On day two of the fast and furious summer press tour, Yibo flops face-first onto the couch in Xiao Zhan's hotel room and mumbles, "I miss my fucking skateboard."
Xiao Zhan looks up from his phone, manages to make eye contact with Yu Bin without laughing, and, as dictated by the script they've been following for the past year, decides to humor him. "Is that a euphemism?"
Yu Bin loses the battle against laughter this time. Without looking up, Yibo pulls a cushion out from between his elbow and the back of the couch and throws it with pretty impressive accuracy at Xiao Zhan's head. "No, you dick," he says, still muffled. "You know I actually have a skateboard. Several, even."
"Why didn't you bring one with you?" Yu Bin says.
"We've all seen those videos of you skating away from fans," Xiao Zhan adds blandly, a salient point if he can say so himself, and gets another pillow to the face.
"My manager made me stop doing that," Yibo says. "On the road, at least." He sounds so genuinely bummed about it that Xiao Zhan spares a moment to feel bad for him. "Said it was a lawsuit waiting to happen if I crashed into anyone."
"I find his lack of faith disturbing," Xiao Zhan says.
Yu Bin shakes his head and swivels back toward the door. "Enough of this," he says, pushing it open. "Are you coming down for the dinner buffet or are you gonna keep moping?"
Yibo groans theatrically into the arm of the couch. Xiao Zhan makes a face, waves Yu Bin off. "Just go first. We'll catch up in a minute."
"Alright," Yu Bin says as the door swings shut behind him. "If they run out of proteins down there, you're both on your own."
It's quiet after he's gone, the very air holding its breath. Then Yibo sighs, flips neatly onto his feet, and nearly trips over his unopened suitcase in his hurry to scramble to Xiao Zhan's armchair. "God, I thought he'd never leave," he says, sliding into Xiao Zhan's lap, knees squeezing around Xiao Zhan's thighs.
Xiao Zhan perches his hands on Yibo's hips to keep him steady, reflexive at this point. He stares up through his bangs as Yibo reaches down to tug at his belt buckle. "Do we have time?" he asks.
"You have time for anything if you try hard enough," Yibo says, accepting the challenge like Xiao Zhan knew he would, and bends his head down to press their mouths together.
They've been doing this for almost a year now, though Xiao Zhan would be hard-pressed to pinpoint the genesis of it all. Sure, there was the first time they kissed while running lines in the thick of filming last June, and the first time they fucked two weeks later, but Yibo had made a game out of touching each other long before that.
There weren't, after all, a lot of different ways to kill time on set. Xuan Lu downloaded full e-books to read on her phone in between takes; Ziyi brought her embroidery projects with her; Haikuan did kenken puzzles, because he was a huge nerd. Most of the other boys played dumb physical games until their hands, legs, knees, elbows, and every other body part stung.
General horseplay only seemed like a natural extension; the prop weapons were especially good for that, more fake swords at their disposal than there were hands to carry them on any given day. As long as the costume people didn't get too annoyed, anything was fair game: the long ribbons in their hair, shoe insoles, rolled up screenplays, cans of bug spray and sunscreen. Once, memorably, Yibo had pretended he was going to hit Xiao Zhan with his zither. Xiao Zhan commented, "I'm gonna write a long Weibo post on the adverse effects of violence in video games on Generation Z," to general laughter, and Yibo had elbowed him instead, sharp against Xiao Zhan's rib cage, which basically confirmed his entire hypothesis.
They do miss the last round of candied ribs before the kitchen closes for the night, but it doesn't matter much. There's enough rice and veggie dishes to make a substantial meal out of what's left, and nothing beats the way the pleasant buzz of a satisfying orgasm settles under his skin.
"Is the food really that good?" Zhuocheng says, which is when Xiao Zhan notices he's been whistling in between bites.
"When you've been dieting for months, everything tastes good," Xiao Zhan returns, gratified when Yu Bin laughs and launches into a story about the training regimen for his latest drama.
They're all in Changsha for various interviews through tomorrow afternoon, and then Xiao Zhan and Yibo have a Day Day Up taping to rehearse for. After dinner, they pile into Haikuan's corner room and pool the contents of their minibars. If Xiao Zhan tilts his head and squints, it's reminiscent of their time in Hengdian and Guizhou a year ago, when he'd curl up on the couch with Xuan Lu and Zhuocheng or Yu Bin and Ziyi and pore over the scripts for hours on end, blocking scenes and munching on snacks.
There are no scripts now, of course — just alcohol and laughter, the sound of some variety show playing low in the background, all and sundry oohing and ahhing at a new game Ji Li's playing on his phone. Later on in the evening, someone briefly FaceTimes Xuan Lu in; the feed is grainy and dim, a product of the spotty connection on location wherever she's filming, but her smile's still bright. "I miss you all," she says, heartfelt, and laughs when Xiao Zhan glumly replies, "We really need you here to break up the total sausage fest."
Xiao Zhan feels his eyelids drooping halfway through his third drink, a tiny bottle of vodka with orange Fanta mixed in, Yu Bin's bastardization of a screwdriver. He manages to stagger up before he accidentally passes out on Haikuan's bed. "I'm out, guys," he says, making a face at the loud booing that ensues. He presses the back of his hand to his cheek, flushed hot. "Can't help that I'm a lightweight, can I?"
It's cooler out in the hallway, and walking clears his head a bit. He makes it two doors down when he hears Haikuan's reopen behind him, noise spilling out for a moment before it swings shut again.
Of course it's Yibo that falls into step next to him. "What was your excuse?" Xiao Zhan says, casting him a sidelong glance.
"Early day tomorrow," Yibo says, which isn't technically a lie. His room is another two doors down, and Xiao Zhan pauses outside it, distracted, as Yibo digs the keycard out of his pocket. It's a wonder the jeans Yibo's stylist picked out for him to wear today aren't painted on. "Wanna pop in?"
Xiao Zhan fights a losing battle with the smile that's threatening to spread across his face. "You already made me come once tonight," he says, pitching it as a complaint just to watch Yibo scowl. "Not everyone is as energetic as you. I'm old, tired, and drunk."
"Drunk, my ass," Yibo grumbles.
Xiao Zhan makes a show of checking him out again, can't help himself. "It's a nice ass," he says, blasé, and grins when Yibo whacks his arm.
Maybe it was the compliments, then, that started everything. Those began early, three days into boot camp, because Yibo was a little shit whose one true pleasure in life was to fluster other people. "Xiao-laoshi is so pretty when he cries," he murmured after a long afternoon of table reads, before Xiao Zhan even had a chance to wipe his face off. One corner of Yibo's mouth was raised into a smirk, fingers tapping against his script. What else could Xiao Zhan do but respond in kind?
"Not as pretty as Wang-laoshi's small face," he shot back without missing a beat, satisfaction zinging through his chest when Yibo's mouth dropped open.
So it's not that Xiao Zhan thinks he's entirely blameless in all of this. As the saying goes, it takes two to tango, and what Xiao Zhan lacked in the face of Yibo's endless stamina, he more than made up for in strategic needling. It helped that there were almost always cameras around to capture behind the scenes footage; some days, Xiao Zhan thought he spent more time loudly opining about Yibo's narcissistic behavior and lamenting the trials of getting hit than he did actually acting.
He'd liked it, was the problem. He liked trading barbs through the swipe of five different foundation brushes, liked waiting to see how Yibo would react to the overt praise of his latest photoshoot, the next push of Xiao Zhan's hand, the press of his mouth. Xiao Zhan had gone into this with his eyes wide open, knowing in his head that everything was a competition to someone as young and relentless as Yibo. It's not Yibo's fault that Xiao Zhan's heart hadn't thought to do the same.
Against his better judgment, Xiao Zhan follows Yibo across the threshold. "I miss sharing hotel rooms with you," Yibo remarks, flicking the lights on. The interior is kind of a mess already, the contents of Yibo's suitcase spread across the dresser and the top of the bed. "For the easier access, among other things."
Xiao Zhan ruthlessly kills the warmth unfurling in his stomach. "I don't," he replies, raising an eyebrow when Yibo makes an injured noise. "It's been a year and I still have traumatic flashbacks about you leaving the TV on all night."
"Traumatic, huh." The next thing Xiao Zhan knows, he's flat on his back amidst two crumpled up shirts.
"Seriously," he says as Yibo bears down against him, unwavering. "If I fall asleep in the middle of this, don't say I didn't warn you."
Yibo just grins, hands coming up to cup Xiao Zhan's face, and kisses him. Xiao Zhan shouldn't have expected anything else; he's discovered over the past year that Yibo prefers to act first and ask questions later. It's a good kiss, anyway. Yibo always kisses with such sustained fervor, hot and wet and hard, humming into it like there's an engine rumbling inside him at all times. He runs his tongue over the ridges in Xiao Zhan's mouth, steals whatever breath Xiao Zhan has left in his chest. If Xiao Zhan hadn't already come once today in Yibo's palm, head tossed back against the armchair as the dusk light slanted in through the curtains, he'd probably be hard again now.
