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yesterday, tomorrow

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Yibo always wakes up early when he’s been drinking the night before. It’s been a long while since he’s had even this much, though, and the feeling of a dry mouth and aching head is foreign, half-forgotten. He squints at the grey light streaming through an unfamiliar window, thinking.

Apparently two drinks is all it took for him to give way entirely last night. He could blame the force of Xiao Zhan’s charm, the lingering thrill of the scenes they’d filmed, the hectic intimacy of the party, but in truth, it was what Yibo wanted. Xiao Zhan sat close, touching him, and Yibo let him. Xiao Zhan kissed him and he let that happen too, until it became more than letting: taking, having, needing.

Xiao Zhan sleeps next to him now, shirtless, curled like a lanky comma. There’s stubble on his chin and along his upper lip, and his hair lies in rumpled waves, still stiff with product. They’ve only ever woken up together once before, and Yibo doesn’t like to remember that morning. How he opened his eyes to see Xiao Zhan’s face close to his, wearing a look Yibo hardly registered before it changed to something else, manic humor with an edge of desperation, glancing sideways at the door.

He doesn’t want to see that look now, and he doesn’t want Xiao Zhan to see his face either, because he won’t be able to pretend. Not when they’re alone like this, cool dawn light illuminating everything both intimate and sordid about last night. With hangovers and stale mouths, unwashed hair and dry eyes, the rising shame of remembering, or worse, regretting. Yibo doesn’t want to have to say it was a mistake, or a nostalgic impulse, because it wasn’t for him and he wants those feelings to stay like they are; pure and powerful and real.

It’s a minor miracle but he manages to slip out without waking Xiao Zhan. His phone is still in his pocket, warm from his body heat, and after he closes the hall door he pulls it out, leaning back against the wall as he types. Yibo starts and erases, over and over, and finally stares at the ceiling for a long time before finally writing exactly what he wants to say.

Hope you got some good sleep on a real pillow. Let me know if you want to get dinner later.

Part of him knows he should stop. This is just another job, one that will end, and he can’t afford to tear old hurts open again. But really, when did they ever heal?

Yibo scrolls until he finds an ancient meme in his folders, Xiao Zhan asleep on the set in full wig and costume, and sends it before putting his phone away and going in search of breakfast.

At the head of the long dining table, Director Zhou is placidly eating a banana and browsing on his phone while Yang Cheng and Wu Fan drink coffee, absorbed in their own phones. They both look up when Yibo comes in, and he has to suppress a smile—Yang Cheng’s face is a combination of abashed but smug, while Wu Fan’s is perfectly expressionless, except a brief raise of her eyebrow before she looks down again.

“Good morning!” Director Zhou says. “There’s coffee in the kitchen.”

Yibo follows his gesture, pouring himself a cup and finding some leftovers from last night’s dinner in the fridge, which he heats up in a bowl. He takes the coffee and noodles back to the table, where he finds Xiao Zhan just slipping into a chair next to Director Zhou.

Xiao Zhan looks up at him, eyes so big and alert under that fringe of unruly hair, and Yibo feels it run through him, that shock of connection again. Xiao Zhan shakes his hair back and turns to talk to the director, but not before he flashes a smile at Yibo, small and hesitant.

“What are you going to do with your day off?” Xiao Zhan asks.

“Hmph,” Director Zhou says. “I don’t get any such thing. I still have three days of dailies to look at. Didn’t Chao Xiuli tell you about my computer problems?”

Yibo sits on the other side of Wu Fan, near the kitchen. He’s facing Xiao Zhan, but he doesn’t join the conversation, instead retreating into his phone like the others. It could be awkward, the specter of last night hanging over them all, but no one talks about it and gradually a comfortable silence falls. Xiao Zhan is eating some tangerines from a bowl on the table, half turned to stare out the window at the water, and then he turns back.

“You have work to catch up on today, Lao Wang?” he asks.

Yibo nods. He keeps his head tilted down at his phone but he glances up enough to meet Xiao Zhan’s eyes. “Most of the day, yeah. Probably be done by dinner though.”

“Yeah,” Xiao Zhan says. “Me too.”

When a driver arrives a few minutes later, though, he doesn’t get up. “I want to watch the movie you were trying to show us,” he says to Director Zhou.

“Oh, now you want to watch it,” Director Zhou says.

Xiao Zhan smiles, winningly. “I think I’m in a better frame of mind now.”

They’re still talking when Yibo leaves with Yang Cheng and Wu Fan, and he doesn’t try to catch Xiao Zhan’s eye again. He thinks they have an understanding, but he won’t know until later, and in the meantime he’ll be better off not thinking about it.

It’s easy to fill his day, back at the hotel. Yibo mostly answers emails, catching up on all the tedious business tasks Jun Ning sends him. Signing some things, rejecting others, watching his calendar fill up for the next year. It takes less time than he dreaded it would, of course, and after he works out at the hotel gym he spends the rest of the afternoon zoning out with a racing game for while chatting with one of his old band mates. They haven’t performed together in years, but the guys still feel like family.

Yibo’s getting hungry when he finishes the call, but he looks at the clock and decides to give it another half hour before calling room service. He settles down for a nap in the meantime, but the unsettled, anxious feelings he’s been soothing down all day rise up now, with nothing else to occupy him.

Maybe Xiao Zhan didn’t see the message, buried on his phone. Maybe their exchange at the table didn’t mean what Yibo thought it did. Maybe Xiao Zhan has changed his mind.

Yibo raises his arms, knuckling at his dry eyes. He never wanted to be back here, wondering at the hidden meaning of a word or a glance, and that’s why he tried to be direct when the project first began. He hates how quickly he gave in, trading his own peace of mind for the thrill of getting close to Xiao Zhan again. He knows if he were really brave, he would have stayed until Xiao Zhan woke up this morning, but the idea of forcing things like that makes his stomach turn. They still have to work together, no matter what. Better to let Xiao Zhan reject him silently, with as little friction as possible except for this, the terrible twisting wait for a phone call that never comes.

His bedside phone rings.

“Hey, Lao Wang, are you hungry or not? I have enough food here for four people, don’t make me invite Cheng-ge to eat it instead.”

“Yeah, I’m hungry,” Yibo says, clearing his throat. “Give me your room number.”

They never set a time, he thinks, getting up and putting on his shoes. He looks in the mirror, running a hand through his hair; the new feathering isn’t so obvious when it hasn’t been blow dried, and his post-workout t-shirt and lounge pants look fine. It seems ridiculous to dress up for this. Xiao Zhan never even messaged him back, so he can’t be expecting anything from Yibo except a casual dinner.

Still. Yibo goes to the dresser and pulls off his t-shirt, swapping it for a thin green one with a deep v-neck. He hasn’t bothered with earrings in his off-hours during this shoot, but now he slips in a couple of black studs, pushing past the resistance. He looks at himself in the mirror once more, shaking his hair back and lifting his chin as he examines his face.

That feels better. More like himself, bolstered by the armor of knowing he looks good.

It’s strange, walking through hotel corridors alone. The crowds around his life have ebbed and flowed, and this project came at just the right time, when he hasn’t done anything recently to gain notoriety and fans have been paying attention to other people instead. Jun Ning and the rest of his team would probably say that’s a bad thing, but Yibo’s grateful for the brief escape, staying at this ordinary hotel while they film something that’s still under the radar. He knows the crowds will be back soon enough.

He’s not prepared for the disorienting rush of Xiao Zhan opening a hotel door to him, bringing back so many memories. Xiao Zhan’s wearing a loose white t-shirt and jeans, hair still wet from the shower, and it’s been seven years since they were alone like this but it feels like no time at all, how Yibo’s heart lifts in that old way, making his throat tight and the oncoming smile irresistible. They just saw each other a few hours ago but it didn’t feel like this, the magnetic pull where there’s no one in the world but each other.

“Hey,” Xiao Zhan says, and there’s a catch in his voice, Yibo knows there is. “Food’s getting cold.”

He leans his hip against the doorframe, though, not moving, just looking back at Yibo. The moment goes on and on, a soaring freefall of smiling at each other, and finally Yibo says, “Are you going to let me in?”

“Yeah,” Xiao Zhan says, with a soft laugh. He straightens up, shaking his head. “Come in.”

There’s a room service cart in the middle of the room, crowded with covered dishes. The room is a mirror of Yibo’s and it sets him back for a moment, having to reverse everything in his head. There are a dozen rooms between their corner suites, and he suddenly feels far away, somewhere unfamiliar, like they’re on new ground the way they were last night.

Yibo’s fought all day not to think about that, but now the memories are flooding back to him at the worst possible time, with Xiao Zhan right here. Xiao Zhan kissed him, no script or dare behind it. Kissed him and went down on him, and then let Yibo touch him in return, holding onto him all the while. Yibo doesn’t think either of them were as drunk as they were pretending to be, either. He’s had casual hookups, some of them with Xiao Zhan himself, and they never felt like that.

He coughs, hard, clearing his throat. Xiao Zhan looks at him, and for a moment there’s a terrible transparency between them, like Yibo just said everything he was thinking out loud. But Xiao Zhan only smiles, soft and secret, and starts uncovering the dishes.

“What do you like here so far?” he asks, like he’s just making conversation. “I think their meat dishes are better than their vegetable ones, but this pickled cabbage is pretty good.”

“I like everything,” Yibo says, indistinctly, still feeling a fading flush in his ears.

“Really,” Xiao Zhan says, sounding skeptical. “Even the beef in chili oil?”

Yibo looks up, composing himself, making an exasperated, patient face. “Zhan-ge, I’m an adult. I eat whatever I’m given, I’m polite.”

Xiao Zhan lets out a pleased sound. “Wang-laoshi is a real adult now, I forget! Luckily I’m a good host and won’t make you eat things you hate.”

The mood eases, and they both fall to serving themselves, filling their bowls. Although the food looks good Yibo doesn’t take much, that unsettled feeling still sitting on his stomach, and he sees that Xiao Zhan doesn’t either. They sit on the couch together and Xiao Zhan turns on the TV, flipping through the channels without lingering on anything.

Yibo turns, looking past Xiao Zhan into the rest of the room. There’s something about being here in Xiao Zhan’s cluttered space, seeing his coat thrown across a chair and his contacts case on the nightstand, a stack of books on the floor. Mostly light novels, but it looks like a few art history ones too, maybe research for his character. Or maybe Xiao Zhan is just the kind of person to read art history books for fun.

“Nicer rooms than what we used to have, huh?” Xiao Zhan says.

Yibo brings his focus back, looking Xiao Zhan in the face, but this close all he can think about is the small dark moles below his lip and eye, those intimate marks that sometimes get hidden in the work Xiao Zhan does. It’s never clear to Yibo why.

“Yeah, it’s pretty nice,” Yibo says. “The hot water doesn’t run out, and the walls aren’t so thin.”

He says it casually, but it’s entirely deliberate. The words feel solid between them, like something he could still snatch back if he wanted, and he sees understanding in Xiao Zhan’s eyes.

“Oh yeah,” Xiao Zhan says, and his laugh is just a beat late. “I remember. You could really hear everything.”

Yibo licks his lips. “It didn’t bother me. Hearing things.”

He can see Xiao Zhan deciding. Which story to tell, which memory to recall. If what happened between them back then stays past, if what happened last night is part of yesterday or right now.

Xiao Zhan puts his bowl down on the table, and after a moment, Yibo does too.

He can see, now, that Xiao Zhan is waiting for him to make the first move. Maybe they should talk first—about the project, about last night, about anything. Yibo’s never been much for talking.

The thrill and the power of this. To have Xiao Zhan looking back at him, eyes soft and lips parted, an invitation. When Yibo leans in and kisses him it’s even sweeter than he dreamed, having it for real again—not quickly in the dark, not acting on camera, just them. There’s the remembered taste, and the way Xiao Zhan flicks his tongue against his, delicate, before stroking in deeper. The low, wanting sound Xiao Zhan makes in his throat, and his hands fluttering at the sides of Yibo’s face and neck, like he wants to touch everything at once.

Yibo slides onto Xiao Zhan’s lap, knees spread wide around his hips, and presses him back, kissing him fully. Xiao Zhan runs his hands down Yibo’s sides, over his waist and lower, cupping his ass, and groans when Yibo bites his lip.

“Yibo,” he says, a desperate edge to it.

It gets wilder, hungrier. Xiao Zhan’s hands are everywhere, pulling his hair and under his shirt. Yibo rocks down, grinding against him. The kissing is so good, hot and wet, like breathing underwater together. Xiao Zhan’s hand is pushed beneath Yibo’s waistband now, working around in front to wrap around his cock, squeezing so tight it makes him breathless.

Yibo wants more, to be naked in bed together, but Xiao Zhan’s hand on him makes him feel like he’s twenty again, the rising need a desperate, pounding ache. It’s a rough rhythm, Xiao Zhan fighting for space to move under his clothes, their kisses suddenly slack and breathless, and sharp desire rolls over Yibo like a hard wave. He gasps, surfacing, and sits back.

Fuck, Xiao Zhan looks so wrecked below him, lips reddened by kisses and his eyes dark and shining, hair tousled by Yibo’s seeking touch. Yibo can’t count all the ways he wants him.

“Come here,” Xiao Zhan says, low, and hooks his hand around the back of Yibo’s neck, pulling him back into the kiss.

The bed beckons, wide and welcoming. They could spread out there, twining and close, undressed. Yibo thinks about even as he rocks down into Xiao Zhan’s touch; getting his mouth on him, touching his warm skin, the intense intimacy of it. They have the whole evening to learn each other again.

But Xiao Zhan is steady and determined, stroking him tight and fast, and Yibo can’t hold out long. He comes in Xiao Zhan’s hand, moaning into his mouth, feeling overheated and out of control. Xiao Zhan rubs his back, squeezing him just right at the end, smiling between kisses. “Good,” he whispers.

Yibo gets up on his knees, still shuddering, and braces his hands on the wall behind the couch, dropping his head between them as he catches his breath. He can feel the wet mess in his pants, the way the tenor of the evening has changed.

It comes to him that maybe this is exactly how Xiao Zhan wants it. Like it was before, easing the tension they’re playing on camera and blurring the lines as they build their characters’ chemistry. Maybe Yibo has made that same stupid mistake all over again—falling for Xiao Zhan’s charm and kindness, believing it means something more.

Yibo’s not a serious dramatic actor like Xiao Zhan, but he doesn’t need to do this to play his role well. He should say that, and then he should go, keeping his dignity and their working relationship intact.

He stays where he is, still breathing hard.

Eventually Xiao Zhan runs his hands up over Yibo’s ribs, under his shirt. His hands are warm and one is still damp, slick as it goes. He rests his hands on Yibo’s shoulders, wordless, just the suggestion of urging him down.

When Yibo moves at last, it’s his choice. He kisses Xiao Zhan before they have a chance to really look at each other, and then he gets to his knees on the floor.

At least this time he’s going into it with his eyes open, Yibo thinks, and as he opens his mouth for Xiao Zhan he’s not sure if he feels very old or very young.

 


 

They film separately the next few days, and Xiao Zhan waits for Yibo’s call.

Everything seemed fine, the other night. Yibo was the first to recover, getting back up onto the couch and reaching for his dinner bowl. “Starving,” was all he said, but his tone was bright and casual, like he was picking right back up where they left off. Xiao Zhan took a moment longer, rearranging his clothes and catching his breath, and when he got up to go wash his hands Yibo just flashed a smile at him, already shoveling rice into his mouth and looking for the remote.

Yibo’s mouth. Something Xiao Zhan had thought he’d never get to experience again and now here he was, bracing himself on the bathroom counter as he stared at himself in the mirror, still trembling from the skilled way Yibo had just gone down on him. Not just skilled—more than he’d been before—but eager, sensuous, everything Xiao Zhan remembered. He went down on Xiao Zhan like it was the thing he wanted most in the world.

And now he was eating dinner on Xiao Zhan’s couch, as nonchalant as he’d been this morning, slipping out of bed and sending a text that could have meant anything. If Xiao Zhan had ever wondered if he’d read things wrong that summer, whether Yibo had been secretly disappointed by their ending, he had his answer now.

The next day, they go back to work. Xiao Zhan films a tragicomic scene babysitting his nieces and then a one-sided phone call with his mother, with Wu Fan listening in. He gets the following day off while the crew films scenes with Yibo and Jin Yi’s parents, and the luxury of free time feels outrageous, almost more than he knows what to do with. He reads most of a book and swims laps in the hotel pool downstairs, with a security guy watching out even though none of the guests have bothered him so far.

He thinks a lot, always carefully circling away from the same things. He can’t control what Yibo does, or how he feels, and Yibo’s been pretty clear so far. If this is just another short-term filming thing, that’s fine. If Xiao Zhan hoped this time it would be more, that’s his own problem. He’ll enjoy this while he can.

Finally he cracks and sends a text just before bed, because they’re filming together tomorrow. This scene is the first real love scene, so intimate in the script that Xiao Zhan’s tried not to think about it in depth, and he doesn’t want to show up not knowing where they stand. The movie is more important than whatever is going on between them.

How were your scenes today?

While he waits, he reaches for his book, making an irritated face when he realizes the bookmark has fallen to the floor. By the time he finds it and retrieves it, his phone light is blinking.

OK, some reshoots until we hit the right thing. Su Bingtao had his idea and Director Zhou had his. Dao-yan won. You?

Xiao Zhan smiles, imagining Director Zhou doing take after take, stone-faced, until it came out the way he wanted.

