"Lele, I need your help."
"What's wrong, Big Sun?" Zhang Jiale was truly the best friend Sun Zheping could ask for. He almost felt bad about the request he was going to make.
"So you know how I'm taking psychology this quarter, right"
"Right right," Zhang Jiale invited him to continue.
"And you remember that one time at the start of the quarter when you and I decided to watch a horror movie, couldn’t sleep afterward, decided to cook a late-night snack to try and calm down, burned it, tried to fan all the smoke away from the fire alarm, didn’t get to bed until around 4 a.m., and then I slept in too late and missed class, right"
"I think it was closer to five a.m., but I remember, of course."
"Whatever, that’s not the point. The point is that I obviously didn't want to tell the TA why I'd missed her section, because it wasn’t even an early morning class, so if I said I overslept, she would definitely have asked what I was up so late doing. So of course I lied, right?"
"I told her that my partner was sick and that I was taking care of them."
"So the other day, she asked me how my partner and I were doing, and obviously I didn't want to draw attention to myself, so of course I just said that things were fine, nothing new to report, right?" Sun Zheping was starting to get into dramatically telling the story.
"That sounds reasonable."
"Right! But it turns out my TA is doing some study, and she really needs participants in long-term relationships. So because I'm in a long term relationship, she asked me if my partner and I would please participate."
The phone was silent.
"I'm not dating anyone, Lele. I have no idea what I'm going to do."
Zhang Jiale burst out into laughter. Despite himself, Sun Zheping started laughing too.
“Now, I know this request is a bit out there,” he said. “But is there any way that you could pretend to be my partner, just so I don’t have to fess up in the most supremely awkward conversation possible?”
"Aren't you worried about messing up the research?"
"I mean, we've been best friends for over a year, technically our relationship is long-term. I’m sure it’ll be fine,” Sun Zheping answered.
There was a pause while Zhang Jiale thought about it. “Besides, I hear everyone who shows up gets $10 added to their campus card,” Sun Zheping added to sweeten the pot.
“Big Sun,” Zhang Jiale started, “you know I’m only doing this because I care about you. I can’t believe I’m doing this at all. When’s the study?”
“So you’ll do it?”
“Yeah, sure,” Zhang Jiale said. “Besides, someone in my creative writing class keeps trying to hit on me. If nothing else, telling her I have a boyfriend will get her off my back.”
“Oh, are we telling everybody?” Sun Zheping asked.
“I mean,” Zhang Jiale said, “imagine how awkward it would be if someone else blew our cover because we didn’t commit.”
“All right,” Sun Zheping agreed. “Want to meet up and coordinate our cover story?”
“Hey guys,” Zhang Jiale announced at dinner that day. He and Sun Zheping had created a great cover story an hour prior, and it was time to put it into action. “Big Sun and I are dating.”
“We know,” Han Wenqing said.
“You owe me ten bucks,” Qin Muyun announced across the table. Zhang Xinjie sighed and fished a bill out of his pocket.
“What??” Zhang Jiale demanded.
“I didn’t think you’d get together for a few more months,” Zhang Xinjie explained, looking dejected.
“No, back up, what do you mean, you know we’re dating?”
Lin Jingyan cleared his throat. “You haven’t exactly been… subtle about liking each other. I didn’t think you were dating yet, but clearly I was wrong. Unless you two just got together today?”
Sun Zheping kicked Zhang Jiale’s foot under the table to remind him to stick to their story. “No, we’ve been together,” he said.
“Well, congratulations,” Zhang Xinjie said, although he still looked disappointed about his losing bet.
“Make sure to get frisky at Sun Zheping’s place, not here,” Bai Yanfei teased.
Zhang Jiale turned red. “Hey!”
Lin Jingyan intervened in order to keep the peace. “Hey, now that you’re open about your relationship, want to come on a double date with me and Fang Rui?”
Sun Zheping didn’t think he’d mind going on a fake date with Zhang Jiale. It wasn’t like it was a real date; it would just be like hanging out together, and they did that often enough.
“I’m game,” he said. “Lele?”
“You want to?” Zhang Jiale questioned, sounding uncertain.
“We don’t have to if you don’t want,” Sun Zheping said. Part of him was upset at the thought that Zhang Jiale might be averse to the idea, but he squashed that down. It was all fake, anyway.
“No, I’m good if you are,” Zhang Jiale said.
The relief Sun Zheping felt was surely just because he was concerned about looking suspicious if they declined. “That’s settled, then,” he announced. “Text us with the details?”
Going on a fake date was no big deal.
At least, that’s what Sun Zheping kept telling himself as the day of their fake double-date edged closer and closer.
