamed and kicked up a fuss, but they got over it every time. They're used to it by now."
Ao Bing didn't respond. He stared down at the sand as they walked, a million little grains smooshed under the white soles of his boots. He shivered, even as the sun glowed warm across his shoulders.
"You promise you're not leaving because you're running away from it, right?" Nezha stared up at him with a frown. Even grown out of his childish form, Nezha was still just an inch shorter. The slight angle only made him seem more vulnerable. It was a side of himself that Nezha always tried to conceal with too loud laughter and overly energetic joking.
The tide slid across the shore, drawing within inches of their feet before slipping back. Every time it did, it felt as if it was beckoning Ao Bing home. This beach tied him here, though. It was where he had played with Nezha the day they had met. His first and only friend.
"I promise," he stated solemnly, resting his hand over his heart. He would never run from Nezha. It had been over a year since he had died at his side, and they had been together for every day of it.
They had worked tirelessly to regain their physical bodies. Months and months of cultivation and teamwork. They had occupied the same tiny space together, sometimes existing as simple energy, sometimes taking the forms that their souls dictated. Both of them had grown up lonely, so the constant presence of the other, the familiarity, quickly became a comfort. And neither wanted to be alone after all that they had faced.
When they finally regained physical form, there was a sudden distance between them that neither enjoyed. So they stuck with each other like glue. Ao Bing had stayed with Nezha, quickly and graciously accepted by the other's parents, despite everything.
Even being apart to sleep felt strange, so they started to share a bed. Every night, Nezha would fall asleep with Ao Bing nearly wrapped around him, soaking in his warmth. His companion was clingy when he slept; not that Nezha minded. Ao Bing's skin always felt so cool and soothing against his, keeping him from overheating in his sleep. He didn't know how he'd ever managed without.
But now, Ao Bing was leaving.
It had been over a year since the young dragon prince had failed in the mission that would ultimately free his people. It had been over a year since he had stood before his father. None of his family likely even knew if he was alive, and had been left not knowing for too long. As much as he wanted to stay with Nezha, as much as he feared returning to face his people as a failure, there was no avoiding it.
Ao Bing stared out over the waves. That was his home, not here. It couldn't be here.
A sharp elbow to his ribs left him coughing, but it yanked him out of his melancholic thoughts.
"Don't get all mopey on me," Nezha grumbled, shooting him a look. "I'm not happy about this either." He glared down at the sand, kicking at it and watching it spray into the water. "You know… This place can be your home, too, right? You can have more than one. My parents adore you, so you're always welcome to come back and stay with me."
The quiet words, full of hidden begging, thawed some of the stubborn ice around Ao Bing's heart. Even with such an honest invitation, though, he couldn't help but feel nervous.
"Are you certain? I attacked them that day," he reminded. They had warmed up to him easily enough with Nezha's rather stubborn insistence. But would they welcome him back after he returned from visiting his family? Would they still welcome him at dinner? Would they play shuttlecock with him in the courtyard, as if he was part of their family? Or would they distrust him all over again? Would they fear that he would try something dangerous again, that he would harm Nezha? The thought stung, but it was a possibility. He was a dragon, and dragons could not be trusted.
Nezha shrugged off the question like it was no big deal. "I attacked them, too. Look, things were a mess that day and we both went a little crazy. But it's fine, now, it's fine."
As much as Ao Bing wanted to listen, to just forget about the whole thing and let it go, he couldn't. No matter what Nezha said, he wasn't accepted here. His secret was known by everyone in the village. He was a dragon, not a human. Every single time he walked through the streets with his hood down, the people eyed his horns and whispered, distrust clear in their eyes. Even the few that smiled showed clear strain in their expressions. Soon enough, he started to wear his hood up, again, hiding as much of himself as he could. It was expected. He was a dragon, and dragons were so much like monsters.
"I just don't want them to be afraid of me," Ao Bing admitted. Nezha's parents, the villagers, anyone . He was meant to be accepted as a hero. He was supposed to save people, not terrify them. Automatically, his hands moved to his hood, fingers wrapping around the edges. "I don't want to be judged for what I am. And I don't want my people judged for what I tried to do."
Nezha remained silent, and although Ao Bing was looking away, he felt the intensity of his companion's gaze resting upon him. Both of them knew the fear of judgement, and the strain of having to face it constantly.
"It doesn't matter what they think," Nezha said at last, his voice quiet. There was a stubborn determination, though. The same that had urged Ao Bing to challenge his fate to the bitter end. "You're a good person. Even if you're a dragon, so what? You're still good . And if anyone wants to think otherwise, then screw them!" Nezha jabbed his finger into the air, as if challenging the world.
