“I have a script for you,” someone says to Xiao Zhan one afternoon when he’s at his management’s offices. There are always people with scripts for him, but this is a studio executive and he’s supposed to be polite. “Director Zhou wants you for the lead,” the executive adds casually.
Xiao Zhan looks down at the cover page to see the script is by Zhou Guoxian, a legendary filmmaker he’s barely even dared to dream of working with. He raises his eyebrows slightly. “This is an original script?”
“An adaptation,” the executive says. “You probably know the book.”
Xiao Zhan looks at the title. He hasn’t read the book, but he’s certainly heard of it. His heart starts beating faster.
“Thanks,” he says. “I’ll look at this tonight.”
Before he’s even finished reading, Xiao Zhan knows this is the script, the one that could alter the course of his career. Not like Chen Qing Ling changed his life six years ago, catapulting him from a minor idol to a household name, or the way his more serious roles have slowly taken him to the upper echelons of dramatic actors. This is a love story, daring and bold, groundbreaking and unforgettable, if only he’s brave enough to do it.
So of course, eventually, they bring up the idea of casting Yibo as his lover.
Everything goes fast once he accepts the part, with some flattering emails from Director Zhou and early discussion about his role, but then it fades into the background of his life, taking its time the way projects in development always do. Xiao Zhan’s still reading other scripts and working on other things, because nothing is ever certain. He signed on knowing it might never even happen, for one of a thousand reasons that things go sideways—problems with funding or rights, schedules not working out, or just something inexplicable. For all that, it feels good to have the project sitting somewhere in his future, both good and scary, like waiting for a roller coaster and not remembering, until you get to the head of the line, what you’re really there for.
At the beginning of the new year, though, he starts getting emails that sound like it’s really going forward. Lists of smaller roles they’ve filled, some tentative shooting locations, script revisions. Xiao Zhan followed his manager’s advice and requested a producer credit, which means that now he’s one of the dozens of people who need to approve decisions. He’s done that before, but it feels more personal this time, with the story that’s being told.
After he got the script, he read the book right away. Usually he doesn’t do that, wanting his version of a character to stand alone, but he was so captivated by Lingxuan’s choices, difficult but inevitable, that he had to know more. In truth, Xiao Zhan found himself identifying with the book more than he expected, with each step exactly what he would have felt motivated to do himself. It was like looking into a strange, warped mirror, a life that could have been his so easily, if he hadn’t reached for something more.
They still haven’t found him a costar yet and it’s April, just six weeks before the proposed start of filming, when he finally opens an email that says, What about casting Wang Yibo?
Xiao Zhan stops short when he reads that, sitting back from his laptop with his arms folded across his chest. There are other replies on the email chain, discussing logistics and salary, whether they’d need a live reading or just a screen test, even whether Yibo’s face shape is right. It’s rough but they’re all the normal, ordinary concerns of the film industry, where the only reality that matters is how to make it work, managing the disparate parts and tricks that create the fantasy onscreen.
Wang Yibo doesn’t do films like this, one of the replies says.
It’s true. Xiao Zhan hasn’t kept close track of Yibo’s career, or seen all his work by half, but he has a vague awareness of how it’s gone—split as always between dance, acting, variety shows, and extreme sports. Yibo got a brief boost to his popularity three years ago as the winter sport ambassador at the Beijing Olympics, and for a while it looked like he might move entirely into sports presenting. But the moment passed, and Yibo went back to the patchwork of interests he’s always had. It must be exhausting, traveling so much and working in so many types of entertainment, but Xiao Zhan thinks Yibo must still like it that way. Too busy to think; he’d rather just show up, do what he’s told, have a good time, and move onto the next thing.
Wang Yibo would be a draw, the next reply says, from someone on the production side. Maybe give us a longer leash with the studio, if we have more popular appeal.
Xiao Zhan has popular appeal, someone else says, and Xiao Zhan stops reading, because this is the kind of thing he doesn’t like about his job. It’s crazy that whether he should cut his hair or update his Weibo gets decided by how it might affect his popularity rating, and though he’s long since submitted to the necessity of letting other people make those decisions for him, the whole point of doing this project was to escape from all that for a little while.
The idea of working with Yibo again, though. He thinks about the book, and the tight, beautiful script Director Zhou wrote for it, somehow getting to the very heart of the story. The way the protagonist is adrift, trying to navigate the confusing waters of his life with one person the only thing on his horizon. Xiao Zhan tries to imagine Yibo as that lifeline, with his calm face and the subtleties of his expression.
Except that’s not how Yibo really is, and it’s not how Xiao Zhan remembers him from that feverish, frenzied summer or the promotion tour the following year. Yibo was so young then, incandescent and unstoppable. Bright and impulsive, mercurial and easygoing, impossible to ignore.
He’d be good for the role, Xiao Zhan knows, if only they could capture that quality. Not the solemn, yearning reserve of Lan Wangji, but the kind of glowing charm that could make a person give up his whole life for it.
Xiao Zhan closes his eyes, and suddenly he’s not thinking like a producer or even like an actor, because he remembers everything. It comes flowing through him, hot and aching, memories he’s held and touched until he’d thought they were faded, past sparking feeling anymore. Tonight they evoke a galaxy of emotion, solid and real, stealing his breath.
The idea of working with Yibo again.
He breathes deeply, gathering himself again. When he opens his eyes he sees that the conversation has continued on, now getting caught up in arguments over Yibo’s exact popularity rating and whether he has the dramatic chops to carry the role. Xiao Zhan’s back stiffens at that, and of all the reasons in the world, that’s why he jumps into the discussion.
I’ve always admired Wang Yibo’s acting ability. If Director Zhou thinks he’s right for the role, I agree.
A tactical move, since Director Zhou hasn’t weighed in yet, but Xiao Zhan knows it’s too tempting to pass up. A popular actor, their combined history, and suddenly the project has a lot more chance of going forward. In truth, that motivates Xiao Zhan more than a little bit as well; casting an unknown, or another dramatic actor, would be risky from a commercial point of view. This is a good move for everyone.
He closes his laptop screen after he sends the email, going to get ready for bed. It takes more work to keep his skin looking good these days, and he lets his mind wander as he goes through his lengthy routine in the bathroom, smoothing and massaging his face.
Will they ask Yibo? Will they tell him Xiao Zhan advocated for him? Will he say yes?
It’s only a project, he finally tells himself, patting his face dry and moving into the bedroom. Projects are just plans until you start shooting, and maybe not even then.
His room is perfectly neat, vacuumed and dusted by the cleaners this morning, the bed with all its layers of luxurious sheets and covers so elaborately smoothed and arranged he’s almost afraid to mess it up by getting into it. Yesterday’s laundry has already been returned and put away, and someone gathered up all the books he left around the house and stacked them at his bedside. All these people are in his life now, insidious little changes he couldn’t seem to hold out against. There are fresh flowers on his dresser and the window darkens itself at sunset, shielding from the outside while still giving him views of skyscrapers and miles of lights, water in the distance.
Xiao Zhan’s too tired for anything but turning out the bedside light and sliding under the crisp, starched sheets with a sigh. He’s most of the way through filming a serious drama, set for release next year, and as usual he has the burden of the most lines. He loves his work, but it takes a toll, and in the end it’s good to have other people who worry about things for him.
He thinks, suddenly, that if they were still in touch he could send a message to Yibo. Tell him about the project, ask if he’s interested, extend a personal invitation instead of letting it be a business proposition, like Xiao Zhan wasn’t involved at all. Get his answer right away, instead of wondering about it.
But if they were still in touch he wouldn’t be worrying like this, and it wouldn’t mean so much to think of Yibo taking the role. The truth is, the reasons the story feels so personal to Xiao Zhan have everything to do with Yibo and why they don’t talk anymore.
There was no train station moment for them, not like at the end of the book. No time when all the formless agitation of feelings coalesced into something immediate, something he knew what to do with. Life isn’t fiction, and they never locked eyes with everything suddenly clear.
Instead they said goodbye for the last time at an awards ceremony, surrounded by cameras and people, walking away in different directions. It felt like his chest was caving in, but that could have been about so many things. They’d already said it all at the end of their wild and dizzy summer together, and Xiao Zhan hadn’t expected that to change.
It was just somehow surprising that it didn’t, like the buoyant unlikely luck that had carried him from obscurity to the peak of fame had finally fallen short.
When he first read the script for The Life You Gave Me, Xiao Zhan lingered on the final scene. The unspoken charge, the quiet way the characters are drawn together, with the illumination of love outshining the need for words. His confidence has gotten him far, and Xiao Zhan believes in himself absolutely, but he’s never been that sure of another person’s feelings in his life.
He’s getting sleepy now, exhaustion pulling him under, but he can’t stop running over those well-worn pages of memory again, the tug of regret tight in his throat. How fast it happened, going to bed together, and the times that stand out: the night the air conditioner broke, the night they never slept at all, and the night Yibo fell asleep before they finished, heavy and trusting in his arms. Riches he never valued at the time, to always have another night coming, and another.
Seven years later, Xiao Zhan can’t think why it felt so important to say those words he’d planned out, the tight, careful little speech he made the morning after filming wrapped, except that the easy way Yibo shrugged and nodded in response made him glad he had. It would have ended on its own, he knows that, but it felt right to do it themselves, like something they were folding up and putting away.
It was never going to be the same with anything else. It hasn’t been; the projects since have always been just work, no matter how pleasant or engrossing. It was that summer, it was being new and young and on the verge of everything. It was not knowing anything. That’s what he misses, he tells himself.
Still, and still.
Yibo will be good for the part. It wasn’t Xiao Zhan’s suggestion or decision, and that makes this feel magical, touched by something beyond them. It would be nice to be friends again as costars, adults now. Yibo’s almost thirty. Everything will be different.
But drifting off at last, Xiao Zhan can’t help a faint, plaintive wish for everything to be just the same.
At first, Yibo doesn’t want to take the part.
He knows about the book, of course, though he hasn’t read it. An indie movie isn’t his thing, and he’s stayed away from danmei projects since his big breakthrough, trying not to get pigeon-holed. He doesn’t want to get locked into any one thing, not dramas or even acting, and he’s worked hard to keep his career as varied as possible. Exhausting, but that’s the way he likes it.
It’s not danmei, his manager messages back. It’s a real prestige film. You could win a big award for this.
That makes Yibo pause for a moment, because it’s true that he’s been thinking about trying more serious acting. He likes a challenge.
I don’t know about my schedule, he replies, though. I was thinking about a vacation this summer.
Is this because Xiao Zhan is involved? Jun Ning asks.
It feels like Yibo goes cold all over. He sits up from where he was sprawled on the couch, reaching onto the floor for the scripts he left down there. They’re spilling everywhere, out of the nice folders Jun Ning had them organized in when she sent over the latest batch for review, and it takes him a while to come up with the right one. It’s loosely stapled and he flips over the title page, looking for the cast list he skipped before, when he was bored and skimming on a commercial break.
There. The leading role. Of course.
Yibo lies back on the couch, still holding the folded script, staring at those two characters. He hasn’t followed Xiao Zhan’s projects much, especially as he moved into serious films. At first he wasn’t interested in watching Xiao Zhan cheese his way through romantic dramas, wearing dorky sweaters and making eyes at girls, and then his movies were all too heavy for Yibo, not his style at all. Xiao Zhan still does some singing performances, and Yibo has the single he put out for Christmas a couple years back, but even though they’re both under Tencent’s umbrella it’s in wildly different areas, and they never have any reason to meet even at big events.
There was supposed to be a five year anniversary event for the show, last year. First a live performance, and then when that didn’t work out there was a WeChat chain about just getting the cast together, a private reunion. Yibo doesn’t remember if Xiao Zhan was even involved, but anyway it didn’t come to anything; too many busy people, too far apart. Yibo got drinks with the TUBS guys at one point, and he saw Xuan Lu’s pictures at a cafe with Zhuocheng, and he thinks the kids who played the juniors still hang out, even though none of them are really kids anymore.
Yibo’s not a kid anymore either, and he tries to make his career decisions with a practical mind, but he still tends to drift towards whatever seems most interesting. He knows it drives Jun Ning crazy, and she’s had to work hard to get him some of the opportunities that were less interesting to him but paid better. He should probably be more appreciative.
Also, why would she think he wouldn’t take a job because of Xiao Zhan?
Of course I can work with Xiao Zhan, he says, and adds, I’d be happy to. I just don’t know if this project is right for me.
It’s the truth, but after he sends it he’s already starting to page through the script, reading it for real now. His character has comparatively more lines than Lan Wangji did, which is good to see, though he realizes they probably won’t be dubbing his voice this time. It’s a quiet story for all that, with so much said between the dialogue in lengthy directions for lingering shots on their faces. Yibo likes that idea, both of them being quiet for once. Xiao Zhan would have to learn how to act like Yibo did last time, putting into subtle expressions what can’t be said in words.
He realizes with a start that he’s already thinking about this project like something that’s really going to happen, imagining acting together again. Not just acting; the long days on set and the evenings off it, the closeness that isn’t like anything else. The creative work and chemistry they’d make between them, carried on like a fire they built.
Yibo has to close his eyes, the old raging hurt roaring to life again. Everything was perfect that summer, or at least he’d thought so. The work was half ridiculous—histrionic scenes shot all out of order and flying wirework with flailing sleeves and swords—and half so real and raw it felt like he aged a lifetime in just a few months, coming through it as the adult he’d pretended to be.
But he was so young then, still. Young enough to think any of it was real.
It took him almost a year to realize that Xiao Zhan hadn’t meant to hurt him. The detached way Xiao Zhan spoke to him that last morning was really his way of being kind, putting a clean ending on things in case Yibo had had the wrong idea. There was nothing to do but act like he was right.
And Yibo had never thought they would go off into the sunset together, hadn’t even known what he wanted yet, but he’d thought there was something more there. That they’d marked each other, chosen each other, bonded somehow, in a way that meant something. That there was more ahead of them, time to figure it out.
In all these years, after everything that’s happened in his life, he’s never really changed his mind. He’s had relationships, as much as his career allows, and met more people than he could imagine, but it’s never been the same.
It’s a lot of baggage to carry into a project, especially one as serious and intimate as this one. Maybe Jun Ning is right, even if she doesn’t know why. But the more Yibo thinks about it, the more he hates the idea of running from this because of their past. All this time he’s been gnawing over something he couldn’t change, and it feels stupid not to take a chance to make it right, whatever that means.
I’ll read the script, he messages, admitting what she already knows, that he didn’t before. You’re right, it would be a good project to take. What are the chances of it actually going forward?
She doesn’t answer for a while, like his previous resistance made her give up and go away. Yibo busies himself with the script while he waits, starting to feel the pull of the story, the way the characters are coming to life before him. Finally, the reply comes.
With both you and Xiao Zhan? It’s a smash hit for sure.
Xiao Zhan has long since gotten used to having no break between projects. Usually they overlap, starting something new as he’s trying to wind down the old one, a whiplash whirlwind that requires some serious concentration in his dressing room before he has to go out and remember who to be today. The family drama series he did this spring has a few extra days of shooting before he leaves for Dianshan Lake, but it’s mostly reshoots, and it’s easy to get through them. He can tell his castmates are ready to be done too, heading off for new projects or snatching a few weeks of vacation, and he feels lucky to be doing both, working in such a beautiful place.
Director Zhou has insisted on everything being shot on location, even renting a pair of houses on the lake instead of filming on set interiors. Both the film and the production should have a loose, authentic feeling, he explained over email, and he wants everyone to be comfortable. The cast and crew is staying at a hotel, but he’s rented a third lake house, much smaller, that he wants to use for table reads and “evening socialization,” whatever that means. Xiao Zhan’s worked on a lot of movies, and never really felt like hanging out with people once the work was done.
(Was Chen Qing Ling different because it was his first significant project? Because there were so many night shoots, it was hard to distinguish free time from work? Because everyone else was just as excited as he was to be working, even in the remote heat of the mountains, even for long hours in heavy costumes and wigs, all of them feeling the same thing?)
(Because of Yibo. Because of the way the two of them had set the tone for everyone, and how every day had felt like the first year of college, freedom and intrigue and wild excitement, like he was starting everything over again.)
He’s made good choices since then, Xiao Zhan thinks on the flight to Shanghai. He’s picked good projects, associated with good people, even made good real estate decisions, selling his old apartment just before the district became less desirable, landing a good place in a new building. There’s enough in the bank now that it takes several people to manage it and his parents are taken care of too, along with his extended family. When he wants company he can have it, and he’s stayed in touch with friends from his old life, even if it’s not more than an exchange of messages most of the time. He’s comfortable being on his own, and he doesn’t have many regrets.
That’s how he wants to be, he thinks, when he meets Yibo again. Quiet, comfortable. Not the person he was that summer, feeling the poignant ache of a few years’ age difference and the euphoria of real fame right on the horizon, caught between stages in his life.
Yibo is just about the age now that he was then, Xiao Zhan realizes with surprise. It’s funny to think how old he felt, surrounded by such young, highstrung actors, when he really wasn’t all that old himself. He wonders how Yibo will be, if he’s settled down more or if his calm, good-looking face is still likely to break into that broad grin with some prank or trick.
But the play fighting wasn’t about either of their personalities, not really. Everything seemed loud that summer, a hot tension humming beneath it all. The competition between them as co-leads, but also that unspoken anxiety, the knowledge of what kind of love story they were telling. The script was carefully never explicit, but they all worked to take it to the very edge of what was allowed, and it felt like he and Yibo needed to push back against that. Dispel the nerves, show that what they were doing wasn’t real.
The irony, Xiao Zhan thinks as the plane begins its descent, was that they made it real themselves off camera, as if that proved it wasn’t.
It made some kind of crazy sense at the time. How could they stare at each other all day like that, serious and tender, and not keep feeling it after? Someone dared them to kiss at an early room party, before they all learned that getting too drunk made the next day’s shoot even more hellish, and there wasn’t even much of a fuss beyond the initial shout. Everybody knew. Things didn’t change on set, the same rough play between takes and the return to high emotion once the camera started rolling, and what they did in their hotel rooms later felt like a compromise, a safe middle ground. They were just trying to make it through.
He pulls up his mask and finds his sunglasses as the plane’s interior lights come on and there’s a bustle of people stretching and gathering their things. Xiao Zhan yawns too, behind his mask. It’s tiring, going over all these memories again. He’s long since settled it in the back of his mind.
In the airport he finds his bag quickly and heads for the exit, scanning for his name on the signs being held up by the crowd of drivers. He finally spots it near the back, written above another name that makes him stop short.
Xiao Zhan stands in the middle of an enormous, bustling Shanghai terminal, feeling like his feet are suddenly too heavy to move. Their names, paired together on a sign, held by a middle-aged man with a round, shaved head and deep tired pouches beneath his eyes. And standing next to him—
It’s only a few seconds before Yibo turns and sees him, but it feels like a lifetime. Long enough to recognize the sweep of Yibo’s hair, reddish brown like Xiao Zhan remembers but softer, less styled. Who knows how many haircuts and colors Yibo’s had since they last met, or where he’s been or what he’s done; he was always changing and mutable even when Xiao Zhan thought he knew him, like he was too busy and enamored with life to decide on one version of himself.
But no, Xiao Zhan thinks, as Yibo looks at him at last. Yibo always knew exactly who he was. It was discomfiting, that burning certainty in his eyes, too much to look at for long.
He can’t see Yibo’s eyes now, hidden behind big aviator sunglasses and a black face mask. For all that Yibo is easy to recognize, with his lean strong frame, his height, his aura of being somehow special and apart. They’re looking at each other from behind tinted lenses, across an impossibly crowded terminal, and Xiao Zhan still feels the power of his presence.
Xiao Zhan crosses the terminal quickly, spurred to movement by the cab driver waving the sign. It’s been a long time since he and Yibo together in public could cause a riot, but he still doesn’t want to attract attention.
“Xiao-xiansheng?” the driver asks, when he gets closer. The man gives him a quick, bored once-over as Xiao Zhan tugs his mask down briefly. “OK. I’ll take your bag.”
He already has the handle of Yibo’s roller bag in one hand, and Xiao Zhan shakes his head. “I can manage.”
The driver frowns at him, reaching for his suitcase, and repeats his words. “I’ll take your bag. It’s my job.”
Xiao Zhan doesn’t want to make things difficult, so he gives it up. The driver tucks his sign under his arm and turns around, pulling a bag in both hands as he heads for the big sliding glass doors.
Now is the moment to say something to Yibo, but by the time Xiao Zhan looks over Yibo is already following the driver, striding to the exit. Their faces are both covered, Xiao Zhan’s shielded by a baseball cap, but they probably shouldn’t linger anyway. There’s so much time ahead of them.
They come out of the terminal and into the late afternoon, air hazy as the sun sinks lower in the sky. Xiao Zhan checks his mask out of habit, squinting even with his sunglasses through the glare. The car is a black, nondescript luxury sedan, and the driver is already loading the bags into the trunk by the time he gets there.
Yibo is standing on the sidewalk. He turns as Xiao Zhan approaches, and it’s impossible to read his expression but it looks like his eyebrows lift behind his sunglasses, maybe in a friendly grin. His hand is outstretched, and Xiao Zhan takes it.
Yibo pulls him in with casual ease, bumping shoulders briefly. “Hey man. It’s good to see you.”
“Yeah,” Xiao Zhan says, feeling a little breathless.
Yibo steps back, letting go of his hand. “Good flight and stuff?”
“Yeah,” Xiao Zhan says again, and a sudden wave of laughter bubbles up. Standing on a sidewalk outside the Shanghai airport, hardly even able to see each other’s faces, meeting for the first time in more than five years, and all Yibo has to say to him is a question about his flight.
“If you’ll step inside,” the driver says behind them, formally.
Yibo brushes his hair off his forehead, tucking it behind his ear, and gestures. “After you.”
Once this would have been an excuse for a stupid fight, mock politeness and friendly slaps, wrestling until one of them gave in. Now they’re older, established, conscious of other people’s time. Unfamiliar and awkward, reduced to being polite for real.
Xiao Zhan lets Yibo step aside for him, and gets into the car.
They’re quiet on the hour-long drive to the lake, for the most part. He didn’t expect it to be like this, their first meeting seemingly private but really not. There’s a table read tomorrow, the only rehearsal Director Zhou has planned, and he’s imagined it would be like the first time they met, surrounded by their costars and the crew, folded in as part of the adventure of the project. It’s hard to know how to be, with a stranger riding with them, but in truth he’s grateful for it. He’s not ready to be alone with Yibo yet, figuring out who they are to each other now.
Instead they take turns asking the driver questions about the area, which he answers shortly and without enthusiasm. He doesn’t know Dianshan Lake well, and as the drive passes by it starts to take on an edge of dark comedy, desperately trying to keep a conversation going with anyone but each other.
“Maybe,” the driver keeps saying. “I wouldn’t know.”
Finally they lapse into silence, each leaning on their own window. They have their masks pulled down now and Xiao Zhan glances over to see Yibo looking out the window, chin on his hand and his head tilted up, watching the darkening sky as the scenery flashes by. There’s still enough sunlight that it illuminates the contours of Yibo’s profile, his round nose and full lips, the shadow of stubble above and below. He doesn’t look almost thirty but he doesn’t look like Xiao Zhan remembers, either. Yibo always had something watchful about him, an edge of laughter to it like he was waiting for something, or just about to reveal something himself.
Now he looks calm and composed, harder to read than before. He stirs and Xiao Zhan glances away before their eyes meet. Now Yibo is looking at him instead, and Xiao Zhan wonders what he sees.
The sun is setting when they pull into the hotel parking lot. It’s a little ways from the lake and nothing special, just a white building surrounded by trees. There’s a PA waiting for them in the lobby who ushers them into the elevator, while someone else takes their bags. It’s a relief to be back in the production world as Xiao Zhan knows it, following what he’s told to do, with too many people around for the almost-intimacy that descended in the car.
When the elevator comes to a stop, the PA says, “this way, Wang-xiansheng,” while the man with Xiao Zhan’s bags starts to walk the opposite way down the hall.
They glance at each other, expressions still hidden behind dark glasses. “Uh,” Yibo says. “You want to grab dinner or something?”
He says it diffidently, a little formal, and it’s hard to tell if it’s just a pleasantry he felt he had to say or a real invitation. Xiao Zhan hesitates, then takes the safer option.
“I’m tired,” he says, honestly. “I think I’m just going to order room service and go to bed.”
“Right,” Yibo says. Too quickly? Relieved or disappointed? It’s been too long, and Xiao Zhan was never great at reading Yibo’s quiet voice.
“I’ll see you tomorrow morning at the table read?” Xiao Zhan says.
He can tell Yibo smiles, from the way his face moves behind his mask and sunglasses. “Tomorrow,” Yibo says.
If a smile could echo, ghostly and half-unseen, his does, because Xiao Zhan keeps thinking about it the rest of the night.
Yibo’s better at early morning calls than he used to be, but it’s still a relief to see that the day’s schedule starts with a ten am pickup. He’s never worked with this director before, but his manager told him to expect things to be different from what he’s used to.
“He’s an auteur,” Jun Ning said, emphasis on the word. “It’ll be good for you.”
Yibo hates when she says that. It usually means something uncomfortable and awkward, like a commercial for an embarrassing supplement or an event where he doesn’t know anybody. He reminds himself that he wanted to do this.
He flips through the script again as he finishes his breakfast. It seems good, as far as he knows about serious movies, and he’s excited about some of the acting he’ll get to do. The confrontation with his character’s parents is going to be fun, and he relishes how much emotion he’ll have to put into a few spare, cutting lines. He’s never really gotten to do anything like this.
Yibo hasn’t let himself look at the romantic scenes much, after the first readthrough. He knows there are several of them, and that they’re going to push him more than anything ever has as an actor, regardless of who’s playing the other part. He figures they’ll get there when they get there.
For now, he scrapes up the last bites of congee and puts his shoes on, stopping to adjust his hair in the mirror. They’ll probably want to cut it; letting his hair grow as long as he can between projects is one of his quiet little rebellions these days. Yibo pushes his hair back and heads downstairs.
The hotel is quieter than he’d expect in summer, but it’s fancy in an old-fashioned way and not very near the lake, which probably keeps some guests away. The few in the lobby don’t pay him much attention, and through the glass doors he sees some people gathered on the sidewalk outside near a small shuttle bus. A man and a woman, a pair of young girls with their parents, an older couple, four or five more people standing apart who look like part of the production team.
And Xiao Zhan.
He didn’t really expect Xiao Zhan to have dinner with him last night; he’s not even really sure why he asked. It just felt like the thing to do, something friendly to push back against that agonizing car ride they’d just had, with the driver sitting there the whole time. He can’t blame Xiao Zhan for not wanting to hang out together on their very first night, but eventually they’re going to have to talk.
About so many things, but mostly about why the hell either of them agreed to this project.
Yibo can tell himself all day that he wants the prestige, the exposure, the new experience, but the truth is he could have started with so many movies that didn’t require him to do love scenes with his ex-boyfriend. Or his ex-something—he’s never been sure what they were, what it all meant. That’s part of the problem.
He doesn’t know if Xiao Zhan agreed to this because what happened between them meant so little that Xiao Zhan thinks nothing of playing lovers now, or the exact opposite of that, but it feels like a vital question either way.
As Yibo walks through the glass doors, an older man comes around the shuttle bus, a stack of scripts under his arm and a red baseball cap pulled low on his head. He’s dressed casually, a grey t-shirt tucked over a substantial paunch into faded jeans, but he has that air of authority Yibo has learned to recognize.
“Good morning, everybody,” Director Zhou says. “I’d like to welcome you all to the project. I’m going to be your driver for today, as well as your host. If you’d please step inside.”
He disappears back behind the shuttle bus, and after a moment of hesitation, everyone else follows him. It’s small inside, but somehow Yibo and Xiao Zhan end up as the only two with seats to themselves, across from each other at the front. He can tell the other people are glancing at them, fame making an awkward, palpable barrier as always, and Yibo slouches in his seat a bit, looking over at Xiao Zhan.
Instead of slouching, Xiao Zhan turns around with a smile and pushes his sunglasses up onto his forehead. “Hi, everyone,” he says brightly to the back of the bus. “I’m Xiao Zhan.”
There’s an amused murmur, because of course everyone knows that. Xiao Zhan goes on. “I just wanted to say that I’m really excited to be working on this movie, and I hope we have a good time and make a great film. If you ever need anything from me, or if there’s something I should do differently, please let me know.”
He presses his hands together briefly, nodding his head over them, and then glances over at Yibo.
Belatedly, Yibo turns around, taking off his sunglasses and squinting. “Hi. Uh, I’m Wang Yibo. What Xiao Zhan said—the same. Please tell me if I do anything wrong, because I’m new to, uh—” He fumbles for a moment, not knowing how to characterize his career. “Small films.”
He bows over his hands too, and then Director Zhou speaks up from behind him. “Well, we could just do the whole table read from this bus, if you guys want.”
General laughter, and Yibo can feel the tension easing in the crowd, starting to become a cast instead of a group of strangers.
“No?” Director Zhou says. “You want to see the lake? Great, let’s go.”
