The best thing about filming period dramas — the one good thing that offsets the wigs wreaking havoc on Xiao Zhan's hairline, zero access to the Internet, and sweating through three layers of hanfu every day — is that they get to spend full weeks away from the city.
The air smells fresher outside Beijing. In the wilderness, there's no danger of getting hit by a car on the street when Xiao Zhan has to shift, no noisy traffic clanging in his head. He doesn't need to make do with lurking around Jingshan Park trying to avoid the night guards, can actually stretch his legs for a change, get the pads of his paws dirty and not have to care about tracking mud into the hotel room.
If he closes his eyes and breathes, it always reminds him, a little bit, of home. Growing up in Chongqing meant that he had easy access to the Jialing and the Yangtze, the sprawl of woods and handful of lakes littered around the city center. Some nights during college when Xiao Zhan didn't want to study anymore, the itch making him prickle all over, he'd run the two hours to Zhaishanping and back, feeling the blood sing through his veins, fur damp and matted by the end of it. He never seems to mind the sweat as much when he's turned.
Their first night in Guiyang, two weeks into production, Xiao Zhan hops out the window of the room he's sharing with Yibo and does a quick five-kilometer circuit around the hotel, just to get a lay of the land. It isn't too hot yet, but it is humid; he can smell the water hanging heavy as he picks his way through the valley.
He's barely breathing hard when he returns, the moon high in the sky. In retrospect, he should've scented the air before jumping through the window, but the giddiness of being in a feline body for the first time in a while must get to him, because he doesn't notice the very human figure frozen in the doorway of the bathroom until it gasps.
Xiao Zhan looks up, ears twitching. Yibo's staring straight at him, mouth hanging slightly open, a towel clutched around his waist.
Oh, shit, Xiao Zhan thinks, blinking slowly once, twice, and then hops right back out the window again.
"There was a fucking panther in our room," Yibo announces to the breakfast table the next morning. It's about the third time he's said it in the past five minutes. Xiao Zhan was ready to be done with it last night, honestly, but when he'd hastily shifted, pulled on a bathrobe, and made it up to their room on the second floor, Yibo was nowhere to be found.
"Relax," he says now, placating, and dumps a spoonful of pickled veggies on top of Yibo's untouched congee. "Are you sure you haven't been watching too many Marvel movies?"
"You didn't see it!" Yibo insists, eyes wide as saucers. Xiao Zhan would be a little endeared if he wasn't so annoyed. He's seen himself in a mirror; he's definitely not the size of a panther. "Dude, I can't believe you stayed the night. I had to go bunk with Haikuan and Yu Bin."
"It was not great, let me tell you," Yu Bin puts in, dry. "A twin bed isn't meant to hold two grown-ass men."
"Are panthers even native to this area?" Xuan Lu asks thoughtfully, at the same time Haikuan points out, "Yibo, you know black cats are supposed to be good luck, right?" and Zhuocheng suggests, "If it didn't attack you, maybe it was just a curious stray."
Yibo watches the conversation rapidly deteriorate from there and glumly turns back to his food. "Not a fan of cats, huh," Xiao Zhan says, voice light, knocking their knees together between the table.
"I love cats," he grumbles. Despite himself, Xiao Zhan feels somewhat heartened. "I just don't like — you know, being startled."
"Totally fair," he replies, tapping a finger against his chin. "So I guess that means I should tell you about the ghost that visited me last night before we go back to our—"
"I'll kill you," Yibo says, murder in his eyes, and kicks Xiao Zhan's shin.
The ensuing tussle ends with congee in Yibo's hair and red marks along Xiao Zhan's forearm where Yibo managed to pinch him. "Boys," Xuan Lu says, rolling her eyes. She slides a porcelain teapot around the lazy susan, pointing at their mugs. "Drink your tea."
That's probably how it began the first day they met, at lunch in the cafeteria before table reads. It's easier to get close to someone when you can tease them. Yibo's eminently teasable, with his weird bedtime routine and intense love for his motorcycle. At boot camp, he immediately started giving back as good as he got once he realized how much Xiao Zhan sucked at rock-paper-scissors, and red hands, and the palm-push game. Cats are supposed to bring people luck; that doesn't mean they're lucky. Xiao Zhan's reflexes always feel too slow and dumb in a human body to keep up.
Today, their call time is at one in the afternoon to make use of the right light. Xiao Zhan spends most of hair and makeup bickering with Yibo about the panther, which has, by the time they're ready to go, somehow grown in infamy and stature to roughly the size of a tiger.
"I'm pretty sure those are extinct in Guizhou," Xiao Zhan says blandly, grinning when Yibo scowls, and then Director Cheng's waving them into frame for the first take.
With the help of several electric fans and a few choicely placed hairbands, they get through the main handful of sequences right as the sun's slipping down past the horizon. Yibo's quiet on the ride back to the hotel. At first, Xiao Zhan chalks it up to being tired, but when he hangs a left in the lobby instead of following Yibo to the stairs and hears Yibo's steps stutter, Xiao Zhan recognizes the tell-tale signs of nervousness.
"Aren't you coming up?" Yibo asks, brow furrowed.
"In a minute," Xiao Zhan says, biting the inside of his cheek to keep from smiling. "I gotta go talk to Xuan Lu and Zhuocheng about the scene blocking for tomorrow."
Yibo's clearly reluctant to let him go, but he trudges up the stairs alone anyway. When the coast is clear, Xiao Zhan slides into one of the stalls in the downstairs bathroom, folds his clothes in a neat pile on the closed toilet seat, and shifts.
A cursory listen reveals an open path out the back door. He closes his jaw gently around his clothes and pads his way out past the night guard dozing off in his chair. Circling around to where their room is, he jumps quietly onto the ledge of the window again, balancing on the thin edge of wood, and scratches at the frame.
Fear, when Xiao Zhan can smell it, always oozes viscous in his nose. Stress and uncertainty are both a little different—tart like vinegar, which is what he can smell now through the window.
"Who's there?" Yibo says, sounding tense.
Xiao Zhan rolls his eyes and lets a low rumble escape from between his clenched teeth.
"What the hell," he hears Yibo mutter under his breath. A moment later, he yanks the curtains open. Xiao Zhan tilts his head. Yibo stares at him for about half a minute, stiff as a board, before his eyes drop to the fabric in Xiao Zhan's mouth. Recognition does not dawn on him as quickly as Xiao Zhan would've liked; he raises one paw and knocks on the glass, too impatient to wait.
"I don't have, like, milk or anything," Yibo says inanely, but he takes the slow step forward, unlocks the window and pushes it up. Xiao Zhan ducks underneath it and lands lightly on the floor, depositing his clothes next to the end of his bed. He turns around twice just to give Yibo a good look at him. Then he stretches his paws in front of him, tail twitching, and shifts back.
Yibo just manages to smother his yell behind his hands, but it's a near miss. "Jesus," Xiao Zhan says, cracking his neck. "Calm down. We'll get a noise complaint if you keep this up."
"You — what," Yibo splutters. He doesn't seem to have the breath to finish a full sentence.
"Look, I'm shit at keeping secrets, so I thought I'd get out ahead of it," Xiao Zhan says. "Sorry, I didn't mean to scare you yesterday."
"I — okay," Yibo says, eyes narrow. He takes a long, slow, deep breath. "Okay." Xiao Zhan can see the gears in his head turning. "You're… a werepanther?"
"Clouded leopard, actually, but it's close." He raises his eyebrows. "Anything else you want to know?"
Yibo rubs a hand over his face. The tips of his ears are red. "Could you put some clothes on first?"
"Oh, right," Xiao Zhan says, glancing down at himself. He'd learned pretty early on to stop being self-conscious about this kind of thing, but not everyone has. "Forgot about that."
He bends down to rifle through his suitcase, pulls a pair of loose sweats and a big t-shirt on. Yibo's staring at him as Xiao Zhan sinks cross-legged onto his bed; he mirrors the movement, chewing on his lower lip.
Xiao Zhan leans back, palms against the sheets. "Well?"
"I'm trying to remember what I learned about this stuff in school," Yibo mutters, because of course he is. It's hard to forget how young Yibo is when he reminds everyone all the time.
Xiao Zhan grimaces. "Not much, I imagine," he says, lifting his shoulders. The government always likes sterilizing narratives to suit them; everything Xiao Zhan learned, he learned from his parents.
He shifts, the box spring creaking underneath him, which is when Yibo snatches a pillow from his bed and tosses it at Xiao Zhan's head.
"Hey!" Xiao Zhan says, muffled through a faceful of cloth. He throws it back over.
Yibo catches it and squints at him. "Aren't werecreatures supposed to have great reflexes? Or like, super strength?"
"Marvel's misinformation campaign strikes once more," Xiao Zhan laments, wringing his hands. He laughs when Yibo leans over the divide between their beds and smacks him with the pillow again. "Strength and reflexes — in cat form, yeah, sure. In this body? Not so much." He makes a face. "You can ask X NINE's dance instructors all about it."
"So you aren't purposely losing at red hands?" Yibo demands, and Xiao Zhan feels such a swell of amused affection in his chest that for a minute, it's hard to breathe. So fucking competitive. He remembers what that was like.
"I would never," Xiao Zhan says, pressing a solemn hand to his chest. "That's all you, Wang-laoshi." A beat later, the corner of his mouth tilts up. "My sense of smell and hearing are always great, though, so try not to whack off too much in the shower."
