Bai Yu stumbled, supporting himself against a wall at the last minute. The only thing worse than filming early in the morning was doing it every day for a week. And the only thing worse than a whole week’s worth of morning shoots was having to do them without Zhu Yilong by his side. With his tails dragging limply behind him, Bai Yu blinked his bleary eyes and shuffled off to the couch where he’d left his phone earlier. He would regret tracking dirt all over his bright white fur later. For now, he only had enough presence of mind to appreciate the miracle of no one stepping on any of his tails.
With shaky hands, he picked up his phone and opened Weibo. A tired smile flitted across his face at the sight of the chaos he had sown last night.
@johnnybaiyu: Please stop dropping in on your fan groups so late! I was so excited I didn’t sleep until 3 AM today!
His eyes flashed, his instincts honing in on the perfect victim.
Ah, you’re right! Next time I’ll show up early instead. 6 AM? [smirk]
He watched with glee as the replies flooded in; most of the comments consisted of nothing more than loud screaming, but a small number of them were coherent enough to scold him for being a demon. Bai Yu exhaled as the fans’ energy washed over him. Separated by an impersonal electronic screen and delayed by time, their fervor was naturally dampened, perceptible only by the most sensitive fox spirits. But what this enthusiasm lacked in intensity, it more than made up for in sheer numbers. Bai Yu’s tails thumped once, twice, slowly recovering their strength. Although his head was still a little fuzzy, at least the gnawing hunger in his gut faded into a more manageable hollowness.
“Hang in there,” said the director, pressing a cup of hot coffee into his hands. “You’ll have the whole day off tomorrow before we move to the mountains for filming.”
Bai Yu nodded and took a sip, not quite able to hold back a grimace. Ugh! How humans drank this stuff every day was beyond him. Maybe if its miraculous revitalizing properties worked on fox spirits, he’d be singing a different tune. Still, her kindness provided him with enough of a jolt of energy to clear his muddled head, even if the coffee had no effect. Frowning, he tapped his fingers on the cup. His everyday interactions with his fans and friends used to last him easily through the day. This past week, however, they had barely lasted him a few hours.
Could it be that the other fox spirits were right? That relying on the emotions of strangers, even if they were fans who adored him, would be unsustainable the more powerful he became? Bai Yu bit his lip. He had thought himself so clever when he first had the idea to harness the energy of the infatuated fans. So much for that plan.
It must be that damned third tail he’d grown recently! Gaining a third tail so soon after his second tail was too unexpected! Who ever heard of a fox spirit earning more than one tail in a century, let alone two in less than half a decade? Of course this proud accomplishment would turn out to be a curse. He was just settling himself in for a good sulk at his pitiful life when a strong hand clasped his shoulder.
“I knew I couldn’t count on you to eat breakfast on your own.”
Bai Yu didn’t need to turn around to know who this was. That unique mix of fondness and exasperation couldn’t come from anyone else! “Long-ge!”
“Come on. We have some time before our next scene. Let’s get a late breakfast.”
“Sounds good!” agreed Bai Yu. With a renewed spring in his step, he leapt nimbly to his feet, and followed Zhu Yilong out.
The cozy noodle shop where they had breakfast each day was only a few minutes walk from the set. Wrapped snugly in the steady warmth of Zhu Yilong’s affection, Bai Yu felt his exhaustion and anxiety fade. Even his tails had regained their usual gloss. Mortal life was frantic, and the love of mortals even more fleeting. There was always an ephemeral quality to their passions, impossible to hold without it slipping away. Which made the deep, unfaltering undercurrents of emotions flowing beneath Zhu Yilong’s cold and aloof exterior all the more tantalizing. It took careful coaxing, and a persistence that bordered on impolite, but Bai Yu was richly rewarded when those shields finally came down. The first time Zhu Yilong dazzled him with an unguarded smile after a successful prank had been nothing less than a revelation. This unsophisticated fox kit named Bai Yu who had gorged on fast food his whole life suddenly got his first taste of gourmet cooking.
As if sensing the direction of his thoughts, the savory aroma of fried noodles and spices filled the air. Bai Yu bumped against Zhu Yilong’s shoulder; their steps quickened.
“Two bowls of Sichuan noodles?” The shop owner waved at them as they walked in through the door. They had long since become a familiar sight.
“Yes, thank you!” replied Bai Yu, tugging Zhu Yilong with him to their usual booth. There were few other patrons this time of day, which meant he could loosen up a little. After checking that his glamour still held, Bai Yu let his three tails stretch out until they were spread across the back of the seat, matching his own sprawled out legs. Immediately, a powerful wave of delight washed over him from Zhu Yilong’s direction, almost taking his breath away. Bai Yu’s tails twitched. If this was what it was like being just friends, imagine-
No. This temporary happiness would not be worth the looming decision that faced every fox spirit and their chosen mate: stay until their appetite left their mate an empty husk, or leave and break their hearts. Bai Yu shuddered. This was as close as he dared approach without putting Zhu Yilong at risk. It was already a lucky thing that friendship alone could sate his increased appetite.
The arrival of their noodles thankfully interrupted Bai Yu’s train of thought. Under Zhu Yilong’s watchful gaze, he picked up his chopsticks and dug in. Eating was usually a dull affair for him, since mortal food did nothing to sustain him. It soothed Zhu Yilong’s worries, however, so he always made a big production of enjoying the food. Once he felt Zhu Yilong’s attention turn away from him, he snuck a peek from under his lashes and sighed.
Even when Zhu Yilong was sleep-deprived and doing his best to inhale all his noodles in one giant gulp, there was still something captivating about him. That charming, tousled bit of hair, the quick flicker of the tongue wetting his lips, a pair of expressive eyes joyfully curved into a crescent shape… Which one of them was supposed to be a creature of legend known for their beauty and allure here?!
