Ten years and he still didn’t know how to play the game. It had long since been known to be his Achilles heel in the industry and he often thought he would have quit a long time ago if he didn’t actually love acting itself. People were often a mystery to him, loud, obnoxious, and engaged in meaningless activities unrelated to the profession. To him, an actor needed to be serious about one thing and one thing only. Everything else would fall into place.
Except it had been ten years and things still weren’t in place.
He’d won a couple of awards here and there, and yet he still felt like a rookie in the field, still felt inadequate even when others praised his performances. He couldn’t help but wonder if he would have been entirely someplace else if his personality was different. If he cared more about the mundane things fans and others were so curious about, but he couldn’t bring himself to fake it. He genuinely wasn’t interested in the private life of others he didn’t care for and he’d often lamented how being an actor brought an intrusion on his own privacy he was neither prepared for, nor wanted.
Zhu Yilong sighed quietly as he sat back in the car on his way to the set of his new drama. His mind wandered and as always, worry followed uninvited.
What kind of person was his new co-star? What did he look like? The set was going to be crowded and loud, it was something he still hadn’t gotten used to after all these years and he could feel his heart racing when he thought of all the new people he would meet. He knew that the original novel was about two guys in love and despite many dramas in China originating from this genre in recent years, they were still under heavy censorship. It was going to be a challenge to convey all those feelings without being able to say anything, except with his expressions.
Playing opposite female leads was difficult enough, they had to find that on-screen chemistry to make the romance believable but also keep enough distance off-screen, so it wouldn’t create too much gossip that would hurt their images.
It often felt like balancing on the sharp tip of a katana, Zhu Yilong thought. One wrong move and… he shook his head internally; he didn’t want to think about all the actors who fell to disgrace overnight because of a scandal that turned out to be a minor misunderstanding.
The expectations from the fans were going to be tough. Already, he’d received Weibo messages mocking him, doubting his ability to convey the feelings of the character. After all, the man had spent ten thousand years watching his lover’s reincarnations without being able to be close to him. Then there was censorship to worry about. They had to be romantic without actually being romantic and, for a second, Zhu Yilong wondered if he’d made the wrong choice to accept such a role, but even if it was, this was a favor for a friend. He always enjoyed a challenge and it was the challenge of playing three different roles over a time span of ten thousand years that first attracted him to the script.
He didn’t notice he’d curled his hands into such a tight fist until his fingers started hurting. Only then did he remember to breathe. Inhale, exhale. Once, twice, thrice. He stretched out his fingers slowly, planting one on each knee and then planted each foot firmly on the floor, eyes focused on the scenery passing by.
“Long-ge, we’ll be arriving soon!” His hairstylist announced, fussing with a run-away strand, trying to get it under control.
“Uh!” he said simply.
And sure enough, not long after, the driver cheered: “We’re here!”
He and his team had a routine by now and so Zhu Yilong didn’t move even as the driver put the car into park. Only when he noticed his bodyguard next to the car door did he take one last breath, pull the door open and step out to the noises of the crowd. Luckily, it was mostly crew members, as today was a school day, so only a handful of fans had showed up. He was grateful for his fans but always felt guilty when they skipped class to follow him around.
He was ushered past them and into the building and, as expected, the set was already a flurry of activity, with more crew setting up a ton of equipment. He always had to take extra care not to get tangled up in wires and other snippets lying about or crash into racks of costumes being rolled around.
They were in the building complex of their characters' apartments. The director wanted them to kick off filming by shooting a scene where he treated a wound on his co-star’s arm by applying ointment. It was an oddly intimate scene to start off with and he’d been nervous about it the entire morning.
They kept ushering him past rooms until he arrived at the make-up room, there he was placed in his assigned spot and the on-set crew started changing immediately.
A deep, rumbling laughter came through the door from the other side not long after he was seated and everyone craned their neck to follow the source. The door was torn open and a figure stepped through it, filling the room with his presence. His hair was impossibly tousled, his beard silly, and Zhu Yilong had never seen someone wear an old beaten down t-shirt, jeans with holes and slippers and make it look good, like it was made for them.
