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Two for Joy

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From as long as he can remember, Zhu Yilong has wanted to be a rockstar.

He’s barely out of chickhood the first time he flies over an open-air concert and he’s instantly hooked. He adores the sparkling outfits, glittery make-up, the roving lights. The shrieks of fans reminds him of the cawing of a whole parliament taking flight at once. Zhu Yilong wishes to be part of something that can make silence happen with the single flap of a wing - or the raise of a hand. He wants to calibrate the enthusiasm of crowds by the path of air through his lungs, and dance over electric guitar strings.

Zhu Yilong purposefully collects lost coins and jewellery for a whole summer and buys himself a fancy spell as a teen. He chooses a never-expiring shape-shifting piece of magic scrawled in his spit using one of his feathers. As it’s DNA-locked to himself, he only needs to visualise his spell in a certain way to change from magpie to human or back.

Like most aboveground magical items, it only has one big condition: don’t tell humans, or you'll be stuck in the wrong shape. Magic isn't legal or even recognised amongst humans anymore, so that’s a known safety measure for the black market sellers. Zhu Yilong stores the physical copy folded in a cute little glass pendant he can wear around his neck as a human, for safekeeping.

Usually, souls who use this type of spell tend to either want to have nights out partying, or exact convoluted storybook revenge plots.

For years, Zhu Yilong only switches to human to attend various types of musical events - from opera to electronic concerts. He enjoys lurking day and night in the liminal passageways of those artsy places, mimicking moves or sentences he likes best, hopping around and singing refrains for days. He even gets offered a few casual singing or dancing gigs and enjoys them, befriending night staff as he invariably gets lost without the sky above to guide him.

He takes special introduction classes for his kind to learn to communicate, dress, and act like a local human. He learns to dye his hair black to cover the slight blue-green sheen, and is ecstatic the day he finds a type of large shoes that don’t feel restrictive on his chunky human feet.

He receives good grades and keeps contact with a few other shifters after graduation. They sometimes meet for concerts and cuddle piles, both in and out of feathers or furs.

*

Then, one day, before a musical concert, he gets confused between a few corridors and accidentally stumbles upon an on-going audition. A backstage crew member Zhu Yilong vaguely remembers meeting before spots him, exclaims "Aaia, I was hoping you'd come. Go, go, go! Good luck!” and pushes him on stage.

He is asked several questions to which he mostly awkwardly smiles, then is asked to sing. Zhu Yilong, clueless on what else to do, sings. He sings loud and low, using all the scales his human voice can reach, plus a few most humans cannot hear. He hopes his Humanity 101 teacher doesn't get wind of it.

Just like that, he accidentally wins the preliminary audition. Then the second round. Pictures are taken, votes are cast. Before he knows it, he’s clutching a contract and looking up into his parents’ tree, asking them if they still have shifter contacts who can make him IDs. His mother clucks in amusement and provides good resources, as ever. He signs the contract with an awkward hand and feels very fortunate to have gotten this far.

*

He’s assigned to be part of a small team of people: a manager, two rotating guitarists, a recurring drummer, one on-call synthetiser. The bigger label has umbrella teams for PR, dancers, and ground staff that work with everyone.

No one anticipated his little group becoming so popular in just a few months. As he parrots at each interview, every member of the team and label toiled hard for their spotlight and it is rewarding to see such quick results. When asked if most of the success is linked to his presence, he denies it: he’s just another part of a large network of collaborating professionals, and he's proud of everyone’s accomplishments, and honoured by their fan's continuous support.

His shifter school friends tease him about his growing popularity, his past teachers hunt him down in private conversations to scold him for any mishap caught on camera, and he gets to sing, and dance, and travel. He promises to continue to do better, and feels very happy.

*

For his human file, Zhu Yilong gets a place in a magical-involved-only apartment tower where several of his fellow shifters hold their PO boxes. It has dozens of secret entrances and exits of all sizes, a communal dressing room with spare clothes, and is publicly known as an artist cooperative to explain why some of the tenants are a little odd by human standards.

In reality, Zhu Yilong gets himself his own roost in a tree much closer to the band’s affiliated concert hall. A simple nest of twigs and glittering yarn, up a nice Torreya facing east, in the middle of a quiet park. He assumes human shape for daily life and performances, and is able to escape most interviews and fans by flying off through the alley or a bathroom window as an anonymous magpie whenever it becomes too much.

He doesn’t know how humans can stand it.

The rest of his band don’t seem to mind as much. They send him sympathetic glances and cover for his abrupt departures, though, so he makes sure to help them lug around their equipment and to share his food whenever he remembers his card to buy lunch.

His band members are talented, weird, and kind. They work well together.

However, they don't share much time outside of practice and shows.

In fact, Zhu Yilong spends most of his human time either alone or with the sound and stage crew of his concert hall. A list of reasons explains this.

One: most of the backstage staff loves to perch up high in the rafters or scutter in the gallows, which are, in Zhu Yilong's humble opinion, the best spots of the whole place. They’re dark, quieter, allow him to see without being seen, and are where he finds the most trinkets with which to stuff his pockets.

Second: the crew will almost always share their food with him if he stays after his group’s allotted time and helps clean up the place. Since Zhu Yilong loves to pick up litter or amps and always has excess energy after shows, this collaboration works out well. Sometimes he even gets invited to after-hours hot-pots, and those are absolutely wonderful.