The bus roars to life, and lurches forward under his hands, creaking as the brake releases. Yibo turns back around in his seat, catching Xiao Zhan’s eye in the process. They smile and it feels better than before, like the tension has broken with them too, just a little.
It’s a short drive, the still waters of the lake coming into view in a few kilometers. The lake is small, with a narrow shore where houses cluster along it above private docks. Director Zhou takes them onto a narrow spit of land and parks in front of one of the houses, facing into a forested inlet with the masts of a few small boats visible above the roofs.
Inside, all sight lines lead to the water. There’s a main central room with a round doorway on either side, and the back wall is all glass, giving a view of the inlet to the left and the open lake to the right. Yibo feels peaceful just looking at it, like this is a good place to be.
“Sit, sit,” Director Zhou says, bustling in. “I’ll make tea.”
He disappears through one of the round doorways into the kitchen, and the cast finds their places around the long table in the middle of the room, surrounded by mismatched folding chairs. Yibo finds himself facing the water, with Xiao Zhan on one side and the man playing his father on the other.
After a moment of awkward silence, the woman sitting across from him speaks up.
“Well, I’m Wu Fan,” she says, tucking a strand of hair behind her ear. It’s bobbed chin-length, longer in front, and she has a brisk, straightforward attitude. “I’m playing Tan Minghua—the sister, you know. I guess this’ll be my house in the film?”
“No, the sets are much nicer—this is my house,” Director Zhou says, bustling back in with a tray holding an enormous teapot and covered with small tea cups. He begins setting them down in front of the actors. “Well, my house for the shoot. I wanted a place we could all come back to after filming that isn’t the hotel.”
“Is that usual, renting houses for sets?” Yibo asks. He knows he’s going to have to ask a bunch of stupid questions, and he might as well get used to it.
“Nope,” Director Zhou says, with a shrug. He puts the teapot down in the middle of the table and slips the tray under his arm. He looks at Yibo, raising one dark bushy eyebrow under the brim of his cap. “But this is my movie, and I get to do things my way on this particular film.”
He looks around the room, smiling briefly as he glances over at the two little girls. “This is going to be a special film, I can tell. We had to do the casting separately, but I have a good feeling about this group. I think we’re going to do very good work together.”
With that, he withdraws to a chair in the corner, his back to the water, and pulls up a footstool, his elbows propped on the armrests and fingers laced over his round stomach. It’s hard to see his face under the cap, tugged down low. He crosses his legs, one battered white sneaker on top of the other, and settles in. “So let’s get started.”
The actors glance around at each other, reaching for the pile of scripts, and there’s silence as everyone flips through. Finally Xiao Zhan clears his throat.
“It’s strange to say it now,” he begins, narrating. “But losing my job was the best thing that ever happened to me.”
It’s well into afternoon by the time the table read finishes, the sun dropped lower so it’s shining right into Xiao Zhan’s eyes. The little girls playing his nieces have long since left, their parents saying it was time for lunch, tactfully, as the movie took a turn into more adult material. Director Zhou was silent for most of it, so silent that occasionally Xiao Zhan had to look to see if he’d fallen asleep under the brim of his cap, but from time to time he roused, telling them to reread the scene they’d just done. He never offered any guidance, just asked to hear it again, and there was no way of knowing what he thought.
Now they’re all sitting quietly, beneath a curiously heavy kind of silence that Xiao Zhan can feel buzzing in his head. He’s still coming back to himself, the difficult rhythms of Lingxuan’s life receding, along with the enormous emotions he felt as the story reached its height. Before he took the project, he read through the script and heard the lines in his head, but it’s nothing to actually speaking them out loud to another person, living them like his own words.
He can hear Yibo, next to him, breathing hard. Neither of them had many lines in the last scene, but he must have been affected too, feeling the power of the story. Xiao Zhan looks over and flashes a reassuring smile, briefly touching their elbows together. He’s going to have to start doing things like that, costar things, making their working relationship friendly and comfortable. With the intensity of the story, it’ll get weird between them otherwise.
Yibo doesn’t smile back. He just looks at Xiao Zhan, dark eyes piercing beneath his tilted brows, and for a second it feels like Xiao Zhan’s heart falters, reconsidering its place in his chest. He stares back, smile fading, trying to interpret that look, and then Director Zhou speaks.
“Well,” he says. “It looks like I cast the right people.”
He stands, and everyone slumps back in their chairs, tired laughter breaking into sighs. Yang Cheng, who’s playing Xiao Zhan’s brother in law, looks over and smiles brightly, lifting his hands and clapping.
“Bravo,” Yang Cheng says. “Bravo everyone, really. I’m super excited to be working with you guys.”
His smile is broad and sincere, a little goofy, and he looks very different from his dour, unhappy character. Xiao Zhan’s already getting to like this cast, to feel that pull of community and connectedness he was hoping for. Wu Fan is more reserved but she’s smiling too, stretching her arms over her head.
“I’m starving,” she says, just as there’s a knock on the door.
“Perfect timing,” Director Zhou says, and goes to open it for the delivery driver.
Everyone busies themselves with organizing the dishes around the table, while he disappears in the kitchen and comes back with bowls and chopsticks, and by then the heavy reserve that was lingering after the read-through has dissipated, under the friendly chatter and passing of food. The sun has dropped low enough it’s shining through the window now, reflecting off the lake, and Xiao Zhan has to squint and turn away, which is when he realizes Yibo’s not at the table.
He pushes his chair back and stands, going in the direction Yibo must have gone, through one of the big round doorways. It leads into a hall with two closed doors and one open one, and Xiao Zhan goes through what must be the master bedroom and out a sliding glass door onto the side deck.
Yibo is standing at the end, a few meters away, at the edge of the water. He has both his hands folded behind his back, shoulders straight, brown hair ruffled by the wind off the lake. He’s dressed simply today, a loose cream-colored sweater over black slacks and sneakers, but when he turns his profile is as handsome as ever, the fullness of his features matched against his beautiful, distant eyes.
“You didn’t cry,” Yibo says.
Xiao Zhan shuts the slider behind him, leaning against it. The deck is small, and their voices carry without him coming closer.
“What do you mean,” he says, carefully. Yibo could be talking about a lot of things.
“At the table read,” Yibo says. “You’re supposed to cry in the last scene. You didn’t.”
“Oh,” Xiao Zhan says. He reaches up to rub the back of his neck, turning to look out at the inlet. “I don’t know. It was just a table read. Like a run-through for dance, you don’t go a hundred percent, you know?”
“You always used to,” Yibo says.
Xiao Zhan turns back to look at Yibo, before he knows what he’s going to say. It leaves him looking for words to explain himself, caught off guard again by how beautiful Yibo is. His jaw is stronger and his face more narrow, but it hasn’t lost that luminous quality that always drew Xiao Zhan’s eyes, so much he had to remember not to look. Now he’s older, it’s like the glow has been refined in the sharper planes of his face, polished and radiant.
His eyes seem older too, Xiao Zhan thinks, but there’s still that searching sincerity, something vulnerable and direct. Yibo was always looking at him like that, but the expression disappeared whenever he looked back.
The moment has gone on too long now, and anything he says will feel awkward and untrue. Xiao Zhan tightens his jaw and plows ahead into what they aren’t talking about. “Lots of things used to be different. Lao Wang—”
At the sound of the old nickname, he sees Yibo flinch before turning back to face the water again, shoving his hands in his pockets. His shoulders are hunched, and Xiao Zhan feels a pang of regret for stepping so clumsily. He takes a breath and lets it out, slow.
“Do you like the script?” he asks, carefully. “I think it’s really good. Great, even. I feel like this movie could be a really big deal.”
“I liked the script when I looked at it before,” Yibo says. “But it feels like so much more when we read it out loud.”
“Yeah,” Xiao Zhan says.
“The last scene—” Yibo says, and stops.
The silence stretches out, painful and growing more so, sharp and cutting as a string wrapped tight.
“It’s good,” Xiao Zhan says, soft, helpless. He wishes he had better words.
Yibo turns around, hands still deep in his pockets. His eyes look red now, and serious. The sweater is cashmere, Xiao Zhan realizes; a touch of deep, impractical luxury to set off his casual appearance. It must be almost thirty degrees out here.
“This movie could be something great,” Yibo says, fiercely. Xiao Zhan nods, expecting Yibo to break into a smile, but he doesn’t change expression or look away. “We’ve got to put our whole selves into it. If we hold back, it won’t work. We have to give everything.”
He’s rebuking Xiao Zhan, but his words are also echoing what they were told at the start of filming in Hengdian. Don’t hold back. Don’t play it with a wink. Put all your feelings into this. Put your real selves out there, and we’ll make something great.
Xiao Zhan stares at Yibo, because that has to be on purpose, making him think of that hot, close summer and where putting their real selves out there got them. Maybe Yibo’s reminding him that this has to end the same way—the closeness is temporary, no matter how it feels at the time.
“Why did you take the part?” Xiao Zhan asks, suddenly, the words spilling from his mouth like they were just waiting to be said.
Yibo’s face changes at last, eyes widening, lips parting. He shifts, rocking back a step. He’s about to speak, when a knock comes on the glass slider.
Xiao Zhan jumps, feeling it against his back as much as hearing it. He turns to see Director Zhou, who pulls the door open enough to be heard.
“Come and eat!” he says. “We’re driving around the lake soon.”
“We’ll be there,” Xiao Zhan says. “Just give us minute, dao-yan.”
Director Zhou frowns, under his ball cap, and glances over Xiao Zhan’s shoulder at Yibo. Xiao Zhan gets the strange feeling he understands everything with one look, but the director only says, “OK, one more minute,” before pulling the door shut again.
Xiao Zhan takes a breath, centering himself, before he turns around again. “We should talk more,” he says. “Not now, but soon.”
He smiles, trying to be friendly, although he can tell it doesn’t quite reach his eyes. Yesterday Yibo was the one trying to act normal, and he’d thought he’d known what to expect, that they’d move into their professional roles easily enough. He didn’t expect Yibo to be the one making things confusing again today.
“Yeah, soon,” Yibo says, and his hands are tucked behind him again, that old, steady posture, reserved and withdrawn, like he’s waiting for action.
Xiao Zhan is just turning again, opening the door, when Yibo adds, “And maybe you can tell me why you took the part.”
Yibo falls asleep in the back of the bus, somewhere on the far side of Dianshan Lake. They’ve been driving around it for what feels like all afternoon, with a brief stop on the northeastern shore to see the houses that will serve as the sets. The houses were bigger and fancier than where they did the table read, with a long shared dock jutting well out into the water. Director Zhou didn’t stop for long, just pulled up to give them a view before backing out the drive and onto the lakeshore again, and soon after, the smooth road lulled Yibo under.
He wakes up in the hotel parking lot to find that he’s the last one left on the bus. He yawns hugely, blinking around him, before hauling himself to his feet. Director Zhou is still sitting in the driver’s seat, typing on his phone, but he looks up as Yibo passes by.
“Did you get your beauty sleep, Wang Yibo? I’m sorry the drive bored you.”
Yibo grimaces in apology. “It was beautiful. I’m sorry for passing out.”
Director Zhou looks at him closely, under the brim of his ever-present ball cap. “You know, this is going to be a project with a lot of hard work.”
“I’m a dancer,” Yibo says, a little defensively. “I work hard.”
“Not that kind of work,” Director Zhou says. He’s still staring up from where he’s bent over his phone. “Emotional work, you know? I want you to go deeper than you ever have before.”
Yibo’s throat feels tight, but he answers, “I can do that.”
“Can you?” Director Zhou says. “I hope so.”
His tone is mild, but Yibo still frowns, gripping the back of a seat. It feels like he needs to defend himself here. “Listen, I know I didn’t actually read for the part, and maybe the studio made you cast me—”
Director Zhou waves him off, impatiently. “No one made me do anything. I just wanted to make sure that now you’re here, you’re really here to do the work.”
“Well,” Yibo says. “I’m here. And I always work hard.”
“Good,” Director Zhou says, and nods. “We start filming in two days. Tomorrow I’m taking you and Xiao Zhan out to the house set again. Be ready early.”
“OK,” Yibo says, feeling a little overwhelmed. Director Zhou’s words are kind enough, but he has a blunt, rapidfire way of speaking that leaves Yibo feeling like he just received a set of orders. “How early?”
“Five,” Director Zhou says. “I want to do some fishing.”
Yikes. “OK,” Yibo says again, trying not to make a face, and turns to go. Before he leaves the bus, though, he turns back.
“Thank you,” he says. “For wanting me on this project.” He pauses. “I’m glad that no one made you, but I have actually been wondering how my name came up.”
“Xiao Zhan,” Director Zhou says, like it’s obvious, and Yibo’s heart lurches before he goes on. “Given your history, of course I wanted the two of you. Your show laid the ground for all those danmei dramas after it, and now this film will go even further. I know you can both handle it. And,” he adds, “it’ll help our commercial appeal to have a more mainstream actor.”
“Right,” Yibo says, dumbly. “Yeah.”
Director Zhou squints at him. “You should get some dinner and go to bed early. I’ll see you in the morning.”
Outside, the black pavement of the deserted parking lot gives off a lingering heat. Yibo meets his security detail waiting in the lobby, and orders room service riding the elevator up to his room.
He feels exhausted in a dazzled way, despite the late start, like he’s had too much sun at the beach. Back in his room he takes a shower, and when he gets out dinner is waiting on a cart. Yibo lies on his bed watching some variety show in his underwear, picking at the food. He feels like he wants something, but he doesn’t know what.
Before he took the part, he skimmed the script, and he knows what the story is about from the book being mentioned everywhere. He was at an event with the author last year, though it was crowded and they never talked or got introduced. Knowing all that was nothing like actually reading through the script out loud, living Jin Yi’s story, even if he knew how it would turn out.
Yibo feels like he gave everything today. Easy and seductive in his early scenes, casual, and then the growing tension as the reality of his situation became apparent. Arguing with his parents, the hospital scene with his dying grandmother, the desperate phone call after. Jin Yi’s journey is all about realizing how shallow his rootless life has been, eased but distanced by wealth, and that what he’s found with Lingxuan is real and worth keeping. In just a few hours, Yibo feels like he’s lived it all.
Xiao Zhan wasn’t all the way there. He’s undeniably the right choice for Lingxuan—a sensitive, reserved art professor thrown on hard times, spending the summer with his sister and nieces, unsure of himself and his future—but his performance today was withdrawn, like he was just marking the steps. The love scenes are mostly wordless, so they skimmed by quickly in the read-through, and Yibo never felt like they were making a connection, as if he was always waiting for the real Xiao Zhan to bloom into life.
He gets his copy of the script off the nightstand and flips through it again, finally focusing on the love scenes. They’re lightly written, more moods and direction than dialogue, leaving a lot of space for interpretation. Yibo’s face still gets warm reading over them, and he stops on the last one, imagining, remembering.
They did this too, once. Filming got rained out, and Yibo slouched into Xiao Zhan’s room, complaining his phone was dead because his charger cable was busted. He expected Xiao Zhan to kick him out or invite some other people over, but instead they watched TV on Xiao Zhan’s bed, strangely silent and still, until Yibo turned to look at Xiao Zhan and found he was already looking back.
Just like in the movie script, it went on all day, getting better each time, as if the fear of someone finding them out drove them on to new heights. Yibo made some joke early on about whether Xiao Zhan could keep up, and maybe Xiao Zhan took it as a challenge, or maybe he just wanted it that much.
Yibo shuts his eyes now, thinking about it. Touching Xiao Zhan, fingers slid deep inside him, and how Xiao Zhan gasped and moaned, clutching the sheets, until he came just like that, head tipped back to show the long arch of his throat. Yibo hadn’t made anyone come that way before and he thought it was the first time for Xiao Zhan too, the way he half-sobbed as he got his breath back, one hand wrapped around Yibo’s wrist with his thumb pressing into his pulse.
He watched everything about Xiao Zhan, that summer. How he drank his tea and put on his shoes, the way sweat sprang out on his face the moment sun touched it, how he hid his mouth behind his hand when he laughed and bit his lip listening to music on the bus rides home, looking out the window in the dark. There was an intense intimacy in knowing Xiao Zhan’s body so well, the injuries from wirework and the places he was ticklish, how he liked his food and how he liked to be touched.
Yibo doesn’t know what to do with all that, has never known. He tries to think of it like roles they once played, as unreal as the characters on screen, but he knows that’s not the truth. That summer changed him, and it’s a heart-stopping wrench, every time, to think that for Xiao Zhan it wasn’t the same.
These characters get a better chance at resolution. Yibo wonders how he’ll feel when they finally get there, after filming the rest of the story. It’s not the kind of happy ending he’s used to filming in romantic dramas, but he’s not used to filming in order, either. Everything about this project is new, unsettling.
He finishes the rest of his dinner and just lies still for a moment, the script on his bare chest, drifting off in yet another strange hotel room. His phone battery is low and he should plug it in, but it feels so good to rest for a moment. He wonders how Xiao Zhan would react now if Yibo knocked on his door complaining that he’s bored, starting a hand game war that turns into a wrestling match or just climbing into bed with him.
Probably like he did out on the dock today, when Yibo accused him of phoning it in for the table read. Shrugging at first, keeping his distance, and then turning it around on Yibo, making him feel young and awkward like always. Yibo found himself being more serious in return than he meant to, just to stop from sliding into their old dynamic, and Xiao Zhan still got the upper hand, asking a question Yibo couldn’t answer yet.
Why did he take the part? Yibo feels less sure of the reasons himself every moment since he’s arrived.
But Xiao Zhan wants to talk, and that’s something. Maybe it’s just to clear the slate, put their past behind them, but then Xiao Zhan would have to acknowledge there is a past, which is more than he’s ever done before. All those promo events they did the following year, he acted like they were just good friends, old costars, people with a job to do together. Like he’d never fallen asleep with his head on Yibo’s chest, like he’d never taken Yibo in his mouth and made him almost cry with how good it was, like he’d never whispered things in Yibo’s ear that made him shiver beneath his heavy costume, ghosting a touch over Yibo’s waist as he passed.
Yibo doesn’t think he can stand to have all that forgotten again. If it’s going to be like that, he’d rather not bother talking at all. He reaches for his dying phone, clears the usual cascading notifications, and types in Xiao Zhan’s contact, thinking of how to say it. Their last texts were at least four years ago, a meme he’d sent that Xiao Zhan never responded to, and they were rare before that, after filming ended. Yibo archived the thread a long time back.
Except now he sees a message from earlier, maybe when he was in the shower. Director Zhou says call time is at 5 tomorrow. Hope you like 🐟
Yibo stops, holding his phone, his own planned message forgotten. There’s nothing personal or special about the message, except that Xiao Zhan sent it. No reason not to say what he was going to say, putting some distance between them, except for this foolish, unquenchable hope that their old closeness might return.
In the end, he chickens out. I’ll see you then, Yibo answers, and then gets up to find the charger. Even if Xiao Zhan wants to just be friends and costars, their relationship never approaching the heat they once had, Yibo will take what he can get.
The sun is just starting to rise by the time Director Zhou gets them settled at the end of the dock with fishing gear, baited and ready to go. Neither of them really knows what to do with a fishing rod, so they joke around awkwardly, swinging them in the air.
“I bet I can cast farther than you,” Xiao Zhan says, just for something to say.
Yibo yawns, a huge jaw-cracking stretch. “Can’t.”
“Wait,” Yibo says. He yawns once more and then grips his rod with both hands. “OK, now.”
On three they flick their rods back and send the hooks whizzing over the water. They don’t go very far, but Xiao Zhan’s lands a meter or two deeper in the lake, disturbing the calm surface with a plop. Beside him, Yibo lets out a disappointed groan.
“I told you I could,” Xiao Zhan says, feeling oddly satisfied. “We should have made a real bet.”
“You can have half the fish I catch,” Yibo says.
“So half of nothing?” Xiao Zhan says, and Yibo just grumbles.
Xiao Zhan stares out over the water, feet planted on the dock. It’s serene and surreal, standing here together. The early morning air is cool on his face, and he admires the glow of the rising sun on the lake, the faint sleepy birdsong from the woods behind him. It’s peaceful but strange, after the last few months of frenetic work in the studio, to be somewhere so quiet and so alone.
But he’s not alone. Director Zhou is kneeling further down the dock, still fussing with his gear, and Yibo is beside him, almost close enough to touch.
It’s good that they’re joking around again, Xiao Zhan thinks. He doesn’t know how yesterday’s conversation got so serious so fast, after the easy way Yibo greeted him at the airport. He knows they still need to talk, that they should have before they ever arrived here, but he just can’t face it yet.
He knows, too, that it’s probably his fault they stopped texting, though he doesn’t remember doing it on purpose. He just took longer and longer to answer, and maybe Yibo found someone else to talk to on breaks or long flights. They weren’t much, those video links and memes, and it felt silly, trying to pretend that this was the relationship they used to have. He was probably just still at the top of Yibo’s contacts at the time, the easiest person to bother when he was bored, a habit after months of it. He’s sure Yibo hardly even thought about it when they stopped.
And besides, talking to Yibo before they got here would have made it seem like there was something important to talk about, when the truth is just that on their first big project, years ago, they used to hook up. That’s all. Not enough of a history for Xiao Zhan to feel so anxious and unsettled just being near Yibo, thinking of the work they’re going to do and the chemistry they’re going to build before they have to put it away again.
Yibo’s always been a professional, ever since they first met, when he was hardly more than a kid. Xiao Zhan’s never had problems separating from costars when a project ended, and that must be why. He learned his lesson about getting too close.
“I got a bite,” Yibo says, surprising him.
“No, you didn’t,” Xiao Zhan says, in automatic disagreement.
“It’s a tin can,” Xiao Zhan says. “Or an old boot.”
“No, it’s moving,” Yibo says. “Look.”
He pulls on his rod a little, which bows under the tension, line pulling tight. It does look like it’s jerking around out there in the water, though Xiao Zhan can’t see what’s at the other end.
“It’s caught on something,” Xiao Zhan says. “You’re making it do that, I know Lao Wang’s tricks.”
Yibo doesn’t wince at the name today, but Xiao Zhan feels suddenly silly, like he’s playing up to cameras that aren’t there anymore. Director Zhou probably can’t even hear them, so who’s he performing for? It strikes him that they were always like this because they were almost never alone; even when they were they still kept up the joke, like they were afraid to be without it.
“Director Zhou,” Yibo calls, over his shoulder. “I got a bite.”
The director turns from where he’s sitting fishing on the edge of the dock, legs dangling, but he doesn’t get up.
“Reel it in,” he says, calmly.
“How?” Yibo asks. The rod jerks in his hand and he takes a stumbling step back, bracing himself.
“Get Xiao Zhan to help you,” Director Zhou says, and turns back to his own patch of lake.
Yibo gives a sideways look, under his brows, without turning his head.
“Fine, I’ll help you catch your boot,” Xiao Zhan says, and steps behind him. He puts his hands on Yibo’s forearms, just below the elbow, holding him steady. “Turn that crank.”
“I know what to do,” Yibo snaps, as the line tugs again, jerking them both forward.
“It’s a feisty boot,” Xiao Zhan says. “Is it trying to run away?”
“Shut up,” Yibo says, shaking his head, but he starts cranking the reel.
It takes more coordination and effort than Xiao Zhan expected, and Yibo has to work out how to time the reeling with the increasingly frantic pressure at the end of his fishing line. It plays out, and then he winds it up, and it plays out again, always losing a little ground but gaining more. Xiao Zhan can feel the strength in Yibo’s arms, the flexing muscles, and a heated awareness of their closeness creeps through him. Maybe this isn’t what Director Zhou meant by “helping.”
“I think you got it,” he says, releasing Yibo’s arms, but Yibo yelps at him, “Don’t let go!” and Xiao Zhan grasps him again just in time to pull him back against an enormous tug that almost drags them both off the dock.
Then Yibo’s reeling hard, the crank whizzing and hissing, and leaning back against Xiao Zhan’s chest with a fish dangling off his line, flashing frantic and silver bright in the morning light.
“Holy shit,” Xiao Zhan says, somehow surprised to see it’s real.
“I got it!” Yibo says, and he sounds young and delighted, real triumph in his voice.
For a moment they just stand there, as stunned as the twisting, gasping fish, and then Xiao Zhan realizes he’s basically holding Yibo in his arms. He takes a step back, letting go.
“Where’s the other boot?” he asks, but Yibo ignores him, still laughing in triumph at his own success. The fish swings wildly, making the line sway.
“Put it in the bucket,” Director Zhou says from behind them.
The triumphant moment turns comical and gruesome then, as Yibo tries to get the hook out with the fish flopping so violently he can barely hold on. Xiao Zhan takes hold of the rod, freeing Yibo’s other hand, but it’s still a mess and a near thing, as the fish almost escapes into the water. In the end, though, it’s in the bucket, and they stare down as it lives out its last convulsive gasps, bleeding where the hook came out.
“Wow,” Yibo says. He looks suddenly sick and unhappy, mouth turned down. The fish flops again, gills flaring uselessly in the air.
“Yeah,” Xiao Zhan says. He glances over at Director Zhou, who’s still placidly fishing, clearly uninterested in their struggles.
“What kind do you think it is?” Xiao Zhan asks, but when he turns back Yibo is reaching down into the bucket, scooping the fish up with his big hands.
Without looking at him, Yibo tosses the fish back into the lake, writhing with a last silvery arc before it lands with a splash. Yibo watches the ripples after it disappears, his expression inscrutable.
“Whoops,” Xiao Zhan says, after a moment.
“It was cool just to catch it,” Yibo says, still staring at the lake, and then turns back to Xiao Zhan, a sly smile on his face. “It’s more than you caught, anyway.”
They cast again, though neither of them catches anything; Xiao Zhan feels a few tugs on his line but leaves it alone until they stop. Sometimes they make casual comments, but mostly they’re silent, sitting cross-legged on the dock with the rising sun warming them up. It’s high in the sky and Xiao Zhan is feeling hungry for more than his quick protein bar breakfast when Director Zhou finally gets up, with the single welcome word “lunch.”
His own bucket is half full of fish, but he doesn’t comment on their empty one as they walk back to the house. He walks fast, a little ahead of them, and Xiao Zhan expects maybe Yibo will drop behind, keeping the silence that’s been between them for the last few hours, but he matches Xiao Zhan’s stride.
“Hungry?” Xiao Zhan says, for lack of anything better to say.
Yibo looks at him, sidelong. He’s still so good at that, his beautiful face remaining still and only his eyes showing life, beneath his tilted brows. “Not for fish.”
Xiao Zhan wrinkles his nose. “No.”
“So, you wanted to talk,” Yibo says, quieter, after a pause.
“Now?” Xiao Zhan asks, glancing up at Director Zhou’s back.
“No,” Yibo says. “I was just thinking—”
He doesn’t finish, because Director Zhou turns around then, walking backwards with his fishing tackle bumping against his hip, bucket in the other hand. “I ordered lunch,” he says. “Then I thought we’d rehearse a scene. I want to see how you work together.”
They exchange a brief glance, and Xiao Zhan nods. “Of course,” he says, easily. “Whatever you want, dao-yan.”
“Good,” Director Zhou says, and turns around just as they reach the patio steps.
Now Yibo does fall behind, letting Xiao Zhan go ahead, but feels like Xiao Zhan can still sense him and the striking intensity of his voice. Xiao Zhan’s the one who said we should talk yesterday but he meant it lightly, looking for a way to establish a working rapport, erasing the distance of years. Yibo’s face was so serious just now, though, that Xiao Zhan can’t help getting a sinking feeling that there’s something more he wants to say.
Director Zhou opens the back door and holds it open for Xiao Zhan, who takes it to let him go through first. Xiao Zhan turns his head over his shoulder as he holds the door, meeting Yibo’s eyes on the step below him. There’s a brief, flaring moment, like touching something blindingly hot, and then Xiao Zhan turns back, breathless, feeling as if all the careful ease of the last few days is only a cover for something deeper, something he’s not sure he knows how to look at yet.
When lunch arrives, they settle around the long dining room table with the views of the lake, and then they’re too busy digging into their food to say much. “Fishing gives you an appetite,” Director Zhou says, and Yibo just nods, shoveling in noodles and beef. Food hasn’t tasted this good in a long time.
This house is a far cry from the little one where they had lunch yesterday. That was right on the water, with those low, friendly, round doorways everywhere, but here there are grounds stretching to the lake and glass walls to take in the sights, framed by high ceilings and beautiful landscaping. It’s a modern, luxurious house, the kind Yibo has rented from time to time when he gets a break from work, and it feels more like work, too. Like performing, being in a world where he’s never quite relaxed, with people expecting things from him.
After lunch, Director Zhou gives them a brief tour of the house. “Most of the interior scenes will be here,” he says, gesturing around. “The kitchen scene, of course. And Lingxuan’s bedroom,” he says to Xiao Zhan, opening the door to a room upstairs, overlooking the lake.
Xiao Zhan stands in the doorway, studying the room. “I don’t think this is right.”
“Hm?” Director Zhou says. He’s already a few steps down the hall, heading for the stairs.