Bai Yu swiped past his phone’s lock-screen, opened his WeChat conversation with Zhu Yilong, and tapped out a message. At the sight of his latest monkey meme and his “Great great great beauty!” caption, a knot he hadn’t even noticed forming inside his chest eased.
The rest of his scenes that day were all with Zhu Yilong, which did wonders for his mood and spirit. He had worked with method actors before, but Zhu Yilong took it to a new level, with not even the slightest hint of his own emotions remaining by the time the character of Shen Wei took over. And for all that Shen Wei had built up his restraint and control over the years, the intensity of the desire that filtered past those barriers was still utterly intoxicating.
It was evening by the time they were ready to finish. Unlike Bai Yu, Zhu Yilong gradually showed more and more signs of fatigue as the day wore on. Luckily, their last scene was a simple one without any dialogue. As they waited in the car for their cue to begin, Zhu Yilong turned and met his eyes, projecting so much vulnerability, hope, and longing it made Bai Yu’s own heart ache. Looking away, Bai Yu a deep breath to steady himself. His nerves were pulled taut, his heartbeat thumping. Minutes stretched into hours, the tension almost unbearable.
Finally, filming began, and his professional instincts took over.
Bai Yu closed his eyes, placed his hands on Zhao Yunlan’s aching stomach, and feigned an uncomfortable sleep. Next to him, he felt Shen Wei’s longing be overtaken by concern and the need to heal and comfort. Responding to the pull of Shen Wei’s tenderness, Bai Yu let his body tilt over until his head fell on Zhu Yilong’s shoulder.
Deep in Shen Wei mode, Zhu Yilong’s reactions were swift and intense. An abrupt twinge of shock, followed by crashing waves of hunger-love-worry that filled the very air they breathed. The answering urge to touch, and take, and drown himself in that fathomless whirlpool of desire was overwhelming. Not for the first time, it occurred to Bai Yu that if mortal film-making could convey the depth of emotions that fox spirits could feel, Zhu Yilong would not have toiled in relative obscurity for so long.
Careful hands moved him back into an upright position, small sparks of lust dancing over the places where they touched. Bai Yu continued to feign a restless doze, slumping forward with a frown. A tendril of resignation and helplessness floated over. He wasn’t left unattended for long. Zhu Yilong shifted closer so Bai Yu could nap on his shoulders again, gently moving his head into a more comfortable position.
Even with his eyes closed, he could sense the force of Zhu Yilong’s gaze on him, like a predator eyeing a particularly delicious morsel. For a moment, he imagined tilting his head back, baring his neck in an invitation. He imagined Zhu Yilong moving closer, breath hot against his neck. He imagined the light scrape of teeth across sensitive flesh. He imagined reaching out to pull-
Bai Yu jumped, his eyes flying open. In the nick of time, he stopped that cursed third tail of his from wrapping itself around Zhu Yilong’s waist. By his side, Zhu Yilong was focusing on breathing exercises as Shen Wei’s fervent yearning faded into a more subdued glow.
Vaguely, he heard the director complimenting them on their improvisation, to which his ingrained politeness allowed him to reply with a mumbled thanks. He wrapped up the day’s activities in a daze. Bai Yu only realized he was leaving the set when the sound of Zhu Yilong‘s footsteps caught up behind him.
“Long-ge! Did you forget someth—” Bai Yu’s words cut off with a strangled yelp. Without daring to breathe, he stood frozen as Zhu Yilong’s fingers threaded slowly through the fluffy fur of his third tail. After what felt like an eternity, Zhu Yilong’s hand finally stopped and rested on the small of his back. Swallowing hard, Bai Yu forced himself to count to ten before he turned to gauge Zhu Yilong’s reaction. Glamours were a tricky business up close, especially when illusion was pitted against both sight and touch. It was why he always tried his best to keep his tails out of physical reach of the people nearby, wrapping them around his waist or pressing them against his back. If his glamour held, then all Zhu Yilong would feel was the wool of his sweater. But that outcome depended on the astuteness and willpower of the observer.
“I had an idea,” said Zhu Yilong, not showing any signs of shock or surprise at his co-star suddenly growing a tail (or three).
“Oh?” Bai Yu tried to subtly disentangle his tail from Zhu Yilong’s grasp to no avail.
“Why don’t we head to the mountains tonight? We can go camping and watch the stars tonight, before settling in at the new filming location.”
He knew it was risky to accept. But in the face of the nervousness and anticipation that was all Zhu Yilong, Bai Yu didn’t have the heart to deny him. He nodded. “I haven’t seen the stars in a long time. Count me in!”
“Good.” Zhu Yilong smiled, sweet with just a touch of shyness, and it was like watching a field of spring flowers blossom all at once.
By the time they arrived at the foot of the mountain, the moon was already high and bright in the night sky. Breathing in the crisp mountain air, Bai Yu tilted his head back and counted the sparkling stars. Confident, unhurried footsteps came up behind him.
“I’ll carry the backpack with the tent,” said Zhu Yilong, handing the lighter backpack to Bai Yu. “I scouted a pretty clean cave we can camp in tonight. It’s got a nice clearing in front for star-gazing too.”
Bai Yu raised an eyebrow. “How did you find the time to scout out the mountains?”
Zhu Yilong turned a pair of bright, guileless eyes at him, his emotions oddly inscrutable. “I have my ways.”
Bai Yu rolled his eyes. “I can’t believe you’re going to be that mysterious about which Baidu article you read.”
And just like that, the dam broke. The helpless burst of laughter and the surge of mirth both reached Bai Yu at the same time, almost knocking him over.
Zhu Yilong’s arms encircled him. “Careful, this hiking trail has some uneven patches.”
