Bai Yu has a series of messages from friends and family, wishing him a happy birthday, the big 3-0, his messages practically overflowing, but there’s one that immediately catches his eye. He hadn’t pinned their chat, but he may as well have: anything sent by 龙哥 🐵 always, always gets his attention first.
Happy Birthday, Xiao Bai.
That’s it, a simple message, only four words long. And yet…
Bai Yu’s fingers fumble for a reply, uncharacteristically clumsy, like when he had been a teenager first figuring out how to text.
Thanks, Long-ge! I’m finally joining you in the 30s club.
He wonders if Zhu Yilong is going to say something about how he crossed there in looks ages ago.
It’s okay, you’ll always be Xiao Lan Hai no matter how old you are.
Bai Yu’s heart stutters embarrassingly, especially when he almost reads a “my” in front of that nickname.
Although you’re moving more and more into Bai Shu territory, Zhu Yilong adds.
I thought I’ve been Bai Shu for years now. Are you going to call me Lao Bai then?
No, I’ll stick with Xiao Bai, Zhu Yilong sends, and then, I’m sorry, I have to go, work is calling. Happy birthday. I hope you get what you wish for.
Bai Yu is left staring at his screen for a long time, and he can’t help but wonder if Zhu Yilong knows he’s the only one who can give Bai Yu that.
The next time they see each other, it’s backstage at an awards ceremony. Bai Yu already knows he won’t win anything, and he’s okay with that. There can only be so many megastars in the acting circle, and he’s known for a long time that he won’t be one of them. He’s content to be one of many small lights in a constellation, doing his part to illuminate the whole.
“Xiao Bai.” The brightest star he knows, and this has nothing to do with awards or rankings, smiles at him. Somehow, Bai Yu had missed him, consumed in his own thoughts. “It’s been a while.” As he says it, Zhu Yilong brings up a hand and scratches the back of his neck, sheepish, like he’s embarrassed at having nothing better to say.
“Yeah, I’ve literally gotten a year older since we last saw each other, Long-ge, and you know what they say about your thirties, every year is a dog year.”
Zhu Yilong quirks an eyebrow. “Doesn’t that mean I’m fourteen years older than you by this point?”
“I’m going to have to start calling you Lao Zhu soon.”
Zhu Yilong makes a face, forehead crinkling and mouth pouting enough to bring out that dimple-like line. “Don’t you dare call me that.”
“Come on, what do you prefer – a pig or a monkey?”
“Go away,” Zhu Yilong says, scowling, and Bai Yu laughs and laughs.
“It’s really been too long, Long-ge.”
“It has been,” Zhu Yilong agrees, looking at him in that way of his, and Bai Yu almost wants to squirm, because he feels like Zhu Yilong can see right through him like that. On the other hand, he can also count on Zhu Yilong to be the most oblivious person on the planet when it comes to Feelings™, so at least Bai Yu has that going for him.
“Excuse me, Zhu Laoshi, Bai Laoshi?” A staff member approaches them nervously. “It’s time for everyone to get into their seats.”
Zhu Yilong inclines his head at her, always polite. “Thank you, we’ll be right there.”
“Yeah, sorry about that,” Bai Yu adds, and she gives them both a flustered smile before leaving, eyes lingering on Zhu Yilong for a second longer. Bai Yu turns back to Zhu Yilong. “I’ll see you later, Long-ge. Congratulations on your award.”
Zhu Yilong looks puzzled. “I haven’t won an award. The ceremony hasn’t even started yet.”
“You will,” Bai Yu says confidently. “It would be a travesty if you didn’t.”
Zhu Yilong’s eyebrows draw together. “You know these awards are more popularity contests than anything else.”
“Yeah, that’s why I’m not expecting to get anything,” Bai Yu says lightheartedly, and Zhu Yilong’s expression turns pained.
“Plus, I heard there’s a Longest Eyelashes Award. Who else would it go to?”
Zhu Yilong ignores his blatant attempt to lighten the subject. “Bai Yu,” he says seriously. “You know what a talented actor you are. I would definitely vote for you. And I’m not just saying that because I’m your friend.”
Bai Yu swallows, incapable of speech for once, whether to give an appreciative reply or make a joking remark, but as if understanding, Zhu Yilong pats him on the shoulder and gives him a quiet, private smile.
“Come on, we should go to our seats before they come looking for us.”
