Li opened his eyes and squinted at the endless blue sky above him. Not a single cloud marred it; the sun beamed, his frail, thin skin practically sizzling with the heat of it. Salt pervaded his senses; his mouth tasted of it, it was all he could smell. The ground -- if he could call it that -- was jagged and rough, digging into the bare skin of his back; of his legs.
“How’s it feel to be back, Li?”
Li closed his eyes and let the brief flicker of darkness consume him. <i>Where are you?</i> he thought, grimacing as he tried to pull his arms closer to him. Something weighed them down. Or maybe tied them in place. He couldn’t tell; there was a bite to one of his wrists, one that throbbed and wouldn’t let go.
“Where are you?” he repeated out loud, knowing damn well that the person who’d spoken had heard his thoughts before. He could sense her; the darkness that surrounded her, the desperation and pride.
“Wouldn’t <i>you</i> like to know?” The voice was closer this time; coming from above him.
Li opened his eyes. Black swirled through his vision and disappeared, leaving nothing but sky. This time, when Li pulled his arms closer to him, the resistance gave way. Slowly, he pushed himself to sitting, his neck bowing under the weight of his throbbing skull. He put his hands to his face; breathed in the scent lingering on his palms.
“It’s been a long time, hasn’t it, brother?”
Li snapped his head up, doing a quick sweep of the land. No one stood next to him. No one was above him. Another sound crept into his awareness -- the crash of waves; the faint cry of gulls too far out to sea. Swallowing, Li glanced down at his legs -- which weren’t legs at all.
His tail -- he hadn’t seen his tail with its iridescent scales in so long.
“It has,” he managed, his voice cracking with a raging thirst he hadn’t felt in a long time. The landscape registered -- a dying tree, broken and split, standing by itself at the edge of a cliff.
“I must say, it took me quite a while to find you.” His sister -- his wonderful, terrible sister with her wonderful, terrible powers. That was no doubt her voice, though it had been many years since Li had last heard it. “We all thought you were dead, Li.”
“I <i>was</i> dead,” he breathed. “I was dead to the lot of you and none of you cared -- just another soldier lost in the fight against the humans, and --” He clamped his jaw shut and ground his teeth, forcing himself to take in another deep breath of sea salt air. His legs -- he <i>should</i> have his legs, but --
“I wanted to remind you what it was like to be the way god intended, brother.” His sister giggled, the noise sinister and overbearing. “You haven’t breathed the water for so long, I was afraid you’d thought yourself one of <i>them</i>.”
Li felt an unfamiliar swoop in his middle, his heart climbing into his throat as he continued to stare at the tree. He had to drag himself away from that tree. Away from his sister’s voice. “We don’t need the water,” he said, the words leaden on his tongue.
Footsteps, soft and padded and coming from behind him. Li whipped his head towards them, wild and tangled brown hair clouding his vision. His eyes landed on legs; shapely and thin and womanly. His gaze drifted upwards -- caught on the tattered skirt dancing around thighs in the perpetual ocean breeze.
“This is a dream,” he said, his eyes not daring to lift any higher than the woman’s chin. Because the woman in front of him wasn’t real. Because he hadn’t seen her in years and he wasn’t <i>truly</i> seeing her now.
“Very astute, dear brother.” The woman smiled, her teeth sharp, and folded her thin arms over her chest. Li’s eyes moved to her face -- searched it for hints of the girl he’d known decades ago, long before he’d started walking on land and living amongst the humans.
“I was always told I was smart, Jordy,” he croaked, curling his tail around himself.
“Jordy’s” smile faltered; Li saw the way her nails left red crescents behind on her arms. “It’s Jordine now,” she said, turning on her heel. She sauntered away from her brother, towards the tree. “We have so much to get caught up on, don’t we?”
Something shifted in the corner of Li’s vision. Snapping his head towards it, Li watched as a familiar shape pushed themselves up from the ground. That long, blond hair -- the curve of those shoulders…
“When did you meet her, Li?” Jordine asked, her voice cutting through the pounding of Li’s heart. “She’s human, isn’t she?”
“Leave her alone,” Li barked. The woman jumped and turned towards him, her eyes wide. She cried out for Li, even tried to stand, but stumbled and smashed her face into the ground. “Jordine, don’t you dare --”
“Have you told her what you are, yet?” Jordine continued, kneeling beside the woman. The woman didn’t seem to notice Jordine at all, not even as Jordine threaded her long fingers through the hair at the back of her head.
Li couldn’t bring himself to answer, instead dragging himself along the ground towards Jordine and the woman. His tail only provided him with so much force, and his arms were still weak. Jordine wrenched the woman’s head back, eliciting a cry that made Li’s arms buckle and threaten to give out.
“She is rather beautiful, isn’t she?” Jordine mused, cupping the woman’s cheek with her other hand. Her dagger-like nails edged along her jawline, then dropped to human’s stomach. “She’s with child,” she murmured after a moment, her black eyes widening. She turned to Li. “You mated with a <i>human</i>?”