Bai Yu stared, his mouth suddenly dry. If he didn’t think about this new heat burning through what used to be the cozy warmth of Zhu Yilong’s affections, if he didn’t pay attention to the frenzied racing of his own pulse, he could pretend this was just an ordinary camping trip with a friend. That meant he could keep leaning into Zhu Yilong’s touch, and it would fine, because wasn’t supporting each other just something that friends did? This wasn’t him being irresponsible or selfish. He could never harm a hair on Zhu Yilong’s head. He could continue just a little while longer—
Bai Yu stiffened and pulled away. He forced himself to smile, his voice still shaky. “Thank you, Long-ge.”
He had been prepared for his own disappointment and regret. But Zhu Yilong’s hurt - raw and sharp - pierced through him like a knife to the gut. His legs wobbled. Instinctively, Zhu Yilong reached out to support him. Their eyes met. Zhu Yilong let his arms fall back to his sides.
“Long-ge…” Bai Yu’s voice cracked.
“I’m still going up the mountain tonight.” Zhu Yilong took a deep breath. “You don’t have to join me. You can take the car to the village, it’s no more than few hours away.”
Bai Yu wanted to shake Zhu Yilong. “Do you really think I’d let you go just like that?” he wanted to shout. But what right did he have to continue clinging to Zhu Yilong, knowing they had no future? He blinked away the blurriness in his eyes, watching Zhu Yilong’s figure fade into the distance ahead. His tails lashed back and forth in distress.
Before he knew it, he was running up the mountain trail after Zhu Yilong, the hefty weight of his backpack forgotten. His rational self warned of the consequences of selfishness. His heart drove him forward. Ahead was the joyous light that was Zhu Yilong’s presence in his life. Ahead was the only human who ever made him feel secure enough to forget all thoughts and plans for his next meal. Ahead was his Long-ge, his friend, his favorite prank target, his reason to smile every morning. They would find a way. They had to.
A loud scream tore through the air.
His blood ran cold. That was Zhu Yilong’s voice! Ignoring the branches scratching at his face, he sprinted in the direction of the scream. Please let him be okay, please let him be okay, please, please, please…
Bai Yu skidded to a stop. A frost trap? Here?
Cautiously, he approached the block of ice encasing Zhu Yilong, taking care not to step on any hidden traps himself.
“Don’t worry, Long-ge. I’ll get you out.” He rifled through his backpack and took out a tent stake.
“There are days when I simply despair of the poor state of education,” a low, smooth voice said behind him. “What are they teaching young fox kits these days? You should know that a simple tent stake won’t even make a scratch here.”
With a start, Bai Yu whirled around, coming face-to-face with a grizzled old man wrapped in a coat made of thick orange fur. A leather belt hung around the old man’s waist, fox tails dangling from it like trophies. Bai Yu gasped and shrank away, tripping backwards onto the ground. “Hunter!”
“So you have paid some attention to the stories,” the Hunter chuckled.
Every primitive survival instinct he had screamed at him to run. Even a powerful nine-tailed fox would struggle to defeat the Hunter. Bai Yu wrapped his arms around himself, trembling, but he refused to leave Zhu Yilong behind.
“Care for a drink?” The Hunter took out a flask of wine from his coat pocket.
Bai Yu’s lips quirked. “I think I’ll pass on the poison.” So what if he had no chance of escaping? It didn’t mean he would give up and hand himself over on a silver platter. His indignation gave him the strength to get up off the ground. He leveled a glare at the Hunter and placed himself in front of Zhu Yilong. An ancient, powerful creature like the Hunter picking on a human and a fox spirit who was barely a century old… Bai Yu hoped news of this got out and ruined the Hunter’s reputation.
“Don’t think me a poor sport, little fox kit.” The Hunter shrugged, as if sensing Bai Yu’s thoughts. “I don’t normally go after the young ones, but you are growing too quickly, and preying on too many humans at once.”
Bai Yu wanted to sneer at the Hunter's false concern. Funny how it was for the thrill of the hunt when he had chased down a powerful nine-tailed fox spirit, but now it was for the good of humankind when he was bullying a young fox spirit. “If you were doing this for the sake of the humans, you’d let my Long-ge go!”
The Hunter tilted his head. “Ah. So it’s like that.”
Bai Yu stole another look at Zhu Yilong, whose lips had turned a ghastly blue color. “You’ve already caught me, you don’t need to hurt him.”
The Hunter smiled, a strange gleam in his eye. “Well, I am feeling merciful today. Freely give your tails to me, and I will let you both live.”
Bai Yu took a step back and clutched his tails close. Fox spirits suffered badly if they lost their tails, but to give them up willingly was unthinkable.
“Your answer, little white fox?”
“Yes.” In the end, there was never any doubt what his answer would be. Not with Zhu Yilong’s life on the line. He squeezed his eyes shut and chanted the words that severed his magic from his life-force. For a moment there was only the icy shock of loss. The constant hum of emotions from creatures large and small, gone in a flash, leaving behind an eerie void of cold and silence. Then searing agony lit his nerves on fire, and he fell face-first onto the ground.
He was being burned alive from the inside out. Nothing else could explain this excruciating pain. When he forced his eyes open, he was stunned to find himself glowing. Through his tears, he saw thousands of thin strings of light shoot out of his body, before gathering into a single point on the Hunter’s hand. Whimpering, he curled in on himself. The world around him dimmed. A shadowy figure gathered up his tails from where they fell on the ground. Finally, blessed darkness chased away the pain.
The light drizzling rain cooling his skin drew Bai Yu out of oblivion. He blinked, rubbed his eyes, blinked again. There was something odd about his surroundings, but his head was too muddled to pinpoint the cause of his unease. Overhead, the sky was dark, covered in angry ominous clouds that promised a much worse storm to come. He sighed. What a shame to miss out on the chance to star-gaze with Zhu Yilong tonight.