"Oh my God," Yibo says, voice rising half an octave. Xiao Zhan fully deserves the pillow to the face he gets for that one.
It's not that Xiao Zhan expected that to be the end of it. He just hadn't factored in Yibo's persistent curiosity. Xiao Zhan's used to people's interest dying out after a week or two; eventually, inevitably, the novelty wears off. His college roommates mostly relied on him to tell whether the RAs were coming down the hall after quiet hours and they had to hide their stash of alcohol. When Xiao Zhan still lived at the X NINE dorm with Jiacheng and Zhiguang and their gaggle of cats, he'd shift sometimes and let them climb all over him, therapeutic after a long day of promotional schedules.
And then there's Yibo. When they're off set and dealing with the endless parade of other work duties, he peppers their WeChat thread with questions: do you have to turn once a month (yes) and can you ONLY turn once a month (no) and have you ever killed and eaten an animal as a leopard??? Xiao Zhan responds to that one with i'll never kiss and tell and gets a string of alarmed emojis in return for his troubles.
The next time they see each other, Yibo's fresh off a plane from variety show tapings in Changsha. He tilts his head in toward Xiao Zhan's ear during hair and makeup and asks, "Can you talk to other cats? Real ones?"
It's barely been a month, but the crew has long since gotten used to their weird topics of conversation and pays them no mind. They probably think they're talking about a video game, honestly. "Kind of," Xiao Zhan says, thinking of Jian Guo lazing through the summer heat with his mom in Chongqing. "It's not — it's different. They don't really have language like we do."
"What are you talking about?" Yu Bin asks, poking his head between them. His Wen Ning makeup is half done, and one of the artists keeps studiously applying black crack marks up the side of his neck.
"My cat," Xiao Zhan says smoothly, pulling his phone out. "Wanna see pictures?"
Later, while they're waiting for the crew to set up in the woods, Yibo pulls him aside again. "What do you mean, they don't have language?"
Xiao Zhan breathes in the thick scent of maple, feels his shoulders relax. "I mean, think about us," he murmurs, gesturing at the script in his hands. "These are the words we're supposed to say, but acting is more than just reading the lines, right?" He knocks his elbow against Yibo's arm. "Half of yours are my name, anyway. Must be nice."
"Fuck you," Yibo returns, but he's grinning.
"Take me out for dinner first," Xiao Zhan says, grinning back, and flicks his finger against one of Yibo's hair straps. "See? The real meaning behind whatever you say relies on a bunch of nonverbal context. Cats are the same. All animals, really." As if on cue, a squirrel chitters high up on a branch of the big tree they're standing next to. When Xiao Zhan looks up, it's rubbing its ears, which either means hey, ladies or it's hot as balls today, depending. "They make noise, but it's much more than that: smell, movement, the taste of the air."
"I see," Yibo says, following his gaze. Hopefully it's enough to chew on until he inevitably returns with another question.
They're filming a flurry of fight scenes in the woods today; Director Cheng's got an elaborate pulley system set up in the foliage. Xiao Zhan goes first, strapped in comfortably. For obvious reasons, he's never minded heights. It comes with the territory. Growing up, Mom liked to say Xiao Zhan was born in a tree; he'd climb every one he saw as a kid, in both forms, dangling upside down from the highest branch he could. Now, he swings back and forth in the harness between takes, making rude gestures at Yu Bin after he starts blowing raspberries up at him.
Yibo doesn't fare so well. He starts looking green by the time they've hauled him halfway up, arms stiff, knuckles white around Bichen. They'd practiced a little bit of this during boot camp, but doing it in a sterile soundstage is still different from being out here, teetering two meters over the forest floor.
"Hey," Xiao Zhan calls. Yibo twists to look at him, and Xiao Zhan wrinkles his nose. "If you puke on Yu Bin, the hairstylists are going to be pissed." Yu Bin pretends like he's gonna toss a rock at them, eyebrows waggling. "On second thought, please puke on Yu Bin."
"Don't make me laugh," Yibo complains. "The shaking gets worse."
"Just focus on me and breathe," Xiao Zhan says, pitching his voice low and soothing, the way he speaks to Jian Guo when she's particularly agitated. "Try not to look at the ground. You aren't going to fall."
"Don't patronize me either," Yibo replies, but the fingers clenched around his sword are loosening, and he leans into the next gentle swing of the harness. The corner of his mouth lifts into a smile as he exhales, long and slow. With a flash, he reaches out and taps Bichen against Xiao Zhan's shin. It's not hard enough to sting, but Xiao Zhan still sways back, wincing.
"This is how I'm being repaid?" he grumbles. He twirls his bamboo flute between his fingers and points it at Yibo's face. "Watch your back, Lao Wang."
"We're starting," Director Cheng calls, shaking his head, a smile pulling at his lips. "Places, everyone."
Xiao Zhan sighs. "Rain check on the sword fight?"
After that, they settle into the hectic filming schedule with as much aplomb as can be expected. Xiao Zhan spends the rest of May with a revolving door of cast members: they stay up till three in the morning to work on the night scenes, they soak in fake rain and fake lakewater, they wear out the batteries on each set of electronic fans every two days. Yu Bin smuggles a truly staggering amount of contraband snacks underneath his hanfu so they can share them on set, to universal acclaim. Xiao Zhan plays red hands until his knuckles hurt, sings along to every song that pops into someone's head, and doodles little cartoons in the margins of any script he can get his hands on.
When they get bored of all of that, Yibo teaches Xiao Zhan how to dance.
Yibo's a mentor on Produce 101 this year, so it stands to reason that he'd spend a lot of their downtime idly rehearsing girl group choreo. "I'm supposed to film an episode with one of the teams next week," Xiao Zhan tells him while they're waiting for Little Apple to get saddled up. He hums a bit of the song. Yibo's standing next to Haikuan on a higher berm, wiggling his hands, and he raises his eyebrows. "Show me what to look forward to."
There's something deeply hilarious about Yibo's deadpan expression when he strikes a pose and starts swinging his hips. Xiao Zhan grins, a reflex by now. A ripple of laughter washes over the gathered cast and crew. "Your turn," Yibo says, crossing his arms. "Try not to dislocate anything."
"Go to hell," Xiao Zhan says, trying to mimic what he saw. It's hard with so much hanfu wrapped around his legs.
"Surely you can do better than that," Yibo says. A moment later, he hops down and slides around behind Xiao Zhan, hands firm through the thick fabric of his costume. "Like this," he continues, and then they're moving together in time with the beat in his head, Yibo's touch guiding him through it. "God, you're stiff."
"I'm a senior citizen, Wang-laoshi," Xiao Zhan says, forlorn, and takes a step out of the circle of Yibo's arms. No one else seems to have noticed the heat rising in his face; thank God for foundation. "Can't teach an old dog new tricks."
"What about an old cat?" Yibo murmurs. He sashays away, smirking, before Xiao Zhan can hit him.
Xiao Zhan flies back to Beijing two days later, arrives at ten in the evening to a terminal packed with fans. He's so tired when he gets back to his apartment that he crashes without changing out of his airport clothes. His stylist is probably going to give him hell about that later, but there's no time to dwell on it. Early the next morning, he has a cover shoot in Chaoyang, where they manage to wrangle him into some semblance of healthy color, and then he has to book it to Tencent for Produce.
Having done his time on an elimination show and been rescued from the jaws of death by opaque management decisions, Xiao Zhan understands the rigged nature of the game. It doesn't mean he can't enjoy it, though; his team is fun, a good mix of girls, and after he pulls the hidden photographer prank on them, they relax into filming.
He doesn't actually run into Yibo until the end of the week, when all the teams are supposed to perform in front of each other. They're gathered in the auditorium waiting their turn when Yibo walks in with his group. "Nice suit, Lao Wang," Xiao Zhan calls, nonchalant, and waves when Yibo's head snaps around. Xiao Zhan's gotten so used to seeing Yibo in a long wig and period-appropriate dress that the normal hair and makeup is honestly a little dazzling. "It's very, uh, red."
"You look like a checkerboard," Yibo returns, glancing down at the outfit Xiao Zhan was handed this morning. He's not wrong. They're baggy clothes, a button-up shirt and slacks with big black and white boxes printed all over. Sometimes Xiao Zhan has no idea what the hell these people are thinking.
Most of the girls around them are going through their moves together, but Wang Ting glances at Xiao Zhan, eyebrows rising. "Gege, you know Wang-laoshi?"
"You could say that," Xiao Zhan says, managing to keep a straight face. "This guy always bullies me on set."
Yibo looks like he's about to hit him out of habit, but then realizes that they're with a bunch of impressionable, aspiring pop stars. "You deserve it," he says after a moment, for lack of a better comeback.
Xiao Zhan grins. "If my team beats yours, will you treat me to dinner?"
Qiuzi perks up, nudging Wang Ting's arm. "Why stop there?" Yibo says. Typical. "If you win this round, I'll buy your entire group dinner."
"Hear that, ladies?" Xiao Zhan says, flashing them two thumbs up. "Go get 'em."
They win audience voting by a landslide. Xiao Zhan sidles up to Yibo afterwards, backstage when they've changed into street clothes again, and laughs when Yibo groans. "Not gonna renege on our deal, are you?"
"Should I even honor it when you knew they were going to win?" Yibo returns, but there's no heat to it.
Xiao Zhan throws him a peace sign. "Don't hate the player, baby, hate the game."
