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I’m Not as Good as You Think (Or as Bad as They Say)

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“Uh, how should I say this? Some people here should not be in the A-class. The B- or even C-class is probably a better fit.”

All the girls look stiff and uncomfortable, a few even seem on the verge of crying.

Xiao Zhan cringes, can tell that maybe half of them harbour crushes on Wang Yibo.

Who, of course, is completely oblivious to the tension in the studio. He continues, harsh and tone-deaf, “If you can’t get it, you don’t deserve to be here. Some people here really need more practice.”

Wang Yibo’s agent, Chen Yulan, thankfully stops the clip of the Produce 101 practice before it can get worse and plays another one, this time the one and only live cast Wang Yibo ever did.

It takes Xiao Zhan mere seconds to understand why it’s the one and only live cast he ever did.

“Um, this is really awkward,” Yibo says after swallowing the dumpling. “I don’t know what to say.”

He eats another dumpling and plays with his phone for an entire twenty seconds, which feels even longer during a livestream, avoiding eye contact with the camera the whole time, in lieu of chatting with his fans.

It’s painful to watch, no matter how gorgeous Yibo is up close, features taut with gleaming youthful skin.

“I ate a really good brand of cup noodles yesterday. It’s a new brand from Taiwan, I really recommend it. Here, let me find it for you so you know what to buy,” Yibo says, scrolling on his phone.  

This time Xiao Zhan gives in and facepalms.

Yulan stops the videos and confirms Xiao Zhan’s fears. “He really did eat for 40 minutes in a one-hour live cast with fans. Do you get it now?”

“Yes, I do.”

-----

Wang Yibo is even better-looking in person, which isn’t always a given with celebrities.

Other than that, he’s exactly like what Xiao Zhan has seen of him in videos so far. He’s quiet, aloof, and constantly sports a neutral expression. He doesn’t come across as a bored, snobby star, ignoring people in the room in favour of his phone, just calm and reserved. And a bit awkward.

But awkward is what Xiao Zhan was hired for. Attitude, cockiness, and self-entitlement make his job of navigating the pitfalls of the entertainment industry on behalf of his client exponentially harder.

“This is Xiao Zhan. You can call him Zhan-ge,” Yulan introduces them. “He will be your new PR manager and will be in charge of your public image. He will oversee your interviews, public engagements, fan interactions, etc. and will work with you on how to deal with reporters and the media, what to say and what not to say, and how to behave and present yourself in public. You can ask him anything, especially if you’re not sure how you should approach or respond to something, okay?”

Yibo nods obediently.

Xiao Zhan smiles warmly at him. “I look forward to working with you, Wang Yibo. Really, please don’t hesitate to come to me about anything, even something minor or insignificant. I’m here to help.”

“Yes, Zhan-ge is a dependable guy. You can trust him so please follow his guidance, Yibo.”

“Well then, first things first. I respect your privacy but in order for me to manage your public image successfully, we need to work closely together. If there is something you think I should know, I definitely need to know it...”

-----

Despite being the most popular rising star of the year and the current darling of the entertainment industry, Wang Yibo, it turns out, isn’t a difficult celebrity to work with. He does what he’s told, shows up when he’s supposed to, and doesn’t try to push the line—yet with Xiao Zhan, anyway. He addresses his peers and colleagues with respect, particularly if they’re older, and is actually quite polite, always saying “please” and “thank you” to staff and crew. He isn’t the type of star to go out partying and drinking all the time, doesn’t post things he shouldn’t on social media—though Xiao Zhan thinks it’s largely unintentional that his Weibo only has motorcycles, Lego, and skateboards—and, most importantly, doesn’t break the number one PR rule in entertainment: never trash talk anyone.

That doesn’t stop the tabloids from preying on his admittedly dreadful soundbites though and revelling in painting him as cold, awkward, and blunt—all with elements of truth, unfortunately. A female star teasingly describes how he said nothing at all to her during the entirety of their dance collaboration, and a favourite topic the tabloids constantly return to is how he’s more interested in motorcycles than the girls who show up at his races specifically to cheer him on (and hopefully catch his eye).

