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we walk together into the dawn

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It starts with a tray of cookies.

Or well, actually, it starts on a Wednesday morning in Shanghai, when Gong Jun wakes up to the acrid, bitter smell of burnt chocolate in the home he shares with Zhehan.

The curtains are still drawn, the bedroom door shut, so the room is in darkness; but when he reaches out, Zhehan's side of the bed is empty, the sheets cold. A quick glance at his phone shows that it's just a little past 11 a.m.; he got home at 4 in the morning after wrapping filming for the day, and had stumbled right into bed, folded up against Zhehan's warm body, soft and pliant in sleep. Zhehan hadn't even woken up then; he hadn't yet had the chance to say anything to him or even kiss him, and now Zhehan's out of bed, and the house smells bad.

Gong Jun is getting a bad feeling about this.

When he slips out of bed and swings open the door, the burnt, bitter scent hits him like a brick to the nose. It permeates the entire apartment like a thick, foul-smelling fog. He follows his nose to the kitchen, where the smell is the strongest, and stops short in the doorway.

Zhehan is standing in front of the oven; the oven door is tilted open, smoke issuing from it. Not a lot of smoke, not enough to set off the apartment's smoke alarm, thankfully; but it's enough for Gong Jun to say, "What the hell is happening here?"

Zhehan swings towards him, and it's then that Gong Jun notices the - mess isn't a strong enough word - disaster his kitchen has become. There are trays, bowls, implements on every available surface, piled messily and teetering dangerously. There's what looks like flour and sugar scattered on the floor, and streaks of melted chocolate across the counter tops.

"Oh," Zhehan says, "you're already awake." And as Gong Jun stares, he visibly seems to wilt, his shoulders slumping slightly. There's just no force on earth that can stop Gong Jun from walking over to Zhehan and folding him into a hug when he looks like this, so Gong Jun does exactly that, tiptoeing over the mess on the floor.

"Don't be mad," Zhehan says into his shoulder, gesturing helplessly around them. "I'll clean all of this up."

"What were you trying to do?" Gong Jun asks, cupping the back of Zhehan's head. He makes sure his voice is softer this time, and feels it when Zhehan's body droops a little more against him, like he's relaxing. Good. He tilts his head to peer into the oven, and there's a tray in there with -

"Cookies," Zhehan says. He pushes himself off Gong Jun's chest like he's lifting away from a support pillar holding his body up, Gong Jun thinks. The analogy probably isn't too far from the truth.

"Cookies?"

Zhehan extracts a pair of oven mitts from the midst of the clutter on the counter. "I wanted to make you cookies," he says mournfully, slipping them on and pulling the tray out of the oven. The cookies lie in sad, crooked rows on top of baking paper turned a dark brown, each one of them a blackened lump of coal. He looks - genuinely upset when he lays the tray down, carefully balancing it on top of a mixing bowl with some indeterminate mixture still swimming in it.

But the noon sun shining into the kitchen casts a glow across Zhehan's cheekbones and brightens his downcast eyes, and Gong Jun just -

It feels like there isn't enough space in his chest for his heart when he reaches out and tucks a tendril of loose, curling hair behind Zhehan's ear. His hair is fairly long now; he hasn't cut it for a month, since - whatever happened, happened. Gong Jun likes it.

"Cookies for me?" he asks, smiling.

Zhehan turns his cheek into his palm, nuzzles into it briefly like a cat, like he's helpless against wanting more of Gong Jun touching him, all of the time. Gong Jun has seen him, over the past weeks, tell his mother with a smile that he's doing perfectly fine; shrug off solicitous, too-long hugs from Xiaoyu and Susu when they come to visit with a "come on, I'm good, I'm not a child"; but with Gong Jun - he lets himself have this. Lets himself be open, and vulnerable, and accepting of whatever comfort Gong Jun can give, when with everyone else he stands tall and strong.

Gong Jun loves him. He loves him.

"Yeah," Zhehan says, sighing. "I thought it might be nice, if you took them with you on set today so you'd have something to snack on. I know you don't eat enough when you're filming."

Gong Jun looks around. "Okay," he says. "How about this. Let's clean up, and start again. I'll help."

