“I don’t think that word means what you think it means,” Zheng Yunlong said as they entered his hotel room. Ayunga closed the door behind him with a look of confusion.
“What do you mean?”
“That word. It doesn’t mean what you think it does,” Zheng Yunlong repeated slowly, as though he doubted Ayunga’s intellect. He shrugged his jacket off and tossed it over a chair before lying on the bed.
“Reflect on it yourself,” he said, reaching up to cover his eyes with his arm. Ayunga stood in silence, dumbfounded.
He received a call half an hour ago from Cai Chengyu who had gone for dinner with Zheng Yunlong, and Gazi-ge, he’s drunk, I-I-I’m a little too, I think, so can you please come and get him ? He had feared the worst, but when he arrived Zheng Yunlong didn’t seem drunk at all.
“I’m perfectly fine, but you know how worried Caicai gets,” he shrugged, and Cai Chengyu protested weakly, face completely red. Ayunga sized both of them up and decided to walk closer to Cai Chengyu on the way back, keeping an eye on him to make sure he didn’t trip and fall into a drain. Zheng Yunlong’s room was further down the corridor, and they made sure Cai Chengyu was safely in bed first before heading over.
“Good night, Gazi-ge, Long-ge,” Cai Chengyu bid goodbye sleepily.
“Good night, bao bei er ,” Ayunga replied, clicking the door shut softly.
And that was it. He didn’t know what had provoked such an outburst from Zheng Yunlong.
“You’re drunk,” Ayunga concluded, but that didn’t make sense either. He had never seen Zheng Yunlong lose control while he was drunk - it was almost like beer ran through his veins instead of blood.
“It’s ‘ bao bei er’. You clearly have no idea what that means.”
It was nice to feel special, even for just a day.
Zheng Yunlong had overslept, which was not a surprising sight at all, and everyone knew to also expect the figure of their responsible class monitor beside him. They always came in a set: one refusing to move from the bed and the other one trying everything to get him to.
"Five more minutes," the figure under the blanket groaned, curling in tighter as if that would block out the rest of the world.
"Dalong, you don't have five more minutes. We need to go now," Ayunga cajoled.
The blanket pile emitted a long whine.
"Let's go, let's go," Ayunga whined back, shaking Zheng Yunlong, "bao bei er, we need to go."
That was new, and Zheng Yunlong would have been more flustered if he had been more awake. As it stood, he merely felt a warmth in his chest at the endearment. He finally tossed the blanket aside dramatically, stretching out until he heard something in his back crack.
"If you rat me out again for sleeping in Xiao laoshi's class I'm gonna kick your ass," he yawned, rubbing at his eyes.
"Of course," Ayunga beamed, jogging away victoriously to make it to their first class.
“Of course I know what it means,” Ayunga said, surprised. Out of all the possible things Ayunga had said, he was angry with bao bei er ?
“Then is Caicai your bao bei er ?”
“Dalong, you know that I call everyone that, I don’t understand why you’re so pissed.”
“You’re a grown man, you can’t keep calling everyone endearments. It might give people the wrong idea.”
“Who’s been getting the wrong idea?”
“Nothing, forget I said anything,” Zheng Yunlong dismissed impatiently and rolled off the bed, sliding open the doors that led to the balcony.
Ayunga saw him take something out of his jeans pocket, then the flicker of a flame, illuminating Zheng Yunlong’s profile for a split second. Ayunga had always found the smell of cigarette smoke to be repugnant, but he still didn’t complain.
He had always been incredibly indulgent with anything related to Zheng Yunlong.
The very next evening, they were in their dorm when Ayunga looked up from his phone and called, "Bao bei er, who did you say your favourite Phantom was?"
Zheng Yunlong was confused, he didn't recall talking to Ayunga about anything like that. The words died on his tongue as someone else spoke before him.
"John Owen-Jones," Wang Jianxin replied from the bed beside him. He didn't even look away from his laptop screen.
Ayunga thanked him and returned to tapping away on his phone, and it was as though the conversation had never happened, the endearment never used. They were both completely unaware of the turmoil the short exchange had caused in Zheng Yunlong's heart.
So there was no meaning behind the endearment, nothing except for an old class monitor's brotherly affection for his younger classmates. He sighed, rolling to bury his face in his pillow. It was a good thing he hadn't confronted Ayunga about it, because that would have been embarrassing.
Ah, men. All they ever do is lie.
“Would you prefer it if I stopped?” Ayunga joined him on the balcony, resting both elbows on the railings. The night air was cold, heavy with the chill of the impending winter, but it was bearable for a while.
Zheng Yunlong rested with his back on the railing, facing the other way. The end of the cigarette glowed warmly, and he removed it to puff out the smoke leisurely.
“You should do whatever you want to.”
“But you don’t like it.”
“I didn’t say that. I just thought you should be more careful.”
“Why don’t you like it?”
