There's a sliver of black in the grey waters as they thrash. It catches Zhao Yunlan's eye in the weak dawn, and he moves forward, closer to the edge of the cliffs.
Maybe it was only a shadow.
He's been to these cliffs before. A long time ago. His ship crashed ashore, to this place with scant remnants of life, and he'd wandered lost for days, until finally he'd found the roads to towns, to people again.
Here he was, again. The water just as unwelcoming, dull and dark and twisting like it was hungry.
Zhao Yunlan thinks he sees a flash of white, of shining silver, coming up through the waves. But then it's gone again, and he blames it on some stray beam of sunlight breaking through the clouds and reflecting.
A few days later, Zhao Yunlan is back, with a ship waiting for him in the nearby harbor, along with a crew. He doesn't know what compels him, but he goes to those barren cliffs again, sits in the dark under the night sky. There aren't even stars to look up on. Just the dark blanketing them from above, the weakest hints of moonlight behind grayish clouds, the only thing just barely keeping the black sea distinct from the land and sky. He brought a lantern, but it only illuminates his seat at the cliff side, the tiny space around him. If he were to stroll too broad, leap without looking, he could easily tumble into the waves below. But there's something about this place--
It is not alive. It is perhaps the opposite. With nothing as far as the eye can see, with cliffs that even under the daytime sunlight Zhao Yunlan knows are only rocks, no life able to take hold and dig its roots into this place.
There's something familiar about that.
And so, he goes to sit there, one last time before he departs. As if somehow the world -- this place -- might speak to him, tell him why it is this place with nothing in it, reminds him of home.
In the darkness, he hears a voice.
Zhao Yunlan is moving faster than he can take in the light of his lantern, not knowing precisely what he stumbles against until he makes contact with it, moving on instinct. It isn't hard to climb down the rocks, down the path he'd taken up, it's like some part of him from some time long ago still remembers. Then he's by the shore. And he worries that singing might stop, cut out, if he walks closer too fast, too loud.
So he sets down his lantern, amidst the trees near the bottom of the cliffs. Well aware he's about to walk forward in the dark, may not even know when he hits the water until he feels it sweeping across his legs. Maybe it will pull him under, out to sea.
Maybe the voice he heard wasn't a song, but screaming. An echo of his own future, come to call him out and take him. Maybe it's not that he remembers this place, but that it calls out for him. Zhao Yunlan can hear a gentle melody, carrying on the wind, at odds with the breaking of the water on the shore, the crashing of waves.
He treads slower, careful as he can be to move softly, like a cat, like he practiced growing up to get around and away from people like his father. He can't see the shore, but the sound is louder. The song sounds like nothing he's ever heard.
But its also--
It sounds like things he's heard before. Words he's spewed out, last time he was here in this place, back when he washed up here. But gentler, in a different cadence, made into a rhythm, added to other words, other phrases, he doesn't think he ever said. Someone repeating him, repeating others, who must have been here the first time Zhao Yunlan was.
Who never said hello! Made Zhao Yunlan think he was the only person in all of the world, alone, afraid even if he'd never show it -- all because of this stranger wanting to keep themselves hidden. Zhao Yunlan wishes he could get a better look. He stumbles, then, and at the sound of a rock shifted the voice cuts out. All that's left is the winds whirling, the crashing of waves, and then a louder splash. Someone running away.
Zhao Yunlan gives chase. But he ends up knee deep in the water, shouting out, and no one answers.
No more singing, or sounds of water being disturbed from its natural path. Just him, wondering again if it was the water itself that called to him. If he was imagining the words from the sound of the waves shifting.
"Is anyone out there? I heard you!" He shouts, the wind drowning him out. His legs are growing numb with cold. "Were you there, the day I was alone? Why didn't you stay? Where are you?" There is nothing, but the waves crashing against him. "Are you still there?"