"No," Zhehan says, and shoves him playfully. "I want to do this for you - don't you dare butt in."

"It'll go much faster with me helping."

"You got home in the middle of the night," Zhehan says, glaring at him. "You have to leave in four hours for another late night shoot. Go and lie down or something. I'll fix this."

Privately, Gong Jun thinks that if he allows Zhehan to do this on his own, again, the smoke alarm will go off this time. But there's something in the determined set of Zhehan's jaw that gives him pause. It takes him a moment to realise - Zhehan really wants to do this. Needs to do this. Maybe this is as much for himself as it is for Gong Jun.

"Okay," Gong Jun says, and hitches a smile onto his face. "I appreciate your efforts."

Zhehan punches him in the arm. "Asshole," he says, but he's smiling - a real smile, one that reaches his eyes and makes them curve into crescents, and yeah, Gong Jun will let him ruin all the kitchens in the world as long as it makes Zhehan look like this.

(Gong Jun leaves for Hengdian in four hours with a small box of 11 cookies, which is all that Zhehan managed to salvage from his second batch of two dozen cookies. The good news is that he did manage to clean the kitchen up fairly competently, but Gong Jun thinks that when he gets home tonight - even if it's the wee hours of the morning again - he might just do a quick clean himself. Just in case.

He gets his assistant to bring him the box when he's getting his wig done. The first cookie he bites into is a little hard, a little overbaked, but it's not burnt. It tastes fine. Gong Jun eats it all and crams a second into his mouth. They seem to get better with every bite - or maybe it's just the thought that Zhehan made them for him.

Reba glances over at his little Tupperware container when she comes in for her own hair and makeup. "Cookies?" she says, sounding surprised. "Not something you usually eat, is it?"

Gong Jun smiles. "Someone gave them to me," is all he says.

There's a short pause, and then Reba says, "Ah", and settles into her makeup chair. She doesn't say anything else. They both know.)

---

And then there's the cooking.

After the dubious success of his cookie experiment, Zhehan decides that he wants to learn how to cook. Gong Jun finds out about this when Zhehan video calls him one night after he's back in his rented apartment outside Hengdian, demanding recipes.

"Aren't you even going to say you miss me first?" Gong Jun says, grinning at his phone. It's been six days since he's been back to Shanghai; his filming schedule for this week has his daily starts far too early for him to make the back and forth journey. He hates it. He keeps thinking he ought to be in Shanghai next to Zhehan, in case Zhehan needs him for anything; but Xiaoyu has returned to Shanghai and is staying close by, Zhehan seems to be in good spirits and is keeping himself occupied, at least. Occupied with cooking now, apparently.

Zhehan rolls his eyes; the screen of Gong Jun's phone fuzzes slightly, as if it too is protesting against the eyeroll. "I miss you," he says. "You know I do."

"I know, I just like hearing you say it," Gong Jun says. "How was today?"

Zhehan shrugs. "It was okay," he says. "But I'm bored, and I thought - you have to send some of your favourite recipes to me."

Gong Jun tries to parse his expression, his tone of voice; it's a habit now that he can't break. He does look and sound fine. Gong Jun still remembers that first terrible week in August, when he couldn't get away from filming, when every time he managed to get time to video call Zhehan, it was to see him with his eyes droopy and exhausted, eye bags swollen and shoulders slumped like someone had piled a building of bricks onto him, his cheeks hollow from lack of rest and food.

Zhehan had let himself cry on a call with him, once. Only once, and then he straightened himself back up and smiled a weak, watery smile at Gong Jun and said, "I'm okay."

He wasn't okay, and it's branded into Gong Jun's memory that he wasn't okay, and Gong Jun couldn't be there.

But now - now Zhehan's looking at him with eyes bright and twinkling, the dimple in the corner of his mouth flashing in and out. Gong Jun wants to kiss it. He's definitely okay.

"Will I still have a home to come back to next week?" Gong Jun asks jokingly. "Remember how you ruined our kitchen with cookies?"

Zhehan lets his mouth drop open in fake indignation. "I have never ruined a kitchen in my life."