Just relaxed at the hotel. I feel like I’m getting paid to be on vacation half the time.

Oh, so that’s why you took the part, Yibo replies.

Xiao Zhan pauses, holding the phone. They keep coming back to this, and it occurs to him maybe he should just do it over text, so they won’t have to look at each other and it won’t be hanging over them anymore. It will be easier to tell only some of the truth this way, the simpler version.

I took the part because it’s an amazing role, he types, carefully. It’s an important story. And I’ve wanted to work with Director Zhou, since he’s a great director and actors always love him.

There’s a pause. Then Yibo answers, I’m not a TV interviewer you know

Xiao Zhan feels heat roaring into his face. What else does Yibo want him to say? “I wanted to imagine a world where we actually ended up together? I wanted to kiss a guy onscreen and I hoped it would be you?”

Fine, he replies. Why did *you* take the part?

This is still a dangerous question, even knowing now that Yibo only thinks of them as casual. He’s surprised how quickly the typing dots show up.

It’s an amazing role. And it’s an important story. And you know actors always love Director Zhou.

Xiao Zhan can’t help smiling, even with his lips pressed tightly together. He shakes his head. Asshole.

Well it wasn’t for the money, that’s for sure, Yibo answers, and then, We should get some sleep. Lake scene tomorrow, that always knocks me out after.

Yeah, see you then, Xiao Zhan says, and puts his phone down.

The weather’s good for their scene the next day, which feels like a hopeful sign. Sunny, not too hot but still warm enough that getting into the lake feels inviting, even in their ugly swim trunks, patterned in period colors. Yibo’s are outrageously baggy, with a pineapple print on electric blue, while Xiao Zhan’s are a tight, solid olive with a dull red stripe, ending well above his knees.

Yibo wades over to where Xiao Zhan is standing in the shallows near the dock, holding a sun umbrella over himself. It’s been a relief on this project to not have to worry so much about avoiding sweating, either because they’re in the water or because Director Zhou says it looks fine for the scene, but he doesn’t want to get sunburnt either.

“Nice shorts,” Yibo says, and aims a kick in Xiao Zhan’s direction, sending a wave of water at him.

“Hey!” Xiao Zhan says, taking a step back. The water splashes up over his knees, lapping at his thighs. “Yours are uglier.”

“Mine cover my ass,” Yibo says, reaching down to splash him with his hand. This time it washes just below Xiao Zhan’s waist, almost soaking his white undershirt. “Is that why you’re wearing a shirt?”

Xiao Zhan shrugs. “Wardrobe, I dunno.”

He does know; his character is still holding something back, shy of being undressed around the more confident, outgoing Jin Yi. Yibo’s perfectly in character now, grinning as he stretches in the sunshine, pretending to be nonchalant before he kicks another wave at Xiao Zhan. He’s shirtless, and he looks even better than he did when he was younger; stronger and more solid, with his shoulders a little broader and his trim waist thicker with muscle.

Xiao Zhan licks his lips, and then looks back up.

“Don’t you have anything better to do than mess with me?” he asks.

Yibo shakes his head and splashes him again. “No.”

“Come here,” Xiao Zhan says, and Yibo cocks his head, scrunching his face suspiciously, before wading closer. Xiao Zhan waits until he’s in range, and then kicks as big a wave as he can, splashing up into Yibo’s face.

“Hey!” Yibo shouts. “Fuck you, I knew you were going to do that!”

He takes a lunging step forward, reaching out, and Xiao Zhan squawks and wades deeper into the water, backing away from him. The water is cold, soaking part of his swim trunks, and he gasps, lifting the umbrella higher. “Lao Wang! Look what you made me do, don’t you care about your senior at all?”

Yibo’s close now, under the umbrella, with a cupped handful of water ready to drop down his front, when there’s the noise of a bullhorn clicking on from the shore.

“We need you both to stay dry for the beginning of the scene,” Director Zhou says, his voice crackly and tinny. “Zhanzhan, do you need a fresh shirt?”

Xiao Zhan looks down, embarrassed, relieved to see his shirt is dry. “No. Are we starting soon?”

“Two minutes. Might as well take your places.”

He looks up to see Yibo still close, water still dripping from his hands. He can feel the heat of Yibo’s bare skin, see the rise of his shoulders as he catches his breath, and Xiao Zhan’s eyes dart all over, unsure where to look. Finally he makes himself look Yibo full in the face.

“You’re a menace,” he says, giving Yibo’s shoulder a shove, but it lacks conviction, and Yibo doesn’t move much.

“You started it,” Yibo says, and there’s a tense, silent moment before he grins, dropping the water in his hands with a splash.

It’s good, Xiao Zhan thinks, as Yibo wades off to sit on the edge of the dock with his feet dangling in the lake. This is what the scene needs—the rough play, the physicality, the edge of teasing uncertainty that’s about to tip over into something more. That’s probably why Yibo is acting like this, getting into character already.

So it’s fine for Xiao Zhan to get into character too, as he takes his place next to Yibo on the dock. He closes his eyes, thinking about where Lingxuan is at now, with this sudden, bright, tempting thing before him, forbidden but familiar. Like nothing you’ve ever seen, Director Zhou told him when they were filming their first scene in the water, and that’s true for Xiao Zhan as well. Yibo’s still like nothing he’s ever seen.

The camera operator is getting into place in the water below them, and Director Zhou has waded out to stand behind him, wearing sunglasses beneath a big yellow bucket hat. “Closer,” he calls to them. “Almost touching. There’s barely even daylight between you.”

They shuffle closer on the dock, working to get the spacing just right, and then they begin the scene as the camera pans up between them. It takes a long time just to film the first few minutes of dialogue, because of all the complicated shots Director Zhou wants—each of them in profile as they speak, close-ups on their hands not quite touching and their feet splashing in the water, and one shot from below as Yibo talks, with the sun in a halo right behind his head. It goes on all morning, and Xiao Zhan doesn’t bother sliding in and out of character between takes, just letting that hot, building anticipation linger between them.

Someone brings them lunch and they share it under the umbrella, taking turns to eat. After the teasing earlier they’re quiet, mostly staring out at the same water they’ve been looking at all day. Xiao Zhan glances at Yibo, sidelong, and he knows Yibo is doing the same thing, but they never do it at quite the same time.

“Let’s get that dock set up,” Director Zhou says over the bullhorn, and the quiet atmosphere dissipates as the crew moves into action again.

Setup is complicated under the dock. There are beam boards everywhere to reflect light at them, carefully illuminating their faces enough to be seen on camera while keeping them partly in shadow. Bits of filtered sunlight come down through the boards, dancing everywhere on the water like white jewels. They try the first few lines, and Director Zhou quickly realizes the lapping sound of the water he wants won’t come through, underneath their voices.

“We’ll loop it in,” he says, and then wades back out of the shot. “OK, let’s get ready.”

Xiao Zhan ducks down until the water covers his shoulders. Near him, Yibo does the same, making it look like they’re deeper than they really are. They move closer to each other.

“You’re safe and hidden under here, even if the problems in your lives are still out there,” Director Zhou says, from behind the camera and lights. “The only thing you care about right now is each other. You both knew this was coming, it’s inevitable. It’s risky but you can’t hold back.”

Xiao Zhan nods, because that’s exactly how it feels. Even with the crew around them, all he can focus on is Yibo’s face: his full inviting mouth, his elegant eyes, the beautiful lines of his body. There’s nothing else in the world for him to look at.

“Yibo, you don’t have to really touch him,” Director Zhou says. “You’re just acting. Give it a try on this take, and if we need to work on it we will.”

“We’ll get it,” Xiao Zhan says. He doesn’t say what he’s thinking, that his part in the scene will be harder than Yibo’s. He’s never done anything like this before.

“OK then,” Director Zhou says, softly. “Action.”

They duck beneath the water, coming up wet and shaking it from their eyes, and then move closer, water still running down their faces. A drop slides over Yibo’s lips and Xiao Zhan reaches without thinking to wipe it away with his thumb, even though that’s not in the script. It’s easy to move from there to what he’s supposed to do, curling his hand around the back of Yibo’s neck like he can’t help touching. His heart is beating so hard, it makes his fingers shake. Yibo stares back at him, steadily. They move even closer, tilting their heads, each of them keeping their eyes open until the last moment.

This is a better kiss than the one they filmed the other day in the kitchen. Xiao Zhan puts everything into it—Lingxuan’s desperate desire, and his feeling of being lost and looming over a void, like this is the only solid thing he knows. It’s almost too passionate, like he’s letting too much of himself show, down here where nothing is real.

Yibo kisses him back with the same urgency. No, Jin Yi kisses him back, the true Jin Yi and not the cocky boy from the kitchen a few days ago. The one running from his own darkness, his stiff, loveless family and aimless life, the one who sees something true in Lingxuan.

Their lips are soft, slick, and kissing is easy, calming him down. As it goes on, Xiao Zhan comes back to himself a bit, more aware of the cameras and people watching. He pulls back, like he’s supposed to, and they look at each other for a moment before Yibo goes on with the scene, darting in to crush their mouths together again. A thrill makes its way through Xiao Zhan, and it’s easy to react like he’s supposed to, like Yibo has reached down into the waistband of his swim trunks.

Xiao Zhan never simulated sex on camera before, and the flushed awkwardness of it helps him through the scene. He’s been deliberately avoiding thinking about this moment for so long and so it feels as fresh and shocking as it’s supposed to, now that it’s here. He can feel the heat rising in his cheeks, and it’s only natural to break off from kissing and hide his face against Yibo’s shoulder. He makes the incoherent noises in the script, choked and rough, as Yibo moves his arm under the water like he’s touching him. Finally Xiao Zhan shudders all over, his hands tight on Yibo’s shoulder and the back of his neck, and then stays where he is, taking deep, harsh breaths.

“Hey,” Yibo says, more tenderly than any line of dialogue he’s said so far.

Xiao Zhan lifts his head, and he’s so deep in the raw, vulnerable moment that it’s almost impossible to meet Yibo’s eyes. He does, briefly, and then moves away, putting space between them.

“We should get back,” Xiao Zhan says, licking his lips.

The camera cuts then, and he hears some quiet discussion before Director Zhou says, “That’s good. It’s rough, but I like the freshness of it being the first take. Let’s move onto the close-ups.”

First they run it back, filming the quick shots that will be interspersed with the long take they just did. The camera comes close, zooming in on wet lips and shining water, Xiao Zhan’s face pressed against Yibo’s shoulder as they mimic the handjob again, his clutching hands. Yibo’s face, eyes closed above Xiao Zhan’s head.

Then they jump forward to film Yibo nodding in response to Xiao Zhan’s last line of dialogue, lifting his mouth in a crooked grin before sending a wave of water at him. Unlike their fight this morning, the real one, this splash fight eases the tension instead of raising it. They splash for a while, the camera circling around on them roughhousing and yelling like boys before Xiao Zhan finally moves to swim out from under the dock.

“Great,” Director Zhou says. “Fantastic, that’s a wrap for the day. You guys are saving me a lot of money, nailing these scenes so fast. You can head to wardrobe, Xiao Zhan.”

Yibo stays to film one last lingering shot of his face, but Xiao Zhan goes, ducking back out to the open lake.

It’s late afternoon, the sun hot and orange as it sinks towards the west. He takes a deep breath, and then another, suddenly desperate for air as he turns his back on the lake and wades towards shore. When he gets there someone wraps a big beach towel around him, handing him a bottle of water, and he nods blindly as he keeps walking on dry land. He had sandals this morning, but he leaves them behind wherever they are, his bare feet on warm stony sand and then cool grass as he gets closer to the house. The wardrobe trailer is in front of him, and Xiao Zhan keeps his eyes on it as he uncaps the water bottle and takes a long, gulping drink, draining it as he goes.

They did it. Not just the kiss, but the first love scene that’s been before him for so long, a heavy thing on his horizon that he’s tried not to think about. Pretending at something they’ve done for real, in front of a crowd, filming it to be seen by everyone. Since he took the project he’s known it would be like this, revealing himself onscreen, but once Yibo accepted the other role Xiao Zhan’s always avoided imagining how it would really be.

He doesn’t make it to the wardrobe trailer. He veers off course, finding a chair he knows is screened behind a hedge and a tall, draping willow tree, and drops into it, clutching the towel tighter around his shoulders. He’s shivering now, even though the day is hot, and he clenches his teeth, trying to calm himself down.

This is something he’s gone through before, but never with a scene like this. Usually it’s after going to a dark place or a crying scene, something with unhappy emotions he can’t just rein back in. Xiao Zhan can feel tears sliding down his cheeks now, but he doesn’t feel sad, just hopelessly lost, like he doesn’t even understand his own feelings.

“I thought he went to wardrobe,” he hears from behind him, and crunching steps on the garden gravel. He takes a shuddering breath, sitting up straight, and wipes his cheeks with his towel, hoping his eyes aren’t too red.

“Why don’t you look over here,” the voice says, and then Yibo appears around the hedge.

Yibo stops where he is for a moment, like he’s not sure what he’s seeing or what to do. He’s wrapped in a beach towel too, and his hair is still wet, slicked back on his head. It makes his eyes look wide in his tanned face.

“Hey,” he says, and then he seems to stand up taller, taking control. He comes over to Xiao Zhan’s chair and kneels down, gaze more settled as he puts a hand on his leg.

“Hey,” Xiao Zhan says, and shudders.

They stare at each other for a long moment, soft and appraising. Xiao Zhan feels like his mind comes unmoored, drifting through the many things they’ve been to each other. Their characters now, their characters then; their real selves and those younger selves, frantic and intense, so conscious of being at the fulcrum point of their lives. It doesn’t feel like that anymore. Yibo looks so confident and sure, kneeling there, and his hand is warm on Xiao Zhan’s bare leg where his swim trunks ride up.

“Are you all right?” Yibo asks, his voice low. “Do you need anything?”

Space is what Xiao Zhan needs, and time to come back to himself, untangling from the complex rush of feelings that engulfed his character. Yibo is probably the one person he shouldn’t be around right now. But he can’t bear to ask Yibo to go, and the longer he looks at him, the more he feels Yibo’s steady calm flowing into himself.

“I just need a minute,” Xiao Zhan says, vaguely, and he grasps at Yibo’s hand, covering it with his own. He shuts his eyes and draws in a shallow breath, and then a deeper one. “Can you stay with me?”

He wishes he could see Yibo’s face, but it’s better to keep his eyes closed, waiting for the answer.

Yibo squeezes his knee, and there’s the sound of him shuffling closer on the gravel. “Yeah,” he says, a husky catch to his voice. “I can stay.”

Xiao Zhan doesn’t know how long they sit there, breathing together, hands touching, but the air grows cooler around him and he senses the light disappearing through the redness of his closed eyes. When he opens them at last, the shadows are lengthening and the lake is a dark blue, the last of the sun slipping down behind the trees.

He turns and Yibo is still there, crouching close, watching him. Strands of his hair are beginning to dry, drifting upwards in the evening breeze, and when Xiao Zhan looks at him something lightens in his face, almost a smile.

“Hey again,” Yibo says. “Better?”

Xiao Zhan nods. “Yeah.”

He lifts his hand and Yibo moves right away, getting to his feet stiffly with a heavy sigh. Yibo leans forward, stretching out, and the towel slips from his shoulders, revealing his bare torso. He catches the towel with one hand and looks up to meet Xiao Zhan’s eyes again.

They don’t speak on the ride back to the hotel, but Yibo follows him to his room and it happens again, without talking. They kiss against the wall in the dark, and Xiao Zhan remembers this, how Yibo used to come back with him after difficult scenes, wiping away the day with the presence of his body and the pressure of his hips. Tonight Xiao Zhan grasps the front of Yibo’s shirt and hauls him in close, drowning in the unexpected joy of having this again, the sweet hunger of Yibo’s mouth against his. Whatever it means, whatever this is.

“Zhan-ge,” Yibo says, in little gasps between kisses, and it’s like a vise tightening on Xiao Zhan’s heart, more every time.

In bed, in darkness, he takes Yibo in his mouth. He’s clear-headed tonight, and he takes his time over it, working Yibo up until he comes; tense and shaking, pulling Xiao Zhan’s hair and saying his name. It’s still nothing compared to the slow, shattering way that Yibo goes down on him after that, letting Xiao Zhan slide deep into his throat before mouthing at the head of his cock with agonizing, tender slowness, holding him with one hand while his lips slip over the slick tip again and again. Like a kiss, like he doesn’t want to stop.

“Lao Wang,” Xiao Zhan breathes, and then: “Yibo. Yibo.”

Words are all they have in the dark, but they fail him when Yibo gets up to leave. Even he can’t think of a good reason for Yibo to stay, without asking for too much.

“I’ll see you tomorrow?” Yibo asks, although they won’t be filming together. Xiao Zhan takes a quick breath, hopeful, and then Yibo adds, “At the lake house.”

“Yeah,” Xiao Zhan says. “At the house.”

A brief silence, with only the sounds of Yibo zipping up his jeans and pushing his feet into his shoes.

“Thanks,” Xiao Zhan says. “For being there.”

He hears Yibo shift, sitting on the edge of the bed, like he’s looking back.

“Of course,” Yibo says, softly.

 


 

Yibo only films one scene the entire next week, and spends the rest of it thinking about Xiao Zhan, hooking up with Xiao Zhan, and berating himself for not being over Xiao Zhan.