“In the book, he says his room is like a cave he doesn’t leave for the first week, ‘small and dark.’ This room is too bright.”
“We’ll draw the curtains, darken it from the outside,” Director Zhou replies, dismissive.
Xiao Zhan folds his arms, leaning against the doorframe, and shakes his head. “His sister wouldn’t give him a lake view room, even if she didn’t have other guests. It’s embarrassing that he’s here, it’s shameful he’s lost his job. She’d put him in a back room away from her family.”
Yibo glances between the two of them. Xiao Zhan is still looking into the sunny bedroom, and Director Zhou is looking at him, a faint smile on his pugnacious face. Yibo’s never seen this before, an actor challenging a director so calmly, but Xiao Zhan sounds like he knows what he’s talking about and Director Zhou seems to be taking him seriously.
“We’ll talk about it,” Director Zhou says. “Come on, let’s go back down. The scripts are in my bag.”
In the living room, he hands each of them a copy. His own is dog-eared and highlighted, with colorful tabs sticking out everywhere, and he flips through it, thumb rifling the edges of the pages before he looks up thoughtfully.
“Let’s do a scene with just you two,” he says. “How about, mm, scene forty-seven?”
He says it like they might already know what that refers to, and Yibo hurriedly flips through his own script. It’s about halfway through, and he almost misses it because there’s only one line of dialogue, not his.
Yibo stares at the page, his face growing hot. The kitchen scene.
Are you going to help me with this?
Jin Yi steps closer. He closes his fingers over the plate that Lingxuan is holding out, taking it and setting it down on the counter. They stare at each other, neither one willing to look away. After an eternity, they kiss, tentative and slow, and then it goes on for another eternity before it stops. Lingxuan turns his head away, and Jin Yi stays close a moment before stepping back, shaking his head like nothing happened. But his smile is different now, like something has changed.
Yibo wonders what this scene was like in the book. If there was more description of what they’re thinking, if it says what it feels like to kiss someone like that, quick and secret after a family dinner when they could be walked in on at any time. He knows the book is from Lingxuan’s point of view, so it can’t tell the other side of the story, what it feels like when someone stops kissing you and turns away.
Yibo’s glance flicks up, over to Xiao Zhan. He’s still staring down at the page, studying those few lines like a top student, as though he can get a good grade in being the most serious actor.
“OK, let’s go,” Yibo says. “Kitchen’s through there, right? Let’s get it over with.”
He sees Xiao Zhan smile, a small private one like he can’t help himself. Yibo smiles too, bravely.
In the kitchen, they arrange themselves by the sink, under the window. Xiao Zhan opens a cabinet and finds a plate, and there’s a towel on the counter that he wraps around it, like he’s drying it off. Yibo stands a few steps away, and Director Zhou leans back against the big professional-grade stove, folding his arms across his chest.
Yibo glances at him, and he nods. “Go ahead.”
Like that, the nerves slam through Yibo. He feels like he’s back in primary school, on stage for a class presentation, or when he first started doing auditions as a kid. Hot, itchy, like his skin doesn’t fit and his hands don’t belong to him. He shuffles his feet, clears his throat, and finally forces himself into the moment, walking across the kitchen.
Xiao Zhan turns, like he just heard him. “Are you going to help me with this?”
When their eyes meet, it all goes sideways again. This is Xiao Zhan, and they used to do so much more than kiss, and they haven’t even talked in years.
Yibo swallows hard, trying to remember the script directions. They’re supposed to stare, and they do, but he’s distracted by the heat pounding in his face, the tips of his ears burning. Xiao Zhan’s face is so familiar and appealing that it makes Yibo’s heart ache, looking into those soft, intelligent eyes that always saw him too well. Too fast, too sudden, he moves in, breaking that tension and crushing their mouths together. It startles Xiao Zhan, who sucks in a breath through his nose, and then the kiss is sloppy and off-rhythm, like they’re moving on two different beats.
“Stop, no,” Director Zhou says, sounding disgusted. “Ugh.”
They break apart and turn to face him. Xiao Zhan is laughing, covering his face with both hands, and Yibo quickly wipes his own mouth with the back of his hand, incandescently embarrassed. “Sorry.”
“Well, I guess that’s the first take out of the way,” Director Zhou says, dryly. “Try it again, slower.”
Yibo clears his throat hard, looking down at the floor as he moves back into place, and then he tosses his head back, shaking his hair away from his face. That was too aggressive, he thinks; too obvious, too needy. Too much like himself, still yearning for his first big heartbreak, when he’s supposed to be like Jin Yi, confidently going after somebody he’s just met.
“Listen, your character is used to getting whatever you want,” Director Zhou says to Yibo, echoing his thoughts. “Light and easy. You don’t know what’s ahead of you, this big wrecking ball of emotion that’s going to change your life. You think it’s just a kiss.”
He look at Xiao Zhan. “And the last thing you want is to let someone in. Your life is at the bottom of the well, and you think you’re never going to get out. You don’t think you deserve to.”
Xiao Zhan nods, as though he’s really taking in the director’s words. Yibo turns and stares out the window, trying to get out of his own head. This is what he wants, what he’s here for; to work together, telling a story, maybe even making real art. The idea of it elates him, even though they’re not there yet. This is only the beginning.
“Try it again,” Director Zhou says, a casual command.
Again, Yibo steps forward, but now when Xiao Zhan turns it’s Lingxuan he sees; a damaged but compelling man, someone he can find refuge with for a little while from his own well-hidden troubles. Yibo smiles as Xiao Zhan says his meaningless line, because they both know that’s not what he came in here for. He takes a step closer, head already tilting for the kiss.
Their gaze smolders this time, building heat, and Yibo can feel the change in it, the moment that he realizes their connection is like a strong, solid wind he can lean against. He’s overcoming magnetic forces in the air, straining to get through to something, someone, that he suddenly, desperately needs.
They kiss. It’s good, imperfect but in the right way, with a little roughness, a little wetness, that makes it feel real. He puts his hand on Xiao Zhan’s face, cradling his jaw, and Xiao Zhan opens his mouth a little more, letting him in. The kiss becomes a reason in itself, a purpose, a place he doesn’t want to leave. On and on, gentle, with a hint of passion beneath that glows so white-hot that he’s almost afraid to kindle it to life, because it will never stop until it burns down everything.
It goes on longer. Somewhere in there, Yibo becomes himself again. He’s kissing Xiao Zhan in a kitchen and has been for a while, and their director is watching them. It’s such a confusing bundle of feelings to be hit with, a jolting awareness, that even though he’s not supposed to be the one who ends the kiss he does, breaking away and turning his head.
Director Zhou is gone.
“Oh, come on,” he hears Xiao Zhan say, under his breath.
Yibo’s hand is still on Xiao Zhan’s face, and he draws it back awkwardly. He glances over and their eyes meet for a second, before they look away again.
“I don’t know which time was more embarrassing,” Yibo mutters.
“That one was good,” Xiao Zhan says, and his voice is so low and soft that Yibo’s heart leaps at the sound. He looks up just as Xiao Zhan repeats himself, louder and more determined. “That was a good scene! You did good.”
“Oh, thanks,” Yibo says. “Such praise from Xiao-laoshi.”
The sarcasm and the familiar name tumble out before he can think, and he catches Xiao Zhan’s eye again, both of them startled and silent, confusion flashing between them. Yibo feels breathless, pulse pounding in his ears. It was so easy to go back to the way they were, for just a moment.
Finally Xiao Zhan lets out a long sigh and puts down the plate he was holding, sitting back against the sink counter. “We were going to talk about the script, right? What do you think?”
That wasn’t really what they were going to talk about, but Yibo lets it pass, taking the out that Xiao Zhan is offering. He’s not sure he wants to talk about the rest of it either. He sits back against the counter too, mirroring Xiao Zhan, their shoulders almost touching. “It’s a good script.”
“Yeah, I think so,” Xiao Zhan says, with enthusiasm. “It’s not dialogue-heavy, so a lot of it is going to depend on the filming, and our body language. But the story—man. You read the book?”
Yibo shakes his head.
“You should read the book,” Xiao Zhan says. “I think it’ll give more nuance to the project. Although it’s all Lingxuan’s voice—you’re going to get to do so much more with Jin Yi, it’s going to be great. The scenes with the Jin parents, and getting to see your face for that last phone call...” He stops, and there’s a sudden edge of tension between them.
Yibo remembers the scene, when Lingxuan calls it off between them the night before leaving for a new job in Shanghai. He read it late the night Jun Ning sent him the script, and it felt like every word hurt, bringing up old memories. They got close to it yesterday, but it wasn’t the same.
Now, standing so close to Xiao Zhan they’re almost touching, his mouth still warm and tingling from the kisses they just shared, it seems surreal, absurd, to be going through all this again. He’s dreamt about this for years, somehow getting the chance to put things right with Xiao Zhan, but it doesn’t feel like there’s an opening for that now. Xiao Zhan is still hesitating, and Yibo can feel him leaning away a little, shutting down the warm communion that’s been flowing between them once they were talking about something safe.
“It’s going to be great,” Xiao Zhan says again, the words hollow, and he straightens up, taking a step away.
“Yeah,” Yibo says, disappointment crashing through him. He tries to shake it off, frustrated with himself for still reacting to Xiao Zhan’s presence like a bright light he can’t look away from. He wants to say something cool and professional, but he realizes Director Zhou has come back into the kitchen.
“How’s it going? Tearing my script apart?” he asks, and Yibo remembers he wrote it himself, adapting it from the book.
“No, dao-yan,” Xiao Zhan says. “We love it.”
“I’m honored,” Director Zhou says, deadpan. “Well, I’m glad the second take went better. I was worrying maybe I cast the wrong actors after all.”
Yibo just smiles, a tight press of his lips, not wanting to engage. “Do you have something else for us to do?”
“No,” Director Zhou says. He pulls his phone out of his pocket. “Actually, I have the DP messaging me about some technical specs for tomorrow, so I should probably take you back to the hotel and put on one of my other hats. I can’t play matchmaker all day.”
He touches the bill of his red ball cap ironically, and they follow him outside to the car. Xiao Zhan takes the front seat again, like this morning, and Yibo sits in the back, watching the trees and water slip by out the window.
It makes him feel young, sitting in the back alone like this by himself, with the other two up front. It reminds him of his mother getting him and his sister from lessons after school, drowsing in the backseat while they talked. He’d make up his own stories or think about his day, and they’d tease him for never paying attention to anything they said, even if it was about him.
Now Director Zhou and Xiao Zhan are talking about the schedule for tomorrow, and Yibo tunes them out. Instead of thinking about his favorite cartoons or the boy in his dance class he was trying to surpass, the memories he’s been holding back begin to sift up, fragmented and shining like particles in a river.
Their first kiss. Someone’s room party, half-drunk, not the only dared kiss of the evening but the loudest shout. Xiao Zhan was aggressive, theatrical, one hand tight on the back of Yibo’s head as he swung him around and dipped him back.
Their first real kiss, the following night, like they’d both been thinking about it. “Lao Wang,” Xiao Zhan whispered against his lips, like he meant to stop him, but his hand was curled in Yibo’s shirt, pulling him close.
Yibo shifts in the seat, changing position, disgusted with himself. He could have stayed home if he was going to moon over these useless memories. He’s here to do a job.
“Right, Yibo?” Director Zhou says, like he’s asked a few times.
Yibo comes back to himself to find that they’re pulling into the hotel parking lot. He looks up and catches a pair of eyes in the rearview mirror, but they’re Xiao Zhan’s, watching him. Yibo blinks and looks away.
“Right,” he says.
The first scenes of the film are all Xiao Zhan, just pages and pages of his character’s highlighted name, and though he’s used to it he can’t help sighing as he reads them again over breakfast. There’s hardly any dialogue, at least, but plenty of closeups and wordless acting, all setting the tone for the movie. There’s a lot riding on these early scenes.
He’s not used to filming in order, though, and it only works because basically all of the locations are right here. They’re using an administrative building for his character’s university office, and that’s where he starts on the first day, sitting silently at his desk while the actor playing his department chair tells him in brief, euphemistic words why he’s being fired.
“Good,” Director Zhou says, when they finish. “Now let’s see it for real”
The movie starts with Lingxuan’s world ending. Xiao Zhan stares blankly ahead, making himself feel that internal collapse, a void opening beneath him. Teaching is all Lingxuan has, and even that is being taken from him, over some vague political error he’s made with careless talk. He doesn’t react, just listens, and it feels like the passage in the book, where all the words Lingxuan hears turn to the sound of water somewhere far away.
“Better,” Director Zhou says. “We’re beginning to get somewhere.”
The early establishing scenes take up the whole morning, and then they drive back to the big house across the lake, for lunch and the first scene with the family. Xiao Zhan gets off the shuttle bus behind the crew and walks out to the backyard, taking in the sweeping view. Dusty green willows, small buzzing motor boats, and the dock, stretching out into the rumpled surface of the blue bay.
So they finally got it out of the way yesterday, kissing each other again. First that terrible, too-real one, and then the second kiss, folded into their characters until the spell suddenly broke and it was just the two of them again, uncomfortably alone in the room.
That was the time to ask why Yibo had taken the part, and Xiao Zhan couldn’t do it. Not with the taste of Yibo still on his lips, and that edgy, nervous energy from Yibo, unsettled and wild. Like Yibo wanted to break and run, the opposite of how he’d jumped into that messy first kiss. Xiao Zhan was still reeling, trying to figure that out—Yibo had kissed him so fiercely, like he wanted to do it, but maybe that was just wanting to get it over with. It’s hard to know.
Xiao Zhan doesn’t know what Yibo’s thinking now, not that he ever really did. Yibo’s good at the job, putting up with endless discomfort and retakes, and the knowledge, seven years ago, of how people would interpret the show. Even if he hated doing a gay drama with real love scenes he wouldn’t say anything, but that’s not what Xiao Zhan feels from him.
He wants it to be okay between them. Better than okay—he wants to work together well, to be friends again, to feel that closeness from long ago. Yesterday before they got into character he felt like it was the real Yibo looking at him, in that long moment of consideration. And when they surfaced and found themselves wrapped around each other, that was Yibo too, in the hasty glance and the flash of something Xiao Zhan couldn’t name. That overwhelming feeling burned bright again, sharp and hot, and then they moved apart.
They didn’t talk on the ride home, and Yibo disappeared when they got to the hotel, taking the first elevator up to his room while Xiao Zhan made small talk with the concierge, waiting for the next one. They need to talk for real, Xiao Zhan knows. He’s just not sure what to say.
Lunch is noisy, with the two little girls running around. He likes their high spirits, though, and the lighter feeling they bring to the set. Wu Fan is more serious and withdrawn, reading a book as she eats, serene in the chaos. Director Zhou is talking basketball with the camera operator, while the crew members are swapping memes and videos on their phones. It makes Xiao Zhan feel good, being a part of something larger. His last drama, he was always sequestered with just a couple of other actors and a secondary crew, and he’s excited to have a better sense of the whole.
They film until late afternoon, when Xiao Zhan is surprised to hear Director Zhou call a halt. They haven’t actually finished the scene they were working on, and he thinks maybe it’s to do with union rules about the child actors, but when he looks around everyone is already packing up their gear.
“That’s it?” Xiao Zhan asks. “It’s not even five.”
“He always finishes early,” says the assistant director, Chao Xiuli, nodding at Director Zhou. He’s already on his phone, having a boisterous conversation, and she smiles. “The work stays on schedule, but I don’t know how.”
“Great,” Xiao Zhan says, surprised. He hadn’t expected to have this much free time in the evening.
“Go get changed and out of your makeup,” Chao Xiuli tells him. “First day drinks at his place after this, unless you’re too tired.”
“I’m not too tired,” Xiao Zhan says, immediately.
He’s actually wide awake by the time they get back to the smaller house near the hotel. It’s a holiday feeling, like school’s been canceled, and something he’s rarely felt on a location shoot. He can tell everyone else feels the same, the way the bus is full of noisy chatter. They pile off at the house, and inside Xiao Zhan is surprised to see Yang Cheng and Yibo already in conversation, sprawled on the couch in front of the TV in the living room.
“Hey!” Yang Cheng says, waving a bottle of beer. “We started without you.”
Yibo looks up, and his expression is the most open and unguarded it’s been since Xiao Zhan arrived, a real smile lighting up his face. He shakes his hair back, out of his eyes, and then takes a long pull off his beer.
Like that, it’s a party. Even Wu Fan loosens up some, and she and Xiao Zhan end up sitting together at the long dining table, sharing a bottle of wine and talking about the scene they were working on today.
“You just have to feel it, you know?” she says, gesturing. “It’s not in the dialogue but it has to come across in your face. You’re so uncomfortable having to move in with your sister, it should radiate off you.”
“And you’re so embarrassed to have me,” Xiao Zhan teases back. “Messing up your perfect life.”
“It’s not perfect,” she says, seriously. “Her husband is cheating in Shanghai during the week and her kids are brats. She just wants it to look perfect.”
Xiao Zhan nods, finishing his cup of wine. “Before we shoot tomorrow, maybe we should talk about the blocking? I think we can do a lot with body language.”
“Hey, hey,” Yang Cheng says, walking by. “No work talk. We’re having fun tonight.”
“This is fun,” Xiao Zhan protests.
He feels a strong hand on his shoulder, squeezing hard, and turns to see Director Zhou behind him, face already flushed and his baseball cap tipped back. “We’ll talk about the project some other night, OK?” the director says. “I have lots to tell you, don’t worry. Tonight, have fun—and eat something.” He pinches Xiao Zhan’s cheek and goes into the kitchen, calling out to one of the crew members Xiao Zhan doesn’t know yet.
Wu Fan raises an eyebrow. “Not a lot of directors telling us eat, huh?”
Xiao Zhan shakes his head, smiling. For the most part it’s true, though he’s sure it’s worse for actresses. He’s kept to the same spartan diet for a decade, and he probably still will even now, but it’s nice not to be told what to do either way. “I actually should eat something before I drink more.”
“Lightweight,” she says.
As he gets up he realizes he’s already missed the window for avoiding tipsiness on an empty stomach, even with just a little wine. His legs feel wobbly as he makes his way across the room to where platters of food are set out, and the loud music makes his ears ring as he serves himself a small bowl of black bean chicken with vegetables. It’s been a while since he’s done anything like this, other than the wrap party for his last drama, and he didn’t stay long for that.
Xiao Zhan is trying to get back through the crowd to the dining table when someone jostles him, knocking the chopsticks out of his bowl and onto the floor. The person bends down to grab them immediately, and Xiao Zhan realizes who it is just as he straightens up.
“Sorry,” Yibo says. He turns the chopsticks over in his hand to look at them, grimacing at what’s stuck to them, and then says, “Let me get you another pair?”
“Don’t worry about it,” Xiao Zhan says, but Yibo is already gone, heading back to the food table. He’s back in a moment, fresh chopsticks in his hand, and after a swift glance at Xiao Zhan he sticks them into the bowl, standing straight up. Yibo grins, cheekily.
“Jerk,” Xiao Zhan says, automatically. “Are you trying to give me bad luck?”
Yibo laughs. “Sorry, sorry.” He reaches out and adjusts the chopsticks, tilting them at an angle so they don’t look like a funeral offering. Xiao Zhan watches, caught by the sight of Yibo’s long fingers and wide palm, set off by a big-faced watch with a leather strap. He always liked Yibo’s hands.
“Uh,” Xiao Zhan says. “So what did you do all day?”
“Hung out,” Yibo says. “Slept. That’s why I took a project where I’m only second lead, it’s practically as good as a vacation.”
“Oh, so that’s why you took it,” Xiao Zhan says.
Yibo just looks at him, blinking, and there’s an awkward moment, like they’ve both forgotten their lines in this strained, unnatural conversation. Then he seems to recover, reaching into Xiao Zhan’s bowl to snag a piece of carrot and pop it into his mouth.
“I only slept until nine,” he says, chewing and swallowing. “Then I had business to handle. Phone calls, practicing some new choreo they sent me. You know.”
“Yeah,” Xiao Zhan says, because he does. Yibo’s been almost painfully busy ever since they met, and he’s not surprised it’s still that way, just that Yibo hasn’t dropped in his tracks yet. “You’re still doing a lot of different things?”
He knows the answer is yes, and he hates that it’s like this, saying things they both already know with their voices a little raised in the middle of a party.
“Yeah,” Yibo says, easily, pushing his hands in his pockets. Today he’s in a baggy blue t-shirt over jeans and white sneakers, brown hair unstyled and loose around his temples, and he might pass unremarked in public if he wasn’t so perfectly handsome, still. He flashes a crooked grin. “I haven’t settled down to serious cinema, like Zhan-ge.”
The jibe, the pet name, and especially the smile pierce Xiao Zhan, unsettling. Everything has been so distant between them, awkward and unreal, that every moment of closeness is a surprise. He’s imagined this a hundred times before, reuniting at last, but he never guessed how difficult it would really be.
“Have you eaten?” Xiao Zhan says, trying to keep the lightness going in return. He says it like a greeting, the way they used to with each other, teasing but not really. It was easy to forget things like food that summer.
“Oh, uh, not yet,” Yibo says, his smile fading as he looks over his shoulder at the table of food. “I guess I should.”
“Oh,” Xiao Zhan says, feeling the jolt of letdown. The ease is broken, like dropping a ball. “Yeah, you should get some dinner. It’s good,” he adds, though he hasn’t even tried it yet.
Yibo nods, lingering a moment. Xiao Zhan almost says something more but he waits too long, and then Yibo is gone.
He takes his food back to the table, where Wu Fan is sitting with her chin on her hand watching him. Her bobbed hair is still smooth from filming earlier, but her face is mostly wiped clean of the heavy makeup, with only eyeliner left. She raises one eyebrow as Xiao Zhan sits, an expression that seems like a habit with her.
“You know Wang Yibo pretty well?” she asks.
Xiao Zhan shakes his head. “We worked together years ago.”
“No, really?” she deadpans. Everybody knows that, of course. “You probably knew each other well back then, though.”
He shrugs his shoulders, taking a small mouthful of food. No matter what Director Zhou says, he’d still rather keep his evening meal light, the night before filming. He pushes his wine cup away too, reminding himself not to drink more.
“What’s he like?” Wu Fan asks.
“Like he is on TV,” Xiao Zhan says.
She makes a face. “He’s always so cool on TV. Unless someone catches him off guard, he just makes that same face.” She mimics Yibo, half-closed eyes and pursed lips, and Xiao Zhan laughs in spite of himself. “Like he’s always thinking, but he’s not going to tell you what about.”
Xiao Zhan chews and swallows. The food is good, almost good enough to break his routine over. “That’s what he’s like.”
“Hm,” Wu Fan says. “Do you think that’s going to work for the movie? Jin Yi has to show a lot of emotion at the end.”
“He’s a good actor,” Xiao Zhan says. “He’s a professional. I’m sure he’ll give Director Zhou what he wants.”
“Hmm,” she says. She finishes her wine and stands up. “Think I’ll get some food before it’s gone. Save my spot,” she says, though they’re the only two sitting at the dining table.
She doesn’t come back for a while, and Xiao Zhan finishes his food and then pulls out his phone, enjoying the solitude. Eventually it occurs to him that other people might feel too shy to come sit with him, so he turns around in his seat, looking over his shoulder.
It’s a real party now, with karaoke in the corner and people sitting in groups, talking loudly. Su Bingtao, the actor playing Yibo’s father, has an arm over his shoulder while telling him something emphatically that makes him laugh, and Wu Fan is talking with Chao Xiuli by the food, head tilted up and making an attentive face. Director Zhou is belting out an old pop song on the microphone, too sentimental even for Xiao Zhan’s tastes, and Yang Cheng leads the cheers and applause on the couch.
Xiao Zhan feels a smile creeping across his face, taking in the scene. He’s not a full part of it, not yet, but it feels good to be in this little house with a friendly crowd, the lines blurred between work and fun. This summer feels so full of promise already.
In the corner, Director Zhou finishes his song and catches Xiao Zhan looking. He waves one hand wildly, like he’s far out at sea, and holds out the microphone.
“Come on,” he calls to Xiao Zhan. “It’s your turn.”
Yibo doesn’t see Xiao Zhan for a few days after the party, because he still hasn’t started filming his scenes yet. It’s a treat, just waiting for his character to enter the story, and he appreciates the luxury of it. Director Zhou must have some real influence to set up a shooting schedule like this, he thinks; Yibo knew he was a big deal but didn’t realize how big.
In the meantime, Yibo makes good use of the time off. His other obligations have eased up, and he gets a couple of gaming consoles delivered and mostly just hangs out in bed, enjoying the decent room service and alone time. It’s the closest thing he’s had to a real vacation in years.
He doesn’t know if the cast is still hanging out at the lake house after filming and not inviting him, or if that was just a first day thing, but he doesn’t mind. Seeing Xiao Zhan squeezes his heart until it hurts, and he always feels off balance, like he’s said too much or not enough. Xiao Zhan keeps flashing that big smile at him, and Yibo doesn’t know if it’s supposed to reassure him or warn him off, and in between he has that look that used to drive Yibo crazy, like he’s just about to say something serious but changed his mind, making a joke instead.
Xiao Zhan texted him after the party, though; just a link to a song someone put on at karaoke that Yibo didn’t know. Yibo replied with an emoji and Xiao Zhan sent something else the next morning, because apparently that’s where they’re at now. A petty part of Yibo wants to not reply, to be the one who walks away this time, but it’s not like he can withdraw totally anyway. They work together.
4 am call tomorrow!!! Xiao Zhan texts him, with a string of screaming emoji.
They’re filming the first meeting scene, out at the dock before the sun is even up. Yibo isn’t happy about the early hour, but it’ll be good to see Xiao Zhan again with a purpose between them, actual work to do. He hasn’t forgotten the thrill of the scene they rehearsed the other day, outside of the physical sensation of the kiss. He loves acting with Xiao Zhan, and everything else aside, that’s the truth of why he’s here.
That’s what he should tell Xiao Zhan, he thinks, getting ready for bed early like a responsible adult. It’s not the whole reason, but it’s enough.
Xiao Zhan is already on the shuttle when Yibo gets downstairs, sunk into the fuzzy collar of a soft coat with his eyes closed. Yibo doesn’t bother him, just curls up in the corner of his own seat, pillowed against the window. He half dozes off again as the bus starts up, the rumble comforting, and a PA has to shake him awake when they arrive.
There’s coffee at the set, and then Yibo has to get in the lake. The one-two punch of good and bad news is enough to wake him up more fully, and he trudges into a wardrobe trailer to put on the baggy, retro style swim trunks they hand him. The stylist eyes him critically, running a hand through his hair.
“Did the director say if he wants anything done to it?” she asks, shaking his hair out.
Yibo is used to being treated like a piece of the set. “No, he didn’t say anything.”
“It needs more volume, to match the style references,” she says. “Fashionable ‘80s hair was a lot bigger. Maybe you need a perm.”
Yibo grimaces. “I’m going to be in the water today. Does it matter?”
“Hmm,” she says, and then gets on the phone.
While she’s talking, Yibo grabs a long coat off the rack, wrapping it around himself. On top of being half-naked, he’s got the early morning chills, exhaustion running through him.
Finally the stylist comes back to him, putting down her phone. “He says it’s fine for today. We’ll feather it tomorrow, give you some height.” She reaches out and ruffles his hair again.
Outside, he and Xiao Zhan huddle near a heater, coffees in hand, while the makeup artists put waterproof foundation on them and line their eyes. Director Zhou shows up in the middle, a piece of camera equipment in hand.
“Natural look,” he says, peering at the work being done. “Not idols. Make them look like real people.”
Neither of them are really idols anymore, especially not Xiao Zhan, but everyone just nods and he moves on, talking to the crew setting up the lights.
“You’re going to wish you had lipstick,” Xiao Zhan says. “Your lips will be blue after five minutes in that water.”
“You forget,” Yibo says. “You’re talking to the official ambassador of Chinese national ice sports.”
“Yeah, I saw you wipe out on that snowboard half pipe,” Xiao Zhan says.
Yibo blinks, surprised. That wasn’t even on the main Olympic broadcast, but part of a web bit he’d done weeks before. He didn’t know Xiao Zhan had seen any of it.
“Xiao-laoshi is a big snowboarding fan now?” he asks.
A funny look crosses Xiao Zhan’s face, and he takes a swallow of his coffee. “Someone sent it to me. I just watched for the figure skating pair everyone was talking about.”
Yibo remembers that, something about a big romantic story between them, but he hadn’t followed it at the time.
“Zhan-ge is still so sentimental,” he says, and finishes his own coffee.
The sun is starting to come up so they transition to the set, where there’s a chair on the end of the dock. Xiao Zhan gets to stay bundled in his coat as he walks out across the boards, and the water camera operator gets a wet suit, Yibo notices longingly. He doesn’t say anything though, as he sits on the edge of the dock and dangles his feet over, trying to not wince at the temperature of the water. This is a job.
“Ready?” the camera operator says, sitting down next to him.
“Yeah,” Yibo says, and they push off at the same time, into the lake.
