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yesterday, tomorrow

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“I have a script for you,” someone says to Xiao Zhan one afternoon when he’s at his management’s offices. There are always people with scripts for him, but this is a studio executive and he’s supposed to be polite. “Director Zhou wants you for the lead,” the executive adds casually.

Xiao Zhan looks down at the cover page to see the script is by Zhou Guoxian, a legendary filmmaker he’s barely even dared to dream of working with. He raises his eyebrows slightly. “This is an original script?”

“An adaptation,” the executive says. “You probably know the book.”

Xiao Zhan looks at the title. He hasn’t read the book, but he’s certainly heard of it. His heart starts beating faster.

“Thanks,” he says. “I’ll look at this tonight.”

Before he’s even finished reading, Xiao Zhan knows this is the script, the one that could alter the course of his career. Not like Chen Qing Ling changed his life six years ago, catapulting him from a minor idol to a household name, or the way his more serious roles have slowly taken him to the upper echelons of dramatic actors. This is a love story, daring and bold, groundbreaking and unforgettable, if only he’s brave enough to do it.

So of course, eventually, they bring up the idea of casting Yibo as his lover.

Everything goes fast once he accepts the part, with some flattering emails from Director Zhou and early discussion about his role, but then it fades into the background of his life, taking its time the way projects in development always do. Xiao Zhan’s still reading other scripts and working on other things, because nothing is ever certain. He signed on knowing it might never even happen, for one of a thousand reasons that things go sideways—problems with funding or rights, schedules not working out, or just something inexplicable. For all that, it feels good to have the project sitting somewhere in his future, both good and scary, like waiting for a roller coaster and not remembering, until you get to the head of the line, what you’re really there for.

At the beginning of the new year, though, he starts getting emails that sound like it’s really going forward. Lists of smaller roles they’ve filled, some tentative shooting locations, script revisions. Xiao Zhan followed his manager’s advice and requested a producer credit, which means that now he’s one of the dozens of people who need to approve decisions. He’s done that before, but it feels more personal this time, with the story that’s being told.

After he got the script, he read the book right away. Usually he doesn’t do that, wanting his version of a character to stand alone, but he was so captivated by Lingxuan’s choices, difficult but inevitable, that he had to know more. In truth, Xiao Zhan found himself identifying with the book more than he expected, with each step exactly what he would have felt motivated to do himself. It was like looking into a strange, warped mirror, a life that could have been his so easily, if he hadn’t reached for something more.

They still haven’t found him a costar yet and it’s April, just six weeks before the proposed start of filming, when he finally opens an email that says, What about casting Wang Yibo?

Xiao Zhan stops short when he reads that, sitting back from his laptop with his arms folded across his chest. There are other replies on the email chain, discussing logistics and salary, whether they’d need a live reading or just a screen test, even whether Yibo’s face shape is right. It’s rough but they’re all the normal, ordinary concerns of the film industry, where the only reality that matters is how to make it work, managing the disparate parts and tricks that create the fantasy onscreen.

Wang Yibo doesn’t do films like this, one of the replies says.

It’s true. Xiao Zhan hasn’t kept close track of Yibo’s career, or seen all his work by half, but he has a vague awareness of how it’s gone—split as always between dance, acting, variety shows, and extreme sports. Yibo got a brief boost to his popularity three years ago as the winter sport ambassador at the Beijing Olympics, and for a while it looked like he might move entirely into sports presenting. But the moment passed, and Yibo went back to the patchwork of interests he’s always had. It must be exhausting, traveling so much and working in so many types of entertainment, but Xiao Zhan thinks Yibo must still like it that way. Too busy to think; he’d rather just show up, do what he’s told, have a good time, and move onto the next thing.

Wang Yibo would be a draw, the next reply says, from someone on the production side. Maybe give us a longer leash with the studio, if we have more popular appeal.

Xiao Zhan has popular appeal, someone else says, and Xiao Zhan stops reading, because this is the kind of thing he doesn’t like about his job. It’s crazy that whether he should cut his hair or update his Weibo gets decided by how it might affect his popularity rating, and though he’s long since submitted to the necessity of letting other people make those decisions for him, the whole point of doing this project was to escape from all that for a little while.

The idea of working with Yibo again, though. He thinks about the book, and the tight, beautiful script Director Zhou wrote for it, somehow getting to the very heart of the story. The way the protagonist is adrift, trying to navigate the confusing waters of his life with one person the only thing on his horizon. Xiao Zhan tries to imagine Yibo as that lifeline, with his calm face and the subtleties of his expression.

Except that’s not how Yibo really is, and it’s not how Xiao Zhan remembers him from that feverish, frenzied summer or the promotion tour the following year. Yibo was so young then, incandescent and unstoppable. Bright and impulsive, mercurial and easygoing, impossible to ignore.

He’d be good for the role, Xiao Zhan knows, if only they could capture that quality. Not the solemn, yearning reserve of Lan Wangji, but the kind of glowing charm that could make a person give up his whole life for it.

Xiao Zhan closes his eyes, and suddenly he’s not thinking like a producer or even like an actor, because he remembers everything. It comes flowing through him, hot and aching, memories he’s held and touched until he’d thought they were faded, past sparking feeling anymore. Tonight they evoke a galaxy of emotion, solid and real, stealing his breath.

The idea of working with Yibo again.

He breathes deeply, gathering himself again. When he opens his eyes he sees that the conversation has continued on, now getting caught up in arguments over Yibo’s exact popularity rating and whether he has the dramatic chops to carry the role. Xiao Zhan’s back stiffens at that, and of all the reasons in the world, that’s why he jumps into the discussion.

I’ve always admired Wang Yibo’s acting ability. If Director Zhou thinks he’s right for the role, I agree.

A tactical move, since Director Zhou hasn’t weighed in yet, but Xiao Zhan knows it’s too tempting to pass up. A popular actor, their combined history, and suddenly the project has a lot more chance of going forward. In truth, that motivates Xiao Zhan more than a little bit as well; casting an unknown, or another dramatic actor, would be risky from a commercial point of view. This is a good move for everyone.

He closes his laptop screen after he sends the email, going to get ready for bed. It takes more work to keep his skin looking good these days, and he lets his mind wander as he goes through his lengthy routine in the bathroom, smoothing and massaging his face.

Will they ask Yibo? Will they tell him Xiao Zhan advocated for him? Will he say yes?

It’s only a project, he finally tells himself, patting his face dry and moving into the bedroom. Projects are just plans until you start shooting, and maybe not even then.

His room is perfectly neat, vacuumed and dusted by the cleaners this morning, the bed with all its layers of luxurious sheets and covers so elaborately smoothed and arranged he’s almost afraid to mess it up by getting into it. Yesterday’s laundry has already been returned and put away, and someone gathered up all the books he left around the house and stacked them at his bedside. All these people are in his life now, insidious little changes he couldn’t seem to hold out against. There are fresh flowers on his dresser and the window darkens itself at sunset, shielding from the outside while still giving him views of skyscrapers and miles of lights, water in the distance.

Xiao Zhan’s too tired for anything but turning out the bedside light and sliding under the crisp, starched sheets with a sigh. He’s most of the way through filming a serious drama, set for release next year, and as usual he has the burden of the most lines. He loves his work, but it takes a toll, and in the end it’s good to have other people who worry about things for him.

He thinks, suddenly, that if they were still in touch he could send a message to Yibo. Tell him about the project, ask if he’s interested, extend a personal invitation instead of letting it be a business proposition, like Xiao Zhan wasn’t involved at all. Get his answer right away, instead of wondering about it.

But if they were still in touch he wouldn’t be worrying like this, and it wouldn’t mean so much to think of Yibo taking the role. The truth is, the reasons the story feels so personal to Xiao Zhan have everything to do with Yibo and why they don’t talk anymore.

There was no train station moment for them, not like at the end of the book. No time when all the formless agitation of feelings coalesced into something immediate, something he knew what to do with. Life isn’t fiction, and they never locked eyes with everything suddenly clear.

Instead they said goodbye for the last time at an awards ceremony, surrounded by cameras and people, walking away in different directions. It felt like his chest was caving in, but that could have been about so many things. They’d already said it all at the end of their wild and dizzy summer together, and Xiao Zhan hadn’t expected that to change.

It was just somehow surprising that it didn’t, like the buoyant unlikely luck that had carried him from obscurity to the peak of fame had finally fallen short.

When he first read the script for The Life You Gave Me, Xiao Zhan lingered on the final scene. The unspoken charge, the quiet way the characters are drawn together, with the illumination of love outshining the need for words. His confidence has gotten him far, and Xiao Zhan believes in himself absolutely, but he’s never been that sure of another person’s feelings in his life.

He’s getting sleepy now, exhaustion pulling him under, but he can’t stop running over those well-worn pages of memory again, the tug of regret tight in his throat. How fast it happened, going to bed together, and the times that stand out: the night the air conditioner broke, the night they never slept at all, and the night Yibo fell asleep before they finished, heavy and trusting in his arms. Riches he never valued at the time, to always have another night coming, and another.

Seven years later, Xiao Zhan can’t think why it felt so important to say those words he’d planned out, the tight, careful little speech he made the morning after filming wrapped, except that the easy way Yibo shrugged and nodded in response made him glad he had. It would have ended on its own, he knows that, but it felt right to do it themselves, like something they were folding up and putting away.

It was never going to be the same with anything else. It hasn’t been; the projects since have always been just work, no matter how pleasant or engrossing. It was that summer, it was being new and young and on the verge of everything. It was not knowing anything. That’s what he misses, he tells himself.

Still, and still.

Yibo will be good for the part. It wasn’t Xiao Zhan’s suggestion or decision, and that makes this feel magical, touched by something beyond them. It would be nice to be friends again as costars, adults now. Yibo’s almost thirty. Everything will be different.

But drifting off at last, Xiao Zhan can’t help a faint, plaintive wish for everything to be just the same.

 


 

At first, Yibo doesn’t want to take the part.

He knows about the book, of course, though he hasn’t read it. An indie movie isn’t his thing, and he’s stayed away from danmei projects since his big breakthrough, trying not to get pigeon-holed. He doesn’t want to get locked into any one thing, not dramas or even acting, and he’s worked hard to keep his career as varied as possible. Exhausting, but that’s the way he likes it.

It’s not danmei, his manager messages back. It’s a real prestige film. You could win a big award for this.

That makes Yibo pause for a moment, because it’s true that he’s been thinking about trying more serious acting. He likes a challenge.

I don’t know about my schedule, he replies, though. I was thinking about a vacation this summer.

Is this because Xiao Zhan is involved? Jun Ning asks.

It feels like Yibo goes cold all over. He sits up from where he was sprawled on the couch, reaching onto the floor for the scripts he left down there. They’re spilling everywhere, out of the nice folders Jun Ning had them organized in when she sent over the latest batch for review, and it takes him a while to come up with the right one. It’s loosely stapled and he flips over the title page, looking for the cast list he skipped before, when he was bored and skimming on a commercial break.

There. The leading role. Of course.

Yibo lies back on the couch, still holding the folded script, staring at those two characters. He hasn’t followed Xiao Zhan’s projects much, especially as he moved into serious films. At first he wasn’t interested in watching Xiao Zhan cheese his way through romantic dramas, wearing dorky sweaters and making eyes at girls, and then his movies were all too heavy for Yibo, not his style at all. Xiao Zhan still does some singing performances, and Yibo has the single he put out for Christmas a couple years back, but even though they’re both under Tencent’s umbrella it’s in wildly different areas, and they never have any reason to meet even at big events.

There was supposed to be a five year anniversary event for the show, last year. First a live performance, and then when that didn’t work out there was a WeChat chain about just getting the cast together, a private reunion. Yibo doesn’t remember if Xiao Zhan was even involved, but anyway it didn’t come to anything; too many busy people, too far apart. Yibo got drinks with the TUBS guys at one point, and he saw Xuan Lu’s pictures at a cafe with Zhuocheng, and he thinks the kids who played the juniors still hang out, even though none of them are really kids anymore.

Yibo’s not a kid anymore either, and he tries to make his career decisions with a practical mind, but he still tends to drift towards whatever seems most interesting. He knows it drives Jun Ning crazy, and she’s had to work hard to get him some of the opportunities that were less interesting to him but paid better. He should probably be more appreciative.

Also, why would she think he wouldn’t take a job because of Xiao Zhan?

Of course I can work with Xiao Zhan, he says, and adds, I’d be happy to. I just don’t know if this project is right for me.

It’s the truth, but after he sends it he’s already starting to page through the script, reading it for real now. His character has comparatively more lines than Lan Wangji did, which is good to see, though he realizes they probably won’t be dubbing his voice this time. It’s a quiet story for all that, with so much said between the dialogue in lengthy directions for lingering shots on their faces. Yibo likes that idea, both of them being quiet for once. Xiao Zhan would have to learn how to act like Yibo did last time, putting into subtle expressions what can’t be said in words.

He realizes with a start that he’s already thinking about this project like something that’s really going to happen, imagining acting together again. Not just acting; the long days on set and the evenings off it, the closeness that isn’t like anything else. The creative work and chemistry they’d make between them, carried on like a fire they built.

Yibo has to close his eyes, the old raging hurt roaring to life again. Everything was perfect that summer, or at least he’d thought so. The work was half ridiculous—histrionic scenes shot all out of order and flying wirework with flailing sleeves and swords—and half so real and raw it felt like he aged a lifetime in just a few months, coming through it as the adult he’d pretended to be.

But he was so young then, still. Young enough to think any of it was real.

It took him almost a year to realize that Xiao Zhan hadn’t meant to hurt him. The detached way Xiao Zhan spoke to him that last morning was really his way of being kind, putting a clean ending on things in case Yibo had had the wrong idea. There was nothing to do but act like he was right.

And Yibo had never thought they would go off into the sunset together, hadn’t even known what he wanted yet, but he’d thought there was something more there. That they’d marked each other, chosen each other, bonded somehow, in a way that meant something. That there was more ahead of them, time to figure it out.

In all these years, after everything that’s happened in his life, he’s never really changed his mind. He’s had relationships, as much as his career allows, and met more people than he could imagine, but it’s never been the same.

It’s a lot of baggage to carry into a project, especially one as serious and intimate as this one. Maybe Jun Ning is right, even if she doesn’t know why. But the more Yibo thinks about it, the more he hates the idea of running from this because of their past. All this time he’s been gnawing over something he couldn’t change, and it feels stupid not to take a chance to make it right, whatever that means.

I’ll read the script, he messages, admitting what she already knows, that he didn’t before. You’re right, it would be a good project to take. What are the chances of it actually going forward?

She doesn’t answer for a while, like his previous resistance made her give up and go away. Yibo busies himself with the script while he waits, starting to feel the pull of the story, the way the characters are coming to life before him. Finally, the reply comes.

With both you and Xiao Zhan? It’s a smash hit for sure.

 


 

Xiao Zhan has long since gotten used to having no break between projects. Usually they overlap, starting something new as he’s trying to wind down the old one, a whiplash whirlwind that requires some serious concentration in his dressing room before he has to go out and remember who to be today. The family drama series he did this spring has a few extra days of shooting before he leaves for Dianshan Lake, but it’s mostly reshoots, and it’s easy to get through them. He can tell his castmates are ready to be done too, heading off for new projects or snatching a few weeks of vacation, and he feels lucky to be doing both, working in such a beautiful place.

Director Zhou has insisted on everything being shot on location, even renting a pair of houses on the lake instead of filming on set interiors. Both the film and the production should have a loose, authentic feeling, he explained over email, and he wants everyone to be comfortable. The cast and crew is staying at a hotel, but he’s rented a third lake house, much smaller, that he wants to use for table reads and “evening socialization,” whatever that means. Xiao Zhan’s worked on a lot of movies, and never really felt like hanging out with people once the work was done.

(Was Chen Qing Ling different because it was his first significant project? Because there were so many night shoots, it was hard to distinguish free time from work? Because everyone else was just as excited as he was to be working, even in the remote heat of the mountains, even for long hours in heavy costumes and wigs, all of them feeling the same thing?)

(Because of Yibo. Because of the way the two of them had set the tone for everyone, and how every day had felt like the first year of college, freedom and intrigue and wild excitement, like he was starting everything over again.)