It wasn't that easy, but his words still coaxed forth a flicker of warmth in Ao Bing's chest. He loosened his grip on his hood, allowing his hands to drift back to his sides. If no one else ever trusted him, or thought of him as anything more than a monster or a traitor, he would always have Nezha. His literal other half. No matter what, he would never face his troubles alone. And if that's all that he ever had in the world, just this one beloved friend, then it was enough.
Ao Bing opened his mouth to thank him, but Nezha cut him off.
"Besides. They're cute."
Ao Bing nearly tripped, arms out, kicking up sand as he regained his balance. "Wh-what!?" he gasped, bright blue eyes going wide.
Nezha strolled a few steps, his hands stuffed in his pockets. He stopped when he realized that Ao Bing wasn't following, and glanced over his shoulder. He arched a brow. "Your horns. They're cute," he stated, cocking his head with a grin.
Ao Bing's cheeks burned. He looked away, biting back the urge to hide behind his sleeves. "Th-they are not…" he muttered. "They're strange. I look human in all other aspects, but…" Well, aside from his blue hair and pointed ears.
"Yeah? And?" Nezha rolled his eyes and held out his arms, waving them up and down. "I have six arms when I feel like it. Neither of us are normal. Fuck normal."
All that Ao Bing could do was shake his head, as if that would knock his disordered thoughts back into place. His heart crashed against his ribs like a wild tide. He knew that his goodbye wouldn't be easy, but he hadn't expected all of this. He was working himself up into a mess. So many things that he had stuffed below the surface, hidden away with his scales and his claws, were being dragged up by Nezha.
And to say that his horns were cute … Nezha liked to get him riled, but this was so much like something else. Like… like flirting .
It left him so off-kilter, so focused on calming himself, that he didn't even notice Nezha drawing closer. Long, crafty fingers traced down the gentle curve of a horn, stroking along its velvety softness. Ao Bing's breath caught in his throat. A shiver ran through him, and he instinctively pulled away, staring at Nezha with wide eyes.
Surprise flickered over Nezha's features, but it only took a moment for them to settle back into something scheming. "What? Sensitive?" he asked with a smirk.
With absolute certainty, Ao Bing knew that he would be teased about this later. However long it took him to return from the sea…
He drew into himself a little, his voice dropping to a murmur. "They were to be removed. After I established myself as a hero." It was offered to him like a reward, and he accepted it entirely as that. Do what was required of him, and the shameful things would be removed. He was never told to be proud of his heritage. Instead, it was something to hide. Every single part of it. Keep it concealed. Hide it away for your own good. For the good of your people. Everything that makes you one of them must be hidden.
Soon enough, he had started to hide his horns not only out of necessity, but out of shame. Soon enough, he stopped standing before his own people, his own father, in his true form. He stopped standing before them as a dragon, and did so instead as a human, even if it made him look so small. He was a poor approximation of a human, though. Until his horns were gone, he was trapped between two worlds, bearing the marks of both but truly belonging to neither. It was misery.
A hand cupped his chin, drawing his attention back. He looked up, the cool blue of his eyes meeting Nezha's. That bright brown often burned a deep mahogany, crackling with fury and determination. Right now, there was only a gentle warmth that shook Ao Bing more than any of Nezha's fiery stares.
"Don't be ashamed. Not around anyone. And definitely not around me," Nezha murmured.
Ao Bing bit his lip, but he didn't dare look away. He… he wanted to be proud of who he was. He wanted to be able to accept that part of himself, and to stand before his people as a proper dragon prince. It was not so easy, though. Every time he left the sea and shed his scales, that delicate desire shattered like brittle ice.
Nezha pulled him closer, hands cupping Ao Bing's cheeks as he pressed their foreheads together. The gesture was more intimate than anything they had ever shared, and it made Ao Bing draw in a sharp breath.
"I'll always accept you, okay? Even when you're a big dumb noodle."
A laugh burst out of Ao Bing. He blinked the tears from his eyes, uncertain if they were from joy or relief or maybe both. He knew that never, in all of his life, and maybe not even in the days of his ancestors, had any dragon ever been called a "big dumb noodle" to it's face. Only Nezha would do something like that. His dear Nezha.
He couldn't stop laughing, growing breathless until he could hold back no longer. Fine. He was a big dumb noodle. Right now, it didn't seem to make him feel so nervous. He didn't make Nezha turn around, as he requested those few rare times that he changed. He let his control slip, and it felt like letting out a breath that he hadn't realized he was holding.
Silvery scales glittered in the setting sun, each flickering like a single fish in a bright, shifting school. The wind still tossed his hair, still light blue, but shorter now, a mane spanning the long length of his spine. Fearsome talons dug into the sand, rivaled in sharpness only by his teeth. There were only the faintest echoes of his human self as he assumed his true form. He was a dragon, a being to be feared.
