"You want me to give you a kiss?"
Zhu Yilong's breath catches in his throat and he leans in, a small flutter of anticipation rising in his chest.
"Too bad! My kisses aren't something you can just ask for and get. Who do you think you are?"
The spell breaks and a small huff of laughter escapes him. He flicks the screen of his laptop with a finger, as though he could transmit both his annoyance and fondness through a gesture.
"Good night! Goodbye! Thank you for watching my livestream! And because you've been so good to me, have a goodnight kiss anyway."
The smitten smile on his face stays long after the livestream ends and his screen goes dark. Somewhere from under Zhu Yilong's skin, Shen Wei surfaces and he's hit with a pang of longing so intense it takes his breath away. Ten thousand years and hundreds of lifetimes pass before him, Zhao Yunlan the shining constant in each of them. He sees the crinkling of Zhao Yunlan's eyes when he laughs, the messy sprawl of his limbs when he falls asleep on the couch, and the mischievous quirk of his lips when a wicked idea pops into his head. And through it all, unrequited desire hums through his veins, an exquisite torture in equal parts pain and pleasure.
Zhu Yilong takes in a deep breath and coaxes Shen Wei back to his slumber. He puts away his laptop and sinks into the soft mattress of his bed, satisfaction settling deep in his bones. Thinking back to Bai Yu's ratty gray tank top and the helpless mop of untamed curls on his head, Zhu Yilong can't help but smile. Held captive by the intimacy in Bai Yu's happy chatter and unguarded grins, he has finally gotten a glimpse of what Shen Wei must have seen when he watched Zhao Yunlan.
A voice in the back of his head warns him to be careful. To wall off the hidden part of himself that yearns to live vicariously through Shen Wei. No one can know.
Zhu Yilong's eyelids grow heavy. The nebulous fantasy in his mind shifts and solidifies. Stubble grazes against his cheek. A throaty laugh rumbles against his ear. Someone kisses him goodnight.
"Hello, I'm Bai Yu."
"Hi, I'm Zhu Yilong."
Zhu Yilong shakes Bai Yu's hand, making sure his touch doesn't linger. Sparks don't fly, his world doesn't turn upside down, and the smile he gives Bai Yu is all polite detachment. Perfect.
To his relief, Bai Yu doesn't force a conversation right away. Returning Zhu Yilong's smile with an easy one of his own, he leans back against the wall and takes in the flurry of activity in front of them. It's a comfortable silence, a much-needed respite before the two of them have to run their lines and go through camera rehearsals.
With no one paying attention, Zhu Yilong allows his gaze to drift to Bai Yu. He straightens his posture and buttons up his suit jacket. Seeing Bai Yu through Shen Wei's eyes puts everything into a sharper focus. There's the stray curl of hair that somehow escaped being tamed; there are the lips red and moistened from a recent swig of water.
A pair of inquisitive eyes stare back at him.
He should look away. Pretend that his shoes are the most fascinating thing he's seen all day. But Shen Wei freezes, caught by Zhao Yunlan's gaze.
Bai Yu grins and lets his eyes sweep over Zhu Yilong's body. "If it's like this, then I'll say it straight out. I don't know if you, Professor Shen, have any interest in joining the SID as a consultant?"
Relief floods through him. Bai Yu understands. From there, it's easy to respond with Shen Wei's polite demurral. "No. I'm teaching too many classes this semester. But if you need any information from me, you can come find me anytime."
Bai Yu's transition out of character is smooth and effortless. "Here's a piece of information I could use: I'm pretty sure I can guess your answer already, but how are you planning to approach Shen Wei and Zhao Yunlan's relationship?"
Zhu Yilong is surprised to find Shen Wei retreating together with Zhao Yunlan. Left alone in his own head, he blinks. "I want to bring as much of Shen Wei's emotions and motivations from the novel into this as I can."
Bai Yu nods. "Good. We'll play this like a love story."
The word love sends a thrill up his spine and he has to duck his head to hide his expression.
"And that thing you did just then. When you were looking at me like you wanted to have your way with me right in front of the entire crew." Bai Yu's eyes sparkle at the reaction his words provoke. "Method acting?"
Zhu Yilong nods, grateful that his makeup is thick enough to cover the flush on his cheeks. He probably shouldn't do that in public next time.
"I can help with that if you want. I'd hate to see you try to make a romance happen by yourself." Bai Yu laughs. "Although if I looked like you, maybe I'd do a lot of practicing in front of a mirror too."