He’s made good choices since then, Xiao Zhan thinks on the flight to Shanghai. He’s picked good projects, associated with good people, even made good real estate decisions, selling his old apartment just before the district became less desirable, landing a good place in a new building. There’s enough in the bank now that it takes several people to manage it and his parents are taken care of too, along with his extended family. When he wants company he can have it, and he’s stayed in touch with friends from his old life, even if it’s not more than an exchange of messages most of the time. He’s comfortable being on his own, and he doesn’t have many regrets.

That’s how he wants to be, he thinks, when he meets Yibo again. Quiet, comfortable. Not the person he was that summer, feeling the poignant ache of a few years’ age difference and the euphoria of real fame right on the horizon, caught between stages in his life.

Yibo is just about the age now that he was then, Xiao Zhan realizes with surprise. It’s funny to think how old he felt, surrounded by such young, highstrung actors, when he really wasn’t all that old himself. He wonders how Yibo will be, if he’s settled down more or if his calm, good-looking face is still likely to break into that broad grin with some prank or trick.

But the play fighting wasn’t about either of their personalities, not really. Everything seemed loud that summer, a hot tension humming beneath it all. The competition between them as co-leads, but also that unspoken anxiety, the knowledge of what kind of love story they were telling. The script was carefully never explicit, but they all worked to take it to the very edge of what was allowed, and it felt like he and Yibo needed to push back against that. Dispel the nerves, show that what they were doing wasn’t real.

The irony, Xiao Zhan thinks as the plane begins its descent, was that they made it real themselves off camera, as if that proved it wasn’t.

It made some kind of crazy sense at the time. How could they stare at each other all day like that, serious and tender, and not keep feeling it after? Someone dared them to kiss at an early room party, before they all learned that getting too drunk made the next day’s shoot even more hellish, and there wasn’t even much of a fuss beyond the initial shout. Everybody knew. Things didn’t change on set, the same rough play between takes and the return to high emotion once the camera started rolling, and what they did in their hotel rooms later felt like a compromise, a safe middle ground. They were just trying to make it through.

He pulls up his mask and finds his sunglasses as the plane’s interior lights come on and there’s a bustle of people stretching and gathering their things. Xiao Zhan yawns too, behind his mask. It’s tiring, going over all these memories again. He’s long since settled it in the back of his mind.

In the airport he finds his bag quickly and heads for the exit, scanning for his name on the signs being held up by the crowd of drivers. He finally spots it near the back, written above another name that makes him stop short.

Xiao Zhan stands in the middle of an enormous, bustling Shanghai terminal, feeling like his feet are suddenly too heavy to move. Their names, paired together on a sign, held by a middle-aged man with a round, shaved head and deep tired pouches beneath his eyes. And standing next to him—

It’s only a few seconds before Yibo turns and sees him, but it feels like a lifetime. Long enough to recognize the sweep of Yibo’s hair, reddish brown like Xiao Zhan remembers but softer, less styled. Who knows how many haircuts and colors Yibo’s had since they last met, or where he’s been or what he’s done; he was always changing and mutable even when Xiao Zhan thought he knew him, like he was too busy and enamored with life to decide on one version of himself.

But no, Xiao Zhan thinks, as Yibo looks at him at last. Yibo always knew exactly who he was. It was discomfiting, that burning certainty in his eyes, too much to look at for long.

He can’t see Yibo’s eyes now, hidden behind big aviator sunglasses and a black face mask. For all that Yibo is easy to recognize, with his lean strong frame, his height, his aura of being somehow special and apart. They’re looking at each other from behind tinted lenses, across an impossibly crowded terminal, and Xiao Zhan still feels the power of his presence.

Xiao Zhan crosses the terminal quickly, spurred to movement by the cab driver waving the sign. It’s been a long time since he and Yibo together in public could cause a riot, but he still doesn’t want to attract attention.

“Xiao-xiansheng?” the driver asks, when he gets closer. The man gives him a quick, bored once-over as Xiao Zhan tugs his mask down briefly. “OK. I’ll take your bag.”

He already has the handle of Yibo’s roller bag in one hand, and Xiao Zhan shakes his head. “I can manage.”

The driver frowns at him, reaching for his suitcase, and repeats his words. “I’ll take your bag. It’s my job.”

Xiao Zhan doesn’t want to make things difficult, so he gives it up. The driver tucks his sign under his arm and turns around, pulling a bag in both hands as he heads for the big sliding glass doors.

Now is the moment to say something to Yibo, but by the time Xiao Zhan looks over Yibo is already following the driver, striding to the exit. Their faces are both covered, Xiao Zhan’s shielded by a baseball cap, but they probably shouldn’t linger anyway. There’s so much time ahead of them.

They come out of the terminal and into the late afternoon, air hazy as the sun sinks lower in the sky. Xiao Zhan checks his mask out of habit, squinting even with his sunglasses through the glare. The car is a black, nondescript luxury sedan, and the driver is already loading the bags into the trunk by the time he gets there.

Yibo is standing on the sidewalk. He turns as Xiao Zhan approaches, and it’s impossible to read his expression but it looks like his eyebrows lift behind his sunglasses, maybe in a friendly grin. His hand is outstretched, and Xiao Zhan takes it.

Yibo pulls him in with casual ease, bumping shoulders briefly. “Hey man. It’s good to see you.”

“Yeah,” Xiao Zhan says, feeling a little breathless.

Yibo steps back, letting go of his hand. “Good flight and stuff?”

“Yeah,” Xiao Zhan says again, and a sudden wave of laughter bubbles up. Standing on a sidewalk outside the Shanghai airport, hardly even able to see each other’s faces, meeting for the first time in more than five years, and all Yibo has to say to him is a question about his flight.

“If you’ll step inside,” the driver says behind them, formally.

Yibo brushes his hair off his forehead, tucking it behind his ear, and gestures. “After you.”

Once this would have been an excuse for a stupid fight, mock politeness and friendly slaps, wrestling until one of them gave in. Now they’re older, established, conscious of other people’s time. Unfamiliar and awkward, reduced to being polite for real.

Xiao Zhan lets Yibo step aside for him, and gets into the car.

They’re quiet on the hour-long drive to the lake, for the most part. He didn’t expect it to be like this, their first meeting seemingly private but really not. There’s a table read tomorrow, the only rehearsal Director Zhou has planned, and he’s imagined it would be like the first time they met, surrounded by their costars and the crew, folded in as part of the adventure of the project. It’s hard to know how to be, with a stranger riding with them, but in truth he’s grateful for it. He’s not ready to be alone with Yibo yet, figuring out who they are to each other now.

Instead they take turns asking the driver questions about the area, which he answers shortly and without enthusiasm. He doesn’t know Dianshan Lake well, and as the drive passes by it starts to take on an edge of dark comedy, desperately trying to keep a conversation going with anyone but each other.

“Maybe,” the driver keeps saying. “I wouldn’t know.”

Finally they lapse into silence, each leaning on their own window. They have their masks pulled down now and Xiao Zhan glances over to see Yibo looking out the window, chin on his hand and his head tilted up, watching the darkening sky as the scenery flashes by. There’s still enough sunlight that it illuminates the contours of Yibo’s profile, his round nose and full lips, the shadow of stubble above and below. He doesn’t look almost thirty but he doesn’t look like Xiao Zhan remembers, either. Yibo always had something watchful about him, an edge of laughter to it like he was waiting for something, or just about to reveal something himself.

Now he looks calm and composed, harder to read than before. He stirs and Xiao Zhan glances away before their eyes meet. Now Yibo is looking at him instead, and Xiao Zhan wonders what he sees.

The sun is setting when they pull into the hotel parking lot. It’s a little ways from the lake and nothing special, just a white building surrounded by trees. There’s a PA waiting for them in the lobby who ushers them into the elevator, while someone else takes their bags. It’s a relief to be back in the production world as Xiao Zhan knows it, following what he’s told to do, with too many people around for the almost-intimacy that descended in the car.

When the elevator comes to a stop, the PA says, “this way, Wang-xiansheng,” while the man with Xiao Zhan’s bags starts to walk the opposite way down the hall.

They glance at each other, expressions still hidden behind dark glasses. “Uh,” Yibo says. “You want to grab dinner or something?”

He says it diffidently, a little formal, and it’s hard to tell if it’s just a pleasantry he felt he had to say or a real invitation. Xiao Zhan hesitates, then takes the safer option.

“I’m tired,” he says, honestly. “I think I’m just going to order room service and go to bed.”

“Right,” Yibo says. Too quickly? Relieved or disappointed? It’s been too long, and Xiao Zhan was never great at reading Yibo’s quiet voice.

“I’ll see you tomorrow morning at the table read?” Xiao Zhan says.

He can tell Yibo smiles, from the way his face moves behind his mask and sunglasses. “Tomorrow,” Yibo says.

If a smile could echo, ghostly and half-unseen, his does, because Xiao Zhan keeps thinking about it the rest of the night.

 


 

Yibo’s better at early morning calls than he used to be, but it’s still a relief to see that the day’s schedule starts with a ten am pickup. He’s never worked with this director before, but his manager told him to expect things to be different from what he’s used to.

“He’s an auteur,” Jun Ning said, emphasis on the word. “It’ll be good for you.”

Yibo hates when she says that. It usually means something uncomfortable and awkward, like a commercial for an embarrassing supplement or an event where he doesn’t know anybody. He reminds himself that he wanted to do this.

He flips through the script again as he finishes his breakfast. It seems good, as far as he knows about serious movies, and he’s excited about some of the acting he’ll get to do. The confrontation with his character’s parents is going to be fun, and he relishes how much emotion he’ll have to put into a few spare, cutting lines. He’s never really gotten to do anything like this.

Yibo hasn’t let himself look at the romantic scenes much, after the first readthrough. He knows there are several of them, and that they’re going to push him more than anything ever has as an actor, regardless of who’s playing the other part. He figures they’ll get there when they get there.

For now, he scrapes up the last bites of congee and puts his shoes on, stopping to adjust his hair in the mirror. They’ll probably want to cut it; letting his hair grow as long as he can between projects is one of his quiet little rebellions these days. Yibo pushes his hair back and heads downstairs.

The hotel is quieter than he’d expect in summer, but it’s fancy in an old-fashioned way and not very near the lake, which probably keeps some guests away. The few in the lobby don’t pay him much attention, and through the glass doors he sees some people gathered on the sidewalk outside near a small shuttle bus. A man and a woman, a pair of young girls with their parents, an older couple, four or five more people standing apart who look like part of the production team.

And Xiao Zhan.

He didn’t really expect Xiao Zhan to have dinner with him last night; he’s not even really sure why he asked. It just felt like the thing to do, something friendly to push back against that agonizing car ride they’d just had, with the driver sitting there the whole time. He can’t blame Xiao Zhan for not wanting to hang out together on their very first night, but eventually they’re going to have to talk.

About so many things, but mostly about why the hell either of them agreed to this project.

Yibo can tell himself all day that he wants the prestige, the exposure, the new experience, but the truth is he could have started with so many movies that didn’t require him to do love scenes with his ex-boyfriend. Or his ex-something—he’s never been sure what they were, what it all meant. That’s part of the problem.

He doesn’t know if Xiao Zhan agreed to this because what happened between them meant so little that Xiao Zhan thinks nothing of playing lovers now, or the exact opposite of that, but it feels like a vital question either way.

As Yibo walks through the glass doors, an older man comes around the shuttle bus, a stack of scripts under his arm and a red baseball cap pulled low on his head. He’s dressed casually, a grey t-shirt tucked over a substantial paunch into faded jeans, but he has that air of authority Yibo has learned to recognize.

“Good morning, everybody,” Director Zhou says. “I’d like to welcome you all to the project. I’m going to be your driver for today, as well as your host. If you’d please step inside.”

He disappears back behind the shuttle bus, and after a moment of hesitation, everyone else follows him. It’s small inside, but somehow Yibo and Xiao Zhan end up as the only two with seats to themselves, across from each other at the front. He can tell the other people are glancing at them, fame making an awkward, palpable barrier as always, and Yibo slouches in his seat a bit, looking over at Xiao Zhan.

Instead of slouching, Xiao Zhan turns around with a smile and pushes his sunglasses up onto his forehead. “Hi, everyone,” he says brightly to the back of the bus. “I’m Xiao Zhan.”

There’s an amused murmur, because of course everyone knows that. Xiao Zhan goes on. “I just wanted to say that I’m really excited to be working on this movie, and I hope we have a good time and make a great film. If you ever need anything from me, or if there’s something I should do differently, please let me know.”

He presses his hands together briefly, nodding his head over them, and then glances over at Yibo.

Belatedly, Yibo turns around, taking off his sunglasses and squinting. “Hi. Uh, I’m Wang Yibo. What Xiao Zhan said—the same. Please tell me if I do anything wrong, because I’m new to, uh—” He fumbles for a moment, not knowing how to characterize his career. “Small films.”

He bows over his hands too, and then Director Zhou speaks up from behind him. “Well, we could just do the whole table read from this bus, if you guys want.”

General laughter, and Yibo can feel the tension easing in the crowd, starting to become a cast instead of a group of strangers.

“No?” Director Zhou says. “You want to see the lake? Great, let’s go.”

The bus roars to life, and lurches forward under his hands, creaking as the brake releases. Yibo turns back around in his seat, catching Xiao Zhan’s eye in the process. They smile and it feels better than before, like the tension has broken with them too, just a little.

It’s a short drive, the still waters of the lake coming into view in a few kilometers. The lake is small, with a narrow shore where houses cluster along it above private docks. Director Zhou takes them onto a narrow spit of land and parks in front of one of the houses, facing into a forested inlet with the masts of a few small boats visible above the roofs.

Inside, all sight lines lead to the water. There’s a main central room with a round doorway on either side, and the back wall is all glass, giving a view of the inlet to the left and the open lake to the right. Yibo feels peaceful just looking at it, like this is a good place to be.

“Sit, sit,” Director Zhou says, bustling in. “I’ll make tea.”

He disappears through one of the round doorways into the kitchen, and the cast finds their places around the long table in the middle of the room, surrounded by mismatched folding chairs. Yibo finds himself facing the water, with Xiao Zhan on one side and the man playing his father on the other.

After a moment of awkward silence, the woman sitting across from him speaks up.

“Well, I’m Wu Fan,” she says, tucking a strand of hair behind her ear. It’s bobbed chin-length, longer in front, and she has a brisk, straightforward attitude. “I’m playing Tan Minghua—the sister, you know. I guess this’ll be my house in the film?”

“No, the sets are much nicer—this is my house,” Director Zhou says, bustling back in with a tray holding an enormous teapot and covered with small tea cups. He begins setting them down in front of the actors. “Well, my house for the shoot. I wanted a place we could all come back to after filming that isn’t the hotel.”

“Is that usual, renting houses for sets?” Yibo asks. He knows he’s going to have to ask a bunch of stupid questions, and he might as well get used to it.

“Nope,” Director Zhou says, with a shrug. He puts the teapot down in the middle of the table and slips the tray under his arm. He looks at Yibo, raising one dark bushy eyebrow under the brim of his cap. “But this is my movie, and I get to do things my way on this particular film.”

He looks around the room, smiling briefly as he glances over at the two little girls. “This is going to be a special film, I can tell. We had to do the casting separately, but I have a good feeling about this group. I think we’re going to do very good work together.”

With that, he withdraws to a chair in the corner, his back to the water, and pulls up a footstool, his elbows propped on the armrests and fingers laced over his round stomach. It’s hard to see his face under the cap, tugged down low. He crosses his legs, one battered white sneaker on top of the other, and settles in. “So let’s get started.”

The actors glance around at each other, reaching for the pile of scripts, and there’s silence as everyone flips through. Finally Xiao Zhan clears his throat.

It’s strange to say it now,” he begins, narrating. “But losing my job was the best thing that ever happened to me.

 


 

It’s well into afternoon by the time the table read finishes, the sun dropped lower so it’s shining right into Xiao Zhan’s eyes. The little girls playing his nieces have long since left, their parents saying it was time for lunch, tactfully, as the movie took a turn into more adult material. Director Zhou was silent for most of it, so silent that occasionally Xiao Zhan had to look to see if he’d fallen asleep under the brim of his cap, but from time to time he roused, telling them to reread the scene they’d just done. He never offered any guidance, just asked to hear it again, and there was no way of knowing what he thought.

