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Take the Wheel

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The phone buzzes in Bai Yu’s hand and he smiles as he reads the incoming message.

Sounds great! See you soon. :)

People don’t usually consider a smiley face the most expressive of emojis, but coming from that sender it’s practically the same as an animated gif with glitter hearts and kissing faces. Bai Yu grins as he shoves the phone back in his pocket, his anticipation building.

A few minutes later he climbs out of the cab in front of the hotel, shoulders his backpack and tips the driver extra, because everyone should be happy tonight. It’s the 186th day since he last saw Zhu Yilong, Lost Tomb has finally wrapped shooting, and it’s their birthday week. Bai Yui is determined to make the most of it.

After a wink and a smile for the very kind, very discreet and also very well-tipped desk clerk, he finds the room, swipes the keycard, pushes the door open, swings his backpack down to the floor and spreads his arms for the welcoming hug he expects in three, two …

A person-shaped, person-sized lump shoves hard against his chest; it looks like a pile of rags, smells like a swamp and hits like a brick wall. He staggers back, yelping in surprise, his nose and mouth filled with the taste and smell of dust and mildew. He swings out blindly, his fist connecting with a dull thud somewhere in the center of the thing’s body mass. It doesn’t even budge.

It draws back what might be an arm, about to hit him again. He closes his eyes and throws his hands up in front of him, wrists crossed, hoping to deflect the blow. Not the face! he thinks desperately. Anywhere but the face! He has an important appearance next week - if it leaves a mark, chips a tooth, breaks his nose - Qi Zai will kill him, even if this thing doesn’t.

“Stop!” a familiar voice cries.

Bai Yu braces himself - and nothing happens.

He opens one eye to peek out from behind his wrists. There’s the strange humanoid creature, frozen with its limb caught in mid-swing, motionless now except for a thin haze of dust motes floating round it like a swarm of tiny gnats and a random strappy piece of - cloth, maybe? - fluttering gently as it swings from the thing’s cocked - elbow, probably?

“Sorry, sorry!” Zhu Yilong is there suddenly, his hands patting up and down Bai Yu’s torso. “Are you hurt? Where did he hit you? I’m so sorry! It’s just - he’s easily startled. I told him you were coming up, but he must not have understood what I meant. And he’s never met you before, so he doesn’t know -”

Bai Yu grabs his hands. Zhu Yilong freezes and looks up at him, his doe-eyes wide and worried.

“Long-ge,” Bai Yu says slowly, choosing his words with care. “What. The hell. Is that?”

“It’s my stunt mummy,” Zhu Yilong tells him, as if that clears everything up.

“Your - what?” Bai Yu asks, leaning to look past him at the thing - which remains exactly as it had been, stone-still and patiently waiting to clobber him. “A stunt mummy. From the production? Why is he still in costume?” He frowns. “Did you have to do last minute re-shoots or something? Why is he in your hotel room?”

Bai Yu’s frown deepens. Why, indeed! Why is some random stunt dude in his - his, uh, good friend’s hotel room, and why had he taken a swing at Bai Yu? If this guy thinks he can come up here dressed like some cut-rate B-movie extra and put any kind of moves on Long-ge, he’d better think again. Bai Yu’s jaw clenches as he fixes the stunt dude with his fiercest, most intimidating glare, channeling Bo Li about to rip his enemies apart with his bare hands, hoping the guy takes the hint.

Zhu Yilong sighs and tugs his hand, propelling him toward the bed. He puts his hands on Bai Yu’s shoulders and pushes him gently down. Stunt dude is, weirdly, still standing exactly where he was and is, even more weirdly, still not moving a muscle. He’s not even breathing hard from their altercation, Bai Yu notices with some consternation.

Actually, it doesn’t even look like he’s breathing at all.

“You’re going to want to be sitting down for this,” Zhu Yilong says, then turns toward stunt dude and utters a short stream of gibberish words in a guttural language that is definitely not Chinese, definitely not English, and probably not Italian, though neither of them are particularly great at the romance languages anyway, so Bai Yu can’t be one hundred percent sure - and the stunt dude vanishes, in a spiraling cloud of grey smoke.

Bai Yu yelps and leaps backward, scrambling across the bed until his back hits the headboard, staring at Zhu Yilong with his mouth open so far his lower jaw is practically in his lap. He points to the spot where the swirling fog is slowly dissipating, where there is no longer a human-shaped thing of any kind.

“Long-ge! Did he just - did he just disappear?”

Zhu Yilong comes to sit next to him on the bed. “I know I should have told you about this earlier, but there’s no good way to explain it over the phone without sounding like I’ve lost my mind.”