Bai Yu jolted upright and scrambled to his feet. Long-ge! Where was his Long-ge? Did someone take him away? He couldn’t lose him. Not now. Not ever. Instinctively, he sought the gentle pulse of fondness that announced Zhu Yilong’s presence near him. Utter emptiness greeted him. Though his eyes were open, he was convinced for one terrifying second that he was blind. And why was he having so much trouble breathing? Off-balance, he staggered forward with his arms outstretched, reaching for something he refused to acknowledge was lost.
His thoughts in disarray, his whole being out of kilter, Bai Yu didn’t notice the tree root until his left foot got caught in it. With a grunt, he fell to the ground in an ungraceful sprawl. He was wiping the mud off his face when he spotted a familiar green jacket. His bruises and aches forgotten, he rushed to the small clearing where Zhu Yilong lay in a puddle of melted ice water.
His hands were shaking when he pressed his fingers against Zhu Yilong’s neck.
“Please,” he whispered. He hung his head. “Please…”
One beat. So faint it might have been his imagination.
Bai Yu held his breath.
Another beat. And another. Bai Yu began to laugh even as tears streamed down his face, his voice eventually gaining a hysterical edge. He was alive. Zhu Yilong was alive. They were both alive!
His relief didn’t last long, however. The increasing patter of raindrops soon reminded him of the impending storm, and as if on cue, Zhu Yilong shivered in his arms. Right. He had to get Zhu Yilong somewhere warm and dry. He had to get help. Call for help first. Bai Yu fumbled his phone into his hand, then cursed as it refused to turn on. If there was one thing he hated about modern technology, it was how sensitive it was to surges of magic.
Fortunately, there was a cave close by with a trail leading to it that had relatively smooth terrain. Even if it weren't the same cave that Zhu Yilong had scouted, it was good enough for temporary shelter. With a silent apology, he ripped open Zhu Yilong’s backpack, dumping its contents on the ground. Everything inside was drenched, and too heavy to carry. Bai Yu stuffed the food and rations into his own pack, then put the clothes back. They could come back for those later.
A lightning bolt split the sky, followed by the rolling sound of thunder. Bai Yu swore again, and left the rest of the backpack’s contents on the ground. Ignoring the chill numbness seeping into his fingers, he fashioned a makeshift harness out of one of the sleeping bags with some rope, and used it to half-carry, half-drag Zhu Yilong up the trail toward the cave.
Halfway up the trail, Bai Yu realized he had overestimated himself. Panting, he looked at the sky in despair. If they were still outside when the rain turned into a downpour, everything in Bai Yu’s pack would be soaked through as well. There would be no hope of getting dry then. Bai Yu gritted his teeth. He hadn’t come this far to fail. He would keep moving until the last of his strength was gone, even if his body decided that now would be the perfect time to remind him that he was starving.
One. Two. One. Two.
As long as he focused on counting his steps, as long as he kept his eyes fixed on the cave entrance, he could keep the pain and discomfort at bay. Once they reached the cave, they’d start a crackling fire, change out of their wet clothes, and huddle together to watch the storm. Sheltered from the elements, the storm would no longer be their nemesis. Zhu Yilong always had a fascination with the rain; he could once again watch the pitter-patter of raindrops with that expression of wonder and yearning on his face. And while Zhu Yilong was entranced, Bai Yu might place his hand on Zhu Yilong’s knee, earning him a look of surprise. When that look of surprise turned heated, he might tilt Zhu Yilong’s face towards his own, close the distance between them, and finally - finally - find out what those lips taste like.
Bolstered by this thought, Bai Yu pushed himself through the remaining distance to the cave, finding cover for the two of them just in time. Another crash of thunder, this time much closer, and the skies opened. The downpour now resembled sheets of a waterfall more than falling drops of rain. Even the wind picked up speed, howling as it tore through the trees. In the face of the storm’s fury, he moved them both deeper into the cave.
Turning back and seeing how close they came to disaster, Bai Yu nearly collapsed from relief. He pried Zhu Yilong’s hands off his backpack, and laid out their supplies. The tent could wait until they were both awake. His priority now should be to get them both dry. He unfolded his own sleeping bag, grateful that water had not seeped through to it. Packed closer to the surface, the changes of clothes he’d brought fared worse. While they weren’t too wet to wear, they were damp enough to be uncomfortable.
“S-sorry, Long-ge. Survival is m-more important than modesty right now.” Without giving himself time to over-think things, Bai Yu peeled off Zhu Yilong’s clothes. Jacket, sweater, and shirt went first, revealing a pale expanse of skin that was cool and clammy to the touch. Bai Yu hurriedly wrapped a blanket around Zhu Yilong’s shoulders. Hesitant hands moved to unbuckle Zhu Yilong’s pants next. This would be a lot easier if his fingers weren’t feeling so stiff. And if he’d stop shivering until he could get Zhu Yilong safely tucked away in the sleeping bag, that would be even better.
Bai Yu was still struggling with the belt when Zhu Yilong’s eyes flew open. Strong hands grasped Bai Yu’s wrists, holding them still.
“Xiao Bai?” Zhu Yilong frowned at him.
Bai Yu’s cheeks flushed. His teeth still chattering, he stuttered out an explanation. “Y-your clothes are wet.”
Zhu Yilong’s expression darkened further. “I know. And you? Planning to freeze into a mud popsicle?”
“I—” Bai Yu looked down, grimacing at the dried, caked-on mud on the front of his jacket.
“Strip.” Zhu Yilong’s tone brooked no arguments.
Bai Yu started to unzip his jacket, then paused. “We still need to gather firewood.”
“You think anything you gather out there can still be used to light fires?” asked Zhu Yilong pointedly. Without waiting for an answer, Zhu Yilong tugged Bai Yu down and pulled off his jacket.
