It starts off as a joke, as it always is between them before they turn it into another tradition, another something between them that stays exclusive, no matter how absurd and bemusing others may find it.
It’s important to them to have these little things, a way of carving routine, a normalcy of simple rites and rituals that makes them snicker on every occasion when they get those precious few hours in each other's presence, mocking their own cheesiness. In the highly abnormal environment that their careers operate in, it becomes the most normal, simple thing that they share between them.
It's just little sticky notes at first, prompted by Yibo. Before they know it they both end up with their own collection of notes, found in travel suitcases, in kitchen, in washroom, with snacks sent all the way from another city, inside helmets, under skateboards, tucked away in books half-read and yet to be finished. It injects them with the familiar stupid giddiness, even on those days that start off as horrible and become unbearable, even those nights that have almost ended without them getting a blink of rest from the gruelling, never-ending schedules.
They both get their staffs involved, who share knowing looks but obediently help to deliver their random missives along with other things. If they weren't already being paid well, they would have asked for a raise. They had not realized they would be chaperoning and act as messengers for courting lovers.
“Is it courting when they are already like this?” Xiao Zhan had overheard when he was standing outside the cosy lunch room in his studio, staring blankly at the screen of his phone. He had been on call with his boy for over thirty minutes, “Courting comes before marriage right?”
“Not in this side of the world.” That was his assistant, but even her tone was barely convinced so he wasn't shocked that the second graphic designer they had hired not that long ago was hardly convinced. “Anyhow, it's not like they are actually married.”
That earned her a few amused snorts, a disbelieving laugh.
“Jiejie,” said one of his bodyguards, exasperated and sounding almost offended, “my sister has been married for ten years, and I assure you even she don't act as married as Laoban does.”
“Maybe it's just an extended honeymoon phase. You know they don't get to spend much time together.”
“Or, you know,” his manager helpfully adds, “they are just romantic in the old-fashioned way. It's adorable, like something my grandparents would do. They had a love marriage, and let me tell you they were even more romantic than their kids and grand-kids even in old age.”
“Wah,” the graphic designer swoons, sounding faint, “must be nice, having someone coveting you like that.”
“Hmm,” his usually demure social media manager finally chimes in, “I feel so bad sometimes with how hard things are for them. It's nice how they try so hard for each other, right? Really makes me want to help them out in any way possible.”
“And I appreciate it deeply.”
Xiao Zhan had coughed loudly, popping his head in with a sheepish smile. All movements in the room come to a halt, a lot of reddening faces, avoided eye-contact and choking on fish meat balls.
“So,” he inquires, eyebrows raising up even though he can't stop smiling, “anyone up for a quick visit down to Shanghai? Whoever goes gets an extra day worth of salary.”
The first note was stuck innocently inside his carry bag filled to the brim with all his favourite snacks and packed goods.
Dear most beautiful gege I have ever seen, don't eat me before you finish your meals. You can happily have me after eating your food properly.
He had giggled for five minute straight, starting down at the note, knowing very well that his team was judging him in his peripheral vision.
It's just so cute, is the thing.
He reads it in his head with Yibo's deep, grumbling voice and has to swallow down the surge of warm, swooping affection that almost tilts him off his feet.
“Zhan-ge, you don't have to skip your meals to annoy me, you know? You have other more healthier ways to do it.”
There's no coming back from this, he discerns. The note is tucked away safely and he's already thinking about what he could write in his note.
And so it commences, and goes on. It's a testament to how many times they can tell someone that they miss them with a hunger they have given up on assuaging a long time ago.
Dear owner of my house, please don't be angry anymore about the lease money. You are in-charge of everything else in the house anyway, it’s only fair. Please put your resources in the Studio now. You don't need to worry about this anymore. You know why? Paint the back of this page.
Xiao Zhan does as he is asked, still shaking his head at the absolute audacity of this brat.
The wax letters stand out clearly, and that too in English. He does in fact forget his annoyance at their last argument. When he comprehends what is written, a loud snort leaves him, lips twisting in a reluctant grin as he plops down on his hotel bed, eyes still stuck on the note.
You live in my heart rent free.
Dear pain in my neck, I will get back at you for this one day. For now, let me pitch in money for that new bike you want. I am not asking, or taking permission, by the way. If you know what's good for you, nod your head and smile. Now, since you made me work with your note, I should repay. Decode this.