Bai Yu nods, still unable to muster words, and Zhu Yilong squeezes his arm and looks at him for another infinite moment before they head towards their separate seats.
Once in his seat, Bai Yu runs a hand over his forearm, feeling the residual warmth of Zhu Yilong’s touch, and casually looks around the room so as to not make it obvious that his eyes are glued to the back of Zhu Yilong’s head. Of course, Zhu Yilong is seated in front of him, like usual, always in sight but out of reach.
If they were regular people at an event, Bai Yu would get his attention somehow, maybe lob a wadded up piece of paper at the back of his head (okay, probably not, that’d be too juvenile even for him) or text him a meme and watch him attempt to stifle his smile at his screen. If they were regular people.
But they’re not, he reminds himself. They’re actors, celebrities, and every move of theirs is captured, dissected, catalogued. Even the most innocuous moments could be used to form a negative collage, paint a dark picture, not to mention anything genuinely suspicious.
He knows how many fans were convinced that they were In Love in Guardian’s wake, but the ironic thing is that back then, he hadn’t even realized his feelings for Zhu Yilong. There was genuinely nothing between them except friendship, no feelings beyond the platonic. They had even laughed, together, over the fans who shipped them so hard, read bullet screens together with amusement and the slightest bit of embarrassment, more from Zhu Yilong’s side. Bai Yu had found the whole thing even funnier with Zhu Yilong blushing from all the thirst over him.
He couldn’t deny the comments that said look how much Long-ge spoils Yu-ge (but he spoils Zhu Yilong just as much, okay?) and found himself agreeing with others sighing Long-ge would make such a good husband one day. He even innocently started pairing Zhu Yilong together with actresses he’s worked with before who he thought would be a good fit for Zhu Yilong in his head. It would have to be someone who can put up with his awkward silences and long periods of reclusiveness, someone bright and sunny enough to bring out the playful side in Zhu Yilong but also considerate and sensitive enough to not push him too far. Someone who wouldn’t mind how much time he spends playing video games unshaved in sweats, who might even join him, who would happily eat spicy hot pot and his instant noodle concoctions, who would accept him putting work first.
He didn’t even realize until much later that he was basically describing himself.
“Hey, Yu-ge,” his female co-star whispers, nudging him and breaking him out of his reminiscing. “You should pay attention – your Long-ge’s receiving his award.”
Bai Yu has to fight down a blush. “Why are you calling him my Long-ge?” he mutters, wishing that could be true, but she’s not paying attention to him, her eyes fixed on the stage, and Bai Yu’s follow. Once they land on Zhu Yilong, there’s no way he could pull them away, and for once he doesn’t need to.
When Zhu Yilong gives his acceptance speech, he sounds much smoother and more fluid than he used to. He’s used to this, after all, even if he still stutters at questions like describe yourself in three words.
Once he finishes thanking his co-stars, the director and other people involved in the drama he won for, he suddenly scans the crowd, as if he’s looking for someone, and locks eyes with Bai Yu.
“Also,” he adds, a deviation from the script. “I want to thank everyone who I’ve worked with throughout my career. Every role I’ve played and work I’ve been in has shaped the Zhu Yilong standing onstage today. I wouldn’t be here without all of you. So – thank you. And thank you again to everyone who’s always supported me. I hope to bring more quality works that’ll let you see other sides of me.” He finishes with a bow, and a round of applause follows. Bai Yu only remembers to join in at the end when it’s tapering off, and he’s one of the last people left clapping.
Even though it was a very PR-friendly and general address, and he didn’t name anyone in particular, Bai Yu has the feeling that Zhu Yilong was talking specifically to him. He knows he’s seated too far for Zhu Yilong to really have seen him from the stage, but he really felt like Zhu Yilong was looking right at him. Talking right to him. As if, for that moment, in a room filled with A-list stars, Zhu Yilong only saw him.
As expected, Bai Yu doesn’t win an award. He’s not upset about it – if he still got upset at these things, he’d find it hard to get through life – and really, he’s just happy that Zhu Yilong won. Even if they’re no longer co-stars, even if Zhu Yilong’s projects have nothing to do with his own, he still feels proud, as if he’s won something too.