Yibo snorts, jamming a black baseball cap over his head. "You know we leave for Hengdian first thing tomorrow morning."
"Late night fried chicken it is, then," Xiao Zhan says. The girls are loitering in the hallway, and Meiqi and Wang Ting cheer when they hear him; Qiuzi starts a chant with the others as they head out toward the waiting van. Yibo's stomach growls, and Xiao Zhan pulls his face mask over his mouth to keep from exuding too much satisfaction. "Gotta make the cheat meal worth it, Wang-laoshi."
Yibo, to his credit, rises to the occasion with the equanimity of a graceful loser. They get chicken and skewers and a boatload of beer that the various managers in attendance pretend to ignore. By the end of dinner, Xiao Zhan's just the right kind of pleasantly tipsy that makes it easy to suggest the move to the karaoke place down the street. Qiuzi goads Yibo into doing some convoluted rap in Korean, which Xiao Zhan immediately records to post on WeChat.
There's a message from Yu Bin waiting on Xiao Zhan's phone the next time he checks it, after he's wrapped up his own rousing rendition of I Want It That Way. how dare you ktv without me!!! you know i used to be a main rapper too it says, along with a reaction meme of Zhuocheng's pissed off Jiang Cheng face.
Yibo's flushed but clear-eyed when Xiao Zhan shows it to him. "The FOMO is real," he says, shuffling closer to squint at the meme, chin hooking over Xiao Zhan's shoulder. "Tell him we'll take him out the next time we're all in the city."
"Sure," Xiao Zhan says amiably, ignoring the pins and needles shooting down his arm. He snaps a quick, poorly lit selfie of the two of them to send to Yu Bin, and then replies to Zhao Lei's string of fire emojis on his video of Yibo with a cry-laughing emoji of his own.
At the front of the room, Wang Ting and Qiuzi have started dueting a Disney ballad; Xiao Zhan leans back against the squashy couch and closes his eyes for a moment, letting the harmony wash over him. "Sleepy drunk?" Yibo asks, the puff of his breath tickling the shell of Xiao Zhan's ear.
"Cats can sleep anywhere," Xiao Zhan supplies. "It's kind of a point of pride." He feels more than hears Yibo's laughter, rumbling against the side of his neck, and exhales slowly. "You're a clingy drunk, huh."
"Something like that," Yibo says. When he pulls away, the tide receding, the hollow of Xiao Zhan's shoulder feels too cold.
They meet up at the gate before boarding the next morning. Yibo's face is puffy, and there are a pair of big sunglasses covering his eyes. "Any regrets?" Xiao Zhan croaks, nursing an iced coffee.
"I don't believe in regrets," Yibo replies, simultaneously the most metal and the most hilarious thing Xiao Zhan has heard him say. Their seats aren't next to each other, but Yibo spends the whole flight flicking complimentary peanuts at Xiao Zhan from across the aisle to see if he can dodge them. By the time they disembark, he's mostly just thankful they haven't gotten banned from ever flying China Southern again.
Xiao Zhan spends the afternoon blocking out the next section of the script with Xuan Lu and Zhuocheng, and then they start filming night scenes after dinner. It doesn't occur to him that it's the first day of the full moon until around midnight, halfway through a line reading about Wen Chao, when he feels the telltale tickle at the base of his neck, the ache in his teeth.
He flubs the line twice before Director Cheng calls a cut and ushers the lighting guys back in to do their thing. Xiao Zhan slides out into the courtyard, skin prickling, and pulls Yibo aside. His hand feels too hot against Yibo's wrist, but it does help ground him a little. "Hey," he says under his breath, swallowing thickly. "Weird request, but can you pinch me?"
Yibo sends him a nonplussed glance, but when he peers closer at the sheen of sweat on Xiao Zhan's forehead and then looks up at the sky, Xiao Zhan can tell he's kind of caught on. "Shit," he says. "Is it — bad?"
"Nothing that hasn't happened before." Shifting more during the rest of the month tends to mitigate the all-consuming need during full moons, but every so often it's worse than usual. "I think I can make it if you help." Xiao Zhan tries out a smile, hopes it doesn't look too much like a grimace. "Should be easy for you since you hit me all the time."
Yibo huffs out a laugh, reaching up. The first pinch doesn't do much, but Yibo catches more meat on the second try, and Xiao Zhan exhales into the pain, the fog in his head clearing. "Alright?" Yibo says, voice low with concern.
"Yeah," Xiao Zhan says. "Better." He realizes belatedly that he's still holding onto Yibo's wrist and makes himself let it go. Zhuocheng walks by, yawning into his script, and sends their two-person huddle an odd look. "Need a wake-up pinch, shidi?" Xiao Zhan asks, pincering his fingers at Zhuocheng, and spends the rest of the break chasing him around the courtyard until Director Cheng calls them inside again.
Xiao Zhan's entire bicep feels bruised when they finally wrap for the night. Yibo sits with him in the back of the van on the way back to the hotel, sneaking glances sideways as Xiao Zhan's knee jitters into his.
His breathing has started to pick up by the time they make it up to the room. "You don't have to stay for this," Xiao Zhan says through gritted teeth, kicking his shoes off and pulling his shirt over his head before the door has even swung all the way closed behind them.
"Can I, though?" Yibo asks, almost shy. When Xiao Zhan whirls around to look at him, Yibo's gaze is steady. He clears his throat. "I want — can I watch the shift? I wasn't paying enough attention the first time."
"Curiosity killed the cat," Xiao Zhan says in clipped English. Yibo's brow furrows, and Xiao Zhan shakes his head as he wiggles out of his jeans. "Never mind. Just didn't think you'd be so interested."
Yibo shrugs. "I mean, it's usually part of my job. You know they always send me out to do stuff and learn things on Day Day Up. I'm adaptable."
"You're half their age and therefore twice as energetic," Xiao Zhan counters, but the faint ghost of a smile passes over his face anyway. "Well, whatever you want. I'm just warning you, it's not super pleasant."
"I can take it," Yibo says, jaw jutting out, determined in a way that makes something warm bloom in Xiao Zhan's chest, and then he doesn't have the time or the energy to think about it anymore. Instinct takes over, the rush of blood in his ears drowning out everything else.
The first time Xiao Zhan remembers watching himself turn, he was six, maybe seven. By that point, he'd done it enough times that it wasn't shocking, but there was still something unsettling about seeing a body morph in ways that didn't seem possible, the pressure of all those bones snapping into the right places. He's always been impressed at the conservation of fluids; you'd think more stuff would end up splattered on the ground.
It's not painful, honestly, but it is taxing. When he opens his eyes again, lighter and low-set and crouched down on all fours, he's panting a little. He steps out of his abandoned underwear, makes sure everything is where it needs to be, and looks up.
The expression on Yibo's face is unreadable. He hasn't run away screaming yet, which is something. There's no fear when Xiao Zhan scents the air, but Yibo's nervous, maybe.
"Wow," he says after a long moment, hands clenching reflexively at his sides, and then he takes a step forward. Xiao Zhan steps back without thinking, eyes focusing on the strip of distance between them. "Hey, no," Yibo says, freezing. On second thought, he sinks down into a squat so they're eye-level and reaches out with one hand.
So they're gonna How To Train Your Dragon this shit, huh? Xiao Zhan would laugh if he could do it in this body. It does feel nice to be petted — which is true in any form — so he pads forward the last few steps and noses at Yibo's palm, smells the residual sweat from an evening's worth of filming on his skin.
Yibo's other hand comes up to scratch between his ears, down his neck. Xiao Zhan narrows his eyes and hums, leaning into it. "I didn't know leopards purred," Yibo murmurs, the corner of his mouth flipping up. "You're so weird, Xiao-laoshi."
Oh, I'm the weird one? Xiao Zhan thinks. He pretends to snap at Yibo's arm. When Yibo retracts his hands, vaguely alarmed, Xiao Zhan circles around and hops up onto Yibo's bed, parks himself right in the center of it. "Come on," Yibo whines, "you have your own perfectly good bed right there," but when Xiao Zhan still hasn't moved after he's finished getting ready for bed, he rolls his eyes, switches the TV to a random CCTV channel, and slides underneath the sheets next to him.
It's strange: most nights of the full moon, all Xiao Zhan wants is to be far away from civilization, running through damp underbrush and catching his breath while curled around a treetop deep in the forest. He doesn't feel the thrumming need for it today, though. One of Yibo's hands rubs absently against the spots on his fur, stroking down from his neck to his haunches. Xiao Zhan settles into the gentle touch, lets his eyes slide shut. He feels fine just where he is.
The next morning, Xiao Zhan wakes up with the sun. Yibo's still dead to the world, so Xiao Zhan hops off the bed as quietly as he can, shifts back, and slides into the bathroom to take a quick shower.
His clothes are still lying around the front hallway where he left them; his underwear hadn't fared so well through the transition last night, part of the seam of one leg ripped up. When Yibo stirs, Xiao Zhan's already laid out his travel sewing kit on the empty bed and gotten to work.
"Bzwuh?" he says, voice raspy. Xiao Zhan smiles around the needle in his mouth. "Are you sewing?"
"No, I'm about to give myself a stick-and-poke tattoo," Xiao Zhan says, dry, and nearly loses the needle laughing at the expression that crosses Yibo's face. "Of course I'm sewing. These are nice boxers." Yibo watches his fingers move, blinking blearily. "You know how many things I accidentally tore apart when I was a kid? Mom started refusing to buy me new clothes until I learned how to do this."