As it is, the alcohol really is catching up with him. Xiao Zhan sighs, shuts his eyes against the vague spinning in his head, and then, with a burst of energy, flips them over.
Yibo lets out a soft noise of surprise; Xiao Zhan uses the opportunity to shift down, fingers slipping beneath the hem of Yibo's sweatpants to tug them toward his knees. "Xiao Zhan," Yibo says, voice cracking.
Xiao Zhan slaps the inside of Yibo's thigh lightly, smiling when he jumps. "How do you like it when the tables are turned?" he asks. He wraps a hand around the half-hard shaft of Yibo's dick and bends his head.
It's a sloppy blowjob, all things considered — Xiao Zhan doesn't have the coordination to do much better in this state — but Yibo arches into it, head sinking back against the pillows, fingers sliding into Xiao Zhan's hair. Xiao Zhan bobs his head, hollows his cheeks out, and Yibo doesn't quite swallow around his gasp. His face is pink, eyelids heavy, breathing labored. Sometimes it feels too rewarding being the one who does this to Yibo, the one who gets to see him like this.
Xiao Zhan shakes the thought loose, takes Yibo even deeper, tongue stroking up beneath his erection. Yibo thrashes, hips rising, and Xiao Zhan braces his arms against Yibo's legs just in time to keep from getting kneed in the face. He pulls away with a wet pop, says, "Try not to give me a black eye during our first week of interviews, okay?" Yibo's laughing, the hand on the back of his head gentle, when Xiao Zhan sinks down again.
Thinking back, the gay chicken might actually have been Yu Bin's fault. Week three on location in Guiyang, he and Xiao Zhan were filming an archery scene; Wei Wuxian was supposed to help Wen Ning with his shooting form after finding him in a secluded area of the Cloud Recesses. They had to cut midway through the second take to fiddle with the camera angles, and Yu Bin turned in the circle of Xiao Zhan's arms, face startlingly close, and pretended to swoon. "Xiao-laoshi's embrace is so warm," he said, sighing dreamily.
Xiao Zhan managed to keep a straight face despite the tittering around them. "Is that so?" he said, tilting closer. The prop arrow in Yu Bin's hand dug into Xiao Zhan's hip through the layers of his costume, but there was a glint in Yu Bin's eye that Xiao Zhan couldn't back down from.
Two millimeters away from kissing, Yu Bin finally turned his head and started laughing. "The balls on you," he said admiringly, spinning around again as Director Cheng called everyone to attention again.
"You can kiss me any time, Yu Bin," Xiao Zhan said, getting back in position. "I don't discriminate."
By the end of the week, after word had gotten out about the new game they were playing to pass the time, Xiao Zhan had kissed three different people on the cheek. "Undisputed champion," Yu Bin crowed at hair & makeup Friday morning.
Yibo, having arrived first thing from a Day Day Up taping in Changsha, sent them a look from his chair. "Champion of what? Losing at rock paper scissors?"
"Gay chicken," Yu Bin corrected.
Xiao Zhan watched Yibo's face turn an interesting shade of pink. "I think Wang-laoshi could give me a run for my money," he said, feeling daring, and reached out to squeeze Yibo's knee. "He's crafty. I would never even dream of beating him when it comes to shamelessness."
Yibo's mouth twisted, like he wasn't sure whether to react to the compliment or the criticism. A moment later, his expression resolved into determination. He covered Xiao Zhan's knuckles, palm somehow searingly hot, and hiked Xiao Zhan's hand higher up his leg. "What are you waiting for, Zhan-ge?"
"So it's gonna be like that?" Xiao Zhan said, heart beating his throat. Yu Bin made a delighted noise on his other side, and Xiao Zhan was about to inch his grip even higher when Yibo's makeup artist broke it up so she could get to work on his face. Xiao Zhan resisted the urge to scrub his hand against his hanfu, settled for clenching it against the warmth instead.
Yibo met Xiao Zhan's eyes through their reflections in the vanity mirrors. "This isn't over," he said.
"I should hope not," Xiao Zhan sniffed, sitting back, and let his hair guy readjust his wig.
Xiao Zhan's voice is raspier than usual in the morning. He drinks four cups of green tea at breakfast and tries his best to ignore the way Yibo's mouth twitches every time he says something.
"Sure wish shijie was here," he grumbles on the van ride to Hunan TV's headquarters, their first stop of the day. "She'd definitely have menthol lozenges or something." He sends Xuan Lu a message on WeChat saying as much. She sends back a reaction meme of Wei Wuxian pretending to sleep, along with a couple of crying emojis, which he gathers to mean that he should rest more. She isn't wrong.
His manager hands him another bottle of hot tea for the road, which helps. The next four hours consist of too many cameras and microphones to count, playing mini games and answering all the same questions they'd fielded from interviewers on set last year. Xiao Zhan does get to make fun of Yibo for being scared of bugs and talk at length about everyone bullying him, so it's still a win in his book.
In the afternoon, Xiao Zhan gets pulled into a few solo interviews while some of the other guys chat with people from Mango. The sun is setting by the time he climbs into the car, streaks of light turning the whole sky a wild gradient of orange to deep purple. He takes a few photos on his phone for Weibo, scrolls through his Moments tab on WeChat, replies to a message from Mom about Jian Guo's comings and goings. Outside, the bustle of the city is coming to life, streets teeming with passersby. It's a nice night. The evening stretches out ahead of him, full of promise.
At the hotel, Yibo's waiting for him in the lobby, a plastic bag hooked over one wrist. He stands and hands it over. When Xiao Zhan sends him a curious look and accepts it, Yibo says, "I asked if we could stop by Watsons on the way back."
It's a little bag of lemon cough drops. Xiao Zhan presses a hand to his chest, cracks a smile. "Wow," he says. "Our little Yibo really is growing up and learning to care for others."
"Do you want to die?" Yibo says, but he's laughing. His arm shoots out like he's going to grab the bag back, but Xiao Zhan dangles it just out of reach.
"No take-backs," he says, dancing away. He rips the bag open, unwraps a lozenge, and pops it in his mouth. "After all the tea you stole from me last year? This is the least you could do."
Yibo's chasing him around the lobby when the others come back downstairs to figure out dinner plans. "This again?" Yu Bin says, shaking his head. He sticks a foot out to try to trip Yibo, who jumps nimbly over it. "So last summer. I thought we'd moved past the roughhousing."
"You and me both," Xiao Zhan says, sending him a hangdog look, and groans when Yibo hooks him into a headlock.
By virtue of playing lead, Xiao Zhan shared scenes with basically everyone in the drama, but Yibo being co-star meant that their filming schedules overlapped the most. Even when one of them was off set, they found themselves texting each other incessantly in WeChat threads and various group chats. On set, they stuck together like glue, despite Xiao Zhan's best efforts to ignore the persistent buzzing of Yibo yelling his name and his silly smirk every time he said something that made Xiao Zhan put his hands over his face.
Somehow, the escalating compliment war had gotten the Frankenstein treatment with the ongoing gay chicken. Earlier that particular day, in retaliation for Xiao Zhan playing aggressive footsie with him the entire van ride over, Yibo had called after him, "Zhan-ge, didi loves you!" Everyone else, used to the shenanigans by now, had carried on resetting the scene around them. Xiao Zhan mimed puking, sticking his tongue out at Yibo over his shoulder. It's not real, he reminded himself as he and Ji Li walked back to their places, he's just fucking around, but the sticky feeling in his chest remained.
So, really, it was only a matter of time before the inevitable happened.
They'd wrapped early that evening. A bunch of them were in Xuan Lu's room going over the last scenes they were filming in the forest the next day. "You know how this was supposed to go in the book, right?" Xuan Lu said during a water break, half the guys wandering down the hall to retrieve vending machine snacks for the rest. "Wei Wuxian and Lan Wangji kiss here."
Xiao Zhan stared at his script until his eyes went blurry. "Tencent were cowards to write that part out," he said, calmer than he felt.
"I don't think the version I read had a kiss in it, but I'm game," Yibo said. When Xiao Zhan glanced at him, he'd already slid off the edge of Xuan Lu's bed, corners of his mouth pulled up, and strolled over to the bench next to the TV stand where Xiao Zhan was sitting.