It’s a full-body shock, but the kind Yibo likes, energizing him. He’s wide awake now, pushing up through the murky gloom to the surface, where he throws his hair back and sprays out a mouthful of water, wiping his eyes.
On the dock, Xiao Zhan is grinning at him, tucked up in his warm coat. “How is it?”
“Come find out,” Yibo says, but he doesn’t do more than send a wave Xiao Zhan’s way, treading water.
“We’re burning sunrise,” someone says on the dock, and they settle down to work.
They have him swimming laps further out, filming him from the dock behind Xiao Zhan, and then they show him coming closer, camera set down at water level to capture his face. The final shots are in close-up, the camera operator treading water next to him as Director Zhou calls instructions from the dock with a megaphone.
“You’re beautiful, OK? You’re like nothing he’s ever seen. You’re a mythological creature coming out of the water and he’s not sure you’re real.”
Yibo surfaces again and again, but it’s not like before; now instead of immediately spraying out lake water and getting it off his face, he opens his eyes slowly, ignoring the sting and letting the drops roll down to his gently parted lips. This is what his profession is like, making an image that has nothing to do with how he really feels, just trying to project what will look best on film.
His teeth are chattering by the time they finish, and he’s glad to swim to the end of the dock, hauling himself out to be wrapped in a towel by a PA. She hands him more coffee too, which he takes gratefully, leaning against a post.
When he’s warmed up a little, Yibo looks up to see Xiao Zhan watching him. He expects some kind of snappy taunt, maybe about how he looks in these giant baggy swim trunks, but Xiao Zhan’s smile is fond, above the complicated zippers and snaps of his coat.
“Good?” is all he says.
Yibo’s not sure what he means, maybe the coffee. “It’s hot, that’s all I care about.”
Xiao Zhan smiles. “The close-ups looked good. I don’t think you’ll have to reshoot.”
“I still have to get back in the water for the dialogue,” Yibo points out.
“Well,” Xiao Zhan says. “You look good in the water.”
He’s so sincere sounding, but Yibo doesn’t know if he’s supposed to just take that at face value or what. Is Xiao Zhan too old to joke around now, or are they not close enough anymore? Surely he doesn’t mean to start up that old bit, throwing compliments at Yibo until he turns red, like his admiration is an intimate weapon.
“I’m glad Xiao-laoshi thinks I’m good at my job,” Yibo says, trying for that same tone, maybe sincere and maybe not.
Xiao Zhan tips his head. “I didn’t say you were good at your job,” he says, and Yibo’s heart soars. Maybe they can still joke after all.
“I said you looked good,” Xiao Zhan says, completely straight-faced, and now Yibo doesn’t know what to think at all.
He’s saved from replying by someone coming to strip him of the towel and take his empty coffee cup, and he doesn’t hesitate before climbing back into the cold water.
Their scene goes well enough, and Yibo finds it comforting, slipping into being strangers for real. Jin Yi doesn’t have to hear jokes that might be truth, straining for something more; he’s the easy, casual one, careless in his own beauty as he strikes up a new friendship. Both characters are out at the lake so early in the morning to get away from their families, and he smiles in a conspiratorial way, hanging onto the edge of the dock and eyeing Xiao Zhan like a hunter seeking prey. Jin Yi knows he can get what he wants.
The sun is well risen when the scene is finished, and Yibo feels physically exhausted when he climbs out, tired from swimming and waking up so early. Someone helps him up, and he barely makes it back to the wardrobe trailer.
“You’re finished for the day,” Director Zhou says as he passes, clapping him on the shoulder.
The makeup artist towels off his hair and wipes his face clean; Yibo wants a full shower but that will have to wait until someone drives him back to the hotel. Right now he can hardly keep his eyes open.
When he first started in the business, when his star was just taking off, it felt like he could have anything he wanted. People were interested in him everywhere he went, offering opportunities, and it seemed like he could go to bed with practically anyone if he only had the time and the freedom to do it. The future felt exciting, limitless.
There’s having and having, though, and Yibo’s learned the difference. Work takes up most of his life and energy, and the sacrifices are neverending, like he’s always thinking about the future instead of the present. Some things he can only have for a little while, and some things not at all. He’s happy with his career and his success, but it aches, imagining being as free as his character is to pursue whatever he wants.
Xiao Zhan’s coming in for a costume change by the time Yibo has recovered enough to leave, and they meet near the door, exchanging a glance. Right away Xiao Zhan frowns, reaching out to touch Yibo’s shoulder.
“Are you OK?” he asks. “That water was freezing, and you look exhausted—do you need something? Should they get you checked out?”
“I’m fine,” Yibo says, immediately. “I just need a shower and a nap.”
“Eat something,” Xiao Zhan urges. “Stay and have lunch.”
Yibo shakes his head. “I’ll get lunch at the hotel. I need to pass out first.”
“OK,” Xiao Zhan says, sounding uncertain.
His hand is still on Yibo’s shoulder, warm. There’s one of those stupid, terrible, infuriating pauses, where Yibo could read anything he wants into Xiao Zhan’s face, open and concerned, and then it smooths back to his usual smile.
“OK,” Xiao Zhan says again, stronger, and squeezes Yibo’s shoulder before letting go. “Get some rest.”
On the ride home, Yibo thinks about that conversation over and over again, but he doesn’t know how else to make it go, what else he could have said. He doesn’t know what Xiao Zhan’s offering, or how to take him up on it while playing it safe, not going too far. He closes his eyes, drifting to sleep, and all he can do is yearn for the warmth of Xiao Zhan’s closeness again, wishing it could be as uncomplicated as that.
They don’t film together very often, the first few weeks. Xiao Zhan mostly works with Wu Fan and Yang Cheng, and sometimes with little Zhenyi and Riyi, whose exuberant energy as soon as the camera is turned off makes the set fun and unpredictable on the days they’re there. The scenes he does have with Yibo feel off-kilter, like they’re still holding their breath, and like he’s working with someone he doesn’t know. There isn’t as much downtime as when they were filming in Hengdian all those hours of day and night, sitting around through resets and reshoots, with the storyline so garbled and the only constant being with each other.
Here, they’re quick and professional, doing good work that feels entirely new. Their real voices are being used, for one thing, and for another this story is quiet and intimate, told mostly in the silences. Their characters are reversed, as well—Lingxuan is lost and angry but hiding it beneath a calm exterior, cautious as he finds himself drawn to Jin Yi’s easy good looks and casual honesty. When the cameras are rolling, they’re building something together, this irresistible bond, but once it’s just them again, Xiao Zhan’s not sure who they are anymore.
He knows it’s coming, though; the real version of the kiss scene they rehearsed before. A milestone for the characters, a turning point in the movie, but he doesn’t know what it will be for them.
The night before, there’s another party at Director Zhou’s house and Xiao Zhan almost passes on it. The scenes they filmed today didn’t go so well; the wind off the lake was strong and the water was choppy, and down in the garden where they were supposed to be having an important conversation about their lives, the sound guy kept asking them to talk louder, trying to be heard over the ambient noise. They didn’t wrap the scene until later than usual, and Xiao Zhan is tired, ready to be alone.
He goes, though. He’s gotten to be friends with Liao Ping, the secondary camera operator, and they like to talk about their favorite singers, sharing videos back and forth. Tonight they do that for a while and then separate to wander around the party and grab leftover food, which is how Xiao Zhan ends up dropping down on the couch next to Yibo, who’s zoned out with his phone.
Xiao Zhan smacks him lightly on the arm with the back of his hand. “Hey.”
Yibo’s face is surprised and open when he looks up, before it closes off again. “What?”
“Talk to me, I’m bored,” Xiao Zhan says.
That’s the kind of thing he used to say, safe enough, but Yibo’s guarded expression doesn’t change. Xiao Zhan grimaces internally, because it feels like he just can’t find the right tone with Yibo these days. He tried teasing him at the first party, and being sincere and solicitous on their first morning of filming together, but everything seems to elicit the same response from Yibo, wary confusion. Like he’s expecting something else.
Yibo does at least put down his phone, squinting at Xiao Zhan and pressing his lips together. “It’s not my fault you’re bored.”
Xiao Zhan grins, reaching out to tap Yibo’s shoulder. “Tell me something interesting.”
“Uh,” Yibo says, recoiling from the gentle knock, more than necessary. “I don’t know. I’m tired, Zhan-ge. I don’t know anything.”
The familiar name is like a hit to the chest, warm and solid. Xiao Zhan remembers the old whining tone to Yibo’s voice too, all the stuff they haven’t been doing on set. It’s felt weird to be so focused and professional, when this kind of casual bantering is how they always were before. Yibo looks like he remembers it too, eyebrows raised as if he didn’t mean to say that.
“What are you doing on your phone?” Xiao Zhan says, making a grab for it.
Yibo is too quick, protecting the phone against his chest. “Work.”
“Ah, Lao Wang, so diligent,” Xiao Zhan says. “Your manager must love you.”
Yibo snorts, finally making a real face, not the frozen expression he’s had since Xiao Zhan sat down. “I’m looking at some new racing gear.”
“Oh yeah, she hates that,” Xiao Zhan says with a laugh. He makes one more grab for the phone, just for show. “Did she even let you keep the helmet I gave you?”
“Yeah, I still have it,” Yibo says. “She’s my manager, she’s not my mom.”
“Good,” Xiao Zhan says.
Silence hangs between them for a moment. He should make another joke or say something casual and chatty, keep the light mood going now that Yibo’s finally talking to him like a real person, but Xiao Zhan likes the way Yibo is looking at him, soft and open. It’s not so different from the way he used to look, and everything else aside Xiao Zhan feels a vast gratitude that he gets to have this again, working with Yibo. He never knew how lucky he was before.
“That was a good scene today,” Xiao Zhan says, shifting gears. He reaches out to tap Yibo’s shoulder once more, gently this time. “I like how you say that one line about the movie they’re watching, if I loved someone like that I’d never leave. It could be such an obvious come-on to Lingxuan but you say it like you really mean it, like it’s not even about him.”
“Director Zhou told me to say it like that,” Yibo says, flatly.
Xiao Zhan rolls his shoulders, shrugging. “Yeah, but you’re doing a good job with it. You should definitely do more serious movies like this...but I know you don’t like to be tied down to one thing.”
“I,” Yibo says, and pauses. “I just like doing different things. You know I can commit to something, I’ve been doing Day Day Up for almost ten years now.”
Xiao Zhan smiles, humming the theme song and moving his hands through the dance Yibo taught him once. “I forgot, you’re practically the senior there now, huh.”
“So—about tomorrow,” Yibo says, suddenly.
It puts a chill between them, a new kind of silence that doesn’t feel anything like the closeness just now. Xiao Zhan fights the urge to clear his throat or fidget, trying to keep steady. Yibo’s probably just nervous about doing a real kissing scene on film, and to be honest, so is Xiao Zhan.
“Yeah,” Xiao Zhan says. “Well, we rehearsed. We know what to do.”
“Yeah,” Yibo says softly.
Xiao Zhan opens his mouth to say something more and then stops, feeling heat rush into his face. He’s been working so hard to keep what they’re doing professional, the way Yibo clearly is. They’re both taking this so seriously, and he doesn’t want to mess it up by talking about what happened before, or suggesting it should happen again. He doesn’t want Yibo to think he’s hung up on him, or make it awkward; he just can’t help these stabs of longing awareness every so often. They’re together again, playing lovers, and it’s so close to everything he made himself stop thinking about years ago.
He clears his throat instead. Yibo is looking at him, and he feels like after such a long pause he should say something good, but for the life of him he can’t think what.
The moment is broken by Yang Cheng appearing and hanging over the back of the couch right between them, and Xiao Zhan’s grateful for it. Yang Cheng has obviously been drinking, loud and flushed, and Xiao Zhan pushes him out of his face but Yibo just laughs, like maybe he was glad to be interrupted too.
“You guys should eat some food,” Yang Cheng protests, pinching Yibo’s cheek. “You’re too skinny.”
“Did you leave any for us?” Yibo asks, dealing a swift poke to Yang Cheng’s ribs.
“Come look, Wang-ge,” Yang Cheng says, and pulls him to his feet. “Only the best for you.”
The party breaks up not long after. A couple of the crew members who’ve been drinking hard look worse for wear and Director Zhou shoos them into the guest bedrooms to sleep it off. Xiao Zhan feels the late hour now, and once he’s finally back at the hotel his empty stomach grumbles as he heads to his room. This shoot is throwing off all his routines.
He doesn’t eat, but he cracks open a seltzer water and drinks it standing up, swiping through his messages on his phone. His schedule is already filling in for the fall, and that’s months away.
While he’s looking, a new message comes in. hope you use lip balm this time
Xiao Zhan just stares at his phone. They’ve been texting over the last few weeks, just random links and pictures, because he felt like it was important to get some kind of friendship going again. This is nothing like that; it’s almost flirtatious.
It can’t be on purpose. Yibo must have forgotten that one kiss years ago, that’s all. Xiao Zhan replies, I didn’t expect a rehearsal that day and then goes to get ready for bed. If he focuses on hurrying through his nighttime routine, he won’t think about it. He strips down to his underwear, adjusts the climate control on the room, and gets into bed, picking up his phone.
I could tell
Xiao Zhan’s face burns. How is he supposed to answer that? In person, he could singsong so you were paying attention to my lips? and it would come off like a joke, but it’s tougher to do that in text. Instead he types out, I’m sorry I displeased Wang-laoshi, I’ll be more considerate with my lips next time.
That feels safer, though he couldn’t help putting in the reference to his lips. His heart is racing now, and he puts the phone down, sliding under the covers and arranging the pillow under his head before turning off the light. Finally he reaches for his phone again, irresistibly.
yeah, you’re usually much more considerate with your lips
Xiao Zhan just closes his eyes for a second. Some part of him knows this must be a work thing, getting more comfortable before the scene tomorrow, and he tries to be grateful to Yibo for finally pulling their relationship in the direction it used to go, loose and playful. It’s not Yibo’s fault he doesn’t know what that’s doing to Xiao Zhan.
I promise I’ll bring lip balm tomorrow, he finally replies. You can use some too if you want.
you didn’t like my lips? comes back right away.
Xiao Zhan tightens his jaw. It’s too late to feel this alert and anxious, and he doesn’t want to give himself away by saying any of the things he really wants to say. I like your lips just fine, he replies, truthful and brief. And I’ll see you tomorrow.
He puts the phone down again before he can see what the answer is. This is just fun for Yibo, like it always was, and he won’t be up late agonizing over their conversation. Xiao Zhan needs sleep, and he needs to keep himself calm, but he can’t stop the way his heart flutters, relentless in the face of every sensible thought.
Yibo sleeps terribly, staying up late agonizing over their conversation. It was stupid of him to send that first message right before bed, but he’d left the party feeling so unsettled and it was an irresistible impulse to take things further once he was alone. Xiao Zhan had finally loosened up, teasing Yibo and getting in his space, but Yibo hadn’t been able to respond the way he really wanted. Too many people nearby, and he knew it would all show on his face if he let it, the way he yearns toward Xiao Zhan whenever he’s around.
So he sent a flirty message, one that could be taken in a few ways, and at first it wasn’t clear how Xiao Zhan was responding. But then he said it, I like your lips, and ended the conversation there, like Yibo was going to be able to sleep after that.
At morning call, Xiao Zhan doesn’t look any different, just offering a warm smile before dropping into his usual seat on the shuttle. Yibo hopes his sleepless night isn’t too obvious; he’s never been prone to dark circles, and his newly-feathered hair is clean and brushed. It’s not like Xiao Zhan is looking at him anyway.
The set is crowded today, with everyone there to film the dinner party scene first. The big windows around the dining table are blacked out to make it look like night, and those two little girls are there, making everything chaotic. Yibo’s worked with kids on set before and they’re usually unnaturally well-behaved, but these two are the complete opposite and he gets the feeling Director Zhou likes that.
It works well enough for the scene anyway. Things are tense between the adult characters, with Yang Cheng slipping into his dour, serious role as Lingxuan’s sister’s husband so thoroughly Yibo hardly recognizes him. He and Wu Fan glare daggers at each other, icily polite in front of others, and they’ll retire after dinner to their room to shout behind closed doors. Xiao Zhan is Yibo’s only safe place to look, although he’s radiating Lingxuan’s shame at having his family’s troubles made so clear. The girls interrupt the conversation so readily they almost seem to be improvising, and Yibo feels both Ji Yi’s enormous relief and his own when the family leaves the room.
They break for lunch then, and Yibo takes his out on the back lawn, staring out at the lake. It’s still a huge but pleasant change, being involved with such a small production. He serves himself his own food, instead of having something brought by a PA, and then sits on the grass, arms resting on his drawn-up knees, feeling grateful for the time alone.
“Almost finished?” Xiao Zhan asks, from behind him. “They’re ready whenever you are.”
A big production wouldn’t wait for Yibo to be done spacing out and picking at his lunch, but he doesn’t want to hold this one up either. He feels such fondness for everyone involved already, like they’re all in this endeavor together, doing the best they can for a project they care about. He turns, and Xiao Zhan reaches out a hand to help him up.
Yibo takes it. “Yeah, I’m ready.”
Setting up in the kitchen feels both the same and totally different to the first time they did this. The same because once again they’re being watched, playing characters instead of themselves, but different because Yibo knows what he’s doing now. None of that awkward discomfort, just slipping back into the mood he and Xiao Zhan built in the earlier scene, a silent connection that grew stronger the worse things got around them. Their characters understand each other.
“Are you going to help me with this?” Xiao Zhan asks, turning, plate and towel in hand.
The moment lingers, and Yibo’s heart jumps into his throat, a dual reality wavering before him once again. He feels the same yearning as Jin Yi, even as it comes from a different place; Jin Yi’s distanced from his formal, loveless family, aching for love, while Yibo wants something he came so close to before he lost it. He sees both things in Xiao Zhan’s face now, the wariness of Lingxuan with that burning desire beneath, and the open expression in his eyes that Yibo fell in love with years ago, warm and tender.
Yibo pushes through it. He’s Jin Yi now, trying to believe this is something casual and light, something that won’t turn his world upside down . As if this is just a kiss, and not a burning brand that will mark him forever.
He still isn’t prepared for the way it feels when his lips touch Xiao Zhan’s. Within the scene, he’s forgotten everything around them; their characters could be caught at any moment but that doesn’t matter as much as this kiss, making this connection. Jin Yi knows Lingxuan by now, the shape of his soul, but not this, the way he tastes and feels, the curve of his cheek and the softness of his lips. Yibo can hardly breathe, electric current pulsing through him, and when the kiss ends it feels for a moment like he’s going to die, losing the only source of real life he’s ever known.
“Cut,” Director Zhou says. He looks down at the monitor, watching the replay with an approving glance. “That’s great, you guys nailed it. I don’t even think we need another take. Let’s set up for the next one.”
There’s a clamor around them, as people start moving cameras and someone goes to get Wu Fan. Yibo stays where he is, breathing hard. He’s never gone that deep into character before, shutting out everything around him, and it physically hurts to bring himself back, like clawing up through heavy dark earth. He has to blink before he can even see.
Xiao Zhan is still close to him, smiling with his own expression now, all traces of Lingxuan gone. He used to be the one lingering in character, while Yibo was always happy to break free the moment the cameras were off, but things have changed. “OK? Lips soft enough for you?”
It takes a moment for Yibo to remember that’s a reference to his own clumsy attempts at flirting over text last night. He wasn’t sure then, but however Xiao Zhan smirks at him now, Yibo knows he’s definitely flirting back.
Yibo’s still too shaken to follow up properly, though, and he just nods and mutters, “Yeah.”
“Yeah, what, Lao Wang?” Xiao Zhan asks, and that’s not fair at all, using that teasing old name when they’re so close like this, when Yibo’s still not quite sure who they are, separately or to each other. “Yeah, you’re OK?”
He isn’t, not really. “Yeah your lips are soft,” he says, bluntly.
Xiao Zhan blinks. “Good,” he says, and he sounds unsure. “Uh, I used that lip balm you like so much.”
It’s like someone dropped a match into a pool of gasoline. Yibo feels his ears burn and he can see the flush in Xiao Zhan’s face because the game is over, pretending that they’ve only ever been friends and costars. Yibo finally remembers what he’d forgotten, stealing a kiss from Xiao Zhan between scenes when everyone had left the wardrobe trailer, and then taking another one, drawn by the softness of his lips and the dangerous thrill of the moment.
”You better stop,” Xiao Zhan breathed, but he didn’t let go of the front of Yibo’s costume, fingers clenched in the white folds of his robes. “Someone will see.”
And Yibo, drunk on daring and kissing Xiao Zhan when he was two inches taller in platform boots, took yet another kiss. “Can’t. That stuff makes your lips too soft.”
It was one of those moments when he braced himself for a jibe from Xiao Zhan, an insulting remark or a poke to the ribs, but Xiao Zhan just looked up with those big, impossibly dark eyes shining and let himself be kissed again.
Yibo’s ears burn even hotter when he realizes what it must have sounded like last night, teasing Xiao Zhan about lip balm. Xiao Zhan must have thought Yibo was throwing himself at him, reminding him of what they used to be like. No wonder he left Yibo hanging.
But he did text back, Yibo realizes. It wasn’t quite flirting, but it wasn’t not. He should know; he’s read the messages over ten times today. There’s something here, some possibility opening between them like it did before. Unlikely as it seems, Yibo can feel it, see the hint of a question in Xiao Zhan’s eyes, like he’s just waiting for Yibo to say something more.
They’re still staring at each other, heat in the air, when Chao Xiuli comes up and touches Yibo on the arm. “We’re ready for the next scene, guys. Do you need a break first, some water?”
“Yeah,” Xiao Zhan says, clearing his throat. “Water would be great.”
They each gulp down a bottle of water, backs to the sink, not looking at each other. It feels like the first time they rehearsed this scene except they’re not alone now, surrounded by crew adjusting lights and sound equipment. Yibo feels himself calming down as he drinks, all those confusing memories from their past fading as he orients himself in the present, in the work. He’s too much of a professional to waste anyone else’s time with the explosions going off in his personal life.
Wu Fan is waiting nearby, and when Xiao Zhan puts down his water he waves shyly to her, one of those small dorky things he does that endears everyone to him. To Yibo’s eyes, she’s seemed severe and stand-offish so far, but of course she smiles right back at Xiao Zhan, susceptible to his charm like everyone else.
“Hurry up and finish so we can do our scene,” Wu Fan says to him.
“You like being a third wheel?” Xiao Zhan asks.
She narrows her eyes, making an exaggeratedly mean glare. “Minghua can’t be happy, so nobody should be.”
“Aiyo, that’s not my fault,” Xiao Zhan says. “Blame your husband, he’s the one with a mistress in the city.”
“That’s in the sequel,” she says. “‘The Life You Gave Me 2: Minghua’s Revenge.’”
The two of them laugh, and Yibo smiles too, as he finishes his water bottle.
“I just want to wrap for the day so we can get dinner,” Wu Fan grumbles, and then she goes back to her warm-up exercises, rolling her neck and shaking out her hands.
They start the scene eventually, Wu Fan’s sharp voice cutting in and making them step apart. It’s not supposed to be clear yet if her character suspects anything between them or if she just resents anyone pulling attention from her own personal drama, and Yibo can’t help but be impressed at the way she and Xiao Zhan play their difficult sibling relationship. She’s dismissive and unkind, but with a sense of thwarted love and concern beneath it, while he’s distant and withdrawn, not rising to her bait, a little brother wary of his older sister. Yibo’s own relationship with his sister is much warmer and more affectionate, but he still recognizes that dynamic, the leftover childhood awe of a powerful person.
Yibo’s own part in the scene is brief, and then he sits down to watch the rest of it from a chair behind the principal camera. It’s not real, but part of him still aches at Xiao Zhan’s face at the end, the determined desolation when Wu Fan tells him that he can’t have guests at her house anymore. He can really see how Lingxuan is losing the only thread of happiness in his life, left alone and adrift, in the way Xiao Zhan turns and stares fixedly out at the dark window.
They reshoot a couple of takes, playing up different aspects in the fight. Director Zhou rewrites his own script a little, now he’s hearing the words out loud, and Yibo loves this, watching art be made in front of him. The three of them debate the impact of a specific line, Chao Xiuli weighing in too, and for all that Wu Fan claimed to be anxious to get to dinner before, she seems just as concerned with getting this right. Yibo loves that, seeing how much this story matters to everyone involved.
Finally they shoot a good take, and the two actors slump back against the kitchen sink, looking tired but pleased. Yibo thinks about how that was him up there a few hours ago, side by side with Xiao Zhan under the hot lights. It’s always Xiao Zhan at the center of everything.
They’re talking and laughing about something Yibo can’t hear, and then Xiao Zhan turns and looks right at Yibo. He was smiling before but Yibo can’t help but feel it’s different now, glowing brighter.
“Hey,” Xiao Zhan says. “You’re still here.”
“Yeah,” Yibo says, and he smiles back; a cast line connecting the two of them alone.
It’s late when they wrap, but Xiao Zhan’s not surprised that Director Zhou takes them back to his rental house instead of the hotel. He’s tired too, but he’s not ready to let go of the others yet. The scenes they filmed today felt like a crossroads that brought the cast together: the comical, acrimonious dinner party, the argument he filmed with Wu Fan, and especially the kiss in the kitchen, the turning point of the whole story.
He hasn’t let himself think much about what happened after their scene. He doesn’t know why Yibo reacted so strongly, when he’s the one who was joking about soft lips last night, but it was unmistakable, how flushed and awkward he suddenly got. Not before the kiss or during, when they were still deep in their characters, but after, when they were both remembering the same things.
God, they made out all over that set, Xiao Zhan thinks. Everyone knew what was going on and they did try to keep it private, but they were almost caught more than once. Thinking about it now, maybe that was part of the appeal, but he doesn’t think that’s all it was.
Yibo just looked at him, all the time. Like he’s been looking at Xiao Zhan lately.
It seems impossible that Yibo would want to start all that up again, when it’s years later and everything is different, but Xiao Zhan can’t deny that’s exactly what it feels like. Maybe now that they’re filming more scenes together, Yibo wants to make the chemistry real again. Maybe he’s been stuck out at this lake long enough that he’s getting horny and lonely for a hookup. All the things Xiao Zhan assumed were true last time, when he was new to the business and Yibo was so confident even though he was so young.
Everyone gets off the bus and crowds into the house, noisy and happy, and Yibo looks at Xiao Zhan over his shoulder, grinning, and Xiao Zhan just doesn’t want to think so much anymore.
He actually drinks tonight, two beers plus whatever shots get passed around. Not enough to get really drunk, just light-headed and giddy as he laughs and dances with the others, feeling joyful and young. Director Zhou keeps trying to show them some old Italian movie with subtitles, pointing out the finer points of the acting and cinematography, but it’s a lost cause, with everyone this keyed up and boisterous.
“Don’t you people care about art?” he finally bellows, half joking and half exasperated, and Yang Cheng calls back, “Art tomorrow!” before pouring out another round and turning up the music.
Xiao Zhan’s aware of Yibo, all night. Battling him over the last shrimp dumpling, and then an arm slung over his shoulder, singing along even louder than the music. Every time Xiao Zhan finds himself in the center of a group, telling some story or joke, it seems like his eyes always seek out Yibo, face shining and gaze fixed on him. It’s like the dam has broken, the walls falling free, bathed in the deep gorgeous delight of being so close to Yibo again, this starry-bright exchange of energy between them.
The party thins out some, the crew members disappearing until it’s just the four principal actors and Director Zhou, running the movie again. This time he seems determined, wielding a remote from his chair in the corner, pausing to point out well-composed shots or impressive acting moments. He keeps looking over at the four of them, wedged onto the couch, checking to make sure they’re following the lesson.
It’s a lost cause. Yang Cheng is definitely the most drunk of them all, still singing an old A-Mei song under his breath, but to Xiao Zhan’s surprise Wu Fan isn’t far behind him, her customary bright red lipstick smudged and her bobbed hair swaying in her sleepy eyes. Her head keeps dropping, and finally she pillows it on Yang Cheng’s chest, tucked beneath his chin. He gives her a surprised glance and then wraps his arm around her, holding her close as he keeps humming the same chorus.
Xiao Zhan turns his head, meaning to point them out to Yibo, but his smirk fades when he meets Yibo’s eyes. He can tell Yibo’s been watching them too, but now it’s him that Yibo is looking at.
“See?” Director Zhou asks, excitedly. “You see how they do it without words? That’s what I want, the audience should look at you and understand everything.”
Without looking away, Yibo slides his arm along the back of the couch, until it’s curved right behind Xiao Zhan’s shoulders.
“Look!” Director Zhou says, and Xiao Zhan finally tears his gaze away.
The movie keeps playing, but he isn’t following it at all now. He’s so conscious of the heat of Yibo’s body, all along his own, and that bare arm right behind his neck. On the floor, their socked feet are close, and Xiao Zhan swallows hard and moves his own to hook over Yibo’s, resting on top of his ankle.
They sit like that for what seems like hours. Xiao Zhan feels so awake now, but at the same time dreamy and surreal. This is happening, again.
