Xiao Zhan’s phone buzzed in his pocket, startling his attention away from the book he was reading. He glanced at the screen and the call notification with “BRAT” in large English letters, then thanked whatever deity might be listening that he was just waiting around on set and not in the middle of a take when this call came in.
He quickly glanced around his immediate vicinity, spotting his assistant and beckoning her.
“If anyone asks, I needed a few minutes to take a really important phone call, ok?” Xiao Zhan tells her quickly. “Just come get me when they’re ready.”
She nodded and turned to walk away and give him privacy as he thumbed open the video call. “Hey, bèi bèi.”
A long sigh greeted him on the other end of the line. “Zhan-ge…”
Wang Yibo looked tired and worn on his video screen, travel rumpled with dark bags beneath his eyes. His mouth was drawn into a marked pout, showcasing his youth and making Xiao Zhan ache with the desire to fold him into his arms. Unfortunately, he was much too far away for that.
“Are you in Changsha now?” he questioned, trying to avoid jumping straight into everything else he was dying to know. He wandered over into a quiet corner, away from most of the eyes and ears of the set crew.
“Yeah,” Yibo answered. “I moved up my flight. I didn’t want to stick around and deal with… everything.”
He waved his hand in the air dismissively.
As Xiao Zhan listened to Yibo’s familiar rumbling bass, he could feel the muscles in his shoulders relaxing with a tension he hadn’t realized he’d been holding on to. He’d gotten chat messages from Yibo, his assistant, a few members of his team, Yibo’s mother, and even Yin Zheng earlier in the day — all insisting that Yibo was fine and unharmed. But seeing it for himself, hearing the man’s voice, made all the difference.
“Do you want to talk about it?” he asked quietly.
“Fuuuck… I don’t know,” Yibo replied. “I’m still just pissed, to be honest!”
“Then let it out, gǒu zǎi zǎi. You listen to me vent all the time. It’s only fair,” Xiao Zhan said with a small smile.
“Ah, bǎo bǎo, you don’t want me to get started,” Yibo grumbled darkly. “Besides, aren’t you working right now?”
“It’s fine. We’re between scenes. Besides, ‘ safe haven, open twenty-four hours,’ isn’t that what you told me?” Xiao Zhan replied, quoting something Yibo had told him months ago when he’d called him at an unforgiving hour being ridiculously needy. “I’m always here for you.”
“I wish you’d been there,” Yibo said, his voice becoming hoarse with emotion. “I wanted you there.”
“I know bèi bèi, I wanted to be there. You know how it is with work,” Xiao Zhan said. “I’m sorry.”
“It’s just… it’s not ok,” Yibo growled. “I needed you. I just needed you.”
“It’s not me you’re mad at,” Xiao Zhan said sharply, putting a stop to Yibo’s misplaced anger. “Tell me what happened. Tell me what you haven’t let anyone else hear.”
Yibo’s face crumpled and twisted up in disgust, a wretched look on an otherwise beautiful face. “That son of a bitch! Zhan-ge — he did it on fucking PURPOSE. The team had heard some rumblings, but I didn’t think — ”
Xiao Zhan cut him off. “What do you mean he did it on purpose? You knew what?”
“I didn’t tell you because I didn’t want you to worry,” Yibo answered. “They knew there were some guys on other teams that weren't too thrilled with me being on the track. They don’t think it’s fair that an idol gets endorsements and race spots without spending more time on the track.”
Xiao Zhan wished it surprised him. Yibo was a dynamo, an unstoppable force of talent and charisma. And just like in most other career fields, older and less talented people sometimes felt threatened by those who were younger and better.
“That doesn’t mean they get to try to seriously hurt you!” Xiao Zhan said, his voice rising a little too loud as his own anger got the better of him. He wasn’t a naturally violent person, but it was probably a good thing Xiao Zhan hadn’t been at the track today. He might have tried to beat the shit out of that asshole racer. He definitely still wanted to. “You earned your spot because you’re good at it. They don’t get to go after you just because they don’t like losing to someone more famous than they are!”