When it was finally the day of, he thought it might be the most awake he’d ever been for his morning history class. Unfortunately, any academic benefits were more than cancelled out by his distraction.
After returning back to his apartment, he spent too long getting ready, as if he hadn’t already picked out an outfit the day before. It wasn’t like he needed to impress Zhang Jiale or anything, it would just be impolite to show up to a date, fake or not, looking sloppy. Surely in their fake relationship, Sun Zheping was an invested (fake) partner.
He headed over to Tyranny house (Sun Zheping still had no idea why they called their house that, even if some of Zhang Jiale’s housemates were pretty intimidating) and knocked on the door.
It was Bai Yanfei who answered and let him in. “Oh, you and Lin Jingyan are going on that double date today, right?” He then turned and announced Sun Zheping’s arrival in the direction of Zhang Jiale’s room.
“I’m going on the date with Lele, not Lin Jingyan,” Sun Zheping joked, although he knew perfectly well what was meant.
Bai Yanfei likely replied, but Sun Zheping suddenly wasn’t paying attention, because Zhang Jiale stepped out of his room, and-- really, he had already known that Zhang Jiale was attractive, in the same way that one knows that an unfamiliar piece of artwork is well-constructed, but…
Zhang Jiale was in a form-fitting button-down and black jeans, and his hair was up in a loose bun. The top few buttons were undone, and Sun Zheping ignored the part of his brain that wanted to see more. Really, Sun Zheping had known his friend was pretty, but that had always been an abstract fact. Here, now, it was concrete.
“You’re here! And you look great!” Zhang Jiale greeted him with a hug, and Sun Zheping gladly entered the embrace. After they broke apart, Zhang Jiale added, “I think Fang Rui should be here any minute, assuming he shows up on time.”
The two of them sat on the couch and chatted while they waited for Fang Rui to arrive. Lin Jingyan came into the living room, too, and he was also somewhat dressed up.
When Lin Jingyan let Fang Rui in, the other immediately pulled Lin Jingyan into a kiss. Oh, that was right, people kissed on dates, especially when they’d been dating for a month like he and Zhang Jiale allegedly had. He glanced over at Zhang Jiale, then looked away. It probably wouldn’t be necessary for them to kiss in order to maintain the pretense.
The four took the bus downtown to the public aquarium. Fang Rui showed exceptional prowess in coupons, stacking discounts on top of the already-reduced weekday morning price, so it was surprisingly cheap.
After paying, Sun Zheping noticed Lin Jingyan slip his hand into Fang Rui’s. And, well, if that was what people did on dates... He offered his hand to Zhang Jiale, who took it and laced their fingers together.
He was planning to let go when Zhang Jiale did, mindful of boundaries in their fake relationship, but the other didn’t. Even when Zhang Jiale needed both his hands to interact with a display, he picked Sun Zheping’s hand back up afterwards.
Sun Zheping learned a few things at the aquarium. He learned that sharks have sandpaper- rough skin, and they don't have any bones. He learned that Zhang Jiale liked sharks as a child, and he used to have a fake shark-tooth necklace. He learned how Zhang Jiale lit up when talking about things he liked, how his grip on Sun Zheping’s hand squeezed just a bit tighter when he was excited.
Really, how had Sun Zheping not noticed all these details about his best friend? Where were all these feelings coming from? Sun Zheping thought he might be in trouble.
When the four of them had toured the aquarium but didn’t want the date to end quite yet, Sun Zheping suggested they get food. They walked around a couple blocks until they came across a flock of food trucks. Each of them ordered something different, and the four of them sat at a nearby outdoor table. The food was delicious, and the company was great.
A few minutes into the meal, Fang Rui stole a sip of Lin Jingyan’s milkshake.
“Little brat,” Lin Jingyan said affectionately, and he then tugged Fang Rui into another kiss. Sun Zheping could clearly tell there was tongue involved.
When the two of them broke apart, Fang Rui turned his gaze to Sun Zheping and Zhang Jiale. “You know,” he said, “it’s fine if you want to show a bit more PDA; I’m not going to get on your case or anything.”
“Yeah, because you’d be in a glass house,” Zhang Jiale teased.
Sun Zheping knew that somebody was going to expect him and Zhang Jiale to kiss at some point. It probably wouldn’t be too weird to decline, though, right? He wasn’t going to force his friend to kiss him.
He glanced over at Zhang Jiale, fully intending to nonverbally communicate I’m not going to push boundaries, only to find Zhang Jiale looking intently towards him.
“Big Sun,” Zhang Jiale said, close enough that Sun Zheping could see the highlights in his brown eyes. “May I kiss you?”