It has to be obvious, he thinks, but Xiao Zhan never says a thing. Yibo can’t help kissing like he means it, touching like it’s real, but maybe he’s a better actor than he gives himself credit for. Every time he moans “Zhan-ge,” feeling it with his whole heart, he expects Xiao Zhan to look at him with pity or distance, reminding him of what this is, but he never does.

He wasn’t sure how it would be the next time they saw each other. After the lake scene he found Xiao Zhan in one of those dark, frightening moods, when he goes too deep into a character and doesn’t know how to get back out. It was like stepping into a surreal memory, but after the first moment of shock it was easy to remember what to do, staying calm and present while Xiao Zhan found himself again. Waiting for Xiao Zhan to get it together is a familiar feeling.

What happened after that at the hotel was familiar too, letting their bodies speak for them. In the dark, it felt like no time had passed at all, except that now Yibo knows what he wants, and who he is.

But he’s still willing to put all that aside, because it’s like he’s walking through a dream, so close to his deepest, aching desires. The pleasant lake in summer; this challenging, momentous project; and Xiao Zhan, always smiling in the corner of his view. The next night at the party Xiao Zhan sat at his elbow, beer in hand, and touched his lower back when they came back to the hotel, a subtle pressure that was like a question with only one answer.

Yibo can handle it, even if it hurts. He’s wanted this for a long time, more years than he wants to think about. He wants to to get as close as he can, for however long it lasts.

So he takes his week off while Xiao Zhan works, and in the evenings they spend time with the others, surrounded by music and good food and laughter, and after that they return to Xiao Zhan’s hotel room and go to bed together. They go down on each other, mostly, but one night they kiss while touching and stroking, and another night Yibo pushes between Xiao Zhan’s thighs, breathing hard as they look at each other. He keeps expecting Xiao Zhan to close his eyes or look away but Xiao Zhan just keeps staring up at him, gently smiling, like he’s thinking something about Yibo that’s a secret.

They almost always did it with Yibo on top, and he always felt like this, vulnerable and seen too well. Like it was easier for Xiao Zhan to just let it happen to him, not giving anything away while Yibo’s desire was obvious, having to take action. It doesn’t stop Yibo from wanting that again now, but he doesn’t push for it and Xiao Zhan doesn’t offer. They’re taking it slow, learning each other again. Or maybe they’re still keeping part of themselves back.

If this were casual they’d talk about it more, Yibo thinks. If it didn’t mean anything they’d say that, act like it, without this heavy stillness between them. If Xiao Zhan didn’t care he wouldn’t look at him that way.

It’s the night before they’re scheduled to film together again, another low key party at Director Zhou’s house, and Yibo’s sitting by himself, running over everything in his mind. The frustrated, yearning mood of it brings him up short, though, and a rueful smile spreads across his face. He might as well be twenty years old again, thinking like this. Back when he was too scared to ask, too scared to know the truth, too scared it would end if he looked at it the wrong way. Too sure it mattered too much to risk a moment of it, and then he’d never feel this way again.

Of course, Yibo thinks, taking another sip of his drink, he hasn’t.

Tonight he doesn’t follow Xiao Zhan to his room, and Xiao Zhan only gives a faint questioning look before nodding, understanding. It’s the right thing to do, making space for their characters again, only that doesn’t make sense if this is supposed to be about the work. Yibo’s head hurts if he thinks about it too much, and his heart too, so he doesn’t for long.

In the morning his head still hurts, probably a mild hangover. He’s been drinking more than usual on this shoot. Everyone does in the evenings, and it’s been so easy to fall into the rhythm of it, the soft buzz that amplifies how happy he feels when he’s around the others, being part of this project. The headache works for his character, because today things are jagged and off-tempo in the script too, a chilly, stiff evening at the Jin family house that’s even worse than the first dinner party scene. Yibo has more lines than usual and he goes over the script again and again on the shuttle bus, leaning his aching head against the window and mouthing dialogue under his breath.

There’s a lingering morning fog at the lake, clouds in the sky, and the barometric pressure makes his sinuses ache too. In the wardrobe trailer Yibo slouches in a chair, inhaling hot coffee and trying to get the tension out of his shoulders.

A stylist makes him look up, wielding a round brush and a hair dryer, and he submits to having his hair blown out, teased into the fluffy halo Director Zhou wants whenever he’s not in the water.

“Aiyo,” Xiao Zhan says, walking past him and punching his shoulder. “Such a handsome boy. You look like a dandelion.”

“Quiet, four-eyes,” Yibo snaps back, though he actually likes the glasses Xiao Zhan wears for some of his scenes, big square silver wire rims with the nose bar between. With his shaggy hair, it makes him look like the disheveled art professor he’s supposed to be, and Yibo’s into that. He’s into everything about Xiao Zhan.

They trade a few more insults about the period clothes they’re wearing, Yibo’s baby pink Lacoste polo and Xiao Zhan’s tight, wide-striped button down in dull earth tones, perfect for meeting the parents. It feels good whenever they slide back into this, a familiar rhythm Yibo knows. He doesn’t have to think or worry about anything when Xiao Zhan’s rolling with their nonsense patter, probably driving the crew crazy but grinning right at him the whole time.

The dinner party scene goes better than he hoped, despite the complexity of the shots. It’s a building cacophony, the frosty lines spoken by Jin Yi’s parents intercut with his own return insults, and Xiao Zhan’s mild, clumsy attempts at politeness followed by silent responses from the others. Yibo admires how Director Zhou keeps it all in his head, a hundred different shots following each other like steps of a dance, and he loves how quickly the others fall into it too. Today Xiao Zhan isn’t trying to argue for his own interpretations but participating in the rhythm, taking direction like he understands it just as well as the director. They might have talked about it, Yibo realizes; they spend a lot of time together discussing the script and watching movies together when everyone else is relaxing after filming.

He loves this about Xiao Zhan too, he realizes. It’s not just about their bright flirtation, or their feverish evenings in bed. He loves watching Xiao Zhan think and work, and the way he is with other people, respectful but confident, hard-working and sincere. When they first met, it was a crush, admiration for an older man, but they’ve both grown into themselves and this has grown as well. Xiao Zhan is someone truly worthy of the feelings Yibo can’t shake, and every day just makes that more clear.

Which is what makes it all the more surprising that the next scene goes so badly.

The dinner party takes the whole day, and Director Zhou releases them in the early evening, later than usual. All the actors go back to the hotel, and Yibo only texts Xiao Zhan a couple of meaningless things before he passes out. The next morning is sunny and hot, and maybe that’s why it feels so weird when they get back to the set, trying to pick up the connected magic of the day before. Yesterday it was like they were reading each other’s minds, and today nothing goes right.

“Not like that,” Director Zhou says for the fifth time in a row, and Yibo knows his ears must be bright red.

They haven’t even started filming yet, but even the blocking has been a disaster. Director Zhou crosses the room again, looming over the bed, where they’re lying down together. He reaches down and grabs Yibo’s ankle, moving his foot back and forth, sliding a little closer to Xiao Zhan’s every time.

“You’re like a teenager,” he says to Yibo, looking down on him with a serious face. “You’ve finally got the boy you like in your room. You’ve been cocky all along but now your real feelings are starting to show—you really like him, you really want him. Your body language has to be teasing, but it’s genuine. You’re showing him how you feel but you’re holding back, too, because you want him to make the decision to stay.”

Yibo nods, trying to take in the torrent of direction, as his ankle is tightly gripped and dragged along the bed. It’s hard to imagine how he’s going to get all that across with just a few motions.

“Curl your arm under your head,” Director Zhou says. “Eyes half closed, like I told you. Let your mouth fall open. Look up at him, like you’re watching—no, don’t move your head. Just look up with your eyes, a quick glance. Checking in. That’s better.”

Yibo follows his instructions, and it does feel better this time, even as waves of discomfort roll through him. The emotions he’s trying to convey are all too close to what he really feels; putting himself on offer without exposing too much of his heart. Stay, he thinks as he looks up at Xiao Zhan, lying on his back and propped up on his elbows.

“You,” Director Zhou says, addressing Xiao Zhan now. “You know he’s looking at you. You know what he wants.”

“And I want to give it to him,” Xiao Zhan says.

“No!” Director Zhou barks, shaking his head. “You’re not sure. You have to reel it in a little. Every time you look at him, we’re seeing too much emotion on your face. Right now you don’t even know what you want, except not to get hurt again. You don’t want to get in too deep with anything.”

“Right, I know that,” Xiao Zhan says, sounding defensive. “But I’m feeling something, right?”

“Subtle,” Director Zhou says, with emphasis. “I want to see less of it. Whenever you look at him, your whole face keeps lighting up.”

“OK,” Xiao Zhan says, and it sounds strained. He shifts on the bed, stretching his shoulders back, and then then blows out a breath. “Let’s try it again.”

“I don’t know what’s wrong with you guys today,” Director Zhou says, as he turns to cross the room again. “You were great last week. Let’s shake the rust off, maybe.”

They practice the scene a couple more times, getting into the groove. Yibo can feel the languorous heat rolling off him as he looks up, trying to give a silent message, making himself an irresistible temptation. When Xiao Zhan glances back, his face doesn’t look that much different to Yibo but it seems to be what Director Zhou wants, because he nods his approval.

Once they start filming, Yibo gets completely caught up, even through the multiple takes and close-ups. They lie there pretending to listen to music that will be looped in later, and then the camera comes in to capture their faces, their glances, his shifting leg, and the way they incline towards each other without ever quite touching. It feels like he’s holding his breath the whole time, suffused with Jin Yi’s desperate, claustrophobic longing. Wanting something he can’t ask for, afraid of destroying this feeling between them with the wrong words.

Finally, they have their brief exchange of dialogue. “It’s late,” Xiao Zhan says, in close-up, and then the camera shifts down to catch Yibo’s yeah, so soft he has to do three takes until he says it just right.

Then the framing shot, when Yibo lifts himself until his face appears on the same level as Xiao Zhan’s. The camera lingers on them looking at each other until finally Yibo licks his lips, nervous but deliberate, and tilts his head.

“Cut,” Director Zhou says, and then, “let me see the monitor.”

Yibo drops back down, and Xiao Zhan does too, groaning at the stiffness of having been up on his elbows for so long. There’s the temptation to shift into the usual post-filming looseness, joking around with each other, but somehow the tension doesn’t break. They stay where they are, as they were. It’s not just because there might be more takes, Yibo thinks; it feels like they’re still in the scene, waiting for something to happen between them, like some natural force will carry them onwards without anyone risking anything.

Xiao Zhan turns his head suddenly, looking at him. Yibo expects his face to be alight with mischief, a joke at his expense or the kind of bored, superior expression Xiao Zhan used to get during filming breaks, but instead he looks thoughtful and intent, eyes dark and his lips slightly parted. Yibo’s heart jumps at seeing that here, something he’s used to seeing privately, just between the two of them.

“You OK?” Xiao Zhan asks, so soft it’s almost a whisper.

“Yeah,” Yibo says, whispering back.

“You’re pretty tired, huh,” Xiao Zhan says, which is ridiculous, because they’re always tired. It feels like Yibo has been tired for about ten years straight. It’s part of the life.

He just nods though, acknowledging. “Do I look tired?”

“Mm,” Xiao Zhan says, not a real answer. “You should go home and nap, when we’re finished.”

“OK,” Yibo says.

“My room is quieter,” Xiao Zhan says, which is even more ridiculous because he hasn’t even been to Yibo’s room. Yibo’s about to say something when he realizes that’s not the point, and then a PA appears on the other side of the bed.

“They want to reshoot a couple of the close-ups,” she says, and holds up a couple of bottles. “You need some water first?”

Xiao Zhan sits up, reaching for a water bottle, and Yibo does the same. They get back to work, filming until Director Zhou is satisfied, but the lingering moment between them doesn’t ever quite pass. It works for the scene, Yibo thinks, defensively. Whatever else comes out of this summer, he knows they’re making something incredible together.

They finish with a shot of Xiao Zhan leaving, closing the door behind himself. Yibo sticks around to watch them film it from the hallway, letting himself admire the subtle details in Xiao Zhan’s acting. The way he’s so quiet with the door, his graceful hand turning the knob, and then the unconscious-seeming adjustment of his clothes, thumb tucked into his waistband before checking the buttons of his ugly striped shirt, smoothing it down. He stays where he is just a moment, head turned like he’s listening for something through the door, and when his eyes close his face is so soft it makes Yibo’s heart ache, imagining Lingxuan’s thoughts—his sleeping lover in the room beyond, everything that’s just happened. Xiao Zhan looks so yearning, like he’s letting himself get swept up in tender emotions, and then something comes over him, a stern tension returning to his shoulders and jaw as he walks away.

“Cut,” Director Zhou says. “Let’s see that again.”

Yibo frowns in surprise, because the performance looked great to him, but then Xiao Zhan does it over and it’s better somehow, the motions and his expression even more natural. The story he’s telling is so clear, everything he’s thinking and experiencing, and Director Zhou crosses his arms and nods this time, approving.

“That’s a wrap for today,” Chao Xiuli says, and the crew’s noises rise around them, everyone talking and gathering equipment. Xiao Zhan leans against the wall with his arms folded, talking to Director Zhou, and as Yibo watches Xiao Zhan’s eyes lift, finding his over the director’s shoulder.

He feels the heat of that stare all through the wrap-up, getting the makeup off his face with the wipes a stylist gives him and changing back into his clothes in the wardrobe trailer, raking his hand through his hair to break up some of the product in it. He feels more like himself by the time they get in the back of the car going to the hotel, but weary with fatigue even though it’s only late afternoon. He drops his head against the seat back, lolling to the side. Xiao Zhan is doing the same, staring at the window, and it would feel like they’re hardly in the same car except for how Xiao Zhan has let his hand fall across the seat, his warm and slender fingers touching Yibo’s.

A dreamlike urgency takes hold and doesn’t let up; the winding drive along the shore of the lake, sun flashing through trees and catching on the water, and the elevator ride to the top floor, the walk down the silent, carpeted corridor to Xiao Zhan’s room. It feels like Yibo’s heart beats slow but heavy, something he’s aware of against his ribs as he closes the door behind them.

Xiao Zhan throws himself on the bed, sighing. Their scene wasn’t physical, but Yibo feels the same exhaustion, and it’s easy to follow suit, stretching out beside him. A sweet, dizzy feeling sweeps through him immediately, Iike he could just fall asleep right here.

They’re on the same sides of the bed as they were earlier, filming the scene. Same positions, same closeness, feeling the heat of each other’s bodies without touching. The same exhilarated tension comes back, creeping through Yibo and bringing him awake.

“What do you think they did?” Yibo asks. He’s lying on his side and Xiao Zhan is on his back, eyes closed.

“Didn’t you read the book yet?” Xiao Zhan asks.

“No.”

Xiao Zhan opens his eyes. “You should.”

“OK, I will,” Yibo says, shrugging. He can’t really do anything about that right now, and the silence drags on as Xiao Zhan looks at him, lips pressed together like he’s thinking.

“So what do you think they did?” Xiao Zhan asks, finally.

It’s not fair play, tossing it back to him. This is like their old games in the early days, each pushing it to see how far they could go, testing the other. Yibo doesn’t even remember who dared them to kiss the first time, but he wonders if they ever would have, without that.

He was the one who made it happen the next night, though, muscling Xiao Zhan up against the wall, lingering, their faces close. He remembers the way he looked down at Xiao Zhan’s mouth and back up, making his intentions clear, just waiting for an answer. It feels like the bravest thing he ever did, now.

Yibo doesn’t feel that brave tonight, but he doesn’t want Xiao Zhan any less.

“I think they kissed,” he says slowly, feeling it out.

“Obviously.” Xiao Zhan rolls his eyes.

“For a long time, like really getting into it,” Yibo says. “They haven’t gotten to take their time with it yet.”

He and Xiao Zhan haven’t either, because one of them always escalates things pretty fast, moving to the next step. He can’t tell if they’re both just that into it, or if they don’t want to linger in that dangerous place too long, where the emotions are so strong.

“Right,” Xiao Zhan says quietly, and his eyes are big and gentle, looking right at Yibo. Like maybe he’s thinking the same thing.

Yibo kisses him. There’s no reason not to, because he can, and because Xiao Zhan is looking at him like that and he doesn’t know what else to do.

Xiao Zhan’s lips are always so soft. Tonight Yibo wants to take his time, bringing back the way he felt this afternoon, lying in bed with the magic of the story still on them. It always feels so much bigger than just being himself, when he’s acting out a part, and he thinks maybe it will be easier for them both this way, going back to pretending again.

But he can’t pretend for long. When he deepens the kiss, sliding his tongue into Xiao Zhan’s mouth, the moan Xiao Zhan makes is so sweet and familiar it goes right to Yibo’s gut, dark and piercing. He knows how Xiao Zhan’s smooth, silky hair feels under his hands, and the heat of his long, lean body, and the way he tastes. Talking about their characters is only an excuse.

“And then?” Xiao Zhan asks, breathless, pulling back.

Yibo just makes a frustrated sound and kisses him again, harder. He wants to have this without the layers of pretense, without whatever it is that’s keeping them apart, has always kept them apart. He doesn’t want to have to be so careful of this hidden danger that he can’t even name.

Xiao Zhan breaks away, kissing the corner of Yibo’s mouth, his jaw, and then leaving little biting kisses all the way down his throat. His hand is twisted in Yibo’s t-shirt, thumb brushing the nub of his nipple, and Yibo arches his neck, groaning.

“And then,” Xiao Zhan whispers in his ear, teeth grazing the lobe. His tongue presses into Yibo’s ear, warm and wet, leaving coolness behind until he breathes words again. “Then they fuck.”