Right after Guardian came out, both of them had won newcomer and rising star awards, like they were new to the acting industry despite both of them having been in it for many years. Then again, you could be in a hundred dramas and never be more than ‘the unremarkable second lead’ or ‘the surprising bright spot in a trashy work.’ You could even ascend to stardom in one instant and crash back to earth the next – that’s how fickle and unforgiving the industry is.
And yet, in this fickle and unforgiving industry, Bai Yu is holding onto hope that he’ll keep seeing Zhu Yilong on the podium, even if he himself is just another spectator clapping in the crowd. It would be enough to see Zhu Yilong shining in his laurel wreath, to watch someone else wipe the sweat from his forehead, to hand him a water bottle during a moment of rest and have him smile and say “thank you, Xiao Bai.” It would be enough, he tells himself, to have a cameo. He can’t hope for the leading role that many times.
“Yu-ge, are you going to the after party?” his co-star asks, touching up her lipstick in front of a compact. He’ll never understand how girls can carry so much in their tiny little clutches.
“Nobody invited me.”
“Oh, come on. I’m sure you could be Long-ge’s plus one.”
Bai Yu forces a laugh. “Long-ge, party? He’s probably either already at another project right now or going off for some late-night hot pot. He’s not the partying type.”
“Then, forget about him”—if only it were that easy—“come to the after party with us.”
His laugh is genuine this time. “Won’t your boyfriend mind?”
“Oh come on, he watched our drama and if he can handle our kissing scenes I think he’ll be fine.”
“That’s different,” Bai Yu says automatically. “That’s-that’s acting vs. real life. We were just playing characters in a drama, it’s different when it’s in person as ourselves.”
“But it’s not all fake all the time, right?” She gives him a knowing look. “I mean with us, yeah, there are obviously no feelings, but I met my boyfriend while filming a drama together and you and Long-ge did too.”
Bai Yu’s mouth falls open. “How is that—”
“Okay, well the invitation stands, just shoot me a message if you change your mind. Otherwise, have a good night, Yu-ge.” She gives him a jaunty wave, snaps her compact shut and is gone with a swish of long hair.
Bai Yu is left gaping like an idiot, and of course that’s how Zhu Yilong finds him.
“Sorry,” Zhu Yilong says falteringly. “Were you…talking?” There’s an odd note in his voice Bai Yu can’t decipher.
“Long-ge!” Bai Yu remembers to collect his jaw from the ground. “You’re here!”
“Yes.” Zhu Yilong sounds amused. “Should I not be?”
“No – I mean yes – I mean.” Bai Yu swallows. “I thought you would have left already.”
“Well, I was going to but then I thought maybe you didn’t leave yet and we could leave together.” Zhu Yilong fiddles with his sleeve cuffs. “Unless you already have plans?”
“Plans? Naw. What plans could I have?”
“Well.” Zhu Yilong shrugs. “I thought maybe you’d want to go to the after party.”
“I know I’m usually the life of the party and all, but award ceremony after parties aren’t really my cup of tea, anymore. Once you hit 30, it’s just too hard to recover from hangovers.”
Zhu Yilong smiles. “Is that a dig at how I can’t drink?”
“Your alcohol tolerance is better than mine.”
“I don’t know about that.” Zhu Yilong makes a face. “Let’s not put it to the test, anyway.”
“I guess that means you’re not going to the party either.”
Zhu Yilong gives him an incredulous look, and Bai Yu laughs. “Hey, what if they have hot pot there?”
“Then I’d reconsider going,” Zhu Yilong says immediately, and Bai Yu dissolves into laughter again.
“You really haven’t changed one bit, Long-ge.”
Zhu Yilong’s brow crinkles. “Why would I have changed?”
“I don’t know. It’s just…been a while.” Bai Yu fidgets. “People change. It’s better not to hope for constancy sometimes.”
Zhu Yilong gives him another one of those penetrating (piercing! his brain squawks, don’t use that other p-word) looks. Then he lowers his eyes, lashes hiding them, like curtains over a stage. “I won’t change,” he says in a low voice. “At least, not when it comes to us.”
What does that mean? Bai Yu wants to ask, but he keeps silent.
“Where are you staying?” Zhu Yilong suddenly asks. Bai Yu obediently reels off his hotel name and address, and Zhu Yilong nods. “I’m only a few streets away. Do you want to get a late night meal together?” He’s giving Bai Yu his patented puppy dog eyes, but he doesn’t need to. Bai Yu has never been able to say no to him. (Except for not sending any more monkey memes, that is.)