His hand slips down, onto Yibo’s thigh, and he feels Yibo shift next to him, arm drawing tighter around his shoulders. He squeezes Yibo’s thigh, stroking the inseam of his jeans with his fingertips. Yibo shifts again, turning into him, and suddenly it feels like he’s surrounded by Yibo’s warmth everywhere—hand curving around the cap of his shoulder, knee digging into his thigh, and Yibo’s mouth right by his ear. Even Yibo’s breath is warm, and then his teeth close over Xiao Zhan’s earlobe, grazing.
“Ah,” Xiao Zhan says, letting out a surprised sound. He jerks, shivers running all through his body, and when the others turn to look at him he leans forward, out of Yibo’s embrace, and puts both hands on his cheeks, eyes wide.
“Are you OK?” Yang Cheng asks.
Xiao Zhan gives himself a shake all over, rubbing his face. “Sorry. Just—a weird feeling.”
“You must have been falling asleep,” Yang Cheng says, with a laugh. He jostles Wu Fan a little, dozing on his chest, with a warm, private smile.
“Should I stop the movie?” Director Zhou asks, seeming solicitous, but his eyes are sharp beneath the brim of his cap.
“No,” Xiao Zhan says. He sits back again, and he’s disappointed to feel that Yibo has moved his arm so there’s only couch behind him. He darts a quick sideways glance, but Yibo’s face is calm, eyes downcast.
In this moment, with everyone watching him, Xiao Zhan can be brave. He turns and looks right at Yibo, pushing his lips out into a pout, and makes his eyes pleading. “Hey, where did my pillow go?”
Yibo’s eyebrows raise. “I’m not your pillow.”
Xiao Zhan pouts more. “You’re second lead, Lao Wang. That’s what you’re for.”
Yang Cheng laughs, and Yibo stares back, uncertain, like he doesn’t know if Xiao Zhan is joking. Finally he lifts his arm again, and this time Xiao Zhan dives right in, snuggling his head into the curve of his neck the way Wu Fan is doing to Yang Cheng behind him.
He’s a lot taller than Wu Fan though, both in comparison to her and to Yibo, and he has to really curl up to get into position. Yibo’s so skinny he doesn’t make a very good pillow, and he’s tense and unhelpful, his chest unyielding as Xiao Zhan tries to get comfortable.
Just when Xiao Zhan’s about to give up, feeling foolish, Yibo mutters, “Here,” and turns his body to wedge more into the corner of the couch, giving Xiao Zhan space.
Xiao Zhan slides down more, sighing gratefully. After the awkward struggles a moment ago, it’s a surprisingly good fit, although his knees have to be bent up with his feet flat on the floor. The top of his head presses against Yibo’s jaw, and Yibo tucks his arm around him, hand resting on his waist.
It’s not long until Xiao Zhan’s eyes close. He’s not really drunk, but it was an exhausting day of filming, and he’s so warm and comfortable now he feels like he’s glowing with it. In truth, he can’t remember the last time he was this physically close to another person. He dates from time to time, but never anyone he trusts enough to cuddle with like this, and his last, brief relationship was a year ago. This feels more intimate than any of his recent hookups have.
Yibo’s big hand is right below his ribs, spanning his waist. Xiao Zhan can feel the heat of it, the spread of his fingers. He thinks he’ll never be able to focus on anything else, but before he knows it, he’s losing all thought, drifting off to sleep.
Laughter wakes him. A short barking shout of it, coming from above him. “You young people!” Director Zhou says. “Here I’m trying to give you an education in cinema, and you all drink too much and pass out on my couch.”
“I’m not so young,” Yang Cheng protests, but he interrupts himself with a yawn.
Xiao Zhan still hasn’t opened his eyes. Yibo is warm beneath him, his slender body feeling strong and supportive now, instead of narrow and hard like before. Yibo’s relaxed, he realizes; maybe asleep or maybe just finally letting him in.
“It’s a good thing I have guest rooms,” Director Zhou says, still sounding grumpy, but Xiao Zhan can hear the amusement under it. “Now go use them.”
There’s movement at the other end of the couch, and then a sleepy moan from Wu Fan, harsh and irritated. Yang Cheng laughs as they get up. “Better drink some water, A-Fan.”
Now Xiao Zhan has to make himself sit up, which he does, slow and stiff. His neck aches from being bent so long, and he winces as he turns to look at Yibo. He’s not sure what he expects, maybe for Yibo to pretend like he’s still sleeping, but instead Yibo is looking right back at him, the way he has been this whole night.
“You’re an OK pillow, Lao Wang,” Xiao Zhan says, forcing out the light words. “Just OK.”
Yibo rolls his eyes and sits up, shoving at Xiao Zhan a little to make room for himself. “Go get a real pillow then.”
“Fine,” Xiao Zhan says, and yawns. “I will.”
The four of them say goodnight to Director Zhou and head through one of the little round doorways in the house to the back hallway, where they discover there are just two guest bedrooms.
Xiao Zhan locks eyes with Yang Cheng, over Wu Fan’s head. There’s a moment of hesitation, and then Wu Fan takes Yang Cheng’s hand, pulling him towards one of the rooms. Her mouth is a determined line, and she doesn’t look up.
“Come on,” she says, and they disappear behind the closed door.
That leaves one room.
Yibo moves first, stepping into the empty bedroom. Xiao Zhan follows, shutting the door behind them. It’s dark, but he can see a double bed pushed into a corner, beneath a window with its bamboo shade rolled halfway down. On the other side of the wall there’s an en suite bathroom, but Yibo goes right for the bed and throws himself on it, moving to the far side.
Xiao Zhan takes his phone out of his pocket, puts it on a table, and stops. If he hesitates too long, he won’t be able to do this, getting into bed with Yibo in the dark. It will mean too much—anything is too much—and it will feel like a choice, not the good-natured drunken tangle they were in before he fell asleep. He doesn’t want to have to think about this.
He gets on the bed, and Yibo doesn’t move over to make space. They lie next to each other, touching, breathing in the dark.
“Now this is a real pillow,” Xiao Zhan says, looking up at the ceiling. His mouth is dry.
“Being your pillow wasn’t in the job when I took it,” Yibo says.
Why did you take it? hangs between them, as loud as if Xiao Zhan had actually said it. He doesn’t, though, and before the words linger too long he turns over and looks at Yibo for just a breath before leaning in to kiss him.
Yibo takes his time, kissing back. The way he opens his mouth is thoughtful, still considering, even as he slips his tongue against Xiao Zhan’s. It’s nothing like his eagerness on set today, but that was the aggressive confidence of the character he plays, and there’s no one else here to see. This is just for them.
Xiao Zhan isn’t ready for the feelings that well up as they kiss. Nostalgia and regret, yes, but also shame that he still wants this so much, as much as he ever did. It feels like he should be over it, but no matter what he’s tried to tell himself, he isn’t. He can’t.
But Yibo is really kissing him back now, a slow spark that’s taking flame. Xiao Zhan can feel his breath quicken, and then Yibo rolls over on his side so they’re facing, reaching to hold Xiao Zhan’s head close. The feeling of Yibo’s hand in his hair makes Xiao Zhan gasp, a jolt of heat going all through him, and this is real, this is real.
He stops himself from giving in entirely, before the feeling takes over. It burns between them still, enormous and consuming. He moves his head back enough to see Yibo’s face, soft in the dim light, eyes half lidded beneath his heavy brows and his lush lips parted. His hair falls across his forehead, and Xiao Zhan reaches up to brush it back.
There’s nothing to say, without revealing too much. He’s caught between the questions in Yibo’s watchful eyes and this hungry flame inside him, threatening to burn everything down just to get what he wants.
In the end, he gives into the fire. He kisses Yibo again and Yibo lets himself be kissed, hand curled around the back of Xiao Zhan’s neck. Xiao Zhan moves down his body and Yibo rolls onto his back, stroking Xiao Zhan’s head and squeezing his shoulders, groaning as Xiao Zhan gets his jeans open.
There’s an answering groan from the room next door, an obvious thump on the wall, and Xiao Zhan stops, looking up. He can’t help the grin that steals across his face, and when Yibo grins back everything changes for a moment, something sweet and familiar flitting lightly between them.
“So loud,” Xiao Zhan says. “So rude.”
“You like loud,” Yibo says, and just keeps looking steadily at Xiao Zhan until he ducks down, face burning.
Familiar scent, familiar taste, familiar feel in his mouth. Yibo’s gorgeous, substantial, powerfully affecting Xiao Zhan as he caresses his length. He doesn’t expect the sounds Yibo makes, soft and urgent, or the way Yibo moves underneath him, restless and unrestrained. It’s like no time has passed, like they’re young and drunk on each other, bodies fond and familiar.
More groans come from the other side of the wall but Xiao Zhan only cares about this; the radiant heat of Yibo’s body, the way Yibo draws his leg up when Xiao Zhan takes him deeper, his fingers buried in the shag of Xiao Zhan’s hair and half-whispering, “Zhan-ge.”
It’s not right to pretend they have their old intimacy but Xiao Zhan does anyway, following the guidance of Yibo’s sighs. Kissing at the slick, plump head of his cock and tonguing beneath, one hand cradling the loose tender weight of his balls. Thumb stroking the muscular flesh of his inner thigh, over the sparse hairs and up to the damp seam of his groin, the thick tendon working beneath as Xiao Zhan spreads Yibo’s leg as wide as he can with his jeans tugged down.
Yibo lets himself be fondled, hips pumping with tiny, steady motions. “Zhan-ge,” he whispers again, and then the rough, wordless groan that follows seems torn from his throat as Xiao Zhan sucks him hard. He’s still so easy to pleasure like this, and part of Xiao Zhan wants to do it forever, earning the reward of an aching jaw and Yibo begging beneath him.
But too soon Yibo’s moans turn sharp, the clutch of his hands tighter, thighs tense. His cock swells in Xiao Zhan’s mouth, thick and rigid, and it feels like riding a strong wave, keeping hold through the building release.
“Fuck,” Yibo gasps, “Fuck—fuck—” and he makes a harsh sound, arching up.
Xiao Zhan’s ears ring as Yibo comes, like an explosion has gone off next to him. But no, Yibo’s cupping his head, covering his ears so the only sound is the tidal swish of his own pulse, dulling Yibo’s cries. There’s a bright tropical heat in his mouth, a flood of salt, and he feels the echo of shared ecstasy, bringing Yibo to this intimate extreme.
When Xiao Zhan finally lifts up, panting for air, Yibo grasps the shoulders of his shirt, hauling him all the way up. They kiss again, breathless, Yibo licking the taste from his mouth, and Yibo’s hand curves around his ass to pull him in tight. Xiao Zhan straddles Yibo’s thigh, grinding against him, mindless with how good every single part of this feels as long as he doesn’t think about it.
Yibo rolls him over, hand slipping beneath his waistband. Xiao Zhan can’t help bucking into his touch, pure want blazing through him. He remembers Yibo’s tight fast grip from before, so different from the deliberate way Xiao Zhan likes to touch himself, but it’s different now. Yibo keeps kissing him gently, pausing to nuzzle at his lips, and his strokes are paced to match, a pulsing, tender caress.
For all that, the pleasure builds sharp and quick, until Xiao Zhan is clinging to Yibo’s neck, choking, “yeah, yeah” into the kiss. It’s too much to stand, being touched by someone who knows him, drenched in these resurgent feelings. Yibo is too much, caging Xiao Zhan with his body, solid and powerful, redolent with the remembered scent of sweat and cologne. Xiao Zhan counts his own breaths, tightening like he’s being wound with a key, and only when it’s unbearable does he let go at last.
Colors bloom behind his eyelids, and pain in the arches of his feet, stinging with cramp as he comes. There’s the loving awareness of Yibo’s whole self, his soft lips and the warm length of his body, and the abandonment of spilling like this, wet in his hand, so firm and steady. Xiao Zhan feels enormous, blended, like they’re one being this way; one drive, one desire.
He gasps against Yibo’s mouth through it, words transmuted to breath, lost before they can form.
After, he’s grateful for everything. For warmth, for darkness, for the air that passes between them. For the work, bringing them together and bringing exhaustion, an oblivion that sweeps them both away before one more thing can happen, one more moment than he can bear.
The kiss rehearsal scene with the director walking out was shamelessly borrowed from Hammer and Chalamet’s story of Luca Guadagaini doing the same thing to them at the start of filming Call Me By Your Name
Thank you so much to everyone for the lovely response to the first chapter! I’m so glad people are enjoying this. <3
In my initial posting I forgot to link my story playlist, which is available here.
This chapter gets a little more intense with the filming; nothing really tag-worthy, but the personal and professional lines continue to blur so heads up if that’s something you’re sensitive to. And as before, filming realities have been largely handwaved or improvised, so any inaccuracies are all on me and for the sake of fiction.
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.
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
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.”
Thank you so much again to everyone who’s been reading along! The chapter count is changing because I’m posting the epilogue simultaneously and separately.
Yibo wakes up in Xiao Zhan’s room, with a whole day off together and Xiao Zhan wrapped around him.
He takes his time, coming awake. He’s warm all over, sunlight on his face and Xiao Zhan pressed along his back, knees tucked behind his and arm resting over his middle. Yibo keeps his eyes shut, breathing slow and shallow. He thinks Xiao Zhan is still asleep, and he wants to keep this closeness just a little while longer.
Yibo doesn’t cuddle much in bed. He’s touchy and affectionate with anyone he’s close to, but in his sleep he always pulls away, seeking space. He’s surprised he didn’t kick Xiao Zhan in the night, and surprised by how good it feels, being held like this.
But of course it feels good. It’s Xiao Zhan.
Eventually he has to move a little, stretching out his legs, and Xiao Zhan does too, stirring behind him. He doesn’t move his arm, though, just rubbing Yibo’s chest as he yawns, and when Yibo relaxes, sighing, Xiao Zhan pulls him closer.
He was awake, Yibo thinks. He was awake and he didn’t move away.
Yibo waits for one of them to say something, for everything to finally come out in the open between them, but it doesn’t happen. They just lie together, warm and close, and Yibo puts his hand over Xiao Zhan’s. After a while he falls asleep again.
This time when he wakes up he’s alone in bed. When he rolls over he sees Xiao Zhan sitting on the couch in the lounge area, long bare legs propped on the table and his computer on his lap. There’s a half-empty room service cart, and the room isn’t as bright as before, like clouds have rolled in.
“What time is it?” Yibo asks, his voice hoarse.
Xiao Zhan glances over and smiles at him, before looking back at his computer. “Almost noon. There’s food if you want some.”
Yibo reaches down to the floor for yesterday’s t-shirt, pulling it over his head. His mouth feels terrible, dry and stale. He looks through the leftovers from breakfast, finds a jian bing that looks all right, and takes it back to bed, where he eats it as he goes through his phone.
More messages than usual, because the summer is coming to an end and things are getting busy again. Rehearsals for a new dance show, Day Day Up appearances, six different commercials. A movie Yibo totally forgot he signed on for. The only exciting thing is the preliminary artwork for his new skateboard line, and he can’t even have one of them yet. Yibo drops his head back against the wall and sighs, frustrated.
“I know what you mean,” Xiao Zhan says, from across the room.
“We’re so lucky to be working,” Yibo says. “I feel like a dick when I complain. Or stupid for wanting to do less.”
“It’s not stupid,” Xiao Zhan says.
Yibo looks at him. They have this one day off together, because they worked so hard and well yesterday that they’re already finished with those scenes. Those scenes, the ones that felt so surreal and bizarre to finally be filming. Trying to be his character and not himself in love with Xiao Zhan, while knowing the whole set and soon the whole world would see how he looks when he’s having sex. They got through it together, both putting it all on the line in the same way, and now they have this, a single day that could be anything they want.
The room gets even darker suddenly, and there’s a rattling on the roof, the first drops of a summer storm. Yibo makes up his mind.
“Is it cool if I hang out here today?” he asks.
“Of course,” XIao Zhan says. He’s still looking at his laptop and typing as he speaks, but he looks pleased, like he’s happy Yibo asked. Yibo feels like he made the right choice.
They spend most of the day like that, working separately as the rain gusts down, loud on the roof and showering against the window glass. Yibo gets up and stands there for a while, looking out at the misty buildings and trees, with the lake just a smudge in the distance. Lightning forks over the clouds, but he never hears the thunder of it striking anything.
Later they curl up in bed and make love. There’s no other way to describe the delicate way they touch each other, familiar and warm, and the lingering way they kiss. For all they kissed so much yesterday, it’s still fresh and new, even as they have to be careful of their tender mouths. Because it’s them, Yibo thinks; not a story, not a job, but their real selves.
Breath, heat, kisses. They pull the sheets over their heads and it’s dim beneath, in their own private world. Yibo’s drunk with it, dizzy as he buries his hands in Xiao Zhan’s hair, pulling back to look at him before kissing him again. Xiao Zhan touches him everywhere, palm sliding down Yibo’s back and over the curve of his hip, cupping it to draw him closer. It feels like something has to break, spilling over, but it just goes on and on.
Xiao Zhan rolls them over, straddling Yibo’s thighs and pushing between them. Yibo holds him tight, teeth closing on his lower lip, and Xiao Zhan lets out a soft groan, thrusting like that until the hot solid length of his cock pulses hard. He buries his face in the curve of Yibo’s neck, and Yibo gasps for air, drowning in sensation, emotion. The strength of Xiao Zhan’s desire, and the way he’s taking what he wants.
Later Yibo only remembers it in flashes. Xiao Zhan touching him, fingertips stroking; Xiao Zhan’s mouth on him, ruddy lips stretched tight, meeting his eyes. Yibo doesn’t look away once.
They doze after, still touching. Dinner in bed, and then the evening stretches out, an open question. Yibo could sleep here, he knows he could, but it feels right when he gets up to go, and Xiao Zhan doesn’t stop him.
“Your big scenes tomorrow,” Xiao Zhan says quietly, when Yibo sits on the edge of the bed, next to where he’s curled on his side. He reaches up to wind his arm around Yibo’s waist, hand resting comfortably on his hip.
“Yeah,” Yibo says. “I should probably get some sleep tonight.”
“Yeah,” Xiao Zhan says. He licks his lips, looking up.
It’s the right thing to do, leaving, and when Yibo leans in to kiss him goodbye that feels right too. Xiao Zhan watches Yibo as he comes closer but he still seems surprised when it happens, a quick intake of breath before he kisses back.
Yibo carries the heat of that kiss all the way back to his room, and the memory of it with him the next day.
This is the first time he’s been on a set for this project that wasn’t one of the lake houses, and it’s strange to be getting ready in an empty, unused wing of the local hospital. Yibo hasn’t spent much time in hospitals, but even filming in one makes him feel stressed and nervous, like something bad might happen at any minute.
It’s the right mindset for today’s scene, though, and so is the way his memory keeps slipping back to yesterday and the easy warmth they shared. Jin Yi wants to escape too, getting out of his responsibilities and the looming family tragedy, and though Yibo tells himself that his own feelings aren’t as dramatic as the grand passion he’s supposed to be acting out, it’s getting harder to believe that now.
The scene is complicated, once they start. Director Zhou wants it done in long shots, the camera framing the whole hospital room with the Jin matriarch in bed and Yibo and the other two standing stiffly around her. There isn’t a lot of dialogue, but the long, meaningful pauses between lines are heavy, and Yibo feels like he’s stifling, desperate for air. It’s supposed to feel like that, but that doesn’t make it any easier.
“Let’s try it again,” Director Zhou says, for the third time, and Yibo closes his eyes and tries to get it together.
They have to break for lunch, and then the actor playing his father comes to sit by him. Yibo looks up from his phone, surprised; they haven’t really spoken much since the parties at the beginning of the shoot.
Su Bingtao smiles. “It’s OK to hate me,” he says.
“I didn’t—” Yibo starts, embarrassed and taken aback. “I’m sorry. Was I making a rude face? I was still looking at my phone.”
Bingtao shakes his head. “In our scene. There’s going to be a lot of emotion. My character isn’t a kind man. When you’re looking at me—don’t be afraid to feel all that anger, and hate me if you need to. Remember, that’s how Jin Yi says he felt, when he’s talking about this in the book. Like he wanted to smash his father’s face in.”
Yibo just nods, pressing his lips together. It’s too late to tell anyone he hasn’t read the book, but he keeps feeling like there’s so much more he’d understand if he did.
“It’s going to be good,” Bingtao says, and squeezes Yibo’s arm before getting up.
It’s both good and one of the most difficult things Yibo’s ever filmed. He’s been going over his big speech in his head all day, the most words he’s said together in the movie so far, but once he starts talking Director Zhou has a hundred small adjustments. Different pauses, emphasizing other words, new looks and gestures. Yibo can feel it coming together as they rehearse it, and he’s grateful for and amazed by how it feels like a different person is speaking through him, thinking things he never would. It’s real acting, building something entirely new.
For all that, Yibo clings to a few things, arguing for his own interpretation the way he’s seen Xiao Zhan do before. Director Zhou looks surprised at first, and then pleased, and they work together until it feels right.
“He needs to be frantic here,” Yibo says. “He can’t stand the idea of coming back to be the dutiful son, now he has something else he wants for his future. I’m in love, I want that more than anything.”
Director Zhou just smiles at him. “Follow your heart, then.”
When they finally start filming, Yibo feels it just like Su Bingtao said, the anger and hatred boiling over when they face each other. It feels like this is really his father, like all the frustration and loneliness in his life comes from this one place, even if that’s not true for Yibo or even really for Jin Yi. For a while, Yibo just lets himself live in those feelings—raising his voice until it goes hoarse, tears he doesn’t even have to work for spilling down his cheeks.
“You can’t make me stay. I don’t want to stay. This is your life, not mine.”
“Who gave you that life?” Su Bingtao says, barking out the words like he’s finally been pushed from chilly reserve into real emotion. “A selfish, thoughtless son, what did I do to deserve this?”
“What did you do to deserve a loving one?” Yibo shoots back, his face going hot at the disrespectful words. Even Jin Yi knows he’s going too far, but he can’t stop now. “What do we owe each other now?”
He watches as Su Bingtao goes through a few retakes of his hollow, bitter laugh, before delivering his last line: “What did we ever owe each other?”
The final shot lingers on Yibo’s face. He tries to put all the blank hurt into it that he can, but Director Zhou stops him after the first take. “You’re not just sad. You’re realizing this is it, you’re finally on your own. You wanted your own life, and now you’re going to get it. I want to see all of that—the fear and the sadness, but the good parts too. You’re growing up in just a few moments.”
Yibo takes a breath and tries it again, widening and then narrowing his eyes, determined. His lips part as he breathes, and he thinks to himself, I’m on my own for real. His heart races, and his mind goes back to yesterday again, thinking of how it felt to be in bed with Xiao Zhan. The warmth and solid safety of it.
“Good,” Director Zhou says, looking at the monitor and nodding. “That’s very good.”
There’s still one scene left to film, the one they’ve been working up to all day. Yibo walks up and down the corridor in a fog, trying to stay in the emotions of what just happened as the camera and lighting techs finish setting up. He stands off to the side, staring into space, and no one talks to him, like they sense the strange mindset he’s in.
When Chao Xiuli finally motions for him, Yibo walks into the ancient pay phone stall mounted on the wall. They film him from behind first, an establishing shot, and then up close, right through the glass divider. Yibo leans his arm on the wall above the phone, the heavy black handset cupped close to his mouth, and speaks, hardly above a hoarse whisper.
“I did it, A-Xuan. I told him I wouldn’t stay.” He laughs, brief and bitter. “I was so angry, I felt like hitting him. I think he felt like hitting me too. But he didn’t argue with me. I’m free.”
For the next shot Yibo stays quiet, like he’s listening. He ignores the camera and the people outside the glass, trying to feel what Jin Yi is feeling, really live in this moment. On the other end of the line, Lingxuan is telling him about the job offer, about his plans for the future, how he doesn’t think they should see each other again. Thanking him for the summer.
Yibo feels it all go through him like ice, hardening and freezing him, changing him from the person he was a moment ago. Tears rise in his eyes but they don’t quite spill over. He feels like he doesn’t want them to, like maybe he can hold all this inside and then he won’t break.
“OK,” he says, short and brusque. “If that’s what you want.”
He listens a moment longer, and then closes his eyes and says, tightly, “Goodbye.” He hangs up the phone hard, with a click as the handset fumbles in the cradle. He stares at it, and then gives his head a tiny shake, eyes unseeing.
The camera turns off, and there’s a quiet pause, broken only by the shuffling sound of pages behind him. Yibo keeps staring ahead, his vision blurred.
“Well,” Director Zhou says. “That’s a first take.”
Yibo hears the disappointment in his voice, and turns to face him, quickly wiping the tears from his eyes. “Do you want me to do it different?”
Director Zhou comes out from behind the monitor and approaches the phone booth, script in hand. He holds it out to Yibo, even though Yibo’s spent days poring over those pages, trying to climb inside. “I want it the way it’s written,” he says. “You’re holding back.”
“I’m sorry, I can show more emotion,” Yibo says, trying to follow his meaning.
“Jin Yi loves him,” Director Zhou says. “He lets Lingxuan go because he loves him, even though he just sacrificed everything for him. He’s not protecting himself. He’s giving as much as he can, for the last time that Lingxuan will accept it, because he knows how much he hurts.”
Yibo swallows hard, nodding.
“After all that, don’t you think he would let the tears fall?” Director Zhou asks, gently.
The crew takes a break to give Yibo a little more time, and Yibo wanders farther down the hallway, pacing and drawing deep breaths. It’s so clear what happened just now; he was right back in that awful night seven years ago, when Xiao Zhan said, I think we should leave it here, don’t you? Make a good end to the summer. The words were different, but Yibo felt exactly the same—the crushing hurt and the immediate desire to hide it, keeping up an unfeeling facade. Like he could make it hurt less if only he pretended he didn’t care.
He did care. He does care. He thinks Xiao Zhan always has, too. They just have to stop hiding, trying not to let the tears fall. He has to ask for what he wants.
“OK,” Yibo says, coming back to the set. “I’m ready.”
The stylist touches up his makeup, and they begin the long take again. He plays his first lines the same way, breathless and exhilarated, but this time when he’s silent, listening, he doesn’t let himself shut down. As he imagines hearing those terrible words the tears well in his eyes again, and now they’re warm, running down like snowmelt in spring. He lets himself hurt, and he lets himself love.
“OK,” he says, softly. He gives the gift of a simple farewell, making this easy, letting the generous warmth fill his voice. “If that’s how you want it.”
He closes his eyes, murmuring goodbye like it’s an incantation, and hangs the phone up with infinite slowness, like he can’t bear to sever this last connection. When it’s finally resting in the cradle he just stands there, breathing hard, pain radiating through his body and the tears hot on his face, before he shakes his head and looks away.
“Good,” Director Zhou says. “Good.”
And like that it’s over. The bright lights around him go down and the noises of the crew come up, and Yibo drops into a chair, expressionless, feeling as though his strings have been cut. He stays there as the set is struck and the hallway empties out, brightening with the harsh, ordinary fluorescent lights. He feels a hand on his shoulder and looks.
“Come on,” Director Zhou says to him.
Yibo follows him downstairs to the main hospital, cutting across the grounds to find the cafeteria. He pulls his sunglasses out of his pocket as they walk, staring at the ground, but there aren’t many people here late on a weekday afternoon, and nobody looks at him. The cafeteria faces onto the lake, and once they’re inside Yibo stares through the window at it while Director Zhou gets tea and packages of snacks for them at the register.
“You like shrimp chips?” Director Zhou calls over.
Yibo shrugs. “Sure.”
They take a table near the window, rickety plastic that hasn’t been wiped down very well. Yibo brushes aside some spilled salt and puts his hand over his paper cup of tea, enjoying the heat and the way the steam clings to his palm.
Director Zhou takes a sip of his own tea, slurping to cool it down. He sets his cup on the table and looks at Yibo.
“Do you have a girlfriend, Yibo?”
Yibo shakes his head. He drops his eyes, looking for the bag of chips and pulling it open. He smells the strong salt and garlic, and remembers it’s been a while since he had anything to eat. They were so wrapped up in the scene he hasn’t thought about much else.
“The first time I got serious about anybody, it was like this,” Director Zhou says. “I was in a bad situation, and so was he, and we were like an escape for each other. I ended up thinking that meant more than it really did.” He takes another sip of his tea. “That can happen, when you’re thrown together with someone else. You don’t know if the way you feel is how you really feel.”
Yibo eats a few chips, crunching loudly in the silence. He looks up to see Director Zhou watching him and he just looks back, not sure what to say.
“It’s real for Jin Yi, though,” Director Zhou says. “You don’t get his perspective in the book, but you can tell. He’s willing to see it through no matter what, because he loves Lingxuan, and that’s what saves them.”
Yibo swallows. “I never read the book.”
“I know,” Director Zhou says. “It’s OK. You’re coming to it fresh. Or,” he says, with a twist of his mouth, “With the version I wrote, which is better. You’re not bringing any baggage.”
Yibo flinches a little at that, thinking about the baggage he and Xiao Zhan have both brought to this project, and he thinks the director notices.
