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Kicking in the Dirt, Kicking in the Sand (and stirring up trouble)

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It’s just that there’s so much to notice about Shen Qingqiu.

Shen Qingqiu is not bothered by needy people. Luo Binghe looks around the set every time he nails the choreography to his fight scenes (which is often, Liu Qingge has to admit that the kid’s got talent) and Shen Qingqiu is always there in the crowd of actors gathered around, even if he’s not in the next scene. Shen Qingqiu gives him an approving nod and a smile. Luo Binghe, the world’s purest fourteen-year-old boy, nearly faints.

They practice for hours later, until Luo Binghe sweeps Shen Qingqiu’s feet from under him in a fluid arc. Luo Binghe spends the next hour fluttering around ‘his shizun’ with muscle relaxant patches and an ice pack. He’s about to cry until Shen Qingqiu gently tells him they can still practice together and schedules their next session. Then he really does cry.

Ning Yingying knocks on the door to Shen Qingqiu’s trailer with a big smile, her guqin strapped to her back. Shen Qingqiu pretends to scold her for not calling earlier in case he was busy even when half the trailer is already cleared in preparation for the lesson. Ning Yingying pretends to apologize. They set up the guqin as Liu Qingge clears the rest of the space by moving and re-hanging all of Shen Qingqiu’s costumes from where they’d been strewn around the trailer into the closet. He grabs Shen Qingqiu’s worn costumes from the previous takes and ignores Shen Qingqiu’s protests that he’s going by the cleaners later.

“Liu-shidi!” Shen Qingqiu calls as he pushes the door open with his shoulder, robes bundled over his arms. “You’re the best thing that’s ever happened to me!”

Ning Yingying gasps. Liu Qingge doesn’t dare look at Shen Qingqiu’s face.

“You too,” Liu Qingge somehow says, and leaves as quickly as he can without making it look like he’s hightailing it as Ning Yingying squeals. He hustles Mobei jun into working out with him later, but Shen Qingqiu’s voice “… the best thing that’s every happened to me!” can’t be drowned out by his feet pounding the treadmill.

***

Shen Qingqiu turns into a demon around Shang Qinghua.

After Liu Qingge arrives at Shen Qingqiu’s trailer, trying not to act like he’d been looking at the clock every few minutes since Shen Qingqiu texted this morning, he’s halfway through answering that yes, his parents had moved to Shanghai but they were still the same as ever and his Meimei was planning to visit them for Zhongqiu Jie, when there’s a knock: pat-pitter-pat, pat-pat.

Shen Qingqiu’s eyes, which had been fondly looking at Liu Qingge’s slowly-reddening face, suddenly narrowed. “I told you I was busy,” he growls like he’s suddenly someone’s cranky eighty-year old neighbour.

“Cucumber bro~” Shang Qinghua’s voice floats through the door merrily. “I wanted to give my Number One fan the latest scoop. I’m writing a sequel to Proud Immortal Demon Way.”

In front of Liu Qingge’s confused eyes, Shen Qingqiu combusts.

“WHAT?!” The trailer door bangs open and Shen Qingqiu blazes in the doorway as Shang Qinghua backs away, cackling like a crow. Shen Qingqiu is not that much taller than Shang Qinghua (but he could fit right under Liu Qingge’s chin, if Liu Qingge stood up straight and Shen Qingqiu leaned back against his chest) and neither of them are built like Mobei jun, but Shen Qingqiu’s eyes are flaming and there is no doubt that he could and would punt Shang Qinghua into the next county.

Shang Qinghua stops laughing long enough to choke out, “It’s a modern AU.”

“Get out.”

“The half-demon king is a rock star!” Shang Qinghua continues undeterred. “He’s doing a world tour and the ladies go nuts for him at every stop.”

“That’s even more brainless and tacky than the flaming pile of trash you had the audacity to call a novel!” Shen Qingqiu spits.

“Are you sure?” Shang Qinghua asks, the corners of his mouth quirking. “Look at how The Untamed had all those sold out fanmeets and shows. I think people really like the idea of seeing what idols get up to behind the scenes. And there’s that fantasy of being the one that the celebrity notices in the screaming crowd. Like ‘senpai noticed me,’ but cooler, you know?”