“As long it’s not spicy,” Bai Yu says. “My stomach can’t handle that at this hour.”
“What, at age 30 you no longer drink or eat spicy food?” Zhu Yilong teases. “Are you sure you turned 30 and not 60, Xiao Bai?”
“Oh please, I’m sure you’ll still be eating hot pot spicy enough to make people cry at 60.”
“As long as it doesn’t make you cry,” Zhu Yilong says. “Also, are you not taking care of your diet? I thought your stomach issues were better.”
“They were,” Bai Yu says honestly, “but I had to lose weight for this drama and then put it back on quickly and the process wasn’t good for my stomach.”
Zhu Yilong’s eyebrows are pulling closer and closer together, and Bai Yu wants to tell him to stop frowning or he’ll have a unibrow. “You should take better care of yourself,” he scolds. “Now that you have a break from filming, you should focus on your health.”
“Okay, Mom. Do you want to send me WeChat articles on improving health and make me drink herbal medicine too?”
Zhu Yilong sighs. “Let’s start with eating healthy food at regular times,” he says, as if he didn’t just propose getting a late night meal that would no doubt consist of fried and spicy foods, knowing him. “Come on, let’s go back to my hotel. There are a lot of places to eat near there.”
Bai Yu bats his eyelashes. “Hey, if you want to wine and dine me, you should know that I don’t put out on the first date.”
Zhu Yilong rolls his eyes. “Don’t mess around. Are you craving anything in particular?”
“Your instant noodles with Spam and two fried eggs.”
“Yes, because your stomach really needs that right now.”
“But Long-ge,” Bai Yu whines. “I miss your cooking.”
“Are you mixing me up with Shen Wei?” Zhu Yilong laughs. “He’s the one who can cook, not me.”
No, Bai Yu thinks. I’m not mixing you up with Shen Wei. I almost wish I were, then I could just throw myself into another drama, into another role, and put these feelings behind me, but it’s not that simple. Zhao Yunlan loves Shen Wei, and I—
“I do know how to make soup though,” Zhu Yilong says. “My mom drilled that into me. Can’t be a Hubei person without knowing how to make pork bone lotus root soup. I’ll make that for you one day. It’ll be easy on your stomach too. No heat.”
“I wouldn’t put it past you to put a bowlful of chili peppers in there, Long-ge.”
Zhu Yilong gives him a horrified look. “Chili peppers in pork bone lotus root soup? That’s-that’s blasphemous.”
Bai Yu bursts into laughter. “Blasphemous? Really, Long-ge? Are we offending the soup gods?”
Zhu Yilong shudders. “If my mom heard you say that, she’d have your head.”
“Would she come at me with a rice cooker paddle? You have to protect me, Long-ge, my mantis fist is useless against a Chinese mother wielding a kitchen tool.”
“Of course I would never let you get hurt,” Zhu Yilong says solemnly, and Bai Yu’s heart thumps so forcefully he feels it in his whole body.
Strangely, even though Zhu Yilong specifically said late night meal, they go straight to his hotel room without stopping by any restaurants or stalls. Bai Yu wonders if his hotel has good room service this late, or if he wants to call delivery instead.
Zhu Yilong sits down on the edge of his bed, his hands clasped between his knees and his head lowered like a prim schoolgirl. He gives Bai Yu a guileless look through his lashes that makes Bai Yu want to pat his head and climb into his lap simultaneously.
“Xiao Bai. I didn’t get to wish you a proper happy birthday earlier.”
Bai Yu blinks. “What do you mean? You sent me a message.”
“That doesn’t count.” Zhu Yilong looks apologetic. “I should have at least called you. And I didn’t even get you anything.”
Bai Yu chuckles. “It’s okay, Long-ge. I’m not a kid, I don’t need presents or cake.”
“I want to,” Zhu Yilong insists. “What do you want? Just name it.”
Bai Yu thinks about jokingly saying a car or a house, but knowing Zhu Yilong, he really might do it. “Your heart,” he says in his greasiest voice, fluttering his eyelashes, and Zhu Yilong gives him that patented deer-in-headlights look that always gets him his way.
Zhu Yilong opens his mouth. “But you already have it.”
Bai Yu’s heart tells him System failure, abort. Abort. Somehow, he manages to squeeze out a thin, breathless “What?”