Bai Yu’s protests were muffled as his sweater was yanked over his head next. He wanted to tell Zhu Yilong that he was the more resilient one between the two of them. It was fine if he stayed cold a little longer. Except without his magic, that wasn’t true anymore, was it? He shivered again.
“Your hands are freezing,” murmured Zhu Yilong, stopping to take Bai Yu’s hands in his.
This time, Bai Yu’s trembling wasn’t from the cold. “Long-ge, do you have a fever? Your hands are really hot.”
Zhu Yilong sighed, continuing to massage Bai Yu’s hands, rubbing warm circles over freezing skin. “That’s only because you let yourself get too cold. Though I guess I should at least be glad you haven’t lost feeling in your hands.”
Thoroughly cowed, Bai Yu put up no more resistance when Zhu Yilong peeled off his t-shirt, before covering them both with the same blanket. At the feel of Zhu Yilong’s skin against his, Bai Yu gasped. “Are you sure you don’t have a fever? I don’t think it’s natural for you to heat up so quickly.”
Zhu Yilong avoided his eyes. “Hurry up and take off your pants.”
It was on the tip of Bai Yu’s tongue to make a dirty joke; and judging by the twitch of Zhu Yilong’s lips and the redness of his ears, both of their minds had taken a deep dive into the gutters at the same time. Bai Yu gave Zhu Yilong a nudge and waggled his eyebrows. They promptly burst out laughing.
The mood lightened, Zhu Yilong draped the blanket over Bai Yu, then moved away to give him more room to maneuver. “You can get into the sleeping bag first. I’m not afraid of the cold,” he said as he turned his back to give Bai Yu some privacy.
Not wanting Zhu Yilong to stand out in the cold any longer than necessary, Bai Yu flung off his boots and socks, and tugged down his underwear at the same time as his jeans. Kicking his legs free, he dove for the sleeping bag and wriggled into it. “You can have the blanket now, Long-ge.”
Bai Yu’s eyes followed Zhu Yilong, who ducked under the blanket and started unlacing his boots. He should look away, give Zhu Yilong the same privacy he had been afforded earlier. But every time he turned away, he was hit with a terrifying certainty that Zhu Yilong would vanish into thin air. With a death grip on the edges of the sleeping bag, he forced himself to close his eyes. He could no longer sense Zhu Yilong. In fact, he never would again. So he would adjust. Straining his ears, he let out a sigh of relief at the rustling of fabric, and the light thud of pants dropping to the ground. It was fine. He could learn to adapt to these limited senses. Soft footsteps approached, and Bai Yu moved to make space in the sleeping bag, all while silently praising his own foresight in choosing a sleeping bag large enough to fit two men.
Snuggled tightly in Zhu Yilong’s arms, Bai Yu was once again struck by the amount of heat radiating from Zhu Yilong’s body. He had always attributed the unusual warmth flooding through him every time they touched to his magical sensitivities amplifying his senses. How interesting that this was actually just how Zhu Yilong felt all the time.
Bai Yu yawned. He couldn’t help but think that if he were more alert, this last observation would carry more significance. But with Zhu Yilong’s hands gently stroking his back in soothing motions, he found himself melting into a boneless puddle instead. Heavenly was the only way to describe this sensation, like stepping out of a winter snowstorm into a glorious hot shower. Bai Yu buried his face in Zhu Yilong’s neck, warming the tip of his nose, and inhaling Zhu Yilong’s rich smoky scent.
When Zhu Yilong’s hands touched the scarred area where Bai Yu’s tails used to be, they both stilled. Then, Zhu Yilong growled, low and guttural, its vibrations shaking Bai Yu to the bone. Every hair on his body stood up on its ends, and irrational fear overcame his senses. This wasn’t the kind, even-tempered soul he knew - predator, his mind whispered - and he had to get away before it was too late. No matter how hard he struggled, however, he was caught in the steel trap of Zhu Yilong’s arms.
Tentatively, he raised his head to catch Zhu Yilong’s eyes, and shrank back at the fury he saw reflected in them.
Seeing Bai Yu’s reaction, Zhu Yilong immediately relaxed his hold, the anger in his eyes dissolving into sorrow. “I‘m sorry, Xiao Bai. I didn’t mean to scare you. But… Your beautiful tails. What happened to them?”
The stark reminder of his loss coming hot on the heels of a fear that defied reason, all when his guard had been at its lowest - it was too much. Bai Yu made a strangled noise and threw himself back into Zhu Yilong’s embrace. He didn’t want to dredge up the sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach when he remembered how he’d almost gotten both of them killed. He didn’t want to talk or think about the drawn out starvation that awaited him now that he no longer had the ability to consume the emotional energies around him. He just wanted to lose himself in his blissful exploration of Zhu Yilong again, this time using his neglected physical senses. So he clung, his fingers mapping out the smooth texture of Zhu Yilong’s skin, relishing the stutters in Zhu Yilong’s breath and the tautness of Zhu Yilong’s muscles trembling under his touch.
Zhu Yilong didn’t speak for a long time, letting the comforting caress of his hands convey what words could not. Outside, the winds picked up again, bringing a cold gust of air into their cozy cave.
“Oh, Xiao Bai. I’m so sorry I don’t have the power to end this storm for you.”
These nonsensical words were spoken so sincerely, Bai Yu found himself speechless. There was something heady about someone offering to defy nature itself for him. In fact, it was possibly the most romantic thing anyone had ever said to him.
Zhu Yilong brushed a stray hair away from Bai Yu’s forehead. “Go to sleep. I promise everything will be okay.”
Confused but too drowsy to ponder Zhu Yilong’s strange behavior, Bai Yu let his eyes flutter shut. As his dreams carried him away, one final thought drifted to the forefront of his mind.
Wait a minute. How does Long-ge know about my tails?
In his dream, Bai Yu was flying. Swift and nimble, he did somersaults in the brilliant blue sky as he popped in and out of the clouds, all nine of his tails trailing after him.