Here we go again, Xiao Zhan thought, dizzy as he craned his neck. Yibo knocked Xiao Zhan's knees apart to kneel fluidly between them, one palm fluttering to Xiao Zhan's shoulder for balance. His eyes were wide open when he bent his head down. For a moment, Xiao Zhan thought this might end the way every other gay chicken scenario had over the past few weeks, with Xiao Zhan's lips plastered against someone's cheek, or chin, or hand — and then Yibo's lips actually touched his, tentative and dry but so, so warm. Xiao Zhan paused, heart arrested in his collapsing rib cage, and then kissed him back, arms circling around Yibo's waist.
It felt like someone had doused Xiao Zhan with gasoline and then lit a match against the back of his neck. His gaze went half-lidded as Yibo's eyes slid shut. Xiao Zhan tested the boundary between their mouths with his tongue, probing, and a tiny zip of adrenaline crested through his chest as Yibo's lips parted for him.
Xiao Zhan hurtled back to earth when the door to Xuan Lu's room creaked open again. Through the ringing in his ears, he could hear Yu Bin wolf whistling over the raucous explosion of catcalls. Yibo pulled back looking dazed; he scraped a hand through his hair, huffing, and stood up. His mouth was red and shiny. Xiao Zhan had to stop staring.
"Does gay chicken end once the kissing has happened for real?" Yu Bin wondered aloud, rubbing the side of his face.
"Nothing to see here," Yibo said smoothly, "just a little make-out session for chemistry-building purposes," and Xiao Zhan's stomach sank.
"Sure," Zhuocheng said, doubtful. "Xiao-laoshi, you never kiss me to build chemistry."
"You're not the co-lead," Yibo countered, at the same time Xiao Zhan mustered a grin and said, "I can start whenever you want me to, shidi, just say the word." Yibo snorted loudly; Zhuocheng turned red, gaping like a fish.
"This guy's available, too," Xiao Zhan continued, jerking his thumb at Yibo. He couldn't seem to stop talking, autopilot taking over. "I can now confirm that he's very good at tonsil hockey."
Tonsil hockey, Zhuocheng mouthed, baffled. "You flatter me, Zhan-ge," Yibo said, batting his eyelashes, and moved back to the bed to scoop up his script.
Here's the thing: when you can pretend everything you're saying is just part of a funny, long-running bit, you don't have to think about how much you mean all of it. When you can pretend everything you're doing is just part of your job, you don't have to think about how much you might actually want to kiss someone.
Xiao Zhan has gotten very good at pretending. He smiles through dinner with their castmates at a hole in the wall restaurant on Huang Xing Road, smiles when they pile into Haikuan's room again for nightcaps, smiles when Yibo predictably pushes through Xiao Zhan's door without asking first. All of it is familiar, even the sweet ache in his diaphragm, the voice in Xiao Zhan's head saying, how long do you think you can keep this up without being found out?
"I need to shower first," Xiao Zhan says, pulling his shirt off.
"We can do that at the same time, can't we?" Yibo says, sulky, which is just like him. "What is it they're saying in all those TV advisories now? Conserve water."
"I didn't know you were so concerned about the environment, Wang-laoshi," Xiao Zhan says, but he's too much of a sucker to lock the restroom door behind him. He undresses the rest of the way, turning the hot water on, and hums a bit of the recycling song they're supposed to be singing on Happy Camp in a few weeks.
"Have you practiced the choreography for that yet?" Yibo says. "It's so simple that even you should be able to remember it." When Xiao Zhan looks at him again, he's fully naked as well, hip pressed against the marble countertop. Xiao Zhan isn't going to compare him to Michelangelo's David to his face — it wouldn't do to inflate Yibo's ego even more — but he does dwell on it for a moment, letting himself take in the slim line of Yibo's torso, the definition in his arms. The last time Xiao Zhan saw him like this was their last night on set, drunk and giddy from a job well done. He hadn't been in the right headspace to fully appreciate it.
"Is that any way to talk to someone who had their mouth around your dick less than twenty-four hours ago?" he says eventually, tearing his eyes away, and steps underneath the hot spray of water.
He can hear Yibo chuckling as he rinses the day's product out of his hair, nails scrubbing against his scalp. Xiao Zhan blinks through the steam, shoulders starting to relax, and bends down to reach for the shampoo. "Let me," Yibo says behind him.
"Hmm," Xiao Zhan murmurs, dubious, but Yibo pulls the bottle out of his grasp, and Xiao Zhan's honestly too exhausted to wrestle him for it. There's the sound of uncapping and a wheeze of plastic, and then Yibo's hands are in his hair, surprisingly gentle as they lather. The smell of tea tree oil fills the small space, sharp and minty.
"Is Olay gonna be mad you aren't using their shampoo line?" Yibo asks, the absolute worst. He's close enough that Xiao Zhan can feel the subtle shake of his laughter everywhere their bodies are touching.
"I'll tell my manager to make some inquiries for free samples." Yibo's fingers dig into the base of his neck, working out some of the stiffness, and Xiao Zhan sags forward, groaning. "Hey, watch it," he complains, "you're making me get soap in my eyes, motherfucker," but he's laughing too, lids squeezed shut against the sting.
They soap up and rinse off, making a game out of how fast they can do it, because Yibo's superpower is turning everything into a goddamn competition. It's a wonder neither of them falls and hits their head; a concussion would be a great way to kick off a month of media engagements. Xiao Zhan finishes first, too slippery for Yibo to grab, and steps out of the shower to wrap himself in a fluffy white towel. "What do I win?"
Yibo pretends to think about it for a minute, scrubbing at his legs. "Me, I guess," he says. The corner of his mouth rises.
"Pretty generous prize," Xiao Zhan says, voice steady despite the thump of his heartbeat, overloud in his ears. "Then I'll take what I want today, Wang-laoshi."
Xiao Zhan should have known, given Yibo's penchant for escalation, that there was no way kissing would be the end of it. On the contrary — for the two weeks after it happened, every touch on set felt too intentional, dialed up to eleven even when they were just going through the motions of play fighting. Yibo kept appropriating Xiao Zhan's thermoses of tea, too; instead of waterfalling like he usually did, he'd deliberately put his mouth where Xiao Zhan's had been. If there was a God, he had perfectly designed Yibo just to drive Xiao Zhan nuts.
In the evenings, when they got back to the hotel, Yibo would invariably pull Xiao Zhan down onto one of their beds during their line-running sessions, eyes dancing. "It's practice," he kept saying, a devilish grin on his face, and he never elaborated what for, but Xiao Zhan never pushed harder for a better explanation either, too afraid to upset the shaky equilibrium of everything they were doing.
It was certainly the most action Xiao Zhan had seen since he debuted with X NINE three years ago, and the real kicker was that they were gelling better on set day after day. Even Director Cheng and the staff could see it, congratulating them on zipping through the schedule. Xiao Zhan could tell, over the course of the month, that he needed fewer takes to nail all the tricky emotional scenes that he and Yibo had to film. If this — the kissing, the teasing praise, the thick feeling in Xiao Zhan's throat whenever Yibo looked at him for too long — was actually working, why change it?
At the end of June, they shot for four days in a real cave. Xiao Zhan completed most of the turtle demon fight scenes alone, Yibo's parts to be added in later through creative soundstage and green screen editing, but there were a handful of scenes they had to film together. Xiao Zhan spent the last day splashing around in gross pond water and lying in Yibo's arms for three hours, holding himself up while Yibo's bony knee dug into his back.
"I do not have the core strength for this," he said after what felt like the millionth take, flopping over onto the ground, pounding a fist against his sore waist.
"Do you even lift, bro?" Yibo said in clipped English, sitting cross-legged next to him while the cameramen hustled. He laughed when Xiao Zhan swatted his shin.
"Maybe if you were a softer person to lie on, it wouldn't be so uncomfortable," Xiao Zhan replied, lips quirking up as he propped his chin in one hand. "You should eat more, Wang-laoshi. You're just too fit, three percent body fat. Must be all that dancing."
Yibo couldn't quite stop giggling long enough to make it through the next take.
"You're doing this to me on purpose, aren't you?" Xiao Zhan moaned, clutching his abdomen.
Yibo shrugged, unrepentant. "It's only what you deserve."
Xiao Zhan was able to shed his drenched costume before the drive back to the hotel, but he stank of cave water even after he dried off. Yibo, single-minded as always, attempted to back him into the wall and kiss him when they got back to their room. Xiao Zhan shook his head, dodging Yibo's questing arm. "I'm disgusting right now," he said, making a beeline for the bathroom. "Gonna have to soak in the tub for at least two hours before I feel clean again."
Yibo was half dozed off in bed by the time Xiao Zhan reemerged, but he perked up when Xiao Zhan bent over him, hair dripping on his face.
"Bathroom's yours," Xiao Zhan said quietly. He didn't expect Yibo to loop his arms around his neck and tug him down instead, but he should've. "Aren't you tired?" he mumbled into Yibo's mouth.
