It is chance or perhaps fate.
It has been a year now since they last saw each other. As promised, they have kept in touch despite their busy schedules and diverging paths. They barely had any opportunity or breaks where they could even briefly physically see each other, but they never speak about it. Their occasional calls and messages are keeping their relationship afloat and amicable. Given Bai Yu’s personality, Zhu Yilong doubts he’d forget or become distant from anyone. Through the months that have passed, the bond forged in that summer of 2018 does not waver.
Since the end of Guardian, Zhu Yilong has kept himself distracted with work, while a part of him still holds out a little hope that one day, somehow by chance or stroke of luck, they’ll meet again. And it will be like nothing has changed, Bai Yu will be the same mischievous, hyper-active oversized child he remembers. Zhu Yilong knows that the chances for that happening are slim, knowing how different their paths have become, but still a piece of him remains filled with hope. So he clings to the small messages, the silly voice clips, the brief video calls and ridiculous memes, to soothe the desperation during long nights and dreadful days.
Bai Yu is someone special to Zhu Yilong. He worked with a lot of people in his many years in the industry, and yet none of them could ever compare to Bai Yu. Zhu Yilong is not completely unaware of how most people describe and see him: aloof and reserved. None of that ever fazed Bai Yu. The things people found odd about him, Bai Yu found interesting and amusing. Truly, if he is honest with himself, there is no one else who minds his peculiar traits as little as Bai Yu does.
He isn’t young and naïve anymore, and with every passing month he becomes more aware of the restlessness of his heart causing him to spend nights looking through old pictures, blurry and poorly taken, during that summer of 2018. He isn’t sure when it began, but surely it is no longer new. The tangle of emotions existed before, but back then he could barely tell which were his and which were Shen Wei’s. He was convinced then that once all of it was done, he would lose interest, he’d forget about it and his head would clear again. But it didn’t. Instead, it has festered.
Now that he has realized this, Zhu Yilong is understandably scared. For many years, he thought he had all of himself under his control, including his emotions: his fear, his joy and even his affection. Now, he realizes he isn’t the driver but instead a mere passenger in a vehicle guided by fate. No matter how loud he screams, no matter how much he tries not to look, he can’t avoid being led into unfamiliar territory.
Zhu Yilong’s breath stutters when he hears the familiar voice. Inside his chest, his heart quivers. Turning around, ignoring the words of his personal assistant, he looks across the sea of people crowding the airport. Amidst the blur, a familiar towering figure is standing, inconspicuous behind the mask covering half of his face. As soon as their eyes meet, the familiar eyes crinkling in delight and his pace quickens as he pulls his luggage along behind him.
Unsure of what to say, Zhu Yilong remains still until the person is right in front of him before asking, “Xiao Bai?”
Bai Yu laughs, “You couldn’t tell, ge?”
Zhu Yilong could. Even if Bai Yu was wrapped in cloth from head to toe, leaving only his hand or his eyes visible, Zhu Yilong would recognize him. Smiling despite himself behind his own mask, he can’t help but think how odd it is that Bai Yu found him among the sea of people in the busy airport. Deciding to play a joke on him, he tilts his head to the side and raises a quizzical eyebrow.
“Do I know you?”
Bai Yu seems genuinely fooled by Zhu Yilong’s act; he blinks owlishly at him and reaches for the sides of his facemask to reveal his face, despite the danger of doing so. Caught off guard, Zhu Yilong reaches out to stop him.
“Xiao Bai, are you out of your mind?!” Zhu Yilong chides him, while trying to keep his voice low.
To his surprise, Bai Yu laughs. “I knew Long-ge wouldn’t let that happen. How sly, Long-ge tried to trick me.”
Zhu Yilong rolls his eyes and lets go of him. He looks back at Bai Yu, meeting his bright eyes. How infectious, he thinks quietly.
“Ah, Lao Bai!” Zhu Yilong’s personal assistant greets him with a curt bow. “What a coincidence, where are you heading, are you on your own?”
