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yesterday, tomorrow

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“And see your old friends,” Director Zhou’s invitation said, but Yibo had no clue that he was expecting so much of the cast and production team of The Life You Gave Me to fit into his tiny Beijing apartment.

Yibo can barely make his way across the living room with the plate of food he managed to snag for both of them, but at least Xiao Zhan’s held onto his place on the couch. Yibo squeezes back in, Yang Cheng and Wu Fan on his other side, just like last summer at the lake. Chao Xiuli and some producers are sitting in chairs around the room, everyone focused on the screen of the huge TV in front of them. It’s paused on the simple title card, and Yibo feels a churning nervous excitement in his stomach at the sight of those familiar characters.

He hasn’t seen any of the movie yet. Xiao Zhan saw a few scenes when there were questions for the production team, but he hasn’t told Yibo anything about them. It’s hard to know what a film is like from unfinished clips anyway, and Yibo’s been happy to wait. He just didn’t expect to feel this anxious, now the moment is finally here.

He hasn’t seen that much of Xiao Zhan either over the last four months, or at least nowhere near as much as he’d like. They knew it would be tough, trying to coordinate a relationship with their schedules, but it was even harder than he imagined. So much of their time was committed months ago, and even their scarce free days have a way of getting encroached on with reshoots and unexpected demands. Twice they’ve had weekend getaways canceled by projects running over schedule, and another time they were both just too damn tired to make the effort, even though they hadn’t seen each other in weeks. Both of them have been in the industry too long now to be surprised by any of it, and they don’t run themselves ragged like they used to, but it’s still hard, especially when Yibo thinks of the future. Nothing about their careers will change any time soon.

Still. They’ve had time together when they could manage it, and they’re always in touch. Not the constant stream of messages Yibo tried to maintain when they were younger, but there’s usually a reply when he checks in during the day, and somehow he feels like Xiao Zhan’s with him all the time. He thinks, too, of a time when maybe they’ll both want to change how their lives are. There’s still so much ahead of them.

For tonight, they’re both here in Beijing, with almost a whole week off ahead of them. He rubs his shoulder against Xiao Zhan, who’s leaning over the bowl in Yibo’s hands scooping prawns into his mouth with chopsticks, and presses his foot against Xiao Zhan’s on the floor before looking up at Director Zhou.

“Finally,” Director Zhou says, and clears his throat like he’s going to make a speech. “First we shot the film, and we thought that was tough. Then we started the editing.” He pauses and everyone laughs, especially the production team in back. “We shot a good movie, but Wang Jiao made it into a great one.”

He gestures at a small, slight, older woman in the back, and the room applauds for her. She nods, acknowledging it, and takes a sip of her beer.

“I’ll have more to say after the film,” Director Zhou says. “The only reason I invited you to my house is so you can’t sneak out of the screening without me seeing.” Everyone laughs again. He grins, under that ubiquitous red cap he’s wearing even now, but then his face grows serious. “There are fifty people that I can say ‘I couldn’t have made this movie without you’ about, but I think we all know who that list starts with.”

Yibo looks back, expecting to see everyone else looking at the executive producer who put up most of the financing, but instead they’re looking at him. He feels his ears get hot and turns back immediately. He catches Xiao Zhan’s eye, rueful and embarrassed as his own.

“I cast my lead actors without even doing a joint audition,” Director Zhou says from behind him. “You could say I had their previous work to go on, but this was a different kind of story. I had to rely on instinct to tell me if they’d work as well together for my film, and in this case my gut was right.” There’s laughter, and Yibo guesses he’s patted his stomach.

Yibo turns around, because it seems rude not to be looking while he’s being talked about. Director Zhou is looking at them, and his face has softened into fondness. “They made the movie work because they brought the characters to life. They proved what they did before wasn’t just luck, and I feel lucky I got to see it. And of course,” he adds, “that I got to put it in my film. Which has been submitted to awards already, I should add.”

More laughter, and Yibo’s shoulders relax, sensing he’s moving on from talking about them. Beside him he feels Xiao Zhan getting less tense too, leaning back against him.

“Enough talking,” Director Zhou says. He reaches for his beer with his other hand, lifting it. “A toast to our leads, and to everyone else who’s worked so hard. Let’s watch the damn movie already.”

He presses a button, bringing down the lights in the room, and then he starts the movie.

Yibo’s used to watching his work all broken up. An edit of just his scenes from a drama, or clips from variety shows and performances, rarely one feature length movie. He hasn’t actually done one in a while, because Jun Ning tends to book him for long, steady projects, or else work he can complete in a day. This project was different in so many ways.