“Look at that cloud, Long-ge!” he said, pointing ahead with a paw. “I think it looks like… a monkey!”
Bai Yu dodged out of the way just before a claw captured him. “Hahaha, you can’t catch me! I’m too fast!”
He flattened his ears and pulled in his legs, then executed a perfect spinning dive away from the second claw that swiped at him. “Hahaha! Monkeys are so bad at flying!”
Suddenly, he felt a tug behind him. Flailing, he came to an abrupt stop. Unhappily, he looked over his shoulder to see another claw pinning his third tail in its grasp. Would this cursed tail never stop causing him trouble? A deep chuckle sounded, and Bai Yu found himself being lifted into the air until he was hanging upside down. Had a fox spirit ever cut a sorrier figure?
Bai Yu squirmed and twisted in the air, all while loudly complaining about bullies who picked on innocent fox spirits.
“I have to go now, Xiao Bai.”
“What? Why?” He wasn’t finished playing yet!
But no one answered him. The sky darkened and emptiness closed in on him again. Then he was falling and falling, hurtling at an impossible speed towards the ground.
On impact, Bai Yu jerked awake, a scream caught in his throat. With fumbling hands, he reached out for the reassuring feel of Zhu Yilong sleeping next to him, only to end up with a hand full of blankets. Throwing aside the blanket, he sat up and scanned the cave in a blind panic.
There! Bai Yu let out the breath he was holding.
Standing right at the cave entrance, silhouetted by glow of the new morning’s sun, was Zhu Yilong. With his head turned towards something distant to his left, the interplay of lights and shadows highlighted his striking profile and elegant cheekbones. Sometime during his night, he must have gone out and retrieved his backpack, because his clothes were now dry and folded in a neat pile next to his feet. Clothes that he apparently didn’t feel the need to wear this morning.
Bai Yu swallowed, his mouth dry. Maybe it was the angle of the sunlight, maybe it was the lingering drops of morning dew on Zhu Yilong’s skin, but he could swear there was a golden glimmer surrounding Zhu Yilong. Utterly captivated, his eyes trailed down the lean lines of Zhu Yilong’s back, past the smooth dip just above his waist, to the sensuous curve of—
Bai Yu snapped his eyes up, his heart pounding. He was just about to say something (”Long-ge, I think you forgot your clothes?”) when Zhu Yilong suddenly tensed his body and took a running leap off the mountain ledge. Bai Yu didn’t even have time to let out a dismayed cry. He hastily threw on the nearest pair of pants and ran outside.
“Long-ge? Long-ge, where did you go?” Anxiously, he peered over the steep ledge, terrified that he’d find Zhu Yilong’s broken body lying below. But there was nothing. Had he been abandoned? He sat down with a thud. Then, registering the whistling sound of metal, Bai Yu scurried out of the way as a sharp steel arrow hit the ground next to him.
“You broke your word!” shouted Bai Yu, indignation overriding his caution as he saw the Hunter striding onto the narrow path.
The Hunter opened his mouth to reply, but it was drowned out by a massive, earth-shattering roar. This time, Bai Yu was too astonished to feel afraid. His eyes wide, he watched as the immense, serpentine body of a gold dragon flew into view. It was the most beautiful, magnificent creature he’d ever seen. The final piece of the puzzle slid into place in his mind.
“You are no match for me,” said the dragon. “Give the fox spirit his tails, vow never to return, and I will let you live.”
“Ha! How do you like the tables being turned on you now, Hunter?” Bai Yu gloated. This really was his Long-ge! Or should that be his dragon ge-ge now?
The Hunter smirked. “Little liar, you almost fooled me into thinking you were human, just as I’m sure you fooled countless others into thinking you were a proper dragon. But I see through you, and I’m here now for your head!”
Bai Yu bristled in outrage. “Run to your death then! I can’t wait to see you reincarnate into a cockroach in your next life!”
The Hunter paid him no more heed, unleashing one arrow after another at the gaps in Zhu Yilong’s scales with lethal precision instead. Even though Zhu Yilong reacted swiftly, twisting his body to dodge out of the way, several arrows struck flesh and drew blood. With a snarl, his claws descended onto the Hunter, sending the Hunter scrambling.
As for Bai Yu, how could he bear to stand by without taking action? Given Zhu Yilong’s kind and caring nature, he wasn’t the kind of ruthless killer who easily carried out death threats. The Hunter had judged correctly that Zhu Yilong was bluffing. Bai Yu ducked back into the shadows of the cave. Crouching low and keeping to the walls, he found his way to where Zhu Yilong had stashed their now-dried backpacks. He didn’t fool himself into thinking he could contribute meaningfully to the fight without his powers. But seeing the two of them fighting to a stalemate, he hoped he could provide a distraction that gave Zhu Yilong the upper hand.
Outside, a large chunk of rocks broke off as Zhu Yilong’s claw embedded itself in the mountain face. Without missing a beat, the Hunter jumped out of the reach of the claw, then executed a mid-air turn to fire another arrow. Zhu Yilong was unable to block it in time, and it tore off one of his golden scales. The Hunter was too fast! And with limited space to maneuver on the mountain ledge, Zhu Yilong’s size worked against him.
Meanwhile, Bai Yu rifled through their backpacks for something useful, his anxious eyes darting back and forth between the fight and his own task. Unable to find anything that could double as a weapon, he settled on the high-powered flashlight he’d packed. Clenching his jaw, he settled in for a nerve-wracking waiting game, watching as the Hunter led Zhu Yilong on a futile chase and wore down Zhu Yilong’s defenses bit by bit.
Bai Yu’s eyes glinted. At last, an opportunity! The Hunter had just fired off an arrow, and was poised to leap to the side. The moment the Hunter turned his face towards the cave entrance, Bai Yu turned the flashlight to its brightest setting and shone its beam into the Hunter’s eyes.