Yibo tenses up, the words stinging through him with a painful spasm of desire.

“In the book,” Xiao Zhan says, but Yibo’s already pulling him down again, one hand tight in his hair, and Xiao Zhan kisses back with the same passion. They’re so good at this, just the kind of deep soft slick kissing Yibo loves, and he wants to do it forever but he feels so hot inside, like there’s a bright angry fire he can’t swallow down.

He makes it last just a little longer, and Xiao Zhan curls into him, one long leg hooking over his.

“Here,” Xiao Zhan finally gasps, and he reaches back, straining for the bedside table. He doesn’t even have the stuff in the drawer, it’s all out in the open, and right now Yibo’s just glad. Glad Xiao Zhan wanted this, glad he knew Yibo wanted it too.

They separate to get undressed, and then Xiao Zhan stretches out on his stomach, arms folded under his head, looking at Yibo through half-shut eyes. His chest is rising and falling quickly with his breath, but he looks sleepy and stunning, his face so handsome beneath the fall of dark hair.

“Like this,” Xiao Zhan says, softly. “They do it like this.”

Yibo picks up the lube and Xiao Zhan parts his legs, enough for him to kneel between. He feels suddenly hesitant and tender, stroking over the smooth curves of Xiao Zhan’s ass and the hard strength of his thighs, places that are still familiar even after so long. He keeps getting this feeling like no time at all has passed and he doesn’t trust it, like maybe what he really wants is a reset on all the years between, to be that young again. To make a different choice.

“Fast or slow,” Yibo says, to think about something else. “In the book. Did they do this fast or slow?”

Xiao Zhan doesn’t answer for a while. Yibo sees him swallow. “Slow. Taking their time, like you said.”

Yibo nods, even though Xiao Zhan can’t see him, and then he takes his time. Warming the lube up on his fingers, and stroking delicately, parting the way. He thinks they never used to take their time either, even in the middle of the night, like there was always a clock counting down the minutes until they crossed the line and the magic between them stopped being real. Or maybe the opposite, maybe before it became too real.

He doesn’t feel tired anymore, watching Xiao Zhan. He runs his other hand over Xiao Zhan’s back, up to his shoulders and down to his sides, his hips, and Xiao Zhan melts into it, body soft and pliant to his touch. Yibo sees every small motion Xiao Zhan makes, the slight rock of his hips and the way his brows draw down, mouth open.

“Good,” Xiao Zhan breathes, a hitch in it.

Yibo thinks of Jin Yi, having this for the first time with the man he loves. He wouldn’t know the things that Yibo does, where Xiao Zhan likes to be touched and what he sounds like when he comes, the way his warm breath feels on Yibo’s face. He’d be looking, learning, everything new, instead of this aching regret overlaid with a hundred memories.

“And then,” Yibo says, drawing his fingers back. He wipes them on his bare thigh and reaches for the condom. “How did they do this?”

He flatters himself that Xiao Zhan’s pause this time is because he has to pull himself together, the way he gives his head a little shake. “Ah. Slow. They do it really slow. Smooth, lying close together. Until they feel like one person.”

Yibo’s throat feels tight. He opens the condom and rolls it down, giving himself a few slick strokes after to take the edge off. His hand drifts back to the curve of Xiao Zhan’s ass again, cupping it, his thumb slipping between.

He can’t bring himself to use Xiao Zhan’s character’s name, even though it feels like he should, if that’s what they’re doing. He doesn’t want this to be just a game, some kind of acting exercise. Still, as he moves over Xiao Zhan he feels an echo of Jin Yi’s elation, having something he wants so badly, and for a moment it does feel like a first time again, the newness and the shock of their bodies coming together in this way.

“Oh,” Xiao Zhan exhales as Yibo pushes in, and it sounds real, almost like he didn’t mean to. He moans sharply, muffled against his forearm, and shifts his legs wider, angling his hips up. “Fuck. Slow—can you go slower? It’s a lot.”

Yibo stops, feeling heat rise in his face. “Sorry.”

“Don’t be,” Xiao Zhan says, sounding like he’s smiling. “Just—need a little time.”

Slow is good. It takes a while, but Yibo eases inside, getting closer until he can rest his face against Xiao Zhan’s back, lying on top of him completely. He kisses Xiao Zhan’s shoulder, sliding his arms beneath his folded ones, overwhelmed by the warmth around him and the way Xiao Zhan moves to meet him, hips lifting. Until they feel like one person, Xiao Zhan said, and Yibo closes his eyes as they breathe together.

He’s not thinking about Jin Yi anymore. This is him, and this is them.

“Zhan-ge,” he whispers, and then he starts to move.

He does it like Xiao Zhan said, smooth and slow. He undulates his body, pulling out and sliding in at a shallow angle, straddling Xiao Zhan’s thighs with his knees pressed close. He tucks an arm beneath Xiao Zhan, wrapping around his chest, and kisses his shoulder again.

“Oh,” Xiao Zhan groans, face buried against the pillow. “Oh fuck, yeah. Fuck, that’s good, you’re so good.”

It feels like waves of electricity go through Yibo, shortening his breath. Xiao Zhan was never very mouthy in bed, for all they used to flirt on set, talking nonsense that meant nothing. It was like he withdrew once they got started, letting Yibo set the pace, until the end when it was clear he’d been calling the shots all along.

“Really good?” Yibo asks, kissing his shoulder again.

Xiao Zhan nods. “Yeah,” he sighs, high and dreamy. He pushes against the bed with his knees and toes, trying to get more leverage. “I wanted this so much. Needed it. Kept thinking about you inside me,” he whispers, almost too soft to hear.

Yibo mouths wetly against Xiao Zhan’s shoulder, being rough with his teeth, trying to steady himself as he keeps rocking in. Slow, smooth. Fuck. This is everything he’s wanted for so long, to know that Xiao Zhan thinks about him too.

“Knew you’d be like this,” Xiao Zhan is saying. “All day, I wanted to get away from everyone else, just you and me. Wanted to be alone with you.”

Yibo screws his eyes shut tight, still moving, and then a terrible thought comes to him. Maybe Xiao Zhan is just being in character, saying all these things as Lingxuan instead of himself. Maybe that’s all any of this is.

It’s too awful to think about, too awful to find out for sure. “I want to make you feel good,” Yibo gasps, rocking his hips harder, talking over whatever Xiao Zhan might say next. “I want to make you come.”

“Yeah,” Xiao Zhan says, nodding emphatically. “I will if you keep fucking me like that. Just like that.”

Their words fade out, taken over by gasps and moans, the slick sound of their bodies moving together and the creak of the mattress. Yibo feels like he’s caught up in a dance he can’t stop, rolling his body up and in as the pleasure builds. Xiao Zhan tenses beneath him, knees digging into the bed for purchase, until every breath is desperate, his chest heaving.

Fuck, I’m so close,” Xiao Zhan moans, tossing his head, arms wrapped tight around the pillow. “Keep—keep doing that.”

“Yeah?” Yibo murmurs. He kisses Xiao Zhan’s shoulder again, hips snapping harder against the delicious curve of his ass. Whatever else is going on, he wants so badly to make Xiao Zhan come. “Like that?”

“Oh, right there,” Xiao Zhan gasps, suddenly high pitched. “Right fucking there—oh fuck, yes, ah!”

Relief floods his voice and it’s so sweet, the sobbing way it climbs and breaks. Xiao Zhan arches up and Yibo holds him down, riding him hard as it rolls through him, the shudders and the choked-off cries. Yibo wants so much to see what he looks like right now, but Xiao Zhan buries his face against his arms, shoulders hunched tight, the whole thing happening to him alone.

But when it passes, Xiao Zhan turns his head to the side, a giddy smile creeping across his face as he lets out pleased sighs, breath catching over them. Yibo slows but doesn’t stop, until Xiao Zhan shivers all over, laughing.

“OK, god, enough,” Xiao Zhan gasps, canting his hips away. His face is glistening, hair plastered down to his forehead, and his eyes are still closed.

Yibo goes still, dropping his face against the back of Xiao Zhan’s neck and nuzzling where it’s warm and damp. He breathes deep, inhaling the scent of his sweat, letting sensation displace thought. He doesn’t know if they’re still playing the game or if he can just be himself again, if he’s allowed to want this.

Beneath him, Xiao Zhan sighs once more, relaxing into his arms. “You should finish,” he murmurs, low and satisfied. “I wanna feel you.”

Fuck. Yibo shivers, kissing his nape. “Fast or slow?”

Xiao Zhan shifts, one hand pushing down under his body to tangle with Yibo’s. “Slow.”

It feels like a dream, the heavy exhaustion returning as he rocks into Xiao Zhan. Yibo presses his mouth to Xiao Zhan’s shoulder and Xiao Zhan twines their fingers together, slipping between Yibo’s with a squeeze. It’s like stoking a distant fire that’s never hot enough to burn, keeping Yibo suspended here with the breath tight in his chest, wanting the pleasure and wanting it to never end.

“Please,” he hears himself whisper, because it’s not enough, this drowning sweetness and the heart-stopping anticipation that it’s all about to disappear. He groans, pushing through the slick tight drag again, this illusion of intimacy that’s so close to being real. “Please,” he says, and he doesn’t even know what he’s asking for, except everything.

Xiao Zhan nods, fingers tight around his. “Yeah, you can do it. Come on.”

Yibo’s throat is too tight to ask for what he wants most, for Xiao Zhan to say something that’s meant for him alone. He rocks in faster, though, not slow anymore, because this is him, and this is how he needs it.

Xiao Zhan just lets out a quiet moan, holding himself steady. “Yeah, good, like that,” he murmurs, so low Yibo has to strain to hear him. “Fuck, you’re getting so hard, I can feel it. God, you’re so big. You’re so close. Come on, Yibo.”

After all the sweet filth, the sound of his own name is what cuts through the drowsy warmth, the spark that brings him to life. Yibo gasps and chokes, every muscle in his body locking up, and fucks in with short, frantic strokes. His breath is hot and harsh, raw in his chest, and he holds Xiao Zhan so tight it has to hurt but Xiao Zhan only sighs, “There you go, that’s it,” as Yibo comes, groaning through his clenched teeth and feeling like he’s nothing but forked lightning, an ecstasy too sharp and bright for anything.

“Oh, fuck,” Yibo finds himself gasping, over and over, when it finally passes. He’s drenched in sweat, breathing hard in Xiao Zhan’s ear, his whole body tingling so hard he feels like passing out.

Xiao Zhan laughs, softly. “You all right there?”

Yibo just groans, still trying to get his breath back. His pulse is pounding in his ears, sweat running down his face and back.

“Hey, don’t fall asleep on me,” Xiao Zhan says, and shifts under him, wriggling his shoulders. “I know you’re an old man now, Lao Wang.”

Yibo gets it together enough to move off him, falling gracelessly to the side. Their legs are still tangled up, and Xiao Zhan gives him a fond smile as he pulls his ankle free.

“Well,” he says. “I guess it’s in character for you to pass out after. That’s what Jin Yi does, anyway. You’re really becoming a method actor, huh?”

It’s unfair how composed Xiao Zhan looks now, making his little jokes. He’s talking about their characters again, reminding Yibo of his fears from before, that maybe this whole thing was just an acting exercise taken to the extreme.

Yibo is exhausted but he pushes himself up, catching Xiao Zhan’s mouth in a rough, messy kiss, teeth knocking together. After a moment of surprise Xiao Zhan kisses him back hard, his hand firm on Yibo’s jaw. For a single brief breath Yibo doesn’t have any doubts at all about how Xiao Zhan feels, and then he pulls away again.

“I’m gonna go shower,” Xiao Zhan says, and bites his lip. His eyes are big and starry, and he lingers before breaking into a smile, making his eyes crinkle up instead. It’s his megawatt celebrity smile, and it’s hard to know if he really means it or if it’s just that charm he can turn on whenever he wants. “You can nap for a while, like I promised.”

Then he’s gone, and Yibo’s left wondering what for a while means as he lies back down, feeling the cool air that rushes to fill Xiao Zhan’s absence.

It takes an enormous effort to move, like he’s suspended in honey, but Yibo does, rolling over to strip off the condom and toss it in the trash. He takes a few swipes at cleaning himself up with tissue, and then gives up, lying still on his back with a tingling lassitude sweeping through him. The shower starts and he shuts his eyes, thinking of Xiao Zhan alone in there. Touching his body, maybe thinking about what just happened between them.

He has to tell Xiao Zhan how he feels, Yibo thinks, even as sleep crowds in, gentle lapping inexorable waves. As soon as he wakes up. Somehow he’ll know the right words then, or have the courage to push through without them. The way Xiao Zhan kissed him, the way he said his name—this has to be real for him too.

Yibo drifts off, the darkness dropping heavy over him, and when he wakes up the room is warm and full of light and Xiao Zhan is gone.

 


 

He shouldn’t have left without saying anything, Xiao Zhan knows. He shouldn’t have let Yibo stay the night either, though, and it feels like the two things balance each other out, both wrong in different ways, drawing too close and pulling back too far.

And besides, Yibo’s the one who’s kept leaving every time before.

It’s just the movie, Xiao Zhan thinks, as he’s driven to the set through the early summer morning, staring down at a script without really seeing it. He’s getting himself in too deep here, mingling his character’s emotions with his own, and it keeps spilling over while Yibo stays so calm and professional. Last night it was easy to make it a game, acting like their scene was still happening, but he couldn’t keep pretending to be Lingxuan once they really started and he knows Yibo could tell.

Xiao Zhan feels his face burn, remembering Yibo’s silence after, while he kept talking about anything that came into his head to ease the moment. Yibo clearly kissed him just to make him stop, but Xiao Zhan couldn’t even do that right, feeling a hot rush of emotion once their mouths were pressed together. He ran for the shower instead and took too long in there, and when he came out he was both relieved and disappointed to find that Yibo had already fallen asleep.

Yibo really must have been exhausted, though. He slept through Xiao Zhan ordering dinner, and being covered with the blankets, and finally the whole night through, without hardly moving at all. Xiao Zhan hesitated one more time this morning, wondering if he should wake Yibo up, but he lost his nerve at the end and went downstairs to catch the shuttle to set.

Sorry about leaving, there’s breakfast on the cart, he texted in the elevator, but Yibo hasn’t answered yet. For an anxious moment, Xiao Zhan hopes there’s nothing wrong with Yibo, both for his own sake and also because sending someone to check on him when he’s naked and sleeping in his costar’s room is about the worst thing Xiao Zhan can imagine doing.

Or maybe not; Xiao Zhan’s sleeping with his costar too, after all.

Xiao Zhan drops the script in his lap and leans wearily against the window. He has to admit that for him it’s more than just sleeping together now, and that’s the whole problem. Those old, faded feelings he’s hung onto for so long have flared to life again, stronger than ever, and this time they’re simpler to understand: he wants Yibo, in every possible way. It’s something so close to love it would only take a breath to be there, and that nearness scares him, makes him worry about what he might do. It’s the first time in his life that he’s really understood the riotous, uncontrolled emotions he mimics in the love stories he plays—the first time he’s ever seen how easy it could be to send your life up in flames because of someone else.

If this is real love, it’s the worst possible timing. They still have another third of the movie to film, not to mention promotions and publicity and everything else connected with a big project. There will be so many questions in the interviews, teasing and probing, and this time Xiao Zhan will really have something to hide. Back then it only took a little effort to make a summer’s fling into something ordinary, easily put in the back of his mind, but now that he knows more about his own feelings he doesn’t know how he can face it. Pretending this is just a job, pretending he won’t mind when it all inevitably ends.

Because it will end, he knows. Last time, Yibo made it clear to him how it has to be, no different from Xiao Zhan’s own dalliances in college. He’s had a few more since then, always the same—no strings or expectations, no attachment once it’s over. Just because his feelings for Yibo are more powerful and obvious to himself doesn’t change the rules of the game.

It’s the movie, Xiao Zhan repeats. Once he’s gotten some distance from all this, the bright lake and close feelings, the intimate story they’re building together, everything will feel less tangled and more clear.

On set, he heads into wardrobe, changing into the clothes he’s worn over the last few days of filming. This is the walk of shame scene, quietly slipping into his sister’s house after dawn, and he can’t help thinking about Yibo back at the hotel. Probably no one will notice, or they won’t think anything of it, since Yibo’s shirt and jeans aren’t distinctive enough to recognize if he wears them again. Last night wasn’t as important to anyone but them, and it will smooth itself over soon enough.

Xiao Zhan keeps thinking about it, though, all through the tense little scene he films with Wu Fan in the sunlit kitchen, their characters talking around the things they really mean. It helps, honestly, having those lurid flashbacks to last night; the vague embarrassment, the dread of anyone knowing. He holds an image of Yibo’s sleeping, naked body, lean and loose, and tells himself it’s Jin Yi in his memory who’s eliciting these tender feelings.

We’re seeing too much emotion on your face, Director Zhou told him yesterday, and Xiao Zhan burned to think of Yibo hearing that. Maybe he knew what that meant, guessed at how blurred the lines have gotten for Xiao Zhan, and maybe it’s why he wanted it to be a game last night, talking about their characters instead of themselves.

It’s hard to say, because Xiao Zhan can’t read Yibo like he used to, with five years of distance between them. He still can’t get over how much quieter and more mature Yibo is. Even when they’re play-fighting or teasing it takes a while for Yibo to warm up, like he’s holding himself back. It would be easier if Yibo was still that same high energy kid that Xiao Zhan remembers, always up in his face and easy to swat down from his position of being older. Now Xiao Zhan’s the one who’s struggling to stay calm, with these overflowing feelings he’s ashamed he can’t hide as well as he wants. This whole thing is burning wildly beyond his control.