Wang Yibo is without a doubt very beautiful, but if prettiness saved him from being lambasted by the media, Xiao Zhan wouldn’t have a job. Instead, his looks only make him a bigger target, with the tabloids delighting in magnifying his awkward interview blunders tenfold for everyone to judge and mock.

In fact, while Wang Yibo may look aloof, even cool and elegant with his unflappable exterior, he’s actually quite guileless and playful like a child. He has a mischievous half-smirk and a laugh like a wicked little gremlin, which Xiao Zhan discovers when he catches Yibo stealing his tea once. Yibo helping himself to his tumbler becomes a regular thing, not that Xiao Zhan tried hard to stop him, though he did once make pu-erh in retaliation and was satisfied when Yibo spat it out. Yibo is also, despite his cool nonchalance, very timid. It doesn’t take Xiao Zhan long to find out he is just about the biggest wimp out of any cast or crew. In the first days of his employment, Xiao Zhan had heard an ear-piercing shriek and hurried over only to find a terrified Yibo hiding behind an amused hairstylist. A spider had crawled up the mirror, and Yibo wouldn’t sit down and get his hair done until Xiao Zhan used a magazine to remove the spider, which to be fair was indeed large.

It’s Yibo’s very guilelessness that gets him into so much trouble with the media. Yibo is too straightforward and tactless. He’s practically a tabloid reporter’s wet dream: ask him a simple question and he’ll answer directly, unwittingly giving away juicy fodder left, right, and center. It doesn’t take long for Xiao Zhan to realize that his reticence is actually a defence mechanism: can’t say something wrong if you don’t say anything at all.

-----

Even though he told Yibo on the first day to tell him whatever he thinks he should know, it takes time to trust someone, so, of course, Xiao Zhan doesn’t expect Yibo to open up to him right away. He’s prepared to earn Yibo’s trust, and that means proving to Yibo that he’ll be there for him no matter what, and that no job is too big or small for him.

So when Yibo texts him, Zhan-ge, can you help me with something? at the end of the day after he gets out of a meeting that ran overtime, he is reminded of the incident with the spider. Even though he’s exhausted and about to drive home to his couch, he texts back, Sure, what is it?

I’m out of makeup remover, so I can’t take off my makeup from the shoot. Can you pick it up for me please?

Xiao Zhan stares at his phone, confused, unsure if he’s reading it incorrectly or if his brain is just fried from the long meeting.

Sorry, I know you’re not hired to fetch things for me, but I don’t want to go out and be seen like this...

Right, Yibo had the Shu Uemura photoshoot for their spring makeup collection today. He pictures Yibo going to take off his makeup only to find he’s out of the cleansing solution. Yeah, he wouldn’t want to have to go out to the store sporting edgy fashion-shoot makeup as a guy, even an idol, either.

Sighing, he texts Yibo back and starts the engine. Yeah, I get it. I’ll bring it over, just text me your address.

He finds a nearby convenience store and buys the biggest bottle of makeup remover he can find. The cashier takes in his rumpled shirt and tired appearance and smiles kindly. “That’s sweet of you to pick up something for your girlfriend.”

Ha, if she only knew. Idols are way worse than girlfriends, Xiao Zhan thinks but just smiles back and pays.

Of course, Yibo lives in a luxury new build condo in the most affluent area of the city. It even has a concierge. He goes up to Yibo’s floor, feeling too plebeian for such a sleek, modern building.

When Yibo answers the door, Xiao Zhan feels his breath leave his body. Now he knows the makeup artist left the makeup on on purpose.

Yibo is stunning with smokey eyes, even smudged on one side from his attempts at taking it off. For a guy, Wang Yibo suits makeup very well. His lips too, already naturally full, still have remnants of added colour, making them look dangerously kissable. Xiao Zhan is reminded of seeing Yibo for the first time in the Produce 101 clip where he easily stood out from all the girls as the prettiest in the room.