“Yes!” Bai Yu cheered when the Hunter misjudged the angle of his jump and tripped on his landing. Before the Hunter could recover from his stumble, a giant claw descended and held him down.
“Xiao Bai, come and take your tails back.”
Bai Yu darted forward and took the trophy belt off the Hunter, his hands trembling as he unhooked his tails. Covered in dirt and mud, they no longer held their original shine. He ran his hand dejectedly through his fur, sucking in a sharp breath when his touch turned them a lustrous white.
Then a bright flare engulfed him, drawing him into the cozy cocoon of his magic. His world erupted in a million different colors and sensations. Energy surged through his veins as his magic settled deep into his skin. With practiced ease, he rebuilt his shields, dampening the constant background buzz from the woodland animals. And there it was! He could sense Zhu Yilong’s signature presence again.
“Rest, Xiao Bai. I’ll protect you.”
Closing his eyes, Bai Yu melted into this pool of emotions. He was alive again.
Bai Yu wasn’t sure how long he stayed in that sleepy, euphoric state - his mind floating blissfully in a bottomless ocean of affection while firmly surrounded by Zhu Yilong’s coiled dragon body. If it were physically possible, he would stay like this forever. Or maybe a few centuries? That wasn’t too much to ask, was it?
Letting out a huge yawn, Bai Yu finally deigned to flick open one eye. The Hunter was long gone, and Zhu Yilong also seemed to be dozing now that the danger was past. Still feeling lazy, Bai Yu arranged his tails around him and fluffed them up to make the world’s most comfortable pillow. Idly, he ran his hand over Zhu Yilong’s scales, delighting in the way the sunlight glinted off them as they rippled beneath his fingers. It was a testament to healing powers of the dragon that not a trace of the earlier battle remained visible. He didn’t care what nonsense the Hunter spouted earlier. As someone who had seen his share of dragons soaring in the distant skies, he could confidently say that Zhu Yilong was the most gorgeous dragon he had ever seen.
“Ah, Long-ge. You’re already more beautiful than me, but now you’re more powerful too! How am I supposed to live in this world?” lamented Bai Yu. A strong wave of exasperation crashed over him in what he could only describe as the emotional equivalent of an eye-roll.
Such a frosty reception to his flirting! How could any self-respecting fox spirit leave it at that? Finding the layer of amused fondness that was the constant in their friendship was easy once the initial exasperation washed away. He prodded at that layer lightly, hopeful and greedy in equal measures for that flash of heat between them before everything had gone wrong.
Zhu Yilong’s head turned to him, a faint hint of alarm in his aura. Bai Yu immediately pulled back his powers and patted Zhu Yilong in apology. Zhu Yilong wasn’t someone to be rushed. He opened up slowly to people, and liked to take his time, turning his thoughts in his head every which way before responding to even the simplest questions. Being patient with Zhu Yilong had never failed him before, so Bai Yu was happy to give him all the time and space he needed.
Bai Yu plastered himself all over Zhu Yilong’s neck in his best attempt at a hug and closed his eyes for another nap. The sun had risen high in the sky now, and Bai Yu happily basked in its rays. Only the intensity of Zhu Yilong’s gaze on him prevented him from fully relaxing. Finally, Zhu Yilong sighed and laid his head on the ground, letting a sliver of doubt and hurt float over to Bai Yu.
“Long-ge?” Bai Yu frowned. “I meant every word of what I said.”
A flash of magic and Zhu Yilong was back in his human form, instantly looking more comfortable despite his nudity. He strode past Bai Yu into the cave, where he briskly pulled on the clothes he’d set aside for himself.
Still refusing to look at him, Zhu Yilong spoke. “The Hunter was right. I’m not sure what I am, but I’m not like the other dragons. I couldn’t stop the storm to keep you warm. I couldn’t protect you from the Hunter, and even fell into his trap. If you’re expecting to be with a dragon instead of a human who sometimes shapeshifts—”
His own outrage at the Hunter’s callousness mixed with Zhu Yilong’s disappointment in himself caused Bai Yu to tremble with anger. There was only one thought in his head: he had to soothe away this hurt and self-doubt until Zhu Yilong realized exactly how perfect he was, and he had to make Zhu Yilong stop talking nonsense.
“Don’t,” whispered Bai Yu, holding up a finger against Zhu Yilong’s lips. For a moment, they stood still in that pose as Bai Yu waited for a reaction. Seconds ticked by. Zhu Yilong lowered his gaze and leaned his cheek against Bai Yu’s hand. There was so much trust in that simple gesture, Bai Yu was almost afraid to accept it. Cupping Zhu Yilong’s cheek with one hand, Bai Yu moved his other hand to cradle Zhu Yilong’s head. Then he pressed their foreheads together and simply breathed.
Unlike the barely restrained tempest that was Shen Wei, Zhu Yilong was the steady current of the ocean depths. And oh, Bai Yu was not prepared at all for the rich power of the dragon that saturated these deceptively still waters. It felt like drowning, leaving him gasping for air, except he had no inclination to swim for the surface. He peppered Zhu Yilong’s face, jawline, and lips with slow kisses, teasing and exploring. His fingers skimmed through Zhu Yilong’s hair, a light tug eliciting a sharp crackle of electricity that shot through them both. The possessive need coursing through Zhu Yilong’s veins became his own as he put his mouth on Zhu Yilong’s neck, relishing the light scrape of stubble on sensitive skin. Soon, he was lost to the waves of his own desire cresting on the answering waves of Zhu Yilong’s responses.
When they finally broke apart, they were both flushed and panting.
Bai Yu grinned weakly. “So, do you need any more convincing that dragon or human or anything else, I want you?”
Zhu Yilong gave him a weak punch to the arm.