Zhu Yilong glares at Bai Yu, but there's no heat in it. Already his mind has shifted focus to acting. The excitement he feels this time is entirely his own. "Yeah. Yeah. If you're sure."
"I am. So much of this will be unspoken in the way we move, the way we look at each other, and the way we react to each other's touch. It's not the worst idea in the world to get used to each other as much as we can."
Zhu Yilong moves closer and places a hand on Bai Yu's shoulder.
"Yeah." Bai Yu leans into Zhu Yilong's touch. "Like that."
It starts with something simple. Like his counterpart Zhao Yunlan, Bai Yu has stomach problems stemming from a bad habit of skipping meals. So the first thing Zhu Yilong does is schedule breakfast dates for them both at a noodle shop near the set.
Not being morning people, they look less like a couple on a date than two zombies shambling in, communicating solely through grunts and monosyllabic sentences. Still, the food is great, Bai Yu is warm and comfortable pressed against him, and Zhu Yilong looks forward to it every day.
On-screen, Shen Wei and Zhao Yunlan perform a carefully choreographed dance, the draw of their attraction pulling them into each other's orbits, while the secret of the Black Cloaked Envoy keeps them from closing the distance. Zhu Yilong marvels at the effortless give and take he develops with Bai Yu, both trusting the other to react - to build the tension higher and higher with a touch, a glance, a sharp intake of breath.
Shen Wei's eyes fall to Zhao Yunlan's lips, the need to taste and claim surging against Zhu Yilong's chest, battering at his restraint.
You're worth everything I can give you and more.
The air crackles with electricity. Zhu Yilong swallows.
"You should rest," he says, delivering the scene's last line.
Off-screen, they tease and push each other relentlessly. Bored, they spend a good five minutes feeling the muscles on each other's arms in the name of competitive posturing. (Zhu Yilong doesn't understand how it's even a debate. But the look on Bai Yu's face when he's unable to even move Zhu Yilong's weights makes it all worth it.) Tired, they naturally seek each other out. Bai Yu falls asleep on Zhu Yilong's shoulders while Zhu Yilong strums a lullaby on his guitar.
Together, they walk a parallel path to their on-screen counterparts. Zhao Yunlan gets a haircut to signify his "marriage" to Shen Wei, and Bai Yu starts inviting Zhu Yilong over for dinner and video games. They order takeout because they're both hopeless cooks, and Zhu Yilong thinks he can feel Shen Wei's soul die a little inside.
"Did you touch the hallows again?"
Shen Wei is furious at Zhao Yunlan's complete disregard for his own life, his anger and desperation seeping through Zhu Yilong's skin long after they leave the set. All of it crashes over the fond exasperation he normally feels he's cheated out of a win once again. In an instant, he is pinning Bai Yu on the ground. Undaunted, Bai Yu smiles up at him, sweet and trusting.
Zhu Yilong draws a sharp breath. With his arms held over his head, Bai Yu's t-shirt has ridden up his stomach, revealing a tempting expanse of skin and a trail of dark, sparse hair running down to the waistband of his sweatpants. This is too much ('not enough,' whispers Shen Wei). This isn't him.
He loosens his grip and rolls off to the side, his heart racing. Next to him, Bai Yu laughs and declares total victory, happily oblivious.
Shen Wei is hurting and fading. He knows what he has to sacrifice to save Zhao Yunlan, to save the world. And he has no regrets. Knocked to the ground, Zhu Yilong gasps and spits out the fake blood with the practiced ease of a veteran of tragedies.
The moment of truth comes. Zhu Yilong has already botched two takes of this scene. But he thinks he knows what's needed now.
On cue, Zhu Yilong launches himself in front of Bai Yu, throwing his arms out. He jerks back, simulating the effects of Ye Zun's attack hitting his chest. More blood spills down his lips. His knees buckle. With the last ounce of his strength, he grasps Bai Yu's hands in his own as he slides to the ground. Behind him, Bai Yu screams himself hoarse.
With Shen Wei subdued, he feels strangely empty and lost. Ye Zun gloats over his dominion over Zhao Yunlan, but Bai Yu easily drives him out of Zhu Yilong's head with nothing more than a firm tug of his braids.
They film Shen Wei and Zhao Yunlan's final farewell with tear-filled eyes, and it feels like goodbye for themselves too.
At the wrap party, they promise to keep in touch.
Zhu Yilong sends a picture of himself in a leather jacket lounging on a motorcycle to Bai Yu.
Zhu Yilong: Remind you of anyone?
In return, he gets a selfie of a freshly shaven Bai Yu with his arms full of books, accompanied by a message about him corrupting the nation's youth.