Zhao Yunlan can't delay any further, and his ship sets sail. He has on board a man named Chu Shuzhi, who's just a bit peculiar. But then, all of his crew isn't exactly the most ordinary of sorts, so he leaves it be. Chu Shuzhi said he could handle rough work, and grumbles but minds himself, so he's already more reliable than Lin Jing and his haphazard navigating. Zhu Hong worries at first, of a new member on board, but Zhao Yunlan assures her that anyone who'd do harm he would take out long before he'd allow them to set foot on deck.
"That's not what I mean, Captain," she says, gaze cold. "Something feels off about him. Like he's not human."
Zhao Yunlan just laughs. "What are you, a witch?" She glares at him, unblinking. "What, you think he's some kind of monster? Do you know how ridiculous that sounds?"
She slaps him hard, on the arm, and he gets the impression she'd rather it was his face and stupid mouth she'd struck. "Be like that, then. I'm just warning you something is wrong. Ignore me if you want. But if we lose members of this crew because of you--"
"We won't," he says, voice hardening. "I promise."
Zhu Hong is new to the open sea -- her uncle always sheltered her, in some ways the opposite of his own family that might as well have thrown him to the wolves. But she'd begged him, to come. To see the world.
When he'd washed up on these shores, her village had been the first people he'd seen. Civilization again, Zhu Hong offering him, a total stranger, a place to stay and food to eat. When he'd came back, months later, passing through on his way to a job and a life back on the other side of the water. She'd demanded. He owed her, she said. Really, he knew she didn't care about things like that.
Her eyes had shone with the kind of light, like Zhao Yunlan was a shooting star she'd happened upon by chance, and now she was casting her one great wish. To be more than she could ever be here, to find the rest of this great world. For him to take her. Let her. When no one else could, when there might never be another traveler who made her smile, and breathe out deep and content as if in the presence of something safe, even if it was a stranger to her.
So he took her along.
Maybe he should have asked more about her life, before him. But she only looked to the future, would probably snap if he tried to push her back into the past.
"Zhao Yunlan," she said, her tone matching his in severity. "This voyage is not going to be smooth."
He wanted to laugh, tell her of course it wouldn't be -- because it was her first, and she'd be tied up in knots as the first storms hit, as the crew she'd only just met began to grate on her in close quarters. But the way she looked back at him, he almost felt like she knew something he couldn't sense for himself. So instead, he nodded.
Zhu Hong was right.
The first night, barely off the coast, a storm hits. The wind is howling and it puts Da Qing on edge, and Zhao Yunlan could swear there's a voice mingled in with the sound. Not that he could tell Da Qing -- how could he admit that he thinks, somehow, the sea is trying to call him to his doom? That he might have been here before, or maybe it's where he'll return. In the end. It would only give his crew heart attacks. Or motive to throw him overboard to spare the rest.
They aren't the only ship out at sea in the area, and another goes down. Zhao Yunlan tries his best to grab hold of some of the stragglers drifting on bits left behind, and Chu Shuzhi is a great help. They end up fishing out one survivor -- a young man named Guo Changcheng, who might as well be a boy, and shakes like a twig when they drag him on board and wrap him in a blanket. The storm is dying down, the waves less tumultuous, but still the sky and sea are dark. There aren't any other bodies they can find to fish out. Guo Changcheng is alone. The cook gives him something to eat, and Chu Shuzhi helps Da Qing drag the guy inside a cabin below. Zhao Yunlan stays on the deck, watching the night settle in even darker around them, something telling him inside that things aren't over.
Zhu Hong stubbornly remains beside him, her sharp eyes gazing out, as if she can see into the blackness that which he cannot.
Eventually though, she succumbs to her exhaustion, and her head falls against his shoulder. Asleep against him, where they sit. Zhao Yunlan feels his own tiredness creeping up on him, making his eyelids heavy as he keeps forcing them open, to look out at an unchanging darkness. He thinks maybe, if he could wait just until dawn breaks, then he would be content. Then he will call Da Qing out to take over instead, and go get some rest.
But then he hears it, again, that voice.
Zhao Yunlan jolts to his feet, adjusting Zhu Hong as an afterthought -- she mumbles something in her sleep, but easily resettles. He knows it doesn't make sense, that it can't be a voice. That even if it is, the chance he's losing his mind is far greater than any possibility the sea itself is trying to speak to him.