Director Zhou only smiles, though, finding his own bag of chips and tearing it open. “You’re doing well. You’re exactly what the part needs. Now that we’re getting to the final scenes of the film, I just wanted to check in with you.”
“Thanks,” Yibo says. He glances down, taking another handful of chips, and then up again.
“Is there anything you wanted to talk about?” Director Zhou asks. He looks right at Yibo as he asks, and for all his gruff exterior and piercing stare, there’s something warm and sympathetic about him. He understands it all, the complexities of the movie and of real people too, it seems.
For a moment, Yibo wants to tell him everything. He’s never told anyone about Xiao Zhan, beyond what they couldn’t hide from other people, but he doesn’t have the words. That used to seem like a problem, maybe the whole problem, but it doesn’t anymore. His feelings for Xiao Zhan are too deep-rooted and huge, like a lush, wild, unseen part of himself, something that’s grown and bloomed without him ever being aware.
“I think I’m good,” Yibo says, slowly. “The rest of the movie—it’s more on him, right? I had my big moment of realizing I’m all in. Now it’s his turn.”
“Yeah,” Director Zhou says. He pops a chip in his mouth, chewing, and washes it down with a swallow of tea. “Now it’s his turn.”
He drives Yibo back to the hotel in his own car, since the rest of the crew has already left. Yibo smiles to himself, remembering the director driving around that big shuttle bus on the first day, like he was going to run the entire production himself from filming to catering. He still does drive it some mornings, but Yibo knows now that first time was more about the personal touch, wanting them to see the movie as closely aligned with him. After today, Yibo thinks he understands just how personal the story is to him.
It’s not that late, with the sun still hanging in the sky, but Yibo feels dead on his feet as he takes the elevator upstairs. At the top floor he pauses for a moment before turning left, going back to his own room.
He showers, slow and thorough. He takes his time afterward, combing out his hair and moisturizing his face, and he finds some favorite clothes, soft pants and an old skate logo t-shirt from an endorsement he did years ago. Finally he gets out his phone, scrolling to the messages.
is it too late for dinner? he asks, knowing what the answer will be.
your dinner is waiting, comes right back.
Xiao Zhan lets him in, wearing the same kind of loose, comfortable clothes as Yibo. On the cart are a couple of Yibo’s favorite dishes, and he serves himself a light dinner as Xiao Zhan settles himself back on the bed, where he was sitting up reading a book.
“How was today?” Xiao Zhan asks.
Yibo pauses, holding the cover of a serving bowl in one hand and chopsticks in the other. He looks over at Xiao Zhan, curled up on the unmade bed with one of those thick art history books on his lap, glasses perched on his nose. The sun is just setting outside and he’s illuminated by the glow of the bedside lamp, catching his profile and the way his damp hair curls over his forehead. He’s looking down at the book, not at Yibo, and Yibo just stares, feeling those verdant emotions bloom even brighter. The quiet of the room, their soft clothing, the easy comfort between them—it’s perfect, and too much, and Yibo can’t keep standing here a moment longer.
He gets onto the bed, crawling across it. Xiao Zhan looks up when he comes closer, and Yibo reaches across to pluck the glasses off his face, wrestling them over his ears before dropping them on the nightstand. He shuts the book, and Xiao Zhan smiles. “Did you miss me?”
Yibo kisses him in reply, taking his face in both hands. Xiao Zhan makes a noise against Yibo’s mouth but he kisses back, like he catches the urgency in it. The kiss is sweet and warm, and for a few moments it’s enough just to be touching like this, clean and close, no words needed.
Then Yibo pulls back, breathing hard, and kisses him again, and everything comes alive. They kiss harder, Xiao Zhan fumbling with the hem of Yibo’s shirt and pushing beneath, running his hands over Yibo’s ribs. Yibo knocks the book onto the floor and climbs onto Xiao Zhan’s lap, cradling his head and kissing him deep.
Xiao Zhan’s mouth is so good. Yibo can’t stop kissing it, lingering and hungry. Liquid warmth melts down his spine as Xiao Zhan strokes it with his fingertips, delicious pressure. His tongue slips into Yibo’s mouth, filling it with heat. He flattens his palms against Yibo’s back, holding him up, and Yibo leans back into it, testing his strength.
When Yibo’s head drops, Xiao Zhan leans forward, kissing over his throat. Yibo groans, fingers closing on Xiao Zhan’s shoulders.
“Zhan-ge,” he breathes, and Xiao Zhan kisses under his ear, taking Yibo’s weight on the palm of one hand as they tilt to the side.
Yibo goes over all the way, and Xiao Zhan follows. Onto the bed, onto his back, knees falling apart and Xiao Zhan surging up between them. They groan together this time, and Yibo holds Xiao Zhan tight, arms around his back and knees pressed to his hips.
On set today, his memories were of being in bed together for real, but now he’s remembering the last scenes they filmed. Lying like this with Xiao Zhan above him, the two of them moving and panting together, acting out the desperate passion of lovers who couldn’t admit they were in love.
Yibo wanted this then, and he wants it now. Has always wanted it, since he first let Xiao Zhan fuck him seven years ago, his whole pleading heart in his eyes as he looked up at Xiao Zhan. He likes sex any way they do it but now he’s desperate for Xiao Zhan to show what he really wants.
What Xiao Zhan seems to want now is to kiss Yibo senseless, bruising his lips, until his cock aches with the way their hips grind together. Yibo’s into it, but he can only stand to wait for so long. He gasps against Xiao Zhan’s mouth, pulling at the waistband of his sweats.
“You missed me?” Xiao Zhan murmurs, still kissing him. “You missed this?”
“Yes,” Yibo says, roughly. “Come on.”
Xiao Zhan kisses him again, and then strips him of his clothes, taking off his own as well. Yibo feels like he can scarcely hold on, seeing Xiao Zhan bare above him, strong arms and that thick, dark trail of hair going down from his belly. Xiao Zhan runs his tongue around his lips, obscene, and bends down to take Yibo’s cock in his mouth.
“Fuck,” Yibo groans, arching up.
It’s not what he wants most, but it’s so fucking good, and he stays up on his elbows, watching as Xiao Zhan blows him. One hand wrapped around his dick, stroking up when Xiao Zhan bobs his head, sucking hard. It’s a rhythm that gets Yibo going all too fast, heavy pleasure rocketing through him.
“Zhan-ge,” Yibo says, breathless, and fumbles to grab a handful of his hair. “Not yet, I don’t want to come yet.”
Xiao Zhan lifts up, pressing a wet kiss to the tip of his dick. “I wasn’t going to let you,” he says, low, and Yibo’s stomach clenches tight.
Then Xiao Zhan is moving lower, pushing Yibo’s legs up and apart, with Yibo’s hand still in his hair. Yibo only has a moment to think about it, and then Xiao Zhan’s tongue swipes over his balls and down to where he’s tight and sensitive.
“Oh fuck,” Yibo gasps, and falls flat on his back.
Xiao Zhan gets Yibo’s knees all the way up, arms wrapped around his thighs, and licks him again and again, different every time. Broad, flat strokes of his tongue, and then delicate swipes, flicking against him. Dragging back and forth, swirling, and pointed and fluttering, just pushing inside. It’s intimate and filthy and Yibo is so tense all over; knees and back locked, fingers clasped in Xiao Zhan’s hair, his throat getting raw with how hard he’s breathing.
He wants this so much, and he can’t stop rocking his hips into it, needing more. He squeezes his eyes shut, fingers closing tighter in Xiao Zhan’s hair.
“Fuck,” he says, breaking off into a moan. “Oh fuck. Oh—fuck me, Zhan-ge, fuck me.”
Yibo half-whispers the last words, rasping hoarsely, but he knows Xiao Zhan hears because his shoulders go tense against Yibo’s thighs, his tongue suddenly quick and fierce. Yibo lets go of Xiao Zhan’s hair, caressing his head instead.
“Please,” Yibo whispers, putting everything into it, and finally Xiao Zhan gets up on his knees.
He reaches over to the nightstand without meeting Yibo’s eyes. His pretty cock curves up, flushed and straining, and Yibo wants it in him so bad. Xiao Zhan rips a condom open, rolling it down over his dick, and strokes himself with lube before slicking up two fingers and looking back at Yibo.
It’s like touching bare wiring, nothing to insulate them from the shocking power of it. Yibo’s breath stills in his chest, and he can see it happen to Xiao Zhan too, the way his eyes widen. His cheeks flush, delicate pink rising, and for just a moment they’re closer than they’ve ever been. Then Xiao Zhan shakes his head, hair brushing his forehead, and looks down.
“How do you want it?” he asks. He strokes Yibo’s inner thigh, like he’s calming him down, or maybe he’s steadying himself. “This way? Like we were for the couch scene?”
Yibo flinches. It hurts, Xiao Zhan talking like this is just another game, acting out what their characters would do. He’s tired of that, and he doesn’t think it’s what Xiao Zhan really wants either.
“I need you to fuck me right now, Zhan-ge,” he says, letting the rough urgency show in his voice. “I need it.”
Xiao Zhan’s eyes flick up to his, and Yibo can see that he heard that desperate edge. “All right,” is all he says, though.
He touches Yibo where he’s slick and open already, fingers more blunt and solid than his tongue was, and he kisses the inside of Yibo’s knee as he does it. Yibo’s heart aches, watching him, hardly noticing the sensations in his own body. Whatever is happening here, whatever Xiao Zhan is telling himself, it’s for real.
“Come on,” he groans, pleading, when he can’t wait any more, and Xiao Zhan moves up the bed.
Yibo pulls him down and kisses him, liking the salty wetness of his swollen lips and the way his tongue darts in. Xiao Zhan’s adjusting himself, figuring out the position, and Yibo lifts his knees up high, still chasing the kiss. His heart is pounding hard and it feels so hot, the way the blood is pulsing through his body. Xiao Zhan reaches down to push the head of his cock inside, and when Yibo feels the slick pop of it, stretching him, he lets out a throaty groan, arms winding around Xiao Zhan’s neck.
“Oh fuck,” he slurs, dropping his forehead on Xiao Zhan’s shoulder. “Fuck, that’s good, you feel so good inside me.”
Xiao Zhan turns his head, pressing kisses against Yibo’s temple. “That’s it,” he whispers, breathless. “Let me do it. Let me make you feel good.”
It feels like something heavy and sweet pours through Yibo, washing away all thought. He’s out of his mind. He lets Xiao Zhan bear him down against the bed, and he cries out when Xiao Zhan fills him, hips hitching in deep. Xiao Zhan kisses the curve of his ear, breathing hard, and then rocks back, a slow dragging slide before he thrusts in again.
“Fuck,” Yibo whimpers, arms weak as he clings to Xiao Zhan’s shoulders. He seeks out Xiao Zhan’s mouth, blindly, and they kiss until Xiao Zhan breaks away, shuddering as he gets up on his forearms.
“I got you,” Xiao Zhan says, low, and then he does.
In and in, over and over. Yibo locks his knees around Xiao Zhan’s hips, and his whole body shakes with the impact of every thrust, slow and deep and hard. He can’t think, he can’t keep his eyes open for more than quick flashes that are too much to take—Xiao Zhan’s bright eyes on him, the sweat shining on his face and throat, the muscular shift of his arms and chest every time he moves. Yibo’s face is so hot, and he’s never felt this close to anyone before, like every place they touch is a pleasure, every movement a shared rhythm. He hardly even feels like he’s breathing for himself.
It builds like a wave, something outside of themselves, riding it together. Yibo’s close, his whole body sparkling with it, and then he reaches down and closes a hand over his cock and comes, head falling back with a cry so harsh it hurts tearing out of his throat.
Xiao Zhan leans down and bites him, right under the jaw, and Yibo’s dick kicks in his hand again, a startling second spasm that feels white hot as it burns through him. Yibo chokes on his shout as Xiao Zhan begins to fuck him harder, with long heavy strokes that push him up against the bed, headboard knocking the wall.
“Fuck,” Yibo gasps, one hand tight on the back of Xiao Zhan’s neck, nails biting in. He lifts up to press their foreheads together, his thighs cramping as he tries to keep his legs around Xiao Zhan’s hips. “Zhan-ge.”
He doesn’t have the breath for anything more, and the hard pace is starting to hurt when Xiao Zhan suddenly slows down, his thrusts going smooth and liquid. He lifts his head and looks at Yibo full in the face. His lovely mouth is deep red, lips parted as he pants for breath, and his hair is sweaty and wild. His eyes are so soft though, tender and astonished, and Yibo moves to cup his damp face between his hands.
“Zhan-ge,” he says again, quieter but no less desperate. His chest aches, too full of emotion to let him breathe. Xiao Zhan just looks down, fucking him in that slow, graceful rhythm, grind and slide, until Yibo strokes his face and whispers his name again. Then he shuts his eyes and comes, jerky and trembling, leaning into Yibo’s hands and moaning, wordless and soft.
Yibo pulls him down right after. Xiao Zhan collapses easily, pushing his face into Yibo’s neck and letting him hold on tight. Yibo pants into the silence, loud and wheezing, and tears prick his eyes as he feels Xiao Zhan sob for breath in his arms.
He turns his head and kisses Xiao Zhan’s hair, rubbing his back with big sweeping strokes. It feels like they’ve survived something together, a storm or an earthquake, something that’s changed everything.
After a long while, Xiao Zhan presses a lingering kiss against the side of Yibo’s neck and gets up. He’s clumsy on his hands and knees and he grins, laughing at himself.
Yibo touches Xiao Zhan’s shoulders, steadying him. “You OK?” He can’t help smiling back, wanting to ease their way through the intensity of what just happened. Just looking at Xiao Zhan always makes him want to smile.
“Yeah,” Xiao Zhan says, sounding dazed. He swallows. “You?”
“Yeah,” Yibo says. “I’m fine. I’m great.”
The moment lingers. They keep smiling, and Yibo feels it, the charged potential in the air. But it’s there and gone, a needle of lightning that flashes without striking. Xiao Zhan blinks and then sighs, moving away.
He’s a little clumsy getting up on his long legs, and he comes staggering back from the bathroom a few minutes later, collapsing on the bed next to Yibo after tossing over a washcloth. He kicks until he’s underneath the covers, and then they just lie there, comfortable and familiar.
Yibo’s just drifting off when Xiao Zhan stirs beside him, like he’s coming back awake. His pulse picks up and he wonders if maybe this is it, the moment when they talk at last, but when he looks over Xiao Zhan seems casual and relaxed, a calm smile on his face. Somehow it’s passed over them again, and Yibo closes his eyes, accepting it.
“So, how was filming today?” Xiao Zhan asks, finally.
Yibo’s chest goes tight, and the difficult emotional journey of the day comes flooding back. It feels like another lifetime ago. “Long.”
“Mm,” Yibo says. He’s trying to find the right words for it when Xiao Zhan speaks again.
“It’s good when it’s like that, especially late in a project. You really get into your character’s head, so you’re going through everything they are. It can be hard to stop feeling it.”
That’s not really how acting is for Yibo, and he hates being reminded of the uncertainty of this all—is everything they do just something Xiao Zhan tells himself is part of the character? But he nods his head. “Su Bingtao was amazing today, and I really felt like it made me better too. And Director Zhou helped me a lot.”
Xiao Zhan turns to look at him. “He’s a great director. I mean, he has the reputation, but it’s even more than I expected. This is a project I’m never going to forget.”
“Yeah,” Yibo says, quietly. “Me either.”
The color in Xiao Zhan’s face is so faint he could almost be imagining it, but he knows he’s not. This is real, Yibo thinks, even as Xiao Zhan turns away again, closing his eyes.
Maybe he should feel disappointed, the way the moment passed again, but Yibo’s learning how this goes, like letting a fishing line play out a little before reeling it back in even more. The days are dwindling now, but they still have time. Yibo feels a steady warmth, looking at Xiao Zhan in bed next to him, and he folds his hands beneath his head before staring up at the ceiling with the beginnings of a smile he can’t hold back.
“I’m too old for this,” Xiao Zhan groans for the third time this morning, as he puts toothpaste on his brush and jams it into his mouth.
He’s fallen into terrible habits on this project. Going to bed too late, not doing his skincare thoroughly, eating more than he knows he should. Today he woke up really feeling it, like the last decade of discipline is suddenly slipping away. He’s groggy from oversleeping, no time for a shower, and he’s had to rush through a bare minimum morning routine, trying to pack up as he goes.
But Yibo is still here, and it’s hard to care too deeply about anything else.
Xiao Zhan’s call time is in just a few minutes, and he’s still scrambling to be ready. He comes out of the bathroom with his toothbrush clenched in his mouth, searching through the clutter on the nightstand for his charger cable. His hotel rooms always get so messy by the end of a project. He finds what he needs, and shoves it into his bag before returning to the sink to spit and rinse.
When he comes out again Yibo is waiting for him near the door, holding his packed bag by the strap and his sunglasses in the other hand. “Found these on the floor.”
“Thanks,” Xiao Zhan says, taking both things. He puts the sunglasses on, shoving them up to hold back his greasy hair. Hopefully the stylist can do something about that.
They stand there for a moment, looking at each other. Yibo’s smiling and relaxed, and Xiao Zhan feels his own shoulders drop, the hectic rush of the morning fading. There’s something different about Yibo today, the casual way he’s standing so close and the mischievous happiness in his eyes. He’s so handsome, now that the outrageous sensuality of his younger features has matured into a more enduring beauty, like a painting or a carved statue. Yibo smiles wider when he sees how Xiao Zhan is looking at him, and reaches out to lay a hand against his chest. Xiao Zhan can’t resist touching his shoulder in return, leaning in to kiss him goodbye.
They’ve never done this in the daylight before. Casual, easy, like it’s just something they do. It’s so sweet it sends Xiao Zhan’s heart into his throat. He never wants to stop, but he does, drawing back reluctantly.
“See you tonight?” he asks, low.
Yibo shrugs, with another teasing smile. “Don’t get there too late.”
It’s hard to focus on the ride to set. Now that he has time to think, memories from last night keep floating up, and his face gets so hot he has to duck against the window. The way Yibo came onto him so sure and demanding, like he knew exactly what he wanted. Somewhere along the way it turned into Xiao Zhan taking what he wanted in return, out of his mind with how good it felt to have Yibo beneath him, clinging to him and gasping out his name. This whole summer Xiao Zhan’s tried so hard to keep this light, to hide the intensity of his feelings, but he couldn’t hold back last night and Yibo let him. Yibo let him.
Xiao Zhan shuts his eyes tight, trying to push down the complicated tangle of thoughts. He has to think about work now, the last few scenes to be filmed at the lake house. The movie is almost wrapping up, and he can’t lose focus now.
Once he gets through makeup and wardrobe and onto the set, he finds the crew getting ready in what’s meant to be Yang Cheng’s character’s office. It feels strange walking through the house now, remembering the last time he worked here and the long fever dream of filming those sex scenes. It’s like someone else did all that, like it was another lifetime instead of only a few days ago.
In the office, he sits at the desk and holds the heavy phone handset, avocado green with a long curling cord. For the first scene he just listens, staring out the window at the lake. Director Zhou has him do it several times, trying to catch the complex mix of emotions he needs to show at being offered a new teaching job in Beijing. It’s something that would have meant everything just a few weeks ago, and now it threatens a happiness that Lingxuan never expected to have.
“More,” Director Zhou keeps saying, until Xiao Zhan finally gets it right.
It’s taken all morning, and they break for an early lunch. Xiao Zhan just grabs a couple of pork buns and wanders the grounds, looking out at the lake. It’s a perfect day, sunny with a light breeze, and the way the light dances on the waves is enchanting. He wants to draw or photograph it, or maybe just be out there in the water. There aren’t any more swimming scenes, and it’s disappointing to think he might not get into the lake again this summer, like all those golden memories are just that, memories.
He shakes his head. The days in the lake aren’t really his memories, they’re Lingxuan’s, but it feels like they’re his too. Somehow it’s all mixed up now, the film and his life, and he wonders how it will feel when they start separating next week, like threads tied to his heart being pulled apart. He’s gotten so used to all of this that the rest of his life feels like a dream.
When he gets back to the house, Wu Fan has arrived from makeup and sits in the living room preparing for their scene together. Yang Cheng is there too, and Xiao Zhan realizes with a start that he hasn’t seen them together in a long while. It feels like he and Yibo have been in their own world.
Maybe they’re not the only ones. Although they’re both professional about it, he sees the grin Yang Cheng gives Wu Fan as he comes in, and the way she smiles back, glancing up from beneath her heavy brows. She rolls her eyes a little right away, tossing her head to the side so her bobbed hair sways, and then goes back to her phone.
Xiao Zhan sits next to her. “Fan-jie! It’s good to see you. I was so lonely without you.”
Now he’s the recipient of an eyeroll too, more exaggerated than before. “You don’t seem lonely.”
“Neither do you,” he says, with a raised brow. He looks over to where Yang Cheng is arm wrestling with the boom mic operator. “Cheng-ge keeps you company?”
“Something like that,” she mutters, and goes back to her phone. She’s frowning, but he can see the faint smile on her face, too.
They film their scene in the kitchen, where Lingxuan walks in to find Minghua after the telephone call. She’s struggling with decorating a cake for the girls’ birthday and it’s tense from the beginning, with her bad mood and his conflicted feelings. Instead of being happy that he’s leaving like Lingxuan expects, Minghua berates him for it, and for thinking that she’d be glad to see him gone.
“We barely saw you all summer,” Wu Fan says, her words a sharp stream of noise rising in pitch and volume, like a tea kettle about to boil. “I invited you here to be an uncle to my girls, since their worthless father is never around, and then you disappeared too. Spending all your time with that boy.”
Xiao Zhan keeps his face carefully expressionless, but he lets his jaw work, like he’s struggling to stay calm.
“Of course I’m not happy to see you leave,” she goes on. “But you never wanted to be here in the first place, did you?”
There’s a pause in the conversation, and the camera films each of their faces in close-up, holding that aching tension between them.
“I’m sorry,” he says, finally. He opens his mouth like he’s about to say more, and then there’s the offstage noise of the front door opening. They both turn and Yang Cheng enters on his cue, briefcase in one hand and a huge bunch of flowers in the other.
“Who are these for?” Wu Fan snaps. “Did you forget which house you were coming to? I’m not one of your Shanghai girlfriends.”
“They’re for the girls,” Yang Cheng says, brusque, and then drops his things on the counter. He looks around the room, like he’s searching for something, and finally opens the fridge and takes out a can of beer. He opens it with a hiss and a spray, then tips his head back to chug a long swallow.
“A-Xuan got a job offer back in Beijing,” she says, accusing. “He’s leaving us.”
Yang Cheng lowers the beer can and wipes his mouth with the back of his hand. “A job? That’s great. I’m going to take a shower.”
He stalks out of the kitchen without looking at either of them. The scene hangs for another moment with a shot of Lingxuan and Minghua, him leaning back against the counter with his arms folded over his chest, chin tipped down and staring at the floor guiltily as she stands in the middle of the kitchen, mouth set and red-manicured fingers clenched, before turning around and going back to her cake.
“Thank you for letting me stay this summer,” Xiao Zhan finally says, quietly, in close-up. “I know it was a big sacrifice.”
She keeps working on the cake, and they reposition the camera for a close-up on her profile. “It wasn’t a sacrifice,” she says, tightly, without turning around. “You’re my little brother. Where else are you going to stay?”
The camera comes back to him for the final shot. Xiao Zhan stays like he is, huddled in on himself against the counter with his chin on his chest, but he lifts his gaze and his brows, his expression lightening with something like relief.
It’s an emotionally complex scene and they go through a lot of takes, trying to get all the dynamics aligned and flowing. Xiao Zhan’s tired by the end of it, and he envies the others, who get to leave and go clean up before tonight’s wrap party while he still has one more scene to film.
There’s a lull while they set up back in the office, mounting light blockers outside the windows to darken the room and give the impression of night. This is the other side of the conversation Yibo filmed yesterday, and they get the audio set up to play through a speaker for him, giving Xiao Zhan something to work with.
He watches the video to prepare first, and it takes his breath away. Yibo’s character is unguarded here, standing alone in the fluorescent lights of the darkened hallway, and he lets every emotion show on his face. At first he’s elated, triumphant, talking about the confrontation with his father, but when he transitions to listening Xiao Zhan can see the exact moment his heart breaks, the way Yibo’s face falls and he slumps against the payphone on the wall after he hangs up. Tears shine on his cheeks, but there’s still something so soft in his eyes, holding onto love until the last.
“Is this the first of the dailies you’ve seen?” Chao Xiuli asks, coming up behind Xiao Zhan.
Xiao Zhan nods. “Yeah. That’s—wow. I’ve never seen Yibo acting so well. He’s really giving it all.”
“You both are,” she says, diplomatically, before moving away.
After that, Xiao Zhan knows he has to do his very best. He keeps thinking of how Yibo’s voice broke, and the tenderness in his voice as he ended the call. Xiao Zhan has to live up to that.
First he just listens to the audio, reacting. Yibo sounds worked-up but hopeful, excited about their future, and Xiao Zhan stares blankly at the desktop, one finger twisting the green cord of the phone. He works his jaw a few times, like he’s trying to suppress his feelings, and finally he sits up straighter, putting his shoulders back.
“I’m glad for you,” he says. “I got a job offer today.”
He puts a false heartiness in his voice, talking about the job, and then a slight hesitation before he plows right ahead. “I’m leaving for Beijing the day after tomorrow. So. I don’t think we should see each other again.” He pauses. This part will be looped over the shot of Yibo listening, heartbreak blooming on his face, but Xiao Zhan acts it out anyway, the tense frown and bitten lip in contrast to the brave, bluff tone he’s trying to put to his words. “I want to thank you for everything, Yi-ge. I’m glad we were friends.”
He finds himself stumbling over the last line, which he’s not supposed to do. Sudden emotion chokes his throat, and he has to force out the word friends.
“Sorry,” Xiao Zhan says immediately, turning to look back at the camera operator. “Uh, can I get some water?”
A PA brings a bottle and Xiao Zhan sips it slowly, trying to get himself back on track. It’s fine for the emotions of a scene to spill out during filming, but this feels like it’s going the other way, something inside Xiao Zhan making its way into the scene. He takes a few deep breaths, rolling his head between his shoulders, and then hands the bottle back. “Let’s try it again.”
He blows out a last breath, listening to Yibo’s audio before speaking. This time the tight feeling rises in his throat immediately, and he can’t hold back a cough. Xiao Zhan pushes back his chair and stands, pressing a hand to his chest, head hanging down as the coughing fit goes through him.
“Let’s take a break, everyone,” Director Zhou says.
The assistant comes back with the water bottle, and it’s a relief to feel the hot lights overhead turning down. Xiao Zhan stands with one hand on the desk, eyes fixed on the blankness of the darkened window in front of him, and takes long swallows of water. It’s embarrassing to be struggling over just a few lines, and he hates himself for wasting everyone’s time. He just can’t stop thinking about Yibo in that short video he watched, the emotion he showed and how clear it was.
Maybe he’s feeling competitive, Xiao Zhan thinks. This is supposed to be his movie, and now here’s Yibo exceeding everyone’s expectations, really killing it. But that doesn’t make sense, because Xiao Zhan’s never felt that way about anybody and especially not Yibo. It’s exciting, not threatening, to think the movie will be carried by so many great performances.
Xiao Zhan takes another long swallow of water and shuts his eyes. He knows what has him so unsettled: the memories of ending things with Yibo after another summer, and how differently Yibo reacted then. No stricken tears or pained tenderness, just the easy agreement Xiao Zhan had expected. They were casual—of course they were casual—and Yibo had always made it clear that was how it worked. Whatever heartbreak Xiao Zhan felt was his to carry alone.
Which is what his character thinks he’s going through too, even if it’s for a different reason. Xiao Zhan should be able to use that emotion. He takes one last sip from the bottle and turns around, looking for Director Zhou.
“Can we talk about the scene?” Xiao Zhan asks.
In the end, they compromise. He delivers the lines like the director wants, but he struggles to make them clear and steady, and as soon as he hangs up the phone he buries his face in his hands, shoulders shaking. It’s a departure from both the script and the book, where Lingxuan just stares ahead stonily, but it feels right, and more importantly Xiao Zhan’s not sure he could have gotten through the scene without knowing that release was waiting for him after.
He’s fully exhausted when they finally finish, and it’s an effort to get cleaned up and changed, let alone thinking about the wrap party after. But this is the last night that the whole cast will be together, and he knows he’d feel terrible missing out. He gets a cup of black coffee from the craft table, and tries to keep himself awake for the drive back.
When he gets to Director Zhou’s house, it’s already loud and bright, crammed with people. The party’s been catered and there’s a tempting spread of dishes, but Xiao Zhan settles for steamed vegetables, just to give himself something in his stomach as he makes the rounds. He says hello to various crew members he’s connected with, like the stylist who always took good care of him, and spends a long time with Zhenyi and Riyi. The little girls cling to his hands as he talks to their parents, until he finally bends down and gets their promised gifts from his bag.