When Ao Bing opened his eyes to look at his companion, those were the only thing that remained the same. Nezha was still pressed close, not having stepped back even as he changed. His hands rested on either side of Ao Bing's face, holding him with that extraordinary gentleness.
He nuzzled his snout against Nezha in silent gratitude. He still felt traces of nervousness skittering beneath his scales, he still felt uncertain in this form that he had been born in, but Nezha held him steady. Those warm hands stroked down the length of his face as if he was something precious.
"You know," Nezha murmured. "It's pretty badass having a dragon for a boyfriend."
Ao Bing's eyes widened, and his claws curled into the sand. He pulled away just enough to look at Nezha properly.
"But-- I'm not--"
"A dragon?" Nezha arched a brow. He blew out a puff of air, all confidence and cockiness. "Of course you are. Just look at yourself. Total badass dragon."
Ao Bing closed his eyes and drew in a deep breath. Nezha knew what he'd meant. No amount of joking around could erase what had just been said.
And he didn't want to erase it.
He wanted to be with Nezha.
He shouldn't be surprised, really; they had spent so long in the lotus together, stripped down to two bare souls with only each other for company. They knew each other better than they knew themselves, at this point. And there wasn't anyone else that he wished to share that with. There wasn't anyone else that he would have wanted to be trapped with.
There was no one else that he wanted to spend the rest of his life with.
They had far surpassed "best friend". At this point, even "boyfriend" seemed a little like an understatement. He loved Nezha, and Nezha loved him. No matter his form, Nezha loved him. If all of the rest of the world despised him, then so be it. This was more than he could ever ask for.
Finally, Nezha looked up at him, and that teasing gaze turned mournful. It made him look like a child again, the one who cried on the beach because someone had bothered to play with him. How sweetly painful a thing, simple acceptance. Ao Bing now fully understood why his dear friend had cried that day.
"I know that you have to go," Nezha muttered, pouting a little. "And I know you don't know when you'll be back. But I just said all of that sappy stuff… I just… Don't keep me waiting too long! Okay?"
Before Ao Bing could reply, Nezha surged forward and pressed their lips together. Or, the closest that Ao Bing had to lips, at the moment. Not that he was too concerned with differences in anatomy. Right now, there was nothing but the warm softness of a mouth against his, and the roar of the sea in his ears.
His first kiss ever, and he had received it not as a human, but as his true self. Something about that…
He wanted to wrap his entire body around Nezha and never let go. He couldn't quite figure out how to kiss back, but he pressed close all the same.
They had to pull away eventually, though, and when they did, he noted with embarrassment that he had actually tried to wrap around Nezha. His tail curved around until it could wrap up Nezha's leg, the tufted tip reaching his waist.
It would be difficult to hug any other way when he was in this form, he supposed. And Nezha didn't seem to mind.
When they broke the kiss, Nezha's eyes glittered with tears. Neither of the two wanted to be parted, but there was no helping it. Ao Bing had to return home. Reluctantly, he unwound himself and took a few steps back, his head down.
"I will return as soon as I can. You have my word," he vowed. "And…" He lifted his head, taking a deep breath as he stood at his full height. The ocean wind tossed his mane, and in that moment he looked every bit as regal as a dragon prince should. "And when I return, I promise that I will wear this form with pride."
Nezha gave a pleased nod, wiping the dampness from his eyes. "You fucking better , you stupid noodle." He gave Ao Bing's shoulder a hard punch.
The stupid noodle gave a snort and headbutted his companion, sending him nearly toppling. "Hmm. What was it that your mother called you? A meatball? Of course then, you silly little meatball," he teased.
"That's it!" Nezha clenched his fists and shoved Ao Bing into the lapping tide. "Get out of here! Go!"
Even as Nezha scolded, Ao Bing knew that he was merely trying to cover the pain, like quickly ripping off a bandage.
"Okay, okay, I'm going!" he said with a laugh. Any longer of a goodbye, and it would only be harder for them both. He took a few more steps into the tide, the water cool against his scales. He had been away for so long, had scorned it at times, but there was no more denying that it felt like home.
He looked over his shoulder. One last look at Nezha. One last look at the one who had also become his sense of "home".
Sometimes they didn't need words. All they needed was a simple look to know the other's heart. Ao Bing didn't need to speak right now for Nezha to know what he wished to say.
I'll be back, my love.
He would return. He had found Nezha, and now he would always return to him. Whatever it takes.
Nezha watched as his first and closest friend disappeared beneath the waves. He stood there watching even as the water settled back into its tidal rhythm. Dragon or human, he loved Ao Bing. He would love him until Ao Bing learned to love himself. Whatever it takes. He would fight to free him from his chains. The ones in his heart, and the ones that awaited him in the future.
Whatever it takes.