Jin Yi doesn’t show up for a while and Yibo lets himself relax, watching Xiao Zhan’s early scenes that he didn’t see filmed. He didn’t do more than skim these parts of the script either, so it’s a surprise to him to watch the terrible, tense pain Lingxuan holds through his firing and coming to stay at the lake, the difficult conversations with his sister and brother-in-law. Yibo actually winces when Minghua shows him to his small, dark bedroom at the back of the house, watching the quick, hurt glance Xiao Zhan gives the room before looking down again, defeated.

“She’s a real bitch, huh,” Yang Cheng whispers in his ear, leaning over. He sounds pleased.

Then Yibo sits up straighter, leaning forward, as his character is introduced. Like he thought, all that uncomfortable time in the water looks great on film, in slow motion with the sunrise shining behind him. He has to smile a little at how over the top it is, the sliding water droplets playing up all his best features. Even he has to admit he only really looks like that on camera, but it’s good to know he did his job well.

He’s nervous again at the dinner party scene, hoping his acting holds up against the much more experienced actors he was working with, but Xiao Zhan is clearly the star and Yibo doesn’t have anything to worry about. He sits back close enough to Xiao Zhan to say, low, “You’re great in this.”

“So are you,” Xiao Zhan whispers back, without looking at him, but Yibo just shakes his head. He doesn’t even feel jealous, watching Xiao Zhan’s complex expressions and hearing everything he put into those line readings. He’s just proud of someone he loves.

His hand slips down into Xiao Zhan’s when the scene moves into the kitchen. He knows what’s coming, and his heart starts to pound with nerves again, wondering what will come across on the screen. Will it be like the very first day they rehearsed this, too much of their own history bleeding over, or will it be like Director Zhou said, bringing their characters to life?

“Are you going to help me with this?” Xiao Zhan asks on screen, and Yibo holds his breath.

It’s not them that he’s watching. The memories become tangled, falling out of time; kissing Xiao Zhan this morning and last summer, and what was going through his head as they filmed this scene. It was just Jin Yi’s hopeful longing, curious and excited, and that’s what he sees on screen now. It’s not Xiao Zhan onscreen either, always so tender and determined, but Lingxuan, throwing himself into this with reckless abandon, just hoping to feel something, anything.

Yibo lets out his breath with a slow sigh, and Xiao Zhan squeezes his hand.

He watches the rest of the film like he’s someone else, following a story he doesn’t know. It’s good, maybe great, though he doesn’t watch movies like this often enough to be sure. The intimate scene under the dock makes him nervous again for a moment but it’s shot beautifully, the camera moving around and the light flashing on the water, with Lingxuan and Jin Yi at the center of it. Everything he remembers as difficult, laborious, requiring so much preparation and work, feels easy and flowing now. He’s astonished to see how fast it all seems, the story skipping over a whole summer in no time at all, the work of days compressed into a few minutes. It’s almost frightening, to see how something that felt like so much can be told in so little time, every memory just the blink of an eye.

Lingxuan and Jin Yi go hiking and Yibo remembers that day in the woods, when they sat in the hollow beneath the log and he wanted something from Xiao Zhan as badly as his character did. But onscreen he only sees the story, Jin Yi’s clumsy eagerness and Lingxuan’s tears, his shame and his love inextricable.

The room gets a little tense at the sex scenes, and Yibo has to turn away for a moment, pressing his face against Xiao Zhan’s shoulder. He hears Xiao Zhan laugh, softly, jostling him back up.

“It’s fine,” Xiao Zhan whispers. “I’ve seen it. It’s not that bad.”

Yibo could have seen these scenes too, but it felt too weird when he got the email about signing off on it with the production coordinator, and in the end he let Jun Ning handle it. It’s not the weirdest thing he’s ever had her do.

He lifts his head in time to see himself groaning “Don’t stop” into Xiao Zhan’s face, and yeah, that’s not really how he is most of the time, he doesn’t think. He’s definitely into Xiao Zhan being on top, but he doesn’t make that face, ecstatic love mixed with pure shameless longing. At least he hopes not.

It’s still awkward to watch, but Yibo tries to focus on how well it’s shot, the framing and color balance around them and all the artful little close-ups. Director Zhou was right about the music making the scene; it’s an instrumental piece that builds in intensity until the very end, cresting like a wave and then fading out, leaving them in silence as they kiss. The room is filled with the sound of it, wet and endless, and Yibo grins at how well it works even as he winces at being the one who’s doing it.