"Right," Yibo says. "Makes sense." He pushes himself up to a seated position, rubbing at his mussed hair. "Yesterday," he continues, brow furrowed, "that was, uh. It looked like it hurt."
"It doesn't, really," Xiao Zhan says, waving it off. "It's like — have you gotten your wisdom teeth out? No, you're a child—"
"Shut up," Yibo says, threatening to throw a pillow at him.
"Watch it, I've got pointy objects over here." Xiao Zhan ties off the loose end of his thread, pulls out the tiny pair of scissors to snip it down. "Shifting is kind of like tooth extraction, except all over your body, but since you're anesthetized, it's just a lot of pulling and compression. Force."
"That's a terrible analogy," Yibo grumbles, but his mouth is twitching. After a moment, he hugs the pillow, fiddling with a corner of the sham. "Thanks for showing me, though. It was kind of gross, but in a cool way."
It's probably the most sincere compliment Xiao Zhan's ever gotten about the whole thing. "We should go out running next time," he offers, casual as anything, and Yibo perks up. "Pick a trail. I'll race your skateboard."
"Hell yes," Yibo says, completely predictable, and pumps his fist in the air.
Full moon blip aside, the rhythm of filming proceeds apace. Xiao Zhan's episode of Produce 101 airs the second week of June, when they have to act through what feels like a solid wall of humidity in Guiyang. He gets a lot of messages in the X NINE group chat about his prank, and one from his old digital design professor complimenting his form. "Why did they edit this like you guys don't even know each other?" Yu Bin asks while they're playing with the lotus pod props out on the lake.
"Why are you even watching that right now?" Yibo retorts, at the same time Xiao Zhan says, in the smarmiest voice he can manage, "Wouldn't you like to know what couldn't be broadcast?" He manages to dodge the lotus seed that Yu Bin lobs at him, but not Yibo's exasperated slap on his arm.
As the crew reworks the soundstage, he and Yibo crowd around Yu Bin's phone too. Streaming video beats the Russian roulette of trying to pick sweet lotus seeds out from among the bitter ones. The quality is pretty good despite the spotty Wi-Fi, because Yu Bin had apparently downloaded it beforehand. "Pays to be prepared, boys," Yu Bin says, full-screening it for them.
The truth is, even if they were watching it in 240p, Yibo's dancing would still be mesmerizing. Xiao Zhan just saw it last month in Beijing under bright stage lights, and now he gets to see it every other day on set, a routine part of their laundry list of boredom killers. Yibo's just going through the motions to teach them to his team, face as deadpan as ever, but the way his body moves still pops off the screen.
Xiao Zhan's early promotions with X NINE seem like a fever dream at this point, blurring over as time goes on, but he remembers clear as day the first time he actually met Yibo, long before they were cast in the same drama. "This is gonna be brutal," Zhiguang told him before the dance battle on Day Day Up, and Xiao Zhan hadn't really believed it at first, but then he'd walked onto that stage and held his breath, goosebumps rising on his skin, through Yibo's entire routine.
Sometimes you see someone do something and know you're never going to be able to replicate it, and you're okay with that. You make your peace. It's enough just to have witnessed the art.
Xiao Zhan snaps out of it when Yibo's mentor session ends and the episode jumps to some other team prepping for their performance. The boom mic above them creaks into place. Xiao Zhan leans against the edge of the boat to steady himself. "How come you're never that easy on me, Wang-laoshi?" he complains, shaking the residual tingle from his shoulders, and chuckles when Yibo's expression goes flat.
"I've found that you respond better to tough love," Yibo says primly, rapping Xiao Zhan's arm with the lotus pod he still has clutched in one hand. "Fix your posture, Xiao-laoshi." Yu Bin starts cackling when Xiao Zhan tips his head back and groans.
At the end of the month, when the moon's high in the sky again, they go running.
The hotel they usually stay at in Hengdian is situated just north of the folk house sets. A few other dramas are being shot concurrently with The Untamed, but as far as Xiao Zhan can tell, no one's on the schedule for night scenes today. Yibo emerges from the bathroom dressed in dark clothes, face mask fastened in place, skateboard slung across his back. "Sure you won't be too scared of the dark?" Xiao Zhan says, shedding his clothing.
Yibo sends him a middle finger. Xiao Zhan grins and shifts.
They sneak out of the hotel without incident. When they get to the gate surrounding the main set, Yibo flips over it with a grace that Xiao Zhan honestly envies.
In a way, being here in the middle of the night without all the trappings of filming feels strange. It's like passing through a ghost town, walking down empty streets styled in the image of an era thousands of years gone. It's also kind of exhilarating; the whole place is startlingly quiet without the bustle of cast and crew, and every footstep seems to echo in his ears. Yibo doesn't smell nervous or scared, though — just excited, the sweet-citrusy scent of it carried on the wind.
They do a slow lap around the perimeter first, Xiao Zhan loping ahead of Yibo to make sure there are no surprise potholes in the pavement. They're probably breaking fifty different rules just to be here, not to mention clauses in both of their contracts not to do anything too stupid, but Xiao Zhan's too happy to care. It's a clear night. The air smells like the camphor trees planted all around them, minty fresh, and he loves the stretch he can feel in his limbs as he picks up the pace.
He hears Yibo exclaim behind him when he leaps onto a stone railing and then up onto the roof. "Didn't know parkour was one of your hobbies, Zhan-ge," he calls, skating furiously after him, and Xiao Zhan can't reply in this form, but he yowls anyway. From Yibo's burst of laughter, he seems to get it.
Actual racing meets a premature end when Yibo nearly runs into a wall when he doesn't brake soon enough, but weaving in between the buildings is entertaining enough on its own, and later, Yibo starts doing tricks on his skateboard in the center square. It's a minor miracle neither of them sprains anything before they tire themselves out.
"That was fun," Yibo says on the way back, tramping through the dirt trail leading up to the hotel. It's hard to tell if he sounds stilted because he's exhausted or just because earnestness doesn't come easy for him; probably a little bit of both. "We should do it again some time."
Xiao Zhan butts his head against Yibo's leg hard enough to jostle him sideways, allows himself the brief luxury of curling his tail around Yibo's wrist.
"Okay, good, I'll take that as a yes," Yibo says, and Xiao Zhan can only see his eyes above the mask, but he can tell he's smiling.
They split up at the main road so Xiao Zhan can slip in through the window of their room. He scales a tree, jumps to the balcony, and alights on the carpeted floor in time to hear Zhuocheng's voice float through the door. "You went skateboarding alone at this time of night?"
"Best time to do it," Yibo says, impressively smooth; Xiao Zhan can smell how tense he is. "No one else is around to get in the way."
"Where? It's all woods around here."
"Can you keep a secret?" Xiao Zhan leans in despite himself. "I broke into Hengdian."
"Bullshit," Zhuocheng says, but he doesn't sound sure. "Whatever. Go to sleep, we have to film tomorrow morning."
"Alright, alright," Yibo says. Down the hall, a door clicks open and shut.
Xiao Zhan's drying his fur off next to the AC unit when Yibo finally lets himself into the room. "I assume you heard all that," Yibo says, shaking his head. Xiao Zhan nods, baring his teeth in a smile. "You're a terrible influence," he mumbles, flopping over onto the bed, but he still lets Xiao Zhan crawl up and curl in next to him, so he can't be too mad.
July's a fucking slog, to say the least. It's the hardest acting they have to do, so many pivotal scenes saved for the hottest, most humid time of the year. During breaks, everyone crowds around the big air conditioning pipes set up on set, long wigs tied up in buns. Xuan Lu makes a bunch of different cold-brew medicinal teas for them to try to beat the heat, though the results are questionable at best. When they get back to the hotel every night, all Xiao Zhan wants is to strip naked and strap a bunch of ice packs to his body.
"There's got to be a more efficient way to cool down than that," Yibo says when Xiao Zhan voices this thought out loud during a particularly disgusting day of shooting, which is how Yu Bin manages to convince the hotel staff to leave the pool open after hours for them. "I thought cats hated water," Yibo comments, feet dangling over the edge as Xiao Zhan does a lazy backstroke past him.
"Not clouded leopards," Xiao Zhan says, smug. "We're great at swimming."
Ji Li's yelling cuts into their murmured conversation; a second later, he does a flying cannonball straight into the pool. Xiao Zhan narrowly manages to avoid the impact radius, dodging toward the shallower end of the pool, but that puts him smack in the middle of a three-way splash fight between Yu Bin, Zhuocheng, and Yuchen.
Yibo's laughing his ass off when Xiao Zhan comes back up spluttering for air, so he doesn't feel bad about darting back over and pulling Yibo into the fray.
"My shirt!" Yibo yells in dismay. "What the hell, this was like, five hundred RMB." His bedraggled expression is hilarious; Xiao Zhan wishes he had a camera ready. It would be a perfect meme.
"For a white shirt?" Yu Bin says, wrinkling his nose. "Really?"
"Should've thought about that earlier," Xiao Zhan says, unrepentant. He smacks a wave of water at Yibo's head.
"You're going to regret starting this," Yibo says, a mercenary glint in his eye, and catapults himself forward.
Xiao Zhan's eyes are stinging and his chest feels tight by the time they call a truce. At one point, Yibo had grabbed him around the waist and dunked him repeatedly, which Xiao Zhan thought was kind of excessive, but it's not like he didn't know Yibo was a goddamn savage.