It is then that Zhu Yilong realizes Bai Yu doesn’t seem to be accompanied by his manager or personal assistant. He even has his own luggage with him, which is quite a rare sight to see. Looking at him, Zhu Yilong notices he seems to be wearing quite casual clothes. Although he knows that Bai Yu typically dresses effortlessly and prefers comfort over fashion, a plain black t-shirt and matching black shorts don’t really look like something one would wear when heading out to a shoot. Blinking, Zhu Yilong looks up to ask, but before he can say anything, he hears a faint unfamiliar voice approaching. Looking ahead, he sees a beautiful young woman dressed in the same casual manner as Bai Yu.
As she is walking closer to them, Zhu Yilong realizes she isn’t really unfamiliar. An actress, his mind supplies.
“Where did you go running off to?” she asks Bai Yu with a fond tone. “I told you to stay put since I wouldn’t be long. I just needed to double check on the flight status.”
“Ah, it’s my bad,” Bai Yu says sheepishly.
She smiles and shakes her head. After a while, she notices Zhu Yilong’s presence and she blinks before a flash of recognition appears in her eyes. She lowers her head in a curt bow.
“I’m sorry, I did not realize Xiao Yu is speaking with someone. Sorry for the interruption,” she says meekly and politely.
“No need to apologize, you didn’t interrupt anything,” Zhu Yilong tells her.
The actress turns to Bai Yu, reaching to hold his arm.
“Xiao Yu, why don’t you introduce us?” she says. “It’s really impolite like this, how could you?”
“Sorry, sorry,” Bai Yu laughs. After a beat, he looks up and gestures towards Zhu Yilong, “This is Long-ge. Remember I told you about him, you’ve seen him a lot! Zhu Yilong, the best and most handsome Long-ge!”
The young lady laughs fondly at Bai Yu. There’s no need to say any more; the young lady steps forward and offers Zhu Yilong a handshake.
“I’ve heard so much about you from Xiao Yu.” She says, “I’m Liu Mengmeng.”
For some reason, as Zhu Yilong reaches to accept the handshake, he feels like walking towards his death sentence.
“Zhu Yilong, nice to meet you.”
As they let go of each other’s hand, she steps back next to Bai Yu’s side. Bai Yu wraps an arm around her delicate shoulders, and she fondly rolls her eyes at the overt show of affection. She is beautiful, Zhu Yilong thinks, young and modest. She has long hair and delicate features. Even in casual clothes she looks beautiful. Her long and thick lashes frame her almond shaped eyes perfectly, like a doll.
Bai Yu looks back at Zhu Yilong. “Don’t tell anyone yet, we haven’t gone out to make it official. Technically, Long-ge is now the first to know beside my manager. It’s lucky we bumped into you here. Who would have thought? I thought I’d break it to Long-ge maybe next week, but since we’re here we might as well, yeah?”
Zhu Yilong stares wordlessly, a traitorous voice in the back of his head telling him to do something, find a way out and go somewhere else, anywhere else. The voice is begging him to get out of there, not to listen to them, but Zhu Yilong remains still. Even behind a mask covering half of his face, he knows Bai Yu could catch even a fleeting change in his expression, so instead he smiles and Bai Yu continues.
Bai Yu reaches to hold Liu Mengmeng’s hand in his.
“Long-ge, I’d like you to meet my girlfriend.”
And there it is, Zhu Yilong thinks, the punch to the gut.
“Congratulations!” Zhu Yilong says. He’s been an actor for a long time, this…he’s done this before. How different is this now, how difficult could it be to put on a smile? So he does. Zhu Yilong pulls the widest grin he can manage, visible even behind the mask covering the lower half of his face. “I—Congrats, Xiao Bai,” he says a second time.
Bai Yu’s smile flickers for a bit, but it’s gone so quickly that Zhu Yilong doubts it meant anything.
“I’ll keep it a secret. You have my word,” Zhu Yilong adds. His gaze lifts from Bai Yu towards Liu Mengmeng, softening. “Thank you for taking care of Xiao Bai all this time, and in the future too.”
“Ah, no need. No need. You are really kind, Zhu Laoshi.” Liu Mengmeng smiles back. “Thank you. I should be the one saying that: thank you for taking care of Xiao Yu all this time.”