“Needed more lip balm that day,” Xiao Zhan says in his ear, and Yibo has to hold back a laugh.

He’s caught up in the rest of the movie from then on, though. He remembers how it felt in those last weeks on set, like something was building between them, a gathering storm that had to break. The hospital scenes with Bingtao are wrenching, and he’s more impressed than ever with the older actor’s skill. Yibo watches Lingxuan get his job offer, and then the scene with Minghua where it feels like he never breathes once, just waiting for one of them to give in, admitting a little tenderness to each other.

When Lingxuan picks up the phone in the office later, Yibo has to breathe slow and steady. It’s so strange, this one part of the film they didn’t shoot in order, his scene from the night before crossed with Xiao Zhan’s the next day. They don’t connect, they don’t see each other at all, and Yibo closes his eyes for a moment, remembering how that felt. Nobody but the two of them will ever know how much this hurt to film.

Through the next scenes, Xiao Zhan fumbles for his hand again, and Yibo takes it gratefully, knowing what comes next.

The train station appears in frame, and like that he’s caught in the world of the movie again. He holds his breath, wondering foolishly if the characters will catch sight of each other even though he knows they will. There’s that long moment, holding each other’s gaze across the platform as the train rushes by, cutting back and forth between their faces and the dawning emotion. The editing is so skillful, and he can see why they needed so many takes to choose from. Once again Yibo’s proud of being involved in something made with such care, work that he can always look back on with satisfaction.

He’s surprised, somehow, when they meet below and go immediately into the cafe, because he doesn’t remember it being like that. Wasn’t there more of a delay, both of them searching for each other before they connected at last? And then he realizes it’s his own memories creeping in, standing awkwardly on the concourse with all those extras milling around and trying so hard not to be caught staring at him, waiting for Xiao Zhan to reappear.

Eventually Xiao Zhan came out of the cafe, makeup refreshed and his head back in the game. He was so good at the end, so committed and present, keeping Yibo’s energy up all through the rest of that long day just by his obvious dedication, and Yibo’s never asked what happened while he was gone. He glances over sideways now, wondering if Xiao Zhan’s remembering it too.

Onscreen, their characters are shyly, joyfully coming together, feet touching beneath the table and hands touching above. It’s a good last shot, and they did it so many times over that Yibo can’t even remember which one this was. He’s glad their hard work came out so well, though, and glad that they’re the only people who will know how much of the movie was real. None of the obvious parts—the kissing, the long stares—but everything that happened behind the scenes, all that aching longing that let them act it out so well on camera.

Yibo has to smile, thinking of it. They were both so worried that what was happening between them was just part of the movie, some kind of acting exercise, and neither of them appreciated that it actually did help them with the work. It’s hard to imagine having filmed something like this with someone he wasn’t sleeping with.

The thought suddenly becomes wildly funny to him, and as the last shot fades out into the end credits Yibo has to put a hand over his mouth, stifling a hysterical giggle. He turns away, pressing his face against Yibo’s shoulder again.

“Are you OK?” Xiao Zhan whispers right away, sounding concerned, and Yibo realizes he thinks he’s crying. It makes another giggle bubble up, and his shoulders shake with suppressing it. Maybe later he’ll tell Xiao Zhan that he’s sorry, but he’s going to have to sleep with anyone he films a romance with, if he ever wants to do anything this good again.

As the credits play Yibo manages to get himself under control, and by the time the lights come up he’s fine. Around them, people are murmuring, sounding pleased, and when the film stops they break out into long applause.

Yibo claps, too. He looks over at Xiao Zhan, still watching him with concern, and Yibo just smiles, crinkling up his eyes.

He thought they were going to have to spend forever at the party, because Xiao Zhan and Director Zhou always used to talk for so long, but to his surprise Xiao Zhan just tells the director, “It’s perfect,” before adding, “I’ll email you about it tomorrow.”

“Producers,” Director Zhou grumbles, but he grins, looking between both of them. He’s surrounded by other people waiting to talk to him, but he reaches out and grabs both of their hands, squeezing tight. “Thank you for coming. Hope whatever you’re leaving for is worth it.”

His smile is fond and knowing, under the brim of his cap, and Yibo remembers it after he drops their hands and turns away.

They’re quiet in the cab back to Xiao Zhan’s apartment. It’s not all that late, but it was a long evening and Yibo feels tired and empty now, back in the real world. He’s still thinking about the movie, the emotional journey they just went on, and when he glances over at Xiao Zhan he looks thoughtful too.