Now they’re all sitting quietly, beneath a curiously heavy kind of silence that Xiao Zhan can feel buzzing in his head. He’s still coming back to himself, the difficult rhythms of Lingxuan’s life receding, along with the enormous emotions he felt as the story reached its height. Before he took the project, he read through the script and heard the lines in his head, but it’s nothing to actually speaking them out loud to another person, living them like his own words.

He can hear Yibo, next to him, breathing hard. Neither of them had many lines in the last scene, but he must have been affected too, feeling the power of the story. Xiao Zhan looks over and flashes a reassuring smile, briefly touching their elbows together. He’s going to have to start doing things like that, costar things, making their working relationship friendly and comfortable. With the intensity of the story, it’ll get weird between them otherwise.

Yibo doesn’t smile back. He just looks at Xiao Zhan, dark eyes piercing beneath his tilted brows, and for a second it feels like Xiao Zhan’s heart falters, reconsidering its place in his chest. He stares back, smile fading, trying to interpret that look, and then Director Zhou speaks.

“Well,” he says. “It looks like I cast the right people.”

He stands, and everyone slumps back in their chairs, tired laughter breaking into sighs. Yang Cheng, who’s playing Xiao Zhan’s brother in law, looks over and smiles brightly, lifting his hands and clapping.

“Bravo,” Yang Cheng says. “Bravo everyone, really. I’m super excited to be working with you guys.”

His smile is broad and sincere, a little goofy, and he looks very different from his dour, unhappy character. Xiao Zhan’s already getting to like this cast, to feel that pull of community and connectedness he was hoping for. Wu Fan is more reserved but she’s smiling too, stretching her arms over her head.

“I’m starving,” she says, just as there’s a knock on the door.

“Perfect timing,” Director Zhou says, and goes to open it for the delivery driver.

Everyone busies themselves with organizing the dishes around the table, while he disappears in the kitchen and comes back with bowls and chopsticks, and by then the heavy reserve that was lingering after the read-through has dissipated, under the friendly chatter and passing of food. The sun has dropped low enough it’s shining through the window now, reflecting off the lake, and Xiao Zhan has to squint and turn away, which is when he realizes Yibo’s not at the table.

He pushes his chair back and stands, going in the direction Yibo must have gone, through one of the big round doorways. It leads into a hall with two closed doors and one open one, and Xiao Zhan goes through what must be the master bedroom and out a sliding glass door onto the side deck.

Yibo is standing at the end, a few meters away, at the edge of the water. He has both his hands folded behind his back, shoulders straight, brown hair ruffled by the wind off the lake. He’s dressed simply today, a loose cream-colored sweater over black slacks and sneakers, but when he turns his profile is as handsome as ever, the fullness of his features matched against his beautiful, distant eyes.

“You didn’t cry,” Yibo says.

Xiao Zhan shuts the slider behind him, leaning against it. The deck is small, and their voices carry without him coming closer.

“What do you mean,” he says, carefully. Yibo could be talking about a lot of things.

“At the table read,” Yibo says. “You’re supposed to cry in the last scene. You didn’t.”

“Oh,” Xiao Zhan says. He reaches up to rub the back of his neck, turning to look out at the inlet. “I don’t know. It was just a table read. Like a run-through for dance, you don’t go a hundred percent, you know?”

“You always used to,” Yibo says.

Xiao Zhan turns back to look at Yibo, before he knows what he’s going to say. It leaves him looking for words to explain himself, caught off guard again by how beautiful Yibo is. His jaw is stronger and his face more narrow, but it hasn’t lost that luminous quality that always drew Xiao Zhan’s eyes, so much he had to remember not to look. Now he’s older, it’s like the glow has been refined in the sharper planes of his face, polished and radiant.

His eyes seem older too, Xiao Zhan thinks, but there’s still that searching sincerity, something vulnerable and direct. Yibo was always looking at him like that, but the expression disappeared whenever he looked back.

The moment has gone on too long now, and anything he says will feel awkward and untrue. Xiao Zhan tightens his jaw and plows ahead into what they aren’t talking about. “Lots of things used to be different. Lao Wang—”

At the sound of the old nickname, he sees Yibo flinch before turning back to face the water again, shoving his hands in his pockets. His shoulders are hunched, and Xiao Zhan feels a pang of regret for stepping so clumsily. He takes a breath and lets it out, slow.

“Do you like the script?” he asks, carefully. “I think it’s really good. Great, even. I feel like this movie could be a really big deal.”

“I liked the script when I looked at it before,” Yibo says. “But it feels like so much more when we read it out loud.”

“Yeah,” Xiao Zhan says.

“The last scene—” Yibo says, and stops.

The silence stretches out, painful and growing more so, sharp and cutting as a string wrapped tight.

“It’s good,” Xiao Zhan says, soft, helpless. He wishes he had better words.

Yibo turns around, hands still deep in his pockets. His eyes look red now, and serious. The sweater is cashmere, Xiao Zhan realizes; a touch of deep, impractical luxury to set off his casual appearance. It must be almost thirty degrees out here.

“This movie could be something great,” Yibo says, fiercely. Xiao Zhan nods, expecting Yibo to break into a smile, but he doesn’t change expression or look away. “We’ve got to put our whole selves into it. If we hold back, it won’t work. We have to give everything.”

He’s rebuking Xiao Zhan, but his words are also echoing what they were told at the start of filming in Hengdian. Don’t hold back. Don’t play it with a wink. Put all your feelings into this. Put your real selves out there, and we’ll make something great.

Xiao Zhan stares at Yibo, because that has to be on purpose, making him think of that hot, close summer and where putting their real selves out there got them. Maybe Yibo’s reminding him that this has to end the same way—the closeness is temporary, no matter how it feels at the time.

“Why did you take the part?” Xiao Zhan asks, suddenly, the words spilling from his mouth like they were just waiting to be said.

Yibo’s face changes at last, eyes widening, lips parting. He shifts, rocking back a step. He’s about to speak, when a knock comes on the glass slider.

Xiao Zhan jumps, feeling it against his back as much as hearing it. He turns to see Director Zhou, who pulls the door open enough to be heard.

“Come and eat!” he says. “We’re driving around the lake soon.”

“We’ll be there,” Xiao Zhan says. “Just give us minute, dao-yan.”

Director Zhou frowns, under his ball cap, and glances over Xiao Zhan’s shoulder at Yibo. Xiao Zhan gets the strange feeling he understands everything with one look, but the director only says, “OK, one more minute,” before pulling the door shut again.

Xiao Zhan takes a breath, centering himself, before he turns around again. “We should talk more,” he says. “Not now, but soon.”

He smiles, trying to be friendly, although he can tell it doesn’t quite reach his eyes. Yesterday Yibo was the one trying to act normal, and he’d thought he’d known what to expect, that they’d move into their professional roles easily enough. He didn’t expect Yibo to be the one making things confusing again today.

“Yeah, soon,” Yibo says, and his hands are tucked behind him again, that old, steady posture, reserved and withdrawn, like he’s waiting for action.

Xiao Zhan is just turning again, opening the door, when Yibo adds, “And maybe you can tell me why you took the part.”

 


 

Yibo falls asleep in the back of the bus, somewhere on the far side of Dianshan Lake. They’ve been driving around it for what feels like all afternoon, with a brief stop on the northeastern shore to see the houses that will serve as the sets. The houses were bigger and fancier than where they did the table read, with a long shared dock jutting well out into the water. Director Zhou didn’t stop for long, just pulled up to give them a view before backing out the drive and onto the lakeshore again, and soon after, the smooth road lulled Yibo under.

He wakes up in the hotel parking lot to find that he’s the last one left on the bus. He yawns hugely, blinking around him, before hauling himself to his feet. Director Zhou is still sitting in the driver’s seat, typing on his phone, but he looks up as Yibo passes by.

“Did you get your beauty sleep, Wang Yibo? I’m sorry the drive bored you.”

Yibo grimaces in apology. “It was beautiful. I’m sorry for passing out.”

Director Zhou looks at him closely, under the brim of his ever-present ball cap. “You know, this is going to be a project with a lot of hard work.”

“I’m a dancer,” Yibo says, a little defensively. “I work hard.”

“Not that kind of work,” Director Zhou says. He’s still staring up from where he’s bent over his phone. “Emotional work, you know? I want you to go deeper than you ever have before.”

Yibo’s throat feels tight, but he answers, “I can do that.”

“Can you?” Director Zhou says. “I hope so.”

His tone is mild, but Yibo still frowns, gripping the back of a seat. It feels like he needs to defend himself here. “Listen, I know I didn’t actually read for the part, and maybe the studio made you cast me—”

Director Zhou waves him off, impatiently. “No one made me do anything. I just wanted to make sure that now you’re here, you’re really here to do the work.”

“Well,” Yibo says. “I’m here. And I always work hard.”

“Good,” Director Zhou says, and nods. “We start filming in two days. Tomorrow I’m taking you and Xiao Zhan out to the house set again. Be ready early.”

“OK,” Yibo says, feeling a little overwhelmed. Director Zhou’s words are kind enough, but he has a blunt, rapidfire way of speaking that leaves Yibo feeling like he just received a set of orders. “How early?”

“Five,” Director Zhou says. “I want to do some fishing.”

Yikes. “OK,” Yibo says again, trying not to make a face, and turns to go. Before he leaves the bus, though, he turns back.

“Thank you,” he says. “For wanting me on this project.” He pauses. “I’m glad that no one made you, but I have actually been wondering how my name came up.”

“Xiao Zhan,” Director Zhou says, like it’s obvious, and Yibo’s heart lurches before he goes on. “Given your history, of course I wanted the two of you. Your show laid the ground for all those danmei dramas after it, and now this film will go even further. I know you can both handle it. And,” he adds, “it’ll help our commercial appeal to have a more mainstream actor.”

“Right,” Yibo says, dumbly. “Yeah.”

Director Zhou squints at him. “You should get some dinner and go to bed early. I’ll see you in the morning.”

Outside, the black pavement of the deserted parking lot gives off a lingering heat. Yibo meets his security detail waiting in the lobby, and orders room service riding the elevator up to his room.

He feels exhausted in a dazzled way, despite the late start, like he’s had too much sun at the beach. Back in his room he takes a shower, and when he gets out dinner is waiting on a cart. Yibo lies on his bed watching some variety show in his underwear, picking at the food. He feels like he wants something, but he doesn’t know what.

Before he took the part, he skimmed the script, and he knows what the story is about from the book being mentioned everywhere. He was at an event with the author last year, though it was crowded and they never talked or got introduced. Knowing all that was nothing like actually reading through the script out loud, living Jin Yi’s story, even if he knew how it would turn out.

Yibo feels like he gave everything today. Easy and seductive in his early scenes, casual, and then the growing tension as the reality of his situation became apparent. Arguing with his parents, the hospital scene with his dying grandmother, the desperate phone call after. Jin Yi’s journey is all about realizing how shallow his rootless life has been, eased but distanced by wealth, and that what he’s found with Lingxuan is real and worth keeping. In just a few hours, Yibo feels like he’s lived it all.

Xiao Zhan wasn’t all the way there. He’s undeniably the right choice for Lingxuan—a sensitive, reserved art professor thrown on hard times, spending the summer with his sister and nieces, unsure of himself and his future—but his performance today was withdrawn, like he was just marking the steps. The love scenes are mostly wordless, so they skimmed by quickly in the read-through, and Yibo never felt like they were making a connection, as if he was always waiting for the real Xiao Zhan to bloom into life.

He gets his copy of the script off the nightstand and flips through it again, finally focusing on the love scenes. They’re lightly written, more moods and direction than dialogue, leaving a lot of space for interpretation. Yibo’s face still gets warm reading over them, and he stops on the last one, imagining, remembering.

They did this too, once. Filming got rained out, and Yibo slouched into Xiao Zhan’s room, complaining his phone was dead because his charger cable was busted. He expected Xiao Zhan to kick him out or invite some other people over, but instead they watched TV on Xiao Zhan’s bed, strangely silent and still, until Yibo turned to look at Xiao Zhan and found he was already looking back.

Just like in the movie script, it went on all day, getting better each time, as if the fear of someone finding them out drove them on to new heights. Yibo made some joke early on about whether Xiao Zhan could keep up, and maybe Xiao Zhan took it as a challenge, or maybe he just wanted it that much.

Yibo shuts his eyes now, thinking about it. Touching Xiao Zhan, fingers slid deep inside him, and how Xiao Zhan gasped and moaned, clutching the sheets, until he came just like that, head tipped back to show the long arch of his throat. Yibo hadn’t made anyone come that way before and he thought it was the first time for Xiao Zhan too, the way he half-sobbed as he got his breath back, one hand wrapped around Yibo’s wrist with his thumb pressing into his pulse.

He watched everything about Xiao Zhan, that summer. How he drank his tea and put on his shoes, the way sweat sprang out on his face the moment sun touched it, how he hid his mouth behind his hand when he laughed and bit his lip listening to music on the bus rides home, looking out the window in the dark. There was an intense intimacy in knowing Xiao Zhan’s body so well, the injuries from wirework and the places he was ticklish, how he liked his food and how he liked to be touched.

Yibo doesn’t know what to do with all that, has never known. He tries to think of it like roles they once played, as unreal as the characters on screen, but he knows that’s not the truth. That summer changed him, and it’s a heart-stopping wrench, every time, to think that for Xiao Zhan it wasn’t the same.

These characters get a better chance at resolution. Yibo wonders how he’ll feel when they finally get there, after filming the rest of the story. It’s not the kind of happy ending he’s used to filming in romantic dramas, but he’s not used to filming in order, either. Everything about this project is new, unsettling.

He finishes the rest of his dinner and just lies still for a moment, the script on his bare chest, drifting off in yet another strange hotel room. His phone battery is low and he should plug it in, but it feels so good to rest for a moment. He wonders how Xiao Zhan would react now if Yibo knocked on his door complaining that he’s bored, starting a hand game war that turns into a wrestling match or just climbing into bed with him.

Probably like he did out on the dock today, when Yibo accused him of phoning it in for the table read. Shrugging at first, keeping his distance, and then turning it around on Yibo, making him feel young and awkward like always. Yibo found himself being more serious in return than he meant to, just to stop from sliding into their old dynamic, and Xiao Zhan still got the upper hand, asking a question Yibo couldn’t answer yet.

Why did he take the part? Yibo feels less sure of the reasons himself every moment since he’s arrived.

But Xiao Zhan wants to talk, and that’s something. Maybe it’s just to clear the slate, put their past behind them, but then Xiao Zhan would have to acknowledge there is a past, which is more than he’s ever done before. All those promo events they did the following year, he acted like they were just good friends, old costars, people with a job to do together. Like he’d never fallen asleep with his head on Yibo’s chest, like he’d never taken Yibo in his mouth and made him almost cry with how good it was, like he’d never whispered things in Yibo’s ear that made him shiver beneath his heavy costume, ghosting a touch over Yibo’s waist as he passed.

Yibo doesn’t think he can stand to have all that forgotten again. If it’s going to be like that, he’d rather not bother talking at all. He reaches for his dying phone, clears the usual cascading notifications, and types in Xiao Zhan’s contact, thinking of how to say it. Their last texts were at least four years ago, a meme he’d sent that Xiao Zhan never responded to, and they were rare before that, after filming ended. Yibo archived the thread a long time back.

Except now he sees a message from earlier, maybe when he was in the shower. Director Zhou says call time is at 5 tomorrow. Hope you like 🐟

Yibo stops, holding his phone, his own planned message forgotten. There’s nothing personal or special about the message, except that Xiao Zhan sent it. No reason not to say what he was going to say, putting some distance between them, except for this foolish, unquenchable hope that their old closeness might return.

In the end, he chickens out. I’ll see you then, Yibo answers, and then gets up to find the charger. Even if Xiao Zhan wants to just be friends and costars, their relationship never approaching the heat they once had, Yibo will take what he can get.

 


 

The sun is just starting to rise by the time Director Zhou gets them settled at the end of the dock with fishing gear, baited and ready to go. Neither of them really knows what to do with a fishing rod, so they joke around awkwardly, swinging them in the air.