“Exactly! Did you see those fuckers? I was worried he was hurt, and that bastard slid right back on his bike and his teammate congratulated him! And then my fucking bike wouldn’t start, and…” there was an endless string of curse words in at least two languages besides Chinese, making it difficult for Xiao Zhan to follow specifics until Yibo finally paused to take a breath.
Xiao Zhan took the opportunity to try to shift gears away from the negative. “I saw you filed a protest about what happened?”
“Yeah,” Yibo answered, his voice gruff. “But it won’t do any good. He’s done this shit before, and I guess his family is well connected, so… yeah. I doubt it will make much difference.”
“Still, it makes a statement, right?” Xiao Zhan didn’t know everything about how motorcycle races worked, but it seemed like a formal accusation that a crash happened on purpose couldn’t be a positive thing for the other racer involved.
Yibo didn’t respond, instead staring off at something away from the screen, his mind revisiting the events from hours before. “It was just like the last race, Zhang-ge. The bike just wouldn’t start. Like déjà vu. The only positive was that I knew I had to keep it together better this time.”
“And you did, Yibo,” Xiao Zhan encouraged, his voice infused with warmth. “You did so well. Before the crash, and after.”
“I wish you had been there,” Yibo ground out as one of his hands pulled at his hair in frustration.
“You had your team and your family. And Zheng-laoshi, right? He always looks out for you,” Xiao Zhan said softly.
“It’s your arms I needed, Zhan-ge.” Yibo’s eyes shined with unshed tears. “Promise me. Promise next time you’ll be there.”
Xiao Zhan wanted nothing more at that moment than to give him what he asked for. He wanted to be there for Yibo, always.
But it just wasn’t a realistic expectation. Their jobs were too crazy, their schedules often packed. There was no way to know the dates for next year’s races, and he was already contracted into filming for next spring. Yibo’s schedule was no different. The only reason he could fit in time at the track or for the race was because his management had ensured his contracts allowed the flexibility for it.
Xiao Zhan couldn’t ask for that — when the two of them were legally nothing to each other, he couldn’t exactly write a request into his contract for “time off to attend his good friend’s ZIC race.” And hell, even if they were married, asking for such a thing would be a stretch.
“I can’t. I wish I could promise you that, but you know I can’t,” Xiao Zhan replied, his voice quiet but serious. “It doesn’t mean I don’t love you and want to be there.”
“This sucks, Zhan-ge,” Yibo muttered. “Everything would be so much easier with you next to me, you know?”
He did know. Very well, in fact. In the spring, only days after Yibo had left to go into studio quarantine and finish the filming on his last project, Xiao Zhan’s entire professional world imploded. He’d been alone at home, his primary supports miles away and available only through the phone.
“I know. I know, bèi bèi,” Xiao Zhan said. “Do you remember how you felt in March?”
“What?” Yibo asked, taken aback at the subject change.
“When you were stuck in quarantine, and I was here going through hell,” Xiao Zhan explained. “Remember that?”
“God, that was even worse than this,” Yibo murmured. “I was trapped in a room like it was a cage, and all I wanted to do was get back to you. I thought I was going to lose my damn mind.”
“Exactly. Remember how hard it was to see me and not be there? That’s exactly how I feel right now,” Xiao Zhan said. “We’re in it together, whether we are in the same place or not.”
He hoped he was conveying with his eyes everything his heart and body were feeling. Love. Loyalty. His belief in Yibo and in the two of them together.
Yibo’s shoulders slumped, the tense lines in the muscles of his face relaxing slightly. “I’m sorry,” he sighed.
“Don’t be sorry. It’s not your fault,” Xiao Zhan said firmly. “None of this is your fault. You did amazing out there, bèi bèi. You did everything you could, and you got fucked by something outside of your control. But you know what? You’re ok. You’re in one piece, and I’m sorry, but that’s honestly all I care about.”