Third: no one is waiting for him in his empty roost. This allows him to stay late at any food outing and finish everyone's plates.

Fourth is a secret Zhu Yilong has tucked inside his chest right under the spell pendant. This one he could say out loud, yet he'd rather not because holding the secret is as precious as its existence itself. It just feels good to know this and not say it, like a lightbulb inside his heart where no one else can see it. But if someone was to follow his gaze as the crew prepares or empties the stage, or read the code of his chirping heart, one could learn this: there's a particular stage crew member’s smile that caught Zhu Yilong's eye. His name is Bai Yu, and Zhu Yilong has never seen a star as bright as the twinkle in Bai Yu’s eyes when he laughs so hard he falls over.

*

Neither of them remembers the first time they met. It’s not important. What matters is that they keep meeting.

Bai Yu and Zhu Yilong’s schedules often align since Bai Yu is part of the music rooms' stage crew, mostly operating the special effects spotlights. He wears bright clothing under his black uniform, has fluffy brown hair and a generous smile. Their eyes lock as they go in and out of rooms. They bend down to pick up the same shiny buttons or trinkets off the floor. Their shoulders brush when they go through doors at the same time. When Zhu Yilong turns to the wrong side on stage, Bai Yu points him in the right direction using spotlights or effects.

They both sit at the edges of the table whenever the crew goes out to celebrate a good show; Bai Yu because he herds everyone to sit down before he himself does, Zhu Yilong because he still sometimes feels trapped if he cannot see the door, especially when people are loudly human.

Chance by chance, Bai Yu becomes a new shiny constant in Zhu Yilong’s life, as if a star has been added to the sky.

*

Zhu Yilong is cruising down corridors late at night with a slight jump to his steps, following some half-heard tune. He turns around three times before finding the source: Bai Yu is weaving around backstage equipment with an armful of wires, humming and dancing to loud music from his massive headphones with cute animal ears. Other coworkers are present and pay him no mind, but Zhu Yilong is captivated.

When he realises he’s been staring, Zhu Yilong leaves immediately, without - he fervently hopes - anyone noticing him.

It happens again.This time, Bai Yu is alone and spots him right away. He lowers the headphones and greets Zhu Yilong cheerfully. Zhu Yilong greets him back and excuses himself.

The third time, Zhu Yilong takes a deep breath and asks what Bai Yu is listening to. Bai Yu puts the music on speaker while Zhu Yilong sits on the edge of a stool out of the way, listening to the whole discography as Bai Yu finishes clearing up the room.

The fourth time, he sits again but they keep the music low as they talk of everything and nothing. Zhu Yilong follows Bai Yu through three different rooms to continue listening to him as Bai Yu finishes his tasks. Bai Yu doesn’t seem to mind when Zhu Yilong takes a long time to answer questions or gets lost on the way and needs it repeated. Instead, he waits patiently while Zhu Yilong rummages through all the words he knows before picking out the ones he wants to use, even when it takes him longer than a whole song. Plus, he quickly catches on how Zhu Yilong prefers yes/no questions and giving short answers, and adjusts his interaction fluently. Zhu Yilong discovers someone loud and energetic that can also be still and attentive.

They fall into a fascinating synergy, and it takes hours before Zhu Yilong even starts to feel his usual crippling awkwardness rear up. When he bids Bai Yu goodnight, he leaves with a light heart, a recommendation for a nearby restaurant and Bai Yu’s blinding smile like an imprint on his eyelids.

The next time, Zhu Yilong furtively tries to help but Bai Yu sternly refuses. Instead, Zhu Yilong perches as close as he can without hindering Bai Yu’s work and keeps on listening and talking until Bai Yu’s workload is done. People move around them but Zhu Yilong barely notices them.

Sometimes during practice runs Zhu Yilong notices Bai Yu observing him from afar, crouched in a chair or curled up in the rafters, intense and happy. Zhu Yilong grins at him and Bai Yu gestures encouragements. On his way to a dreaded meeting that put Zhu Yilong on edge for days, Zhu Yilong runs into Bai Yu leaning along a wall, holding a steaming cup of Zhu Yilong’s favourite tea.

They go out for noodles after work together, whenever neither have another engagement that evening. Sometimes with friends, most times alone. It’s fun. It manifests into Zhu Yilong’s routine as if it had always been there.

They exchange chat IDs and text each other throughout the day. Soon, they also text at night. Zhu Yilong buys a strap his claws can grip; he brings his phone back to his roost to sleep on. He keeps reading Bai Yu’s texts well into the night and learns to peck back answers by carefully holding a special pen in his beak.

Being with Bai Yu is easy. Their relationship seems at once natural and vital, like roosting with friends on cold winter nights. For all that Zhu Yilong studied humans, he still feels hopelessly lost amongst them most of the time. Bai Yu is a comfortable rock to land on, when Zhu Yilong drifts over the incomprehensive sea of human interactions.

*

Zhu Yilong’s roost isn’t very big, by magpie standards, which he tells himself is fortunate since otherwise he would be collecting a lot of things. His human pockets are constantly filled with trinkets: spare change, hair ties, flower petals, small smooth rocks, lost jewellery. Anything that catches his eye or has a pleasant texture despite his blunt fingers and trimmed nails gets squirrelled into a pocket.