Upstairs, Yibo uses the guest bathroom, where he keeps everything he needs for an overnight stay even though he’s not here as often as he wishes he was. The apartment is dark around him when he comes into the bedroom, where Xiao Zhan’s already in bed. There’s a suitcase on Yibo’s side, which he still needs to unpack, but Xiao Zhan has plugged Yibo’s phone into the charger and turned down the sheets for him. He might not be here as much as he wants, but when he is, it feels like home.

Yibo gets into bed, rolling over on his side, and Xiao Zhan reaches out to take his hands. They do this a lot, looking at each other while they talk, and with anyone else it would be too much but Yibo can never get close enough. Tonight he studies Xiao Zhan’s face, all the murky, interesting thoughts evident in his eyes, waiting to hear what he’ll say.

“What did you think of it?” Xiao Zhan asks at last.

“It was good,” Yibo says. He thinks about everything the movie made him remember, everything it made him feel, as well as the awkwardness of watching himself kiss and have sex on camera. It feels like too much to talk about tonight, too many things to unpack.

They have six days off together, longer than they’ve ever had before. They’re finally running through the end of what was already on their schedules, and maybe it will be more like this in the future, now that they have each other. Or maybe some new opportunities will come up, making them busier than ever. It’s hard to predict anything, pointless to do anything but savor every moment they have together.

Xiao Zhan’s still waiting for him to say something more. Yibo appreciates that, the way Xiao Zhan doesn’t always rush in to fill silences or talk over Yibo so much anymore. They’ve learned so much about each other.

“Where did you go, when you went inside the cafe?” Yibo asks. “What did you do?”

Xiao Zhan doesn’t answer for a minute. “I cried,” he says, and Yibo nods. He guessed as much. “Because I made a mistake, and it felt like the same mistake was happening again and I couldn’t do anything about it. And I was fucking up at work and wasting everyone’s time,” he adds.

It’s hard to hear him talk like this, remembering how much they were both hurting then. “You weren’t gone that long,” Yibo says, squeezing his hands.

“But I realized I could do something,” Xiao Zhan goes on. “I could have always done something. So I decided to stop fucking up at work, and to fix it with you.”

Yibo snorts. “Fix it? You tried to break up with me again.”

“What?” Xiao Zhan asks, defensively. “No I didn’t.”

I can’t pretend anymore,” Yibo says, mimicking in a dramatic monotone.

Xiao Zhan’s eyes go wide. “I was trying to tell you I loved you too much to keep pretending about it!”

Yibo just looks at him, shaking his head. “You’re just lucky I loved you enough to argue about it.”

“Yeah,” Xiao Zhan says, reaching up to touch his face, with an apologetic smile. “We’re both lucky.”

“So, did you like the movie?” Yibo asks.

“It’s good,” Xiao Zhan says. “It’s really, really good. I think it’s going to be great, like I hoped it would be. But watching it made me realize I’m glad we’re not really like that.”

“Like what?” Yibo asks. “Bad at communicating? Young and handsome? I don’t think you can help being so good-looking.”

“It doesn’t matter if they’re bad at communicating, because they’re in a movie,” Xiao Zhan says, ignoring his joke. “Everything works out so easily for them. They just look at each other and they know.”

“I don’t know, that sounds pretty good,” Yibo only half joking now.

“I’m glad we had to fight for this,” Xiao Zhan says, softly. “I wasn’t before, but it made us stronger. It made it real.”

He looks at Yibo, smiling and serious. Yibo swallows, his throat tight.

“It was easy to act out being in love with you, because I was,” Xiao Zhan says. “But the real thing is better.”

All Yibo can do is look at him, all teasing cut short, even the memory of the movie pushed aside. Because Xiao Zhan’s right: the real thing is better, for all the struggles and imperfections, the stupid misunderstandings and time apart, and even the years of missing each other. It all makes up the life they’re building every day, the people they’re becoming and the people they are now, together.

Yibo grasps Xiao Zhan’s hands tighter. “That wasn’t really us, tonight,” he says, and knows it’s true.

Xiao Zhan shakes his head, smile bright and his eyes brighter, his face so dear and familiar. Yibo loves him so much it hurts, his head filled with shooting stars and blooming roses, every silly tender thing he’s ever felt. It’s like a flowing spring, rushing and endless, a fire that only glows brighter the longer it burns.

“No,” Xiao Zhan says. “But this is.”