“I bet I can cast farther than you,” Xiao Zhan says, just for something to say.

Yibo yawns, a huge jaw-cracking stretch. “Can’t.”

“Can.”

“Can’t.”

“Watch me.”

“Wait,” Yibo says. He yawns once more and then grips his rod with both hands. “OK, now.”

On three they flick their rods back and send the hooks whizzing over the water. They don’t go very far, but Xiao Zhan’s lands a meter or two deeper in the lake, disturbing the calm surface with a plop. Beside him, Yibo lets out a disappointed groan.

“I told you I could,” Xiao Zhan says, feeling oddly satisfied. “We should have made a real bet.”

“You can have half the fish I catch,” Yibo says.

“So half of nothing?” Xiao Zhan says, and Yibo just grumbles.

Xiao Zhan stares out over the water, feet planted on the dock. It’s serene and surreal, standing here together. The early morning air is cool on his face, and he admires the glow of the rising sun on the lake, the faint sleepy birdsong from the woods behind him. It’s peaceful but strange, after the last few months of frenetic work in the studio, to be somewhere so quiet and so alone.

But he’s not alone. Director Zhou is kneeling further down the dock, still fussing with his gear, and Yibo is beside him, almost close enough to touch.

It’s good that they’re joking around again, Xiao Zhan thinks. He doesn’t know how yesterday’s conversation got so serious so fast, after the easy way Yibo greeted him at the airport. He knows they still need to talk, that they should have before they ever arrived here, but he just can’t face it yet.

He knows, too, that it’s probably his fault they stopped texting, though he doesn’t remember doing it on purpose. He just took longer and longer to answer, and maybe Yibo found someone else to talk to on breaks or long flights. They weren’t much, those video links and memes, and it felt silly, trying to pretend that this was the relationship they used to have. He was probably just still at the top of Yibo’s contacts at the time, the easiest person to bother when he was bored, a habit after months of it. He’s sure Yibo hardly even thought about it when they stopped.

And besides, talking to Yibo before they got here would have made it seem like there was something important to talk about, when the truth is just that on their first big project, years ago, they used to hook up. That’s all. Not enough of a history for Xiao Zhan to feel so anxious and unsettled just being near Yibo, thinking of the work they’re going to do and the chemistry they’re going to build before they have to put it away again.

Yibo’s always been a professional, ever since they first met, when he was hardly more than a kid. Xiao Zhan’s never had problems separating from costars when a project ended, and that must be why. He learned his lesson about getting too close.

“I got a bite,” Yibo says, surprising him.

“No, you didn’t,” Xiao Zhan says, in automatic disagreement.

“I did.”

“It’s a tin can,” Xiao Zhan says. “Or an old boot.”

“No, it’s moving,” Yibo says. “Look.”

He pulls on his rod a little, which bows under the tension, line pulling tight. It does look like it’s jerking around out there in the water, though Xiao Zhan can’t see what’s at the other end.

“It’s caught on something,” Xiao Zhan says. “You’re making it do that, I know Lao Wang’s tricks.”

Yibo doesn’t wince at the name today, but Xiao Zhan feels suddenly silly, like he’s playing up to cameras that aren’t there anymore. Director Zhou probably can’t even hear them, so who’s he performing for? It strikes him that they were always like this because they were almost never alone; even when they were they still kept up the joke, like they were afraid to be without it.

“Director Zhou,” Yibo calls, over his shoulder. “I got a bite.”

The director turns from where he’s sitting fishing on the edge of the dock, legs dangling, but he doesn’t get up.

“Reel it in,” he says, calmly.

“How?” Yibo asks. The rod jerks in his hand and he takes a stumbling step back, bracing himself.

“Get Xiao Zhan to help you,” Director Zhou says, and turns back to his own patch of lake.

Yibo gives a sideways look, under his brows, without turning his head.

“Fine, I’ll help you catch your boot,” Xiao Zhan says, and steps behind him. He puts his hands on Yibo’s forearms, just below the elbow, holding him steady. “Turn that crank.”

“I know what to do,” Yibo snaps, as the line tugs again, jerking them both forward.

“It’s a feisty boot,” Xiao Zhan says. “Is it trying to run away?”

“Shut up,” Yibo says, shaking his head, but he starts cranking the reel.

It takes more coordination and effort than Xiao Zhan expected, and Yibo has to work out how to time the reeling with the increasingly frantic pressure at the end of his fishing line. It plays out, and then he winds it up, and it plays out again, always losing a little ground but gaining more. Xiao Zhan can feel the strength in Yibo’s arms, the flexing muscles, and a heated awareness of their closeness creeps through him. Maybe this isn’t what Director Zhou meant by “helping.”

“I think you got it,” he says, releasing Yibo’s arms, but Yibo yelps at him, “Don’t let go!” and Xiao Zhan grasps him again just in time to pull him back against an enormous tug that almost drags them both off the dock.

Then Yibo’s reeling hard, the crank whizzing and hissing, and leaning back against Xiao Zhan’s chest with a fish dangling off his line, flashing frantic and silver bright in the morning light.

“Holy shit,” Xiao Zhan says, somehow surprised to see it’s real.

“I got it!” Yibo says, and he sounds young and delighted, real triumph in his voice.

For a moment they just stand there, as stunned as the twisting, gasping fish, and then Xiao Zhan realizes he’s basically holding Yibo in his arms. He takes a step back, letting go.

“Where’s the other boot?” he asks, but Yibo ignores him, still laughing in triumph at his own success. The fish swings wildly, making the line sway.

“Put it in the bucket,” Director Zhou says from behind them.

The triumphant moment turns comical and gruesome then, as Yibo tries to get the hook out with the fish flopping so violently he can barely hold on. Xiao Zhan takes hold of the rod, freeing Yibo’s other hand, but it’s still a mess and a near thing, as the fish almost escapes into the water. In the end, though, it’s in the bucket, and they stare down as it lives out its last convulsive gasps, bleeding where the hook came out.

“Wow,” Yibo says. He looks suddenly sick and unhappy, mouth turned down. The fish flops again, gills flaring uselessly in the air.

“Yeah,” Xiao Zhan says. He glances over at Director Zhou, who’s still placidly fishing, clearly uninterested in their struggles.

“What kind do you think it is?” Xiao Zhan asks, but when he turns back Yibo is reaching down into the bucket, scooping the fish up with his big hands.

Without looking at him, Yibo tosses the fish back into the lake, writhing with a last silvery arc before it lands with a splash. Yibo watches the ripples after it disappears, his expression inscrutable.

“Whoops,” Xiao Zhan says, after a moment.

“It was cool just to catch it,” Yibo says, still staring at the lake, and then turns back to Xiao Zhan, a sly smile on his face. “It’s more than you caught, anyway.”

They cast again, though neither of them catches anything; Xiao Zhan feels a few tugs on his line but leaves it alone until they stop. Sometimes they make casual comments, but mostly they’re silent, sitting cross-legged on the dock with the rising sun warming them up. It’s high in the sky and Xiao Zhan is feeling hungry for more than his quick protein bar breakfast when Director Zhou finally gets up, with the single welcome word “lunch.”

His own bucket is half full of fish, but he doesn’t comment on their empty one as they walk back to the house. He walks fast, a little ahead of them, and Xiao Zhan expects maybe Yibo will drop behind, keeping the silence that’s been between them for the last few hours, but he matches Xiao Zhan’s stride.

“Hungry?” Xiao Zhan says, for lack of anything better to say.

Yibo looks at him, sidelong. He’s still so good at that, his beautiful face remaining still and only his eyes showing life, beneath his tilted brows. “Not for fish.”

Xiao Zhan wrinkles his nose. “No.”

“So, you wanted to talk,” Yibo says, quieter, after a pause.

“Now?” Xiao Zhan asks, glancing up at Director Zhou’s back.

“No,” Yibo says. “I was just thinking—”

He doesn’t finish, because Director Zhou turns around then, walking backwards with his fishing tackle bumping against his hip, bucket in the other hand. “I ordered lunch,” he says. “Then I thought we’d rehearse a scene. I want to see how you work together.”

They exchange a brief glance, and Xiao Zhan nods. “Of course,” he says, easily. “Whatever you want, dao-yan.”

“Good,” Director Zhou says, and turns around just as they reach the patio steps.

Now Yibo does fall behind, letting Xiao Zhan go ahead, but feels like Xiao Zhan can still sense him and the striking intensity of his voice. Xiao Zhan’s the one who said we should talk yesterday but he meant it lightly, looking for a way to establish a working rapport, erasing the distance of years. Yibo’s face was so serious just now, though, that Xiao Zhan can’t help getting a sinking feeling that there’s something more he wants to say.

Director Zhou opens the back door and holds it open for Xiao Zhan, who takes it to let him go through first. Xiao Zhan turns his head over his shoulder as he holds the door, meeting Yibo’s eyes on the step below him. There’s a brief, flaring moment, like touching something blindingly hot, and then Xiao Zhan turns back, breathless, feeling as if all the careful ease of the last few days is only a cover for something deeper, something he’s not sure he knows how to look at yet.

 


 

When lunch arrives, they settle around the long dining room table with the views of the lake, and then they’re too busy digging into their food to say much. “Fishing gives you an appetite,” Director Zhou says, and Yibo just nods, shoveling in noodles and beef. Food hasn’t tasted this good in a long time.

This house is a far cry from the little one where they had lunch yesterday. That was right on the water, with those low, friendly, round doorways everywhere, but here there are grounds stretching to the lake and glass walls to take in the sights, framed by high ceilings and beautiful landscaping. It’s a modern, luxurious house, the kind Yibo has rented from time to time when he gets a break from work, and it feels more like work, too. Like performing, being in a world where he’s never quite relaxed, with people expecting things from him.

After lunch, Director Zhou gives them a brief tour of the house. “Most of the interior scenes will be here,” he says, gesturing around. “The kitchen scene, of course. And Lingxuan’s bedroom,” he says to Xiao Zhan, opening the door to a room upstairs, overlooking the lake.

Xiao Zhan stands in the doorway, studying the room. “I don’t think this is right.”

“Hm?” Director Zhou says. He’s already a few steps down the hall, heading for the stairs.

“In the book, he says his room is like a cave he doesn’t leave for the first week, ‘small and dark.’ This room is too bright.”

“We’ll draw the curtains, darken it from the outside,” Director Zhou replies, dismissive.

Xiao Zhan folds his arms, leaning against the doorframe, and shakes his head. “His sister wouldn’t give him a lake view room, even if she didn’t have other guests. It’s embarrassing that he’s here, it’s shameful he’s lost his job. She’d put him in a back room away from her family.”

Yibo glances between the two of them. Xiao Zhan is still looking into the sunny bedroom, and Director Zhou is looking at him, a faint smile on his pugnacious face. Yibo’s never seen this before, an actor challenging a director so calmly, but Xiao Zhan sounds like he knows what he’s talking about and Director Zhou seems to be taking him seriously.

“We’ll talk about it,” Director Zhou says. “Come on, let’s go back down. The scripts are in my bag.”

In the living room, he hands each of them a copy. His own is dog-eared and highlighted, with colorful tabs sticking out everywhere, and he flips through it, thumb rifling the edges of the pages before he looks up thoughtfully.

“Let’s do a scene with just you two,” he says. “How about, mm, scene forty-seven?”

He says it like they might already know what that refers to, and Yibo hurriedly flips through his own script. It’s about halfway through, and he almost misses it because there’s only one line of dialogue, not his.

Yibo stares at the page, his face growing hot. The kitchen scene.

LINGXUAN:
Are you going to help me with this?

Jin Yi steps closer. He closes his fingers over the plate that Lingxuan is holding out, taking it and setting it down on the counter. They stare at each other, neither one willing to look away. After an eternity, they kiss, tentative and slow, and then it goes on for another eternity before it stops. Lingxuan turns his head away, and Jin Yi stays close a moment before stepping back, shaking his head like nothing happened. But his smile is different now, like something has changed.

 

Yibo wonders what this scene was like in the book. If there was more description of what they’re thinking, if it says what it feels like to kiss someone like that, quick and secret after a family dinner when they could be walked in on at any time. He knows the book is from Lingxuan’s point of view, so it can’t tell the other side of the story, what it feels like when someone stops kissing you and turns away.

Yibo’s glance flicks up, over to Xiao Zhan. He’s still staring down at the page, studying those few lines like a top student, as though he can get a good grade in being the most serious actor.

“OK, let’s go,” Yibo says. “Kitchen’s through there, right? Let’s get it over with.”

He sees Xiao Zhan smile, a small private one like he can’t help himself. Yibo smiles too, bravely.

In the kitchen, they arrange themselves by the sink, under the window. Xiao Zhan opens a cabinet and finds a plate, and there’s a towel on the counter that he wraps around it, like he’s drying it off. Yibo stands a few steps away, and Director Zhou leans back against the big professional-grade stove, folding his arms across his chest.

Yibo glances at him, and he nods. “Go ahead.”

Like that, the nerves slam through Yibo. He feels like he’s back in primary school, on stage for a class presentation, or when he first started doing auditions as a kid. Hot, itchy, like his skin doesn’t fit and his hands don’t belong to him. He shuffles his feet, clears his throat, and finally forces himself into the moment, walking across the kitchen.

Xiao Zhan turns, like he just heard him. “Are you going to help me with this?”

When their eyes meet, it all goes sideways again. This is Xiao Zhan, and they used to do so much more than kiss, and they haven’t even talked in years.

Yibo swallows hard, trying to remember the script directions. They’re supposed to stare, and they do, but he’s distracted by the heat pounding in his face, the tips of his ears burning. Xiao Zhan’s face is so familiar and appealing that it makes Yibo’s heart ache, looking into those soft, intelligent eyes that always saw him too well. Too fast, too sudden, he moves in, breaking that tension and crushing their mouths together. It startles Xiao Zhan, who sucks in a breath through his nose, and then the kiss is sloppy and off-rhythm, like they’re moving on two different beats.

“Stop, no,” Director Zhou says, sounding disgusted. “Ugh.”

They break apart and turn to face him. Xiao Zhan is laughing, covering his face with both hands, and Yibo quickly wipes his own mouth with the back of his hand, incandescently embarrassed. “Sorry.”

“Well, I guess that’s the first take out of the way,” Director Zhou says, dryly. “Try it again, slower.”

Yibo clears his throat hard, looking down at the floor as he moves back into place, and then he tosses his head back, shaking his hair away from his face. That was too aggressive, he thinks; too obvious, too needy. Too much like himself, still yearning for his first big heartbreak, when he’s supposed to be like Jin Yi, confidently going after somebody he’s just met.

“Listen, your character is used to getting whatever you want,” Director Zhou says to Yibo, echoing his thoughts. “Light and easy. You don’t know what’s ahead of you, this big wrecking ball of emotion that’s going to change your life. You think it’s just a kiss.”

He look at Xiao Zhan. “And the last thing you want is to let someone in. Your life is at the bottom of the well, and you think you’re never going to get out. You don’t think you deserve to.”

Xiao Zhan nods, as though he’s really taking in the director’s words. Yibo turns and stares out the window, trying to get out of his own head. This is what he wants, what he’s here for; to work together, telling a story, maybe even making real art. The idea of it elates him, even though they’re not there yet. This is only the beginning.

“Try it again,” Director Zhou says, a casual command.

Again, Yibo steps forward, but now when Xiao Zhan turns it’s Lingxuan he sees; a damaged but compelling man, someone he can find refuge with for a little while from his own well-hidden troubles. Yibo smiles as Xiao Zhan says his meaningless line, because they both know that’s not what he came in here for. He takes a step closer, head already tilting for the kiss.

Their gaze smolders this time, building heat, and Yibo can feel the change in it, the moment that he realizes their connection is like a strong, solid wind he can lean against. He’s overcoming magnetic forces in the air, straining to get through to something, someone, that he suddenly, desperately needs.

They kiss. It’s good, imperfect but in the right way, with a little roughness, a little wetness, that makes it feel real. He puts his hand on Xiao Zhan’s face, cradling his jaw, and Xiao Zhan opens his mouth a little more, letting him in. The kiss becomes a reason in itself, a purpose, a place he doesn’t want to leave. On and on, gentle, with a hint of passion beneath that glows so white-hot that he’s almost afraid to kindle it to life, because it will never stop until it burns down everything.