Gong Jun gasps. "Wo de tian ah," he says. "What a bold-faced lie, Zhang-laoshi."

Zhehan laughs - actually laughs, and it feels like a soothing balm to Gong Jun's heart. "Shut up," he says. "Come on, I want to do nice things for you, and all you do is mock me."

"Okay, fine," Gong Jun says, laughing back. God, it's three more days of filming before he can get back to Shanghai. "I'll send you some simple recipes to try, okay?"

"Are they your favourites?" Zhehan demands. "I want to cook your favourite foods. Sichuan food."

"Anything you make for me is going to be a favourite," Gong Jun promises.

The smile Zhehan gives him feels like the sun itself coming out behind a blanket of dark clouds, even late at night, alone in his Hengdian apartment.

The first meal Zhehan manages to cook for him isn't bad at all. Gong Jun gets off the set in the early evening and reaches Shanghai at a little past 9 p.m. Zhehan is still waiting for him, his own bowls and cutlery untouched. He's almost bouncing on the balls of his feet when he brings the dishes out from the kitchen where he's kept them hot in an electric food warmer, he's that excited.

The food warmer is new. "When did you get that?" Gong Jun asks as Zhehan brings out each dish like it's precious treasure; he'd refused to let Gong Jun help again, ordered him to sit at the table and not move once he was done showering.

"When I decided to learn how to cook," Zhehan says casually. "I got Xiaoyu to order me one from Taobao. I read that it's better to use a food warmer instead of a microwave, because microwaving dries out the food."

The fact that Zhehan has thought of everything - even down to a small detail like this, so he can feed Gong Jun something good - it makes Gong Jun feel warm from his chest all the way down.

"What do you think?" Zhehan asks, when everything is on the table, steam wafting from their bowls of rice and the food.

Gong Jun looks at the repast laid out in front of him; there's a small bowl of steamed eggs, mapo tofu, and his favourites: stir-fried green beans and yuxiang shredded pork. The presentation is sloppy, gravy smeared across the edges of the plates as if the food had been messily, hastily scraped from the wok into them without much thought, but Gong Jun knows - he knows how much work and care and thought went into them.

"It looks amazing," he says, swallowing against the lump in his throat. How long did Zhehan spend on these four simple dishes? Gong Jun thinks about him, practicing and trying each day, eating the failed trials all alone by himself day after day, until he had something presentable enough for Gong Jun's first night home in one and a half weeks. He picks up his chopsticks and takes a piece of the shredded pork, instinctively putting it into Zhehan's bowl first.

Zhehan scrunches up his nose. "No, you try first," he insists, and picks a fresh piece of meat from the plate before holding his chopsticks out to Gong Jun. Gong Jun leans forward and closes his lips around the proffered food; when he looks up at Zhehan, Zhehan is watching him closely, his tongue darting out to swipe nervously at his lower lip.

The meat itself is tender and nicely cooked, if a little on the salty side, with a little too much oil. Gong Jun does not care. He'd drink an entire bowl of cooking oil and salt if Zhehan poured it out for him with his own hands.

"It's delicious," Gong Jun says, and he means it.

The sweetly delighted smile that appears on Zhehan's face is worth everything. Everything.

(He's back on set the next afternoon with another Tupperware container - Zhehan had got up right after they were done with lunch to make him dinner that he could bring with him. He'd made fried noodles this time with shredded chicken and more green beans. He'd also burned himself on the wok, and Gong Jun had rushed into the kitchen when he heard Zhehan yell and the clatter of the spatula.

"I'm fine!" Zhehan said, waving him off. He ran his hand under the tap for a few seconds before returning to where the noodles were sizzling in the wok. "No, I'm okay - the noodles are going to burn, go away, laogong."

Gong Jun almost said, fuck the noodles, before he remembered that Zhehan was doing this for him. So all he did was dig out an ice pack from the fridge and return to Zhehan, picking up his burned right hand; Zhehan switched the spatula to his left and continued frying like he was an expert, eyes narrowed as he stared at the noodles.

There were red-pink burn marks across the back of Zhehan's hand - older marks - and it made Gong Jun's heart sink.