“Are you for - you’re destroying the fantasy, you idiot!”

“How so, Cucumbro?”

Shen Qingqiu actually takes a deep breath and launches, “You’re writing for the crowd of idol chasers and they secretly want to be the one that their idol notices, so if you make him papapa with one girl and make her feel special, and then he just moves on to the next city and the next girl, and then the next one, readers won’t believe they could be the one who finally pins him down because YOU are literally showing them that that he doesn’t give a shit about them. They’re gonna read about how he went for the next girl and the next, and they’ll figure out that they mean nothing to their idols except free papapa.”

“Wowww way to be harsh! But so many people liked Bing-ge and the papapa.”

“Those were all basement dwelling losers who will never talk to any girl who isn’t a body pillow unless she’s a family friend or a cousin,” Shen Qingqiu says derisively.

“Come on, you’ve never secretly wanted to be a rock star?” Shang Qinghua gasped. “Did you not have a childhood? Is that why your reviews sound like they come from a cranky old man?”

“Did your brain get switched with one of your cannon fodder characters?”

Shang Qinghua holds up his hands in the surrender pose. “I’m just kidding, Cucumbro. I’m still working on this screenplay. Although I’m glad to see you’re still invested in my work! It’s nice to know I’m loved.”

Shen Qingqiu seems to remember that Liu Qingge is still there (trying to mentally translate whatever just happened) and gives him a smile that’s pure poison. It’s got the same relish that a cat has when it’s about to pounce on a mouse. Or Shen Jiu when he regales them with the latest tale of the older gentleman lover he’s brutally dumped.

“Babe,” Shen Qingqiu says sweetly, and Liu Qingge’s brain stutters to a stop.

“Yeah?”

“You’ll visit me in prison if I murder this idiot, right?”

“Don’t kill me!” Shang Qinghua yelps. He yanks a cardboard box with a white postage sticker from his ratty old backpack and brandishes it at Shen Qingqiu. “I actually got this today and I came right over.”

Shen Qingqiu takes the box and his eyes widen at something on the back. Liu Qingge makes out an intricate logo and a name “something something comics” before Shen Qingqiu says in a small voice, “you got two copies?”

“Couldn’t leave my bestest fan and friend hanging,” Shang Qinghua grins.

“Shut up,” Shen Qingqiu says without real venom. His eyes haven’t left the box.

He looked withdrawn and impatient, the same way he’d looked as teenagers after they visited the bookstore and Shen Qingqiu was itching to get home and read. Liu Qingge’s breath catches.

He’s content to stay here and just look at Shen Qingqiu after all these years, but there’s about half an hour left before Shen Qingqiu’s next scene. Judging by the thickness of the package and the fact that Shen Qingqiu was the world’s fastest reader, he could probably get through a chapter or two.

Liu Qingge jerks his chin at the box.

“You should open it.”

“Uh,” Shen Qingqiu looks up, clearly torn. Liu Qingge kind of wanted to pat him on the head.

“Go on. We can talk later.”

Shen Qingqiu seems to wake up and looks right into his eyes, but Liu Qingge averts his gaze. He nods at Shang Qinghua, who is practically bouncing on his toes with excitement, and walks away. The younger actors have the gym booked for a kung fu lesson, but he’s got weights in his trailer. He feels Shen Qingqiu’s eyes on his back, but then there’s the sound of cardboard ripping and Shen Qingqiu goes “holy shit, look at this cover,” and the corner of Liu Qingge’s mouth quirks into a smile.

***

Shen Qingqiu and Yue Qingyuan are sitting under the pavilion where Liu Qingge’s afternoon scenes are going to be shot. Both of them look awkward, still dressed in their hanfu costumes and looking down at the mahogany table instead of at each other. Liu Qingge changes course and heads for the next set because he doesn’t technically have to practice here.

But then Yue Qingyuan says, “When I requested to be transferred closer to Shenzhen, my lieutenant brought up my record.”