“They’re different colors,” Xiao Zhan says, handing them each a jewelry box with a crystal bracelet. “That way your parents can finally tell you apart.”
He looks up to see the girls’ mother smiling at him, as they open the boxes. “Thank you for being so good to them,” she says.
“Of course,” Xiao Zhan says, standing up. It’s easy to be nice to kids on set, since he’s not responsible for them, and he always feels a little silly when people are surprised by it. He likes kids, and he likes making them happy.
The house is so crowded there’s almost nowhere to sit, but eventually he finds a spot at the far end of the couch, next to Wu Fan. She looks about as tired as he does, and just lifts her head in greeting as he sits down.
“Da-jie,” he says, dropping his head on her shoulder for a moment.
“You know I’m only a year older than you, right?” she asks, but she doesn’t shrug him off.
Xiao Zhan just sighs, watching the world sideways for a while. People wander across his field of view, eating and laughing, and he doesn’t really see any of it. Wu Fan pats him on the leg once, briefly, and he sits up more before slouching down.
“What are you going onto after this?” she asks.
Xiao Zhan shuts his eyes, blowing out his cheeks. He hasn’t thought about his schedule in a while. “I think another movie. First there’s a couple of panels at a theater festival.”
“Oh, you do theater?”
He shakes his head. “I want to, but it never seems to work out.”
“The schedule,” Xiao Zhan repeats, like it’s a looming threat or a strict teacher. “It feels like this is the first project I’ve done in years that I was really excited about.”
“Are you still excited about it?” she asks.
“Yeah,” Xiao Zhan says, truthfully. “I am. It’s hard when you don’t see it all together yet, but I think it’s going to be really good.”
“I think so too,” she says, sounding unusually sincere for her.
“What about you?” Xiao Zhan asks. “Where are you going after this?”
“Web drama,” she says. “Fifty episodes in three months, you know how it is. I’m going to be dead on my feet by the time they fly me out of there.”
“And him?” he asks, gesturing across the room with a nod of his head.
Xiao Zhan narrows his eyes at her. “Cheng-ge.”
“I don’t know what Yang Cheng is going onto,” Wu Fan says, straight faced.
“You haven’t talked to him about things?” Xiao Zhan asks, and now she’s the one giving him a look. Which is fair, since it’s not like he has anything to say on that front.
“Eh, maybe we won’t see each other again for a year,” she says, shrugging. “Who knows, these things are hard. Or I don’t know, maybe I’ll let him marry me after all.”
Xiao Zhan can’t help smiling. She’s definitely not as indifferent as she sounds. He bumps her shoulder with his, fondly, and then his attention is caught by a burst of loud laughter from across the room, in the big round doorway to the kitchen.
Yibo’s surrounded by a group of crew members, all laughing as he imitates doing something. It’s hard to tell what, climbing or dancing, but everyone’s eyes are on him. When he finishes, he laughs at himself, shaking his hair back from his eyes, and leans his elbow on the doorframe as he listens to the flow of conversation.
Xiao Zhan watches Yibo, and he can tell Wu Fan sees it. “Always the center of attention,” he murmurs.
“No,” Wu Fan says crisply. “Only when you’re not around.”
He looks over, rueful. “I don’t steal the spotlight that much, do I?”
“It’s not anything you do,” she says. “He just doesn’t look at anyone else but you.”
Xiao Zhan just stares at her, not blinking. His breath gets caught in his chest, tight.
“You don’t see how different he is?” she asks, and then shakes her head. “Of course you don’t. He only lights up like that for you.”
“Oh,” Xiao Zhan says.
His expression must be troubled, because Wu Fan puts a hand on his arm and squeezes. It feels like his heart is beating in a strange rhythm, heavy and too fast, double time. Yibo only lights up around him? For him alone? He’s wanted so much to let himself hope, but it’s hard to believe, even now.
Xiao Zhan looks across the room again, to where Yibo is still joking around with the guys. He wants to go over there and pull Yibo outside, maybe out on the dock where they talked that first day, now that everything has changed between them. Or has it? He still doesn’t know exactly what Yibo’s thinking, or why he’s here at all, and though they’re nearly at the end of the project, they still have one more major scene to film, the climax to everything. He’s waited this long; he can wait a little longer.
He takes a deep breath and lets it out slowly, turning back to Wu Fan. She quirks a sympathetic smile at him, like she knows exactly what he’s been thinking, and then turns away to pull out her phone. After a minute, Xiao Zhan does the same.
The house seems to get louder as time goes on, probably because people are drinking. He and Yibo are the only ones still with filming left to do, and everyone else can let loose. Xiao Zhan realizes he’s starting to drift off, staring at his phone without really seeing it, and he hauls himself to his feet, giving Wu Fan’s shoulder a squeeze.
“I’ll see you at the premiere,” he says, and she smiles. That’s months away, but Xiao Zhan is used to this now, making connections that fade as they move onto new projects. “Send me your WeChat,” he adds, though.
He doesn’t see Yibo anywhere in the house. Xiao Zhan steps into the quiet hall, thinking about the last time they were down here together. Part of him wants to go into that little back bedroom just to see, remembering where it all began, but instead he goes out to the lake, through the sliding glass door.
There’s a chair on the dock and Yibo’s sitting in it, facing the water. If he were someone else Xiao Zhan would expect to see a cigarette, but Yibo’s always been careful of his health because of his dancing, and he was one of the only CQL actors who didn’t smoke. There’s still the lingering smell of cigarettes in the air, though; he must have been out here with other people first.
“Hey,” Xiao Zhan says as he shuts the door, just letting Yibo know who it is.
Yibo doesn’t turn around, but he can see the lift and fall of Yibo’s shoulders as he sighs, relaxing. Xiao Zhan comes to stand behind him, putting a hand on his shoulder. They look out at the dark lake together; the house lights wavering in reflection, the car headlights moving around the far side, someone out for a late night cruise zipping across the water with a low buzzing noise. Once the boat passes it’s quiet, with just the waves lapping against the dock and the summer insects singing. It’s not much clearer than it would be in the city, but a quarter moon burns through the hazy sky and Xiao Zhan can see a few stars.
“I’m filming in Shanghai tomorrow,” he says. “And then we have our last scene.”
Yibo nods. They both know. His hand comes up and Xiao Zhan shuts his eyes for a moment, feeling the warmth of Yibo’s broad palm and fingers closing over his.
Everything seems delicate, gauzy and fragile, half-formed like ice crystals on glass. He’s afraid to breathe, for fear of breaking whatever’s between them.
He’s thinking about the upcoming scene, too. It’s hard to keep it straight, how he feels and how he’s supposed to pretend to feel. Things got so tangled that long ago summer, the lines blurred by all the months of staring at Yibo and being someone else most of the time. Who could say what was him, and what was Xiao Zhan’s alone? Maybe the stories they’ve told are all it’s ever been; after they’ve spent weeks falling in love on camera again, maybe that’s what’s happening now.
It’s like a knife through his heart, thinking this way, and Xiao Zhan bites his lip hard, looking down at the top of Yibo’s head. He only lights up like that for you, Wu Fan said, but that could be true of Jin Yi too. Maybe Xiao Zhan has just wanted this so much, he’s imagined more than there really is.
It’s not like him to hold back from going after what he really wants, but this is different. It’s not something he can win just by working hard enough. Yibo has to want it too.
“I took the part because of Lingxuan’s story,” Xiao Zhan says slowly, the words surprising him. “At the beginning he wants to be completely on his own because of what happened to him, but he’s more connected to other people than he realizes. It’s hard for him to open up and take a chance, but when he does good things happen again.”
“You liked the happy ending?” Yibo says.
“Me too,” Yibo says, softly.
They’re quiet for a long time, hands touching, sitting on the dock by the lake in the dark. Finally Xiao Zhan clears his throat. “You wanna get out of here?”
Some other people are leaving too, and they share a taxi back to the hotel. Xiao Zhan thinks maybe Yibo will go get things from his room first but he just stays, close at Xiao Zhan’s side, all the way down the corridor. In the room, he follows Xiao Zhan into the bathroom and borrows his things instead. They pass moisturizer back and forth, sharing a toothbrush, and it shouldn’t feel so intimate considering everything else they’ve done but somehow it does.
In bed they lie close, breathing together. Xiao Zhan keeps expecting one of them to start something, or to lean in for a kiss, but it’s like after they filmed the love scene, when it felt like anything would be too much. This isn’t their very last night together but he thinks they both feel it, like the first touch of autumn frost at the end of summer. Everything is changing.
Eventually one of them moves, and then they do touch each other beneath the sheets, kissing all the while. It’s a soft, closed-mouth kiss, like they’re just resting together, or maybe covering the words they could have said. Xiao Zhan shivers in Yibo’s arms and Yibo moans once against his lips, and then the silence is so loud, a beating pulse in his ears, before sleep takes them.
Yibo’s alone when he wakes up, but now he doesn’t worry anymore. A few weeks ago he woke up here in panicked confusion, not sure where he was but knowing it was way too late in the day. The sex they’d had the night before had been so intense, and Xiao Zhan leaving without a word felt like Yibo’s worst fears come true. That he was as easy to shake off as the last time; that this was just a temporary thing.
Today he knows Xiao Zhan took an early shuttle into Shanghai, where they’re filming some street and classroom scenes to make a montage from Lingxuan’s new life. In the meantime, Yibo’s got the last of those sweet, lingering days to himself that have made this project so special, and he stretches out in bed with real pleasure, soaking up the sun. Today is going to be a day off for real.
This summer hasn’t been easy, but things seem like they’re getting clearer. He’s seen it in Xiao Zhan’s eyes, the depth of some fleeting, vulnerable feeling he never puts into words. That’s not like him—Xiao Zhan’s always so smooth and composed—or maybe it is, because he’s always known just what to say without showing how he really feels. Yibo’s aching to get past all that, to somewhere where they can be honest with each other at last. When they film the last scene, he thinks.
He eats breakfast in bed, checking his phone. The TV is on in the background but he’s not really paying attention, and he looks around the room, taking in all the little details. Xiao Zhan’s clothes are everywhere, a truly ridiculous amount for someone who’s wearing wardrobe or sweatpants most of the time, and there are all kinds of skincare samples and random things that must get sent onto him by his management: back massagers and electric razors still in the boxes, packages of unopened snacks, gift bags that probably have watches or jewelry on them, based on what piles up at Yibo’s own apartment. Yibo knows Xiao Zhan doesn’t like to have anyone else cleaning up after him, and in truth he thinks Xiao Zhan likes the mess, like it’s comforting somehow.
Xiao Zhan’s stack of books is on the nightstand, bookmarks sticking out of some of them. The second book from the top is The Life You Gave Me.
Yibo looks at it for a long while. It’s felt all along like there’s something in the book he needs to read, something that will help him make sense of things, but he’s just not ready for it now.
Suddenly spending a day in Xiao Zhan’s disaster hotel room without him doesn’t seem all that appealing, and Yibo’s eye is caught by the glinting water in the distance. He really hasn’t gotten to spend enough time just hanging out in the lake, and this seems like the perfect day for it. He finishes shoveling congee into his mouth and makes a call.
An hour later, he’s jingling the keys of a speedboat as he walks down a metal slipway jutting out into the lake, with a security guy behind him. They’ve been so, so lucky on this project that the usual fan crowds have been absent, but Yibo’s still wearing sunglasses with a black hoodie pulled up, hoping to make the luck last one more day.
He finds the rental and gets aboard, vaulting over with one hand on the fiberglass bow. Yibo goes up to the wheel while Hu Qing unties the line and shoves off. The bodyguard looks up at Yibo, expressionless and his eyes hidden behind dark shades. “You know how to drive this thing?”
“Sure,” Yibo says, putting the key in the ignition. Well, he basically does.
He manages to get them out of the marina without hitting any other boats, and then once they’re in clear water he opens the throttle. The moment that they get up to speed, wind blowing back his hoodie and almost knocking off his cap, it feels like his whole body goes light and soaring. He can’t resist letting out a whoop, steering them into deeper waters.
The lake’s not that big, especially in a boat like this, but it feels good just to zip around, being in control of where he’s going for once. Other than racing Yibo doesn’t get to drive nearly as much as he’d like, and when he’s on a project it feels like all he’s ever doing is going where people tell him to, being driven around in vans and the backseat of cars. It’s a fucking gorgeous day and he doesn’t have anything to do but speed across the sparkling blue waters, bouncing rhythmically when they cross the wakes of other boats or leaning deep into a curve when he turns them around. It’s the most fun he’s had in a while.
It would be better if Xiao Zhan was sitting in the bow, instead of Hu Qing with his crew cut and his blank face, but it’s fine. At least he feels safe with Hu Qing, built like a tank, tight black polo shirt tucked into black slacks and his biceps on conspicuous display. Yibo heard he used to be an Olympic boxer.
When Yibo gets bored with doing donuts in the middle of the lake he brings the boat to a stop and yells down, “You wanna get some lunch?”
They pick up fried fish at a restaurant along the shore and eat it while idling in a little inlet, drifting with the small waves. The sun is shining directly overhead and Yibo probably should have put on sunscreen, but there’s only one more scene to shoot anyway.
One more scene, and then they leave here, moving onto other things. They haven’t talked about it at all but Yibo feels it just ahead, like the sheer drop of a cliff. It’s hard to think past it.
“This is good fish,” he says to Hu Qing, more to pull himself out of his own thoughts than anything.
Hu Qing grunts, nodding once.
“Hope this has been a good job for you, out of the city,” Yibo says. “Or is it tough to be away so long?”
Hu Qing chews another mouthful of noodles. “I take a lot of location jobs. My wife usually comes along.”
“Oh, cool,” Yibo says.
“It was harder when we were dating,” Hu Qing says. “When we have a kid I guess it’ll get hard again. But for now it’s good.”
“Yeah,” Yibo says, looking out over the water.
He has a new dance reality show starting up as soon as this finishes, with barely a day between. He doesn’t know where Xiao Zhan’s going but it’s probably somewhere on the other side of the country. He’s known all along this is what their real lives are like, but somehow this summer has let him forget for a while, or at least pretend to forget.
They take a few more turns around the lake and then Yibo heads back to the marina, and by the time Hu Qing leaves him in the hotel hallway he’s sleepy and sun-dazzled, tired and overheated. He goes back to his own room for the first time in a few days, where he takes a shower and throws himself onto the bed in just a pair of shorts, falling into a heavy, dreamless sleep.
It’s getting dark when he wakes up. Yibo checks his phone but all he has are work messages and a couple chats from friends. He looks around his dim hotel room, which feels less like home than it ever has, empty and impersonal. Maybe he should have gone back to Xiao Zhan’s room, just to feel less alone, but maybe Xiao Zhan won’t want him there when he gets back from a long day on location. Maybe it would have been weird for Yibo to be there waiting.
Yibo picks up his phone again. He’s hungrier than usual, after being outside in the sun, and he’s just about to call for dinner when finally the screen lights up again.
Just got back. Come by in fifteen?
Yibo smiles, feeling his shoulders relax. He doesn’t sigh in relief but it’s the same thing. Yeah, I’ll order dinner if you didn’t already
Great, Xiao Zhan replies.
Like that, Yibo’s right back in it again. This new routine, this fantasy life they’ve been living for weeks. When Yibo gets down there, opening the door with the key card Xiao Zhan left for him, Xiao Zhan looks tired but smiling, a towel around his waist and his dark hair slicked back and dripping wet. He pulls Yibo in for a quick, warm kiss and then keeps digging around his piles of stuff, and it’s like a mirror image of yesterday morning, when he was running late and frantic about it, and it felt right for Yibo to do all the nice stuff he always wants to do. Finding his things, kissing him goodbye.
Lingxuan and Jin Yi never get to be like that, Yibo thinks, distractedly. Everything’s always such intense drama with them, never this easy comfort. It can’t just be the movie.
“How was filming?” Yibo asks, settling on the bed with a bowl of food.
“Good,” Xiao Zhan says. He drops his towel, unself-conscious, and pulls on briefs and a pair of soft lounge pants. Yibo smiles when he comes closer, because shirtless Xiao Zhan is a rare treat.
“Weird to film somewhere else, right?” Yibo asks, as Xiao Zhan sits on the bed next to him.
Xiao Zhan shrugs and leans back against the headboard. His legs are so long, stretching out. Yibo’s happy just to look at him. “It was good for the character. He’s trying to move on, right? It was easier to forget everything when I was in new places.”
Yibo swallows. Something small and anxious twinges low in his gut, and he gathers another bite of food, catching a prawn between his chopsticks. He bites off the head, letting the juices run over his tongue.
“What did you do all day?” Xiao Zhan asks.
“Went to the lake,” Yibo says, chewing and swallowing. “I rented a boat, it was awesome.”
“Really?” Xiao Zhan asks, looking surprised. “You can drive a boat?”
“Sure,” Yibo says. He reaches for his phone and swipes through for the pictures. “I should’ve done this a long time ago. We should have,” he corrects himself.
“Yeah,” Xiao Zhan says, looking over his shoulder. “We should have.”
They’re quiet, as Yibo eats. He notices Xiao Zhan’s not eating. That was always his way, the night before a big scene, but Yibo still doesn’t like it. He doesn’t like the reminder of what’s ahead of them either, even if it will be a relief to finally get to the big romantic conclusion of the movie. The happy ending.
“Last scene tomorrow,” Xiao Zhan says, softly, like he knows what Yibo’s thinking.
“Yeah,” Yibo says.
Xiao Zhan takes in a deep breath and lets it out in a long sigh. They’re quiet for a while, just sitting together, the TV playing in the background. Yibo finishes his food and sets the bowl aside, letting his weight rest against Xiao Zhan’s shoulder.
All these little piercing arrows keep raining down today, and he doesn’t want to let any of them through. Not reminders of the future, or confusion about the present, or anything outside of how good this feels, being quiet and close together. After a while Xiao Zhan puts his hand on Yibo’s leg, half on his thigh and half on his bare knee, tickling a little with his fingers before going still. Yibo looks over without turning his head, studying the definition in Xiao Zhan’s arm and the light hair on his chest, his tiny dark nipples. He studies like he’s memorizing it all, and he stops himself when he realizes that’s what he’s doing.
He could ask, right now. What are we? He thinks he knows the real answer, even if it’s maybe not the one Xiao Zhan would give tonight. It means a lot, knowing, but Yibo wishes he could hear it, too.
When he looks up, Xiao Zhan’s watching him. His face is so serious, and somehow that’s what makes Yibo smile, a big broad grin that splits across his face, half laughing at himself. He knows what this is, even if Xiao Zhan doesn’t.
They kiss then, Yibo still tickled by the remnants of his smile. He pulls Xiao Zhan into his lap and traces the tight buds of his nipples with his tongue, hands working down under his pants to cup his ass. They roll each other over in bed, kissing, and when Yibo lands on top and grinds his hips down with a lascivious glance, playing it up, he gets a real smile out of Xiao Zhan, who swats at his shoulder.
“Nice come on, Lao Wang,” Xiao Zhan says. “Real subtle.”
“Who wants subtle,” Yibo says, and bends down to kiss him again.
In the end they just blow each other, because they’re both too tired for anything else. Yibo’s never sorry about getting to have Xiao Zhan in his mouth, all that hot intimate taste and the way Xiao Zhan’s louder than usual, like he doesn’t worry about Yibo hearing him from further away, or like he has to be loud to make up for the distance. He likes how smug Xiao Zhan gets when he’s taken Yibo’s cock most of the way down, lips stretched out and his head angled in a way that curves his beautiful neck. Xiao Zhan reaches up to tangle their fingers together, and Yibo holds on so tight he’s afraid it will hurt but Xiao Zhan never lets go.
After, Xiao Zhan stumbles into the bathroom for just a few minutes, definitely not long enough to do his full skincare routine, before climbing back into bed. He kicks the covers aside and stretches out with a contented sigh, smiling up at Yibo before closing his eyes. Yibo watches him fall asleep almost immediately.
He’s tired too, but not enough to sleep yet. He looks around the mess of the room and there’s the book again, right next to him on the nightstand, like it’s been waiting for him all along. In some ways, maybe it has been.
Yibo takes The Life You Gave Me from the pile and then looks over at Xiao Zhan, sleeping in the rucked-up sheets. He’s still turned toward Yibo, with one arm flung over his head and the other curled up near his face, and he looks so peaceful and unconcerned, with all the complex thoughts Yibo’s used to seeing on his face smoothed away. Like what they did tonight calmed him down, or maybe just being together was enough.
Yibo can’t help reaching out to brush Xiao Zhan’s hair off his forehead, and then he opens the book.
He flips through it idly, catching words here and there, skimming scenes. He finds the first time Lingxuan meets Jin Yi, down at the dock in the early morning, and it’s strange to read about it from the outside, almost like he’s reading about himself. Then the first kiss scene, which he’s surprised to see is much shorter than he expected, only one brief paragraph before Minghua interrupts. In contrast the Jin dinner party is much longer than the quick, complex dance they made of it in the film, going into involved discussions about art and politics that Yibo skips over.
Finally he finds what he was always looking for, the scene where Lingxuan stays over in Jin Yi’s room. He wants to know what it was like, what Xiao Zhan was thinking of the night he told Yibo to fuck him the way their characters did in the book. Yibo reads the page, and then over again, his breath catching in his chest, pulse beginning to race.
The scene in the book is rough and fast. On their hands and knees, the prose so hurried and opaque it’s not clear who’s doing what. Lingxuan only talks about the desperate urgency of it, hoping not to be overheard, and the bitter self-hatred he feels, taking what he thinks he shouldn’t want and dragging Jin Yi down with him. I couldn’t stop. I slid into the darkness and I was too selfish not to bring him along.
But that’s not what it was like for them, and not how Xiao Zhan described it. Slow. Taking their time, he whispered, and that’s how Yibo did it for him. Slow, smooth. Until they feel like they’re one person.
Yibo closes the book and his eyes, leaning his head back against the wall.
Finally he opens the book again, flipping to the end. He knows there isn’t much dialogue in the written script, and it’s the same here, most of it just descriptions of how Lingxuan feels seeing Jin Yi again, and then the way they sit in the back corner of a train station cafe, knees touching beneath the table and smiling at each other all the time. They don’t say much, but somehow they both know that everything’s changed.
On the last page, Xiao Zhan has circled a passage in pencil, passing over it several times to darken the lines. Like he wanted to burn it into his memory.
When I saw him again, I knew I had made a mistake, and I could see that he knew it too. There was forgiveness in his eyes though, without me even asking for it. That’s what love is, to be so close to a person that you know everything without speaking. If we had stayed apart, that would have been a great tragedy, but I don’t think it ever could have happened. We would have been brought back again and again, like the tide meeting the shore, until we were together like we were always meant to be.
Yibo lays his palm over the page, carefully. It feels like he’s touching Xiao Zhan’s purest, most exposed heart, some secret precious thing he has to keep safe. Beneath the printed words, in very faint characters, Xiao Zhan has written Yibo’s name.
It takes a long time for Yibo to get it together again. It’s too much all at once—the bright day on the lake, their comfortable, familiar evening, and now this, beyond anything he ever dreamed or hoped for. His ears are ringing and his head spins, and finally he bites his lip and looks down at Xiao Zhan again.
He’s still sleeping, calm and at rest. Yibo thinks, together like we were always meant to be, and then he touches Xiao Zhan’s face, stroking his soft cheek. Yibo slides down under the sheets, and he just lies there, watching Xiao Zhan sleep, until his own eyes begin to close too. Even then he fights it, wanting to stay awake a little longer, looking at Xiao Zhan as long as he can.
It’s still dark when they get up, the last morning. They shower together but neither of them takes it further than that, just touching each other beneath the water, tracing soapy curves and smoothing lines. Xiao Zhan keeps watching Yibo’s face, and Yibo smiles back at him, tender but brief. Everything feels serious today, the games all over at last.
The final shooting location is about an hour away, back towards Shanghai. It’s a big scene, with lots of extras, and it doesn’t help Xiao Zhan’s troubled state of mind to know how much depends on them getting the scene down as well and quickly as they can. There’s no room for the kind of struggle he went through in the phone call scene, when his own emotions interfered with the work.
He glances over at Yibo, as the early morning light flashes through the bus windows. Yibo’s looking straight ahead, his straight features in handsome profile, hair brushing his temples. Xiao Zhan wants to talk to him, to know him, to push beyond just their compelling, electric chemistry. After all this time, it feels like they’ve hardly ever opened up to each other for real, and he wants so much to do that, to have space to just be themselves.
But they can’t do that today. Xiao Zhan goes back to his script.
The location is a quietly vibrating zoo, like every big set, with local extras everywhere and a few bit players holding down bigger parts at the train station. Wardrobe is a coat room, and Xiao Zhan shrugs into his oversized suit and ugly patterned tie, with a big knot beneath his chin. He puts on his wirerim glasses and takes the worn leather portfolio case he’s supposed to carry, making him look older and more professional. It feels so surreal, knowing this is the last time he’ll wear any of these clothes, the last time he has to slip into the confusing, conflicted emotions of his character.
The last time they’ll be together like this.
Yibo’s in a soft yellow button-down shirt over acid wash jean shorts, sleeves rolled up and his hair combed out into the fluffy halo he wears as Jin Yi, with a deep side part that swoops up on one side. He’s wearing a backpack and beat-up white trainers, like a casual day tripper, and it plays up everything young and wholesome about his character, calling back to those days by the water and their hike in the woods.
This scene has taken up fully half the project’s budget, but it had to be done. “The train station matters most,” Director Zhou said, first in the early meetings with Xiao Zhan and the other producers, and then later at one of the house parties, after the production team had already decided to let him make whatever decisions he wanted. “The anonymity, the crowds, the sense of travel and liminal space. They can’t meet on any ground except what’s between them. Their lives are on different paths, but they meet once more and it changes everything again.”
Lingxuan and Jin Yi are supposed to enter the station through the turnstiles at opposite sides of the platform, and thensee each other across the rails. Different lines, going different directions, but they stand there staring at each other across the gap, as a train rockets between them. When it clears the platform, they’ll run in the same direction, rushing for the stairs to take them back down to the station.
It takes a while to film each side of the setup, and Xiao Zhan has a lot of downtime while they’re getting Yibo’s first shots. Then he films his half, handing his ticket to the agent and finally making his way to the edge of the platform. They have to time this just right with the train, because the station can’t shut down indefinitely, and he’s proud that after a few takes of staring at each other across the rails he can see Director Zhou and the others around the monitors nodding, and Chao Xiuli gesturing to the camera crews to move onto the next location.
Someone hands Xiao Zhan a box lunch, and he takes it with him down the stairs to the main concourse, where he’s guided to a folding chair outside the station cafe they’re going to use later on. It’s a far cry from the early days of production, when he’d eat lunch alone on the lawn of the lake house and stare out at the peaceful view, with an easy, intimate shoot in the afternoon and a party later in the evening, but Xiao Zhan puts the box in his lap and scrolls through his phone, trying to close himself off from the chaos and chatter around him. He’s not really hungry anyway.
He realizes that Yibo must have been set up somewhere different for lunch, probably on purpose. Other than wardrobe they’ve been kept apart all day, and Director Zhou must want it that way. It’s the right thing, Xiao Zhan tells himself. This way when they see each other again for real, it’ll be Jin Yi he’s thinking about.
Once the lunch break ends, the crew sets up outside the cafe with amazing speed. Xiao Zhan’s supposed to stop walking in front of it, watching Yibo come down the stairs, and they film his reaction shot there first, staring blankly across the station concourse. They shoot it a couple of different ways, for editing options, and then he gets a break again while they film Yibo’s shot.
When Yibo first comes down the stairs, it feels like Xiao Zhan’s chest goes so tight he can’t breathe. He swallows, hard. They haven’t actually filmed together since that exhausting, marathon day of love scenes, and the last one comes into his mind, kissing so long that it hurt, until they could hardly do it anymore. Something is rising in him, a heat that makes his face flush, and he clenches his jaw tight, trying to tamp it down.
It’s Lingxuan’s emotions, he thinks, dizzy. This is good. He can use it.
He watches Yibo pause on the last step, hands clenched on the straps of his backpack. Yibo shakes his hair back out of his face, staring like he’s only just seen Lingxuan, and then a brilliant, beautiful smile crosses his face.
Xiao Zhan catches a breath, hitching in his tight throat. It’s Jin Yi he’s watching, he knows, but he can’t stop thinking about Yibo smiling at him last night; pulling Xiao Zhan into his lap, and then grinning down at him later from above. This morning in the shower, and every other time before that, as though he just likes looking at Xiao Zhan. Like he feels the same way as Jin Yi does, fond and uncomplicated, steady and real.
He only lights up like that for you.
Abruptly Xiao Zhan stands up, pushing back his chair and pacing around, with his hands in fists at his sides. There’s a script hanging on the back of someone’s chair and Xiao Zhan grabs for it, paging back to the next scene. He doesn’t have much dialogue in this scene and he knows it all, but he needs to see his lines written beneath someone else’s name. He needs to remember he’s just playing a part.
Xiao Zhan’s still staring down at the script when he feels a touch at his shoulder. He looks up to see Chao Xiuli, her face soft, considering.