His eyes traced the man’s figure, they landed on his lips and at that exact moment the other man looked right at him. He could feel his breath catch, sweat pearls started to gather in his hands. He knew he should do something, greet the man before things turned awkward, but the feelings that rushed through him kept him pinned to his chair, effectively blanking his mind.
The man strode over to him with light steps and he had a lopsided smile that kind of looked more like a mischievous grin plastered over his face. It was extremely warm, carefree; a grin Zhu Yilong would later dub his "signature grin". Right now though, disarming was the thought that passed through his mind. Zhu Yilong felt himself relax, his own mouth curving up in a smile.
“Hi. I’m Bai Yu.”
“I’m Zhu Yilong,” he said and took the man’s extended hand. The skin to skin contact tingling his nerves was immediate and all of his senses narrowed it down to the source; a single point of contact where their hands met. His brain had come back online just to be short circuited once more. The heat spread through him like wildfire, ready to burn him up from inside, and he lost his ability to breathe again. Finally, he looked at the man in front of him and the words he was forming died on his lips.
The eyes staring back at him were curious, flirtatious, they were copper against honey and sage and as deep as the night sky and Zhu Yilong helplessly drowned in the way they pierced him, even though he tried to remind himself that a man like Bai Yu probably looked at everyone like that; like a predator devouring his prey, his mind supplied. It sent shivers down his spine and he was overwhelmed, almost on the brink of passing out, but then his co-star placed a hand on his shoulder and Zhu Yilong immediately felt it grounding him; he finally remembered to breathe. He didn’t know how long they had been like that when he heard the other man’s hearty laughter again, the disarming smile back on his face.
“Long-ge! You really are handsome! I look forward to working with you!”
The voice was upbeat,full of genuine friendliness with a hint of something Zhu Yilong couldn’t decipher. He’d heard the nickname a thousand times before, but that hint of something unknown made his toes curl. He could feel the heat spread from his cheeks and roll through his body to settle in his stomach. Shameless, just like the character he would be playing, he thought. It took him a few seconds, but he finally found his voice. “The pleasure is all mine.” He reluctantly retracted his hand and the moment was gone.
His co-star then proceeded to introduce himself to the rest of the crew members before being seated next to him.
Bai Yu’s voice permeated the room, he was babbling about everything and nothing, laughing loudly from time to time. He would casually touch him here and there and Zhu Yilong tried to write it off as a little brother wanting attention; Bai Yu felt much younger than the two years that actually separated them. He couldn’t miss the way their team exchanged glances whenever Bai Yu touched him and he kind of wished he could hide away from it all, but there was nowhere to hide and he’d be lying if he said he didn’t enjoy the rush it brought.
He stole glances at the other man. He literally looked like a child given free rein in the candy store, eyes wide with excitement over all the different kinds of candies he could get, Zhu Yilong thought. He behaved like a child discovering a new playground with no worry for real life responsibilities and for a moment he was a bit jealous of that carefree ease.
After a while, he discovered that Bai Yu’s mood was infectious. The tension between them was still there, but it wasn’t an uncomfortable tension. Other people would later recognise it as something that just hung in the air whenever the two of them were in the same room, but Zhu Yilong was blissfully unaware of that now. What he did feel was relaxed, like a weight had been lifted off his shoulders, and he felt safe for no better reason than ‘Bai Yu’.
They fell into a rhythm of conversation that probably looked weird on the outside, but he’d said more to Bai Yu this short time than at any other set. It turned out they both loved gaming and spicy food, and Bai Yu was constantly cracking jokes that made him and the rest of the crew laugh. It gave the makeup room a very warm atmosphere compared to the usual quiet awkwardness Zhu Yilong was used to. As Bai Yu continued his ramblings, Zhu Yilong realized it wouldn't be as difficult on set this time, but was also a bit surprised and terrified, as he had somehow agreed to get together with Bai Yu and live stream gaming sessions.
By the time the director grabbed them to rehearse their script, he had already gotten used to Bai Yu’s voice; it felt as if they already knew each other. Bai Yu’s presence gave him something to focus on, the constant chatter was a way for Zhu Yilong to divert his anxiety and made it easier for him to concentrate on the lines and get into character.
"3-2-1, go!" the director's voice rumbled through.