His fingers are all pruned up when they climb out, and he shivers on the walk back up to their floor, the AC in the hallways on full blast. Ahead of them, Zhuocheng is humming some showtune under his breath, and Yu Bin's slung his arm around Yibo's shoulders, chattering on about some new phone game he should try out. Xuan Lu's still trying to push tea on Ji Li and Yuchen, with limited success.
There's just over a month of filming left, and then they'll be done. Despite the miserable heat and the long shoots, Xiao Zhan is going to miss this. He's going to miss Director Cheng waving them two inches to the left for just the right shot, the crew touching up his makeup every time he sweats it off, seeing how many times he can twirl Chenqing in a row. He's going to miss all the late night tête-à-têtes, and early morning call times, and playing stupid hand games in between takes. The sweet burn of satisfaction after nailing a scene. He's going to miss Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji and the colorful cast of characters they've had to embody all summer. Xiao Zhan is used to the bittersweet nature of completing a project — all things have to end, eventually — but when he examines it up close, really digs into the melancholy clench of his throat...
Xiao Zhan stares at the back of Yibo's head as he bends in to look at Yu Bin's screen, the strong, pale column of his neck. He feels something in his chest squeeze tight again when Yibo turns to look at him over his shoulder, says, "Xiao-laoshi, you should play with us so we can kick your ass," a shit-eating grin stretched wide across his face.
Oh, Xiao Zhan thinks, and the next shiver that runs up his spine has nothing to do with the AC. Oh, no.
Xiao Zhan's had plenty of crushes in his time; that's nothing new. He's human, after all. He's just — also a werecat, which tends to complicate his life, romantically and otherwise. The closest thing he's ever had to a real relationship was just out of college, with a werewolf he met during his senior year; at the time, it seemed better to be dating someone who understood all the trappings of being a shifter. He didn't have to explain; she just got it. But then she'd moved back to Sichuan to be closer to her family, and Xiao Zhan had decided he wanted to become a singer, and that was that. Go figure.
Just because Yibo happens to be more understanding than most people doesn't mean he actually wants anything to do with the rest of Xiao Zhan's baggage. If he keeps reminding himself of that, he should be fine.
Fortunately, he's away for the full moon in July, in Beijing for a commercial shoot with Olay while Yibo's in Changsha for Day Day Up filming. He spends the entire sleepless evening of the full moon pacing around his apartment complex, too itchy to sleep, and tries to push away the thought that maybe he's gotten too used to having someone else around for this. When he checks his phone in the morning, Yibo's sent over a few pictures of Xiao Zhan in cat form, leaping over the rooftops in Hengdian last month. jiayou mao zhan!!* his message says, complete with a Wei Wuxian reaction meme, the one where Xiao Zhan's mouth is open mid-laugh. So stupid, Xiao Zhan thinks, too fond.
The first week of August, they celebrate Yibo's birthday on set. Xiao Zhan yells a countdown to midnight in the courtyard, dodging Yibo's embarrassed smacks. As everyone dissolves into singing for him, a bunch of staff wheel out a big cake for the occasion.
Xiao Zhan had ordered a present in June and brought it with him from Beijing this time: he hands the bag over while they're all milling around eating cake. "For you," he says.
"It's not going to explode, is it?" Yibo says drily. Xiao Zhan laughs and shakes his head.
Yibo's cautious when he pulls the tissue paper out anyway, peers into the bag and lifts the gift out. The helmet's mostly black, but the geometric cat features are a dark silver, etched into the fiberglass. Xiao Zhan is pretty proud of how it came out, all things considered, though in retrospect, it's a little too revealing.
"Wow," Yibo breathes. When he looks up, his eyes are shining. "This is sick. I love it."
Xiao Zhan ducks his head, scratches the back of his neck. "I designed it myself."
"Thanks," Yibo says, sliding it back into the bag. Xiao Zhan picks at another bite of his piece of cake before setting the plate down, restless. When he looks up again, Yibo's just gazing at him, a thoughtful expression on his face. Xiao Zhan coughs. He's glancing a little desperately around the courtyard, hoping that someone will come up to talk to them, when he spots the caterpillar inching up the shrub next to Yibo's head.
Thank God, Xiao Zhan thinks. He reaches out to slide it onto his finger. "Something else for you," he says, biting back a smile, and the blast of Yibo's alarm smells like chili paste on a cold day. "Look, isn't it cute?"
"Get away from me," Yibo yelps. He leaps to his feet, nearly tripping over his hanfu in his haste.
"Not a chance," Xiao Zhan says merrily, reassured by the normalcy of the moment, and, of course, gives chase.
The rest of the month passes by too quickly, a blur of the final scenes they have to film interspersed with flights back to Beijing for the odd photoshoot here and there and practice with the rest of X NINE. They're releasing a song at the end of the month and gearing up for two concerts in October and December. Summer's ending, and fall is about to arrive. Life moves on.
Their last day on set is an emotional one for all the obvious reasons. Xiao Zhan feels almost weightless after Director Cheng calls cut for the final time, and a big cheer ripples out through all the crew and the other cast members who've flown out to be here. They take one more group photo on top of the Hengdian pagoda before everything gets torn down, and then the party moves to a restaurant up the street that they've rented out for the evening.
For reasons beyond him, Xuan Lu's still handing out tea to everyone, the latest concoction she's developed. "I came back especially for this, you know," she tells him, pouting. "Drink, drink. It's supposed to help with sore throats, coughs, that kind of thing."
Behind her, Yuchen makes cutting motions across his neck. Xiao Zhan grins and shakes his head. "Just for you, shijie," he says, accepting the mug.
He wishes he could say he knew something was off after the very first swallow, but it doesn't happen till later on, after copious amounts of other food and alcohol, when the tea somehow tastes good. Someone's put music on and cleared out a space in the center of the restaurant, and Yibo's showing off like crazy in a ring of rowdy onlookers. Xiao Zhan lets himself stare his fill, reasoning that it's probably the last time he'll get to do it in a while, and then shuffles off the dance floor parched as hell. He guzzles a glass of water and downs a few more cups of whatever it is that Xuan Lu presses into his hands.
"What's in this?" he asks, squinting into the glass.
"Ginger root, eucalyptus, and catmint," she says, ticking them off on her fingers.
It takes him a moment to process, but when he does, his blood pressure seems to spike. "Sorry," he says slowly. "Repeat that last one?"
"Catmint," she says, blinking. "Is something wrong?"
"No," he says, taking a step backward, the word echoing strangely in his ears. Fuck, but he's an idiot. Of course something like this happens the minute he lets his damn guard down. He's gotten too comfortable; maybe it's good that this is over. "No," he repeats, trying to keep his breathing under control. "I'm fine. Just need the restroom."
He stumbles out into the hallway, heart beating hard against his ribcage. Now that she's said it, he can feel the vague tremor in his hands, the heat building in his stomach. It's too late to throw it up. He just has to ride it out. This has only happened to him once before, in college during finals week junior year, but he knows how it goes.
Somehow he makes it back to the hotel room in one piece, without the concierge noticing that he's half-hard in his sweatpants when he rushes through the lobby. He strips in the bathroom and tries the cold shower routine, even though he knows it probably won't work. Halfway through it, the inevitable happens: he leans his head against the tile, closes his eyes, and slides a hand down to palm his erection.
Jacking off doesn't help, is the problem. It was the problem six years ago, too, when he'd accidentally catnipped himself into rut. He dries off quickly after his come washes down the drain, adrenaline buzzing in his veins. Back then, at least he'd been able to go to a bar and pick someone up. Here, now, he's stymied by at least five different things, each more prohibitive than the last.
Xiao Zhan is pacing in a tight circle in the bedroom when his ears, hypersensitive, pick up footsteps heading down the hall. "Fuck," he says, and seriously considers shifting into cat form and leaping out the window, but then the door's swinging wide open.
"Hey," Yibo says, bright-eyed as ever. Xiao Zhan can smell sweat and musk and alcohol radiating off him, filling his nose, and it might be the worst thing that's ever happened. It takes all the self-control he can manage in this state not to cross the room and stick his nose in Yibo's neck. "Why'd you leave the party so early?"
"Had too much to drink," Xiao Zhan murmurs. He wipes a hand across his forehead; it comes away damp.
"You barely had anything," Yibo says, tilting his head. "I was watching."
"Yibo," Xiao Zhan says through his teeth. It's hard to register what Yibo's saying when Xiao Zhan's entire body feels like it's about to catch on fire. "You don't want to be here right now."
Yibo's laser gaze focuses downward. Too late, Xiao Zhan realizes his hands are visibly trembling. "What's wrong?" He takes two quick steps forward but stops when Xiao Zhan's back hits the wall with a thud.
Yibo frowns. "It's obviously not nothing."
"Don't worry about it," Xiao Zhan says, clenching his hands into fists. "Just — go bunk with Yu Bin and Haikuan tonight, it isn't safe for you to—"
"Tell me what's going on," Yibo demands, still one of the most stubborn people Xiao Zhan has ever met. He shouldn't have expected any less. Yibo bridges the last bit of distance between them, so close Xiao Zhan can feel the heat rolling off his body.
Xiao Zhan squeezes his eyes shut, throat clicking. When he opens them again, Yibo's still standing right in front of him, eyes soft with concern, jaw set firm. Oh, well. It was worth a try. "That tea Xuan Lu gave us today," he says, sagging against the wall. "Did you have any?"