Wang Yibo truly is gorgeous.

Xiao Zhan hands him the bottle of makeup remover.

“Thank you, Zhan-ge. I hope it wasn’t too much trouble,” Yibo sounds genuinely grateful.

“You’re welcome. I’m happy to help.” Xiao Zhan turns to go, his mission accomplished, but Yibo says, “Wait, come in,” and pulls the door open wider.

“Thank you, but I’m going to go home now.”

“No, you came all this way for me. Please, come in for a bit,” Yibo insists.

There’s enough pleading in his voice that Xiao Zhan acquiesces. Staying for a bit won’t hurt, maybe even allow him to dodge the worst of rush hour traffic, and he can get to know his client more.

As Yibo washes his makeup off in the bathroom, Xiao Zhan wanders around the condo, admiring the colour scheme of the tastefully designed interior. It’s a beautiful place with floor-to-ceiling windows looking out to an enviable view thirty floors above the city. Yibo even has a spare room converted into a small dance studio with full-length mirrors and hardwood floors—he must make a lot of noise practicing dance routines but the soundproofing must be top of the line. Throughout the condo, strewn among the plush carpet and very expensive furniture are belongings that are so quintessentially Yibo Xiao Zhan has to smile: a skateboard propped against the wall by the door, a full home entertainment system and video game consoles, and a half-finished jigsaw puzzle on the coffee table.

Despite his talent and fame, Yibo is still just a boy. With a lot of hobbies.

Yibo returns with a towel, bare face scrubbed fresh and clean. “Did you eat yet?” he asks Xiao Zhan. “I can order food.”

Xiao Zhan shakes his head, smiling. “Don’t worry about me, I’ll cook something at home.”

“No, you came over just to help me and it’s late. I haven’t eaten either. Please let me treat you to something,” Yibo says earnestly.

How sweet. “Fine, I’ll stay for dinner since you haven’t eaten either. But let’s not order in, I can cook something for us.”

He goes to the gleaming stainless steel kitchen which is obviously under-utilized and rifles through the cupboards and fridge. He finds only cup noodles and four different types of snacks. How Yibo maintains his ab definition with food like this is a mystery.

Yibo hands him a stack of delivery menus from a drawer. “You can order whatever you like.”

Xiao Zhan has half a mind to suggest a grocery trip to stock up on vegetables and fruit, but realistically, they’ll probably just sit in Yibo’s fridge untouched until they rot. “All right, delivery it is. What’s good around here?”

-----

Yibo seems to warm up to him after that, taking to texting him more constantly. They don’t see each other everyday: Yibo usually has his days full with filming and Xiao Zhan is always here and there, in and out of meetings with either agency management or the media. Xiao Zhan responds when he can, though sometimes he’s occupied for hours and doesn’t see the texts until much later.

Yibo likes to send Xiao Zhan selfies, reminding him a bit of a self-obsessed teenage girl preening in front of the mirror. In one, he’s getting his hair styled artistically into wavy locks for a shoot. In another, he’s striking a pose in a flashy outfit for a music video.

The latest selfie is simple: a bare-faced close-up of him pouting at the camera, his hair soft and fluffy against his sharp cheekbones. Xiao Zhan stares at it too long before he catches himself.

Stop ignoring me! I can see you got my text

Send me a pic of you

Yibo has asked him for selfies before, but Xiao Zhan has always brushed it off, feeling too old and dull next to Yibo’s glamorous, social media-royalty self. He doesn’t know why Yibo doesn’t post more photos of himself on his Weibo instead of motorcycles and skateboards.

I’m too old and boring for pictures

No, Zhan-ge is very handsome!

Ha. Xiao Zhan will unfortunately have to set him straight. It’s the end of the day, he’s just gotten out of a two-hour conference call, and to say he’s “far from fresh” would be too generous. He holds the phone at arm’s length and snaps a selfie of himself in his now wrinkled shirt. His collar is unbuttoned down to his throat, his tie loosened, and his shirtsleeves have long been rolled up to his elbows.