He moves toward the sound that might as well be in his head, rationality wondering if it's another survivor of the recent wreckage, instinct screaming at him that somehow it probably isn't. The noise is coming from the back of the ship, and when he draws near, the sound has stopped.
He sees a body.
It is curled up on the wooden floor, sopping wet, long black hair tangled and draped around them in a pool. Zhao Yunlan draws closer, feeling his own heart beating.
The body shifts, and a beautiful face, delicate features, is looking up at him. Eyes darker than anything around them, drowning out the sea and sky. Zhao Yunlan can't move, staring back.
The stranger opens their lips. Instead of that voice, that strange singing Zhao Yunlan is now certain, somehow, was this man -- there is a scream.
Harsh and raw, like water clearing away and air flooding the lungs, that gaze never breaking from his own.
It is worse than the howling winds from the earlier storm, and it chills Zhao Yunlan's bones with a strange kind of fear the threat of the sea taking him never does. He has no idea what to do.
So he reaches out, and clings onto the stranger, holding him.
"It's okay. It's going to be okay."
The body in his arms shudders, the scream dropping off, it's echo swallowed by the vastness of the world around them, and then instead Zhao Yunlan hears muffled sobs. Arms cling to him in return, holding on like he is the only land to find steadiness on, and this stranger cries softly against his chest.
Once upon a time, he found a body in the water. Drifting, quiet, it's eyes closed. He almost ate it.
But something in him was curious, and so instead he grabbed hold, and kept it upright on the surface. Felt its weak breaths coming out of soft lips, it's limbs cold from the water, and so he curled around it to keep it warm. The body was alone, when so often he had seen bodies with partners, friends, companions and parties, swallowed up and taken by the sea. Maybe once, this body had been with others, and was all that remains.
He had taken the body with him, to find somewhere to set him down to rest. And the body had started talking.
Quiet, intangible things. But his voice was pretty. So he listened, and wondered how to mimic it. How to sound like wonder, like beauty, instead of pain. He found a place to set the body down, a desolate spot on shore where people would not bother them. Then he swam out -- enough to keep sight of the body, should it need saving, but far enough, perhaps, to keep that body from waking at the noise. Then he tried to sound like those words he heard. But all that came out was screeching.
He can't teach a dolphin to shout like a seagull, he can't even approach either of those -- only watch them from a distance, and wonder. He can't teach himself to sound like this stranger either. He must be different. Whatever he is, that body must be a different creature altogether. Something he can never be. Even if the body has such an inviting face, even if the limbs seem to stretch out a similar length, the weight a familiar drag in the water to his own. He is still not the same. He can make sounds that aren't screeching, he can walk on land. He can probably do other things with bodies, besides devour them.
Still, he tries to copy the sounds anyway. Even though some things can never be.
The body is gone, one day, and he cannot follow.
He remembers the body had said so many things, to itself. In fevered dreams on the shore, on the rocks, tossing and healing and perhaps fighting for awareness. The body had even shouted, a few times, coherent enough to gaze out at the dark, angry at its circumstance. So the body was capable of violence. So maybe he could, eventually, find other traits it shared with him.
But then, one day, the body was gone.
Maybe he should have kept it injured, gotten it to stay longer. But all things change, and one day it was going to walk away regardless. That was for the best.
Better than other bodies that had crossed lives with him.
He was in the body's arms. The man he saw, long ago. The man was warm. So much warmer than the water that always held him.
"It's okay," that steady voice said to him, again, holding him on a soft surface, in an enclosed space with gentle light in the corner illuminating his tumbled hair, the contours of his face, the stubble of hair across his skin. "You're safe now."
Nothing in this world is safe. Least of all, what finds itself near him.
He dares to look up, again, and this man's face is a revelation now, animated and free, warm and alive. Healthy and resilient, like the man had never run into him before. Never been nearly destroyed. Weakened by things meant to drag the life from him.