Yibo sniffed and wiped at his eyes roughly. “I know. It could have been so much worse.”
Xiao Zhan shuddered, remembering some of the races he’d watched with Yibo in the past. Today he’d been sitting in a makeup chair getting ready for filming and watching Yibo’s race from his phone. He hadn’t wanted to wait hours to hear the results, and he knew that not knowing how it went would only make it impossible to focus and get into character on set.
When the other racer slid into Wang Yibo, sending his bike sideways and the man himself tumbling down the track, Xiao Zhan’s stomach had dropped like lead to his feet. Panicked, he had stumbled to his feet and into the hallway, lungs frozen and unable to draw breath until he saw Yibo stand and walk around.
Blood surged back into his brain as he took in a deep, thankful breath of air and slid down the hallway wall in relief. It felt like his heart had just been rocketed and bounced across asphalt and gravel.
Which it had.
Motorcycling racing was a dangerous sport, and if Xiao Zhan had his way, Yibo would never set foot on a racetrack again.
But it wasn’t up to him.
“Exactly. You’re ok. I want you to win just as much as you do, bèi bèi, but at the end of the day if you walk off the track on your own two feet, that will always be a win for me.”
Yibo sighed and stayed quiet for a moment.
“Do you think I should quit?” Yibo asked. “I mean, if it’s going to be like this, and I’m nothing but a target… It’s not worth it. Is it?”
Xiao Zhan quickly swallowed all of the numerous personal opinions he had on the subject. There was a time not long ago that he would have loved to convince Yibo to give up racing. But it wasn’t the right call then, and it certainly wasn’t now. They were engaged and completely committed to each other. And he’d accepted Yibo’s hobbies and penchant for thrill-seeking along with every other piece of him.
He couldn’t ask the man to give up doing things he loved. What kind of partnership would that be?
“I think today is not the day to make those kinds of decisions,” Xiao Zhan answered honestly. “You’ve had a crazy week, gǒu zǎi zǎi. Just breathe for a few days. Deal with things.”
“I don’t even have time to deal,” Yibo grumbled. “I just got off a plane, and I’ve got Tian Tian Xiang Shang taping starting early tomorrow.”
“Even better!” Xiao Zhan responded with a positive lilt to his voice. “I’m sure your geges will spoil and distract you.”
Yibo chuckled lightly. “I’m sure they’ll try.”
“If anyone can cheer you up, it’s Feng-laoshi and Da-laoshi,” Xiao Zhan said with a smile. If he couldn’t be there for Yibo, he was glad the man had an entire team of geges ready and waiting to support him.
“And you,” Yibo said. Yibo’s face held the soft, sweet look Xiao Zhan loved — because it was only for him. With his head tilted just slightly to the side, his hair laying flat with one piece sticking up in the back like always, he looked like the overgrown puppy Xiao Zhan always teased him about being.
“I promise to spoil you and cheer you up the next time I see you in…” Xiao Zhan trailed off. “Seven days?”
“Six,” Yibo corrected quickly. “It’s already after midnight. That’s one less night I have to sleep without you.”
“You haven’t even slept yet!” Xiao Zhan laughed.
“Semantics,” Yibo said with a dismissive sniff.
“Wang Yibo, go to bed,” Xiao Zhan admonished. “You’ve been on a roller coaster over the last week. You need to rest before you crash.”
Almost immediately, Xiao Zhan nearly bit his tongue as he realized his wording, but instead of getting irritated, the younger man only snarked, “Again.”
“Wang Yibo,” Xiao Zhan sighed, fond and exasperated all at once. It was an extremely common feeling when dealing with his fiance.
“Xiao Zhan,” the younger man retorted, mimicking the tone.
“Husband,” Xiao Zhan taunted, trying to throw Yibo off his game.