Most of it he scatters back wherever he goes, leaving a trail behind him as unnoticeable as footprints in the universe. He also keeps a discreet hoard of his favourite things at the concert hall, in a corner near the back exit where he transforms back and forth, along with a few changes of clean clothes.

At first he worries about someone mistaking it for trash and disposing of the lot, but one day he finds it all neatly transferred in a utilitarian crate with “Zhu Yilong’s personal items. Do not throw away” scrawled on it in Bai Yu’s childish handwriting. He recognises it from running his hand over Bai Yu’s labelled boxes and tools around the stage.

Zhu Yilong takes the warm feeling blooming in his chest and adds it to a special hoard in his heart.

One evening, Zhu Yilong finds a new pale pink pebble in there. There is a also a note:

“Saw it on a walk and I thought of you!”

Zhu Yilong’s pile of joyful things grows and grows.

*

Professional successes escalate quickly and Zhu Yilong finds himself invited to celebrate New Year’s Eve in a televised event. He’s beyond himself for weeks, dancing and hopping from branch to branch as he tells his park neighbours.

When he flies back home to share the news at solstice, the whole forest rustles with pride. His childhood tree weaves him a human coat out of xir vines. Wood mice thread pockets on it for his knick-knacks and even pigeons help by gathering matching buttons. The wind hugs him through the holes in the cloth as he spins around to show them how it lifts. The only way Zhu Yilong can thank them enough is by wearing it proudly.

After the show, the stage glitters with colourful papers, flower petals and the joyous chatter of the departing crowd. Hosts shake hands or bow, interviews are given, a lot of people clasp Zhu Yilong’s shoulders and take pictures. It is wondrous and overwhelming. He stands on one darkened end of the stage, dazed and exhausted and exhilarated, hands twitching to gather a few things off the floor and fidget with them for reassurance.

Warm fingers touch his. He turns, to find Bai Yu, of course. His face is wet and his smile wide. Zhu Yilong slides his palm into Bai Yu’s and holds on, fingers interlacing like roots. Zhu Yilong rests his weary head on Bai Yu’s shoulder, who shifts even closer to use his advantage of their slight height difference to shield Zhu Yilong from the rest of the world..

In this dark little pocket of time, with air rustling through his coat and the softness of Bai Yu’s cheek against his head, Zhu Yilong closes his eyes and sees a vast forest opening up for spring.

*

After that, Zhu Yilong decides to attempt a human Courtship. He’s never done it before, has very little idea how it works, even if there wasn’t a species barrier.

He does research.

Pigeons tell him humans court by touching each other in alleyways, but the light-fur squirrel two trees over says that’s called mugging and is illegal. A young crow tells him to give his courtmate shiny objects. The cornerside’s old porcupine says humans don’t know how to court either, so what does it matter.

Zhu Yilong reads a lot of magazines, trying to ignore how his face is on the cover of some of them, and concludes the porcupine is onto something. The only things everyone agrees on are to listen to your instincts and to find out what makes the other person happy.

Zhu Yilong starts by going with his instincts. He lets his hair grow and ties it up in front of Bai Yu whenever they're alone. He discovers why rubber bands were not meant for this when Bai Yu buys him sparkly hair ties and they don't hurt coming off.

Zhu Yilong actively calls Bai Yu on his phone instead of texting - on trips, or on their days off, or at night - just to hear his voice some more. He also tries to find a proper nickname for Bai Yu but cannot choose between Lao Bai or Xiao Bai, since both are technically correct depending on Zhu Yilong's appearance. He drops the names in casual conversations with other people to test how they sound but everyone reacts equally to either one: his bandmates mostly stare at him, his stylist cooes and his agent sighs. Zhu Yilong decides to use them intermittently.

Zhu Yilong collects a couple of paper fans, determined to learn the Language of Fans an article mentioned. However, one night he gets distracted watching Bai Yu climb a ladder and leaves his fan on a spotlight. It catches on fire; the emergency team evacuates the building for an hour. Zhu Yilong huddles with Bai Yu under Bai Yu's puffy oversized coat while everyone stands outside in the cold waiting for the signal to go back inside. Bai Yu is warm, smells wonderful, and doesn't act any different.

Zhu Yilong moves on to the other thing: find out what brings Bai Yu joy.The issue is that everything seems to make Bai Yu happy. Food, fuzzy clothing, dancing, yelling, wrapping his arm around Zhu Yilong’s shoulders, operating the lights rig, jumping over rows of seats instead of walking around the aisle; he’s not hard to please. Finding what makes him unhappy proves even more difficult. What rare times Zhu Yilong spots him frowning, the second Bai Yu realises Zhu Yilong is watching him he lights up like a neon sign.

Zhu Yilong admits defeat and just asks him what he likes.

“Me?” Bai Yu laughs, surprised and oddly embarrassed. “I don’t know. Video games. Flowers. Funny plushies. Long walks in the woods. Beautiful things.” He bites his lip and looks at Zhu Yilong intently.

Zhu Yilong takes careful notes on a heart-shaped notebook he found in his hoard. He hates writing, but this is important.