Sun Zheping’s heart raced. He reminded himself to try to keep it cool. “Go ahead,” he said in what he hoped wasn’t as strangled a tone as he worried. His eyes slipped closed.
A moment later, he felt the gentle pressure of lips against his own. Not just any lips--Zhang Jiale’s lips-- he was kissing Zhang Jiale. After a moment, the other drew back slightly, and Sun Zheping leaned in to brush lips once more before the moment ended.
Zhang Jiale was smiling, and it made his whole face light up. Sun Zheping was smiling, too, the type of smile he couldn’t contain even if he tried. The type of smile that was surely far too revealing about how he felt.
Sun Zheping wasn’t going to be able to keep his exuberance from showing on his face. As a second-best attempt to have his feelings privately, he turned back to his lunch, delightfully giddy in spite of himself.
After the date, the two of them went back to Tyranny House. Zhang Jiale should have gone to class, but the lectures were recorded, so he said he’d just watch the video later. Sun Zheping had done most of his homework previously in preparation for their fake date, so he was happy to hang out. The hours flew by as they enjoyed one another’s company.
Sun Zheping yawned. “It’s getting late, and don’t you have a morning class tomorrow?” he said.
Zhang Jiale looked up at the time. “Oh, shit, you’re right. Want to stay the night?”
“Sure,” Sun Zheping accepted. He didn’t have anything pressing in the morning, and he really didn’t feel like walking home in the dark.
Zhang Jiale stood and stretched, and Sun Zheping’s eyes were caught by how good his friend looked in motion. Not for the first time, he wanted to touch, to feel Zhang Jiale’s skin underneath his own. He must have been more tired than he thought.
“So,” he said, with effort to refocus, “bedtime?”
“Right,” Zhang Jiale said.
When they entered Zhang Jiale’s bedroom, Sun Zheping could tell they were both thinking the same thing.
“Wow, your room’s a mess.”
“I know,” Zhang Jiale said gloomily. “I keep meaning to clean it, but…” His voice trailed off.
“There’s nowhere to put the spare mattress.”
“Yeah, and cleaning would take forever.”
“I mean…” Zhang Jiale started. “We could always… share?”
Sun Zheping’s heartbeat sped up. “Only if you’re comfortable, otherwise I could sleep on the couch.”
“No, no, that’s no good,” Zhang Jiale said. “Zhang Xinjie will be in the kitchen as soon as he gets up at six, and I assume you want more than-” he paused to check his watch- “five hours of sleep.”
“Oh, you’re right,” Sun Zheping said. “Then, if you’re all right with it…?”
“It’s settled, then,” Zhang Jiale said. “We’ll just share.” He flopped down on the bed and began to get under the covers. “After all, we’re dating,” he said with a smirk.
Sun Zheping flipped the main lightswitch, then carefully avoided tripping on the other’s things on the way to the bed.
When he laid down, trying to get comfortable, he automatically turned towards Zhang Jiale. The other also turned to face him, and reached out toward him. And, if Zhang Jiale was offering….
Sun Zheping moved in so that their legs were bumping, and then Zhang Jiale threw an arm over his waist, so Sun Zheping shifted to make the hand on his back more comfortable for both of them, and then one thing led to another and the two of them were pressed up together, warm, properly cuddling.
Zhang Jiale’s face was inches away from his own, and for a moment, Sun Zheping thought about kissing him again. He thought about pressing their foreheads together, bumping noses, and then maybe Zhang Jiale could lean in and press his lips to his own. He thought about lazily kissing, firm pressure but no urgency. Zhang Jiale was right there; it would be so easy to lean in and close the distance between them.
He didn’t, though. There was nobody around, no need to pretend. Instead, he said, “Goodnight, Lele”. He closed his eyes, the warmth of Zhang Jiale’s body against his making it easy to slip into sleep.
Two weeks later, Zhang Jiale and Sun Zheping went to the psychology study. It was surprisingly easy. Sun Zheping and Zhang Jiale got split up, and then Sun Zheping was paired with somebody else and told to play a memory game. He figured they probably had half the participants play the game with their partners, or something.
The study only took three hours, and then that was it. No big deal. Not even the type of thing that he necessarily needed to fake-date his best friend for three weeks in preparation for, honestly.
“So,” Sun Zheping said, reluctantly. That was probably it, right? “The study’s over.”
“I’m sure glad it is, that was boring,” Zhang Jiale complained. “Want to go get ice cream?”
“What? Sure,” Sun Zheping said. How was he supposed to say this? “Thanks again for, yknow, being my partner for the study.”
“Of course, of course,” Zhang Jiale said, absentmindedly catching Sun Zheping’s hand as they began to walk to the campus ice cream place.