Bai Yu swallows hard. “Are you going to tell me about it now? Because I feel like I’ve lost my mind.”

“The truth is, he isn’t a stunt mummy. He’s - he’s an actual mummy. I, um… I raised him. During filming. Totally accidentally!” he insists. “I never meant to raise a mummy on purpose, or anything. It just sort of - happened. So he’s bound to me, and yeah, okay, he gets a little overprotective sometimes. But I’m responsible for him, I have to look out for him. We’ll just give him a few minutes to calm down, and then I’ll call him back and I’ll introduce you properly. Then it’ll all be fine.”

Bai Yu wonders if it’s possible for a person to have a psychotic break in the back of a taxicab and not even know it, to the point of hallucinating walking into a hotel and getting ambushed by a mummy. He’s certainly been working hard lately. Strange things happen when people get stressed beyond their ability to cope. But he doesn’t think he’s been that stressed, and his chest aches where he got thumped. Plus, the smell of old cheese and mildew is lingering in the room. So he’s not sure that’s really the answer.

“You,” he says, but it comes out with a croak. He clears his throat and tries again. “You raised. A mummy.”

Zhu Yilong tugs the hem of his t-shirt just over his right hip and lifts it a little. Bai Yu’s gaze follows the movement down, his heart fluttering at the sight of bare skin. There’s a faint outline there - a swooping, swirling shape, almost like someone traced the path of a bird in flight. It looks like a temporary tattoo, the cheap kind you would get in a costume shop, but when he reaches out and rubs a thumb across it, fascinated, it doesn’t smudge.

He raises his eyes to meet Zhu Yilong’s cautious glance. “Is this real?”

“It wasn’t supposed to be,” Zhu Yilong laments. “We were waiting around on set one night during shooting, and the prop guys were looking through this book they had for one of the scenes. Some kind of volume on Egyptian hieroglyphics and stuff. It was just supposed to be for atmosphere, it came in a stack they’d borrowed from a local shop.” He stops, looking at Bai Yu as if waiting for some kind of acknowledgement. So Bai Yu nods, and motions for him to keep going, like he understands anything about any of this.

“So the makeup team saw all these cool symbols in there,” he went on, “and someone had some black markers, so they started drawing different symbols on us. Just kidding around, you know? Just for fun, just for practice. They drew this one on me. But I was so tired when I got back to my room that night, I climbed into bed without showering and passed out. I didn’t think anything of it. I didn’t even remember it was there, by that time.” His eyes crinkle a little at the corners, his expression tightening; his fingers start to twist, worrying at the edges of his sleeves, tugging them down over his hands. “Now I can’t get it off.”

Bai Yu knows the signs of anxiety building in Zhu Yilong when he sees them, the tell-tale tiny cracks appearing in his carefully crafted control. He can’t help but react, the response so ingrained in him by now it’s almost second nature. He sits forward a little, leans more into his friend’s space; rolls his leg so that his calf is pressed against Zhu Yilong’s outer thigh. Zhu Yilong shifts too, instinctively pushing into the grounding touch.

Bai Yu nods encouragingly. “So then what happened?” he asks, trying to keep his voice steady and calm.

“When I woke up the next morning, there he was.”

“In your room?”

Zhu Yilong nods. “Kneeling by the bed. And when I say kneeling, I mean he was down on his knees and elbows, sort of - prostrating himself. I didn’t see him at first. I got up to pee and, uh, tripped over him.”

Bai Yu presses his fingers to the bridge of his nose, closing his eyes for a few seconds. “You tripped over him.”

“Yes.”

“A mummy, prostrating himself by your bed. You tripped over him.”

“Lao Bai, I know how it sounds. But you saw him!”

Bai Yu nods. “I did,” he says, more calmly than he feels. “I did see him. When he tried to body-slam me into the next room.”

“That’s the other thing,” Zhu Yilong says sheepishly. “He - he protects me. The symbol, it binds him to me, like I said. He can’t help it. He’s compelled to watch over me, and he has to obey me. It’s not his fault.”

“You need to be protected from me?” Bai Yu can’t hide his astonishment.

“Don’t take it personally,” Zhu Yilong says. “Sometimes he can sense my emotions, and once in a while when they’re - uh, stronger than usual - he misinterprets things. He’s getting a lot better, though, he’s learning. He used to just pop in randomly a lot in the beginning, but he doesn’t do that so much any more.”

Zhu Yilong was having stronger than usual emotions? Just before Bai Yu’s planned arrival? He desperately wants to pick that revelation apart, in a lot more detail - but now really isn’t the best time, so he tucks it away for later and goes back to the matter at hand. “How - how did you get any work done?”