It goes on longer. Somewhere in there, Yibo becomes himself again. He’s kissing Xiao Zhan in a kitchen and has been for a while, and their director is watching them. It’s such a confusing bundle of feelings to be hit with, a jolting awareness, that even though he’s not supposed to be the one who ends the kiss he does, breaking away and turning his head.

Director Zhou is gone.

“Oh, come on,” he hears Xiao Zhan say, under his breath.

Yibo’s hand is still on Xiao Zhan’s face, and he draws it back awkwardly. He glances over and their eyes meet for a second, before they look away again.

“I don’t know which time was more embarrassing,” Yibo mutters.

“That one was good,” Xiao Zhan says, and his voice is so low and soft that Yibo’s heart leaps at the sound. He looks up just as Xiao Zhan repeats himself, louder and more determined. “That was a good scene! You did good.”

“Oh, thanks,” Yibo says. “Such praise from Xiao-laoshi.”

The sarcasm and the familiar name tumble out before he can think, and he catches Xiao Zhan’s eye again, both of them startled and silent, confusion flashing between them. Yibo feels breathless, pulse pounding in his ears. It was so easy to go back to the way they were, for just a moment.

Finally Xiao Zhan lets out a long sigh and puts down the plate he was holding, sitting back against the sink counter. “We were going to talk about the script, right? What do you think?”

That wasn’t really what they were going to talk about, but Yibo lets it pass, taking the out that Xiao Zhan is offering. He’s not sure he wants to talk about the rest of it either. He sits back against the counter too, mirroring Xiao Zhan, their shoulders almost touching. “It’s a good script.”

“Yeah, I think so,” Xiao Zhan says, with enthusiasm. “It’s not dialogue-heavy, so a lot of it is going to depend on the filming, and our body language. But the story—man. You read the book?”

Yibo shakes his head.

“You should read the book,” Xiao Zhan says. “I think it’ll give more nuance to the project. Although it’s all Lingxuan’s voice—you’re going to get to do so much more with Jin Yi, it’s going to be great. The scenes with the Jin parents, and getting to see your face for that last phone call...” He stops, and there’s a sudden edge of tension between them.

Yibo remembers the scene, when Lingxuan calls it off between them the night before leaving for a new job in Shanghai. He read it late the night Jun Ning sent him the script, and it felt like every word hurt, bringing up old memories. They got close to it yesterday, but it wasn’t the same.

Now, standing so close to Xiao Zhan they’re almost touching, his mouth still warm and tingling from the kisses they just shared, it seems surreal, absurd, to be going through all this again. He’s dreamt about this for years, somehow getting the chance to put things right with Xiao Zhan, but it doesn’t feel like there’s an opening for that now. Xiao Zhan is still hesitating, and Yibo can feel him leaning away a little, shutting down the warm communion that’s been flowing between them once they were talking about something safe.

“It’s going to be great,” Xiao Zhan says again, the words hollow, and he straightens up, taking a step away.

“Yeah,” Yibo says, disappointment crashing through him. He tries to shake it off, frustrated with himself for still reacting to Xiao Zhan’s presence like a bright light he can’t look away from. He wants to say something cool and professional, but he realizes Director Zhou has come back into the kitchen.

“How’s it going? Tearing my script apart?” he asks, and Yibo remembers he wrote it himself, adapting it from the book.

“No, dao-yan,” Xiao Zhan says. “We love it.”

“I’m honored,” Director Zhou says, deadpan. “Well, I’m glad the second take went better. I was worrying maybe I cast the wrong actors after all.”

Yibo just smiles, a tight press of his lips, not wanting to engage. “Do you have something else for us to do?”

“No,” Director Zhou says. He pulls his phone out of his pocket. “Actually, I have the DP messaging me about some technical specs for tomorrow, so I should probably take you back to the hotel and put on one of my other hats. I can’t play matchmaker all day.”

He touches the bill of his red ball cap ironically, and they follow him outside to the car. Xiao Zhan takes the front seat again, like this morning, and Yibo sits in the back, watching the trees and water slip by out the window.

It makes him feel young, sitting in the back alone like this by himself, with the other two up front. It reminds him of his mother getting him and his sister from lessons after school, drowsing in the backseat while they talked. He’d make up his own stories or think about his day, and they’d tease him for never paying attention to anything they said, even if it was about him.

Now Director Zhou and Xiao Zhan are talking about the schedule for tomorrow, and Yibo tunes them out. Instead of thinking about his favorite cartoons or the boy in his dance class he was trying to surpass, the memories he’s been holding back begin to sift up, fragmented and shining like particles in a river.

Their first kiss. Someone’s room party, half-drunk, not the only dared kiss of the evening but the loudest shout. Xiao Zhan was aggressive, theatrical, one hand tight on the back of Yibo’s head as he swung him around and dipped him back.

Their first real kiss, the following night, like they’d both been thinking about it. “Lao Wang,” Xiao Zhan whispered against his lips, like he meant to stop him, but his hand was curled in Yibo’s shirt, pulling him close.

Yibo shifts in the seat, changing position, disgusted with himself. He could have stayed home if he was going to moon over these useless memories. He’s here to do a job.

“Right, Yibo?” Director Zhou says, like he’s asked a few times.

Yibo comes back to himself to find that they’re pulling into the hotel parking lot. He looks up and catches a pair of eyes in the rearview mirror, but they’re Xiao Zhan’s, watching him. Yibo blinks and looks away.

“Right,” he says.

 


 

The first scenes of the film are all Xiao Zhan, just pages and pages of his character’s highlighted name, and though he’s used to it he can’t help sighing as he reads them again over breakfast. There’s hardly any dialogue, at least, but plenty of closeups and wordless acting, all setting the tone for the movie. There’s a lot riding on these early scenes.

He’s not used to filming in order, though, and it only works because basically all of the locations are right here. They’re using an administrative building for his character’s university office, and that’s where he starts on the first day, sitting silently at his desk while the actor playing his department chair tells him in brief, euphemistic words why he’s being fired.

“Good,” Director Zhou says, when they finish. “Now let’s see it for real”

The movie starts with Lingxuan’s world ending. Xiao Zhan stares blankly ahead, making himself feel that internal collapse, a void opening beneath him. Teaching is all Lingxuan has, and even that is being taken from him, over some vague political error he’s made with careless talk. He doesn’t react, just listens, and it feels like the passage in the book, where all the words Lingxuan hears turn to the sound of water somewhere far away.

“Better,” Director Zhou says. “We’re beginning to get somewhere.”

The early establishing scenes take up the whole morning, and then they drive back to the big house across the lake, for lunch and the first scene with the family. Xiao Zhan gets off the shuttle bus behind the crew and walks out to the backyard, taking in the sweeping view. Dusty green willows, small buzzing motor boats, and the dock, stretching out into the rumpled surface of the blue bay.

So they finally got it out of the way yesterday, kissing each other again. First that terrible, too-real one, and then the second kiss, folded into their characters until the spell suddenly broke and it was just the two of them again, uncomfortably alone in the room.

That was the time to ask why Yibo had taken the part, and Xiao Zhan couldn’t do it. Not with the taste of Yibo still on his lips, and that edgy, nervous energy from Yibo, unsettled and wild. Like Yibo wanted to break and run, the opposite of how he’d jumped into that messy first kiss. Xiao Zhan was still reeling, trying to figure that out—Yibo had kissed him so fiercely, like he wanted to do it, but maybe that was just wanting to get it over with. It’s hard to know.

Xiao Zhan doesn’t know what Yibo’s thinking now, not that he ever really did. Yibo’s good at the job, putting up with endless discomfort and retakes, and the knowledge, seven years ago, of how people would interpret the show. Even if he hated doing a gay drama with real love scenes he wouldn’t say anything, but that’s not what Xiao Zhan feels from him.

He wants it to be okay between them. Better than okay—he wants to work together well, to be friends again, to feel that closeness from long ago. Yesterday before they got into character he felt like it was the real Yibo looking at him, in that long moment of consideration. And when they surfaced and found themselves wrapped around each other, that was Yibo too, in the hasty glance and the flash of something Xiao Zhan couldn’t name. That overwhelming feeling burned bright again, sharp and hot, and then they moved apart.

They didn’t talk on the ride home, and Yibo disappeared when they got to the hotel, taking the first elevator up to his room while Xiao Zhan made small talk with the concierge, waiting for the next one. They need to talk for real, Xiao Zhan knows. He’s just not sure what to say.

Lunch is noisy, with the two little girls running around. He likes their high spirits, though, and the lighter feeling they bring to the set. Wu Fan is more serious and withdrawn, reading a book as she eats, serene in the chaos. Director Zhou is talking basketball with the camera operator, while the crew members are swapping memes and videos on their phones. It makes Xiao Zhan feel good, being a part of something larger. His last drama, he was always sequestered with just a couple of other actors and a secondary crew, and he’s excited to have a better sense of the whole.

They film until late afternoon, when Xiao Zhan is surprised to hear Director Zhou call a halt. They haven’t actually finished the scene they were working on, and he thinks maybe it’s to do with union rules about the child actors, but when he looks around everyone is already packing up their gear.

“That’s it?” Xiao Zhan asks. “It’s not even five.”

“He always finishes early,” says the assistant director, Chao Xiuli, nodding at Director Zhou. He’s already on his phone, having a boisterous conversation, and she smiles. “The work stays on schedule, but I don’t know how.”

“Great,” Xiao Zhan says, surprised. He hadn’t expected to have this much free time in the evening.

“Go get changed and out of your makeup,” Chao Xiuli tells him. “First day drinks at his place after this, unless you’re too tired.”

“I’m not too tired,” Xiao Zhan says, immediately.

He’s actually wide awake by the time they get back to the smaller house near the hotel. It’s a holiday feeling, like school’s been canceled, and something he’s rarely felt on a location shoot. He can tell everyone else feels the same, the way the bus is full of noisy chatter. They pile off at the house, and inside Xiao Zhan is surprised to see Yang Cheng and Yibo already in conversation, sprawled on the couch in front of the TV in the living room.

“Hey!” Yang Cheng says, waving a bottle of beer. “We started without you.”

Yibo looks up, and his expression is the most open and unguarded it’s been since Xiao Zhan arrived, a real smile lighting up his face. He shakes his hair back, out of his eyes, and then takes a long pull off his beer.

Like that, it’s a party. Even Wu Fan loosens up some, and she and Xiao Zhan end up sitting together at the long dining table, sharing a bottle of wine and talking about the scene they were working on today.

“You just have to feel it, you know?” she says, gesturing. “It’s not in the dialogue but it has to come across in your face. You’re so uncomfortable having to move in with your sister, it should radiate off you.”

“And you’re so embarrassed to have me,” Xiao Zhan teases back. “Messing up your perfect life.”

“It’s not perfect,” she says, seriously. “Her husband is cheating in Shanghai during the week and her kids are brats. She just wants it to look perfect.”

Xiao Zhan nods, finishing his cup of wine. “Before we shoot tomorrow, maybe we should talk about the blocking? I think we can do a lot with body language.”

“Hey, hey,” Yang Cheng says, walking by. “No work talk. We’re having fun tonight.”

“This is fun,” Xiao Zhan protests.

He feels a strong hand on his shoulder, squeezing hard, and turns to see Director Zhou behind him, face already flushed and his baseball cap tipped back. “We’ll talk about the project some other night, OK?” the director says. “I have lots to tell you, don’t worry. Tonight, have fun—and eat something.” He pinches Xiao Zhan’s cheek and goes into the kitchen, calling out to one of the crew members Xiao Zhan doesn’t know yet.

Wu Fan raises an eyebrow. “Not a lot of directors telling us eat, huh?”

Xiao Zhan shakes his head, smiling. For the most part it’s true, though he’s sure it’s worse for actresses. He’s kept to the same spartan diet for a decade, and he probably still will even now, but it’s nice not to be told what to do either way. “I actually should eat something before I drink more.”

“Lightweight,” she says.

As he gets up he realizes he’s already missed the window for avoiding tipsiness on an empty stomach, even with just a little wine. His legs feel wobbly as he makes his way across the room to where platters of food are set out, and the loud music makes his ears ring as he serves himself a small bowl of black bean chicken with vegetables. It’s been a while since he’s done anything like this, other than the wrap party for his last drama, and he didn’t stay long for that.

Xiao Zhan is trying to get back through the crowd to the dining table when someone jostles him, knocking the chopsticks out of his bowl and onto the floor. The person bends down to grab them immediately, and Xiao Zhan realizes who it is just as he straightens up.

“Sorry,” Yibo says. He turns the chopsticks over in his hand to look at them, grimacing at what’s stuck to them, and then says, “Let me get you another pair?”

“Don’t worry about it,” Xiao Zhan says, but Yibo is already gone, heading back to the food table. He’s back in a moment, fresh chopsticks in his hand, and after a swift glance at Xiao Zhan he sticks them into the bowl, standing straight up. Yibo grins, cheekily.

“Jerk,” Xiao Zhan says, automatically. “Are you trying to give me bad luck?”

Yibo laughs. “Sorry, sorry.” He reaches out and adjusts the chopsticks, tilting them at an angle so they don’t look like a funeral offering. Xiao Zhan watches, caught by the sight of Yibo’s long fingers and wide palm, set off by a big-faced watch with a leather strap. He always liked Yibo’s hands.

“Uh,” Xiao Zhan says. “So what did you do all day?”

“Hung out,” Yibo says. “Slept. That’s why I took a project where I’m only second lead, it’s practically as good as a vacation.”

“Oh, so that’s why you took it,” Xiao Zhan says.

Yibo just looks at him, blinking, and there’s an awkward moment, like they’ve both forgotten their lines in this strained, unnatural conversation. Then he seems to recover, reaching into Xiao Zhan’s bowl to snag a piece of carrot and pop it into his mouth.

“I only slept until nine,” he says, chewing and swallowing. “Then I had business to handle. Phone calls, practicing some new choreo they sent me. You know.”

“Yeah,” Xiao Zhan says, because he does. Yibo’s been almost painfully busy ever since they met, and he’s not surprised it’s still that way, just that Yibo hasn’t dropped in his tracks yet. “You’re still doing a lot of different things?”

He knows the answer is yes, and he hates that it’s like this, saying things they both already know with their voices a little raised in the middle of a party.

“Yeah,” Yibo says, easily, pushing his hands in his pockets. Today he’s in a baggy blue t-shirt over jeans and white sneakers, brown hair unstyled and loose around his temples, and he might pass unremarked in public if he wasn’t so perfectly handsome, still. He flashes a crooked grin. “I haven’t settled down to serious cinema, like Zhan-ge.”

The jibe, the pet name, and especially the smile pierce Xiao Zhan, unsettling. Everything has been so distant between them, awkward and unreal, that every moment of closeness is a surprise. He’s imagined this a hundred times before, reuniting at last, but he never guessed how difficult it would really be.

“Have you eaten?” Xiao Zhan says, trying to keep the lightness going in return. He says it like a greeting, the way they used to with each other, teasing but not really. It was easy to forget things like food that summer.

“Oh, uh, not yet,” Yibo says, his smile fading as he looks over his shoulder at the table of food. “I guess I should.”

“Oh,” Xiao Zhan says, feeling the jolt of letdown. The ease is broken, like dropping a ball. “Yeah, you should get some dinner. It’s good,” he adds, though he hasn’t even tried it yet.

Yibo nods, lingering a moment. Xiao Zhan almost says something more but he waits too long, and then Yibo is gone.

He takes his food back to the table, where Wu Fan is sitting with her chin on her hand watching him. Her bobbed hair is still smooth from filming earlier, but her face is mostly wiped clean of the heavy makeup, with only eyeliner left. She raises one eyebrow as Xiao Zhan sits, an expression that seems like a habit with her.

“You know Wang Yibo pretty well?” she asks.

Xiao Zhan shakes his head. “We worked together years ago.”

“No, really?” she deadpans. Everybody knows that, of course. “You probably knew each other well back then, though.”