“Great! Thank you.”

He turns around and hurries back to his exit, eager to get home and study the list. These are actionable items. He can do this.

*

Zhu Yilong has money. Supposedly. He’s not certain how much, where it is kept, and how to access it, but he keeps a waterproof packet with his cards and IDs tucked underneath his roost. Whenever he needs clothes or food, he can use the silver plastic card to make things happen. Humans are clever in that way. He doesn’t know how much things cost, though, preferring to just go along with whatever the dress department or manager points him to, doesn’t know where to shop for the list of things Bai Yu said he enjoys without getting mobbed by fans. He carries the list in his pockets, folding and unfolding the heart shape as if it was a butterfly who could take flight and show him the way.

At a talk show, an interviewer asks him what types of girl he‘s looking for. Zhu Yilong says that if anyone is missing, they should contact the police, not him. The interviewer reformulates: what’s his dream girl. Zhu Yilong dreams mostly of flying, sometimes music. He takes too long to answer. She asks differently: what could someone get him for White Day?

Zhu Yilong freezes under the hot stage lights. The question is too broad, there’s too many possibilities. What’s White Day again? Who’s giving him things? Human or not? The frenzied synapses of his brain catch on the White and only flash the worn-down list he could recite in his sleep — his own careful writing clawed footprints all over his mind. He panics and blurts out “Flowers, video games and plushies,” before he snaps his teeth shut.

The other guests find this funny and the host presses for more information. Zhu Yilong clams up. One of his bandmate pipes in with their own answer - much better and more practiced - which distracts everyone. They all move on. Zhu Yilong sighs.

He gets a whole week of his usual existential crisis after failing to provide an adequately normal answer, and two very confusing meetings. One with his manager, then someone from PR. They talk about the value of differences and discretion. They assure him they respect his privacy and will field questions such as these in the future. They offer neutral-pleasant answers he can give if this ever comes up. That’s all Zhu Yilong wants, so he thanks them. His bandmates and even crew members he never spoke to clasp his shoulders over the next few days and tell him he’s a good guy, they’ve got his back. Zhu Yilong thanks them all on autopilot. He despairs at ever fully understanding humans.

On the bright side, from then on, his wonderful fans help him. They start throwing plushies and flowers at him at concerts and events, sometimes even actual video games. He gets publicity deals with companies that make similar items and gets to bring some samples home. His shifter friends send him tips between teases. He smiles warmly towards the cameras and thanks them all, then later at night he loops above town on the midnight Pacific winds and caws eight times.

After shows, Zhu Yilong picks the prettiest and weirdest tribute from the clean-up crates and gifts them to Bai Yu. Sometimes the pile gets so high it even hides Bai Yu’s astonished face.

The first time, Bai Yu asks. “Do you...want me to take them to your box?”

“No,” Zhu Yilong says patiently. Bai Yu is so silly sometimes. “They’re for you now. I want you to have them.”

Bai Yu’s face crunches through many expressions, all of them adorable. Zhu Yilong grins in response and runs off, heart beating wildly. This bold courting is going well.

*

Around this time, Zhu Yilong and his band are granted a lodge of sorts, a private room reserved for them to decompress, presumably because they sold top charts somewhere. It has a space just for Zhu Yilong’s things, and Bai Yu helps him move his hoard of good things there. It has gotten quite big, spilling over two boxes.

This is fortuitous, as Bai Yu and he spend an ever increasing amount of time together. They wait for each other at the end of work to try new restaurants or go see movies, but Zhu Yilong had been wishing they could have a place less populated where he could worry less about slipping up.

The room has a couch, oak-leaf green and comfortable. They spend a lot of time there.

They play the video games Zhu Yilong‘s gathered, elbowing each other in amicable competition. Turns out they both love problem-solving games. There is a big screen and gaming console, but Zhu Yilong's favourites are the ones that can be played on their phones. Playing together means Zhu Yilong has to sneak close to Bai Yu and perch his head on Bai Yu’s shoulder, occasionally sliding an arm under Bai Yu’s to point at clues and pathways from around him as they share a small screen.

Bai Yu shows him funny videos on the Internet and explains the newest memes, so Zhu Yilong can use Weibo gifs to properly troll his friends. Zhu Yilong takes pictures of Bai Yu to replace the ones he has on his profile; Bai Yu is gorgeous yet he is atrocious at selfies.

Of course, Zhu Yilong also uses the room for work. Sometimes Bai Yu drapes belly-down over Zhu Yilong’s lap and plays with his phone while Zhu Yilong rests his arms on Bai Yu’s back to flip through thick event information packets.

While the room is officially open to the whole band, after the first week where they popped in for very short periods, no one besides them ever uses it anymore and anyone who needs to come in always knocks first. Not for the first time, Zhu Yilong is grateful for his bandmates' oddness.

Bai Yu flops on the couch one night, still caught up in a story he’s telling extravagantly, while Zhu Yilong perches on the edge of a chair and casually checks through fan letters his agent passed on. One catches his eye: it’s a soft pink envelope decorated with feather patterns and half covered in cutesy washi tape. Inside, a child’s hand describes him as her idol, explains how his music always lifts her up despite the harsh times she is going through.