He didn’t reply. His hand came up again, another glow of the cigarette, another exhale of smoke. Zheng Yunlong’s fringe fell in front of his eyes, and Ayunga couldn’t make out his expression at all.
It wasn't an exaggeration to say that Ayunga used the endearment on everyone. His classmates were bao bei er, his little cousins were bao bei er, the babies he made eye contact with on the bus were bao bei er. Ayunga had a lot of love for the world, and Zheng Yunlong felt like an asshole for begrudging him that. It wasn't right to ask him to stop, and he didn't want to anyway. He was willing to endure a thousand little jealousies just to have that warm voice call him bao bei'er too. At least he felt special in that moment.
The years passed, and things changed. Ayunga was the shoulder to cry on when Zheng Yunlong wanted to rant about his boring-ass desk job, Zheng Yunlong always made sure to text Ayunga after a new episode of whatever show he was on aired, and when Zheng Yunlong was offered the main lead in Jekyll and Hyde, Ayunga was unwavering in his support.
"But I've never been to Shanghai," Zheng Yunlong complained over the hotpot dinner Ayunga had insisted on treating him to.
His dinner companion set down his chopsticks firmly. "I came to this city alone and with nothing to my name. I could barely talk to anyone. Don't tell me you're admitting defeat to me that easily."
"I don't even know what they saw in me."
"Baobei'r, now's not the time to second guess yourself. You love this musical, it was your fucking audition song into college. Something like this won't come by again."
Zheng Yunlong nodded pensively, fishing for a slice of pork belly in the bubbling broth in lieu of a reply. What he had been trying to say but didn't have the courage to was that he didn't want to leave Beijing. Sure, Shanghai was an exciting place to be in as a musical actor, full of big productions and endless possibilities, but he didn't want to leave behind those brown eyes and a soft voice that called him baobei'r. Call it purity or naivety, but Ayunga had never been anything less than sincere.
He booked his ticket the next day, and left a week later with nothing more than a text to Ayunga thanking him for dinner.
“What I don’t understand is, why now? I’ve been saying it for a long time.” Ayunga questioned, pressing on where Zheng Yunlong had decided to stay silent. “Are you actually drunk?”
“Fuck off,” Zheng Yunlong said flatly, “I’m not Cai Chengyu.”
“I’ll stop, then.”
“I’m not asking you to.”
“Then, what , Zheng Yunlong, are you asking me to do?” Ayunga snapped, exasperated.
Zheng Yunlong stepped forward to tap his cigarette against the ashtray placed on the balcony’s glass table. There was a breeze, and it ruffled his hair, dancing through its thick locks.
“I’m asking you,” he said plainly, “to stop saying things you don’t mean. Dishonesty doesn’t suit you.”
Ayunga cocked his head questioningly.
“And if I do mean it? My friends do mean a lot to me.”
He saw Zheng Yunlong swallow, and the hand that held his cigarette shook slightly, almost imperceptible.
“That’s not what I meant.”
“You know, the funny thing is that you were the first person I’ve ever called that, and it was an accident. I started using it on everyone else because I didn’t want you to get the wrong idea. You should’ve seen how hard I begged Wang Jianxin to play along.”
Zheng Yunlong pressed the cigarette into the ashtray, leaving it there as he turned to look at Ayunga for the first time that night. His eyes were beautiful and breathtakingly honest, as they always had been. Zheng Yunlong had never been able to keep his emotions out of his eyes.
“What are you saying?”
“I’m saying, bao bei er , that I would never lie to you,” Ayunga breathed, and his hand came up to brush Zheng Yunlong’s hair behind his ear.
“But,” Ayunga continued normally, placing the hand heavily on Zheng Yunlong’s shoulder, “I won’t kiss you after you just smoked.”
Zheng Yunlong brushed off the hand and pushed Ayunga’s chest, although the action had no force behind it.
“You are such an asshole.”
“Not my fault I have standards,” he said innocently.
“Well, it’s your loss too.”
“Of course, bao bei er.”
Zheng Yunlong inhaled sharply, face turning serious.
“You mean it?” he asked, and those large eyes glinted from the light pouring out from the hotel room.
“Of course,” Ayunga replied truthfully. He caught Zheng Yunlong’s hands and held them between his own, soft and cold from the night air.
Zheng Yunlong leaned in to press a brief kiss against Ayunga’s forehead. When he pulled back, it was with a look of wonderment. Ayunga knew he had the exact same look on his own face.
“ Bao bei er, ” Zheng Yunlong said softly, treasuring every word.
“Am I still not allowed to kiss you?”
“Yes,” Ayunga said in the same hushed tone, struggling to hold back his laughter.
“Fine,” Zheng Yunlong exclaimed, breaking the atmosphere immediately. “Fine, I’ll brush my teeth. Happy now?”
And as Ayunga watched the figure of Zheng Yunlong wander back into the room, still grumbling, he replied to the question softly.