“Now that we’re done, though… you don’t have to,” Sun Zheping said awkwardly.
Zhang Jiale turned to look at him. Sun Zheping thought he could see a hint of anxiety in his friend’s eyes, although he couldn’t tell why. “Are you breaking up with me?” he asked.
“I figured you would want to,” Sun Zheping said. “So you can date someone for real.”
Zhang Jiale’s laugh sounded forced. “Me? No way. Can you imagine the grief Tyranny would give me for breaking up with you already?”
Sun Zheping let out a sigh of relief. “Oh, okay. How much longer do you want to fake date, then?”
Zhang Jiale shrugged, once again appearing to be carefree. “I dunno. As long as you feel like it, I guess; I’m having fun. Just break up with me when you’re not having fun anymore.”
“Alright,” Sun Zheping agreed. He doubted he would be the one to want to break up. Still, if Zhang Jiale wanted to fake date him another week before he got bored, that was fine. He’d take what he could get.
It was over a month later that Sun Zheping realized things were getting ridiculous.
It was late afternoon, and he and Zhang Jiale were over at his apartment. They were on the couch together, Zhang Jiale’s legs sprawled over Sun Zheping’s lap as they played Mario Kart.
Zhang Jiale was about to win a third race in a row when Sun Zheping managed to accurately aim a green shell at him. His bike flipped, and Sun Zheping shot past him across the finish line.
“Hey!” Zhang Jiale protested.
“Sorry,” Sun Zheping said extremely unapologetically. He leaned over to press a quick kiss to Zhang Jiale’s lips. “Forgive me?”
That was another thing. After enough public kisses as fake boyfriends, it just became easy to kiss each other. Familiar.
Really, things were getting ridiculous.
“Yknow, I was thinking,” Sun Zheping said, changing the subject. “We’ve been fake dating for two months, and in that time we’ve been acting like we’re boyfriends the whole time.”
“Right, that’s generally what fake dating is,” Zhang Jiale said.
“Anyway, I really like dating you,” Sun Zheping said.
“Me too,” Zhang Jiale responded.
Sun Zheping steeled himself. He took a deep breath. “So, if we both like dating each other, why don’t we just date?”
“What, like, date for real?” Zhang Jiale said.
“Yeah,” Sun Zheping defended, “what’s even the difference, aside from the lying?”
Zhang Jiale hummed. “I guess you have a point. I didn’t think you were gay, though.”
“...Lele. Why would I pretend to be dating a man if I wasn’t gay.”
“Because it was fake? Because you aren’t homophobic? Because you aren’t friends with any women?”
“Lele,” Sun Zheping said, laughing. “You know I’m friends with plenty of women. You’ve met some of them. Remember Zhong Yeli?”
“Oh, right. Why didn’t you just ask her, then?”
Sun Zheping took a deep breath for patience. “First of all, why would I need to ask a woman, I’m not straight. Second of all, I like you.” That was… not what he meant to say. Thankfully, Zhang Jiale didn’t give him too long to overthink.
“Wow, you like me? As in, you wanna date me?”
“Yeah, I wanna date you,” Sun Zheping said. “Didn’t I say that two minutes ago?”
“Oh, I guess you did,” he conceded.
Sun Zheping waited. “...So?” he eventually prompted.
“So, do you want to date?”
“Oh, right, yeah. Let’s date. I like you, too.”
Sun Zheping let out the breath he had been holding. “It took us long enough.” In celebration, he leaned in and pressed another kiss against his now-actually-boyfriend’s lips.
The two went back to the game, until, out of nowhere, Zhang Jiale said, “Oh no.”
Sun Zheping paused. “What is it?”
“I just realized,” the other lamented, “I’m going to have to tell Tyranny.”
“Just so you guys know, uh, Big Sun and I are actually dating now,” Zhang Jiale announced one day at dinner.
He was met with blank looks. “You’ve been dating for months,” Lin Jingyan said. “We went on a double date together.”
Zhang Jiale knew this would be awkward. There was no good way to admit to a lie. Still, it was either fess up now or make things even worse when the truth eventually came out. “We were… pretending?” he offered.
“You were pretending to date the guy you like, for two months?” Han Wenqing asked incredulously.
“Yeah…” he said. “There were reasons!”
“You two are hopeless,” Qin Muyun said, shaking his head.
“Hang on,” Zhang Xinjie said. “So you actually got together, when, last week?”
“Yesterday,” Zhang Jiale filled in.
Zhang Xinjie turned to Qin Muyun. “I knew it, pay up!” he exclaimed, to the laughter of the whole table.