"Yeah, it was gross. But it's Xuan Lu-jie, you know, so I had to."
"There was catmint in it."
Yibo's a smart guy. Xiao Zhan can see the exact moment it clicks for him: his body goes stiff, his breath hitches, his eyes go half-lidded. The epiphany, Xiao Zhan finds, smells sharp and metallic. "You," Yibo says, uncertain, and doesn't finish the sentence.
"Yeah," Xiao Zhan says. He scrubs his palm over his face again, pinches his nose. Last day on set, and of course he had to accidentally roofie himself with all-natural cat Viagra. Just his luck.
After a moment that feels like a lifetime, Yibo asks carefully, "Why isn't it safe for me to be here?"
"Yibo," Xiao Zhan says, plaintive, dropping his hand. Yibo's face is somehow even closer than it was, and Xiao Zhan gets lost in it for a second, forgets to breathe. Then, with as much force as he can muster, he says, "Forget about this. Go back to the party. I can deal with myself."
"Can you, though?" Yibo asks. He glances down at the tent in Xiao Zhan's boxers and Xiao Zhan feels himself shudder. Yibo bites his lip, meets Xiao Zhan's gaze again. "Let me help you."
Part of Xiao Zhan, the feline brain set aflame, thinks, immediately, yes. "Absolutely not," his mouth says.
"I did it before," Yibo says, resolute. He mimes pinching Xiao Zhan's arm. "I can do it again."
"That was very different."
"I trusted you to stop if I asked," Xiao Zhan whispers. "I don't know if I trust myself."
He watches Yibo's Adam's apple bob as he swallows. "So don't stop," Yibo says, equally hushed, and then leans forward to press their mouths together.
It's not a great kiss in the grand scheme of things — their teeth clack against each other, and with Xiao Zhan slouched against the wall the angle's all wrong — but Xiao Zhan's entire body lights up with it anyway, heat surging up his throat and down his back, tingling in his fingers and toes. Without thinking, he reverses their positions, pushes Yibo up against the wall and crushes their bodies closer. Yibo groans sweetly into his mouth, a sound that goes straight to Xiao Zhan's dick. He slides a leg between Yibo's, pinning him in place, mindlessly rutting against the jut of Yibo's hip, and the friction is such a relief that it's amazing he doesn't come immediately.
He's not sure how long they stay like that, but his head is swimming when he resurfaces for air. Yibo's mouth is stained red, lips swollen and parted, and his breath is coming out in rapid pants. "Fuck," Xiao Zhan says, blinking the afterimages out of his eyes. "Fuck, I'm so—"
"If you say you're sorry, I'm going to punch you," Yibo mutters, which makes a tired laugh fall out of Xiao Zhan's mouth. Yibo loops his forearms over Xiao Zhan's shoulders, fingers digging into the back of his neck. "Keep going. You need this, don't you?"
Xiao Zhan's too far gone to refuse, too caught up in the heady smell of Yibo's body, the long line of Yibo's torso plastered against his. When Xiao Zhan leans in again, Yibo lifts his head to meet him. The kiss is slower this time, but more thorough, Xiao Zhan's tongue sliding past the seam of Yibo's plush mouth to stroke inside. He tastes faintly like the tang of beer, whatever they'd been drinking at the wrap party. Xiao Zhan wants to lick every last bit of it out of his mouth until all Yibo tastes like is him.
They both groan when Xiao Zhan rolls his hips. He can feel Yibo's hard-on pressing up against his own thigh. Xiao Zhan spares a second to marvel at that, and then he uses brute strength to move them both toward the closest bed. Yibo falls back against the mattress and bounces on his ass, legs sprawled out. Xiao Zhan doesn't give him time to move, crawls up after him and weighs him down, kisses him and kisses him and kisses him until Yibo's chest is heaving and his hips are twitching up helplessly.
The next time Xiao Zhan pulls back, he tries to steel himself against the ache in his gut. It's so hard to stay lucid right now, but he just — God, he doesn't want to hurt him. "I think I have to fuck you," he says, hoping his voice isn't wobbling too much, and something flashes in Yibo's eyes.
"Okay," he says, with all of the steadiness that Xiao Zhan doesn't feel. "Whatever you need."
"I don't have a condom," Xiao Zhan says, apologetic, "but I do have—" It takes a Herculean effort to tear himself away to rifle through his carry-on bag, but he manages to find a bottle of the scentless lotion he usually keeps on hand. When he turns back to the bed, his entire mouth goes dry.
Yibo's wiggling out of the last of his clothing; as Xiao Zhan watches, he tosses his shirt over the edge and leans back against the pillows again. In the low light of the bedside lamp, his skin looks almost golden. His erection is already starting to leak a little against his stomach, and there's a pretty blush spreading across his chest and neck. "What are you waiting for?" Yibo says, sounding self-conscious.
Through the frenzy of herb-induced arousal, a moment of clarity breaks through: if this is the only time Xiao Zhan ever gets to do this, he wants to remember what Yibo looks like right now, wants this image to be burned indelibly into his brain. He lets himself take it in for one more beat, and then the roiling heat rises up again, pushing him forward.
He sheds his shirt and his boxers, so turned on his hands are shaking, and lowers himself back down. Somehow, this kiss is more all-consuming than any of the others have been, steals the last of his breath and probably his sanity. He hears himself say, "You have to — you better tell me if it's too much," hears Yibo's sound of acknowledgement, but it's buried under so many layers of pure need that it's hard to register anything else. All that's left is the cool feeling of lotion against his skin, the tight clench of Yibo's ass around his fingers and the puff of his breath across Xiao Zhan's ear, the measured weight of Yibo's dick against Xiao Zhan's palm.
Xiao Zhan can't help crying out when he lines himself up and finally pushes all the way inside, the noise tugged up from deep in his chest, loud and long. Yibo opens up beautifully for him, head tossed back against the pillows, fingers digging into Xiao Zhan's arms. For a single, perfect moment, the entire world winnows down to where their bodies are joined. Xiao Zhan holds his breath, hoping to prolong the feeling, but then the urge to move overpowers him. He pulls out slow and rocks back in, a bead of sweat dripping down his temple.
"Fuck," Yibo says, the word punched out of him. His legs wind around Xiao Zhan's waist, ankles crossing behind his back, eyes narrowed into slits. It's exquisite torture when Yibo clenches around him. Xiao Zhan drops his face into the crook of Yibo's neck and pants, hot and wet.
Something seems to break inside him when he feels Yibo turn and brush his mouth against the crown of Xiao Zhan's head. The roaring in his ears crescendos to a fever pitch. He can't help the desperate roll of his hips, every thrust urgent and unforgiving. He's dimly aware of his nails digging into Yibo's shoulders, scratching down his back, and faintly registers the harsh cadence of Yibo's breathing. When Xiao Zhan glances between them, Yibo's got a hand wrapped around his own dick, the tip sticky with precome, flushed pink. Yibo's whole body arches off the bed when Xiao Zhan reaches down to tangle their fingers together.
He loses time in the middle. It's too easy to sink into the pleasure of it, too easy to hold Yibo down and take what he needs, swallow the noises rasping up Yibo's throat. When Yibo comes first, clenching so tight that Xiao Zhan sees stars, it's too easy to fuck him through it, the mess on Yibo's stomach sticking to Xiao Zhan's skin as he presses as close as he can.
Yibo bites down on Xiao Zhan's lower lip, gasping into his mouth, and the sting of it zings down Xiao Zhan's neck. It doesn't take much longer. Xiao Zhan feels fingers in his hair, carding through the damp strands of his bangs, and his pace goes erratic, heartbeat thudding in his chest, every nerve in his body hurtling toward the same thing. It feels like he's never wanted something so much in his life. High above the miasma of desire, he hears Yibo say, "Come on, do it," voice wrecked beyond belief. "That's it. Come for me." Xiao Zhan pushes in one more time, crushing Yibo into the mattress, and then release washes over him, pulling him under. Everything else fuzzes out into white noise.
Xiao Zhan wakes up with the worst hangover he's had in years, sore in places he didn't think it was possible to be sore. Somehow, his skin feels simultaneously too dry and too sticky, and his mouth tastes like something's died in it. The previous evening comes back to him in pieces: hugging everyone that came out for the wrap party, getting down on the dance floor, Xuan Lu's smiling face. Yibo, almost vibrating with concern, crossing the room to get a closer look at him. Everything that happened after. Shit.
When he cracks an eye open and sees Yibo sprawled over the other half of the bed, still completely naked and sound asleep, his stomach drops sickeningly to his feet. He can see, under the sheet, red scratches from his nails. There's a dark bruise sucked into Yibo's collarbone that Xiao Zhan has no recollection of putting there. The only reason he doesn't sprint to the bathroom to retch into the toilet bowl is that his massive headache is making it hard to even think, let alone move.
The guilt hits him like a speeding train, bitter in the back of his mouth; he should've tried harder to leave, or find someone else, or lock himself in the bathroom. Yibo didn't sign up for a Xiao Zhan out of his mind with lust, didn't ask for the obligation of helping him through the night. That he accepted the role he was saddled with is testament enough to his resilience. It doesn't mean anything else.
Xiao Zhan's only real saving grace is that he has a flight back to Beijing to catch in two hours, a built-in exit strategy. Even as he grits his teeth through the pounding in his head and quietly packs his bag, he knows it's a shitty thing to do. The coward's way out. He pauses next to the bedside table before he goes, staring down at the pad of paper next to the phone.