“And if you ever find yourself doubting again, just remember this: I don’t need you to call down the wind or summon the rain. Remember when you lifted 80 kg on the weight machine and I was impressed for a whole week?”
That got a shy smile out of Zhu Yilong, and Bai Yu pushed onward with this victory. “Actually, I’m still kind of impressed because I didn’t sense you using any magic to help yourself…”
Zhu Yilong cracked up at that. His eyes danced with mischief. “And even though you did use magic, you still couldn’t lift it!”
That was a one-hit K.O.!
Bai Yu didn’t know whether to give in to the contagious glee coming from Zhu Yilong or to cry. He settled on pouting. “I can’t believe you’re treating your favorite fox spirit like this.”
“Why don’t I make it up to you, then?” asked Zhu Yilong, his smile turning wicked.
And there it was, a rush of dizzying heat so intense it made him light-headed. Bai Yu looked into Zhu Yilong’s eyes and let himself fall.
This was a travesty. Bai Yu, a majestic fox spirit and trickster prince, was being teased. And if that weren’t bad enough, he was being teased by a human. He knew that he shouldn’t rise to her bait. As a dignified immortal fox spirit, he had more pride than to anxiously jump to attention anytime Zhu Yilong was mentioned. Still, he was currently holding a livestream event, so he supposed it was bad form to ignore someone calling in that clearly had the viewers excited.
“So, do you miss Long-ge?” she asked, giggling.
“Of course. I’m always messaging him.”
“But Long-ge is waiting for you. When are you going to see him?”
“And where is Long-ge waiting for me?” asked Bai Yu, his tone patient and indulgent.
“At home! He’s invited you over for a meal.”
“You’re always using my Long-ge to provoke me!” Bai Yu shook his head at the fan reactions. Then he caught onto the actual words flying across his screen.
“Long-ge’s here?” Bai Yu leaned in closer. His tails weren’t wagging, because he was no longer an embarrassing young fox kit with no control over them. But if his tails perked up at the mere mention of Zhu Yilong, well, no one could blame him for that. “Where is he? Long-ge, can you type something? Ah? Is he really here?! PK! Long-ge, let’s PK!”
Maybe it was the news of Zhu Yilong visiting Bai Yu’s livestream drawing new viewers. Maybe it was the heavens conspiring against him. Right when he most needed everything to work, the stream started to lag. He battered at the keyboard helplessly, but the video moved in a slideshow, and the words on-screen collided in incomprehensible jumbles.
He sighed and apologized to his viewers, reaching out to close the livestream app. “Let’s try again later!”
Standing up, Bai Yu caught the flash of mischief too late to avoid his third tail getting captured. He paused as he felt a light tug on it. Then he turned around and jumped into Zhu Yilong’s arms.
“Long-ge! You’re here! Wow, your flying is getting faster every day.” He grinned. “Is it because you miss me too much? You even sabotaged my livestream!”
Zhu Yilong laughed, soft and carefree, as he stroked the fur on Bai Yu’s tails. “Are you hungry? It’s almost dinner-time.”
“Three regular meals a day! I’m so lucky.” Bai Yu grinned and closed his eyes, eagerly anticipating their kiss.
“Lucky or demanding?” asked Zhu Yilong. Then, not giving Bai Yu a chance to fire back, he captured Bai Yu’s lips in a slow, languorous kiss.
It had been more than a year since that fateful day in the mountains, and they’d shared countless kisses and nights together since then. Yet he was certain that even if they continued for another thousand years, he’d still never get tired of this. Whether lazy and indulgent, or hard and desperate, every kiss made Bai Yu’s knees go weak from the sensory overload and filled him with such strong bursts of joy that he almost didn’t know what to do with the extra energy.
Even this daily routine of meals - a chaste and quick kiss for breakfast, a wicked kiss holding a promise for more over lunch, and a long and unhurried kiss for dinner - continued to surprise him with its variety. Zhu Yilong was just so responsive once he'd stopped tamping down his emotions.
Bai Yu licked at the inside of Zhu Yilong’s mouth, tasting the spice of hotpot that lingered. “Mmm, you taste good. New recipe?”
Zhu Yilong nipped at Bai Yu’s neck. “I finally took your suggestion and added some dragonfire during the cooking process.”
Bai Yu jumped up in glee. “I knew it! I knew it! Didn’t I tell you how much better you were than all those boring other dragons who spend all day playing with lakes and storms?”
“Don’t be ridiculous.” Zhu Yilong blushed, not quite successful in hiding the flicker of pride that welled up.
Bai Yu beamed, pleased that Zhu Yilong had taken another step in accepting himself. He knew it wasn't easy being born under the wrong element for a dragon: to breathe fire and destruction instead of bringing rain and harvest. While he chose to live an unconventional life outcast from the other fox spirits, Zhu Yilong's inability to harness the weather meant he never had the choice of ruling his own territory in the first place. This new life they started to build together had now replaced Zhu Yilong's wistful longing for a territory of his own with quiet contentment though. All that remained was to shower Zhu Yilong in praise and adulation until he stopped being uncomfortable with his true dragon form.
“Come on! You know I’m right. Who cares about the rain? I can take an umbrella. But this! Hotpot cooked by celestial dragonfire. Now that’s a meal fit for immortals, even picky ones like me.”
“It's still too dangerous to try indoors.” Zhu Yilong's blush deepened.
“Hey.” Bai Yu kissed the tip of Zhu Yilong’s nose. “We have all the time in the world for you to get better at this. And once you perfected your control over your dragon breath, we can open the world's most popular hotpot restaurant and retire.”
Zhu Yilong smiled. “Maybe by then you’ll have gotten all your tails, and I can teach you how to fly.” Eagerness and anticipation surrounded them both.
“Please. Do you really think I’m going to lift a single tail to fly when I can ride on a dragon instead?”