Zhu Yilong blinks a lot. Arms wrap around his shoulders. He realises Bai Yu stopped talking.

“I’m so sorry,” Zhu Yilong startles. “I’m being rude.”

Bai Yu denies that. His arms squeeze then let go as he rests a hip on the desk, thigh resting alongside Zhu Yilong’s arm. “No worries. What’s going on?”

Zhu Yilong smiles his thanks. “A fan wrote me a beautiful letter. I want to answer it, I think.”

Bai Yu’s eyebrows rise. Zhu Yilong has earned a reputation for never directly answering fan mail. He doesn’t mean to be cold. He just isn’t very good at writing.

His childhood trove was in an urban area, so like most magpies he picked up speech and reading fast, and honed them to perfection once he acquired the transformation spell. Writing is more difficult. He prefers typing, but even then agonises over each hanzi and expressions, rewriting lines over and over until words become scrambled meaningless strokes.

Bai Yu tilts his head as if he can hear Zhu Yilong’s brain cogs. “May I help? You sing it, I write.” he winks, and reminds Zhu Yilong that a single bee cannot make honey.

Zhu Yilong flushes but accepts.

Having Bai Yu stop him from triple-guessing his choice of words helps tremendously. Having him stand so close, head bowed as he takes dictation and passes commentary, feels good.

Zhu Yilong starts answering a few more letters through Bai Yu’s hand. Perhaps he gets a reputation for having messy handwriting, but he’s at peace with that.

*

One day, Zhu Yilong hurts his hand.

He’s invited to a cooking show and doesn’t wield the knife properly. He self-consciously confesses to not having much experience with this part of cooking, apologizes for the mess on the set. Everyone squawks around him in distress as they wrap up his hand and the show. He reassures them it’s fine, he can handle it, he’s so sorry.

Later that night, he mournfully realises he might have overlooked some logistics. As a human, the wound is merely a painful inconvenience beneath the bandages, but as soon as he transforms to go back home the wrapping unravels and his injury is stretched and pulled into new proportions, affecting most of his wing. It hurts a lot, and he curls up in the alleyway in pain. He definitely cannot fly home.

Transforming back with a bitten off cry, he awkwardly rewraps his hand and sleeps on the couch in his lodge that night. He’s sad Bai Yu is away for a few days training for a new type of lighting rig. He sleeps badly but wakes up to new texts and pictures from Bai Yu, so it’s fine.

He gets a hotel within walking distance for the next few days. It is a beautiful, pristine place, similar to many hotels he stayed at during tours events. Showering is wonderful, especially once he remembers to remove his clothes. A large window displays purple night clouds from satisfyingly high above the city. He would love it if he wasn’t yearning for the comfort of his roost.

As it is, there are sharp unfamiliar smells, wrong noises and even wronger silences, everything is shiny clean and nothing sparkles. The bed is soft and twig-less. He rests yet still feels tired. He goes to work and waves off anyone’s concerns with his good hand. The other throbs in his hoodie pocket, holding his phone.

By the third day, people eye him warily. Zhu Yilong doesn’t blame them: he looks unkept. Human grooming is complicated even with two functional hands. His stubble has gotten so long it is almost soft, and he’s certain he forgot several steps in the chain of skin care regiment he took a class on. He mentally apologises to his teacher whenever someone tells him he looks awful, and apologises again to his team when he nods off during an advertisement meeting.

Finally they kick him out of the office, telling him to go home and get some sleep.

The idea of heading back to that huge, horribly bare place, with its perpetually neatly made bed and flat surfaces, leadens his steps. Taking a taxi to go back to the hotel sounds too complicated a task. He’ll just walk. It isn’t far.

He considers attempting to transform and gets caught up in the memory of flight, wind on his arms, feet tucked under him. He aches to his bones with longing for his things, his wings, his home.

He turns down corridors toward where he thinks the exit is, feeling both heavy and light-headed at once.

He's taking a break from standing up when a familiar voice calls out.

“Long-ge! What are you doing here?!”

“Lao...Xiao.. Lao Bai? Are you… back?”

“Yes. Your manager sent me a car, she said you’re being unreasonable. Long-ge, why didn’t you tell me you are sick?”

A cool hand touches his face. Zhu Yilong hums, closing his eyes. The world spins around that grounding point and he weightlessly spins along. “Yes. Homesick. I miss my home, my tree...”

Bai Yu's voice comes from nearer as he crouches down to his level. “What? No, I mean, you’re sick-sick! You look wretched, your hand is swollen. You’re probably running a fever. Why aren’t you in a hospital?”

That was a lot of words. Zhu Yilong opens one eye and rolls his head to the side. “A what?”

“Or a special clinic, anything!" Bai Yu's arms flutter, like a very large fledgling. He's very cute. He's also tugging at Zhu Yilong's elbow, urging him up. "Come, let’s get your coat. I’m taking you.”

Zhu Yilong carefully stands, mindful of his hand, leaning heavily on Bai Yu's offered arm. It's a little bit like having a perch on a branch. “I don’t need a coat. It’s warm out.”

"No, it is very cold," Bai Yu says patiently. "You definitely have a fever. Here, I’ve got a mask.”