“I said stunt mummy because that’s what I told the production staff he was whenever he appeared on set. Nobody ever questioned me. It was easier to have him showing up randomly here and there if people thought he was, you know, part of the crew. I even got him into some of the action scenes. He’s very good,” Long-ge says, and is that - is it pride, in his voice? “He doesn’t get hurt, and he never gets tired. He really throws himself into his work.”

Bai Yu shakes his head, astounded. He pinches the outside of his thigh, just out of Zhu Yilong’s line of sight. It definitely hurts. Still not dreaming, then.

“He always checked on the rest of us after a take to make sure we were okay. Especially me, though not just me. And he never complained about the hours, or the heat, or having to do multiple takes. I mean, sure - he doesn’t eat, and he never took a bathroom break, but no one really noticed. Everyone on set loved him by the time we wrapped. He’s really very kind, once you get to know him.” Now Zhu Yilong sounds defensive, his hands curling into fists on his lap. Bai Yu groans inwardly. He’s barely been here ten minutes and already this week is not going like he planned at all.

“Long-ge, I’m sorry,” he says. “I just need a little time to understand. It’s a lot to take in - symbols, and mummies, and - what was that you said when you made him disappear? Those strange words?” He tries to imitate what they’d sounded like, but all that comes out is a weird gurgling cough.

“Words of power,” Zhu Yilong explains. “Egyptian magic is centered around spoken words and symbols. I took the book from set,” he says, looking a little embarrassed at his admission of thievery. “I went to a translator at the university; I told her I needed to do some homework for the role of Wu Xie. She helped me figure some of them out. So I can call the mummy when I need him, and make a couple of other basic requests. I can banish him too, like I just did. Although I asked him about the banishing first, I mean, I didn’t want to just send him someplace awful without realizing it. That would be a terrible thing to do to someone. So I asked him, if I banished him, where he would go. He said it’s nowhere really - it feels just like falling asleep, and he doesn’t mind at all. So I feel okay about doing that now. I don’t have to banish him often, but - sometimes, he can be a bit - much,” he says weakly, looking down at his fingers, now twisting in the hem of his shirt.

Despite the complete weirdness of the situation, Bai Yu feels a wry smile tugging at the corners of his mouth. Of course Long-ge worries about the comfort of a mummy. Of course he feels bad about needing to take time for himself, when things around him get to be ‘a bit much’. He nudges the other man with his leg.

“So, does this mummy have a name?”

Zhu Yilong shakes his head. “I don’t know. He doesn’t remember if he ever had one, and it feels weird trying to think of a name for him. He’s a person, not a pet.”

“Well we can’t just keep calling him ‘stunt mummy’,” Bai Yu says. “It isn’t practical. What did you call him on set?”

He looks sheepish again. “Nothing - just ‘mummy number eight’.”

“Eight, hm? So, we’ll call him - Lucky,” Bai Yu says with a grin.

An answering smile lights up Zhu Yilong’s face. “That’s perfect,” he says, then a moment later flinches with embarrassment upon realizing that, in his excitement, he’s laid a hand on Bai Yu’s thigh. But before he can jerk away Bai Yu covers it with his own. If Bai Yu has to deal with an overly aggressive mummy, Long-ge can deal with one little display of affection. They have a whole week together, and he doesn’t want to rush, but neither does he want to pretend they don’t both know what this friendship has been building toward, through all the long months of separation - the gaming sessions and texts, private chats and video calls ... but. Bai Yu is perfectly willing to keep moving slowly - as long as Zhu Yilong’s willing to move with him, at whatever pace he needs, in whatever direction it is they’re going.

Baby steps, as they say.

“Does anyone else know?” he asks. "That he's not really a stunt mummy?" Zhu Yilong shakes his head. So, Bai Yu is the only person he’s trusted with this big, important, life-altering secret. Interesting.

He nudges Zhu Yilong’s hand, turns it over, laces their fingers together. The other man’s ears turn bright pink - but he doesn’t try to let go.

“No sense wasting any more time,” he grins, enjoying how the flush deepens and moves across Zhu Yilong’s cheeks. “Now that Lucky has a name, we can commence with the introductions.” He waves his free hand at the spot where the mummy had disappeared. “Can you call him back?”

Zhu Yilong nods, and takes a deep breath. “Tell me when you’re ready,” he says.

“I’m as ready as I’ll ever be,” Bai Yu replies, and the shy but hopeful smile he gets in response tells him Zhu Yilong understands all the different ways he means it.