There's really nothing to say but this: i'm sorry, and thank you, he scribbles quickly. Then he shoves his hands in his pockets and trudges out into the dawn.
The full moon is two nights later, after a long day Xiao Zhan spends in studio with Chuyue and Jiacheng recording last pickups for their song. "Need me to come over with the cats?" Jiacheng asks when they've finished, ruffling Xiao Zhan's hair. "You look tired."
"It's been a long summer," Xiao Zhan says, slumping into his chair. He's tried not to scroll through his WeChat thread with Yibo too much — it's been radio silence anyway, so there's nothing to see beyond a five month backlog of memes — but it's a losing battle. In idle moments, he keeps catching himself thinking about how Yibo's body had moved underneath him, the noises he'd made in the heat of the moment. It hounds him even in sleep, dreams that leave him half-hard and panting when he wakes. Xiao Zhan knows what Yibo tastes like now, the inside of his mouth and his salt-slick skin. He can't even forget the first time they met; how is he supposed to erase anything that came after?
Xiao Zhan turns down Jiacheng's offer for company; he doesn't want to rub his weird mood off on anyone else. He spends the evening sleepless in his apartment instead, too listless to leave the house for his usual haunts.
The next week, they start practicing in earnest for X NINE's Hangzhou concert. It'll be their first time performing together like this in over a year, and they have to cram what should've been three months' worth of practice into the next three weeks.
Because he's a sucker, Xiao Zhan spends most of dance practice getting yelled at for zoning out. It's not his fault, though; Yibo was the last person to show him new steps, some routine he'd had to learn for Day Day Up. Xiao Zhan had tried his best and failed anyway, and they'd collapsed against each other dying of laughter.
It's no wonder he's distracted. Time and distance are supposed to be mitigating factors, but it doesn't help that Yibo's so famous that he's everywhere; it feels like his face is plastered on half the taxi ads Xiao Zhan sees in the city, and he hasn't stopped posting photos in the Moments tab on WeChat.
Or maybe it's just too soon, still, everything too fresh in his memory. Xiao Zhan keeps up that mantra for the rest of the month, pushing through the wall of exhaustion every morning. He thinks it's mostly working, the stages coming together day after day, and then Chuyue pulls him aside the Thursday before the holiday weekend and says, matter-of-fact, "You really do look like shit."
"You speak to your mother with that mouth?" Xiao Zhan says, trying on a smile.
Chuyue looks unconvinced. "You haven't had a break since March, and I can't stand looking at your ugly mug like this."
Xiao Zhan laughs, tired but real. "I sure am glad I've got you around to keep me honest."
A few of the other guys trickle into the studio; Zhao Lei waves, bucket hat squashed over his hair. Chuyue claps Xiao Zhan on the shoulder. "I talked to the managers for you. Get some rest this weekend, man." He can't say go home in so many words; they don't technically have the Mid-Autumn Festival off because the concert is too soon after, but the subtext is clear.
Xiao Zhan wakes up on Friday morning to a smoggy skyline, his sinuses blocked up like hell, and books the last minute plane ticket to Chongqing.
He arrives at his parents' house just after dark. Mom takes one look at him standing at her front porch and immediately puts him to work chopping lotus root.
For Xiao Zhan, cooking is easy, mindless work. It's always been soothing: all you have to do is follow the recipe, go through the instructions step by step, and for the most part, you'll get what you expect out of it. He settles into the familiarity of the knife in his hand, the cutting board beneath his fingertips. Dad does a double take when he gets home from work, but doesn't say anything.
Jian Guo's clearly pissed off that Xiao Zhan hasn't come home since the New Year, because when she sees him, she lifts her nose and makes a beeline straight in the opposite direction. Mom's laughing a little when she brings him a cup of hot tea. "Harsh, but fair," Xiao Zhan sighs, leaning back against the counter. He takes a sip of the tea, tries not to think about Xuan Lu, or Yibo. It's good, oolong with honey scalding down his throat.
"Not that I don't appreciate that you're home," Mom says after a minute, "but how long do you think you'll stay?"
"Just through Monday," Xiao Zhan says, grimacing. "Work calls. My flight back is Tuesday afternoon."
She pats his shoulder, eyes crinkling with her smile. "We'll go running, then."
Xiao Zhan spends most of the actual weekend catching up on sleep deficit, helping Mom with food prep for the holiday, and trying to coax Jian Guo into cuddling with him, in both human and cat form. It only works once he's fed her enough treats; on Sunday afternoon, they laze around in the den, Xiao Zhan twining their tails together.
Monday is the Mid-Autumn Festival, and all of Xiao Zhan's aunties and uncles and cousins that still live in the area come over for dinner and drinks. It's nice to see family again, to talk shop with the Xiao Guo, who's doing marketing and design for some firm in the city, and A-Yang, who's trying to get into a music conservatory in Shanghai.
Later, all the werecats on his mom's side of the family congregate in the deck out back for the night run. It's an annual tradition that he hasn't participated in for years, usually too busy working or filming to attend, but the moment he shifts, he can feel how much he's missed it, deep in his bones. Clouded leopards are mostly solitary creatures, content to walk their own paths, but humans aren't, actually. He forgets that sometimes.
His parents' house is just off the Yangtze, which means there's ready access to the river and the woods. Xiao Zhan takes a few laps on the ground to warm up, and then he sees his mom and her brother scale one of the willow trees hanging over the water and climbs up after them.
Swinging from branch to branch is an exercise in balance and control; you can be the strongest cat in the forest, but all that power doesn't make any difference if you don't know how to use it properly. He's out of practice, nearly crashes into the underbrush the first few times, but after a couple of minutes Xiao Zhan gets back into the groove, loping as gracefully as he can alongside the others.
From up high, through the canopy of the trees, he can see the entire city spread out like a tapestry before him, the river snaking through the neon lights, the evening cruise ships and forest of skyscrapers reflected off the water. His heart suddenly feels so full that it might burst. Can you be homesick for a place while you're still there? Three days isn't enough time, but it's still more than he's gotten in one go in the past year and a half. All he can do is live in the moment, listen to the susurration of the leaves as they rush past, wildcats on the prowl together.
After the run, they all crash in the den together. Dad and the ones who stayed behind have laid out blankets and cushions for them everywhere. Xiao Zhan jumps onto the squashy couch, tucks his legs underneath him, and, for the first time in a month, doesn't dream about anything at all.
He's packing the next morning when Mom comes to find him. She sits down at the edge of his bed and helps him fold clothes into his suitcase. It's quiet, companionable work, interrupted only by Jian Guo padding over and popping a squat in the hard shell. "She doesn't want you to leave," Mom observes, amused.
"I don't want to either," Xiao Zhan says, because it's the truth.
Mom sighs and folds another shirt for him. "You okay?" she asks quietly.
"Not really," Xiao Zhan says. He stares at the wall. He feels more clear-headed than he has in some time, but it's still hard to think about — everything. "I did something stupid, and then I did something even more stupid, and now I'm not sure how to fix it."
Mom hums. "Stupid how?"
Xiao Zhan knows he's being dramatic, but the story genuinely does feel too big to properly get into with the time he has left. In the end, he settles for: "How did you know Dad was the one?"
For a second, Mom goes still next to him. When he looks over at her again, her eyes have gone soft, and the corners of her mouth have curled up. "Xiao Zhan," she says, reproachful, and smacks his arm. "Did you meet someone and not tell me about it?"
"It's not like that," he says weakly. He slides a hand through his hair, exhales. "I just don't want to be a burden for anyone."
"Oh, honey," Mom says. She chews on the inside of her cheek, mulling it over. "Sometimes that decision isn't up to you."
"What do you mean?"
"People choose what they want and what they're willing to put up with," she says, reaching out to scratch Jian Guo's head. "Your dad has to deal with my shifts every month, cat hair everywhere, and the fact that he'll never be able to eat cilantro in this house because I'll smell it immediately and tell him to throw it out. He says it isn't a chore, and I have to trust that he's telling me the truth every day."
"Oh," Xiao Zhan says. He stares down at his hands, thinking about all of Yibo's questions, the heavy track of his gaze during Xiao Zhan's shifts, the warm hook of his chin on Xiao Zhan's shoulder. The way he'd looked straight at Xiao Zhan a month ago, in the worst state he's ever been in, and said, Whatever you need. "I see."
"I hope that helps you."
"It does," Xiao Zhan says, standing up. He's tall enough these days to rest his chin on her head when they hug, but right now, he feels like a little kid. She envelops him with her arms, patting his back. When she steps away, she's smiling up at him.
"Don't stay away for too long this time," she says.
"I won't," Xiao Zhan says. Jian Guo hisses at him when he shoos her off to shut his suitcase. "Promise, girl. I'll be back."
She stalks off with a huff. Mom laughs, shaking her head. "She'll get over it."
"Yeah," Xiao Zhan says, pulling his bag onto the floor. "Miss you already."
hey, he sends Yibo on the taxi ride to the airport. can we talk?
There's no time to really dwell on the fact that Yibo doesn't respond; when Xiao Zhan gets back to Beijing, he has sixteen hours of rehearsal every day in the lead-up to the concert.