(Z-1)(H+1)(A+1)(N+1) = ?
“Wow, Ge.” Yibo shouts later that day through the phone. The pleasant surprise and excitement is palpably visible in his bare face, appearing more tiny like this on their daily evening video call session.
“I know right?” He yawns, pulling the covers over his arm.
He explains the younger man sleepily, how he was tinkering with the English keyboard on his phone when it hit him.
“Baobao is so smart, such a genius.”
“Isn’t it our parents who named us actually? Thank them, Lao Wang. Maybe it’s really fate, huh? Hehe. I know your Mother would think it is.”
Yibo grins impishly, “I and her are alike in thinking, Zhan-ge.”
“Maybe I should call you that now. Should we make that your code name, little puppy? What do you say, will it be too obvious?”
When they accumulate too many of those and start worrying about losing them, they get a blue journal with stars and daisies engraved on top, a number lock with a password only they are aware of. The pages are filled with exchanged notes, reminders, long letters, a few doodles here and there, a list of snacks on the margin, names of medicines as well as countdowns to the day they will see each other next. It was a good decision in hindsight, since their words get more and more desperate, specific, so telling. He couldn't endure the thought that others outside the two of them might even get a glimpse of it.
Dear cause of all my worries, eat your fucking meals on time. I swear if I hear one more that you are skipping whole meals even though you haven’t even been asked to reduce more weight for this role, I will fly down to see you. And yes, this is a threat.
Dear z-1h+1a+1n+1, my gege, sweet dage. I have been bad, I will make It up to you. Promise. Thanks for not bringing it up when we met, it would have been a mood ruiner. But it’s unfair that you feed me, and make me so used to it. Then you’re not here anymore. Sometimes I genuinely just forget. Don't worry, sweetheart. I will be good.
Dear first love at sight, around two years ago, you were in Japan and I was scared that nothing would even start, let alone end. Now that I have everything, I am a hundred times more scared. I really hope you know that only you can be my last too. Till the end. Nothing, and no one, not even the whole world put together at one side can change that. I am look at you only.
Beloved shorty, life has taken an unexpected and strange turn. But I am glad you are doing everything right, and you are doing it beside me. Even if things get worse and I can’t go anywhere without a target on my back, I will still hold on to you. I am selfish, but you have known that since the start. I swear on everything I hold precious, I won't ever give up.
Baby, the last time we met, you heard me saying I want to fulfil all my passions quickly so I can move on to the newer, more exciting ones. You had this look in your eyes but I didn't want to bring it up when we only had a few hours together and you did not seem in the mood to talk about heavy things. But I need you to know. My passions are many, but the reason and cause, the motivation for all of them is just one now. How can I move on from that which keeps me going? I have to be the best. Because you are perfect, and you don't deserve less than the best. Please wait and keep looking at me, I will reach where you are. To be your pride is all I want.
Xīn Gān, the one whose home is in my heart and soul. If you reach any further you will be more of me than I am myself. The pillows in this hotel are so uncomfortable and I forgot to bring a soft toy with me to hold at night. My assistant was joking that if I told you, you would be here with a whole truck of pillows and toys. I joked back that I won't need any of it if you were here, but no one laughed. Am I not funny anymore, dage? You are the best. The most amazing. No one is like you. As far as this old man is concerned, you have nothing left to prove. In fact it is the other way around.
Dear personal chef, it's been so long since I ate a delicious meal cooked by you. The food is so bland on set. Next time, please cook. I will help, I promise. I will cheer you on from the side.
P.s just love me the most. It's all you need to do. And yes, you aren't funny. I just laugh at how cute you are, baobao.
Dear personal dietician, I ate three meals a day throughout the whole week. You owe me a whole store worth of break and snacks. I will be waiting. Don't even think about coming back without my stuff. I will take my revenge, just you wait. Can you be more human and stop patronising me? The only cute one between us is you, and everyone agrees.
Dear Mister of my household, it's snowing today. I am drinking wine. You are not here to warm my blood this time. I miss hogging our blanket and annoying you with my cold feet. My people brought freshly baked bread in the morning. I couldn’t bring myself to eat it. The aroma of it made me think of you in the kitchen with your apron. Remember that time I didn’t let you leave the kitchen or finish your baking?