Despite himself, Liu Qingge pauses.

After a long pause, Shen Qingqiu says, “yeah?” in a stilted voice. Testing the waters.

“My lieutenant said my record was clean,” Yue Qingyuan says, and pauses, “so far.”

There’s no response from Shen Qingqiu, and then, “He was threatening you.”

“I think so, but I have no record of our conversation. After that, I couldn’t risk anything.”

Long pause. Liu Qingge slowly turns his head towards the pavilion.

And then Yue Qingyuan pleads, “I just wanted to provide for A-Jiu.”

Out of the corner of his eye, Shen Qingqiu’s face goes through a series of gymnastics before settling in a flat, resolved line.

“I know,” he says, and gets up to leave. But he still looks bothered.

And then he looks like he’s trying to stop himself from saying anymore, but he blurts out, “Gege always liked it your grand gestures!” and hightails it out of the set. Yue Qingyuan’s mouth hangs open as he stares after him.

***

Shen Qingqiu is rarely flustered. Never in front of the younger actors, and certainly not in front of Shang Qinghua. It makes him more human. Like he’s really here, in front of Liu Qingge at last.

***

Shen Qingqiu pulls out his phone and scoffs. But Liu Qingge looks over and sees him smiling gently at the screen.

He’s happy then. To give him some privacy, Liu Qingge stares straight ahead at the stage team moving the set pieces around outside the house, sticks of bamboo and mossy rocks being shuffled around until they suitably resembled a meadow.

A phone screen appears from the corner of his eye.

“Look,” Shen Qingqiu says merrily, and his shoulder presses into Liu Qingge’s as he scoots in, bringing the phone to Liu Qingge’s eye level.

Shen Qingqiu’s older brother and Yue Qingyuan are surrounded by at least a dozen arrangements of red roses, the four-foot tall kind that you could only see at celebrity weddings and overzealous high school graduation parties. Yue Qingyuan’s hair is completely disheveled and he appears to be laughing freely, his smile relaxed and eyes shining. Shen Jiu has an arm wrapped around Yue Qingyuan, fingers digging into his shoulder in a possessive grip. His smile is a bit manic and his eyes are faintly red. His engagement ring has returned to his finger.

“So tacky,” Shen Qingqiu says without a hint of condescension, and then he hooks his arm through Liu Qingge’s and snuggles into his shoulder with a happy sigh, hugging Liu Qingge's bicep.

Liu Qingge freezes. Shen Qingqiu goes still.

“Is this okay?” he asks softly, uncharacteristically. Shen Qingqiu had been trying to provoke him for the past month since they started filming. And yet this was where he was drawing a line and waiting to see if Liu Qingge would let him past it.

“Yeah,” Liu Qingge said. He tried to relax. His whole bicep and forearm were flexed taut. He let his shoulders drop. Then his elbows.

Feeling him loosen, Shen Qingqiu grabbed his arm and tucked it against himself again like a child with their favourite stuffed toy. He smushes his face into Liu Qingge’s shoulder. Liu Qingge doesn’t dare move lest Shen Qingqiu let go.

“Are you doing anything for Zhongqiu Jie?” Shen Qingqiu’s muffled voice says.

“Not really.” Liu Qingge says. “Probably video call my parents and Meimei. That’s it.”

“Me neither,” Shen Qingqiu says. “I bet Gege’s going to spend every second with Yue Qingyuan. I’ll probably drop in on Wednesday and get going before my blood sugar levels reach full blown diabetes.”

“From the mooncakes, or A-jiu smothering Yue Qingyuan with affection?”

“Both,” Shen Qingqiu laughs.

A pause. Liu Qingge sneaks a glance at his shoulder and Shen Qingqiu has his eyes closed with a smile of pure content.

“We should do something,” Shen Qingqiu murmurs.

“Sure,” Liu Qingge replies instantly.

That makes Shen Qingqiu jolt straight up from where he’d been cuddled against Liu Qingge, as if he wasn’t expecting such a direct response. Liu Qingge immediately realizes what he did.