Zhu Yilong likes masks; it’s a little like his beak, and people leave him alone more often than not when he’s wearing one. He likes people, as a general rule. It's when there’s too many or them, or for too long, or if he's being asked non-music related questions that he struggles. Bai Yu, however, for all his buoyancy, has never felt overwhelming. He’s a very quiet type of loud. Zhu Yilong tells him this as Bai Yu hooks the mask around his ears, but Bai Yu looks more distressed than pleased.

They stumble along, Zhu Yilong dragging his clunky human feet heavy as anchors, and Bai Yu offering him support. Bai Yu has a pleasant personality, and a comfortable shape. He smells right. When Zhu Yilong trips, Bai Yu steadies him. His body is warm along Zhu Yilong's side, one hand wrapping around his waist.

“Easy. Just a little bit further now.”

He doesn’t register where they are heading until he sees the green couch and its promise of rest. Zhu Yilong goes boneless with relief, Bai Yu catching him and lowering him down onto the couch.

“Are you - wow, you are so light! How do you lift those amps while weighing nothing? Never mind, later, later. Are you alright? Long-ge! Can you hear me?“

Zhu Yilong doesn't want to answer. He's already talked to so many people today. Wasn't it enough? This body is stretched thin and cumbersome. He's so tired. Bai Yu strokes hair off his forehead, gentle fingers glancing on his cheekbones.

"You worked really hard, didn't you. No wonder you're exhausted. You need to take better care of yourself in this world."

Zhu Yilong frowns, wanting to argue, but forgets about it when Bai Yu starts to pet his hair.

Bai Yu says something about using his phone for something, or needing to go but he’ll be right back. Zhu Yilong makes vague noises in answer, uncertain himself what he’s trying to say.

Then Bai Yu’s back. He talks softly as he manhandles Zhu Yilong into a coat. Zhu Yilong lets him, happy to float on the soothing rhythm of his words. Kind hands caress Zhu Yilong’s back, hold him under the knees, and the world - shifts. He's flying but not, somewhat like getting a lift from an unexpected draft.

"You're so light. I feel super strong holding you like this! No one would believe me if I said I carried you in my arms like a fairytale prince. To be fair, I wouldn't believe it myself."

Zhu Yilong likes this voice, and it doesn't seem to need his input to chatter away. He hears the echoes of a single pair of footsteps down corridors, some hushed voices, the heavy click of a door. There's a fresh breeze hitting his face plus terrible smells and human vehicle noises nearby. He's pretty sure it's the alleyway behind the studio, where he goes to transform in and out of human shape when he's running late. He’s very confused. He knows he needs to stay in this shape, but he doesn’t remember why. The world keeps on moving around him.

Bai Yu soothes him, saying over and over that everything is going to be alright.

Zhu Yilong says thank you and lets the heavy curtain of his eyelids drop. He curls up tighter in his feathers - or is it a coat? It’s big and soft. His face feels very hot under the mask but his lips are dry. He drifts off.

They get to - somewhere. It’s very bright and smells strong. Things happen but Zhu Yilong has the impression of hovering a couple of steps outside of his own body and observing mutely. There are cars, lights, people, questions, Bai Yu's hand on his own. He answers people whenever he can, but after a few unknown blurry faces he loses track of things entirely. Bai Yu’s the only constant, a grounding tower in a blurry storm of input.

Zhu Yilong clutches him with both hands as he would an electrical wire.

*

As far as he knows, he wakes up two days later in a large, soft nest of blankets and good smells.

Zhu Yilong snuggles for a while longer, feeling hazy, pleasantly surprised how comfy human beds can be. The crisp hotel had nothing on this wonderful pile of covers and objects, all of them smelling differently yet also like Bai Yu and himself. There’s stuffed animals of all sizes and shapes, ribbons, half-spilled food boxes, rhinestones and bright clothing. There’s papers and plants and a lot of mismatched fabrics thrown precariously everywhere. It’s a mess. Zhu Yilong smiles in contentment and burrows his face in a large sized plush.

He drifts on and off, shifting comfortably just to feel different textures under his hands and feet, when something pokes his cheek. Oh, there, a familiar spill of iridescent black. Some feathers are here. Zhu Yilong picks one up, plays with it in the soft beams of light streaming through closed blinds. It looks like one of his but he’s not sure. The keratin strands always look odd to his human eyes, as if he’s missing shades of colours. Missing...something...

Zhu Yilong sits upright. Bed. Stuffed animals. Feathers. Where is he? Everything is homey in a way that minimizes his alarm, yet he’s certain he’s never been here before. He realises he’s leaning on his injured hand, which barely hurts. He peeks under clean bandages to find his injury expertly taped shut. He smooths them back in place. Looks at the feather. Tries to make sense of it all.

He startles at a knock on the doorframe to the room. Bai Yu hips the door open, holding a plate loaded with eggs and toast.

“Hello Long-ge!” He greets. “How are you feeling today?”

Zhu Yilong hides the feather he’s holding behind his back, as if caught touching something he shouldn’t. “Xia- hm, Lao Bai. Where are we?”

“My room!” Bai Yu grins.“If you’re asking, you must feel better. Are you hungry? I have some toast left.”

Zhu Yilong blinks, disoriented. “Toast?”

“Yeah, sorry. You ate all my noodles, wouldn’t give me back the cereal and I haven’t had time to do more grocery shopping yet. Didn’t want to leave you alone again.”