He shrugs his shoulders, taking a small mouthful of food. No matter what Director Zhou says, he’d still rather keep his evening meal light, the night before filming. He pushes his wine cup away too, reminding himself not to drink more.

“What’s he like?” Wu Fan asks.

“Like he is on TV,” Xiao Zhan says.

She makes a face. “He’s always so cool on TV. Unless someone catches him off guard, he just makes that same face.” She mimics Yibo, half-closed eyes and pursed lips, and Xiao Zhan laughs in spite of himself. “Like he’s always thinking, but he’s not going to tell you what about.”

Xiao Zhan chews and swallows. The food is good, almost good enough to break his routine over. “That’s what he’s like.”

“Hm,” Wu Fan says. “Do you think that’s going to work for the movie? Jin Yi has to show a lot of emotion at the end.”

“He’s a good actor,” Xiao Zhan says. “He’s a professional. I’m sure he’ll give Director Zhou what he wants.”

“Hmm,” she says. She finishes her wine and stands up. “Think I’ll get some food before it’s gone. Save my spot,” she says, though they’re the only two sitting at the dining table.

She doesn’t come back for a while, and Xiao Zhan finishes his food and then pulls out his phone, enjoying the solitude. Eventually it occurs to him that other people might feel too shy to come sit with him, so he turns around in his seat, looking over his shoulder.

It’s a real party now, with karaoke in the corner and people sitting in groups, talking loudly. Su Bingtao, the actor playing Yibo’s father, has an arm over his shoulder while telling him something emphatically that makes him laugh, and Wu Fan is talking with Chao Xiuli by the food, head tilted up and making an attentive face. Director Zhou is belting out an old pop song on the microphone, too sentimental even for Xiao Zhan’s tastes, and Yang Cheng leads the cheers and applause on the couch.

Xiao Zhan feels a smile creeping across his face, taking in the scene. He’s not a full part of it, not yet, but it feels good to be in this little house with a friendly crowd, the lines blurred between work and fun. This summer feels so full of promise already.

In the corner, Director Zhou finishes his song and catches Xiao Zhan looking. He waves one hand wildly, like he’s far out at sea, and holds out the microphone.

“Come on,” he calls to Xiao Zhan. “It’s your turn.”

 


 

Yibo doesn’t see Xiao Zhan for a few days after the party, because he still hasn’t started filming his scenes yet. It’s a treat, just waiting for his character to enter the story, and he appreciates the luxury of it. Director Zhou must have some real influence to set up a shooting schedule like this, he thinks; Yibo knew he was a big deal but didn’t realize how big.

In the meantime, Yibo makes good use of the time off. His other obligations have eased up, and he gets a couple of gaming consoles delivered and mostly just hangs out in bed, enjoying the decent room service and alone time. It’s the closest thing he’s had to a real vacation in years.

He doesn’t know if the cast is still hanging out at the lake house after filming and not inviting him, or if that was just a first day thing, but he doesn’t mind. Seeing Xiao Zhan squeezes his heart until it hurts, and he always feels off balance, like he’s said too much or not enough. Xiao Zhan keeps flashing that big smile at him, and Yibo doesn’t know if it’s supposed to reassure him or warn him off, and in between he has that look that used to drive Yibo crazy, like he’s just about to say something serious but changed his mind, making a joke instead.

Xiao Zhan texted him after the party, though; just a link to a song someone put on at karaoke that Yibo didn’t know. Yibo replied with an emoji and Xiao Zhan sent something else the next morning, because apparently that’s where they’re at now. A petty part of Yibo wants to not reply, to be the one who walks away this time, but it’s not like he can withdraw totally anyway. They work together.

4 am call tomorrow!!! Xiao Zhan texts him, with a string of screaming emoji.

They’re filming the first meeting scene, out at the dock before the sun is even up. Yibo isn’t happy about the early hour, but it’ll be good to see Xiao Zhan again with a purpose between them, actual work to do. He hasn’t forgotten the thrill of the scene they rehearsed the other day, outside of the physical sensation of the kiss. He loves acting with Xiao Zhan, and everything else aside, that’s the truth of why he’s here.

That’s what he should tell Xiao Zhan, he thinks, getting ready for bed early like a responsible adult. It’s not the whole reason, but it’s enough.

Xiao Zhan is already on the shuttle when Yibo gets downstairs, sunk into the fuzzy collar of a soft coat with his eyes closed. Yibo doesn’t bother him, just curls up in the corner of his own seat, pillowed against the window. He half dozes off again as the bus starts up, the rumble comforting, and a PA has to shake him awake when they arrive.

There’s coffee at the set, and then Yibo has to get in the lake. The one-two punch of good and bad news is enough to wake him up more fully, and he trudges into a wardrobe trailer to put on the baggy, retro style swim trunks they hand him. The stylist eyes him critically, running a hand through his hair.

“Did the director say if he wants anything done to it?” she asks, shaking his hair out.

Yibo is used to being treated like a piece of the set. “No, he didn’t say anything.”

“It needs more volume, to match the style references,” she says. “Fashionable ‘80s hair was a lot bigger. Maybe you need a perm.”

Yibo grimaces. “I’m going to be in the water today. Does it matter?”

“Hmm,” she says, and then gets on the phone.

While she’s talking, Yibo grabs a long coat off the rack, wrapping it around himself. On top of being half-naked, he’s got the early morning chills, exhaustion running through him.

Finally the stylist comes back to him, putting down her phone. “He says it’s fine for today. We’ll feather it tomorrow, give you some height.” She reaches out and ruffles his hair again.

Outside, he and Xiao Zhan huddle near a heater, coffees in hand, while the makeup artists put waterproof foundation on them and line their eyes. Director Zhou shows up in the middle, a piece of camera equipment in hand.

“Natural look,” he says, peering at the work being done. “Not idols. Make them look like real people.”

Neither of them are really idols anymore, especially not Xiao Zhan, but everyone just nods and he moves on, talking to the crew setting up the lights.

“You’re going to wish you had lipstick,” Xiao Zhan says. “Your lips will be blue after five minutes in that water.”

“You forget,” Yibo says. “You’re talking to the official ambassador of Chinese national ice sports.”

“Yeah, I saw you wipe out on that snowboard half pipe,” Xiao Zhan says.

Yibo blinks, surprised. That wasn’t even on the main Olympic broadcast, but part of a web bit he’d done weeks before. He didn’t know Xiao Zhan had seen any of it.

“Xiao-laoshi is a big snowboarding fan now?” he asks.

A funny look crosses Xiao Zhan’s face, and he takes a swallow of his coffee. “Someone sent it to me. I just watched for the figure skating pair everyone was talking about.”

Yibo remembers that, something about a big romantic story between them, but he hadn’t followed it at the time.

“Zhan-ge is still so sentimental,” he says, and finishes his own coffee.

The sun is starting to come up so they transition to the set, where there’s a chair on the end of the dock. Xiao Zhan gets to stay bundled in his coat as he walks out across the boards, and the water camera operator gets a wet suit, Yibo notices longingly. He doesn’t say anything though, as he sits on the edge of the dock and dangles his feet over, trying to not wince at the temperature of the water. This is a job.

“Ready?” the camera operator says, sitting down next to him.

“Yeah,” Yibo says, and they push off at the same time, into the lake.

It’s a full-body shock, but the kind Yibo likes, energizing him. He’s wide awake now, pushing up through the murky gloom to the surface, where he throws his hair back and sprays out a mouthful of water, wiping his eyes.

On the dock, Xiao Zhan is grinning at him, tucked up in his warm coat. “How is it?”

“Come find out,” Yibo says, but he doesn’t do more than send a wave Xiao Zhan’s way, treading water.

“We’re burning sunrise,” someone says on the dock, and they settle down to work.

They have him swimming laps further out, filming him from the dock behind Xiao Zhan, and then they show him coming closer, camera set down at water level to capture his face. The final shots are in close-up, the camera operator treading water next to him as Director Zhou calls instructions from the dock with a megaphone.

“You’re beautiful, OK? You’re like nothing he’s ever seen. You’re a mythological creature coming out of the water and he’s not sure you’re real.”

Yibo surfaces again and again, but it’s not like before; now instead of immediately spraying out lake water and getting it off his face, he opens his eyes slowly, ignoring the sting and letting the drops roll down to his gently parted lips. This is what his profession is like, making an image that has nothing to do with how he really feels, just trying to project what will look best on film.

His teeth are chattering by the time they finish, and he’s glad to swim to the end of the dock, hauling himself out to be wrapped in a towel by a PA. She hands him more coffee too, which he takes gratefully, leaning against a post.

When he’s warmed up a little, Yibo looks up to see Xiao Zhan watching him. He expects some kind of snappy taunt, maybe about how he looks in these giant baggy swim trunks, but Xiao Zhan’s smile is fond, above the complicated zippers and snaps of his coat.

“Good?” is all he says.

Yibo’s not sure what he means, maybe the coffee. “It’s hot, that’s all I care about.”

Xiao Zhan smiles. “The close-ups looked good. I don’t think you’ll have to reshoot.”

“I still have to get back in the water for the dialogue,” Yibo points out.

“Well,” Xiao Zhan says. “You look good in the water.”

He’s so sincere sounding, but Yibo doesn’t know if he’s supposed to just take that at face value or what. Is Xiao Zhan too old to joke around now, or are they not close enough anymore? Surely he doesn’t mean to start up that old bit, throwing compliments at Yibo until he turns red, like his admiration is an intimate weapon.

“I’m glad Xiao-laoshi thinks I’m good at my job,” Yibo says, trying for that same tone, maybe sincere and maybe not.

Xiao Zhan tips his head. “I didn’t say you were good at your job,” he says, and Yibo’s heart soars. Maybe they can still joke after all.

“I said you looked good,” Xiao Zhan says, completely straight-faced, and now Yibo doesn’t know what to think at all.

He’s saved from replying by someone coming to strip him of the towel and take his empty coffee cup, and he doesn’t hesitate before climbing back into the cold water.

Their scene goes well enough, and Yibo finds it comforting, slipping into being strangers for real. Jin Yi doesn’t have to hear jokes that might be truth, straining for something more; he’s the easy, casual one, careless in his own beauty as he strikes up a new friendship. Both characters are out at the lake so early in the morning to get away from their families, and he smiles in a conspiratorial way, hanging onto the edge of the dock and eyeing Xiao Zhan like a hunter seeking prey. Jin Yi knows he can get what he wants.

The sun is well risen when the scene is finished, and Yibo feels physically exhausted when he climbs out, tired from swimming and waking up so early. Someone helps him up, and he barely makes it back to the wardrobe trailer.

“You’re finished for the day,” Director Zhou says as he passes, clapping him on the shoulder.

The makeup artist towels off his hair and wipes his face clean; Yibo wants a full shower but that will have to wait until someone drives him back to the hotel. Right now he can hardly keep his eyes open.

When he first started in the business, when his star was just taking off, it felt like he could have anything he wanted. People were interested in him everywhere he went, offering opportunities, and it seemed like he could go to bed with practically anyone if he only had the time and the freedom to do it. The future felt exciting, limitless.

There’s having and having, though, and Yibo’s learned the difference. Work takes up most of his life and energy, and the sacrifices are neverending, like he’s always thinking about the future instead of the present. Some things he can only have for a little while, and some things not at all. He’s happy with his career and his success, but it aches, imagining being as free as his character is to pursue whatever he wants.

Xiao Zhan’s coming in for a costume change by the time Yibo has recovered enough to leave, and they meet near the door, exchanging a glance. Right away Xiao Zhan frowns, reaching out to touch Yibo’s shoulder.

“Are you OK?” he asks. “That water was freezing, and you look exhausted—do you need something? Should they get you checked out?”

“I’m fine,” Yibo says, immediately. “I just need a shower and a nap.”

“Eat something,” Xiao Zhan urges. “Stay and have lunch.”

Yibo shakes his head. “I’ll get lunch at the hotel. I need to pass out first.”

“OK,” Xiao Zhan says, sounding uncertain.

His hand is still on Yibo’s shoulder, warm. There’s one of those stupid, terrible, infuriating pauses, where Yibo could read anything he wants into Xiao Zhan’s face, open and concerned, and then it smooths back to his usual smile.

“OK,” Xiao Zhan says again, stronger, and squeezes Yibo’s shoulder before letting go. “Get some rest.”

On the ride home, Yibo thinks about that conversation over and over again, but he doesn’t know how else to make it go, what else he could have said. He doesn’t know what Xiao Zhan’s offering, or how to take him up on it while playing it safe, not going too far. He closes his eyes, drifting to sleep, and all he can do is yearn for the warmth of Xiao Zhan’s closeness again, wishing it could be as uncomplicated as that.

 


 

They don’t film together very often, the first few weeks. Xiao Zhan mostly works with Wu Fan and Yang Cheng, and sometimes with little Zhenyi and Riyi, whose exuberant energy as soon as the camera is turned off makes the set fun and unpredictable on the days they’re there. The scenes he does have with Yibo feel off-kilter, like they’re still holding their breath, and like he’s working with someone he doesn’t know. There isn’t as much downtime as when they were filming in Hengdian all those hours of day and night, sitting around through resets and reshoots, with the storyline so garbled and the only constant being with each other.

Here, they’re quick and professional, doing good work that feels entirely new. Their real voices are being used, for one thing, and for another this story is quiet and intimate, told mostly in the silences. Their characters are reversed, as well—Lingxuan is lost and angry but hiding it beneath a calm exterior, cautious as he finds himself drawn to Jin Yi’s easy good looks and casual honesty. When the cameras are rolling, they’re building something together, this irresistible bond, but once it’s just them again, Xiao Zhan’s not sure who they are anymore.

He knows it’s coming, though; the real version of the kiss scene they rehearsed before. A milestone for the characters, a turning point in the movie, but he doesn’t know what it will be for them.

The night before, there’s another party at Director Zhou’s house and Xiao Zhan almost passes on it. The scenes they filmed today didn’t go so well; the wind off the lake was strong and the water was choppy, and down in the garden where they were supposed to be having an important conversation about their lives, the sound guy kept asking them to talk louder, trying to be heard over the ambient noise. They didn’t wrap the scene until later than usual, and Xiao Zhan is tired, ready to be alone.

He goes, though. He’s gotten to be friends with Liao Ping, the secondary camera operator, and they like to talk about their favorite singers, sharing videos back and forth. Tonight they do that for a while and then separate to wander around the party and grab leftover food, which is how Xiao Zhan ends up dropping down on the couch next to Yibo, who’s zoned out with his phone.

Xiao Zhan smacks him lightly on the arm with the back of his hand. “Hey.”

Yibo’s face is surprised and open when he looks up, before it closes off again. “What?”

“Talk to me, I’m bored,” Xiao Zhan says.

That’s the kind of thing he used to say, safe enough, but Yibo’s guarded expression doesn’t change. Xiao Zhan grimaces internally, because it feels like he just can’t find the right tone with Yibo these days. He tried teasing him at the first party, and being sincere and solicitous on their first morning of filming together, but everything seems to elicit the same response from Yibo, wary confusion. Like he’s expecting something else.

Yibo does at least put down his phone, squinting at Xiao Zhan and pressing his lips together. “It’s not my fault you’re bored.”

Xiao Zhan grins, reaching out to tap Yibo’s shoulder. “Tell me something interesting.”

“Uh,” Yibo says, recoiling from the gentle knock, more than necessary. “I don’t know. I’m tired, Zhan-ge. I don’t know anything.”

The familiar name is like a hit to the chest, warm and solid. Xiao Zhan remembers the old whining tone to Yibo’s voice too, all the stuff they haven’t been doing on set. It’s felt weird to be so focused and professional, when this kind of casual bantering is how they always were before. Yibo looks like he remembers it too, eyebrows raised as if he didn’t mean to say that.

“What are you doing on your phone?” Xiao Zhan says, making a grab for it.

Yibo is too quick, protecting the phone against his chest. “Work.”

“Ah, Lao Wang, so diligent,” Xiao Zhan says. “Your manager must love you.”

Yibo snorts, finally making a real face, not the frozen expression he’s had since Xiao Zhan sat down. “I’m looking at some new racing gear.”

“Oh yeah, she hates that,” Xiao Zhan says with a laugh. He makes one more grab for the phone, just for show. “Did she even let you keep the helmet I gave you?”