He laughs and calls Bai Yu an old man.
A new game called Player Unknown's Battlegrounds is released in December, and they both get hooked. PUBG is fun, even if Bai Yu spends more time killing him than he does killing their enemies.
They no longer have conversations that last deep into the night, but it's fine. There's no reason to want more. He just needs to recalibrate his expectations. Bai Yu is one of a kind. He can't expect to find someone willing to take care of him and tease him out of his shell on every set. Once he stops comparing Dreamlike Life to his experience with Guardian, he'll be back to normal.
Zhu Yilong doesn't watch Bai Yu's livestreams anymore, it doesn't feel the same. But he keeps watching Bai Yu's interviews.
"So, if you had to choose, which co-star would you say you have the most romantic chemistry with?"
"That has to be Zhu Yilong. Long-ge."
It's a skillful feint to avoid showing favoritism between his female co-stars. Zhu Yilong smiles anyway.
By the time Guardian airs, Zhu Yilong has already finished two more television shows and is halfway through filming the third. As much as Shen Wei is a fond memory, he's glad to be free of the intense emotional neediness that pervaded his soul.
Everyone is proud of the work they did for Guardian, but none of them predict the show's meteoric rise in popularity. Zhu Yilong watches his Weibo follower count increase and wonders if it's a bug in his browser. They start getting recognized in the streets and the crowds greeting them at the airports grow.
Then the memes arrive. And Bai Yu is merciless. Every day is an onslaught of Mao Houer pictures, and it's all Zhu Yilong can do to trawl the tags and return fire. He's always prided himself on not regretting any past role he's taken regardless of quality, because they're all learning experiences for him. But when Bai Yu sends yet another Mao Houer meme, his resolve wavers.
(Peng Guanying messages him accusing him of neglect now that fame's gone to his head. He replies with a screenshot of his most recent meme war against Bai Yu. His reward is being assaulted by memes on two fronts. Zhu Yilong has regrets.)
Endorsements, interviews, guest spots on shows he once thought far beyond his status - all come one after another until his head is spinning and it's all he can do to cling to Bai Yu and look pitiful until Bai Yu answers his questions for him.
There are coy insinuations and jokes about their on-screen relationship. With a wink and a nudge, they deny, deny, and deny. Socialist brotherhood becomes a shared innuendo.
Through it all, they draw a hard line between themselves and their characters. The answers come easily to Bai Yu, as they always do. He took on the role because he was curious to try a subject he's never touched before. Yeah, he's straight, so he needed to adjust to the role psychologically. But he likes the character, finds a lot of similarities between their personalities.
Zhu Yilong muddles his way through his answer, carefully dodging mentions of his own sexuality. All his previous roles have been playing opposite women. Having most of his scenes with a man this time is different. Does he have anything else to add? Oh yes. It's all about brotherhood. He smiles with wide, pleading eyes and they move on.
In a kinder universe, he's asked the same question, and he beams about finally landing a leading role where his love isn't unrequited. Then Bai Yu teases him about his lack of on-screen kissing experience, spurring on a week-long debate among the fans - complete with video compilation - about who was the better kisser.
He daydreams about holding Bai Yu down, trailing kisses down his jaw before stopping to nip at his throat, teasing with his hands until a squirming Bai Yu finally concedes the argument. It's a dangerous train of thought, because there's nothing of Shen Wei's desperate yearning in it - only a persistent ache in his chest that reminds him of what he's too afraid to want.
He's snapped out of his daze when Bai Yu elbows him, hard.
"Long-ge. Did you decide to stop talking after reaching your daily quota of words?" Bai Yu asks, aggrieved.
"Yes," he answers viciously.
He's vaguely aware of the interviewer's surprised laughter and he keeps enough of his composure to show a gratified expression on his face, tinged with a dash of embarrassment and modesty to avoid appearing too smug. Bai Yu gives him a long-suffering sigh and his faux pas is glossed over.
(His team speaks to him afterward. He's told to explicitly state that he's straight next time. He doesn't meet their eyes when he agrees.)
Too soon, the whirlwind dies down. Exhausted, Zhu Yilong leans his head on Bai Yu's shoulders, his words unguarded. "I thought we'd get more time together alone than we have so far."
Bai Yu nudges him. "Hasn't it been just the two of us for most of this media blitz?"
"Away from the cameras, I mean."
Bai Yu gives him a thoughtful look and pats his hand. "The next time we get a chance to breathe, we should do something together. Go on a road trip or a vacation."