The air suddenly seems thin and scarce, and the corners of his eyes feel really warm. Zhu Yilong doesn’t trust his voice, so instead he lowers his head, his hair falling over his face, thankfully hiding the way he has to bite his lower lip to restrain the noise that curls up from the pits of his soul. Looking up once more, he meets the couple’s happy gazes.
“Where are you going, Laoshi?” Zhu Yilong’s assistant asks, quickly amending, “You don’t have to answer if it’s private.”
Liu Mengmeng waves a hand, “Ah, we didn’t tell anyone, but I think it’s fine if it is Zhu Laoshi. We’re going on a vacation. It’s rare that our schedules coincide, so we’re going to take advantage of it.”
“Ah, yeah,” Bai Yu says with a grin, “what about Long-ge? Long-ge works too hard, you should take a break sometime too!”
Break, huh. Zhu Yilong slides his hands into the pockets of his jacket, unable to keep them from clenching. You promised we’d go on a vacation…away from everyone’s eyes , a voice in the back of his mind begrudgingly says. The bitterness spreads more fiercely, but he doesn’t let it show. He can’t, how silly would that be.
“Zhu Laoshi, maybe you should take Manager-jie up on that break she keeps offering you, like Bai Laoshi,” the assistant says good-naturedly. Zhu Yilong nods curtly at the suggestion, appreciating her taking the initiative before Zhu Yilong can make the moment awkward by not speaking. At this point, Zhu Yilong can’t trust himself to keep his voice steady.
Before Zhu Yilong’s assistant can say another word, a loud call through the speaker causes her to falter. Zhu Yilong pretends to check his phone, to keep his eyes away from the couple. He pretends to send a text message, but as soon as he opens the inbox, he finds Bai Yu’s most recent message he left unanswered. His fingers hang over the screen, he wants to scream, he wants to be angry, but what explanation can he offer for that?
To Bai Yu…who is Zhu Yilong?
“Ah Laoshi, that’s us.” The assistant says, cutting through Zhu Yilong’s despair. Zhu Yilong looks up and nods. “Ah, Bai Laoshi , Liu Laoshi, we are very sorry. We have to go.”
Zhu Yilong turns to the two and quickly bows, wanting nothing more but to go far away. Once his head is buried in work, there will be no time to dwell, no time to idle and check his phone, he won’t have to remember. Once he is there, he doesn’t have to be Zhu Yilong, he will be someone else and all he has to care about is to do his best to portray his part. Once he’s busy, this too…surely, he can find a way to forget.
“Next time then,” Liu Mengmeng says.
Zhu Yilong dips his head in another polite and brief nod. Looking up at them through the fringes that have accidentally fallen over his eyes, he can’t help but notice how well they look together, both young and good looking. Their smiles are bright and Liu Mengmeng is truly outstanding. No doubt, she can make Bai Yu happy.
Happier than he could ever be.
“Take care, both of you,” he says, keeping his voice low, and yet he finds it still cracking. He doesn’t bother to explain it, he doubts they’d hear it through the mask covering his face. Maybe Liu Mengmeng will take it like everyone else does, Zhu Yilong being his normal indifferent and aloof self. Nothing out of the ordinary.
He turns around, following his personal assistant, but as soon as he takes a step forward, he feels a hand gripping his wrist. Looking down, his eyes widen. Ah, nothing really escapes him. Zhu Yilong turns around, his head hanging low, never letting Bai Yu see the way his lips are trembling now. Without a second thought, he reaches for Bai Yu’s hand to pry his grip off. Bai Yu wordlessly tugs at him, but Zhu Yilong can’t let himself be swayed again this time.
“Let go, Bai Yu .” The shock from being called by his name without the usual nicknames, and in such a tone, makes Bai Yu slacken his grip.
“Long-ge, Long-ge what—“
As soon as Zhu Yilong is free, he turns away. He quickens his steps, quietly urging his staff to do the same. They all acquiesce despite their confusion. Zhu Yilong doesn’t dare look back, if he did…somehow, he has a feeling that the look in Bai Yu ‘s eyes would make him waver. He always wins after all, he always does.
Even now, after all this time, he still wins.