“Yeah, I still have it,” Yibo says. “She’s my manager, she’s not my mom.”

“Good,” Xiao Zhan says.

Silence hangs between them for a moment. He should make another joke or say something casual and chatty, keep the light mood going now that Yibo’s finally talking to him like a real person, but Xiao Zhan likes the way Yibo is looking at him, soft and open. It’s not so different from the way he used to look, and everything else aside Xiao Zhan feels a vast gratitude that he gets to have this again, working with Yibo. He never knew how lucky he was before.

“That was a good scene today,” Xiao Zhan says, shifting gears. He reaches out to tap Yibo’s shoulder once more, gently this time. “I like how you say that one line about the movie they’re watching, if I loved someone like that I’d never leave. It could be such an obvious come-on to Lingxuan but you say it like you really mean it, like it’s not even about him.”

“Director Zhou told me to say it like that,” Yibo says, flatly.

Xiao Zhan rolls his shoulders, shrugging. “Yeah, but you’re doing a good job with it. You should definitely do more serious movies like this...but I know you don’t like to be tied down to one thing.”

“I,” Yibo says, and pauses. “I just like doing different things. You know I can commit to something, I’ve been doing Day Day Up for almost ten years now.”

Xiao Zhan smiles, humming the theme song and moving his hands through the dance Yibo taught him once. “I forgot, you’re practically the senior there now, huh.”

“So—about tomorrow,” Yibo says, suddenly.

It puts a chill between them, a new kind of silence that doesn’t feel anything like the closeness just now. Xiao Zhan fights the urge to clear his throat or fidget, trying to keep steady. Yibo’s probably just nervous about doing a real kissing scene on film, and to be honest, so is Xiao Zhan.

“Yeah,” Xiao Zhan says. “Well, we rehearsed. We know what to do.”

“Yeah,” Yibo says softly.

Xiao Zhan opens his mouth to say something more and then stops, feeling heat rush into his face. He’s been working so hard to keep what they’re doing professional, the way Yibo clearly is. They’re both taking this so seriously, and he doesn’t want to mess it up by talking about what happened before, or suggesting it should happen again. He doesn’t want Yibo to think he’s hung up on him, or make it awkward; he just can’t help these stabs of longing awareness every so often. They’re together again, playing lovers, and it’s so close to everything he made himself stop thinking about years ago.

He clears his throat instead. Yibo is looking at him, and he feels like after such a long pause he should say something good, but for the life of him he can’t think what.

The moment is broken by Yang Cheng appearing and hanging over the back of the couch right between them, and Xiao Zhan’s grateful for it. Yang Cheng has obviously been drinking, loud and flushed, and Xiao Zhan pushes him out of his face but Yibo just laughs, like maybe he was glad to be interrupted too.

“You guys should eat some food,” Yang Cheng protests, pinching Yibo’s cheek. “You’re too skinny.”

“Did you leave any for us?” Yibo asks, dealing a swift poke to Yang Cheng’s ribs.

“Come look, Wang-ge,” Yang Cheng says, and pulls him to his feet. “Only the best for you.”

The party breaks up not long after. A couple of the crew members who’ve been drinking hard look worse for wear and Director Zhou shoos them into the guest bedrooms to sleep it off. Xiao Zhan feels the late hour now, and once he’s finally back at the hotel his empty stomach grumbles as he heads to his room. This shoot is throwing off all his routines.

He doesn’t eat, but he cracks open a seltzer water and drinks it standing up, swiping through his messages on his phone. His schedule is already filling in for the fall, and that’s months away.

While he’s looking, a new message comes in. hope you use lip balm this time

Xiao Zhan just stares at his phone. They’ve been texting over the last few weeks, just random links and pictures, because he felt like it was important to get some kind of friendship going again. This is nothing like that; it’s almost flirtatious.

It can’t be on purpose. Yibo must have forgotten that one kiss years ago, that’s all. Xiao Zhan replies, I didn’t expect a rehearsal that day and then goes to get ready for bed. If he focuses on hurrying through his nighttime routine, he won’t think about it. He strips down to his underwear, adjusts the climate control on the room, and gets into bed, picking up his phone.

I could tell

Xiao Zhan’s face burns. How is he supposed to answer that? In person, he could singsong so you were paying attention to my lips? and it would come off like a joke, but it’s tougher to do that in text. Instead he types out, I’m sorry I displeased Wang-laoshi, I’ll be more considerate with my lips next time.

That feels safer, though he couldn’t help putting in the reference to his lips. His heart is racing now, and he puts the phone down, sliding under the covers and arranging the pillow under his head before turning off the light. Finally he reaches for his phone again, irresistibly.

yeah, you’re usually much more considerate with your lips

Xiao Zhan just closes his eyes for a second. Some part of him knows this must be a work thing, getting more comfortable before the scene tomorrow, and he tries to be grateful to Yibo for finally pulling their relationship in the direction it used to go, loose and playful. It’s not Yibo’s fault he doesn’t know what that’s doing to Xiao Zhan.

I promise I’ll bring lip balm tomorrow, he finally replies. You can use some too if you want.

you didn’t like my lips? comes back right away.

Xiao Zhan tightens his jaw. It’s too late to feel this alert and anxious, and he doesn’t want to give himself away by saying any of the things he really wants to say. I like your lips just fine, he replies, truthful and brief. And I’ll see you tomorrow.

He puts the phone down again before he can see what the answer is. This is just fun for Yibo, like it always was, and he won’t be up late agonizing over their conversation. Xiao Zhan needs sleep, and he needs to keep himself calm, but he can’t stop the way his heart flutters, relentless in the face of every sensible thought.

 


 

Yibo sleeps terribly, staying up late agonizing over their conversation. It was stupid of him to send that first message right before bed, but he’d left the party feeling so unsettled and it was an irresistible impulse to take things further once he was alone. Xiao Zhan had finally loosened up, teasing Yibo and getting in his space, but Yibo hadn’t been able to respond the way he really wanted. Too many people nearby, and he knew it would all show on his face if he let it, the way he yearns toward Xiao Zhan whenever he’s around.

So he sent a flirty message, one that could be taken in a few ways, and at first it wasn’t clear how Xiao Zhan was responding. But then he said it, I like your lips, and ended the conversation there, like Yibo was going to be able to sleep after that.

At morning call, Xiao Zhan doesn’t look any different, just offering a warm smile before dropping into his usual seat on the shuttle. Yibo hopes his sleepless night isn’t too obvious; he’s never been prone to dark circles, and his newly-feathered hair is clean and brushed. It’s not like Xiao Zhan is looking at him anyway.

The set is crowded today, with everyone there to film the dinner party scene first. The big windows around the dining table are blacked out to make it look like night, and those two little girls are there, making everything chaotic. Yibo’s worked with kids on set before and they’re usually unnaturally well-behaved, but these two are the complete opposite and he gets the feeling Director Zhou likes that.

It works well enough for the scene anyway. Things are tense between the adult characters, with Yang Cheng slipping into his dour, serious role as Lingxuan’s sister’s husband so thoroughly Yibo hardly recognizes him. He and Wu Fan glare daggers at each other, icily polite in front of others, and they’ll retire after dinner to their room to shout behind closed doors. Xiao Zhan is Yibo’s only safe place to look, although he’s radiating Lingxuan’s shame at having his family’s troubles made so clear. The girls interrupt the conversation so readily they almost seem to be improvising, and Yibo feels both Ji Yi’s enormous relief and his own when the family leaves the room.

They break for lunch then, and Yibo takes his out on the back lawn, staring out at the lake. It’s still a huge but pleasant change, being involved with such a small production. He serves himself his own food, instead of having something brought by a PA, and then sits on the grass, arms resting on his drawn-up knees, feeling grateful for the time alone.

“Almost finished?” Xiao Zhan asks, from behind him. “They’re ready whenever you are.”

A big production wouldn’t wait for Yibo to be done spacing out and picking at his lunch, but he doesn’t want to hold this one up either. He feels such fondness for everyone involved already, like they’re all in this endeavor together, doing the best they can for a project they care about. He turns, and Xiao Zhan reaches out a hand to help him up.

Yibo takes it. “Yeah, I’m ready.”

Setting up in the kitchen feels both the same and totally different to the first time they did this. The same because once again they’re being watched, playing characters instead of themselves, but different because Yibo knows what he’s doing now. None of that awkward discomfort, just slipping back into the mood he and Xiao Zhan built in the earlier scene, a silent connection that grew stronger the worse things got around them. Their characters understand each other.

“Are you going to help me with this?” Xiao Zhan asks, turning, plate and towel in hand.

The moment lingers, and Yibo’s heart jumps into his throat, a dual reality wavering before him once again. He feels the same yearning as Jin Yi, even as it comes from a different place; Jin Yi’s distanced from his formal, loveless family, aching for love, while Yibo wants something he came so close to before he lost it. He sees both things in Xiao Zhan’s face now, the wariness of Lingxuan with that burning desire beneath, and the open expression in his eyes that Yibo fell in love with years ago, warm and tender.

Yibo pushes through it. He’s Jin Yi now, trying to believe this is something casual and light, something that won’t turn his world upside down . As if this is just a kiss, and not a burning brand that will mark him forever.

He still isn’t prepared for the way it feels when his lips touch Xiao Zhan’s. Within the scene, he’s forgotten everything around them; their characters could be caught at any moment but that doesn’t matter as much as this kiss, making this connection. Jin Yi knows Lingxuan by now, the shape of his soul, but not this, the way he tastes and feels, the curve of his cheek and the softness of his lips. Yibo can hardly breathe, electric current pulsing through him, and when the kiss ends it feels for a moment like he’s going to die, losing the only source of real life he’s ever known.

“Cut,” Director Zhou says. He looks down at the monitor, watching the replay with an approving glance. “That’s great, you guys nailed it. I don’t even think we need another take. Let’s set up for the next one.”

There’s a clamor around them, as people start moving cameras and someone goes to get Wu Fan. Yibo stays where he is, breathing hard. He’s never gone that deep into character before, shutting out everything around him, and it physically hurts to bring himself back, like clawing up through heavy dark earth. He has to blink before he can even see.

Xiao Zhan is still close to him, smiling with his own expression now, all traces of Lingxuan gone. He used to be the one lingering in character, while Yibo was always happy to break free the moment the cameras were off, but things have changed. “OK? Lips soft enough for you?”

It takes a moment for Yibo to remember that’s a reference to his own clumsy attempts at flirting over text last night. He wasn’t sure then, but however Xiao Zhan smirks at him now, Yibo knows he’s definitely flirting back.

Yibo’s still too shaken to follow up properly, though, and he just nods and mutters, “Yeah.”

“Yeah, what, Lao Wang?” Xiao Zhan asks, and that’s not fair at all, using that teasing old name when they’re so close like this, when Yibo’s still not quite sure who they are, separately or to each other. “Yeah, you’re OK?”

He isn’t, not really. “Yeah your lips are soft,” he says, bluntly.

Xiao Zhan blinks. “Good,” he says, and he sounds unsure. “Uh, I used that lip balm you like so much.”

It’s like someone dropped a match into a pool of gasoline. Yibo feels his ears burn and he can see the flush in Xiao Zhan’s face because the game is over, pretending that they’ve only ever been friends and costars. Yibo finally remembers what he’d forgotten, stealing a kiss from Xiao Zhan between scenes when everyone had left the wardrobe trailer, and then taking another one, drawn by the softness of his lips and the dangerous thrill of the moment.

You better stop,” Xiao Zhan breathed, but he didn’t let go of the front of Yibo’s costume, fingers clenched in the white folds of his robes. “Someone will see.

And Yibo, drunk on daring and kissing Xiao Zhan when he was two inches taller in platform boots, took yet another kiss. “Can’t. That stuff makes your lips too soft.

It was one of those moments when he braced himself for a jibe from Xiao Zhan, an insulting remark or a poke to the ribs, but Xiao Zhan just looked up with those big, impossibly dark eyes shining and let himself be kissed again.

Yibo’s ears burn even hotter when he realizes what it must have sounded like last night, teasing Xiao Zhan about lip balm. Xiao Zhan must have thought Yibo was throwing himself at him, reminding him of what they used to be like. No wonder he left Yibo hanging.

But he did text back, Yibo realizes. It wasn’t quite flirting, but it wasn’t not. He should know; he’s read the messages over ten times today. There’s something here, some possibility opening between them like it did before. Unlikely as it seems, Yibo can feel it, see the hint of a question in Xiao Zhan’s eyes, like he’s just waiting for Yibo to say something more.

They’re still staring at each other, heat in the air, when Chao Xiuli comes up and touches Yibo on the arm. “We’re ready for the next scene, guys. Do you need a break first, some water?”

“Yeah,” Xiao Zhan says, clearing his throat. “Water would be great.”

They each gulp down a bottle of water, backs to the sink, not looking at each other. It feels like the first time they rehearsed this scene except they’re not alone now, surrounded by crew adjusting lights and sound equipment. Yibo feels himself calming down as he drinks, all those confusing memories from their past fading as he orients himself in the present, in the work. He’s too much of a professional to waste anyone else’s time with the explosions going off in his personal life.

Wu Fan is waiting nearby, and when Xiao Zhan puts down his water he waves shyly to her, one of those small dorky things he does that endears everyone to him. To Yibo’s eyes, she’s seemed severe and stand-offish so far, but of course she smiles right back at Xiao Zhan, susceptible to his charm like everyone else.

“Hurry up and finish so we can do our scene,” Wu Fan says to him.

“You like being a third wheel?” Xiao Zhan asks.

She narrows her eyes, making an exaggeratedly mean glare. “Minghua can’t be happy, so nobody should be.”

“Aiyo, that’s not my fault,” Xiao Zhan says. “Blame your husband, he’s the one with a mistress in the city.”

“That’s in the sequel,” she says. “‘The Life You Gave Me 2: Minghua’s Revenge.’”

The two of them laugh, and Yibo smiles too, as he finishes his water bottle.

“I just want to wrap for the day so we can get dinner,” Wu Fan grumbles, and then she goes back to her warm-up exercises, rolling her neck and shaking out her hands.

They start the scene eventually, Wu Fan’s sharp voice cutting in and making them step apart. It’s not supposed to be clear yet if her character suspects anything between them or if she just resents anyone pulling attention from her own personal drama, and Yibo can’t help but be impressed at the way she and Xiao Zhan play their difficult sibling relationship. She’s dismissive and unkind, but with a sense of thwarted love and concern beneath it, while he’s distant and withdrawn, not rising to her bait, a little brother wary of his older sister. Yibo’s own relationship with his sister is much warmer and more affectionate, but he still recognizes that dynamic, the leftover childhood awe of a powerful person.

Yibo’s own part in the scene is brief, and then he sits down to watch the rest of it from a chair behind the principal camera. It’s not real, but part of him still aches at Xiao Zhan’s face at the end, the determined desolation when Wu Fan tells him that he can’t have guests at her house anymore. He can really see how Lingxuan is losing the only thread of happiness in his life, left alone and adrift, in the way Xiao Zhan turns and stares fixedly out at the dark window.

They reshoot a couple of takes, playing up different aspects in the fight. Director Zhou rewrites his own script a little, now he’s hearing the words out loud, and Yibo loves this, watching art be made in front of him. The three of them debate the impact of a specific line, Chao Xiuli weighing in too, and for all that Wu Fan claimed to be anxious to get to dinner before, she seems just as concerned with getting this right. Yibo loves that, seeing how much this story matters to everyone involved.

Finally they shoot a good take, and the two actors slump back against the kitchen sink, looking tired but pleased. Yibo thinks about how that was him up there a few hours ago, side by side with Xiao Zhan under the hot lights. It’s always Xiao Zhan at the center of everything.

They’re talking and laughing about something Yibo can’t hear, and then Xiao Zhan turns and looks right at Yibo. He was smiling before but Yibo can’t help but feel it’s different now, glowing brighter.

“Hey,” Xiao Zhan says. “You’re still here.”

“Yeah,” Yibo says, and he smiles back; a cast line connecting the two of them alone.