“She’s my <i>wife</i>,” he growled, narrowing his eyes at Jordine. His mouth went dry as Jordine’s hand moved back to the woman’s face. “If you hurt her --”
“Ah, but this <i>is</i> a dream, remember?” Jordine countered, a slow, dangerous smile making its way across her face. “Tell me her name.”
“<i>No</i>.” Li glared at her, willed himself not to think of his wife’s name. Jordine’s eyes narrowed at him once again, her lips curling into a snarl.
“So you remember the rules, then,” she sniffed. One hand covered his wife’s face; the other pressed against the back of her head. “I could split her wide open, you know. Or crush her feeble skull in my hands -- whichever you’d prefer.”
He wanted to protest. He wanted to beg Jordine not to do whatever she had planned. “You’re just like mother,” he hissed, nails digging into the dirt as he pulled himself forward. If only he could have his <i>legs</i> --
“Is that so? Is that why you never returned to the island?” Jordine asked, her voice light with curiosity. His wife sobbed, gasping in pain as Jordine seemed determined to press her palms close together despite there being a human head between them.
Li looked away before Jordine’s palms succeeded in meeting each other, his stomach threatening to escape at the wet sound of crunched bone. A dream, he reminded himself. He wasn’t here on this hell rock in the middle of the ocean. He was back home, in his bed, with his legs and his wife and her <i>intact</i> head.
“Have you eaten a human recently?” Jordine asked, her voice muffled. “I remember you used to love the eyes, when mother would bring them home as treats…”
Li flinched and gagged. He studied his hands; how his blunted nails raked the dirt. “Why are you doing this?” he breathed. His eyes stung and his lungs burned. “Why -- why reach out to me, after all these years?”
“Because I want to be Queen, dear brother,” Jordine said. Feet slapped against rock and hard-packed soil, slow and steady, stopping millimeters from Li’s hands. Li lifted his head as Jordine folded in on herself, lowering herself to his level. Blood and brain matter bedecked her hands, her arms, her chest, her <i>face</i>, and Li’s vision faltered, his head growing abnormally light.
She gripped one of his arms, pulled Li as upright as he could be without his legs, and thrust something into his open palms. “I need you to return home, dear brother,” she said, folding his hands around the warm, round objects. She leaned in close, the metallic scent of blood overwhelming and flooding Li’s senses as she whispered, “I can’t be Queen without you…”
He met her eyes as she pulled away from him. “Open your hands, Li,” she said, rising to her feet and stepping backwards toward the tree. “Look at what’s in them and come home.”
She disappeared, her form blinking out of existence. Li’s fingers tensed, threatening to tighten around the orbs he held. His wife’s body remained crumbled at the base of the tree, blood pooling around the body. <i>Her</i> body.
With a slow, deep breath, he unfurled his fingers and glanced down.
Ocean blue eyes stared back at him from above. Li closed his eyes, his senses filtering back to reality one by one as he tried to erase the image of his wife’s broken and crushed body and unstaring, disembodied eyes.
“Did you have a bad dream, Li?” she asked, her touch light and soothing as her fingertips brushed along the edge of his jaw. “I’ve never seen you thrash around like that before.”
With a heavy sigh, Li nodded his head, unable to trust himself to speak. Instead, he leaned into Eliza’s fingers and placed his hand overtop hers. “I dreamt about war stuff,” he said, offering his wife a sheepish smile. “It’s just -- been a long time since I’ve had one of them, that’s all.”
Eliza gave him a skeptical look, then slowly lowered herself back onto the bed. “I think the baby woke me up first,” she said, her voice quiet with wonder creeping in. She grabbed Li’s hand and gently placed it over her stomach. “Can you feel her?”
“You don’t even know if it’s a she, yet,” he said with a quiet laugh -- one he hoped covered up the tears forming in his eyes. He spread his palm and turned so that he was facing her on the bed, drifting his hand over her rounded stomach. He rested his head on her shoulder, brushing his lips against the exposed skin of her neck. The kiss had no intention; it was as aimless as his touch, seeking out a little thump or three from underneath his wife’s shirt.
“We’re finding out, soon,” Eliza said, a quiet giggle escaping her as she turned her head towards Li’s. Her lips brushed against his, and he tried to forget the lingering salt scent of the ocean mixing with blood.
“Why not keep it a mystery until the baby is born?” Li countered. He didn’t really have a preference either way, but Eliza --
“No. Absolutely not,” she said, and he could see the full outline of her pout in the dark. “My baby, my rules.”
“Our baby,” he corrected, snickering as Eliza glared at him. “I helped make her, too, you know.”
“Mm. I seem to recall that all you had to do was lie on your back…” Eliza said, her pout growing more exaggerated.