Zhu Yilong asks. “I ate…?”

Bai Yu laughs. “The painkiller and antibiotics mix they gave you made you really loopy. You walked in circles and snooped through all my cabinets. I went to work and found you had eaten all my pasta, dry! Like chips! Who does that? It was disgusting and really cool.”

Bai Yu’s nose scrunches up but his voice is awed. Zhu Yilong stays silent, locked in the dual horror of being a bad guest and of not remembering acts perpetrated while under the influence. Bai Yu goes on.

“You went through two whole boxes of cereal while binging TV. High Zhu Yilong likes crunching noises and old detective shows a lot. You said you didn’t have a TV back home? Speaking of homes, er, I couldn’t take you back to your official address so I took you to my place. Your band made a distraction so we could escape unseen. I got you new clothes but you had already put on mine and refused to give them back. Anyway, it was all hilarious. But I was also a little worried. How are you?”

Zhu Yilong swallows panic, eyes darting everywhere. He can indeed see bits of dry noodles and cereal strewn on the bedcovers and has a vague memory of a lot of crunching. He’s wearing two of Bai Yu’s baggy orange shirts and some cargo pants.

His hand flies to his neck, where he finds the pendant. He holds it tight and gulps a few deep breaths. “Did I say- anything?”

Bai Yu sits down on the edge of the bed, sliding the plate expertly between two precarious stacks of books, sensing a change of mood. “Sure. You talked a lot.”

“Did I say anything...weird, or bad?”

Bai Yu’s face undergoes a complicated dance of emotions. His lips twitch as he obviously sorts through what must be the impressive pile of nonsense Zhu Yilong spilled, his eyes unfocused and cheeks heating up.

“Humm. Nothing? Important?” he lies.

Zhu Yilong hides his face in his hands. His ears burn with embarrassment and something akin to shame. He blurts out: “So you know my secret?”

Bai Yu laughs, awkward. “Ah! Ahahah. Hum. Which one? I mean. Maybe. Probably?”

Zhu Yilong buries his face in a very large plush egg thing and silences a scream. Bai Yu scoots closer on the bed, pitching his voice softer. “Sorry. Do you want me to pretend I heard nothing? I can do that. It’s okay.”

“No,” Zhu Yilong says sadly. “The contract says I can’t tell anyone, ever. Now I’m stuck like this...”

“Stuck?” Bai Yu looks blank for a second, then slaps his thigh. “Aai. You mean the bird thing?”

“The- Of course, I mean - ! What else?”

“Nothing, nothing! Okay, well, good news! You didn’t tell me about that, and anyway I already knew.”

Zhu Yilong raises his head, baffled. “What.”

“My friend, you were kind of obvious. When one knows what to look for.”

Zhu Yilong stares at him. Bai Yu turns around and rummages through a nearby drawer hidden under a pile of incongruous objects, spilling even more things everywhere as he searches. He exclaims and brandishes something towards Zhu Yilong in triumph. It is a small jewellery box, and within, a spell scroll nearly identical to Zhu Yilong’s. “Hi! Me too. Sort of.”

Zhu Yilong groans in utter relief and flops bonelessly on the bed.

After a while he gets up on one elbow, cocking his head to watch Bai Yu speculatively. “You’re not a bird.”

“No,” Bai Yu confirms.

Zhu Yilong twists and swats Bai Yu with a nearby plushie. “Tell me! Wait. Can you tell me?”

Bai Yu grabs the plush, tosses it in the air playfully. “Yes. I’m second generation, this is my mom’s. She got it unlocked for the region and gave it to me, to use in emergencies. Beside the usual don’t-snitch-us-to-humans stuff, I have no contractual restrictions.”

Zhu Yilong waits. Bai Yu grins. Zhu Yilong knocks his head to Bai Yu’s shoulder amicably. Bai Yu falls to the floor in a tangle of limbs. Zhu Yilong peeks over the edge, waves a new plush threateningly. “Tell me.”

Bai Yu’s laughing so hard his words are breathless. “Okay, okay! No death by stuffed animals! My mom is a country fox spirit, dad is a human dentist. That makes me half fox, half monster. She says I inherited the wit but not the fox smarts.”

Zhu Yilong… likes that. “I didn’t know there could be half-spirits.”

Bai Yu points. “Says the rockstar magpie.”

Zhu Yilong elects to ignore this, thinking about foxes he’s met. “You’re in a town! There’s no shrine or leafy forests. At least I have some trees. How do you cope?”

Bai Yu shrugs. “It’s not so bad. I’m born to this. The spectacles have amazing illusions and special effects. Plus, I always have brain games, or pranks.”

“Hum,” Zhu Yilong judges him as silently as possible.

“Ever played a real good prank on a friend? That satisfaction?”

Zhu Yilong smiles. He does have a mean streak, underneath the duvet. “Yes.”

Bai Yu winks. “Exactly.”

Zhu Yilong chuckles, concedingthe point. Bai Yu rolls off the floor and unto the bed beside him in one smooth move.

They lie next to each other comfortably, some limbs overlapping, as they have a hundred times on the green couch. Zhu Yilong watches reflections off a stray feather. Bai Yu plays with a plush, moving its arms and legs in a choreography. Zhu Yilong recognises one of his band’s dances. He looks at the feather.