“Xiao-xiansheng,” someone is saying, impatient like it’s the third or fourth time, and Xiao Zhan realizes he’s been wandering while the makeup artist is trying to do something to his face.

“Sorry,” he says, turning immediately and lifting his chin. The worst thing he can imagine, really, is to let this interfere with their work.

“Did you sleep enough, Zhan-ge?” Wu Fan asks from behind the stylist. “You look pretty pale.”

“I slept OK,” he says.

She makes a face at him. “Let’s see if we can get this on the next take.”

“Sorry, da-jie,” he says, and she makes more of a face. She’s only a year older than him and doesn’t like being reminded of it.

They do manage to nail the next take, and then Xiao Zhan heads upstairs with a small crew to film his shower scene. He and Director Zhou went back and forth with this, debating the merits of whether he should be shown fully nude, matching his character’s vulnerability, and finally decided on a brief shot from behind.

It’s a little awkward, getting his chest and back brushed with body makeup to cover any blemishes, and then a stylist kneels down to help him adjust the modesty pouch. It won’t show on camera but it makes him feel better having at least that part of himself covered, even if it’s only with a little flesh-colored bag.

The scene feels good, despite his nerves. Xiao Zhan starts the water and gets in, bracing his hands on the wall and dropping his head beneath the spray. The camera lingers on his face from the side, and in the final film they’ll cut in a quick ripple of flashback memories from the previous night, almost too fast to be seen. He shakes his head, tensing his jaw, which seems like a simple expression but still requires several takes until he does it the way Director Zhou wants.

“Put it behind you,” Director Zhou says. “You’re washing it all away. Getting your head on straight again.”

Not for long, Xiao Zhan thinks, and he means both the movie and real life. Everything spirals more wildly for Lingxuan from here on out, and while Xiao Zhan doesn’t have any hope of the same happy ending, he does have that feeling of being untethered in his own life, like he doesn’t know what’s coming next. Last night meant a lot to him, too much.

Finally he gets the close-up right, and then the camera shifts behind him for the full body shot. In a way, Xiao Zhan feels like it would be easier to do this if he could see who was watching him, but now he has no choice but to fall deeper into his character, trying to hold onto his sense of himself even as everything around him breaks apart.

“Good,” Director Zhou says. “I like it. Somebody get him a towel.”

Xiao Zhan has his composure back by the time he turns around, reaching for the big bath sheet someone hands him and wrapping it around his waist. Liao Ping the camera operator makes a joke to him as he steps out into the hall, and by the time Xiao Zhan’s getting dried off and cleaned up in wardrobe he feels better, a morning’s work well done. If nothing else, he knows he’s doing his job.

He grabs a light lunch and then wanders out back, closer to the lake where there are some scattered lawn chairs.. The schedule had this down as a pretty light day, and he’s surprised when Chao Xiuli takes a seat next to where he’s relaxing in the sun and asks, “How would you feel about starting the hiking scene this afternoon?”

Xiao Zhan frowns, behind his sunglasses. He’s leaning back on a chaise lounge, suffused with warmth from the sun, and he was looking forward to a swim and a nap back at the hotel. “Now? Isn’t that a location shoot?”

“We have to do wardrobe fittings first, and then we can shoot the setup scene in the car on the driveway,” Chao Xiuli says. “Since Wang Yibo is here, it seems like we should take advantage of the time, maybe get ahead of schedule.”

“Wang Yibo is here?” Xiao Zhan asks, sitting up. He lifts his sunglasses and turns over his shoulder, and back on the patio in front of the house he sees Yibo, leaning against the craft table with his hands in his pockets, talking to one of the sound guys and scuffling at the gravel with his foot.

“He’s not scheduled to be here, but he is,” Chao Xiuli says, sounding harassed. She repeats, “So it seems like we should take advantage of the time.”

“Sure,” Xiao Zhan says, quickly. He glances at Yibo once more and then back at her. “You’re right, getting ahead of schedule would be great.”

“Good,” she says, sounding a little relieved. “I’ll tell him to get into wardrobe.” She nods at him. “You should too.”

Xiao Zhan takes his time gathering his things, but for all that he’s still the first one in the wardrobe trailer. He’s met by a stylist who’s working off a long list on her phone, and together they start going through some of the racks of clothing, trying to find things that match. His attention is split, though, listening for the door behind them, and when it finally opens he jerks his head around to see Yibo walk in with Director Zhou.

“Zhanzhan,” Director Zhou calls out to him, singsong in his gruff voice. He grins, under that ever-present red ball cap. “We’ve been watching your nude scene.”

Xiao Zhan feels his face go hot. He can’t help glancing at Yibo, too quickly for their eyes to meet. “Yeah? Does my butt look big?”

Director Zhou gives a high spirited slap to Yibo’s shoulder, grasping it. “It looks great. Right, Yibo?”

Now Xiao Zhan has to look at Yibo for real. Yibo widens his eyes, fake and over the top, and gives a big thumbs up. “Super great. Like, wow. Too handsome.”

Director Zhou laughs, deep and resonant. “There’s the Wang Yibo I used to hear about. You were a fun guy, right? Now you’re so serious.” He turns to Xiao Zhan and winks. “Maybe you should do more nude scenes, get him to loosen up.”

Before Xiao Zhan can answer, the director turns and makes a beeline for the pile of clothes the stylist has pulled out, shaking his head. Xiao Zhan’s left with no choice but to talk to Yibo.

He takes a breath, trying to act normal. They’re at work, and they need to be professional. Yibo’s managed that so far; Xiao Zhan is the one who needs to get his wild emotions under control.

“I can’t believe he made you look at—” he starts, cheerfully.

“You left,” Yibo says.

Xiao Zhan stops, his mouth still partway open. Yibo sounds serious, not angry but hurt, and it’s totally unexpected.

“Sorry,” he says, belated.

Yibo just looks at him, like he’s waiting for more.

“Uh,” Xiao Zhan says. “You really slept forever, even me getting dinner didn’t wake you up. You must have been exhausted.”

For a moment he’s tempted to make a suggestive face, turning this into a light hearted joke about the sex wearing Yibo out, but that feels like something he would have done years ago. Now Yibo’s still looking at him intently, and Xiao Zhan can see he has dark circles under his eyes, as if those hours and hours of sleep weren’t enough. He gets the urge to reach out and stroke Yibo’s face, and he even lifts his hand a little before he stops himself.

“How are you feeling today?” he asks instead, and it comes out quieter than he intended, just between them.

“Better,” Yibo says, but there’s a reserve in his voice, like that’s not the whole truth.

“You still look tired,” Xiao Zhan says, and then he finds himself adding, “Tonight—you should—”

“Zhanzhan, come look at this,” Director Zhou says from behind him, a command, and Xiao Zhan turns to see him holding up a white t-shirt with a band logo on it and a pair of loose belted khakis. “And Yibo, she has some things for you,” he says, pointing to the stylist with her arms full of various shirts in bright tropical prints.

Xiao Zhan looks back at Yibo, expecting to see that curious, intense expression gone as they move into work mode, but Yibo’s head is still tipped toward him, looking up from under his brows like he’s waiting for an answer.

“Come on,” Xiao Zhan says, taking hold of Yibo’s upper arm and walking with him towards the back of the trailer. He leans in close and murmurs, “You should spend the night with me again” in Yibo’s ear before releasing him and moving away.

“Genesis?” he says to Director Zhou, raising his voice, switching gears. “No way, Lingxuan would be a Peter Gabriel fan.”

They argue over wardrobe choices until Chao Xiuli pokes her head in, looking tight and stressed, and points out they’re losing daylight.

Styling goes quickly after that, and they find themselves bundled into baggy t-shirts and sneakers, heading out to the ancient Mercedes parked in the driveway while flipping quickly through marked scripts. Xiao Zhan walks directly behind Yibo, and he can’t help grinning at the way Yibo’s hair bounces, blown out into that fluffy shag again.

He reaches up to tug on a lock of Yibo’s hair as they get to the car, and Yibo whips around to look at him, surprised. Xiao Zhan just grins back, feeling a buoyant happiness. It’s really relief, he realizes; knowing that Yibo missed him when he was gone, that he wants to spend more time together. That Xiao Zhan hasn’t messed this all up.

“So soft,” Xiao Zhan says, fluffing out the ends of Yibo’s hair with his fingertips. “You should wear it like this all the time, Lao Wang.”

Yibo shakes his hair back, moving his head out of Xiao Zhan’s reach. “I’m not taking style advice from you.”

He gets in the car on the driver’s side and they sit there for a while, going over the scripts while the sound guy wires hidden microphones all around them. A stylist leans in to dab more lipstick onto Yibo’s mouth with a swab, then comes around to smooth out Xiao Zhan’s foundation. That effervescent feeling keeps rising—getting to be in the middle of all this, with exciting work ahead of him and Yibo right here.

Once the scene starts he has to tamp it down, getting into his character’s mindset instead. This is something new, the two of them going out together deliberately and alone. Director Zhou leans through the rolled-down window on Xiao Zhan’s side, speaking to them both.

“You’re both excited, but you’re playing it cool.” He points to Yibo. “You’re taking him somewhere special, your secret place in the woods. You’ve never taken anyone there before.” He points to Xiao Zhan. “You still don’t think you deserve normal things, like going on a date with the guy you’re sleeping with. You’re short and snappy with him, like he’s going to figure you out.”

He drums both hands on the window frame, straightening up and calling to the camera operator. They walk off together, discussing something technical.

Yibo turns to Xiao Zhan, making a face. “Man, Jin Yi’s really a kid. His idea of a romantic date is hiking to some place in the woods?”

Xiao Zhan puts his elbow on door, resting his head on his hand and lifting his chin. “What’s your idea of a good date then?”

Yibo shrugs, expressionless. “I don’t know. I haven’t really been on any.”

“Still?” Xiao Zhan says, frowning, and then he thinks more about what Yibo said. Does he mean that he hasn’t dated anyone at all, or just that they never go out? “Well, the girls you date should be treating you better.”

He speaks carefully, because their words are getting picked up by the hidden microphones. Yibo just gives him a long look, eyes heavily lidded, with a brief, disdainful lift of his brows. Not girls, he means, plainly.

Now Xiao Zhan’s imagining him with a series of faceless men, hooking up in hotels and dressing rooms. Or worse—his face grows hot as he thinks of Yibo with a secret lover, coming home to tender kisses and weekends spent in bed, too hungry for each other to bother going out. For a moment he feels sick with jealousy, even as he discards the thought. That’s not how these things work, which is why it ended between them the first time.

“What about you?” Yibo asks. “I bet you’re great at dates, right? Mr. Rose Only.”

“Well,” Xiao Zhan says. “I don’t really go on them either these days. But once I made—”

“A five course meal for your college girlfriend for the Lantern Festival,” Yibo says, rolling his eyes. “I remember, you kept bragging about it in Hengdian.”

Xiao Zhan frowns. He doesn’t even remember telling that story back then, let alone bragging about it more than once, but it seems like it stuck with Yibo. And this is the first time either of them have openly mentioned that summer.

“We’re set,” someone says over the bullhorn, and they both look away, glancing over their scripts one more time before pushing them out of sight.

It’s a short scene but it still needs a few takes, with the complexity of the sound setup. They exchange their few lines of dialogue, punctuated by silent glances and references to the last few nights that Lingxuan has spent at the house, slipping out before sunrise every time.

Yibo can’t get his last line right, and after a couple of tries it turns into a self-fulfilling joke, the way he says the wrong word every time. Xiao Zhan’s tempted to turn it into a bigger joke, making fun of Yibo or trying to get him to mess up on purpose, but he’s spent too many years in the business now and he’s too aware that he’d be wasting everyone’s time and money.

Still, he can’t resist making a comical face of relief once Yibo finally nails the line, rolling his eyes and waggling his head off camera. Yibo shoots him a dirty look once they cut, narrowing his eyes.

“Finally,” Xiao Zhan says, with an exaggerated sigh. “I thought we’d be here all day. Aren’t you the one who’s tired?”

Yibo just looks at him, but his answer is interrupted by the stylist at the window behind him, wanting to get him back into wardrobe before they wrap for the day.

Xiao Zhan is getting used to these silent rides back to the hotel, tense but peaceful. Today they’re in the back of a car together again, more quiet and comfortable than the shuttle bus, and he’s not sure who moved first but they’re holding hands like last time, loose and warm, looking in opposite directions out the windows. Xiao Zhan’s got the forest on his side, but the sun is setting over the lake on Yibo’s side and when he glances over he sees it illuminating Yibo’s profile, closed eyes and slightly parted lips, making his skin look like gold.

Yibo’s beautiful, and Xiao Zhan cares about him so much. Something slides into place, and Xiao Zhan feels himself soften all over, as if a heavy burden he’s been holding onto has left his body at last. It’s replaced by a suffused glow, beneficent and deep, all-encompassing. This feels like holding something precious, a gorgeous mystery he wants to share, whispering it in Yibo’s ear. It’s a gift, just to feel this much tenderness for another person.

He squeezes Yibo’s hand and Yibo smiles, squeezing back without opening his eyes.

It’s still light out when they get back to Xiao Zhan’s hotel room. He strips off his shirt and Yibo does the same. They shower together, arms brushing, washing each other’s hair and backs, and they don’t kiss until the very end, just holding each other under the water.

They towel off and then Yibo follows him to bed. Their bodies are warm and damp against the cool sheets, and when Yibo moves in close it’s like he’s a part of Xiao Zhan’s own body, a shared drowsy pleasure.

“I thought you were tired,” Xiao Zhan murmurs against Yibo’s mouth, fingers gliding along his side, tracing the lingering water drops there.

Yibo just kisses him, catching Xiao Zhan’s lips with his own, soft and full. Xiao Zhan reaches up and buries his hand in the wet thickness of Yibo’s hair, holding him there, head tilted at an angle to devour his mouth. Yibo slides his knee over Xiao Zhan’s hip, pressing in with the tender rocking heat of his rising erection.

Every time they do this, the years seem like nothing, like they’re just picking up a conversation they were having in their old life together. Xiao Zhan can’t get over how natural it feels, to be so close. Like he was distracted back then, trying to keep afloat through everything life was throwing at him, and now there’s only this, clear and true. Like Yibo’s been here all the time.

He doesn’t care if it’s an illusion, or one-sided, or just for a little while, as Yibo pushes him onto his back and kisses down his chest. Maybe it’s the roles they’re playing, or his own deluded hopes. He just wants to feel this way, once.

“Oh yeah—please, please,” Xiao Zhan gasps, getting up to his elbows as Yibo swallows him down. His face flushes to hear himself so unguarded, hoping it’s not too much. It feels like they’re dancing the same rhythm here, caught in the same heavy haze of desire.

Yibo’s hands hook under his thighs, spreading them. Xiao Zhan groans, tipping his head back, and lets Yibo pull him in, relishing the heat of his mouth and his wandering fingers. Yibo moves away, kissing lower down, and it’s like a stroke of pure electricity to feel his tongue in that intimate place, wet and warm.

“Oh fuck,” Xiao Zhan breathes, flinging his arm over his eyes. He’s done this before, but they haven’t together, and it’s just one of the many things he doesn’t know about Yibo, what he’s done and what he likes. He reaches down to clutch at Yibo’s shoulder, trying to tell him—what? How much this is for him, or maybe just not to stop. Never to stop.

Yibo takes his time, and he never did that before either. He was so eager for pleasure then, for life. Now Xiao Zhan can hear him breathing hard, but he licks so steadily, pulsing against him, moving in deeper. His thumbs stroke Xiao Zhan’s inner thighs where he’s holding him up, and he moans a little every time he takes a quick swallow, like he can’t bear to lose touch. After a while Yibo slips his finger in, thick and blunt, pushing through the slickness he’s made. Xiao Zhan groans and squeezes Yibo’s shoulder, toes curling against the sheets. Yibo kisses him everywhere, gentle against his delicate skin, breathy and soft, before leaning up to take his cock in his mouth again.

It’s so fucking good that Xiao Zhan’s back arches involuntarily and his mouth opens on a cry that he bites down, teeth snapping shut. Yibo’s hot wet mouth on him, and that wide, insistent finger curling up, seeking, until—

Fuck,” Xiao Zhan says, the word torn out of him, as Yibo rubs him quick and merciless. “Oh fuck, I can’t, I can’t—” He loses the rest of his words on an incoherent moan, his whole body contracting, hips rising to the ceiling and his heels pressing down. He smacks Yibo’s shoulder without meaning to, gasping, “Don’t...”

Yibo eases up right away, his hand going still. Xiao Zhan opens his eyes to see Yibo looking up at him with his mouth full, eyes serious and concerned beneath his lashes.

“Sorry,” Xiao Zhan pants, hand closing on Yibo’s shoulder convulsively. He laughs, though it sounds hollow to him, desperate. “Just—slower. I like it slower. Fast is too much.”

He doesn’t say everything we do is too much, but it’s true, even as Yibo begins to touch him again at a gentler pace.

It was good between them years ago, first because it was daring and new, an open dirty secret, and then because it was intertwined with the work they were doing, part of the magic of that summer. This is so much more. There’s magic and work here too, but Xiao Zhan knows what he has with Yibo, and what he can lose. When it ends, he won’t be able to tell himself he’ll find something like this ever again.