"Not of this," Yibo said, a sentiment Xiao Zhan tried not to look too hard at. A moment later, Yibo flipped their positions, still kissing him. Xiao Zhan landed beneath him with a thud. Maybe it was a combination of the hot bath winding him down and doing this horizontally for the first time in two weeks; maybe it was just that Xiao Zhan hadn't jacked off in too long, and any warm body pressed this close would've produced the same result. At any rate, when Yibo shifted again, leg tucked in between Xiao Zhan's, he could feel himself starting to get hard.
Yibo froze when he felt the line of Xiao Zhan's dick against his thigh. Xiao Zhan did too, face red, embarrassment knifing white-hot through his chest. "Uh," he said after a long second, jerking his head back and trying to squirm out from underneath him. "Sorry—"
"I can help," Yibo insisted.
Xiao Zhan's breath stuttered. "What?" he said, light-headed. "Don't joke."
"It's not a joke," Yibo said, jaw pushed out, as resolute as ever. "Look, the kissing's helped, right? With the drama. So maybe if we do this—" Yibo twisted his hand between them, palming Xiao Zhan roughly through his underwear, and Xiao Zhan felt even more blood rush from his brain to his cock. Impossible, Xiao Zhan thought, a little despairing. It's impossible to think around this kid. "Maybe we'll have even better chemistry."
Xiao Zhan let his eyes slip shut, trying desperately to catch his breath, clear his head. It wasn't that he didn't want to. That was the opposite of the problem, really. Xiao Zhan just didn't do anything casually — in work, in relationships, in life — and there was nothing casual about the way he felt for Yibo. If Xiao Zhan was being honest with himself, part of him had been waiting for the other shoe to drop since the first time Yibo had slanted that sly grin at him and said, "You're so pretty when you cry." Even this, the flimsiest veneer of a reason, was fine; Xiao Zhan wasn't a good enough person to say no. If sex was as much as Xiao Zhan would ever be able to have, he'd say yes every day Yibo asked.
He took a deep breath, steeling his nerves. Opened his eyes again, mouth lifting into a smile, and said, "What are you waiting for?"
That first night, all they did was exchange hurried handjobs, too turned on and unprepared for anything else. Still — Xiao Zhan couldn't help thinking that they had indelibly crossed the line into murky, uncharted territory, that they were past the point of no return. He knew, now, what face Yibo made when he came, screwed up like he was slightly constipated, somehow cute anyway. He knew what noises fell out of Yibo's mouth when a hand curled around him, knew what the weight of Yibo's dick felt like, throbbing hot against his palm. It was too late to go back. All Xiao Zhan could do was forge onward, bury his feelings, and ride this out till the end of August. He could do that. He'd be fine.
It'd be easier to stop, Xiao Zhan thinks, if it wasn't such great sex. They've been doing the inter-province booty call routine for almost a year now, and nothing has changed. The first full day of the press tour, Yibo turned to him after their last interview with the folks at Baidu, leaned in closer than was really necessary, and murmured into his ear, "Should we practice our chemistry?" Xiao Zhan smiled back, ignoring the shiver that fizzed down his spine, and thought, I don't know if I can survive this for another summer.
He doesn't even know if he'll survive the night. After the shower, they move from the bathroom to the bed, still damp and naked. When Yibo lies back against the pillows, props himself up with his elbows, everything else rattling around Xiao Zhan's brain fades out of existence. There's just this: the lovely stretch of Yibo's body beneath his, the plush press of his lips, the bone-deep groan he lets out when Xiao Zhan fastens his mouth to the tip of Yibo's dick and pulls him to full hardness.
That's not exactly what Xiao Zhan wants, though it's close. He licks down the shaft of Yibo's erection, dropping open-mouthed kisses where his cock meets his balls. Then, before Xiao Zhan can chicken out, he lets his tongue sink lower, wet and hot against the rim of Yibo's asshole.
"Oh," Yibo says, and when Xiao Zhan flicks his gaze up, Yibo's mouth is slack, expression vacant, like he's just been smacked on the head. There's always something tremendously gratifying about being able to surprise Yibo. Xiao Zhan relishes the feeling, squeezing his hand around Yibo's dick, and gradually presses his tongue deeper.
The room fills with the obscene sound of sucking, the flutter of Yibo's breath. Xiao Zhan pushes Yibo's legs back as his hole loosens, curls his tongue up. Yibo groans again, and one of his hands reaches out to scrabble against Xiao Zhan's shoulder. It anchors Xiao Zhan down too, the sharp pressure of Yibo's nails digging into his skin keeping him present.
"God," Yibo says, after another minute of languid tongue-fucking. He shifts his hips, restless. His whole body is flushed pink all over, which Xiao Zhan takes a moment to be proud of. "If you keep this up, I'm gonna come too soon."
Xiao Zhan sits back on his haunches, wiping the saliva off his chin. "Too soon for what?"
"You fucking know what," Yibo says, and then he sees Xiao Zhan's grin. "Come on."
"Demanding," Xiao Zhan notes, but he swings off the bed to fish the lube and condoms out of his bag. His hands are shaking as he tears a packet open, slides the latex on. It's stupid — this is far from the first time they've done this, but three days of being around each other again have left Xiao Zhan feeling too exposed, chest heavy with it, like the slow-building avalanche of the past twelve months has finally caught up to him.
"Zhan-ge," Yibo says, singsonging it just to be a dick. "What are you waiting for, Zhan-ge?"
Xiao Zhan scrapes a hand over his face, chuckling helplessly. "Shut up," he says. "I'm gonna lose my boner, I swear."
Yibo snatches the lube up and coats his fingers with it, reaches out to circle them around Xiao Zhan's dick, pulling him closer. "Not on my watch," Yibo says, rising to the occasion like he always does, and tugs him down.
July in Guiyang brought gigantic heat waves and torrential rain, increasingly harrowing filming schedules, and all the aches and pains of riding on donkey and horseback over dirt trails. That month, they regularly put in fourteen-hour days on set, painstakingly shooting with an army of cameras and drones, driving back and forth for hours to get to the right forest or mountain or waterfall.
It turned out that Yibo's energy did have a limit after all. Some nights when they got back to the hotel, they were both too drained to do anything but conk out in the same bed. In the mornings, though, Xiao Zhan would wake up more often than not to Yibo's mouth pressed against his, dick already half-hard in Yibo's hand. The vitality of youth, Xiao Zhan thought, kissing back, and couldn't bring himself to be too mad about it.
One morning, after a particularly intense makeout session, Xiao Zhan walked into hair and makeup with three gigantic hickeys on his neck. Thankfully, the staff member spreading liberal layers of foundation across his skin didn't mention it, but Yu Bin sat down in front of his vanity, took one look at Xiao Zhan, and started laughing.
"I hate you so much," Xiao Zhan muttered, kicking out toward his shin.
Yu Bin retracted it gracefully before Xiao Zhan's foot could connect. "Just want to remind you that the walls at the hotel are pretty thin," he said, taking on the cadence of his earnest Wen Ning voice. "But far be it from me to criticize whatever you guys need to do to get in the right acting headspace."
"Oh my God," Xiao Zhan said, kind of choked. He was surrounded by bullies and saboteurs. He didn't even want to glance over at Yibo; he was sure the expression on his face would be too smug by half. "No more hickeys," he said later in their room that evening, trying to sound firm.
Yibo genuinely, honest-to-God pouted; Xiao Zhan ignored the way his stomach flipped over.
"Okay, no visible hickeys," he amended, relenting, and rolled his eyes, biting back a smile, when Yibo pumped his fist in the air.
Their third day in Changsha, Xiao Zhan and Yibo go to one of Yuehua's studios in the city for vocal rehearsals and dance practice for their Day Day Up appearance. The singing goes well, Wuji familiar after months of listening to it on his phone, but it's the first time Xiao Zhan has had to learn a new dance routine in months. After two hours of practice, he's pretty sure he's sweat out an entire gallon of water, head spinning, shirt soaked through.
He lies spread-eagle on the floorboards when it's finally over, cheek sticking to the cool wood. Yibo's sneakers swim into view. "Sorry to drag you down to my level," Xiao Zhan says, sighing. He might not be the best at dancing, but he isn't blind. He's watched Yibo do enough girl group dances to know when he's taking it easy, movements not quite as sharp so he can match Xiao Zhan's sloppier transitions.
There's a brief pause, and then Yibo squats down and sets a cold bottle of Pocari Sweat next to Xiao Zhan's head. "That's not it," he says.
Xiao Zhan grunts. "No need to sugarcoat it."
When he flops onto his back and uncaps the Pocari Sweat, Yibo's gazing at him, eyes dark. "I mean it," he says, stretching his arms out. "That's just — dancing. When you're alone, you can do whatever you want, put your own flair into it, but it's different when you're dancing with someone else, or a big group. Then you match yourself to the moment, because it's a partnership."