“I mean-“

“Liu Qingge!” the director calls. “You’re up!”

“I’m free this weekend,” Liu Qingge says quickly as he gets up from his seat, because he’s already in this deep and he hasn’t lost his nerve. “I’ll text you tonight.”

“Oh ok- uh… break a leg!” Shen Qingqiu says from somewhere behind him.

***

“You still haven’t sent back your acceptance letter yet?” 16-year-old Liu Qingge scolds. There’s a long pause on the other end. Liu Qingge pulls his phone from his ear and checks the screen – the line is still open and he’s got full signal bars.

Forty-nine floors below, traffic is at a standstill even though they’re in a quiet part of town. Liu Qingge watches a motorcycle as it inches forward only to stop five feet ahead. The air is crisp – his parents picked the apartment so the exhaust from the street wouldn’t bother them when he and Meimei did their homework in front of the open window.

Finally, Shen Qingqiu responds. “It’s so far. I’ve never been on my own.”

“You’ll be fine.” Liu Qingge doesn’t have a doubt in his mind. Shen Qingqiu is a wonderful student, his love for reading translates into comprehending their lessons effortlessly, and his ease with others means he won’t have an issue making friends.

And- he’s cute. Large eyed and slender, but his elegant cheekbones and wider shoulders give him the air of an aristocrat and stop him from looking twiggy. Liu Qingge feels a stab of pain thinking about Shen Qingqiu on the Tsinghua University campus, with the finest minds who will also be in the physical prime of their life.

But he can’t stay here if he has the chance to go further – reach his full potential. Both of them have it drilled into them that the best universities didn’t just have the best professors, but access to networks, events, and workshops. It’ll be by far the smoothest way for Shen Qingqiu to enter the literary world and become its best critic.

Liu Qingge would never hold him back from his dreams.

“Go,” he says. “We’ll support you”

“I’ll think about it?” Shen Qingqiu says.

***

Twelve years later, he’s home again and Liu Qingge is in the center of a storm.

Shen Qingqiu has always been just out of reach. A year ahead of Liu Qingge’s grade. Buried in a book during Liu Qingge’s basketball practice but alert during his games. Half the country away during university. Registered with a different acting agency while writing novel reviews on his personal website and Zhongdian, racking up a small but passionate fanbase of readers.

But after transfers and moves and packing up his whole life, he’s here now, and Liu Qingge has never been able to stop himself from going to Shen Qingqiu’s side when he was given a chance.

He picks up the phone and calls Yue Qingyuan.

***

The next morning, Liu Qingge knocks on Shen Qingqiu’s trailer. Before Shen Qingqiu can say hi, he hands him a plastic bag.

Shen Qingqiu, confusion evident in his wide eyes, lifts it up for a better look. “Isn’t this really expensive?”

The Japanese sunscreen bottle twinkles back at him, its labels proclaiming “instant absorption,” “water-based,” and “relieving menthol.”

“You didn’t put it down even after Shang Qinghua called you a princess.” Liu Qingge said.

Shen Qingqiu sputters and spins the bag around. “An Octopus train card?”

“You said you’re free this weekend, and you’ve never been to Tung Ping Chau.”

“Are we going?”

“If you want.” Liu Qingge fights the urge to fidget. “Yue Qingyuan lent me his camping gear. We can just go for a day or camp. Your choice.”

Shen Qingqiu is twirling the bag between his fingers and letting it spin out as he listens intently. He still looks a bit stunned. The back of Liu Qingge’s mind is starting to dissolve into panic, he asked for too much and Shen Qingqiu likes talk and pretty words but he doesn’t want to actually do something with Liu Qinggge, definitely not an overnight trip alone to a beautiful tropical island, because they’re not even dating yet, and the tension between them that’s been there since they were kids is just going to be that, nothing more –

“I’ve never been camping before,” Shen Qingqiu says slowly. “Let’s go.”

“Yeah?” Did he actually say yes?

“I think it’ll be fun with the two of us,” Shen Qingqiu smiles.

Liu Qingge's heart swooped.