So he makes himself keep his eyes open, getting up to one elbow with his other hand buried in Yibo’s hair. He treasures the curve of Yibo’s head cradled in his palm, his thumb along Yibo’s open jaw, and the hot pleasure Yibo is giving him with his slick and lovely mouth, his careful, determined touch. The wet sounds as Yibo moves, swallowing, and the feeling of being pressed beneath him, consumed by him.

It’s not the movie. It’s them, and for a moment Xiao Zhan can’t pretend it’s anything else.

“Yibo,” he whispers, the name falling from his lips, and when Yibo opens his eyes and looks up it’s Iike someone turned the lights on everywhere, flooding Xiao Zhan with heat. He’s coming, he realizes, as the tingling waves pass through him, but it feels like something else, his ears ringing and his temples pounding, vision gone hot and blurry. Xiao Zhan gasps for breath, fingers closing tight in Yibo’s hair, and watches him swallow, watches him stay.

It’s not quite over when Yibo lets him go, but it doesn’t matter because Xiao Zhan’s hauling Yibo up, kissing his swollen lips, cradling him between his legs. A frantic, possessive feeling races through him as he licks the bitter salt out of Yibo’s mouth, tugging at his hair with both hands. Yibo groans, loud and desperate, and grinds against his hip, cock so thick and hard it’s painful. Xiao Zhan doesn’t care, light-headed with this urgent, breathless need, like they’re trying to climb inside each other.

“On me,” he gasps between kisses. His hand slaps against Yibo’s ass, clutching him, pulling him closer. Yibo’s mouthing over his lips, his jaw, wet and sharp, gasping as he kisses and licks. He grinds down again, rocking beneath Xiao Zhan’s hand, and bites his neck, hard enough that Xiao Zhan cries out, nails digging in.

They both go still, urgency cooled by the sudden, sharp reality of their roughness. Xiao Zhan loosens his grip, stroking instead, and Yibo kisses his neck, softer. They find each other’s mouths and their kiss is softer too, sweet and open, tongues meeting. He can hear Yibo’s heavy breathing, feel the quick rise and fall of his chest and the need that’s still pulsing through him, but they just kiss like this, like there’s nothing else in the world.

“Come here,” Xiao Zhan murmurs at last, and pulls them over onto their sides, his hand sliding down to wrap around Yibo’s thick length. At his touch, Yibo moans against his mouth, curling a hand around the back of his neck, hips rocking up. Xiao Zhan holds him steady, and it happens that way, with his fingers around Yibo’s cock and the wet head sliding through his fist, kissing deep and tender all the while.

It’s not long before Yibo is shaking in his arms, hot pulses spilling over his hand. Yibo groans low in his throat, his hand tight on Xiao Zhan’s neck, and then sags against him, panting, the air between them charged and close.

Xiao Zhan lets go, carefully, and rests his bare, damp hand on Yibo’s hip. It feels like they both need a shower again, even though their hair is still wet from before, but he can’t bring himself to move. It’s too perfect, this moment; lying in each other’s arms with pleasure still humming through them, nothing to do but close their eyes and sink into a quiet, wordless understanding.

This is making love, Xiao Zhan thinks, dazed. It’s not that he’s never felt this way before, he’s just never given it a name. Never let himself think of it like that. Never known the truth.

Yibo is stroking his hair, brushing their noses together. It’s fond and intimate, and Xiao Zhan wants so, so much to believe that this is real, that this time it will last.

He opens his mouth, feeling the reckless pressure of a confession in his throat, but it stops there, choking him. The stakes are so high, everything on the line. The project, their lives. He could be reading this wrong, or pushing it too soon. Because if Yibo hasn’t changed his mind—if it all ends tonight—

Xiao Zhan swallows, hard, feeling rising panic. The words ease off, their urgency fading. He has to be happy with what he has right now. He can’t ask for more.

He swallows again, easier this time, settling down. “You should sleep,” he murmurs, and it’s full of the tenderness he almost said.

After a pause, Yibo moves back, enough for their eyes to meet. He gazes at Xiao Zhan for a long moment and Xiao Zhan forgets to breathe, wondering what Yibo sees. If it’s all there on his face as plainly as it feels.

“Wake me up for dinner this time,” Yibo says at last, his voice husky.

Xiao Zhan nods. Emotions are flooding through him, relief mingled with disappointment; they’ve veered away at the last second, but this doesn’t have to end here. There’s still the promise of another night.

He’s taken risks before, often. He just can’t bear to do it now, or maybe everything they’re doing is a risk, his whole heart on the line every time they touch.

“I will,” Xiao Zhan says, and it could be an answer to anything.

 


 

Yibo makes himself focus on the work again.

Work is why he didn’t take his chance, even with the way Xiao Zhan was staring at him the other night. Yibo felt it then, that certainty of something more between them, but he felt Xiao Zhan’s reluctance too, how there was some line he just couldn’t cross. He gave Xiao Zhan the out he clearly wanted, and they haven’t come so near since, like it’s a raw hurt they’re both avoiding.

Maybe it’s the movie. Maybe Xiao Zhan doesn’t want to mess up their acting chemistry, or worse, maybe this is the chemistry, something they’re just taking too far. Either way, Yibo thinks, the project is too important to gamble on whatever’s happening with them.

They film the hiking scene, out in the woods north of the lake. It’s hot and buggy, unromantic, and their period-short shorts keep riding up, bunching between their legs and exposing their tan lines. A stylist has to put foundation on their thighs to match, and they sit in chairs side by side, laughing at each other as she does it to ease the awkwardness.

“You’re paler,” Yibo says, which isn’t true. Xiao Zhan always tans so easily. “Such a civilized gentleman.”

“You finally have some leg hair,” Xiao Zhan answers, letting out a brief laugh as the stylist sponges over the inside of his knee. “You really have grown up, Lao Wang.”

Yibo scowls, digging the toe of his hiking boot into the dirt. They both know his legs look almost exactly the same, even he has more hair than Xiao Zhan gives him credit for.

“And chest hair,” Xiao Zhan goes on, singsong. “And hair down—”

“Shut up,” Yibo says, shoving him. “Worry about your own hair.”

There aren’t any behind the scenes cameras on this production, probably because it’s small and wouldn’t be Director Zhou’s style, but Xiao Zhan changes so much whenever they’re around other people. Alone in bed he’s tender and serious, but here his banter verges on the outrageous, calling back to old jokes from their first days together, like this is just how they are. Sometimes Yibo can’t keep up with him, can’t remember who he’s supposed to be. He’s not that person anymore, whoever Xiao Zhan is remembering. It feels like it was always an act anyways, trying to be someone Xiao Zhan wanted to be around.

Teasing and playful fighting was the only way he felt like he had Xiao Zhan back then. There was something about the public nature of it, the way they belonged to each other, that felt even more important than the quick, good-natured times they had in bed. He wanted people to see the claim he had, the way they mattered to each other, how he could always get Xiao Zhan to pay attention to him. The way it made Yibo feel special.

He doesn’t care about any of that now. He just wants what he almost has, the real Xiao Zhan.

It’s easy to channel all that into their scene, even though their characters are totally different than themselves. Lingxuan is quiet and withdrawn, still carrying the pain of his personal loss, and Jin Yi talks a lot to make up for it, trying to surprise him into laughter or just answering back. Yibo rattles off his lines, putting that same old yearning underneath his voice and expression. Look at me. I’m right here.

They film the last part of the scene in Jin Yi’s “secret place,” a dark little enclosure under an old fallen log that they have to crawl into. There’s a long break while Director Zhou and the crew work out exactly how to film and light it, and Yibo and Xiao Zhan just sit there in the middle of the bustle, shoulder to shoulder with their knees drawn up.

It smells good under here, rich and earthy, even as the dampness of the forest ground cover seeps into Yibo’s shorts. Xiao Zhan tips his head back against the cool stone of the boulder they’re leaning on, closing his eyes with a sigh. Yibo watches him, waiting for the teasing banter to start again, but Xiao Zhan just breathes slow and deep, like he’s enjoying the quiet.

Everything blurs together, the way they used to be and the way they are now, all the stories they’ve acted out. It feels like it always comes back to this, over and over, Yibo watching Xiao Zhan and waiting for something to change. It’s the only thing in his life he hasn’t gone after with his whole heart.

“Zhan-ge,” Yibo says.

Xiao Zhan opens his eyes, and Yibo doesn’t even know what he’s going to say next, only that he needs Xiao Zhan to be looking back at him.

“We’re ready,” someone says, nearby.

Xiao Zhan smiles, soft and radiant, a smile that makes Yibo almost forget to breathe. He touches Yibo’s hand, down in the dirt, and then glances away. “Let’s get started.”

This scene is delicate, filmed in close-up with the camera right in front of them. Every blink and swallow is choreographed and meaningful, and Yibo feels like he’s holding his breath for all of it, his chest so tight it’s painful. Maybe it was a mistake to let things get so intense with Xiao Zhan, to bring all that on set. Every time the camera focuses back on him it feels like they’ll see it’s not really acting, that he’s living these emotions as surely as Jin Yi is.

But no. It would be worse for this to be pretend, just a ghost from the past dredged up and brought to false life. He was living it then and he’s living it now, and he doesn’t care if that means he’s not a real actor. He knows how good this is going to be.

Director Zhou crouches down, peering into their hollow. He looks hot, sweat breaking out at his hairline under his cap and rolling down the sides of his face, and he squints at the darkness. “This is good,” he says. “Really good. Zhanzhan, let’s just try that last take again, because I need it to be more subtle—he’s talking about a future together, and you want it but you won’t let yourself have it.”

He turns to Yibo. “Run your lines again for him? We’ll loop in the original audio but I want his reaction as you’re talking.”

Yibo draws in a breath, preparing himself, and when they’re set, he says his lines again to the back of Xiao Zhan’s head.

“We could go anywhere,” he says, low. “I have my money now. They can’t stop us. A-Xuan, we can be together.”

He wishes so much he could see what everyone else is getting to see, Xiao Zhan’s face as Yibo says his lines. It makes him feel Jin Yi’s anxiety, having to put himself out there without an answer. His voice cracks as he speaks again.

“Think about it,” he says, and he feels a rising desperation, at the silence and the not knowing. “You and me—we could do anything we want.”

Xiao Zhan moves suddenly, looking back at him. It’s what he’s supposed to do, but not in this shot, and it makes Yibo’s heart jump, seeing him. Xiao Zhan’s eyes are wide, tears spilling down, and he breathes hard through parted lips. All Yibo can do is stare back, his mind gone blank, feeling caught, stunned.

“Cut,” he hears from outside, and then, “Xiao Zhan, let us get the camera set up before you turn, we can’t see you from this angle.”

Xiao Zhan looks away, jerking his head to face forward, and Yibo can see how fast he’s still breathing, shoulders rising and falling as he holds character. Yibo can’t stop staring, even as the camera operator crawls in from the side and Yibo has to lean back to make space, letting him film Xiao Zhan turning around again. It looks the same the second time, because Xiao Zhan is so good at his job, and it feels like only Yibo will ever know about the first take, the one that felt real.

He has to collect himself to finish the scene, the final shot where they just stare at each other without speaking. Now he’s more used to it, Xiao Zhan with tears on his face and that pleading, helpless expression, but Yibo still draws on the shock of a few minutes ago, trying to give Jin Yi the same sense of electric hope he just had. After a long minute, Xiao Zhan says, hoarsely, “We should go.”

“Cut,” Director Zhou says, and Yibo’s surprised when Xiao Zhan immediately leans forward, getting onto his hands and knees to crawl out of the overhang. He expected they would take a minute, getting back to their real selves, letting the stinging intimacy of what they just acted out fade together, and it makes him feel strangely adrift, breaking character on his own.

He’s always been good at that, though, and after a few deep breaths Yibo pushes his hair back from his temples and goes back out into the real world.

People are clustered around the monitor, watching the footage. Xiao Zhan’s attitude is totally different from a minute ago, standing with his hand on his hip as he peers down. He’s wiped away the tears, and now he looks serious and professional, nodding and saying something to the director of photography. Yibo keeps forgetting he’s a producer on the film too, with some say in how it goes.

Yibo wanders over to an empty chair and sits, wishing he had his phone. For the most part he likes this being a small production, but sometimes he misses the perks of a bigger one, like having a dedicated PA all the time. There are some water bottles in a cooler by his feet and he grabs one, cracking it open and tipping his head back for a long swallow.

When he looks up, Xiao Zhan is watching him from across the clearing. It’s late afternoon, the sun sinking low and golden through the trees, and even in the middle of all these people, a busy working set, Xiao Zhan glows like the sunlight was made just for him.

And he’s looking at Yibo.

They don’t talk about the scene, back at the hotel. Yibo wondered if they would, playing more of the game where this is about their characters, but Xiao Zhan just pulls him into the shower and they jerk each other off there, easy and warm, kissing under the spray. After, Xiao Zhan asks, “What do you want for dinner?” and proceeds to order his own favorite dishes, and then they crash out on the bed watching some action drama Yibo’s too tired to follow.

He makes himself get up, instead of falling asleep here, and Xiao Zhan doesn’t kiss him goodbye. Not that Yibo expected him to, but something in the way Xiao Zhan looked at him made it feel like maybe he would.

Yibo gets the next day off, and he doesn’t waste it. Sleep, games, laps in the pool, some work calls. He has a life outside of this, apart from Xiao Zhan. He tries to remember that.

Still, when Xiao Zhan texts him, Yibo comes over.

When he gets to the set the following afternoon he’s happy to put on his baggy swim trunks and dive off the dock into the cool water, joining Xiao Zhan and the little girls. They’re identical twins and Yibo can’t tell them apart, but Xiao Zhan seems to be having a blast with them. There’s a serious splash war going on, and after a while Yibo is content to haul himself back onto the dock and just watch.

It’s cute, to be honest. The girls gang up on Xiao Zhan, and one of them climbs on his back, hanging off his neck, while the other splashes as hard as she can.

“Cheater!” Xiao Zhan howls, staggering around. “You rotten little cheats!”

The girls shriek with laughter, especially when he leans to the side and shakes off the one on his back, and then he ducks beneath the water before exploding back up with a huge splash and a roar that makes the girls scream.

“It’s a monster!” one girl squeals. “Get him!”

They team up to tackle him, and Yibo just grins as he watches all three go under again. For a little while, he’s perfectly happy; the hot day, the cool water, Xiao Zhan being so charming and funny just for the sake of these little kids, and how much fun they’re all having. It’s the kind of moment he wants to hold onto forever, so different from the tedious bustle of his usual projects, or the few exhausted reprieves he gets. It’s good to just exist right now.

When they finally start filming, the scene isn’t all that different, but the vibe is something else entirely. The girls are more demanding, their shrieks higher-pitched, and Yibo has to admit they’re good little actors. Meanwhile Xiao Zhan is fully in character, stiff and reluctant with them, pedantic as he points out the colors of the ocean and sky with an artist’s eye. One of the girls dumps a bucket of water over his head, and Yibo’s laughter in the first take is entirely natural, the way Xiao Zhan recoils in shock like no one’s ever taken such liberties with him before.

They finish the girls’ portion, and Xiao Zhan bends down and pulls them into a big bear hug before they go, slyly yanking their ponytails.

“I’ll see you at the wrap party,” he promises, crouching down to get eye to eye with them, because they don’t have any more scenes for the rest of the movie. The weeks have passed so quickly, their time running down.

Yibo enjoys the rest of the scene, partly because Xiao Zhan has to tackle him into the lake and kiss him, after his character looks around surreptitiously first to make sure no one’s watching. He doesn’t mind the retakes either, or the way Xiao Zhan gets more into the scene every time they do it, even as he pretends to complain to Chao Xiuli off-camera.

“Are there towels?” Xiao Zhan asks, plaintively. “Are there heaters? I’m going to freeze to death in this lake before we get this kiss right.”

It’s a warm afternoon, and Yibo rolls his eyes as he splashes Xiao Zhan where they’re sitting in the shallows, waiting for a reset. “Come closer if you’re cold.”

Xiao Zhan gives him a sidelong look and then does it, moving over until their bare wet shoulders are touching. Yibo doesn’t say anything, just looks off into the distance, trying not to smile. It’s all too easy to act as Jin Yi now, always hungry for whatever affection he can get.

They wrap filming when they start losing the light, and then they get ready to head to Director Zhou’s house for dinner, just the three of them. It was his request at the start of the day, and Yibo knows he wants to talk about the upcoming love scene. “Let’s keep it cozy,” Director Zhou said this morning, with a significant look between them.

Yibo wonders if the director suspects what’s happening, or just outright knows. Probably. He hasn’t seen a lot of Yang Cheng and Wu Fan since the night they hooked up next door, but it was pretty obvious what went down with them all, even if Director Zhou was so obsessed with getting them to watch that old Italian movie first. Yibo and Xiao Zhan have missed the last couple of gatherings at the house, too, so probably everybody knows by now. It’s a small set.

They’ve done that before, been the set’s open secret, and not even the only one (Chen Qing Ling had way too big a cast for that). It feels more important here, though, like the emotional weight of the movie depends on them not fucking it up. Maybe Director Zhou just wants to remind them of that. He probably doesn’t care if they break up as soon as the shoot is over, as long as they don’t do it before then.

Not much chance of that, Yibo thinks, looking over at Xiao Zhan as they strip off in the wardrobe trailer, toweling the lake water out of their hair and getting back into their street clothes. Xiao Zhan at least waited until the end of filming to break up last time, and if it’s up to Yibo, this won’t ever end.