Warmth blooms in his chest. "I'd like that."
(He's in trouble. He's in so much trouble. He hasn't survived ten years in Chinese entertainment by falling recklessly for his co-stars. He can't start now.)
Interviewing solo after having Bai Yu at his side for so long feels a little like being shoved into the deep end without warning. He knows how to swim, has done it a million times before, but the water is freezing and he's unprepared for how much he misses having someone ready to catch him if he flounders.
His team tells him to focus on his next project and let Guardian fade to the side. Put a little public distance between him and Bai Yu before their images become irrevocably intertwined. They stop commenting on each other's Weibo posts.
The interviews melt into each other and he soldiers through them the best he can. The interviewers are bolder now, calling him out when he falls back on his old tricks to avoid answering questions. Of course, just because they know he's deliberating playing cute in hopes of being let go doesn't mean they're unaffected. He ramps up the pleading helplessness and they give up in exasperation.
Bai Yu still sends him memes every day because he's got a reputation to uphold. But in between, they talk about life, family, acting, and it feels like old times, even if they can't video chat as much as Zhu Yilong would like.
He has an unexpected stroke of luck when his frankly unhealthy addiction to hotpot catches on with the fans. It's easy to lean into the jokes, especially when it gives him an ironclad to eat more hotpot than is healthy for him. Look at the sacrifices he's making for the sake of publicity!
He's not that obsessed though. Bai Yu finally messages him to schedule another video chat and he doesn't give a second thought to canceling the trip to his favorite hotpot restaurant for it.
"Long-ge! You've been so busy lately!" Bai Yu fiddles with his phone's camera and his smiling face swims into view. Then the zoom pulls back to the sight of Bai Yu sprawled out on his couch, wearing a threadbare t-shirt and low-slung sweatpants.
Zhu Yilong resolutely keeps his eyes on Bai Yu's face. "I'm not the only one, Xiao Bai. Your schedule's looking pretty full for the next few days."
Bai Yu pouts. "Ah, Long-ge, don't remind me! Thinking about the 11/11 performance is driving me crazy. They want me to be an idol!"
"You have nothing to worry about, Xiao Bai. You have a great singing voice."
"Would your fans ask you to sing in every interview and livestream if you didn't? You'll notice no one asks me to dance for them."
Bai Yu bursts out laughing. "That's because your fans coddle you, Long-ge. They don't even care if you skip answering all your questions as long as you smile and bat your eyelashes at them."
"You didn't care either when I did the same thing to you in our interviews."
"Of course not. I'm speaking from personal experience as your number one fan."
"Be serious, Xiao Bai." Zhu Yilong makes a mental note to tell Peng Guanying that he's demoted.
"Okay. Serious." Bai Yu leans in close to the camera. "Long-ge, how did you handle your stage fright during your last performance?"
Zhu Yilong blinks. "I didn't."
"…" Bai Yu shakes his head. "That was your chance to comfort me!"
"Oh. I. Um."
Bai Yu laughs. "I'm just teasing you, Long-ge. Come, sing the song with me? It can be our little mini-rehearsal to settle my nerves."
"I can do that. What song?"
"A Little Happiness. We sang it at karaoke once."
An unbidden memory washes over him and Zhu Yilong's expression falters.
Have a try at this song. Really feel the emotions.
He remembers Bai Yu sitting next to him with that ridiculous yellow shirt and a bucket hat indoors. He remembers earnestly singing along to the song at Bai Yu's request, trading off lines and joining their voices for the chorus. He remembers Bai Yu pulling the microphone away and stopping mid-song when the words it turns out we were once so close to love flashed across the screen. (Right. Straight co-star. Off-limits.)
"I… I don't remember the lyrics," stutters Zhu Yilong.
Bai Yu gives him a long, skeptical look.
"Xiao Bai, are you saying something? I can't hear you."
"Long-ge, what's going on?" Bai Yu looks concerned now.
"I'm sorry, you're fading out. I can't hear anything you're saying!" Zhu Yilong closes the video chat and throws his phone on the table. His lower lip trembles and his vision blurs. Burying his face in his hands, he finally allows himself to experience the crushing disappointment he's denied for too long.
His hands are still shaky when he composes a reply an hour later.
Zhu Yilong: Sorry, Xiao Bai! The signal in the mountains is the worst.
Bai Yu: [signal.png]
Bai Yu: You still owe me a song!
Bai Yu: … You really stay in the mountains overnight?