He glances around. Slowly, he recognises most of the items surrounding them as trinkets he picked up and gave Bai Yu. Things Zhu Yilong gifted Bai Yu in courtship, and with which he built his nest.

Slowly, the winter sun’s soft gaze fades, plunging the room into semi-darkness. One by one, Zhy Yilong reevaluates his interactions with Bai Yu under a new lens. Unacknowledged things that had always been there between them come into focus.

Zhu Yilong sniffs the feather.

“This is mine.”

Bai Yu’s eyes go shifty. “Hum. They fall sometimes when you transform back and forth? I kept finding them in the alley, or the upstairs balcony, and the top floor bathroom. I wanted to hide any clues to your identity.”

If that was the sole reason, Bai Yu didn’t have to keep the feathers. Zhu Yilong thinks of Bai Yu, who he’s seen dance to many songs and can look smartass boyish or seductive depending entirely on lighting. So incredibly smart and sensitive under his everyday bouncy and cheerful demeanour. Zhu Yilong rolls to face him. “Do you have another outside shape?”

“Nah. I guess I could buy a spell like yours, to go the other way? But I’m just me.”

“I like "just" you,” Zhu Yilong’s mouth says.

Bai Yu, with his toothy grin Zhu Yilong finds most charming, turns to him as well. “You do?”

Zhu Yilong realises what invisible human line he just crossed, and almost takes it back. Yet, there’s no spell on this, and he won’t be any more or less completely smitten with Bai Yu if he tells him or not.

Plus... he squints at Bai Yu’s sparkling eyes, the tip of his tongue touching his bottom lip.

With an undignified squawk, Zhu Yilong grabs an armful of nesting and throws it piece by piece at Bai Yu. “You knew I was courting you, and didn’t say anything!”

Bai Yu feebly defends himself but is too busy giggling. He’s quickly swallowed whole by stuffed animals, ribbons and assorted scrap treasures.

When Bai Yu swims his head out of the pile of plushies, Zhu Yilong swoops in with a kiss.

It’s off center and more of a hard peck, a quick jab of lips on lips. Bai Yu’s broad grin softens into a dazzled, earnest smile. “I answered your courting in every way I could. This isn’t as familiar to me as it is to you. But. Are you certain? Perhaps it’s the drugs. Human courting is different, Long-ge. You might not like it. And that would be alright! I’m good with not doing any of...that. I like how we are. We don’t have to change anything, if you aren’t sure, or want to think about it, or just do certain things...”

Zhu Yilong ponders this while Bai Yu rambles on, delighted by how flustered Bai Yu looks about the topic. He clenches his injured hand experimentally, finds it barely stings, and makes a decision. He thinks of a carrying breeze lifting him up. The world shifts, his injury stretches but doesn’t re-open, and in a breath Zhu Yilong’s a magpie again for the first time in almost a week. He hops in place, gleeful and off-balance on the soft surface, then takes flight in a careful slide.

Bai Yu extracts himself further from the soft mountain, hair sticking up every which way. Zhu Yilong lands on his shoulder, grooms it back into place with his beak. He changes back right there, draped over Bai Yu. He finishes fussing with Bai Yu’s hair, letting his fingers trace along Bai Yu’s brow, slide down his nose, cup his jaw. Human skin on human skin, yet it feels right. Familiar and private. Domestic.

“Yes, I want to at least try some of the things. Nothing has changed. This is what we are. It’s just… a different outside shape.”

They kiss again, and it’s softer, longer, sweeter. Bai Yu’s lips are everything Zhu Yilong tried not to think too much about, and more.

Bai Yu whispers “I like you, too.”

Zhu Yilong says, “Oh, really?” While giving an exaggerated look around at the accumulated junk around them, a love confession given and accepted in a hundred small glances and litter. An entire human-sized nest built from gentle touches and kind attentions, kept safe within Bai Yu’s den.

They still have so much to talk about, but Bai Yu insists Zhu Yilong needs to rest. They choose to cuddle on the sofa and play video games for most of the evening, as they always did on the green sofa. Bai Yu cooks them omelets, humming one of Zhu Yilong’s songs, swaying his ridiculous hips. The evening is a thrilling mix of known and unknown scenarios.

Later, they fall asleep together. Zhu Yilong, slightly touch-drunk on Bai Yu's undiluted affection, thinks that Bai Yu’s kisses alone could make having lips worthwhile.

Zhu Yilong is not certain whether he wants to try everything the pigeons told him human bodies like to do, but he knows now that Bai Yu will let him choose the materials for their relationship. From there, they can customise their nest any way they want. Maybe he’ll voluntarily stay human shaped to build something beyond himself, like Bai Yu’s mother did. Or maybe he'll buy Bai Yu a reversed spell and introduce him to Zhu Yilong's home forest from a different perspective.

No matter what, Zhu Yilong wishes this new development to just be one beat of a long flight. He doesn’t mind getting lost on the way, as long as he’s with Bai Yu. The endless possibilities of the future don’t seem as scary, when they’re together like this to form a bridge where they can meet no matter what.

That night, he nests against Bai Yu’s head as a magpie, and feels safe.



the end