Xiao Zhan turns in time to catch Yibo’s eye and grin at him, radiant and bright, and the realization settles into Yibo’s chest with deep, solid conviction. He’s spent seven years wishing things had been different, and now he has a chance to try again. Being with Xiao Zhan is everything he’s dreamed of, everything he wants. He’ll never walk away from this as long as he has a choice.

Yibo smiles back, swatting Xiao Zhan with the tail end of his towel, a play fight that turns into half-naked wrestling until the stylist clears her throat and ushers them out of the trailer. He keeps smiling in the backseat of the car, as they move through the early evening dusk. There’s a joyful lightness all through him, relief in having made the decision and seeing the true depth of his feelings. It wasn’t just being young that first time, or the hectic nature of a busy filming schedule and a big set. He feels it every time they’re together, the pull that’s like finding a missing piece of himself, and he knows, he knows Xiao Zhan feels it too. Like something that went wrong years ago is finally being made right.

He’ll fight for this, if Xiao Zhan lets him. All he needs is a sign.

When they get to the house, Director Zhou disappears into the bedroom with an audible sound of shuffling papers. He comes out with a stack of notes and sketches, storyboards with stick figures that make Yibo’s ears flush when he looks at them. Xiao Zhan holds it together better, just quirking a grin. They both knew what they were signing up for.

“So,” Director Zhou says. “To be honest, this will probably be the least sexy thing you’ve ever done in your lives.”

Their dinner delivery arrives then, and it’s a while before they’re settled again, bowls loaded up and the notes spread out on the long dining table. Yibo’s been pretty good about sticking to his diet, but he’s noticed Xiao Zhan slipping, eating more in the evening than he’s ever seen. Tonight he has a bowl full of fried chicken, and Yibo smiles as he sees him absent-mindedly eating a real portion of it, obviously enjoying the taste.

“Neither of you has done a full love scene before,” Director Zhou says, not a question. He knows their film histories.

Xiao Zhan shakes his head. “I knew this was in the script.”

“Yeah,” Yibo says, though he’s only skimmed it. “We’re on board.”

“Well, that’s good,” Director Zhou says, pausing to shovel in a mouthful of snow peas and mushrooms before flipping through the pages again. “This could be comic, if we do it wrong. There are a lot of things that need to go right.”

“We have to look good naked,” Xiao Zhan jokes, but it’s weak, and Director Zhou doesn’t even look at him as he keeps talking, chewing his food.

“The music, for one,” he says, holding up a thick, calloused finger. “That won’t be scored until we finish filming. Nothing I can do about it now.” He swallows his mouthful and holds up another finger. “The editing. We’ll need a lot of footage to look at in the editing process. Once we wrap, we won’t be able to fly you back in for reshoots. We’ve budgeted three days for this if we need it.”

Three days of pretending to get fucked by Xiao Zhan all over the house, with an entire crew watching. Yibo’s mouth goes dry. He knew what he was signing up for, but maybe he didn’t think it all the way through.

He glances over at Xiao Zhan. Although his face is calm, nodding as he listens to Director Zhou talk, his shoulders are stiff and there’s a serious line between his brows. He has to be anxious about this too, because he’s unusually quiet tonight, unlike his usual talkative self when he’s feeling relaxed.

(Xiao Zhan talks so much in bed now. Last night Yibo went down on him until his jaw ached, two fingers working inside, and Xiao Zhan pulled his hair with both hands and told him how good he was, groaning louder every time he went deep. “That’s good, that’s perfect, just like that,” he gasped, over and over, and Yibo felt flushed with pride at getting it right.)

“I’m glad we have time to get this right,” Xiao Zhan says now. He sounds formal, professional. “How many shots and locations are you thinking? I wasn’t sure from the script”

“Mm,” Director Zhou says, looking down and flipping pages. “I have a few things in mind. We’re going to start with a shot that gets right into it, you just going at it. Put the audience right there, show all that crazy desire spilling over. How you can’t get enough of each other.”

(It was so slick and wet last night, Yibo’s spit and the lube on his fingers and the way Xiao Zhan was leaking into his mouth, and Yibo was out of his mind by the time he pulled off, giving the head of Xiao Zhan’s cock a last swipe with his tongue before reaching for a condom.

“I’m gonna come,” Xiao Zhan said, flat and desperate, an arm flung across his sweaty forehead. “You’re gonna make me come as soon as you fuck me.”

“Good,” was all Yibo could say, as he held Xiao Zhan’s thighs open wide and slid home.)

“I like that idea,” Xiao Zhan says now, softly. “Starting in media res. It’ll make it feel more—immediate.” Does he sound strained? Is he remembering the same things as Yibo?

Yibo tries to distract himself from the flaring heat of his memories by wondering what this scene is like in the book; it doesn’t sound like the slow, intimate one that Xiao Zhan described to him before. He’s got to finally read it for himself. He hasn’t because he likes how this feels, as if they’re creating these characters and their relationship out of what’s going on between them, but there’s a small, distant worry that he’s giving away too much. That everyone will be able to see how real it is for him.

Both Xiao Zhan and Director Zhou turn to look at him, like they’re waiting for him to say something. Yibo takes a bite of pork noodles, buying himself time.

“Do you have any questions?” Director Zhou asks, finally. “I want you to feel comfortable here.”

Yibo just shakes his head, swallowing his food. “Whatever you decide will be great, I’m sure,” he says, and hopes he knows what he’s getting himself into.

 


 

“Turn,” says the stylist, and Xiao Zhan does, giving her better access to powder his ass.

She’s dabbing foundation, actually, but he still feels ridiculous. Today they’re just blocking out the sex scene, taking light readings in different places around the house, and apparently that means he and Yibo need to stand around almost naked while the director of photography stares at them through a camera and gives directions to the lighting designer who’s adjusting the rig behind him.

They’ve spent a lot of time in their lives bored and waiting through tech, feeling like human mannequins, but always wearing more clothes than this.

“Xiao-laoshi looks so handsome,” Yibo says. “So handsome and hairy.”

“Shut up,” Xiao Zhan says.

They asked him not to wax anywhere leading up to this project, and now he has more body hair than he has in years. He doesn’t feel self-conscious normally, but he knows Yibo keeps looking at him, with his tongue between his teeth and that expression halfway between teasing and admiring. It’s always hard to tell when the games stop and things start being real with them.

For his part, Xiao Zhan can hardly keep his eyes off Yibo. He’s filled out over the years, still lean and graceful but more solid now, with hard muscles over his arms and shoulders and thicker, defined ones at his waist. Xiao Zhan knows Yibo can feel him looking, and like always it seems to make Yibo glow brighter, as if he’s radiating attraction. Now Yibo pouts, crossing his arms over his chest and leaning back against the dining table, letting his hair fall in his eyes, and it’s all Xiao Zhan can do not to—

To do what? In bed they began with their old ways, letting Yibo take the lead, but Xiao Zhan’s been feeling the shift as they get closer. He can’t hold back from showing what he wants now, demanding it, and even though the sex is better it feels like it leaves him more exposed, with all his emotions dangerously close to the surface. If Yibo doesn’t know how Xiao Zhan feels by now, he will soon.

And maybe that’s a good thing, Xiao Zhan thinks, with a sidelong glance. Yibo’s still smirking at him, seemingly careless of the fact that he’s only wearing a flesh-colored thong. Sometimes when Yibo’s so smiling and relaxed like this, Xiao Zhan dreams it could be different this time, that things won’t end as soon as the project does. That Yibo wants to keep going, that what Xiao Zhan feels is real.

It hurt last time, figuring things out in bits and pieces. He wasn’t surprised that someone so gorgeous and magnetic had plenty of experience, even as young as Yibo was then, but hearing about his casual history made Xiao Zhan realize where his own place would be soon enough. Another costar, another summer fling, another friendly name in Yibo’s contact list. The only thing Xiao Zhan could control about the whole thing was ending it with dignity.

He let that smile make him hope, last time. Now he knows better, that it’s just how Yibo is.

“All right,” the DP says, “Let’s get you into position.”

Their eyes meet, one dark flash of anticipation, and then Yibo turns around, leaning over the dining room table on his hands and elbows. His thong pulls up, and Xiao Zhan can’t help looking down, following how the paler skin beneath his ass transitions to the solid muscles of his thighs. It’s hot as hell, and if they weren’t standing in the middle of a set Xiao Zhan would want to touch him, running his hands down those enticing curves.

But they’re at work, and Xiao Zhan is a professional. He steps into place, putting his hands on Yibo’s hips, and poses for the light meter.

“Is that how you’re going to hold me?” Yibo complains, shifting in his grasp.

“Why, does Wang-laoshi need a tighter grip?” Xiao Zhan says, and he’s shocked how fast the dirty joke comes out of his mouth.

“Jin Yi does,” Yibo says, shifting again as the DP walks around them. “Someone to keep him under control.”

“How would you know, you haven’t even read the book,” Xiao Zhan says.

“I know what Jin Yi wants,” Yibo says, loftily.

“That’s good enough,” the DP cuts in. “Let’s set up on the couch now.”

The same tedious waiting, as the lighting gets moved and the set dresser arranges the cushions according to Director Zhou’s sketches. Yibo lounges in a chair and watches something on his phone, while the stylist touches up Xiao Zhan’s hair again. Then Yibo lies down on the couch, knees drawn up, getting easily into position.

Xiao Zhan—hesitates. These are all the same positions they’ll be actually filming in tomorrow, and he sees Director Zhou’s plan, getting them used to it before they have to do it for real. But it doesn’t change the fact that he’s about to kneel on the couch between Yibo’s legs and pretend to fuck him.

“Uh,” he says, stalling, and looks over to the DP. “How do you want me? Back on my knees or leaning forward on my hands?”

The DP consults his notes. “Leaning forward.”

The closer position. Xiao Zhan nods, his mouth dry, and gets onto the couch.

“Wow,” Yibo says, from beneath him. “I didn’t know Xiao-laoshi needed so much direction in bed. Or is it just Lingxuan who’s so by the book?”

“Unlike some people, I want to do a good job,” Xiao Zhan says through gritted teeth, leaning forward to rest his hands on the couch on either side of Yibo’s head. He wishes Yibo wouldn’t talk about in bed when they’re on set. His groin is almost touching Yibo like this, and Yibo’s knees come in to clasp his hips, feet hooking over his thighs. The whole thing is awkwardly intimate, miming these scenes without being able to get lost in acting them out.

“I do a good job,” Yibo snaps, and Xiao Zhan looks at him, surprised by the sharp tone of his voice. Yibo’s head is turned down and away, his jaw tense, and Xiao Zhan realizes he’s nervous too, even though it’s not like him to show it.

This is a challenge for both of them, Xiao Zhan thinks, and draws in a deep, slow breath. They’re on the same team, working together.

“I don’t have any complaints,” Xiao Zhan says, mildly, as the DP comes in closer with the light meter again. “Wang-laoshi is very professional.” He sees Yibo’s jaw relax a little, a smile tickling the corner of his mouth.

Xiao Zhan’s arms and wrists start to ache, holding himself up, and he shifts his weight between them. It makes Yibo’s ankles slip, and Yibo looks up at him, frowning as he tries to hold on.

“Stay still, Zhan-ge,” he says. It’s quiet and low, the way he is when they spend time together in the evenings, and Xiao Zhan feels warm just hearing him. Yibo’s pink tongue flickers over his full lower lip, wetting it.

“Are we almost through?” Xiao Zhan asks, turning his head to the side. The DP is right there in his face but it’s easier than looking at Yibo right now.

“With this shot,” the DP says cheerfully, scratching down a note. “Still got the kitchen, Minghua’s bed, and then Lingxuan’s bedroom.”

Xiao Zhan shuts his eyes and nods, preparing himself.

In the kitchen, he stands with his back to the sink in the place where the characters had their first kiss, and Yibo kneels on the floor at his feet. “You’re too tall,” Yibo complains, stretching his neck up.

Upstairs, they roll back and forth on the bed that’s supposed to belong to Minghua and her husband, as the DP plays with the overhead lighting. “You’re too heavy,” Yibo whines, but immediately adds, “I’m joking, Xiao-laoshi should eat more! So thin.”

He curves both of his big hands around Xiao Zhan’s waist for a heart-stopping moment, warm on his bare skin, before Xiao Zhan shoves him away, shifting out of his grasp.

“Ticklish?” Yibo asks, but his voice breaks over it, like it’s not as teasing as he meant it to be. It feels forced somehow, like he’s trying to keep this light.

“You know I’m not,” Xiao Zhan says, and he doesn’t know how to read the expression in Yibo’s eyes before the DP asks them to change positions again.

They finish the day on the bed in Lingxuan’s room, lying face to face. This scene is just kissing, no sex, and Director Zhou talked about it at length with them yesterday, over a glass of wine on his living room couch. He was passionate and animated, his words full of emotion, and Xiao Zhan felt it once again, the thrill of getting to take part in one of his films. Everything is always so clear in Director Zhou’s mind.

You finally have an entire day alone together. Your sister’s family is gone, and she’s forbidden you from having him over but this is your moment of rebellion, the only liberty you’ll allow yourself. You’re like teenagers, you’re going to break into the alcohol and make a mess, and have sex everywhere you can all over the house. The living room, the kitchen, your sister’s bed. And then finally—it’s evening. You’re exhausted. You’re through with making love but you haven’t gotten enough of each other. You’re kissing, and you keep kissing, and you can’t stop kissing. It’s going to go on until the audience gets uncomfortable, like surely it’s about to end, but it doesn’t. Even when we fade to black, we’ll hear the sound for a little while longer. You’re everything to each other, and you’ll never get enough.

They lie down on the bed together now, facing. He puts his hand on Yibo’s face like he’s supposed to, making Yibo wince at how cold his fingertips are.

“Maybe we can turn down the AC tomorrow,” Yibo says.

“Then I’ll be sweaty,” Xiao Zhan points out, unwillingly.

“Might be good for the scene,” the DP says, leaning in with his light meter. “I’ll talk to Director Zhou about it.”

Xiao Zhan makes a face at Yibo. “Thanks a lot.”

“Well, you look good sweaty,” Yibo says. “Dewy skin! You’ll be glowing.”

“My skin can never be as beautiful as Wang-laoshi’s,” Xiao Zhan says. Their usual patter is returning, cautiously, and it’s a relief to not feel so dangerously close.

Yibo widens his eyes. “Oh, no,” he says, sincerely and runs his finger across Xiao Zhan’s cheekbone. “This is the most handsome face in Asia. I can’t compete.”

“That was last year,” Xiao Zhan says.

“Last year and every year,” Yibo says, and smiles his dazzling, crooked grin, before breaking into his familiar croaking laugh.

The DP tells them, “Get it together, guys,” as he finishes his readings and still photos. They stare into each other’s eyes, and Xiao Zhan can see the restrained mirth in Yibo’s, like he’s just waiting to crack another joke. The relief is bubbling between them, now that this is almost over, and Yibo looks as giddy as Xiao Zhan feels.

“Stop it,” Xiao Zhan mutters.

Yibo pokes his tongue into his cheek. “Make me.”

Xiao Zhan doesn’t know where this is coming from, all this sudden wild energy between them, but he can’t seem to back away. “Watch out or I will,” he says, between clenched teeth.

Yibo just stares back at him with an eyebrow raised, challenging, and it’s not right to do this here but it’s good, sweeping away the tension and confusion of the day. It’s easy when they’re together, when they’re like this.

Finally they finish up, with the afternoon sun still high enough that there’s some of the day left. He follows Yibo downstairs to the guest bathroom where they left their clothes, early this morning when they changed in separate corners and looked away awkwardly as they figured out the modesty thongs. The discomfort is gone now, and Xiao Zhan doesn’t even hesitate as he closes the door behind them.

“You’re such a—” Xiao Zhan starts, but Yibo’s already shoving him up against the wall, pressing their mouths together in a hard, hungry kiss.

Xiao Zhan lets it happen for a moment, the heat of the kiss and the twinge of pain where Yibo’s teeth caught his lip, and then shoves him back against the other wall, leaning in. “You’re such a brat, Lao Wang,” Xiao Zhan says, breathless. “Fucking winding me up all day. I should—”

This time he interrupts himself, caught by Yibo’s wide dark stare and the redness of his full lips. Xiao Zhan kisses him again, more carefully but with no less passion, hands braced on the wall on either side of Yibo’s head. He lets the full weight of his body come to rest against Yibo, and Yibo’s hands on his hip and shoulder pull him in, like he wants that from Xiao Zhan.

The fire roars to life between them, catching alight. Xiao Zhan tries to keep his head but he likes how Yibo feels underneath him so much; the way Yibo moves his hips and moans into his mouth, the way he keeps tugging him back in, not even letting him get a breath. They’re grinding against each other through the stupid modesty thongs, and this isn’t the first time they’ve come close to ruining a costume between them, with a crew waiting outside.

That was years in the past, though, so long ago it aches when Xiao Zhan thinks about it. Back when they’d been teasing each other all day, much worse than they have been this summer, and with even less privacy to do anything about it.

But Xiao Zhan doesn’t want it to be that way now. They can take their time, and they should, especially if it’s all coming to an end soon enough.

He kisses Yibo hard once more, and then softer, slowing things down. Yibo fights it at first, clenching a hand in Xiao Zhan’s hair and grinding against his hips fiercely, but Xiao Zhan gentles him down, one hand cradling Yibo’s jaw as he kisses him with deliberate focus. Finally they’re just breathing hard against each other, eyes closed and mouths barely touching, with the adrenaline of arousal still racing through them.