Dear little family, I got wet in the rain today. The weather is so gloomy. It was so noisy outside the whole night. Do you remember our first rain, the stream of cold water rolling down the eave of the overarching roof? I had flicked water on your face just to dab it away. You had fixed my perfectly combed hair, smoothening non-existent creases on the back of my clothes. How embarrassing of us, and how foolish was I? To think I had myself convinced that I would walk away from it all. Wasn't I pretentious?
P.s I miss our kitchen too. And the couch, the rug in the study, the floor of the bedroom, the carpet in the foyer, the tub. I even miss the walls. How wholesome of me.
Honey, we missed each other by hours. Can I control time with the watch you gave me? We will never miss each other if I could. It's enough that you came back. Remember the first time we met after you came back. Ge, you were so in love. I could see it on your face. It was all for good then, right?
You are as wholesome as an apex predator, darling. I miss your claws.
My prince, it's a clear sky out here in the mountains tonight. I can see the stars clearly. I wonder why they don't shine like they used to. It's been so long since I have seen a shining star. Something has been missing in my skies, the sun is so dull, the clouds are grey. I don't like any of it these days.
Miss you, you, you, you.. I do. My tiny baby pig. I miss you so much I will eat you up.
Sweetheart, outside the building of the set, there was a garden. The assistant director saw me staring at the bunch of blooming, red roses during lunch break. He asked me if I like roses. I didn't say anything. He asked me if I want one. How foolish. Why would I? I told him I already had my own. I was just thinking how mine is the most beautiful one. These roses can’t compare. I am sick of their smell. Come and save me, surround me with you please. Eat me. Swallow me whole.
Fuck, just.. please.
You fucking menace, I will break your legs if that’s what it will take for you to give your yourself a break. Ask yourself, do I deserve to feel so worried and helpless like this? Can I walk into a hospital and demand to see you? Can I care for you like this, thousand miles away? How incompetent am I? How will I ever keep the promise that I made to your parents? How will I ever show them my face? It's all ugly and bloated anyway. You dare do this to me?
Sorry, Gege. I really am.
I am sorry too, Didi.
Husband, I can't do this anymore. I am not going the apartment when you aren't there. I will just come home to you wherever your schedule is. I am better now. Please stop fretting, I am drowning in my own guilt. I never want you to worry like this.
Like what? The way you do for me day and night, with every passing second? You would add more hours to a day just so you can worry yourself sick over me. My last love, you were careless. Don’t do it anymore. I will be home before you this time. I will be waiting. Take your medicines and wear warm clothes. If I hear you are being difficult I will beat you up.
By the time you read this, I would be gone again. But I am going knowing you are embarrassingly besotted with me. Let’s just get married for real. I know you want to. You want to husband me up so bad.
Smug bastard, never said I am not. You just don't see it with your own feelings blinding you to everything else. I have your schedule for medicine. Don’t forget if you want to live. Miss a single dosage and I will bomb you.
Dear old man , can you stop threatening to blow me up? If I blow up who will you marry? Who will love you like I do, huh? Anyway, you like it when I blow up all over you. You like seeing me blow up. Don’t deny it. Anyway, is that a yes?
You absolute brat. How many times will you ask? Didn’t I already say yes?
Ge. Please :(
Yes, annoying child.
I will marry you. Just say you want it in written. I am even signing it. Go show it off now, why don’t you?
Dear Big Boss of my life, cutely dumb of you to assume I won’t. I have already got it laminated and framed. It deserves an insurance worth my whole life savings. It will end up in a museum hundred years down the line.
Adorable little shit, only you would find a way to show me off even after we are gone.
We will be. But love stays, right? We can come back and find it again.
Also, I think we both are very well aware of the fact that I am not little. You can stop sullying my reputation any day now. I'm your husband.
Next time, I will find you. I swear.
No can do, little boy.
I will wait. I always do. Always will.
Okay, now you are just asking for it, Uncle.
You love me so much. It's so much, all for me? Just me? How amazing, how fortunate.
Tiny smallest littlest baby boi, bite me :)
Just you. Only you.
Ge, I am coming home. Mark your words.