He should have known better, for the reply he received came with a sexy smirk.
“Wife,” Yibo drawled.
“Wang Yibo, do you have no shame?” Xiao Zhan cried in mock outrage. “How long are you going to call me that?”
It had been a running joke through most of filming Chen Qing Ling, since it was clear in the novel from behaviors and vocabulary that Wei Wuxian embraced a more feminine role in that couple’s partnership. After they’d moved in together, and Xiao Zhan naturally gravitated to taking over the tasks of cooking and managing the general shared household, the joke had lovingly resurfaced.
“If I remember correctly, this summer you agreed to…” Yibo answered with a bright smile. “Forever.”
Xiao Zhan grit his teeth, baring them the way he would if Yibo were in front of him and not stuck behind a screen. “I’ll show you wife.”
“Ooooh! Yes, Zhan-ge — please do!” Yibo laughed, settling himself back into his pillows. “ Show me.”
Another time Xiao Zhan would have called him out on his joke, riling up his fiance into a panting mess using only his words and a low definition chat screen worthy of a bootleg porn video. Unfortunately, he was tucked away in the middle of a set and not in the privacy of his own home or hotel room.
“Later,” Xiao Zhan promised with a sultry twist of his lips and a quirk of his brow. “Maybe tomorrow if we can get an hour to match up in both of our schedules where neither of us is at work or an airport.”
“You know I will make time for phone sex, Zhan-ge!” Yibo’s mouth spread into the familiar cocky grin Xiao Zhan loved.
A noise from just over his shoulder startled him.
“Xiao-laoshi!” his assistant called eagerly as he turned to face her. “I’m sorry. They’re ready to get started.”
“Let them know I’ll be right there,” Xiao Zhan replied. He focused his eyes back on the phone and the adorable man on his screen. “I’ve got to go. Are you feeling better?”
“Yeah,” Yibo answered in English before switching back to Chinese with a small smile and a teasing, cutesy voice. “Zhan-ge makes everything better.”
“So does Yibo,” Xiao Zhan retorted with a bright smile. “He’s the most amazing dancer, the most talented actor, a skilled rapper with the most wonderful singing voice — ”
“Ay-ay-ay!” Yibo tried to interrupt and talk over him, but Xiao Zhan ignored him.
“And did I mention the most beautiful, most handsome man with the biggest heart?” Xiao Zhan gushed. “And the best racer, that also clocked his fastest time today! He’s the best — the brightest star. My Yibo is the best.”
“Zhan-ge…” his fiance mumbled, embarrassed but flushing from the effusive praise. “I can’t even fight back, you have to go work.”
“You’re right,” Xiao Zhan said smugly. “I’ll talk to you tomorrow, xiǎo gǒu.”
Yibo’s face turned serious for a moment. “Thanks, bǎo bǎo. Love you.”
“Always,” Xiao Zhan replied, blowing a kiss to the screen and then quickly shutting off the call before his fiance could reciprocate. Yibo’s lips were enough of a distraction without fanning the flames of seeing them pressed to his screen right before he had to walk back in front of a camera.
He passed off his phone to his assistant on his way to where the next scene was set up, shaking out his arms and hands to pull himself back into his character.
The most important person in his life was healthy, whole, and not the type of person to let a bump like today slow him down. Which was good, because even though they had already faced several much bigger hurdles, they would probably have quite a few more problems crop up on their path. But it didn’t matter what came their way — they were both determined to hold tight to each other and meet it together.
They were each strong, but together, they were always stronger.
With that resolved in his mind, Xiao Zhan briefly rubbed at his chest to feel the ring hanging from a chain around his neck, safely hidden well below the layers of his character’s uniform. He tucked Yibo back into his heart where he belonged, like an eternal ember banked and protected from the demands of his job before they could connect again.
Slipping back into the persona of the soldier he was portraying, Xiao Zhan stepped back under the lights, ready for the long night of work ahead.