“It’s time,” she says.
He takes his mark outside the cafe entrance again, near a table where two extras are sitting with coffee mugs. In his field of view are more extras, all crowded around ready to start walking and miming conversations, simulating the bustle of a busy train station. Right now, though, he knows they’re all looking at him, and this is the most public he’s been for the entire project. Memories of the summer keep racing through his mind, the way that even filming always felt like something private, and then all those nights with Yibo alone in his room, away from everyone else. It feels like something they might never have again.
The murmur around him gradually fades, everything settling in place. He sees Director Zhou’s face, a bright familiar thing in the hectic scene before him. The director nods, gesturing forward, and the light burns red on the camera. Xiao Zhan lifts his eyes at last, and looks across the empty space to where Yibo is coming towards him.
When he clears the crowd Yibo stops like he’s supposed to, just standing still. The camera is filming them from the side in long view, facing each other a few meters apart. Yibo holds onto the straps of his backpack, and Xiao Zhan adjusts his grip on his leather portfolio, and they just stare at each other for the long moments in the script.
All Xiao Zhan can hear is the driving beat of his own heart, ringing in his ears and thumping in his chest. His jaw works hard, and only when he feels the wet heat of tears on his cheeks does he realize that he’s holding back sobs. He keeps staring at Yibo and all he sees is—Yibo. Not Jin Yi, none of the history they’re supposed to have made together, the fictional moments that should be in his head right now. Just Yibo, looking back at him, and Xiao Zhan wants that so much it feels like he’ll die without it, like he can’t go one more minute without him in his arms, without Yibo knowing this is real.
“Cut,” Director Zhou says, and the sound of his voice is like something dim and far away. Xiao Zhan shakes himself hard, breaking eye contact, and dashes at his cheeks with his fingertips. In a moment a stylist is there, dabbing away the moisture and sponging fresh foundation on him. It’s not so different from every drama he’s shot in the summer heat, Xiao Zhan thinks wildly, except it feels like he has even less control over the tears.
Director Zhou is in front of him now. Everything seems so surreal, the lemon color of Yibo’s shirt a blur over the director’s shoulder, the huddled crowds a dull sound around them. Director Zhou speaks low, putting a hand on Xiao Zhan’s shoulder and leaning in.
“Do you need a break?” he asks quietly.
Xiao Zhan shakes his head. “Let’s go again. I can get it.”
The director nods. “All right. You know that was too much. We’ll shoot the close-ups next, but I don’t want tears. You see him, everything comes flooding back in one moment, but you haven’t fully changed yet, right? You’re like ice, you’re still thawing out.”
“Yeah,” Xiao Zhan says, hoarsely. He pushes up his glasses and rubs at his eye with the heel of his hand.
“OK,” the director says, and squeezes his shoulder before going back to his chair.
The stylist fixes the eye makeup Xiao Zhan just smudged, and then they reset. Xiao Zhan tenses his jaw, watching Yibo shoulder his way through the crowd, and then the moment comes again: their eyes meeting, their bodies aligned. It’s astonishing, the way he can feel Yibo across the gap, like they’re somehow breathing together.
Yibo looks at him with Jin Yi’s expression, sweet and hopeful, his mouth open a little, and with superhuman effort Xiao Zhan he keeps himself in the scene. He holds the tears back, and instead lets himself thaw like Director Zhou said; frowning brows relaxing, eyes widening, jaw going soft as he breathes hard through his mouth. For just a moment, he shares space with Lingxuan, both of them filled with the surprising, unlooked-for grace of forgiveness, of a second chance.
He has to hold on a little longer, as Yibo slowly walks toward him. Each step feels like weight added to Xiao Zhan’s shoulders, like something he has to bear until it happens again. Yibo’s nearness, his every beloved feature, the way he never looks away.
They keep standing still, looking at each other. Xiao Zhan fights against being himself, relentlessly slamming back down into his character’s mind. Jin Yi is here. Jin Yi hasn’t forgotten. Everything is still just the same. Together like we were always meant to be.
He raises a hand, shaking, and puts it on Yibo’s face. Jin Yi’s face. It doesn’t matter anymore; the longing that floods him is the same in any universe.
“Good, cut,” Director Zhou says. “I’d like—”
Xiao Zhan turns and walks away, striding quickly into the depths of the station cafe. There are a few extras at tables inside, waiting for the next scene, and he knows they’re looking at him as he rushes through, looking for the restrooms in the back. The door swings open under his hand, and then he’s alone in the single room.
His hands slide into his hair, tugging it up as he paces in a tight circle. He wheels around and stops at the sink, leaning over it, breathing hard. He looks up at the mirror, where he sees his own wide, red-rimmed eyes, the makeup caked on his cheeks. His hair is a mess now too, and he’ll have to be totally restyled before they film again.
“Fuck,” Xiao Zhan says, hissing out the word between his teeth.
He drops his forehead against the cool mirror with a thunk, with his hands still wrapped around the smooth, wet ceramic of the sink. The tears are coming up again, thick and choking in his throat, and this time he can’t stop. Xiao Zhan just cries, shoulders heaving, sobs high and hoarse, muffled by the fan overhead.
He’s crying for everything. Because things are ending, because they ended before. Because maybe they could have been different, but he didn’t have the courage to fight for it back then. No—because he didn’t even imagine that he could fight. Didn’t know that it would matter so much, that it would change him, to have something mean so much once and never again.
Life isn’t a book. There’s never been a train station, a chance encounter, one sweeping cinematic moment when everything was clear between them without words. If Xiao Zhan wants things to be different with Yibo this time, he’ll have to do it himself.
Slowly he straightens up, nerving himself to look in the mirror again. His face is even more of a disaster than before, blotchy and swollen, but he can meet his own eyes now. He’s always thought of himself as a real Chongqing native, blunt and brave, going after what he wants, and here he’s spent years without even knowing what that was. It’s time for everything to change.
Xiao Zhan takes off his glasses and splashes water over his face, finishing off his makeup, then pats it dry with a paper towel. He takes one last look in the mirror and gives himself a wet, rueful smile. He can do this.
The stylist is waiting for him again outside, with her waist bag full of tools and products. She doesn’t say anything, just takes him over to an empty cafe chair and brushes his hair and reapplies his makeup from the start, quickly but carefully. Xiao Zhan keeps his eyes closed while she does it, breathing deep and steady, moving into that meditative place he always strives for before an important scene. He hasn’t been able to get there all day, but it’s easy now. This is his job, his career, his passion. This is what he’s here to do.
“There,” the stylist says to him, capping the eyeliner with a click. “Try to keep it on your face this time.”
Xiao Zhan breaks into an easy smile, opening his eyes, and follows her outside.
He makes eye contact with Director Zhou first, nodding firmly. I’ve got this. Then with Chao Xiuli, hovering nearby with a script that he takes just to be polite, glancing over it before handing it back. Finally he looks across the station concourse and finds Yibo, still standing, waiting for him. Xiao Zhan nods at him too, looking over the top of his glasses, trying to say something he hopes Yibo will understand. I can put us aside for now. I’m here to do the work.
This time, the scene is perfect. Xiao Zhan gets into character like he’s sliding underwater, submerged in another world. He goes through those same emotions—shock, recognition, hope, disbelieving joy—and this time it feels like they belong to Lingxuan alone, not himself in some distorted way. He feels Jin Yi’s strong, simple love from Yibo too, a generous and forgiving passion that’s only grown over time.
They move onto the closeups, the brief dialogue—-Where are you going? -Nowhere. Here. Everywhere, with you.—and then to the final shot of the movie, sharing a table in the back corner of the cafe. He and Yibo are both quiet through all the transitions and waiting, hardly saying anything to each other. During their longest break they’re just silent, no phones or conversation as they stare out the front window, and Xiao Zhan can tell Yibo’s doing the same as him, trying to stay in the world of the film. They have so little time left.
Finally they film the last shot. Tucked into a back corner, shoulder to shoulder, leaning in with their folded arms resting on the table and their elbows touching. The camera lingers on their faces, the sidelong glances and flickering smiles, and then pans down to the darkness beneath the table, where their knees and feet are pressed together. Yibo lifts one sneakered foot, below his bare leg and jean shorts, and rests it on top of Xiao Zhan’s leather loafer. The camera pulls back to catch Yibo turning his face up to Xiao Zhan’s, a radiant smile breaking across it. Xiao Zhan smiles too, like he can’t hold back, even though he never looks up from the table. He reaches out and takes Yibo’s hand.
It takes all afternoon to get it right. Xiao Zhan moves past exhaustion into a free-floating place where there’s only this, acting out their wordless communion, the easy resolution he wants so much for himself. For them. The presence next to him is by turns Yibo and Jin Yi, warm and close, longed-for and just out of reach. Somewhere in there he realizes they’re on the same team again, striving for the same goal—to get this right, to end it all, even if that means they have to face what comes next.
Xiao Zhan’s slumped back against the seat, eyes shut, when Director Zhou pulls up a chair in front of the table and sits down.
“That’s it,” he says, softly.
Xiao Zhan opens his eyes. “Really?”
The director nods. “Yeah. We have what we need. Now the real work starts.” He makes a face. “Editing.”
Even though he knows that editing is where films are really made, Xiao Zhan can’t help laughing because it seems ridiculous, after all the work they’ve just done. It feels like he’s run six marathons. “Wow. OK. We’re really finished?”
“You’re really finished,” Director Zhou says.
Yibo hasn’t said anything, and Xiao Zhan finally turns to him. It’s awkward, coming back out of their characters after the day they’ve had, and he feels himself moving into false high spirits, some of that old teasing bubbling up. “You still awake, Lao Wang? He says we’re finished.”
“I heard,” Yibo says.
“That’s good, right?” Xiao Zhan says.
“It’s good,” Yibo says, low, and then he smiles. It’s not the same as Jin Yi’s wide, open grin, but a small and lovely thing that Xiao Zhan feels like a tiny dart aimed for his heart alone.
God, he hopes. He hopes.
“They should go out the side exit,” Chao Xiuli says, coming up with a walkie-talkie to her ear. “Most of the extras are waiting out front. The crowd’s pretty big, security had to get the barriers.”
Fans. Xiao Zhan feels bad for avoiding them, especially when they were all so well-behaved during a boring day of extras work, but he can’t imagine having to deal with a crowd right now. Maybe he can have his manager put up a special thank you post later tonight.
“Should we go together, or one at a time?” Yibo asks.
“Together,” Chao Xiuli says. “Let’s get you out fast.”
They’ve done this before, the quick dash in sunglasses, flanked by a security team. It’s not so bad this time, and as they drive around the front Xiao Zhan rolls down the window, waving at the noisy crowd of people holding signs. He’s glad he didn’t have to walk through all that, but he can do this much at least, and it feels good to hear the cheers as they drive away.
And now it’s their last drive back to the hotel, their last evening together, their last everything. Yibo’s already asleep with his head against the window, and Xiao Zhan thinks he’ll sleep too but he doesn’t, all the way back. He wants to stay here, he realizes, because he doesn’t want to miss a moment of this. Yibo sitting so close to him, and the way he looks, and this feeling of a job they’ve done well together, creating art that’s real and lasting. If he had one wish, Xiao Zhan thinks, this is everything he would ask for.
Well, maybe not everything.
He has to wake Yibo up when they get back to the hotel. He half-expected a crowd here too, but the parking lot and lobby are empty as usual, now that the season is nearly over. A security guy still accompanies them up to the top floor, and when they get out of the elevator he wonders if Yibo will leave this time, rather than be seen going back to Xiao Zhan’s room.
Instead, Yibo seems to come more alert for the first time since they finished the scene back at the station. He smiles, reaching out to softly punch the guard’s upper arm. “We got it from here,” he says. “Thanks, man. Say hi to your wife.”
The security guy doesn’t quite smile, but there’s a pleasant look to his serious face as he nods. “Thanks. She’ll like that.”
“I’ll send her something signed,” Yibo says, before he turns away, walking down the hall.
Xiao Zhan follows Yibo to his own room. The exhaustion is beginning to drain away, the adrenaline of anticipation pulsing haphazardly through him instead. Everything feels surreal, like they’re somehow back on set, like this is all just a story but no one has given him any lines. Whatever Xiao Zhan says next, he’ll have to figure it out himself.
Yibo has his own key card and he swipes it through the lock, opening the door. Xiao Zhan doesn’t even remember giving it to him. He follows Yibo into his room, where every surface is covered with his things, the evidence of weeks of living that will all be gone this time tomorrow after his team arrives. The curtains are drawn back and the sky is the cloudy white of just after sunset, through the north-facing window. It’s the middle time, nowhere in particular, not evening or afternoon but something in between.
Xiao Zhan realizes he’s staring out the window, and that Yibo is looking at him. He takes a deep, difficult breath.
“I can’t pretend anymore,” he says.
In his strange, detached state, he watches Yibo’s face. Last time, years ago, he could barely look Yibo in the eye while he made his prepared little speech, too worried he’d see relief or some hint of that disconnection he was already beginning to feel now the summer was over. Please, let me just say it before he does, he thought then, and it was the only wish that came true.
“What do you mean, pretend?” Yibo asks. Tonight his mouth is worried but his eyes are wide, blinking softly. “Being our characters?”
Xiao Zhan shakes his head. He can feel the tears welling up, making it difficult to think or speak. “I can’t pretend I’m fine with this. It’s not enough for me.”
“Oh,” Yibo says. Xiao Zhan can see him breathing harder, chest rising and falling fast, and he frowns, like he’s working that out.
“I know,” Xiao Zhan says, and he has to stop, swallowing hard. “I know this was supposed to be casual. I’m sorry I’m ruining everything. I know we should end it like last time, being friends, but I can’t—I don’t want to do that again.”
“Well, I don’t either,” Yibo says.
Xiao Zhan feels like his heart is falling, with a sick swoop that turns his stomach. He shoves his hands in his pockets, looking down. “OK,” he says, thickly.
“I shouldn’t have let you end it like that before,” Yibo says. “I should have said something. I should have fought for it.”
Xiao Zhan jerks his head up. “What?”
Yibo licks his lips, tongue slipping out in that old, familiar movement. “I didn’t want to stop back then. I know it was too much for you, and you were just trying to let me down easy when I was so stupid in love with you—”
“What?” Xiao Zhan says. “You were what?”
Yibo looks at him, jaw stubborn. His face is older but his eyes are young, fierce and spirited. “Zhan-ge. Everybody knew.”
Xiao Zhan takes a staggering step back until he finds the wall behind him, and collapses against it. He runs his hands over his face, fingers raking through his hair, and then looks up. His voice sounds high and shaky when he says, “I think maybe you weren’t the stupid one.”
There’s a long, ringing silence, and then Yibo takes a slow step towards him. “You didn’t break up with me for my own good?”
“For my own good, if anything,” Xiao Zhan says, weakly. “I was—holy fuck, that summer, Yibo. I didn’t know which way was up. I barely slept for three months, all I did was cry and stare at you and I didn’t even know which parts of that were on camera.”
Yibo stands still in front of him, close enough to touch. Xiao Zhan straightens up, giving himself those precious extra centimeters again, and looks down at him, helpless with regret.
“I was staring back,” Yibo says, softly. “You didn’t see? I was always looking at you.”
Xiao Zhan remembers, then. The first and only time he had Yibo beneath him in bed that summer, and the way Yibo looked up at him, with something in his eyes that Xiao Zhan had to look away from, jaw clenched tight. Maybe that was the moment, the chance for silent understanding he’s kept wishing for, the missed connection. Maybe he ruined everything, that late and labyrinthine night, when he couldn’t let himself linger on the raw, young power of Yibo’s desire.
But Yibo’s standing here now, seven years later, and the longing is still in his eyes, deep and tender. Life isn’t single chances, or if it is then Xiao Zhan’s been given the rare grace of another one.
He lifts his hand, touching Yibo’s face. It’s a mirror of the scene they played out today, but Xiao Zhan’s only thinking of what’s between them, the slow inexorable kindling of a fire that’s been building so long. He doesn’t know how he could have gotten everything so wrong, but he’s going to make it right.
“I should have known,” he murmurs. “I’m sorry.”
Yibo shakes his head. His eyes are heavy-lidded, his ears flushing pink. Xiao Zhan can’t help looking down at his mouth, then back up to meet his gaze, glistening even as Xiao Zhan’s own begins to blur with tears.
“Don’t be sorry,” Yibo whispers, just before they’re drawn into a kiss that feels like it was always waiting for them.
Warmth is all Xiao Zhan knows. The plush sweetness of Yibo’s lips against his, and Yibo’s hands coming up to cradle his face. Yibo’s body is hot against him, solid and strong, and Xiao Zhan grasps at his shirt and shoulders, hauling him even closer. The tears sliding down his cheeks are hot too, and when he gasps for breath Yibo’s tongue fills his open mouth, slick and stroking. Xiao Zhan meets him, pushing into the kiss, giving him everything. There’s so much time to make up for.
They cross the room blindly, stripping off their shirts between kisses. Xiao Zhan hits the bed hard, and he pulls Yibo down too, rolling him over and mouthing at his throat. Yibo groans sharply when Xiao Zhan bites the thick muscle above his shoulder, and clenches his hands in Xiao Zhan’s hair as he sucks a mark into that sweet dip between Yibo’s collarbones.
“Zhan-ge,” Yibo breathes. “You don’t know...fuck. I wanted, I wanted—”
“I wanted it too,” Xiao Zhan answers, licking at the rosy bruise he’s left behind. “I wanted so much.”
“Come here,” Yibo says, pulling Xiao Zhan up by the hair. He kisses him again, fiercely, and then rolls them over face to face, kicking out of his tangled track pants and briefs. Xiao Zhan struggles out of the last of his clothes too, and then it’s back to those deep, endless kisses, hot and open-mouthed. He could kiss Yibo all night, forever. He hooks his knee over Yibo’s hip and they both groan when it brings them closer, pressed together flush and bare.
“Zhan-ge,” Yibo murmurs, low and desperate. “Let me—please—” His hand curves around Xiao Zhan’s ass, pulling him in tight as his fingers slip between.
“I don’t know if I can make it that long,” Xiao Zhan says, honestly, rocking his hips up. His cock grinds against Yibo’s hip and he groans at the contact, doing it again.
“I’ll go slow,” Yibo promises, between kisses. “I’ll make it so good for you. All night.”
“All night?” Xiao Zhan says, half laughing, half gasping.
“As long as we can take it,” Yibo says, seriously, and kisses him again.
He does go slow, and it seems to go on forever, the sweet breach of his thick fingers as they kiss. Xiao Zhan leans away and then they just watch each other, him on his back and Yibo propped on his elbow, with the golden light of the lamp behind him and his hair a soft, wild halo. Yibo bites his lip when Xiao Zhan wraps a hand around his cock, gliding up and down with a steady pace that matches his own.
“Good?” Xiao Zhan whispers, and Yibo nods, closing his eyes. He’s so warm and big in Xiao Zhan’s hand, foreskin sweetly soft beneath his thumb, and for the moment Xiao Zhan just cherishes this breathless intimacy, still and poignant with everything ahead of them.
“I want to do it bare like this,” Xiao Zhan says quietly. “Soon.”
“Yeah,” Yibo says, nodding. “I want to feel you too.”
He rolls on a condom tonight, kneeling up between Xiao Zhan’s legs. It’s a stretch when Xiao Zhan cranes up to kiss him, hips tighter than they used to be. He sees Yibo’s eyes flick over his body before he sits back again, putting a hand on Xiao Zhan’s hip and urging him over on his side.
“I wanna be closer,” Yibo says, moving behind him and kissing the curve of his jaw. He puts his arm around Xiao Zhan’s waist and then strokes down his belly, taking hold of his cock.
“Yeah,” Xiao Zhan breathes, and draws up his knees, arching his back. It feels too good, being touched like this when he’s so wound up, and he grasps Yibo’s wrist. “Yibo. Wait.”
“Can’t,” Yibo says, kissing the back of his neck, but he does take his hand away, reaching down to fit himself in place. Xiao Zhan shuts his eyes, holding his breath.
He doesn’t think he’ll ever get used to it, the demanding press of Yibo inside him, the heart-racing moment when it’s really happening. Yibo sighs in his ear, fingers biting into his hip, and it just goes on and on, slow like he promised, sliding deeper until it seems like there’s no end to either of them, to any of this.
Behind him, Xiao Zhan can feel how Yibo’s been undone. Breathing hard, chest rising against his back, legs shifting and restless. The moaning catch in Yibo’s voice, the way his fingers flex on his hip. His cock is so rigid and thick, jerking with a throbbing twitch when Xiao Zhan moves around him, trying to adjust.
“Yibo,” Xiao Zhan whispers, stroking his arm, and Yibo groans and pushes his forehead against the back of his head.
“Fuck,” Yibo moans. “Fuck, you feel so good.” He wraps his arm around Xiao Zhan’s middle again, holding him so tight he can hardly breathe.
“Slow,” Xiao Zhan says, hardly remembering how or why. Yibo’s desperation is catching, and sweat is breaking out on Xiao Zhan’s face, all along his back where they’re pressed together. He’s waited so long for it to be like this, open and real between them, but he didn’t know how intense it would be. “Come on, Yibo. You can do it.”
He rocks his hips, gently. Yibo lets out another soft moan, but rolls up to meet him the next time, sliding out a little before slipping back in. Xiao Zhan focuses on his own breathing, the beat of his heart, trying to ground himself, but it’s overwhelming, being held so tight and loved so much.
Loved so much.
“I love you,” Yibo gasps, raggedly, holding him tight, hips snapping harder. “I wanted to tell you—so long—”
“I know,” Xiao Zhan says, breathless. “Me too.” Yibo grinds in deep and Xiao Zhan whines, fingers tight on his forearm. “God. You have to fuck me harder.”
“Slow,” Yibo groans, shaking his head. “You said slow.”
“You said slow,” Xiao Zhan insists. He’s losing his mind, caught beneath a wave like a rising chord, a great resonating symphony of desire. He only wants this, Yibo moving inside him, the singing pleasure in his body and the sweet, aching tang of knowing this is just the beginning.
“Zhan-ge,” Yibo breathes.
“I love you,” Xiao Zhan says, the words so short and tight he has to say them again, fiercer. “I love you. If you don’t fuck me through the mattress right now I’m going to lose my fucking mind.”
“Fuck,” Yibo says, brokenly, dropping his forehead against the back of Xiao Zhan’s head once more, and then he does it.
Fast, hard, deep. Holding on so tight it hurts, hips slapping loud and quick. “It’s too good,” Yibo whimpers, breathless and urgent. “I’m not gonna last, I can’t—”
“I know,” Xiao Zhan pants. He wraps his hand around his cock, groaning sharply with the pleasure of it, and strokes himself to match Yibo’s reckless pace. He’s already so wet and dripping that he can hear the slick noise of it under his palm, and he moans, arching his neck. “Just like that, like that, don’t fucking stop.”
“OK,” Yibo groans. “You gotta—come on, Zhan-ge, let me see you come.” He thrusts in faster, catching his breath in harsh gasps.
It’s perfect and gorgeous, right where Xiao Zhan wants it, and then the heat of ecstasy starts spilling through him, almost more than he can stand. He can’t help crying out louder as he comes, hand tight on his cock and Yibo so big and hard inside him. It’s all he can do to keep stroking himself through it, and then he collapses back, limp and exhausted, his whole body tingling so hard he can’t feel his hands.
“Fuck, fuck,” Yibo swears, sounding desperate, and shoves Xiao Zhan over onto his stomach, straddling his thighs. Xiao Zhan lets his face be pushed against the mattress, lost in a haze of warmth and pleasure, with Yibo draped over his back and fucking in hard. He can hardly breathe but it feels incredible, Yibo kissing so frantic over his neck and shoulders, moving inside where he’s so sensitive.
At last Xiao Zhan turns his head to gasp in fresh air. “Don’t stop, Yibo,” he manages. “Don’t stop.”
“Never,” is all Yibo says, sounding pushed past every limit, and then a long, rough groan, pained and soft at the end, his whole body shaking as he comes.
They lie there for a long while after. Xiao Zhan’s drifting, loving Yibo’s warmth and weight, the way they’re breathing together. It feels so incredible to finally be here, with nowhere to be and nothing left to pretend. Yibo’s cheek is resting on his shoulder, fingers wrapped around his forearms and idly stroking, and finally Yibo turns to kiss his back. Xiao Zhan makes a low, pleased hum, arching into it, and Yibo does it again. Xiao Zhan can feel him smile before moving away.
Xiao Zhan stays where he is a moment before shifting with a groan, rolling over to face Yibo. He finds Yibo’s hands and takes hold of them, pulling them up to rest between them.
Yibo is so gorgeous it hurts. Sleepy and flushed, hair tousled, looking back at him with so much love in his eyes. Xiao Zhan can hardly speak, and it’s almost too much to stand, letting himself really feel it for the first time. How much he’s wanted, and how much he’s held himself back.
“I can’t believe we wasted so much time,” Xiao Zhan says, his voice hoarse. “All those years we could have been together.”
“You really thought I was going to break up with you back then?” Yibo asks, the faint beginnings of a smile at the corners of his mouth. “Like an asshole?”
“Like a hot young idol with a huge career ahead of him,” Xiao Zhan answers. “You kept talking about all your hookups. I figured I should get out before I was another statistic.”
Now Yibo’s grinning for real, smirking. “You were jealous.”
“Did you—want me to be?” Xiao Zhan asks, as realization dawns.
“Oh my god, I thought you were warning me off,” Xiao Zhan says, huffing out a laugh. “Not playing hard to get.”
“Fuck.” Yibo closes his eyes with a sigh. “There is no way this would have worked back then. I was so young.” He opens his eyes. “Yeah, I wanted to impress you. I didn’t want you to think I was some dumb lovestruck kid, even though that’s exactly what I was.”
Now it’s Xiao Zhan’s turn to sigh. “I was dumb too. I think I knew how I really felt, but everyone was telling me I was about to have my big break, that I had to be perfect. I was killing myself every day on that set, going way overboard.”
“I remember,” Yibo says.
“It worked, but...” Xiao Zhan sighs again. “It took me years to realize I didn’t have to give two hundred percent every day, that people would still like me and think I was doing a good job.”
They look at each other quietly for a minute.
“So we’re both dumb,” Yibo says. “Even this summer.”
“God,” Xiao Zhan says. “I really thought, maybe this is just about the movie. Maybe he’s just getting into character.”
Yibo laughs, those joyful croaks that sink Xiao Zhan every time. “Zhan-ge, you know I’m not that good an actor.”
“You’re a great actor,” Xiao Zhan says automatically. “I saw that pay phone scene. You’re amazing.”
“I did that scene thinking about you,” Yibo says. “The time you broke up with me for real.”
“I did my phone scene thinking about you too,” Xiao Zhan admits. “I almost couldn’t get it right, it was messing me up so much. We had to take a break so I could pull it together.”
“Xiao-laoshi needed a break?” Yibo says. “You must have it for me pretty bad.”
“I do,” Xiao Zhan says, seriously, looking right at him. “Really bad.”
Yibo looks back at him, and the silent warmth of communion between them is almost more than Xiao Zhan can take. He breathes faster, feeling a helpless smile break out across his face, because they’re looking at each like this, because tonight he can have whatever he wants. Because it’s them.
“Wait,” he says, though, as Yibo leans in. “We’re both leaving tomorrow, right? I have to be in Beijing in the evening for a festival panel.”
“Changsha,” Yibo says. “Afternoon flight.”
“We should probably order in some food,” Xiao Zhan says. He lets go of Yibo’s hands and reaches up to touch his face. “And then we have all night to be together.”
“Yeah,” Yibo says. He smiles, a teasing glint to it. “Together like we were always meant to be.”
Xiao Zhan’s breath catches. “You finally read the book.”
“I read your book,” Yibo says, looking at him steadily.
“My book?” Xiao Zhan asks.
“Last night,” Yibo says. “I saw what you wrote. I already knew how you felt, but then....well, I knew for sure.”
Xiao Zhan pulls his hands back, covering his hot face. “Oh my god. I can’t believe you saw that.”
“I know you, Zhan-ge,” Yibo says, seriously. “I know you and I love you, and I know you love me too.” He puts his hand on the back of Xiao Zhan’s neck and leans in, pressing their foreheads together. “I took the part because of you,” he whispers, rough and husky. “I told myself it wasn’t that, but it was only ever because of you.”
Xiao Zhan takes his hands off his face and moves back, enough to look in Yibo’s eyes. “I wanted it to be you,” he says. “When they suggested it—I wanted it to be you. So I could fix my mistakes.”
“I made mistakes too,” Yibo said. He smiles, so bright and tender Xiao Zhan can hardly breathe. “But everything’s good now.”
Xiao Zhan reaches for Yibo’s hands again, squeezing them tight. “We’re going to be great,” he says, fiercely.
Yibo grins. “We already are great,” he says. He lowers his voice. “I have all night to show you how great.”
“Not if I show you first,” Xiao Zhan says, and it’s silly but it makes them both smile, right before he pulls Yibo into the first of so many kisses to come.
Chapter 4: Epilogue
“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.”