 


 

It’s late when they wrap, but Xiao Zhan’s not surprised that Director Zhou takes them back to his rental house instead of the hotel. He’s tired too, but he’s not ready to let go of the others yet. The scenes they filmed today felt like a crossroads that brought the cast together: the comical, acrimonious dinner party, the argument he filmed with Wu Fan, and especially the kiss in the kitchen, the turning point of the whole story.

He hasn’t let himself think much about what happened after their scene. He doesn’t know why Yibo reacted so strongly, when he’s the one who was joking about soft lips last night, but it was unmistakable, how flushed and awkward he suddenly got. Not before the kiss or during, when they were still deep in their characters, but after, when they were both remembering the same things.

God, they made out all over that set, Xiao Zhan thinks. Everyone knew what was going on and they did try to keep it private, but they were almost caught more than once. Thinking about it now, maybe that was part of the appeal, but he doesn’t think that’s all it was.

Yibo just looked at him, all the time. Like he’s been looking at Xiao Zhan lately.

It seems impossible that Yibo would want to start all that up again, when it’s years later and everything is different, but Xiao Zhan can’t deny that’s exactly what it feels like. Maybe now that they’re filming more scenes together, Yibo wants to make the chemistry real again. Maybe he’s been stuck out at this lake long enough that he’s getting horny and lonely for a hookup. All the things Xiao Zhan assumed were true last time, when he was new to the business and Yibo was so confident even though he was so young.

Everyone gets off the bus and crowds into the house, noisy and happy, and Yibo looks at Xiao Zhan over his shoulder, grinning, and Xiao Zhan just doesn’t want to think so much anymore.

He actually drinks tonight, two beers plus whatever shots get passed around. Not enough to get really drunk, just light-headed and giddy as he laughs and dances with the others, feeling joyful and young. Director Zhou keeps trying to show them some old Italian movie with subtitles, pointing out the finer points of the acting and cinematography, but it’s a lost cause, with everyone this keyed up and boisterous.

“Don’t you people care about art?” he finally bellows, half joking and half exasperated, and Yang Cheng calls back, “Art tomorrow!” before pouring out another round and turning up the music.

Xiao Zhan’s aware of Yibo, all night. Battling him over the last shrimp dumpling, and then an arm slung over his shoulder, singing along even louder than the music. Every time Xiao Zhan finds himself in the center of a group, telling some story or joke, it seems like his eyes always seek out Yibo, face shining and gaze fixed on him. It’s like the dam has broken, the walls falling free, bathed in the deep gorgeous delight of being so close to Yibo again, this starry-bright exchange of energy between them.

The party thins out some, the crew members disappearing until it’s just the four principal actors and Director Zhou, running the movie again. This time he seems determined, wielding a remote from his chair in the corner, pausing to point out well-composed shots or impressive acting moments. He keeps looking over at the four of them, wedged onto the couch, checking to make sure they’re following the lesson.

It’s a lost cause. Yang Cheng is definitely the most drunk of them all, still singing an old A-Mei song under his breath, but to Xiao Zhan’s surprise Wu Fan isn’t far behind him, her customary bright red lipstick smudged and her bobbed hair swaying in her sleepy eyes. Her head keeps dropping, and finally she pillows it on Yang Cheng’s chest, tucked beneath his chin. He gives her a surprised glance and then wraps his arm around her, holding her close as he keeps humming the same chorus.

Xiao Zhan turns his head, meaning to point them out to Yibo, but his smirk fades when he meets Yibo’s eyes. He can tell Yibo’s been watching them too, but now it’s him that Yibo is looking at.

“See?” Director Zhou asks, excitedly. “You see how they do it without words? That’s what I want, the audience should look at you and understand everything.”

Without looking away, Yibo slides his arm along the back of the couch, until it’s curved right behind Xiao Zhan’s shoulders.

“Look!” Director Zhou says, and Xiao Zhan finally tears his gaze away.

The movie keeps playing, but he isn’t following it at all now. He’s so conscious of the heat of Yibo’s body, all along his own, and that bare arm right behind his neck. On the floor, their socked feet are close, and Xiao Zhan swallows hard and moves his own to hook over Yibo’s, resting on top of his ankle.

They sit like that for what seems like hours. Xiao Zhan feels so awake now, but at the same time dreamy and surreal. This is happening, again.

His hand slips down, onto Yibo’s thigh, and he feels Yibo shift next to him, arm drawing tighter around his shoulders. He squeezes Yibo’s thigh, stroking the inseam of his jeans with his fingertips. Yibo shifts again, turning into him, and suddenly it feels like he’s surrounded by Yibo’s warmth everywhere—hand curving around the cap of his shoulder, knee digging into his thigh, and Yibo’s mouth right by his ear. Even Yibo’s breath is warm, and then his teeth close over Xiao Zhan’s earlobe, grazing.

“Ah,” Xiao Zhan says, letting out a surprised sound. He jerks, shivers running all through his body, and when the others turn to look at him he leans forward, out of Yibo’s embrace, and puts both hands on his cheeks, eyes wide.

“Are you OK?” Yang Cheng asks.

Xiao Zhan gives himself a shake all over, rubbing his face. “Sorry. Just—a weird feeling.”

“You must have been falling asleep,” Yang Cheng says, with a laugh. He jostles Wu Fan a little, dozing on his chest, with a warm, private smile.

“Should I stop the movie?” Director Zhou asks, seeming solicitous, but his eyes are sharp beneath the brim of his cap.

“No,” Xiao Zhan says. He sits back again, and he’s disappointed to feel that Yibo has moved his arm so there’s only couch behind him. He darts a quick sideways glance, but Yibo’s face is calm, eyes downcast.

In this moment, with everyone watching him, Xiao Zhan can be brave. He turns and looks right at Yibo, pushing his lips out into a pout, and makes his eyes pleading. “Hey, where did my pillow go?”

Yibo’s eyebrows raise. “I’m not your pillow.”

Xiao Zhan pouts more. “You’re second lead, Lao Wang. That’s what you’re for.”

Yang Cheng laughs, and Yibo stares back, uncertain, like he doesn’t know if Xiao Zhan is joking. Finally he lifts his arm again, and this time Xiao Zhan dives right in, snuggling his head into the curve of his neck the way Wu Fan is doing to Yang Cheng behind him.

He’s a lot taller than Wu Fan though, both in comparison to her and to Yibo, and he has to really curl up to get into position. Yibo’s so skinny he doesn’t make a very good pillow, and he’s tense and unhelpful, his chest unyielding as Xiao Zhan tries to get comfortable.

Just when Xiao Zhan’s about to give up, feeling foolish, Yibo mutters, “Here,” and turns his body to wedge more into the corner of the couch, giving Xiao Zhan space.

Xiao Zhan slides down more, sighing gratefully. After the awkward struggles a moment ago, it’s a surprisingly good fit, although his knees have to be bent up with his feet flat on the floor. The top of his head presses against Yibo’s jaw, and Yibo tucks his arm around him, hand resting on his waist.

It’s not long until Xiao Zhan’s eyes close. He’s not really drunk, but it was an exhausting day of filming, and he’s so warm and comfortable now he feels like he’s glowing with it. In truth, he can’t remember the last time he was this physically close to another person. He dates from time to time, but never anyone he trusts enough to cuddle with like this, and his last, brief relationship was a year ago. This feels more intimate than any of his recent hookups have.

Yibo’s big hand is right below his ribs, spanning his waist. Xiao Zhan can feel the heat of it, the spread of his fingers. He thinks he’ll never be able to focus on anything else, but before he knows it, he’s losing all thought, drifting off to sleep.

Laughter wakes him. A short barking shout of it, coming from above him. “You young people!” Director Zhou says. “Here I’m trying to give you an education in cinema, and you all drink too much and pass out on my couch.”

“I’m not so young,” Yang Cheng protests, but he interrupts himself with a yawn.

Xiao Zhan still hasn’t opened his eyes. Yibo is warm beneath him, his slender body feeling strong and supportive now, instead of narrow and hard like before. Yibo’s relaxed, he realizes; maybe asleep or maybe just finally letting him in.

“It’s a good thing I have guest rooms,” Director Zhou says, still sounding grumpy, but Xiao Zhan can hear the amusement under it. “Now go use them.”

There’s movement at the other end of the couch, and then a sleepy moan from Wu Fan, harsh and irritated. Yang Cheng laughs as they get up. “Better drink some water, A-Fan.”

Now Xiao Zhan has to make himself sit up, which he does, slow and stiff. His neck aches from being bent so long, and he winces as he turns to look at Yibo. He’s not sure what he expects, maybe for Yibo to pretend like he’s still sleeping, but instead Yibo is looking right back at him, the way he has been this whole night.

“You’re an OK pillow, Lao Wang,” Xiao Zhan says, forcing out the light words. “Just OK.”

Yibo rolls his eyes and sits up, shoving at Xiao Zhan a little to make room for himself. “Go get a real pillow then.”

“Fine,” Xiao Zhan says, and yawns. “I will.”

The four of them say goodnight to Director Zhou and head through one of the little round doorways in the house to the back hallway, where they discover there are just two guest bedrooms.

Xiao Zhan locks eyes with Yang Cheng, over Wu Fan’s head. There’s a moment of hesitation, and then Wu Fan takes Yang Cheng’s hand, pulling him towards one of the rooms. Her mouth is a determined line, and she doesn’t look up.

“Come on,” she says, and they disappear behind the closed door.

That leaves one room.

Yibo moves first, stepping into the empty bedroom. Xiao Zhan follows, shutting the door behind them. It’s dark, but he can see a double bed pushed into a corner, beneath a window with its bamboo shade rolled halfway down. On the other side of the wall there’s an en suite bathroom, but Yibo goes right for the bed and throws himself on it, moving to the far side.

Xiao Zhan takes his phone out of his pocket, puts it on a table, and stops. If he hesitates too long, he won’t be able to do this, getting into bed with Yibo in the dark. It will mean too much—anything is too much—and it will feel like a choice, not the good-natured drunken tangle they were in before he fell asleep. He doesn’t want to have to think about this.

He gets on the bed, and Yibo doesn’t move over to make space. They lie next to each other, touching, breathing in the dark.

“Now this is a real pillow,” Xiao Zhan says, looking up at the ceiling. His mouth is dry.

“Being your pillow wasn’t in the job when I took it,” Yibo says.

Why did you take it? hangs between them, as loud as if Xiao Zhan had actually said it. He doesn’t, though, and before the words linger too long he turns over and looks at Yibo for just a breath before leaning in to kiss him.

Yibo takes his time, kissing back. The way he opens his mouth is thoughtful, still considering, even as he slips his tongue against Xiao Zhan’s. It’s nothing like his eagerness on set today, but that was the aggressive confidence of the character he plays, and there’s no one else here to see. This is just for them.

Xiao Zhan isn’t ready for the feelings that well up as they kiss. Nostalgia and regret, yes, but also shame that he still wants this so much, as much as he ever did. It feels like he should be over it, but no matter what he’s tried to tell himself, he isn’t. He can’t.

But Yibo is really kissing him back now, a slow spark that’s taking flame. Xiao Zhan can feel his breath quicken, and then Yibo rolls over on his side so they’re facing, reaching to hold Xiao Zhan’s head close. The feeling of Yibo’s hand in his hair makes Xiao Zhan gasp, a jolt of heat going all through him, and this is real, this is real.

He stops himself from giving in entirely, before the feeling takes over. It burns between them still, enormous and consuming. He moves his head back enough to see Yibo’s face, soft in the dim light, eyes half lidded beneath his heavy brows and his lush lips parted. His hair falls across his forehead, and Xiao Zhan reaches up to brush it back.

There’s nothing to say, without revealing too much. He’s caught between the questions in Yibo’s watchful eyes and this hungry flame inside him, threatening to burn everything down just to get what he wants.

In the end, he gives into the fire. He kisses Yibo again and Yibo lets himself be kissed, hand curled around the back of Xiao Zhan’s neck. Xiao Zhan moves down his body and Yibo rolls onto his back, stroking Xiao Zhan’s head and squeezing his shoulders, groaning as Xiao Zhan gets his jeans open.

There’s an answering groan from the room next door, an obvious thump on the wall, and Xiao Zhan stops, looking up. He can’t help the grin that steals across his face, and when Yibo grins back everything changes for a moment, something sweet and familiar flitting lightly between them.

“So loud,” Xiao Zhan says. “So rude.”

“You like loud,” Yibo says, and just keeps looking steadily at Xiao Zhan until he ducks down, face burning.

Familiar scent, familiar taste, familiar feel in his mouth. Yibo’s gorgeous, substantial, powerfully affecting Xiao Zhan as he caresses his length. He doesn’t expect the sounds Yibo makes, soft and urgent, or the way Yibo moves underneath him, restless and unrestrained. It’s like no time has passed, like they’re young and drunk on each other, bodies fond and familiar.

More groans come from the other side of the wall but Xiao Zhan only cares about this; the radiant heat of Yibo’s body, the way Yibo draws his leg up when Xiao Zhan takes him deeper, his fingers buried in the shag of Xiao Zhan’s hair and half-whispering, “Zhan-ge.

It’s not right to pretend they have their old intimacy but Xiao Zhan does anyway, following the guidance of Yibo’s sighs. Kissing at the slick, plump head of his cock and tonguing beneath, one hand cradling the loose tender weight of his balls. Thumb stroking the muscular flesh of his inner thigh, over the sparse hairs and up to the damp seam of his groin, the thick tendon working beneath as Xiao Zhan spreads Yibo’s leg as wide as he can with his jeans tugged down.

Yibo lets himself be fondled, hips pumping with tiny, steady motions. “Zhan-ge,” he whispers again, and then the rough, wordless groan that follows seems torn from his throat as Xiao Zhan sucks him hard. He’s still so easy to pleasure like this, and part of Xiao Zhan wants to do it forever, earning the reward of an aching jaw and Yibo begging beneath him.

But too soon Yibo’s moans turn sharp, the clutch of his hands tighter, thighs tense. His cock swells in Xiao Zhan’s mouth, thick and rigid, and it feels like riding a strong wave, keeping hold through the building release.

“Fuck,” Yibo gasps, “Fuck—fuck—” and he makes a harsh sound, arching up.

Xiao Zhan’s ears ring as Yibo comes, like an explosion has gone off next to him. But no, Yibo’s cupping his head, covering his ears so the only sound is the tidal swish of his own pulse, dulling Yibo’s cries. There’s a bright tropical heat in his mouth, a flood of salt, and he feels the echo of shared ecstasy, bringing Yibo to this intimate extreme.

When Xiao Zhan finally lifts up, panting for air, Yibo grasps the shoulders of his shirt, hauling him all the way up. They kiss again, breathless, Yibo licking the taste from his mouth, and Yibo’s hand curves around his ass to pull him in tight. Xiao Zhan straddles Yibo’s thigh, grinding against him, mindless with how good every single part of this feels as long as he doesn’t think about it.

Yibo rolls him over, hand slipping beneath his waistband. Xiao Zhan can’t help bucking into his touch, pure want blazing through him. He remembers Yibo’s tight fast grip from before, so different from the deliberate way Xiao Zhan likes to touch himself, but it’s different now. Yibo keeps kissing him gently, pausing to nuzzle at his lips, and his strokes are paced to match, a pulsing, tender caress.

For all that, the pleasure builds sharp and quick, until Xiao Zhan is clinging to Yibo’s neck, choking, “yeah, yeah” into the kiss. It’s too much to stand, being touched by someone who knows him, drenched in these resurgent feelings. Yibo is too much, caging Xiao Zhan with his body, solid and powerful, redolent with the remembered scent of sweat and cologne. Xiao Zhan counts his own breaths, tightening like he’s being wound with a key, and only when it’s unbearable does he let go at last.

Colors bloom behind his eyelids, and pain in the arches of his feet, stinging with cramp as he comes. There’s the loving awareness of Yibo’s whole self, his soft lips and the warm length of his body, and the abandonment of spilling like this, wet in his hand, so firm and steady. Xiao Zhan feels enormous, blended, like they’re one being this way; one drive, one desire.

He gasps against Yibo’s mouth through it, words transmuted to breath, lost before they can form.

After, he’s grateful for everything. For warmth, for darkness, for the air that passes between them. For the work, bringing them together and bringing exhaustion, an oblivion that sweeps them both away before one more thing can happen, one more moment than he can bear.