He applied the ice pack to the reddened spot where Zhehan was newly burned - it wasn't bad, thankfully - and when he was done he held Zhehan's hand to his mouth and pressed a kiss to his knuckles.

"Thank you," he'd said, and leaned in to kiss the corner of Zhehan's mouth.

He eats the noodles that evening, during the dinner break, instead of eating the catered food that the production crew offers to the actors every day. The noodles are Jiangxi style and a little too spicy for Gong Jun, but it makes him smile; Zhehan still hasn't quite learned how to modulate spices, has a tendency to toss in far too much or none at all. He eats everything anyway, and starts on the second container Zhehan packed for him: a thermos of cooling green bean soup, sweetened with rock sugar. It helps soothe his throat from the chilli burn.

"Did you eat?" Liu Yuning asks him when he emerges from his trailer to join the rest of the cast for the next scene being set up. "I didn't see you at dinner."

"I ate in my trailer," Gong Jun says, smoothing down the front of his white robes. He likes this particular set of robes - all white, except for a pattern of bamboo leaves in pale grey. It reminds him a lot of another set of robes he wore in Hengdian one year ago as Wen Kexing.

Liu Yuning nudges him with his elbow. "You cooked and didn't bring any for us?"

Gong Jun glances at him. "Someone else cooked for me." Only for me, he doesn't add.

"I see," Liu Yuning says. There's a flash of a smile on his face. "Home-cooked food tastes the best."

Gong Jun nods. He agrees.)

---

Then Zhehan starts on the herbal teas.

Gong Jun finds this out when Zhehan comes into their bedroom with the little bag which he always packs Gong Jun's food containers into. Today Gong Jun gets brown rice, twice-cooked pork, eggs scrambled with sliced tomatoes, and cabbage simply fried with soy sauce and garlic. All good things, even if Zhehan probably did add too much soy sauce to the pork and cabbage.

He's also packed the usual thermos for Gong Jun, but this time when Gong Jun reaches out for it, he says, "It's not green bean soup."

Gong Jun blinks at him.

"It's luo han guo tea," Zhehan says. He shakes the thermos in Gong Jun's face in a vaguely threatening way. "You have to finish all of it tonight, before your throat gets worse."

Gong Jun takes the thermos from Zhehan and opens it, peeking inside before sniffing it. The scent of luo han guo is sweet, almost honey-like. He'd come home two nights ago with his throat a little painful from shooting a long scene that involved a lot of shouting, and he looks up at Zhehan with a smile.

"You made this because - ?"

"Yeah, obviously, why else would I bother to buy a book about herbs online and learn to make herbal tea? Appreciate my efforts," Zhehan says.

"I do, I really do," Gong Jun says, and to show how much he does, he grabs Zhehan around his waist with an arm and hauls him in until they can kiss, slow and lazy and with just the slightest touch of heat behind it. Gong Jun regrets that he has to leave for shooting now, or he could -

Zhehan drags himself away from Gong Jun's lips; his mouth is shiny-wet and his cheeks a warm pink, but he looks happy. "Make sure you drink it all by today, okay?"

"I will," Gong Jun promises. "What did you put in it?"

"Chrysanthemum flowers, honey dates, rock sugar. It's nice and cooling. You get too heaty from all these late nights filming."

Gong Jun feels soft and warm all over. Being cared for like this - it feels good. That night, he makes sure he drinks every drop of the tea, and asks Zhehan for more the next time he's home.

Zhehan starts sending him off with more herbal tea, a different one each time. Sometimes it's barley tea with winter melon. Sometimes lily bulb tea with gingko and white fungus. Chrysanthemum tea brewed from flowers that Zhehan buys himself from a shop near the apartment that supplies him with most of these herbs is a common staple.

They're all good, and - maybe this is some kind of placebo effect, but it always helps Gong Jun sleep better in his lonely, quiet rented apartment in Hengdian.

(That first time he gets herbal tea from Zhehan, he texts Zhehan a picture of the empty thermos of luo han guo tea after his dinner that evening. Finished it, like my laopo ordered me to.

The reply that comes back says: Pa er duo.