Some of us have boring jobs and aren’t photogenic like you, he texts back with the selfie.

Zhan-ge looks sexy

Xiao Zhan raises both eyebrows, lets his breath out in a huff. If that’s how he wants to play it.

Nowhere near a certain idol’s level

So you think I’m sexy?

Xiao Zhan can’t help but smile, once again reminded of a preening teenage girl.

Stop fishing for compliments, you know you’re the hottest thing right now

Other than selfies, Yibo sometimes texts him variations of “Have you eaten yet?” or “Want to have dinner together?” and invites him over for food.

Xiao Zhan always agrees. It’s nice to unwind with company after the long whirlwinds that are his days. Besides, he thinks Yibo could also do with the company, living alone by himself in his big, fancy condo. He’s only twenty-two after all, and far away from family and friends. It may only have been six years but twenty-two feels like a lifetime ago to Xiao Zhan, who back then was always surrounded by groups of friends and never alone. Unlike Yibo, who has a wide circle of friends but who are all busy stars juggling their own hectic careers and schedules.

By his third time to Yibo’s, Xiao Zhan has learned to drop by the closest grocery store to Yibo’s building on the way. It’s an upscale, brightly lit place where everything is so overpriced he only selects five things tops. Then in Yibo’s fully furnished kitchen he’d cook a simple, healthy dinner for them both. It’s nicer, not to mention easier, to cook for two instead of one so he doesn’t mind the extra work, and he doesn’t miss that Yibo stopped objecting after having a taste of Xiao Zhan’s cooking.

He gets to know Yibo more and more and finds himself increasingly charmed by the playful, even innocent, side of Yibo. Yibo brims with such enthusiasm when talking about his interests that Xiao Zhan thinks this must be the same exasperated fondness Yibo’s older UNIQ bandmates felt humouring him. Whatever captures his interest, Yibo becomes consumed by it and pursues it single-mindedly, whether that is a particular dance move or skateboard trick.

The exchange goes both ways too. Yibo is absolutely delighted to learn that Xiao Zhan went to art school of all things and demands to see his artwork and photography. Xiao Zhan can’t help but be flattered and promises to show him some paintings and sketches. Yibo also makes him promise to bake him a cake one day after Xiao Zhan unwittingly lets it slip that a childhood dream of his had been to become a pastry chef.

“Will you come to one of my races one day?” Yibo is almost shy when he asks in the middle of a motorcycle race on TV.

“Sure, I’ll come and take photos of you,” Xiao Zhan agrees, already thinking of the lenses he’ll need to capture high speed.

Yibo’s smile is stunning, and it’s as if all is right with Xiao Zhan’s world.

-----

As Wang Yibo is a handsome young male idol who debuted in a boyband, the vast majority of his fanbase is young women—young women who Yibo should really show more appreciation for as they’re the ones buying his concert tickets and downloading his singles the day they’re released.

While Yibo may care more about making dance moves look more fluid and faster turns on the racetrack than charming fangirls, Xiao Zhan knows what side their bread is buttered on.

“Remember to look them in the eye and don’t move onto the next until the first has left,” Xiao Zhan instructs Yibo, who’s already in place behind a large table with stacks of promotional posters and more pens than he can go possibly through.

“I’ve done this before. I know what to do.”

Xiao Zhan knows autograph signings aren’t easy even though all you do is make scrawls that get less and less eligible every time. It’s exhausting and repetitive, your hand aches twenty minutes into the three hours, your cheeks hurt from constant smiling, you have to keep up your energy and enthusiasm with every interaction, and just when you think you can’t take any more, people never stop coming.

The event hasn’t even begun, but already the area is teeming with fans, mostly girls though there are some boys. The line-up started two hours ago actually, and Xiao Zhan is pleased at the immense turnout, testament to Yibo’s rise in popularity.