“I did more than that!” Li grumbled, sticking his tongue out at her. He kissed her shoulder again, his fingers still drifting along the small ridge of her stomach. She was only eighteen weeks; at twenty, Eliza was supposed to go in for an ultrasound, to make sure that the baby was developing properly.
He tried not to think of all the ways something could go wrong. He knew that Hoobans like himself could breed with humans; that their offspring could survive and even thrive on land. But if the baby’s lungs didn’t develop properly, or if something weird showed up on the scan…
A small, strong poke caught his attention, just under the pads of his fingertips, A wide grin broke out over his lips. “Was that her?” he murmured, flattening his palm over that spot once more.
“I think so,” Eliza said, her words soft and warm against Li’s ear. He closed his eyes and tried not to shiver, scooting himself closer to Eliza and resting his head on her chest, just above her heart. She was alive. His baby was a live. They were home, in bed together, just as they should have been.
When he closed his eyes, he could see the broken tree. He could see the shape of his sister, her human form far more beautiful and deadly than any other woman he’d ever met. He could still feel the whisper of her hair against his cheek, the way her words: I can’t be Queen without you… had caressed his ear.
He’d been so far removed from Hooban society, he hadn’t even known Jordine had climbed so close to the top. But why did she need him? What good could a soldier who supposedly died in human territory do for her?
“I love you,” Eliza said, her quiet voice breaking through his thoughts. She stroked Li’s cheek. “You don’t have to talk to me about the dreams if you don’t want to, but I’m here if you need me, okay?”
Li nodded, snuggled closer to his wife, and sighed as her fingers tangled themselves in his hair. “I know,” he said, leaning up to kiss her cheek. “I love you, too.”
He ignored his mother’s voice, cracked and shrill, shouting in his ear that he’d never be capable of love. That he was male, and therefore he was imperfect, inhooban, his emotions stunted and his needs animalistic.
Slowly, an easy smile made its way across his lips. He could’ve had a dream-visit by his mother instead -- though he suspected that would’ve gone in an entirely different direction. It would’ve been him dismembered underneath that tree. Not Eliza. Merely because he still existed. That he hadn’t truly died when he should have, all those years ago.
As he relaxed even further, he kept his hand on Eliza’s stomach, over the child busily growing within her and his head over her chest, where her heart lulled him to sleep.
He’d forget about the dream by morning, no doubt.
He didn’t forget. He woke up, watched Eliza get ready for work, got ready for work himself. And all the while, he kept seeing Jordine’s black eyes. The shape of her face. The curve of her legs while he remained helpless on land with his tail. He remembered his wife’s eyes, warm and soft in his hands and shuddered, trying to banish the particular sensation from his mind.
He wasn’t able to. Instead, he kissed his wife goodbye; watched as she walked out the door and found himself rechecking every window, every entranceway in the house. He worked from home. He hated having a commute; knew it was easier to find work if he did freelance. Eliza kept the household running; always had, since the moment they met.
Slowly, Li settled in front of his computer, turned it on, and lifted his coffee to his lips. He glanced out the window, towards the direction of the ocean. It had been months since he and Eliza had gone to the beach -- it was squarely winter now, edging towards spring. Maybe the dream was due to is restlessness; his tail itching to reform. Did that particular ability fade with time?
It had been years since he let himself breathe water. When Eliza and her family had found Li washed up on the shore, he hadn’t had his tail, then. Had been breathing air -- barely. He knew humans had passed down stories of mermaids for generations -- stories of people who were half-fish, half-human.
They’d been only partially right. He wasn’t half-fish. His organ systems were definitely closer to those of a human; Hoobans mated much the same way humans did -- on land, with legs, with similar genitalia. Males looked more human than females; even in his dream, he could see the faint lines of Jordine’s extrasensory organs -- the ones located just behind the ears and connecting at the back of her head.
Male hoobans didn’t have those. It was supposed to make them weak; incapable of anything other than being grunts and fighting for their lives the old-fashioned way whereas the women could enthrall any sentient beings with their voices.
Why Jordine hadn’t sung to him, he didn’t know. Why she was coming after him now, he didn’t know, either. Sure, she said she needed him in order to be Queen, but --
Li threaded his fingers through his hair and groaned into his palms. He needed to stop thinking about this. He needed to focus and do his job and forget about Jordine’s actions. So she’d found him and connected with him through his dreams. That wasn’t something he had to worry about. Not yet.
But she knew about Eliza. And while there had been rumors that Jordine had been blessed with one of the ancient gifts, he hadn’t stuck around long enough to ever find out for sure. Which meant one of two things: either Jordine had been on land and went unnoticed by both Li and his wife, or Jordine had searched his mind and discovered Eliza’s existence and therefore her importance to Li.
With another huff, Li pulled his hands away from his face. He pushed himself out of his chair and turned off his monitor. He wasn’t going to get any work done like this. He needed to get out; get some fresh air and maybe even see the ocean. Maybe then, he could finally clear his head.