Xiao Zhan takes a sip of his drink, mulling it over, and asks, "When did you get so mature?"
"I've always been like this," Yibo says, vaguely outraged.
"No, you definitely just used your Produce voice on me," Xiao Zhan says, matter-of-fact, and nearly spills the Pocari Sweat in his haste to avoid Yibo's smack. Xiao Zhan sits up, primly fastens the cap back on, and reaches out to ruffle Yibo's hair, beaming. "You've worked hard today, Wang-laoshi."
Yibo huffs. "See if I'm sincere with you about anything ever again," he says, batting Xiao Zhan's hand away.
It's the inconsistency that kills him. Most days, Xiao Zhan really is fine with everything, content with what he has: Yibo's consistent brattiness, the intimacy of their bodies moving in tandem, the way they can pick up right where they left off even months later. Most days, the normal back and forth of their banter doesn't make Xiao Zhan want to scoop his own heart out with a spoon.
And then other times, all Yibo does is express the smallest bit of genuine emotion and Xiao Zhan feels like he's drowning, caught off guard by the intensity of his yearning. Xiao Zhan's only been in this business for four years, small potatoes in comparison to so many others, but if there's one thing he knows, it's that there's barely time to take care of yourself, let alone get involved in a serious relationship. Yibo's young, a whirlwind of enthusiasm, and his rising stardom means that his life is only going to get busier. Physical affection comes easy for people like him; it would be a shame to inconvenience him with unwanted feelings.
If Xiao Zhan keeps telling himself that, maybe he'll finally be able to get over it.
Xuan Lu's last week of filming in Hengdian coincided with the most grueling night shoot schedule that Xiao Zhan had ever had to endure. Two hours of hair and makeup started after dinner, around nine, and then it was scene after scene from midnight till eight in the morning.
Xiao Zhan lost five pounds in five days, and his eyes felt permanently bloodshot from crying for hours. He had to scream so many times for the sequence where shijie died that at any given minute, he was sure he was going to lose his voice. The van rides to and from the hotel were quiet, punctuated only by the sound of Xiao Zhan or Zhuocheng flipping through their scripts. Even Yibo, who still only had a handful of lines, seemed subdued.
The emotional hangover caught up with Xiao Zhan around dawn the last day. He'd heard about it a little bit from acting veterans he'd worked with before; the moving content and the long hours and the stress of trying to do a good job wove together into an inescapable web. Zhuocheng had swung through the doldrums all yesterday, but Xiao Zhan hadn't been prepared for it to hit him quite so hard. On the ride back, Xiao Zhan put eyedrops in to soothe the sting and couldn't seem to quell the burst of tears they elicited, leaking out and dripping past his temples.
"Are you okay?" Yibo asked, low, when Xiao Zhan started sniffling. Xiao Zhan blinked blearily, looked over at him. Yibo seemed panicked, eyes wide and round, uncertain for once in his life.
"Fine," Xiao Zhan said, but he was half-sobbing by the time they pulled up to the curb, the tremor running through his entire body. Various hands helped him off the vehicle, and he didn't realize he was muttering, "I'm sorry," underneath his breath until two thin arms enveloped his waist.
"I got him," Xuan Lu said quietly over his shoulder, guiding Xiao Zhan away. He let her lead him up to her room, bundle him up in a blanket cocoon, her hand stroking his hair. He slept, fitful and muddled, dreaming of vague, indefinite happy endings just out of reach.
Xiao Zhan woke up early in the afternoon with a massive headache, throat scraped raw. Xuan Lu was packing; he saw her off downstairs, hugged her for too long next to her taxi to the airport. When he got back to his room, Yibo was dozing, and Xiao Zhan crawled into bed next to him, too weary to fight against the impulse.
"Hey," Yibo said, voice thick with sleep.
"Hi," Xiao Zhan said. He was about to apologize for waking him up, but what came out instead was: "Can you fuck me?"
Yibo sucked in a quick breath, and when Xiao Zhan met his gaze again, any remaining drowsiness was gone. "Yeah," Yibo said, hushed. "Yeah, of course. Whatever you want."
Which was how Xiao Zhan found himself with his face pressed into a pillow, pushing back against Yibo's fingers and then the inexorable slide of his dick. In the middle of it, Xiao Zhan started tearing up again; he wasn't sure if it was the character bleed or just the overwhelming feeling of being filled — probably a combination of both. Something about the crying felt more like a release this time, more like catharsis. When Yibo eased him onto his back and kissed him, rolled his hips just right, Xiao Zhan arched his spine, legs squeezing around Yibo's body, and came all over both their stomachs.
In the morning, Xiao Zhan has to fly back to Beijing for a Crest CF shoot. The next time they'll see each other again will be for the group fanmeet at the end of the following week. Before Xiao Zhan heads out, Yibo finds him at the breakfast buffet, all smiles, and says, "One more quickie for the road?"
Xiao Zhan shakes his head, swallowing around a big bite of watermelon. "You're fucking insatiable, you know that? An actual monster."
Yibo laughs. "I know," he says, sending him a peace sign. "That's why you love me."
It's too close. It's just too close, even if Yibo's just joking around, especially because Yibo's just joking around. Xiao Zhan can't quite control his facial expression — it freezes for a moment, wooden, and the smile slowly slides off Yibo's. Xiao Zhan pushes the rising dread down his throat and tries to form real words instead. "I think we should stop, actually," he hears himself say, too abrupt and too loud. There's no other way to do it, though; he's let it go on for long enough. Might as well rip the band-aid off in one go.
The words hang in the air for a lingering moment. Xiao Zhan's palms start to sweat, his ears ringing in the silence. "What?" Yibo says at last. He looks bewildered. It's not his fault, Xiao Zhan reminds himself, a steady mantra. "What are you talking about?"
"We shouldn't do this anymore," Xiao Zhan says, swallowing thickly. "The casual fucking, I mean. I can't do it anymore."
Yibo's hands clench against the table. "Was the sex bad?"
Xiao Zhan laughs; it sounds too hollow. "Of course not."
"Okay," he says, brow furrowing, like he's trying to figure it out. "Was it something I said? I can take it back." His eyes flick down and then back up again. "I know you aren't actually in love with me."
You don't know how much I wish that was true, Xiao Zhan thinks. "It wasn't anything you did," he says, except for all the ways in which it's everything Yibo does, his incessant chatter, his fierce ambition and smug smiles and unending laughter, how he fights tooth and nail to beat Xiao Zhan at stupid hand games but immediately acknowledges when Xiao Zhan is actually right. The way he's burrowed under Xiao Zhan's skin and stayed there. Xiao Zhan stands up before he can do anything stupid, like take it all back or admit everything or, fuck, start crying. Yibo stares at him, still confused. "Don't worry about it, okay? It's for the best. I'll see you next week."
He turns on his heel, grabbing the handle of his suitcase, and speed-walks out of the eating area. In the van, his manager hands him a travel mug of green tea. Xiao Zhan can barely stand to look at it.
Yibo's 21st birthday began when they were filming early scenes of their characters interacting in the Cloud Recesses. Xiao Zhan, feeling more playful than he had at the end of July, initiated a countdown at midnight and a rousing series of birthday songs in three different dialects. The next night, staff booked out the biggest auditorium in the hotel for a dinner party. There was a whole spread of desserts for the occasion, and someone had hung posters of him in costume all around the room.
"Typical," Xiao Zhan said, watching Yibo admire his airbrushed self, and narrowly avoided getting hit with a party popper.
There were presents too, stacked up in one corner. Haikuan gave Yibo a Funko Pop! Joker, and Peixin and Fanxing and the other sect kids had gone in together for an elaborate Lego set. Xiao Zhan dutifully presented Yibo with a shiny new motorcycle helmet, but he wasn't surprised in the least when Yibo found him again later, tipsy from too many glasses of champagne, and asked, "What's your real present, though?"
"Bold of you to assume I have something else prepared," Xiao Zhan said, dry, "though that does remind me." He retrieved a bag from the remaining pile of wrapped gifts. "This is from shijie. She said to tell you sorry she couldn't be here."
Yibo dug past the tissue paper and unearthed a small silver ox charm. "You met up in Beijing?" he asked, dangling the thin chain between his fingers.
"Yeah, we got coffee a few days ago." A funny look crossed Yibo's face, but it cleared when Xiao Zhan tilted his head indulgently toward the exit. "You coming or not, birthday boy?"
They passed Yu Bin at the refreshments table, who glanced at them and rolled his eyes. "I'll distract everyone," he said, dry, waving the cupcake in his hand.
"You're a good friend, Yu Bin," Xiao Zhan said gravely, clapping him on the shoulder. They absconded out the door.