Zhu Yilong's nerves are still raw by the time November 10th arrives. But because he hates himself, he dutifully turns on his laptop to watch the T-Mall 11/11 concert for Bai Yu. The stage is impressive, complete with moving platforms and glittering lights. The camera pulls up to show the massive crowd filling the stadium - and wow, Zhu Yilong can see why this would be intimidating.
He sits up when it's Bai Yu's turn to perform and turns up the volume.
The performance is stunningly good. With expertly applied eye shadow, small sparkling stars sprinkled in his hair, and golden wings etched on his black vest, Bai Yu looks every inch the idol. And whoever transposed the song deserves a prize for finding the perfect range to highlight the warmth and richness of his voice.
Most of all, Zhu Yilong finds himself mesmerized by Bai Yu's eyes. At first, he tells himself that it's just wishful thinking. Acting is a natural part of the performance when singing a melancholy song like this. Then he sees the tears in Bai Yu's eyes as he sings a heart-wrenching farewell to the love he let go without realizing what he had, and it hits hard. Bai Yu doesn't shy away from any of the lyrics, putting his heart and soul into every word.
When the song ends, Zhu Yilong can barely breathe. It has been building up to this for a long time now, he thinks. Maybe it's time to put everything out in the open, no matter what happens. Under his careless exterior, Bai Yu is kind and gentle. He would not be cruel about it.
He almost fumbles his phone the first time he tries turning on the video recorder. Taking a steadying breath, he sings the same song back to Bai Yu. His voice is shaky, and he probably looks like a mess, but if the alternative is to lose his courage later, he would rather forge ahead.
Zhu Yilong hits send, then sits on his hands to stop himself from canceling the upload. When the progress bar reaches the end, his initial instinct is to crawl under his covers and never come out again. He hesitates. May as well go all out. He opens their chat again and adds a message with a heart emoji.
The room is way too hot and his shirt is soaked with sweat. Zhu Yilong scrunches up his nose and throws the shirt into a hamper. A shower to clear his head, then a good night's sleep to distract him from waiting for Bai Yu's response sounds like the best approach.
He strips down the rest of the way and turns the water on high. Once the temperature is perfect, he steps in and lets the spray of water wash away the tension in his muscles. When he first hears the insistent ringing of his phone, he thinks he must be hearing things. But then it keeps ringing and ringing.
Wrapping a towel around his waist, he runs outside and unlocks his phone. Three missed calls from Bai Yu. His heart jumps into his throat. This is either really good or really bad. He taps open his WeChat just in time to see a message from Bai Yu: a row of hearts.
Zhu Yilong smiles and responds with his own row of hearts, adding one extra heart to the count.
The video chat request arrives immediately.
He sits down on his bed, makes himself comfortable and accepts.
"Xiao Bai." He doesn't know what else to say, so he settles for grinning like an idiot instead.
Bai Yu's eyes widen for a moment before he grins as well. "So I didn't misunderstand."
"Hmm?" Zhu Yilong shakes the water out of his hair.
Still grinning, Bai Yu whispers, "Let me find us a more private place to chat."
A more private…! Zhu Yilong throws his phone face down on the bed and hastily pulls on boxers and a shirt. He slowly counts to ten and picks the phone back up. Bai Yu's face fills the screen, smiling fondly at him.
"Xiao Bai. The concert hasn't ended yet, has it?"
"No, but I couldn't wait. Not for something this important."
Bai Yu's words bring him crashing down to reality. Zhu Yilong bites his lip. "I know this can't be what you imagined for yourself. It's so risky--"
"--And I don't care." Bai Yu interrupts. "This. What we have right now. I would rather fight for our chance together than give up and regret what could have been. That's what you meant when you sent me that video, right?"
Zhu Yilong nods, not trusting his voice to stay steady.
"Good. I'm glad. Listen--" Bai Yu looks like he's about to say something else when a voice calls out behind him. He cranes his neck and gestures wildly towards his phone. Another indistinct shout and Bai Yu turns back. "Long-ge. I have to go. I'll call you again when I'm home?"
"I'll wait for you."
Bai Yu's face lights up with a brilliant smile. With a wave and a kiss, he ends the call.
Zhu Yilong continues staring at his screen for a while. Then he laughs and falls back onto his bed, his heart filled with a mix giddiness and relief. He knows this is not an easy path that they've chosen. Before Bai Yu, he would have stared at the hazards in front of him and trembled at the consequences of failure. But now, having gotten a taste of the happiness he long thought was out of reach, he knows he will always brave even the most difficult of paths with Bai Yu than walk even the easiest paths alone.