“Ok,” he says, and he launches into the logistics of the trip because if he doesn’t, he’s going to overreact to the us part. There’s restaurants and water and shower stations on the island, so they don’t have to bring any food other than snacks, but Shen Qingqiu should probably pack his swim trunks and stuff for hiking trails in October. Shen Qingqiu listens with a smile, looking at him the whole time, and Liu Qingge tries to look back without broadcasting his feelings too loudly.

***

The night before, Liu Qingge jolts up in his bed. He grabs his phone.

Bring a book. It’s a long ferry ride.

His phone vibrates a few minutes later. Will do. You know what’s funny? I’m actually excited even though it’s just a two day trip :)

Liu Qingge rolls over and shoves his burning face into his pillow.

***

On a holiday morning before 8 AM, the trains are empty. They arrive at the ferry terminal without issue, and Shen Qingqiu reads his comic while Liu Qingge nudges him when it’s time to move forward in line.

Once they pick seats on the upper deck, Liu Qingge puts down Yue Qingyuan’s massive military backpack. Shen Qingqiu had tried to tug it away from him and pleaded for Liu Qingge to at least let him carry the tent, but Liu Qingge had put the tent and the sleeping gear at the bottom of the backpack just to stop Shen Qingqiu if he asked.

Technically, food and drinks aren’t allowed on the ferry but after an old grandma dressed in loud florals openly takes out a sandwich and a thermos and starts munching, Shen Qingqiu sneaks Liu Qingge seedless grapes and a muffin he splits into two. He snaps a really unflattering photo of Liu Qingge with a muffin chunk stuffed in the corner of his mouth (he hadn’t gotten out his water bottle to wash it down with, ok?) but he keeps laughing over how cute it is that Liu Qingge doesn’t have the heart to make him delete it. But he does draw the line when Shen Qingqiu declares that it’s going to be Liu Qingge’s new contact photo on his phone.

“I’ll take a better one then, although this one’s hard to beat,” Shen Qingqiu says, as though he’s been challenged.

They people-watch for a bit. All the Chinese grandmas on the ferry are dressed like they could hike and go to dim sum afterwards, in their rhinestone-speckled blouses and athleisure leggings. All the grandpas are dressed like they’re going fishing. Liu Qingge can’t imagine Shen Qingqiu at eighty with a bucket hat and a khaki fishing vest. He wants to ask one of the grandpas to take a photo of them, but he can’t get up the courage.

Shen Qingqiu opens his comic again, and Liu Qingge quietly lifts his phone while he’s pretending to scroll through his song list and takes a photo of Shen Qingqiu smiling down at the page. He saves it to his favourites.

Unlike the city, the island is sunny and smog free. From the wooden pier, green jungle trees and ramshackle houses sprawl out from both sides along the island. A golden sandy beach to the right already has tents set up.

Shen Qingqiu’s eyes shine as he looks at the island with visible excitement. He gets off the ferry calmly, and then grabs Liu Qingge’s wrist and speed walks them ahead of the crowd and into the forest. Liu Qingge was going to ask where he wanted to go first, but it’s obvious now.

They shuffle through the forest through bird calls and under canopies of green vines and leaves. Sometimes, flowers appear in the bushes, little bells of pink, yellow, and purple. Liu Qingge bends down to look at a dot of yellow florets that have a border of pink florets around them while Shen Qingqiu tries to find a path around a seven foot wide spider web blocking their path. They eventually duck around it, and the jungle thins out into miles of orange and brown layers of thousand year old rock. The rocks overlap each other in slices, like they’d been stacked like a deck of cards and then spread out. Shen Qingqiu takes his hand and they pick their way around mossy pools and atop jagged mesas.

Sitting at the top of a plateau, Liu Qingge hesitates, and then reaches his arm around Shen Qingqiu’s waist and pulls him close. Shen Qingqiu immediately leans into Liu Qingge and rests his cheek against his chest. In front of them, the ocean stretches endlessly and fleecy white clouds float overhead.