The man's lips curve up, and it is oddly comforting, there's a warmth spreading inside his chest at the sight. As if expression alone has the power to touch him so intimately. It is a wonder, he can't bear to look away again, and yet he is afraid. Of what unfathomable thing may happen if he doesn't.
"What's your name?" That steady voice asks him, enticing as the sunlight beckoning him to the surface on a clear day. He opens his mouth to speak before he thinks better of it, realizes how pointless it would be.
How do you tell someone: 'I wished on a star to see you, and somehow now I have'? How do you tell a creature, you were never meant to know, who is at once breathtaking and fragile, that you never thought you would get this far. That you thought he had already died, like they all do. Like you never will.
How do you say anything at all, when you don't have the power to do what he does? Because you aren't the same. He shakes his head, finally breaking his gaze away.
It must be enough. Enough to be in his arms, the way this man was once in his. To be saved, in return. Maybe this is the only reason it was allowed, that it could happen.
He stares down at his legs, at the cloth the man has draped around him. That there are no scales anymore. That the water in his lungs had burned, had choked, until he'd coughed it out on this ship. There is no reason for any of this, and yet he'd like it to last for however long is possible.
"It's okay," the man says again, "you don't need to tell me your name. All you need to do, is get some rest." A rough rhythmic sound comes out, and yet it also makes his chest feel warm at hearing it. "I'm Zhao Yunlan. The captain of this ship. I'll take care of you. I promise."
Despite himself, despite knowing the disaster it will cause, he opens his lips again. "...Yunlan. Zhao... Yunlan."
The sound is wrong, it's too sharp, uneven, and the gentlest parts are swallowed up by something darker he will never be able to mask.
But that man - Zhao Yunlan - smiles, his teeth showing and dimples appearing at the side, and he feels it was still worth saying the sounds. Even if he can't ever be what this man is.
New legs won't change that. He remembers holding this man, comparing himself, and just like a similar face cannot guarantee a comparable voice, neither can this new body promise anything. Trading water for air, one kind of creature for another. But still not the same as whatever this man is.
"Zhao Yunlan," he says again, more confident this time, and that gentle rumbling noise from Zhao Yunlan comes again. Makes him want to try to turn his lips up in return, let Zhao Yunlan know he likes it.
Zhao Yunlan is still holding him, and hands move to brush through his long hair so that it's no longer hanging in front of his face, hiding him. "There we go."
He wants to look away, too seen, too easy to recognize as something that shouldn't belong here. With Zhao Yunlan. But instead, he stays still, keeps looking back, let's himself smile and feel the pressure in his chest unravel as Zhao Yunlan's expression continues to mirror his own.
Maybe he could belong, his foolish mind begs.
But when the sun rises, and the light grows bigger, there will eventually come a time whe he can no longer lie to himself.
"Th-thank you." He has heard so many people, on so many ships and shores. Zhao Yunlan was the first one that made him truly dare to join them. Even he isn't certain why.
Perhaps, he was tired of always drifting alone.
And seeing Zhao Yunlan alone too, he dared to dream there might be a person out there, anyone, who would understand. No one will.
Even if he tries, with all his might, to be like Zhao Yunlan. He never will be quite the same.
These wobbling legs beneath him, are not the gift they appear to be. They're something else. And he can feel, inside, his stomach churning already, and knows this meeting cannot last forever.
He will have to leave, for Zhao Yunlan's sake.
"Th-" He tries to say it again, but arms are enveloping him. Crushing him into that chest, more inviting than any embrace from the water.
"Like I said, you're safe now." Zhao Yunlan is holding him up, the way he did for this man once, and he doesn't even know the weight he is truly carrying. What this means. "You stay here, and get some rest. I'll come check on you later, okay?"
He holds on for as long as Zhao Yunlan does, trying to memorize the feeling, the action. In case it is the last.
When Zhao Yunlan pulls away, he still sits beside him, as if waiting for something.
He stares back.
It is a gift to see Zhao Yunlan in the light like this, so close, all his. It is something he cannot keep.
"Okay," he finally responds, watching unceasingly as Zhao Yunlan finally draws himself up and disappears.