Zhao Yunlan pretends to be surprised when he discovers Professor Shen lives across the hallway. “So, this is where you live?”
“Yes,” Professor Shen replies as he puts down his document bag and removes his suit jacket. “It is a bit old. Please, sit wherever you want,” he continues.
The rest of the scene went by in a flash, their lines surprisingly smooth considered it was their first day of filming. Zhu Yilong spent the better part of the conversation scene massaging ointment on Bai Yu’s arm and Zhao Yunlan questioned Professor Shen in a thinly veiled flirtatious way.
It wasn’t difficult at all to emulate Professor Shen’s bewilderment when Zhao Yulan walked out of his apartment. Zhu Yilong was struggling to contain the storm that was building inside himself, but when the director yelled: “Cut!” he felt a bit lighter. His nervousness from earlier that day dissipated somewhat, the tension in his stomach dissolved a little and he finally felt the air flow through his lungs again. All the emotions he didn’t know what was or what to do with, he’d poured into Shen Wei and it had paid off. He wrote it off as nerves, something he always had to deal with.
Later that night, he crawled under the covers and opened the groupchat.
22:30 Zhu Yilong: "how was everyone's day"
22:31 Peng Meimei: “Fine fine. How did your first day go? I've heard Bai Yu is a big flirt, is my jie-jie finally going to fall in love on a set??? Are you finally going to fall in love, for the first time in your life? Finally be like the rest of us humans?"
22:35 Zhu Yilong: "Stop fooling around, you know I've had crushes before."
22:36 Peng Meimei: "Crushes yes, but you've never really been in love! Tianlin, what do you say? Don't you think Bai Yu is the perfect match for our sweet innocent Xiao Long Bao?"
22:37 Tianlin: "omg if he's half as bad as his reputation, then you're really in trouble, Long-ge ;);)"
22:38 Tianlin: "Also I'm fine. I want to hear all about Long-ge’s costar crush!!!"
22:38 Peng Meimei: "Wait, isn't Guardian a danmei novel? Are your characters lovers?"
22:40 Zhu Yilong: "You guys, it's not like that. We're only friends."
22:41 Peng Meimei: "Sure, only friends. Whatever you say jiejie… Wait, you've only known him for one day and you're admitting that he's your friend already? That hurts my feelings!"
Zhu Yilong could feel his cheeks reddening even though he was alone in his hotel room as Guan Ying's teasing tone caught up to him.
22:42 Tianlin: "Hahaha, everything hurts your feelings ~"
22:42 Zhu Yilong: "I'm going to sleep."
22:42 Tianlin: "He's just pretending to go to sleep so he can avoid you Guanying."
22:42 Peng Meimei: "Hey that's not fair! Why are you blaming me! We all know you need your beauty sleep, that's how you're always prettier than the rest of us, right?"
22:45 Zhu Yilong: "Good night~"
22:45 Tianlin: "Sleep well."
22:46 Peng Meimei: "Don't do anything I wouldn't do in your sleep my Zhu Meili ;)"
22:50 Tianli: "In that case, there's nothing he can't do…"
22:50 Peng Meimei: "Exactly!"
Zhu Yilong put away his phone and sighed against the pillow. It was only then that he remembered how ridiculously packed with intimacy the scene they filmed that day had been and how freely he had touched Bai Yu. He was equally excited and terrified of his own responses toward the other man. He thought of those plush pink lips and the way Zhao Yunlan had nonchalantly touched them with his fingertips. Zhu Yilong shivered at the thought of kissing them. He wondered what Bai Yu tasted like. It was a dangerous game as he felt himself slip away from reality and into a fantasy.
Even though Zhu Yilong knew Guanying was only teasing, he knew that was where he'd end up if he wasn't careful. He was already too far gone, too fast for someone he’d barely met. He was a grown man and he shouldn't indulge in this kind of silly fantasy. He was certain this was where others in their business got things mixed up and Zhu Yilong didn't want that to Bai Yu, or himself, for that matter.
He sighed and pushed the thoughts firmly away. He couldn’t allow it to happen.
A few minutes later, he fell into an uneasy sleep, with the images of a figure with impossibly tousled hair and silly beard and the sound of a certain laughter rolling over his dreams.