He saw him again on an unusually hot afternoon in the midst of May.
He had gotten used to seeing him immaculately groomed in satin suits, poised politely under the spotlight. In the brief glances exchanged, he could always tell that he was high-strung, even after years of experience traversing between teasing remarks and barbed scrutiny.
He didn’t expect to see him roaming about languidly in a white tee, faded jeans, and a dime-a-dozen black baseball cap – least of all, in a small town just outside of Fukuoka. He looked a bit dazed, though perfectly at ease in these quiet streets.
His gaze lingered on the familiar silhouette and entertained the thought of calling out to him – though only a passing thought at that. They had stayed in touch over the years, but he had purposely kept his distance. They were friends, he told himself, the kind that would trash-talk one another when the occasion presented itself. Not the kind that mingled and shared their private lives.
In that moment, he had turned to meet his gaze.
His breath caught at the sound of his voice and had to force down the urge to run away. “Long-ge?” He said, brows raised in feigned surprise. “Fancy seeing you here.”
He smiled – not the taut, polished one he was so used to seeing him put on, but a generous grin that reached his eyes. He felt the sudden urge to reach out and caress the creases around his eyes.
But instead, he clasped his hand on his shoulder, leaning his weight in for a half-hug, and quickly let go.
“Are you here alone?” It was a rhetorical question – he rarely travelled alone. It was unlikely that he was here without Peng Guanying. “Where’s your sister-in-crime?”
“Ying-meimei got called back to work this morning, so I’m left to my own devices for the next little while,” he said, shaking his head in resignation. “Practically abandoned me right on the spot even though he was the one who planned this trip on a whim. What about you?”
He didn’t know where to start.
That he was here because he recently broke up with his girlfriend of seven years and just wanted to have time for himself? That he had slowly fallen out of love with her because he was falling in love with someone who could exist in memory only? That he was listless without the sleep-deprived days on set to keep himself occupied, because his thoughts would take flight and find refuge where it could not exist: between the playful arc of his brows and charming smiles—
He swallowed these thoughts and instead offered something else. “Vacationing in-between projects. I only arrived yesterday. Got to take advantage of the breaks – you know how it is.”
He was an actor after all.
So he puts on a cheerful front and pestered him until he agrees to dinner. He was just catching up, he told himself. Opportunities to meet in person were few and far between.
Upon searching through restaurant recommendations online, they found themselves at a local mom-and-pops shop. It was a bit out of the way, hidden in the middle of a residential area, but the warm aroma was enough to convince them to stay. The owner had spent his younger days studying abroad, and was quite fluent in English. To his surprise, so was he.
“I never knew you could speak English so well, Long-ge. I mean, an athletic high-achiever who’s also good-looking? That’s just unfair,” he teased. “I bet girls just flaunt themselves at you.”
He rolled his eyes. “They did not. And it’s useful. Like when I go travelling.”
“You mean when Guanying-ge brings you. I can see why he keeps you around now. Hard to imagine him letting you reap all the fruits of his hard work without making you put in at least a little bit of work.” He earned another eye roll with that.
The banter simmered down when the food arrived, and the conversation turned to their work. He told him between bites of food that he recently received the lead role in a large-scale production because his performance in Guardian had left quite an impression.
“A well-deserved victory,” he said, clinking the side of his tea cup against his, and meant it.
Acting with him was exhilarating. It was always raw and ripe, drawing him in like a moth to open flame. He found his thoughts drifting to his feeble smile and trembling voice and a tear-streaked face that threatened to carve a hollow void into the chambers of his heart he knew not with what to fill it.
He knew perfectly well that what they shared was a mere illusion, a mutual contract built entirely around a scripted universe. Yet, he found himself wishing all the same that this lingering, aching pain was not borrowed but his to retain.
By the time they left the restaurant, the sun had begun its descent beneath the horizon, igniting the edges of the sky in its wake. They retraced their steps through meandering streets, shoulders brushing from time to time while chattering quietly. He stared at their shadows, stretched long and thin against the pavement, and his thoughts drifted to an alternate reality, their hands linking where their shadows would meet. He had seen it in his mind’s eye a thousand times, their breaths mingling in a narrow alleyway until lips were upon lips, skin upon skin.
But he tugged himself gently from the reverie, tucked away his desires and buries them deep. He emerged with a swift, toothy smile just as they reached the end of their journey, and bid him good night.
This was enough, he thought. Tomorrow, he will escape to a different city. Somewhere cooler, away from the sea. Away from where he will be.
He turned to met his unblemished gazed, burnished bright to pose a silent question.
Had he known all this time? He thought. His lungs felt ice-cold, as though he had dropped ten-thousand feet.
He closed the gap between them before he had the time to flee, and gently clasped his hand against his arm.
And he wakes.
It takes seconds to realize that he had fallen asleep on the couch, with a small blanket draped neatly across his body.
He finds him sitting across from him with a script in hand. “I can’t believe you’re working on our day off.”
“I can’t believe you fell asleep,” he said, rolling his eyes, but obligingly marks the page and puts it aside. “What do you have in mind?”
“Do you remember when I asked you out?” He asked instead.
He raised his brows in disbelief. “You mean when I asked you out. You were too chicken to, but I guess you decided to selectively not remember that too.”
“Hey, I’m having a moment here!”
He gets up from his seat and walks over to the bookcase where he keeps his DVD collection. “Well if you don’t have anything in mind…”
“Not another Johnny Depp movie. Please.”
But he smiles, and helps him pick one out anyways.