In a way, it's good to be too busy to think. Since The Untamed started airing, his manager's been booking him photoshoots and brand sponsorships up the wazoo. Xiao Zhan doesn't have time to dwell on the unadulterated mess he's made of his private life. He has toothpaste to shill and cameras to smile for.
It's the little details that remind him, though: the messages in all the cast group chats praising everyone's performances after a new episode drops, the wall of Lan Wangji memes, Yibo posting pictures of his new skateboard to Weibo. He would've texted those to Xiao Zhan first, posing like an asshole, if things were still the same. Every time Xiao Zhan sees a motorcycle on the street, his heart needs a minute to calm down. There's no way this is sustainable in the long term.
He sees Xuan Lu in passing at Tencent HQ on Wednesday; she's about to start recording another drama with them, and he's there for a solo interview. They take a selfie for Zhuocheng in the cafe downstairs, and Xiao Zhan only has to sign three autographs for the staff in ten minutes. He's scribbling a tiny purple Jiujiu in between their heads when Xuan Lu nudges him with her elbow, looking serious. "You doing okay?" she asks, frowning. "I think you've gotten even skinnier, Xianxian."
"I'll be fine," he says, which is more aspirational than anything. "You know I always keep my chin up."
"Sure." She looks like she wants to say more, but another staffer is coming over with a determined look on her face, and Xiao Zhan pastes on a smile and takes the offered pen.
Their wrap party in Hengdian at the end of August was an unmitigated success in all the ways that mattered: lots of alcohol, lots of food, lots of dancing, no more wigs and suffocating costumes, too much laughter. Yu Bin attempted to do a keg stand at one point and nearly broke his neck, but that was more funny than sad.
Near the end of the night, Director Cheng had gotten just smashed enough that he was walking around to each of them and systematically going through a laundry list of praises. "You boys," he said when he got to Xiao Zhan, who'd been busy terrorizing Yibo with a cricket he'd found on the patio. Xiao Zhan didn't get rid of the bug fast enough to avoid detection, but Director Cheng just shook his head and grinned. It wasn't his problem anymore. "Gave me so much grief," he sighed, "but you were the best."
"We were, weren't we," Yibo said, deadpan, the little twerp, and he repeated it later, back in their room for the last time, while Xiao Zhan reluctantly tried to pack his toiletries. "We were the best."
"We are the best," Xiao Zhan confirmed, too wrung out to prevent the sincerity from bleeding through, and let Yibo press him into the counter and take all their clothes off.
They were disastrously hungover at the airport the next morning. On the flight back to Beijing, there was an enduring sense of je ne sais quoi, of not wanting the magic to end. Schedules persisted, though, the inevitable march of time drawing everything to a close eventually. Xiao Zhan had X NINE promotions to think about through the next month, and Yibo was about to start filming another drama. Something about a League of Legends player, which was fitting.
"Don't be a stranger," Yibo said at the gate in PEK, already getting ready to wade through a sea of fans. He squeezed Xiao Zhan's hand once before letting it go. Xiao Zhan could feel the phantom warmth curled around his knuckles for a long time after.
Through sheer force of will, Xiao Zhan manages to make it to the end of the week. He's exhausted when he wakes up Friday morning, the day of the fanmeet, having tossed and turned in bed all night. There's nothing he can do besides gut it out; it's work, after all. He has obligations just like everyone else.
Xiao Zhan drinks three espressos during the course of the day, takes a catnap in his van after lunch, and arrives on site around half past four, a few hours early, so the stylists can work their magic, make him look presentable. He waves to the other guys gathered backstage, says his hellos to the host and the staff, changes into the weird jean-suit jacket combo he's handed.
There's a flurry of activity near the door when Yibo arrives. It appears he's actually brought a skateboard with him today, cruising into the room with a baseball cap jammed over his head. A flood of exasperated fondness crashes over Xiao Zhan so swiftly that he's speechless for a minute, floundering, unmoored. The next moment, one of the makeup artists flitting around him tilts his chin so she can contour it, and he manages to steady himself again.
Xiao Zhan tries not to look over too often while his face is being attacked with various makeup brushes, but it's a lost cause, the habit ingrained at this point. Somehow, he's going to have to grit his teeth through the next month and a half of promotional tapings and interviews and act completely normal.
The makeup artists are just finishing up with him when someone grabs his elbow, grip tight and intractable, and frogmarches him behind a huge rack of clothes. "Fucking ouch," Xiao Zhan says, wincing. "What?"
It's Yu Bin. He looks deeply annoyed. "You want to know who drunk dialed me last night for the third day in a row?" he says.
There's a sinking feeling in Xiao Zhan's rib cage. "I don't—"
"It was Wang Yibo," Yu Bin interrupts before Xiao Zhan can finish. "He was mostly incoherent, but from what I could gather yesterday, it did involve you." He folds his arms across his chest. "What the hell is going on? You were fine when we saw each other last week."
Xiao Zhan shuts his eyes, knocked off balance. Yu Bin's style isn't usually hasty interrogations, and the revelation that Yibo isn't doing as well as his social media implies makes Xiao Zhan kind of want to throw up. "He seems okay to me," he tries, opening his eyes again.
Yu Bin levels him an unimpressed expression. "Look at him!" They peek through the crack between two jackets together. Yibo's slumped on a chair on the other side of the room, listless. His skin looks even paler than usual, and there are deep bags underneath his eyes that the makeup artists are working to cover up.
"Point," Xiao Zhan says, stomach twisting sickly. "He's probably just tired. We all are, you know."
Yu Bin makes a frustrated noise in the back of his throat. "Don't give me that shit. I don't normally like to get involved in this type of thing, and on second thought, I'd actually prefer not to know any of the details of what happened between you, but you need to do something. We have a fanmeet in an hour!"
"Nothing happened between us," Xiao Zhan says dully, which is, in some sense, the actual truth. "That's the whole — the problem was that I'm the idiot who started something knowing Yibo couldn't reciprocate, and that's on me."
"Couldn't reciprocate," Yu Bin says slowly. "Sorry, are you trying to suggest that Wang-laoshi isn't stupid in love with you?"
"What?" Xiao Zhan says, a slightly hysterical laugh startled out of him. "That's not true at all."
Yu Bin stares at the ceiling and mutters what sounds like a prayer under his breath. Then, flat: "You're fucking kidding me."
Xiao Zhan shakes his head, dazed. "I was the one who — it was me, I caught inconvenient feelings and—"
"I can't listen to this anymore," Yu Bin says, throwing his hands in the air. He sticks his head out past the racks. "Hey, Yibo." Xiao Zhan lunges forward to drag him back, but Yu Bin is deceptively strong. He stands his ground, locks his iron grip around Xiao Zhan's wrist instead. "Wang-laoshi, come over here for a second."
Yibo's face is neutral when he slides back into their dark corner of the backstage area, but then he sees Xiao Zhan caught behind Yu Bin and flickers through about five different microexpressions at once: anger, relief, annoyance, resignation, joy. That Xiao Zhan can recognize all of them is a testament to the case study he's made of Yibo's face — he'd be more mortified if it wasn't taking all his energy just to breathe properly.
"Fix it," Yu Bin says darkly, pointing between the two of them, and then they're alone.
Xiao Zhan was the recipient of many birthday surprises that year, chief among them a visit from his parents with Jian Guo in tow the weekend before, new sketchpads from Zhao Lei and a noogie and dinner from Chuyue, and an enormous cake at X NINE's concert in Hangzhou. The day he got back to the city, he walked into the local Italian place down the street from his apartment to find half the Untamed's cast and crew gathered inside to celebrate. Not everyone was in town to make it, but Xiao Zhan felt a glow settle in his stomach and expand outward, even when someone brought out a huge blown-up picture of his face from the first stills that the editors were working on.
Yibo popped in with more cake, a cute Peter Pan figurine perched atop the second layer. "Trying to fatten me up?" Xiao Zhan asked, accepting the box.
"Someone once told me it'd make me more comfortable to lie on, so maybe it'll work for you too," Yibo said, unbearably cheeky, and Xiao Zhan laughed, the sound catching in his throat. A month apart, and Xiao Zhan had gotten used to the diminished quantity of regular sex, but looking at Yibo still made him feel too fluttery. This is just going to be what happens every time you see him now, Xiao Zhan thought, and it didn't make him sad, necessarily, but it was heavy enough that the gravity of it tugged at his heart, too insistent to ignore.
"Xiao-laoshi," Yibo says, inclining his head. The words are familiar but his voice is all wrong. Too distant.
"Hi," Xiao Zhan says. This close, makeup half done and hair crimped beyond belief, Yibo does look hopelessly fatigued. Something lurches in Xiao Zhan's chest, sympathy and pain and love. He wants to reach out and grab him, but he's not allowed to do that anymore. Instead, he opens his mouth, stares over the edge of the precipice, and says, hesitant, "I think I owe you an explanation."