Zhu Yilong is blushing, pink staining his cheekbones, lashes fluttering anxiously as his eyes flit around the room, looking anywhere but at Bai Yu. “Y-you already have it,” he repeats in the smallest voice, his face bypassing pink into red and his eyes practically screaming help me, I’m an innocent bunny who’s out of my depth.
Bai Yu wants to say please tell me you’re not playing around and please don’t break my heart, but all he can utter is one word. “Long-ge.”
And Zhu Yilong returns in a voice warm with affection, all the stars in the universe in his eyes, “Xiao Bai.”
“So,” Zhu Yilong starts awkwardly, clearing his throat.
“So,” Bai Yu mimics. “Is this what you had in mind all along, Long-ge? Get me into your hotel room and then have your wicked way with me?”
Zhu Yilong covers his face with his hands, but he can’t hide how red his cheeks are. “Please stop talking.”
Unfortunately, Bai Yu doesn’t come with a mute button. “I was pretty smooth though, wasn’t I? You did give me a good lead-up, though, with the what do you want? Just name it. And your comeback was really good, Long-ge! I’m proud of you.”
Zhu Yilong groans. “That was so lame. I can’t believe you made me say that.”
“How did I make you say that?”
“You did, you made me,” Zhu Yilong says, a whine slipping into his voice, and Bai Yu relents.
“Okay, okay, I’m sorry I made you say such a lame line. I’m sure you’re capable of far greater lameness if left to your own devices.”
“Go away,” Zhu Yilong says, and Bai Yu grins, accomplished.
“Long-ge, I have to know. Was there ever really a late night meal in your plans?”
Zhu Yilong blinks at him. “A late night meal?” he repeats, and then goes quiet. Sometimes Bai Yu thinks about how if he were an android like some fans tease, they would see a loading wheel next to his head as he mulls over his responses. “Well, I am pretty hungry.”
“Okay, so did you want to go out or order delivery or—”
“I was thinking of a different kind of eating,” Zhu Yilong says, and suddenly Bai Yu finds himself bodily thrown onto the bed, with Zhu Yilong’s full weight on top of him, pinning him to the mattress. Zhu Yilong, who had been blushing and covering his face moments ago, is now eyeing him like a predator staring down his next meal, and Bai Yu gulps.
Good thing he doesn’t have filming tomorrow.
“Xiao Bai?” Zhu Yilong asks later, when they’re sated and tangled in the sheets.
Bai Yu stifles a yawn. It’s way past late, and he’s completely exhausted. “Yeah?”
“Did you get what you wished for?”
“Well, there was just one part missing.”
He hears the rustle of the sheets as Zhu Yilong shifts abruptly. “What?” Zhu Yilong says, sounding worried. “Did I—” Did I do something wrong? Did I hurt you? Bai Yu can almost hear him ask, panicked, and a wave of affection rolls through his sore body.
“A bowl of your pork bone lotus root soup would have been the cherry on top.”
Zhu Yilong’s entire body deflates as the tension seeps out of him. “I’ll make that for you next time.”
“Make it for me in the morning,” Bai Yu gripes. “Didn’t you learn anything from Shen Wei on how to treat your boyfriend after your first night together?”
Zhu Yilong chuckles. “Should I add some blood from my heart too?”
“Don’t do that,” Bai Yu says seriously. “I mean – obviously I mean you can’t do that, life’s not a fantasy novel, but. Don’t even think about that.”
“I can’t anyway,” Zhu Yilong says after a beat, “since you have it.”
“Have what?” Bai Yu asks, mystified, and then he realizes.
What do you want? Just name it.
But you already have it.
A wide grin spreads across Bai Yu’s face. “Long-ge,” he crows. “I can’t believe you just said that! You, the person who hates cheesy pick-up lines the most! You’ve been hiding this side of yourself all along, I see.”
“Please stop talking,” Zhu Yilong says again. Even his voice is blushing.
“Do you have any other lines for me? Not the lighter one, you use that one all the time. Come on, I know you have flair and creativity. Unleash it at me.”
Zhu Yilong apparently decides the most effective way to shut Bai Yu up is to kiss him, and as much as Bai Yu loves talking, he can’t say he minds this other use of his mouth.
Also, Zhu Yilong can definitely win an award for Best Stamina too.