After that, Shen Qingqiu almost never lets go of his hand. They pick a beach at random and make their way slowly into the water, avoiding the rocky area where the locals said sea urchins might poke their feet. Shen Qingqiu floats on his back while Liu Qingge dives to look at the fish. They flit at the bottom of the sand, like slivers of rainbows.

The restaurant where Shen Qingqiu insists on treating them for dinner has an open air shower head and clotheslines dripping with wet swimsuits. They get noodles and curry fish balls and eat while an evening breeze causes the fairy lights strung through the trees to bob gently.

There’s still enough light for them to set up the tent. Liu Qingge finds an empty spot on the beach close to some trees. The tent goes up easily, as does the queen size air mattress. Yue Qingyuan didn’t have two sleeping bags, but he did give them sheets.

When Yue Qingyuan handed them over, Liu Qingge had a horrific moment where he wondered if the lack of sleeping bags was because Yue Qingyuan and Shen Jiu didn’t sleep separately during camping trips and fucked on the air mattress. But Shen Jiu would never go camping. If the same thought crosses Shen Qingqiu’s mind, he doesn’t let it show.

He picks a side and lies down, and Liu Qingge lies down on the other side and pulls the sheets over him.

“You know,” Shen Qingqiu whispers. There’s a happy note in his voice. “This is the first trip I’ve been on since I moved back here. Thank you for planning everything.”

“Don’t mention it,” Liu Qingge says, grinning to himself.

He hears Shen Qingqiu roll over. The mattress dips, and suddenly Shen Qingqiu’s warm body is close. Shen Qingqiu drapes his arm over his chest and he nuzzles into the crook of Liu Qingge’s neck. He seemed to have a thing for snuggling up to him.

Heart racing, Liu Qingge slides out from under Shen Qingqiu so they’re both on their sides, facing each other. He wraps his arms around Shen Qingqiu, who in turn pulls him in close until they’re pressed flush together. Shen Qingqiu’s face is buried in his collarbone and his arms wrap tight around Liu Qingge’s back, and he breathes slowly and deliberately. Like he’s trying to freeze the moment in case it slips away. Like he needs to be as close to Liu Qingge as possible or else he can’t go on.

Liu Qingge slides his arms from Shen Qingqiu’s waist, his hands cup his jaw and coax it upwards. Shen Qingqiu tilts his chin up, and he looks into Liu Qingge’s face. Liu Qingge cradles Shen Qingqiu’s face in his hands, thumbs stroking gentle circles over his soft cheeks, and then over his lips.

Shen Qingqiu’s mouth opens, and he looks Liu Qingge in the eye. There’s a beat.

Liu Qingge bows his head and kisses him.

Shen Qingqiu’s lips are full, and soft, and Liu Qingge pulls away only to kiss him again, and again, he can’t stop, he’s consumed by how Shen Qingqiu’s mouth feels against his. He drags his lips from one corner of Shen Qingqiu’s lips to the other, trailing light kisses, before pressing his lips to Shen Qingqiu's in a full, luscious kiss again. Shen Qingqiu’s hands are cupping the back of his head, his legs have hooked around Liu Qingge’s and he’s pressed up against Liu Qingge so there’s not a hair’s breadth between them.

Eventually, they do stop. But Shen Qingqiu can’t stop smiling, and Liu Qingge can’t either. He strokes Shen Qingqiu’s long, soft hair over and over and Shen Qingqiu closes his eyes, nestling into Liu Qingge's arms like a happy cat.

Outside, waves lap softly against the shore.

Liu Qingge's heart is at peace.

***

Months later, Shen Qingqiu is trying to soothe his older brother as he directs the wedding staff where to put the floral arrangements, and the ice swans, and the silk ribbons in the exact shade of Yue Qingyuan’s eyes. Liu Qingge is manhandling Shen Qingqiu, making sure he stays hydrated and actually eats, and driving him around to the catering company and the venue and the florists’ like his boyfriend’s personal Uber driver.

Privately, Liu Qingge thinks that when it’s their turn, they might consider having the simplest wedding possible. Maybe they’ll even just get registered. He’ll have to ask Shen Qingqiu what he thinks.