Yibo's eyes narrow. There's a stubborn set in his jaw, like he's preparing for the worst, and Xiao Zhan hates it so much that he feels a little ill.
"A better one than the non-answers I gave you last week," Xiao Zhan continues, scuffing his shoe against the floor. "In my defense, I was, uh, not thinking very clearly."
"Okay," Yibo says, still chilly. He's not giving Xiao Zhan an inch, which is only fair. It's not like Xiao Zhan expected this to be easy.
"I was," he says, and has to clear his throat when his voice breaks, has to start again. "I wasn't lying when I said it wasn't anything you did or said. It was me, I was the problem." He clasps his hands together to keep them from shaking too much. "You're still so young, so it's different for you, but I don't — I care too much, and I tried so hard to keep it from happening, but I couldn't help it with you." Yibo's face goes pinched. Xiao Zhan ducks, exhales quickly. "Sorry, I'm still not explaining it well enough. I'm just not built for casual sex, I guess. I should have been honest about how I felt from the beginning, how I was kind of in love with you already, but I didn't want to lose what we had. You were just so fucking lovely, and I wanted you too much to say no." He forces himself to look up, smiling too brightly to be real. "So now you know. And we can — figure out how to move past it. I'm working on it, but I promise, any day now—"
"Shut up," Yibo cuts in. Xiao Zhan stares at him, shocked into momentary silence. Yibo's trembling when he reaches out and grabs Xiao Zhan's wrist, thumb digging into his skin. "Say it again. Say it out loud."
"You just told me to shut up," Xiao Zhan points out, and Yibo's grip goes tighter. "Okay, okay. I'm in love with you, but you don't have to worry about—"
"Nope, that's all I needed," Yibo says, taking a step closer, eyes flashing with intent. "It's my turn."
Xiao Zhan isn't expecting Yibo to rush forward and slam their mouths together, so it takes him a moment to return the kiss. He knows, Xiao Zhan thinks, a little wondering, and he's still kissing me. It's harsh, messy, bruising. Their teeth clack together. Xiao Zhan's head is spinning when Yibo tears himself away again, breathing hard. "Yibo," Xiao Zhan croaks, but Yibo shakes his head, vehement.
"Can you not tell me what I'm too young for?" Yibo mutters, brushing the back of his free hand against his mouth. He sounds furious. "You don't get to decide how I feel. I know what I want, and that's you, jackass."
Xiao Zhan freezes. "What?"
"I love you too," Yibo says, spitting it out like a curse, and for a second Xiao Zhan feels like he's watching them have this conversation from up high somewhere, gazing down at the way their heads are bent together, Yibo's fingers still crushing his wrist. Then he slams back into his body, short of breath, skin prickling, and hears the rest of Yibo's words: "Why the hell do you think I kept hanging around you all the time? Why else would I start it all over again last week?"
"But," Xiao Zhan says, so stunned that it's difficult to form coherent sentences. "That's not — we had to be around each other for work, and — you kept talking about building chemistry. I was just following your lead."
Yibo presses the heel of his palm into one eye. "You're the one who turned everything into a joke," he says miserably. "And every time I saw you and Xuan Lu-jie together, I thought, oh, I guess that's how he acts with someone he really loves."
"Oh my God," Xiao Zhan says, thinking about the expression on Yibo's face when Xiao Zhan talked about missing shijie, meeting up with her for coffee, the hand sliding through his hair on Xuan Lu's last day of filming. "Is that why — the lozenges?" Yibo sends him a look that's simultaneously so woeful and so withering that Xiao Zhan drags a hand down his face and lets out a laugh, can't help it. "I mean, I do love her," he says, "but not — definitely not the same way. She's like my sister, man."
"I know that now," Yibo says, petulant. The grasp around Xiao Zhan's wrist loosens just a tad, and his voice takes on a softer edge. "The only person I want to sleep with for chemistry purposes is you."
"Romantic," Xiao Zhan says wryly. It sort of is. He's so relieved that his teeth hurt. He takes a deep breath, pulling himself out of the detritus of his thoughts, and looks Yibo straight in the eye. He's spent the past year so busy trying to hide how head-over-heels he was that he didn't have time to see what was apparently staring him right in the face all along. "I'm sorry," he says, trying to imbue it with as much feeling as he can muster. "I'm sorry I was too scared to tell you sooner." He wrinkles his nose, self-deprecating. "We could've avoided a lot of this."
Yibo searches his face for a minute. Xiao Zhan doesn't know what he's looking for, exactly, but he must find it, because the corner of his mouth lifts into a smile, small but genuine. "I guess that makes two of us." His hand slides down to clasp Xiao Zhan's fingers, their palms pressed together. "For someone so old, you aren't very wise," he murmurs, leaning in again to kiss him. Xiao Zhan feels, in the center of his chest, so suddenly, incandescently happy that he'd probably float away if Yibo's hands weren't clutching at the lapels of his jacket, keeping him close.
After the birthday party, the next time they saw each other was at the very beginning of February; Yibo had finished filming Gank Your Heart, and Xiao Zhan had just wrapped Jade Dynasty shoots a week prior. They happened to be at the airport at the same time, a curious case of serendipity. Yibo was flying back from a week in Harbin, skiing and snowboarding to his heart's content, and Xiao Zhan was on his way home for the New Year. There wasn't much time to say hello, but they made the effort; he bought Yibo a drink at the Starbucks in Terminal 2 and they sat at his gate, fans and staff milling around them, and chatted about hair plugs and various schedules until Xiao Zhan had to board.
It was nice. Xiao Zhan watched the way Yibo's Adam's apple bobbed as he laughed and still wanted to bury his face in his neck, but he had it under enough control that he didn't act on the impulse, could smile through the ache in his gut. In the end, if there was anyone Xiao Zhan had to fall in love with over the course of a hectic summer, he was grateful it was Yibo, who understood all the trappings of fame and idoldom, who could swap tips with him about what shampoo to use for his flaking hairline and had zero patience for stupid interview questions. Even amidst the shambles of Xiao Zhan's more difficult feelings, they were friends, pure and simple. Xiao Zhan could at least take a bit of solace in that.
"So," Xiao Zhan says, sitting down next to where Yu Bin's getting his hair and makeup done.
Before he can get any further, Yu Bin raises a hand. "There is nothing, and I cannot stress this enough, that I'd like to hear about less than what just transpired," he says firmly. After a brief pause, he flicks his eyes up to meet Xiao Zhan's. "You're good, though?"
Xiao Zhan glances over his shoulder. The makeup artists are working on Yibo again, smoothing concealer underneath his eyes. He's watching Xiao Zhan from his seat, hands folded in his lap. When he sees Xiao Zhan looking back at him, he grins and sticks his tongue out. Zhan-ge, didi loves you, Xiao Zhan hears in his head, echoing across the last year, the gap between one summer and the next closing in the blink of an eye. "Yeah," Xiao Zhan says, sending Yibo a rude gesture just to watch him laugh. "We're good. Thanks."
When the time comes, they do a step and repeat down the red carpet outside the venue, smiling for various cameras and waving at the fans. The two hours of the event pass by in a whirlwind of Q&A sessions and random games; Xiao Zhan and Yibo do a pretty good job performing Wuji together, considering they haven't practiced since Changsha.
There's a segment near the end where they meet two fans; Xiao Zhan's asks him about ideal types and how he would confess to someone he likes. Try backstage before a big fanmeet, he doesn't say, but he catches Yibo's eye across the stage and has to fight to keep his expression from doing something stupid. "Maybe just try to be around them a lot," he says, stuttering a little. He looks out at the audience instead, microphone slipping in his sweaty grip. "Be around them every day, I guess, and try to be a lively, playful person. I probably wouldn't confess immediately, because that would have a higher chance of failure, but if you're able to have fun together first — then it's different." He shrugs. "This is all coming from a 27-year-old, so what do I know?"
Yibo's face is pensive when Xiao Zhan looks at him again. He sends Xiao Zhan a finger-heart, because he's a shithead, and Xiao Zhan crinkles his nose and mimes shooting him with the mic, warmth pooling in his stomach.
Afterwards, backstage again, Yu Bin starts corralling people into group dinner. Yibo saunters up to Xiao Zhan, skateboard tucked underneath his arm, twirling his hat on one finger. "Should we go back to yours or mine?"
"Insatiable," Xiao Zhan sighs. For the first time in a year, it doesn't hurt to think about.
Yibo shrugs. "That's why you love me," he says, deliciously slow, like he's reveling in it.