Gong Jun laughs and laughs.)

---

Zhehan goes on a roll after that. He's always cooking something, always baking. His cooking - well, he tries hard, and Gong Jun appreciates everything he makes, but he never manages to improve beyond a handful of simple dishes which end up being Gong Jun's actual favourite foods. Gong Jun still eats everything Zhehan prepares for him, though, because he'd rather hurt himself than hurt Zhehan in any way.

His baking, surprisingly, is what really improves in leaps and bounds. He goes from passable chocolate chip cookies, to very good chewy cookies, and then moves on to tarts, breads and cakes. Gong Jun buys him a Kitchenaid stand mixer, because Zhehan says once in passing that he's read that they're the best. He also buys him a breadmaker, which Zhehan tries using a couple of times and then puts it aside to gather dust, saying he prefers to bake in the oven.

When Gong Jun thinks about it, it makes sense to him that Zhehan, with his thoughtful, logical mind, would take to baking better. He watches Zhehan at work in their kitchen sometimes, the attentive way he weighs and measures everything, his every movement careful and deliberate, his arms dusted in flour up to his elbows. Even with glasses perched on his face, fresh and free of makeup - he hasn't worn makeup in months - and his hair long and scraped into a messy ponytail, he sometimes still reminds Gong Jun irresistibly of how he was as Zhang Zhehan, the actor, when he carried himself ramrod-straight and people stared at his every move and said yes, yes, this man carries himself so elegantly, you can see from miles away that he's a star.

But now he's no longer actor and singer Zhang Zhehan. Now he's just - Zhehan. Just an ordinary man, puttering about in their apartment in Shanghai, humming a song to himself as he kneads bread dough on the kitchen counter. He's making walnut and honey bread today, because Gong Jun likes walnuts. He'll probably make more than one loaf too, so Gong Jun can bring them to the set and share them. Zhehan's cookies and cakes have become fairly popular commodities on set in the past couple of months.

Gong Jun gets up from the sofa and walks into the kitchen. The muscles of Zhehan's forearms are corded with strain as he works at the dough, and once Gong Jun is behind him, he can hear the song Zhehan's singing - Eric Chou's Unbreakable Love. He remembers watching Zhehan sing this song live, remembers being glued to the livestream on his phone while watching Zhehan's eyes well up with tears. It feels like a lifetime ago.

Zhehan had told him that he didn't regret it, that it no longer hurts, that all he thinks about is their future now. He knows Zhehan's not lying. He knows Zhehan is happy now, as an ordinary man, content with his life, baking for the man he loves. Zhehan no longer has to cry on stage from missing Gong Jun too much, from craving his presence, because he hasn't been able to see him in weeks or months. Gong Jun is with him now, a few days every week. And once he finishes this drama, he'll be with him every single day.

Now Zhehan can cook a meal and know that Gong Jun's coming home to eat it with him at the end of the night.

He wraps his arms around Zhehan's waist and pulls him close, hooking his chin over Zhehan's shoulder, and presses a kiss to the sharp jut of his jaw, under his ear.

"The dough," Zhehan says indignantly. "Don't start anything, I can't stop now, I need it to be at the windowpane stage first."

Gong Jun stifles a laugh; two months ago, Zhehan burned cookies to coal in this very kitchen, and now he's saying things like 'windowpane stage' which Gong Jun doesn't even understand. He kisses Zhehan again anyway; the tips of Zhehan's ponytail brushes against his cheek.

"I'm not starting anything," he says. "I just wanted to tell you that I love you."

Zhehan resumes kneading at the dough, stretching it easily with the knuckles and heels of both hands in a rhythmic, quick movement. Gong Jun doesn't let go of him.

"I love you too, laogong," Zhehan says.

"Are you feeling happy?" Gong Jun asks.

The rolling motions of Zhehan's hands stop; and then Zhehan leans back against him and tips his head back on Gong Jun's shoulder, looking up at him. There's laughter in his bright eyes, a smile on his lips; he kisses Gong Jun on the chin, sweet and giggly.

"Very," Zhehan says.

And Gong Jun thinks: that's enough for me.