“Just wait,” Xiao Zhan says, and thumbs at Yibo’s lower lip. He kisses him one more time, and then straightens up, pulling away.

Yibo almost doesn’t let him. At the last minute he lets go, though, hands dragging over Xiao Zhan’s bare shoulders, and when Xiao Zhan opens his eyes he feels like a fool for not just giving in, taking Yibo right here. That beautiful gaze beneath his tousled hair, and Yibo’s casually gorgeous body slouched against the wall, bare and luminous and all for him.

“Zhan-ge,” Yibo says, low and hoarse.

Xiao Zhan’s hands curl into fists at his sides, nails digging into his palms. He wants to be calm and in control, but he has to licks his lips and shake his hair back off his forehead, wiping his hand through the sweat that’s broken out there. Yibo’s so tempting and he knows it, and Xiao Zhan wishes he could take this as easily as Yibo does, worry about it less.

“I want to,” Xiao Zhan says, and he can hear the vulnerable break in his voice. “At the hotel. Not here. OK?”

Yibo stares at him another moment, then nods.

With a sigh that’s louder than he meant it to be, Xiao Zhan turns and reaches for his clothes. His hands are shaking. After all that teasing he thought this would be a little bit of fun in the bathroom, some flirtation to get them ready for when they get back to his room. He wasn’t ready for the intensity of how he feels.

His head is pounding with his own pulse as he gets dressed, because he can’t stop thinking about what just happened. The sweet, hot, demanding intimacy of kissing like that, the ache of stopping. The heat of Yibo’s stare, the obvious strength of his desire. Again and again, Xiao Zhan thinks he sees what he most wants, the hope that Yibo feels like he does, for this to be more than casual, but he can never tell for sure.

He gets a message as they’re waiting for the car to come around, and when he looks it’s from Director Zhou, with notes from what they talked about yesterday. The blocking, the emotional dynamics, all the things they’re hoping to get right in a single day of shooting. Xiao Zhan knows they have a third day allotted, but that it would be much better if they can nail this quickly, the way they did the early scenes.

When he finishes reading, he glances at Yibo, sidelong. With everything that’s been happening between them, Xiao Zhan has tried so hard not to lose sight of the work, what he owes to Director Zhou and everyone else. What they both owe.

“Hey,” he says, quietly, and touches Yibo’s elbow. Yibo looks up, and Xiao Zhan blinks at him for a moment, unsettled by the intensity in his eyes, before leaning in to murmur in his ear.

“What if we waited,” Xiao Zhan says, and his hand slips down Yibo’s arm, finger loosely tangling together. “This feeling...we could use it tomorrow. What if we just waited until then.” He rubs his thumb over the back of Yibo’s hand.

Yibo turns his head, slightly. “Until after we film?”

“Yeah,” Xiao Zhan says. He feels crazy saying it, the way the tension is still burning between them, but he knows it’s the right thing to do for the project. “It’ll be good if we hold onto this. For the scene, and for after. I’ll make it good,” he adds, lower.

Yibo shivers at that, swallowing. “OK,” he finally says, so faintly it’s hard to hear.

He leans back to look at Xiao Zhan, his dark eyes even more intense than before. His lips are parted, and Xiao Zhan has to fight the urge to do the opposite of everything he just said, kissing him hard out here where anyone could see.

“You better deliver, Zhan-ge,” Yibo says, and squeezes Xiao Zhan’s hand before dropping it, taking a step back and picking up his bag.

“Where are you going?” Xiao Zhan asks. “Our ride’s here.”

Yibo lifts a hand, walking backwards. “I’ll catch the next one. See you tomorrow.”

Like that he’s gone, and Xiao Zhan’s left breathless and alone, wondering if he did the right thing.

It feels weird, coming back to his room without Yibo. He hadn’t realized what a habit that had become, how used to it he’s gotten. Probably other people have noticed, even if no one has said anything outright. He’s grateful that the generally relaxed and intimate air of this project has kept this a low-key thing, rather than something people are running to tell the media about. After the last ten years of his life, he appreciates how this summer has been so golden and quiet, like a few weeks carved out of reality that he’ll always remember.

Around bedtime he realizes he’s been waiting for Yibo to get in touch. It feels weird to go to sleep, leaving it like this, and before he goes to get ready for bed he finally sends a message himself. Ready for tomorrow?

Are you? Yibo has replied, when he gets back out.

Xiao Zhan thinks. Not totally but that’s probably a good thing

How?

We can make it up in the moment, Xiao Zhan types, slowly. It feels more real that way

Is that what we’ve been doing? Yibo fires back. Just making it up for the movie?

Sometimes? Xiao Zhan replies, frowning. And you know, sometimes Director Zhou gives us more instruction for the scene

Right, for the scene

Xiao Zhan feels like he’s missing something here. This isn’t the conversation he wanted to have before bed, so he changes direction. You haven’t touched yourself tonight right?

Depends on what you mean by that, Yibo replies, after a pause.

You didn’t get off

No, Yibo says. Not until you make me

Xiao Zhan’s mouth goes dry. Good

You promised, Zhan-ge

I did, Xiao Zhan answers. I will. Get some sleep.

Yibo answers with a meme of a sleeping sheep, and Xiao Zhan puts his phone down.

Two minutes later, he’s fumbling in his nightstand for sleeping pills, because he knows he’s going to need them tonight.

Xiao Zhan feels tense and serious all the next morning, though breakfast and getting ready and the ride to the set. He and Yibo are always checked out on the shuttle bus, looking at their phones or getting a little more sleep, and it’s hard to tell if that same energy from yesterday is still there. But once they’re changing in the downstairs bathroom, it’s back again; Xiao Zhan looks over his shoulder and Yibo grins at him, cocky and wild, like he’s coming to life.

“What,” Xiao Zhan says.

Yibo just grins more.

Director Zhou’s the same, steady presence as always when they get to set, coffee in one hand and notes in the other. “All right,” he says, swallowing the last of his coffee and settling into his chair. He beckons them over. Both of them are still wearing robes, the last vestige of privacy before they start.

The director looks between them, and there’s a wry sympathy on his broad face. “You guys look like I’m lining you up for an execution. You ready?”

Xiao Zhan nods, tightly. He can see how serious Yibo looks, and he knows he must look the same.

Director Zhou rubs his chin with his fingertips. “We’re just going to do a straight cut to the action already going. Let’s get into position. And undressed.”

He’s blunt as he instructs them to take up the same places as yesterday, Xiao Zhan bending Yibo over the dining room table, but there’s a gentle tone to his voice too, like there always is when they film romantic scenes. Xiao Zhan appreciates that, as if Director Zhou is living the inner life of the characters the same way they are.

“Passionate,” he says, reminding them. “Desperate. You can smile if you feel like it, Yibo, at least in the early shots. Make some noise now, but I want you louder later. Xiao Zhan, I want you to hold him tight.”

“Told you,” Yibo mutters.

“Trust me, by lunch you’ll be bored,” Director Zhou says, and then, “Action.”

And like that, Xiao Zhan’s thrusting away, pretending to have sex on camera. They’re filming from below, with Yibo’s head and shoulders in the foreground and Xiao Zhan behind him, and he knows he doesn’t need to move that much to make it look good. His face gets hot as he tries to make an intense sex expression, frowning with his jaw clenched, and even hotter when Yibo lets out his first groan.

It’s not boring, but Director Zhou is right, it’s not really sexy either. He can see how red Yibo’s ears are getting, and it’s good to know that he’s not alone in this awkward moment.

He’s supposed to be breathing hard, Xiao Zhan remembers, and he does, trying to make it audible. The last thing he wants to do in a few months is get called into a studio to loop in his own sex noises.

“Cut,” Director Zhou says. “That’s a good first take. You guys are almost there. I just want to see it again from the other angle. And let’s hear you a little louder.”

They set up again, the camera filming over Yibo’s other shoulder, and this time when they start rolling Xiao Zhou lets himself relax a little, easing into it more. He breathes fast and loud and stares at the back of Yibo’s head, trying to imagine Lingxuan’s thoughts; they’re alone, having sex in daylight for the first time, right across his sister’s dining room table. He’s desperate for Jin Yi, but there’s more to it than just desire.

Rock bottom, Director Zhou told him the other night, when they were discussing this scene over dinner. You don’t care if you get caught. You don’t care about anything. You want someone to see the depth of your emotions—Jin Yi, Minghua, anyone. You love him but you can’t even admit it to yourself. You’re just not holding back anymore.

That’s the feeling Xiao Zhan tries to hold onto, as they finish the scene and move onto the next location, the couch in the living room. He finds that he and Yibo are avoiding each other’s eyes, the distracting teasing of yesterday gone. They’re both deep in the scene, feeling the intensity of what they’re doing, and he wonders if Yibo is thinking about the direction he got too.

It was much simpler than what Xiao Zhan was told: You’re in love, and you’ll take every moment with him that you can get.

Setting up on the couch feels like it moves things up a notch. They can see each other’s faces now, and Xiao Zhan has to be more careful with the way he moves, not to actually rub right up against Yibo. The first time he tries it there’s way more contact than he expected, and he freezes, looking at Yibo with a guilty grimace.

“Sorry,” he says.

“It’s fine,” Yibo says, a little too fast.

“Uh,” Xiao Zhan says, and when he looks out at the set he’s relieved to see Chao Xiuli right at his shoulder already.

“You need this,” the assistant director says, and folds a small piece of fabric between them with brisk, professional movements, like a nurse. “If it slips, or you need more, say something.”

Xiao Zhan nods, and then she looks down at Yibo. “All right?” she asks. “If anything gets weird, just stop. We want you to be comfortable.”

“Yeah,” Yibo says, and Xiao Zhan can hear that he really means it. “Thank you.”

The extra barrier does help, when they start the scene again. Xiao Zhan can focus on his expression and his breathing, without feeling like things are about to get awkward down below. He stares at Yibo the way Lingxuan would, like he’s his only hope, a bright and beautiful thing he can’t take his eyes away from. That part isn’t hard at all.

Yibo has to pretend to come this time, eyes screwed up and panting softly. Xiao Zhan just keeps watching, his hips in motion, sweat dripping down his forehead because they did actually turn off the AC after all. He just hopes it looks as sexy as it’s supposed to.

“Good,” Director Zhou keeps saying, every time they cut to film another take, another angle. Other than that the set is quiet, with only some muffled technical chatter when things need resetting or rearranging. Xiao Zhan feels like he’s in a dream, doing something surreal but necessary, just trying to get it right.

In the kitchen scene he’s more exposed, standing alone while Yibo kneels at his feet, but somehow that lets him get deeper into the moment. Xiao Zhan shuts his eyes and thinks as hard as he can about his character’s past, how much he wants this and how raw it makes him feel, doing something so reckless and passionate. He spreads his hands wide on the kitchen counter behind him, leaning back and tipping his head up to the ceiling, breathing hard and groaning as best as he can.

“Be louder,” Director Zhou says, from behind the monitor, and Xiao Zhan flushes hot as he moans with more abandon.

They break for lunch then, wrapped in their robes and eating separately, hunched over their phones. All that crazy, magnetic energy from yesterday evening seems to have evaporated, instead of motivating them like he’d hoped. This is nothing like he expected, physically tiring and deeply emotional in a different way. They aren’t themselves, but being their characters is no escape either, with so much heavy, unspoken intensity between them.

Upstairs is easier. They have to roll back and forth on the bed kissing but that’s more private, with their faces hidden together. Xiao Zhan can feel himself sinking even deeper into the scene, like he’s forgetting about everyone around them, everyone watching now and the people who will see them later. He only cares about the way Yibo’s—Jin Yi’s—body feels pressed against him and in his arms, both beneath and above him.

“Don’t stop,” Yibo gasps against his face, the only line of dialogue so far, and the camera zooms in close to catch it. Xiao Zhan’s beyond caring about that, though, with the lines so blurred between himself and Lingxuan, and it’s all too easy to cradle Yibo’s head closer, kissing him with real need. They have to reshoot it three times and Xiao Zhan never really comes out of character, like that day they filmed the scene sitting on the dock, with the camera following every movement of their bodies and the way they came inexorably closer.

They’re past the point of no return now; Lingxuan and Jin Yi, Xiao Zhan and Yibo. There’s no choice but to see it through.

In Lingxuan’s bedroom they kiss some more, and finally this begins to feel like work again. The kissing is meant to go on so long it gets uncomfortable for the viewers, but it does for them too, and finally they have to take a break, just stretching out and getting some air. It feels like it’s been weeks, years; like they’ve run a thousand miles together and they’re still not done.

Xiao Zhan’s leaning against the headboard finishing off a water bottle, Yibo lying next to him, when Director Zhou comes to sit at the foot of the bed. He pulls off his red cap, running his hand over his thinning, bristly hair, and Xiao Zhan’s surprised to see how tired he looks, with heavy circles beneath his eyes. He smiles, though, making deep crinkles around them, and puts his cap back on.

“You guys are doing great,” he says. “I know this is a real ordeal, but we’re getting great footage. I think we won’t need that third day after all.”

Xiao Zhan’s eyelids flutter in relief, and he blows out a soft breath, sighing. He didn’t realize how much he was dreading coming back tomorrow, having to face this intensity again.

“Listen,” Director Zhou says. “If we can get this last scene in the can today, you can both take tomorrow off. It’s late in the schedule, and I’m sure Chao Xiuli would rather get a jump on the next scene, but I think you’ve earned it. OK?”

They both nod, and he smiles again, reaching out to squeeze Yibo’s bare foot. “You’re good kids. Thank you.”

Xiao Zhan finishes his water bottle and moves down to lie on the bed for the last few shots, rolling over to face Yibo. He’s lying with his arm curled beneath his head, hair fluffy and disheveled, and he looks worn out and younger, with his sleepy eyes and puffy lips. Xiao Zhan’s lips feel puffy too, and he can’t help licking them in sympathy.

“Did you bring any of that lip balm?” Yibo asks, low.

Xiao Zhan just shakes his head. They’re both too tired to joke. “It’s back in my room.”

Yibo smiles. “We’ll get it later.”

The lights come up, and they’re rolling again. Kissing, kissing, both of them so sensitive it hurts, but it feels like that works for the scene. Kissing with Yibo’s hand in his hair, and then his hand on Yibo’s face, and then they almost break it off, foreheads resting together, before it starts again, like they’re powerless to stop. Kissing, just kissing, past all reason and sense, until there isn’t anything else.

“Cut,” Director Zhou says, softly, at last.

Xiao Zhan lies still, his breathing labored. For all the action dramas and big emotional scenes he’s done in his career, he’s never had a day of filming that wore him out as completely as this. Right now all he wants is for everyone to go away and turn off the lights, letting him sleep forever in this bed.

He drifts, for a while. He can hear movement around him, Yibo shifting away, someone dropping a piece of equipment. The lights being struck, murmured conversation. Xiao Zhan breathes heavy and shallow, feeling like he’s slipped out of time and all the bonds of his life. Maybe he’ll never come back.

But he’s got to get up eventually, and he does, making his unsteady way downstairs. Yibo’s already changed while he was dozing, and Xiao Zhan shakes his head ruefully, thinking of all his big promises yesterday. It’s hard to tell if that restrained energy actually translated into filming, or if they might as well have had their fun last night. Tonight he’s not even sure he can stay awake long enough to walk out the door.

The car’s waiting when he gets out, and he gets in and passes out almost immediately. When he wakes up it’s another drowsy stumble into the hotel, where he’s surprised to see how late it is, the darkness already setting in. He trudges after Yibo into the elevator, watching the doors shut blearily. They don’t say anything, though Yibo yawns. When the elevator opens at the top floor, all Xiao Zhan’s thinking about is brushing his teeth and crashing for good, and it’s not until he’s inside his room, reaching for the hallway light switch, that he really registers that Yibo is still with him.

Xiao Zhan turns around and lifts one hand to rub the back of his head, awkward. “Ah. Lao Wang. I’m just going to sleep.”

Yibo just looks up at him, eyelids so heavy he can barely keep them open. He looks like he needs a shower and a hundred-year nap. “So am I.”

They’re still standing in the entry to his room, the narrow walls keeping them close, the overhead light casting awful shadows on their exhausted faces. Xiao Zhan swallows and then speaks, low and apologetic. “Listen, I know I made all those big promises yesterday, and I’m sorry but I’m so fucking tired. There’s no way.”

Yibo steps closer, taking the front of Xiao Zhan’s shirt in his hands, and drops his head on Xiao Zhan’s shoulder. “Zhan-ge,” he murmurs, into his neck. “I just want to sleep here tonight. Please.”

Xiao Zhan’s arms come up around Yibo before he can even think. It feels like there’s something huge and hot rising in his chest, encircling his heart, and it’s hard to talk around the tightness in his throat. He drops his cheek against Yibo’s head, nodding. “Yeah, OK.”

They don’t talk again after that, just stripping off their clothes and getting into bed. Xiao Zhan knows that tomorrow he’ll regret leaving in his contacts and not brushing his teeth, but he can’t seem to care. All he knows now is the shivering weight of exhaustion, and the warmth of Yibo’s body as they reach for each other under the covers.

“Good, right?” Yibo breathes, his face close.

Xiao Zhan nods against the pillow, already beginning to drift off. Their hands are clasped between them, and he moves his foot to touch Yibo’s, beneath the sheets. “Yeah,” he whispers. “We’re good.”