Two days before the show, he does get a voice message from Xuan Lu in the middle of vocal training. When he listens to it during a bathroom break, it's an apology and an invitation: "I didn't know you were allergic to the tea!" she wails, despondent. There's only one person who could've told her about that; Xiao Zhan's heart skips a beat despite himself. "I'll be in Beijing for your birthday. Let shijie take you out for lunch, okay?"
He lets her pick the time and the place, too busy to figure it out otherwise. The twenty-four hours that they're in Hangzhou are a mess of last minute run-throughs, and then soundcheck, and then the concert. At the end of it all, the X NINE guys celebrate his birthday on stage, and Xiao Zhan tears up a little looking out at the ocean of fans singing for him.
Zhao Lei's arm is slung over his shoulders, holding him in place, and Xujia has the gall to smear whipped cream from the cake onto Xiao Zhan's face. It feels good to be here, surrounded by love and joy and light. "Don't cry, you ass," Chuyue says, sounding kind of choked up too. "If you cry, I'll cry."
"Oh, good," Xiao Zhan says, grinning, and lets out a watery laugh when Chuyue hits him with the bouquet.
At midnight, on the van ride to the airport, he gets a deluge of congratulations messages on WeChat and Weibo, so many that his phone starts to glitch from the notifications. He manages to fix his settings before it totally dies, and then he scrolls down to check his thread with Yibo, second nature by now.
There's still nothing new after the request he'd sent in August. He squashes the vague sense of disappointment down, tries to think instead about a job well done, what comes after. At least he still has cake.
The restaurant Xuan Lu made a reservation at is some fancy new place in Dongcheng, two blocks down from the hospital. Xiao Zhan gets there with five minutes to spare; he can hear how still it is behind the door, can guess what's about to happen.
Fortunately, he's gotten very good at feigning surprise over the years. When he pushes through the dark entrance, the whole place is empty. There's nothing to see except a big sign pointing out toward the patio.
He ducks through the side door, and then it's complete pandemonium: a deluge of streamers falling down around him, big party poppers going off one after another, raucous cheering. "Happy birthday!" everyone yells, too many familiar faces to count, Yu Bin and Ji Li in the corner waving banners with Xiao Zhan's face on them, Xuan Lu and Zhuocheng grinning behind an ostentatious cake.
Xiao Zhan squints, presses a hand to his chest, and beams back. "Friends, Romans, countrymen," he says, wiping a faux tear from his eye. "I'm touched."
Xuan Lu finds him after the singing and the cake cutting. "I really am sorry about the tea," she says, sincere as ever. "Yibo told me about it the other day and I felt awful."
"It's forgotten," Xiao Zhan says, more breezy than he feels. "Where is he, anyway?"
Xuan Lu furrows her brow. "Running late, I think," she says, and even as she says it, Xiao Zhan can pick out, through the bustle of traffic outside the restaurant, the distinct sound of a motorcycle engine. His palms start sweating, which would be embarrassing if he wasn't so nervous.
"About time you made it," he hears Yu Bin say from the door before he actually sees Yibo. When Yibo finally slides into view, he's holding two things, one tucked under each arm. One of them looks like another cake in a box, and the other is the helmet Xiao Zhan gave him for his birthday, dark and gleaming. Xiao Zhan's stomach seems to leap into his throat and lodge there, immovable.
Yibo looks — skinnier, windswept. He's not wearing any makeup, so Xiao Zhan can see the dark circles under his eyes; he's been filming another drama, Xiao Zhan is pretty sure. Despite the waves of stress and anger, he smells good, which is an intrusive thought that Xiao Zhan would rather not be having as Yibo steps up to slide the cake box on the table he and Xuan Lu standing next to.
"Happy birthday," he says briskly, jerking his thumb toward the inside of the restaurant proper. "Can I steal him from you for a sec, Xuan Lu-jie?"
Xuan Lu blinks between the two of them, steps back. "Be my guest."
Xiao Zhan's heart is pounding hard as he follows behind. He honestly feels a little light-headed; it's the first time he's seen Yibo in person since filming wrapped, and he has no idea what to expect. There's a small, dim alcove where the bathrooms are, and when they get there, Yibo swivels on his heel so quickly that Xiao Zhan nearly runs into him. Then, without hesitation, he punches Xiao Zhan in the bicep so hard that he almost staggers into the wall.
It hurts like a motherfucker, but Xiao Zhan can't say he doesn't deserve it. "Jesus Christ," he says, clutching his arm, eyes watering. "What the hell, Yibo?"
"Didn't I say I'd punch you if you said you were sorry?" Yibo says, strangely intense.
Xiao Zhan casts his mind back and does remember. "I — okay, that's — fair. It's a legitimate reaction." The corner of his mouth lifts. "I am sorry, though." Yibo lifts his fist again, and Xiao Zhan hurriedly raises his hands, placating. "Not for what you think!"
Yibo crosses his arms, stony-faced. "You said you wanted to talk, so talk."
Xiao Zhan takes a deep breath to compose himself. He doesn't think it really works, but it's too late now to back out. "I couldn't figure out what to say in a text or a voice message," he explains, palming the back of his neck. "So I guess I'll just have to wing it. I'm sorry for leaving. It was a dick move."
"You're right," Yibo says, still chilly. "It was."
"I've thought about it a lot over the past month," Xiao Zhan continues, slower, trying to find the right words. "I realized — I couldn't tell, at first, if you liked me because you were, I don't know, just interested in the novelty of being friends with a werecreature, or if you actually, you know. Liked me. It was confusing for me, because I really, really liked you. I like you too much, I think, and it killed me to think that you felt obligated to help me. Like, pity's always a shitty reason to get involved with anyone." He shrugs. "I got scared. I ran away. It was stupid. I'm sorry."
Yibo's expression is unreadable, but Xiao Zhan can smell the fury dissipating a little, leaving something else, faint and floral. "What made you decide to stop running?"
"I missed you," Xiao Zhan says, the simple truth. "Like hell, Yibo." He takes a long breath, lets it out. "I'd like to try it again, if you like."
Yibo blinks, like he wasn't expecting it. "Try what?"
"Whatever you want," Xiao Zhan says. He wipes his sweaty palms against his jeans, feeling lighter than he has in weeks. The ball's in Yibo's court now. All he can do is stand here, wait, and hope.
Yibo looks down, eyes sweeping across the floor, thinking hard. When he looks up again, his gaze is resolute. "It wasn't an obligation to me," he says, voice firm. "I mean, yeah, you needed my help, but I also just wanted to."
"To bone me?" Xiao Zhan says, just to make sure, and laughs when Yibo bares his teeth at him, annoyed. "Yeah, I think I get that now."
Yibo twists a hand in his sweatshirt, chewing on his lip. "I'll admit that at first, you were interesting because you were different, but then I got to know you more, and — why can't it be both? You're fascinating, and I like you. I want to know everything about you." He seems flustered by that last bit, ducking his head.
Xiao Zhan can't help the wide, helpless smile spreading across his face. "Okay. Okay, I can work with that."
Yibo takes a step toward him, and then another, until they're standing scant centimeters apart. Xiao Zhan could count his individual eyelashes if he wanted. "If you like me too much, then I probably like you too much, too," Yibo says quietly. "We like each other, so we should be together."
"It's not always that simple," Xiao Zhan warns him.
Yibo lifts his chin. "Isn't it, though?" he says, unyielding, and God, that's just Wang Yibo all over. He's too much, sometimes. Xiao Zhan wants to be around that kind of energy every day.
"I don't know," he says. "Maybe. I'm admittedly not as experienced with this type of shit." Xiao Zhan reaches out to touch Yibo's wrist, and the skin-on-skin contact feels electric after a full month apart. "You're a lot braver than I am."
Yibo sends him a dubious look, lips pursed. "I can't even sleep without a light on, Xiao-laoshi."
The nickname makes something clench in Xiao Zhan's stomach. "That's not what I mean," he says. "It's brave as hell to know exactly what you want and not apologize for it."
He doesn't know which one of them closes the gap first, but then they're kissing, and the rest of the world seems to fall away. All he's left with is the feeling of Yibo's mouth opening gently, the solid grip of Yibo's fingers sliding through his, the warmth of his body. The fragrant smell of flowers filling Xiao Zhan's nose. It's such a small thing, but Xiao Zhan feels like he's flying through trees, lungs burning sweetly from exertion on a perfect night.
"Thank God," Yibo says, too breathy, when they pull apart for air. "I've been jerking off thinking about this for basically an entire month." Xiao Zhan chokes on his inhale; the images that brings to mind are… inspiring, to say the least. "I'm still mad at you, by the way. Don't think you're getting off so easily."
Xiao Zhan laughs. "Wouldn't dream of it," he murmurs, and he's about to lean in for another kiss when Yu Bin rounds the corner, ostensibly on his way to the bathroom, and almost trips over them.
"Oy, birthday boy," Yu Bin says boisterously. "So this is where you went. The makeup people just popped in to say hello. I think they're at Haikuan's table."
Xiao Zhan huffs. "Alright, alright. Thanks for the heads up, dude." Yu Bin disappears into the bathroom. When Xiao Zhan tries to turn and duck out of the alcove, he remembers that his fingers are still tangled with Yibo's. He squeezes them briefly, the corners of his mouth tugging up. "Ready to go?"
Yibo squeezes back. When he lets go, Xiao Zhan can still feel the imprint of warmth against his palm. "I'm ready," he says, the curve of his mouth rising too. They walk out shoulder to shoulder, heads held high, and step into the sunlight together.