Xiao Zhan drapes a hand over his eyes, face heating up like clockwork. He exhales, composing his expression, and then turns to salute at Yu Bin, who waves them off. "You've pivoted to self-satisfaction extremely quickly," he says as they stroll out to the parking lot together.
"Just thinking about how every compliment you ever gave me was true."
"Fuck off," Xiao Zhan scoffs, shaking his head, a bubble of laughter rising up his throat. "How did I fall in love with someone so incredibly vain? Not being able to send me pictures from your new photoshoots for an entire week must've killed you." Yibo lets out a squawk of outrage and reaches out to smack him. Xiao Zhan karate chops his wrist and grins.
They end up taking Yibo's van back to his place because it's closer. Yibo shadows him through the lobby and up the elevator, but when they finally push into his apartment, he steps back, hands fidgeting as they kick their shoes off. Xiao Zhan hasn't actually been over before, doesn't think he would've been able to stand it before this, but he can wait to get the grand tour later. He has more important things to do right now.
"Hey," Xiao Zhan says. Yibo's standing in front of the closed door, watching him. There's an oddly vulnerable look on his face, like he's still not sure everything that's happening is real. Like now that they've gotten all the way here, he hasn't thought further, doesn't know where to go next, suddenly at a loss. Xiao Zhan can relate; after a year of thinking he should be satisfied with what he could get, anything more feels too precious. Fragile. He steps forward into Yibo's space. "Hey," he says, quieter this time. His hand comes up to curl around Yibo's hip, and then they're kissing, long and heated, bodies pressed tight together.
It turns frantic almost immediately. Yibo's hands ruck Xiao Zhan's shirt up, his tongue nudging past the seam of Xiao Zhan's mouth. Yibo groans when Xiao Zhan's teeth scrape against his full bottom lip, nibbling there for a moment, and again when Xiao Zhan moves down to fasten his mouth over the rapid beat of his pulse, sucking a mark into Yibo's smooth skin.
When he pulls back to admire his handiwork, Yibo's eyes are dark, lips parted, breath shallow. Xiao Zhan slides his hand up to cup the side of his neck, presses his thumb into the pink stain he left behind, and Yibo lifts his hips, sighing. "Bedroom?" Xiao Zhan murmurs. He catches the glimmer of Yibo's smile before he pushes off from the door, tangles their hands together, and tugs him down the hall.
His room is exactly how Xiao Zhan would have guessed, a pile of laundry on the lone desk chair, scattered figurines and Legos on the shelves, a whole cork board mounted on the far wall for all his skateboards. Yibo discards his shirt and his jeans, turns a lamp on next to the bed, which is covered with tasteful gray sheets, a navy comforter. He really is so fucking young, Xiao Zhan says, but that's a feature, not a bug. "Surprised you don't have motorcycle bedclothes," he says, grinning, and neatly dodges the pillow Yibo throws at him.
"I could still make you go home with blue balls," Yibo mutters, crossing his arms rigidly over his bare chest. He looks so cute Xiao Zhan has to make an effort not to comment on it, and then remembers that he doesn't have to do that anymore.
"But you won't," Xiao Zhan says, because two can play at the game of smugness. He pulls his own shirt off and steps out of his sweats, climbs up the bed, eyes crinkled. "You're adorable when you're mad, you know that?"
"Shut up," Yibo says, but he's smiling when Xiao Zhan kisses him again. They stay like that, hands idly roaming, until Xiao Zhan's mouth feels tender and hot and his dick is a hard line against Yibo's thigh. He's starting to sweat already, skin damp. He can feel Yibo's erection burning against his own hip, through the thin material of their underwear, and it seems crucial, all of a sudden, that they get on with it as soon as possible.
There's a thin string of saliva connecting their mouths when he pulls away this time. "Do you have—?" Xiao Zhan says, losing his breath in the middle of the sentence. He tries to reach over toward Yibo's bedside table. "I can get—"
"No, just," Yibo says, yanking Xiao Zhan back on top of him, grip strong enough to leave bruises. He bites his lip, grinding upward, and Xiao Zhan's head goes cloudy with arousal, dick twitching. "I do, but just — stay here. Please. Just this is more than enough."
"Okay," Xiao Zhan says, rolling his hips down in time with the rhythm Yibo's started. It's not going to take very long, desperation shot through every shift of their bodies, the uneven pant of their breathing. Yibo loops his arms around Xiao Zhan's neck and jerks him back down, mouth seeking his. Xiao Zhan kisses him as deeply as he can, until the air in his lungs is burnt to a crisp. Then he kisses the high curve of Yibo's cheek, the line of his jaw, the soft skin behind his ear, murmuring sweet nothings as he goes, gorgeous and you're so good and I love you, all the things he couldn't let himself say over the last twelve months.
Yibo comes like that, eyes shut tight, a keening noise pulled from his throat, scratchy and raw. He's shaking on the way back down, and Xiao Zhan drops a kiss against his damp temple, groans when he feels Yibo shove a hand past the waistband of his boxer-briefs and wrap it around his dick. He spills in Yibo's palm after three twists of his wrist, crying out against Yibo's neck, heart racing so wildly it's a wonder it hasn't jumped all the way out of his rib cage.
It takes Xiao Zhan a long minute to return to himself. Yibo's drawing lazy circles on his skin when Xiao Zhan opens his eyes; he's crushing Yibo into the mattress, and he tries to push himself up. Yibo's arm snakes around his waist before he can move too far. "We're so gross," Xiao Zhan moans, but he lets his face flop against the pillow again.
"Tomorrow," Yibo murmurs. "We'll deal with it tomorrow." For a moment, he goes too still underneath him, and Xiao Zhan raises his head. Yibo's mouth twists, like he's suddenly shy. "You're staying, right?"
Xiao Zhan huffs, reaching up to chuck Yibo's chin. "I'm staying," he says, giddy delight spreading through his limbs, tingling all the way down to his toes, and meets Yibo's brilliant smile with one of his own.
Xiao Zhan wakes up first, a little after dawn, sunrise shining through the gap in the blackout curtains. They've moved in the night, side by side now, Yibo's arm tossed loosely over his stomach, his breathing deep and even. Xiao Zhan's woken up like this before in indiscriminate hotel rooms across China, but for once his heart doesn't sit in his chest like lead, weighing him down.
He manages to extricate himself without waking Yibo up, wincing at the way the dried jizz in his underwear pulls at his skin, and tiptoes across the hall into the bathroom. A quick rinse in the shower deals with the remains of yesterday's activities but doesn't solve the conundrum of having no clean clothes.
Xiao Zhan tucks a towel around his waist after he steps out, and he's debating the merits of brushing his teeth with his finger and Yibo's toothpaste when the bathroom door swings open. A moment later, Yibo hooks his chin over Xiao Zhan's shoulder and peers at him in the mirror. "Morning," Xiao Zhan says. He shivers when he feels Yibo's fingers creeping along the edge of the towel, laughs a little as he slaps at Yibo's hand. "You're actually going to be the death of me."
"Isn't this exactly what you signed up for?"
"I knew you just wanted me for my body," Xiao Zhan sniffs, but he turns around in the cage of Yibo's arms and kisses him anyway.
Yibo lends him clean underwear, a loose shirt from some ARRC race he'd attended last year, and a pair of basketball shorts. The contents of his fridge and cupboards are pretty uninspiring, but Xiao Zhan manages to scrounge together enough unexpired stuff to make millet congee and a whole pan of eggs, sets out a plate of pickled radish. The domesticity of it strikes him halfway through the meal, when they're both scrolling on their phones, showing each other random Weibo posts. Part of him thinks it shouldn't be so easy, but then he thinks — in a way, they've been building toward this for at least a year. That's a long time for something to percolate. They shouldn't have to keep waiting.
"What press stuff do we have today?" Xiao Zhan asks, flipping to his calendar app.
"Just a few interviews, I think," Yibo says. His foot is hooked against Xiao Zhan's shin, like not touching him for one minute means he's going to just disappear. "Nothing till later in the afternoon." He raises his eyebrows meaningfully. "How should we kill the time?"
Xiao Zhan shrugs. There's a whole world of possibilities. "We can play it by ear. Hang out here, watch a movie, try to go on an actual date somewhere without getting swarmed by fans. Hold hands." He quirks his lips. "Super kinky stuff, I know."
Yibo tilts back and laughs out loud. "I'd like that," he says, eyes sparkling, and traps Xiao Zhan's leg between both his bare feet.
Xiao Zhan sips at another spoonful of congee, twirls his chopsticks. "You're doing the dishes first, though," he says mildly, grinning when Yibo groans, and settles into the comfortable cadence of their new normal. The day has only just begun, and there are weeks of press to come, variety shows to tease Yibo on and countless games to lose. When Xiao Zhan thinks about it now, it's not a burden but a blessing. He could get used to feeling so buoyant.