“Try to chat with them, okay? You may not have much time with each one, but they’ve waited a long time in line just for five seconds with you, so make it special for them.”

“Stop pimping me out to fans,” Yibo grumbles sarcastically. “Why don’t you try caring about me instead of fans all the time?”

Xiao Zhan rolls his eyes. “Just make it worthwhile for them.”

Sure enough, despite his usual reservation, Yibo is all smiles as he greets fans and dutifully signs each poster. He agreeably poses for selfies, shakes hands with gushing girls, accepts letters and gifts amiably, and is all around behaving every bit the gracious celebrity.

“Man, he’s very popular, isn’t he? My little sister and her friends here won’t stop watching his dance videos,” says a guy near Xiao Zhan’s elbow. He’s standing beside a group of teenage girls currently crowded around Yibo. He’s smiling and looking directly at Xiao Zhan.

Damn, it’s been a while since Xiao Zhan has received some attention so openly. As flattered as he feels, he’s still working. “Yeah, he can really move. Sure you don’t want an autograph?”

“I think I’d rather have yours.”

Xiao Zhan gives him an apologetic grin. “Sorry, it’s not up for grabs.”

“Shame, you’re more my type,” the guy says easily, unoffended.

The group of girls finish, waving good-bye to Yibo. Xiao Zhan doesn’t miss the look Yibo shoots him once they and the guy have left, whatever it means.

Yibo gets way more extra attention, of course. No fan interaction event is ever complete without some overzealous fans trying to pull something. Security is usually on it, though one lucky fan gets as far as planting a kiss on Yibo before being dragged away. At best, some fans cheekily ask for hugs, at worst, some sling arms around Yibo during selfies and try to cop a feel. Yibo stiffly endures it all without grimacing.

The afternoon gets hotter as the signing carries on. Xiao Zhan takes a drink from his tumbler, wipes away some dampness from his forehead. Yibo is under a tent luckily, and there is a stash of bottled water so he’ll be fine.

Some of the fans in line don’t look so good though. There is a girl near the front leaning on her friend looking like she’s about to faint, so Xiao Zhan goes over with bottled water to make sure she doesn’t have heatstroke.

She and her friend shyly thank him for the water, and Xiao Zhan thinks their red cheeks isn’t just from the heat. Once they’ve got their autographs, they pause by Xiao Zhan to thank him again, and one of them presses a folded slip of paper into his hands before they scurry off. He unfolds it to find a scrawled name and phone number. Xiao Zhan can feel Yibo’s eyes on him the entire time.

They extend the event by an hour due to the amount of people remaining, but there is still a lot they have to turn away when they finally have to wrap up.

“Good work today, you’ve made their day for a lot of people,” Xiao Zhan praises as he’s putting bags full of fan gifts into the car trunk.

Yibo scowls at him, rubbing his right arm. “Like you give a damn. I worked nonstop for hours while you stood around flirting with my fans.”

Xiao Zhan rolls his eyes. It’s been a long, hot, tiring day so he’ll be patient. “I wasn’t flirting with your fans.”

“I saw you! Anyway, you’re supposed to work for me. Shouldn’t you be caring about me and if someone tries to grope me or something instead of hitting on other people?”

“Nuh uh,” Xiao Zhan chides. “I don’t work for you; I work for your agency. And I wasn’t hitting on other people, I was making sure your fans who love you and came all this way to see you were being helped so they’ll continue to support you.”

Yibo huffs at his long-winded response. Xiao Zhan has an urge to ruffle his hair like a dog to placate him.

“My arm hurts and I can’t hold anything with my fingers,” Yibo whines, pinching his right arm and fingers.

Xiao Zhan makes a sympathetic noise. “Poor puppy. Shall I massage your arm and shoulders for you since you worked so hard today? Shall I feed you since you can’t even use chopsticks?”

Yibo’s face enflames, but he falls quiet, pointedly not objecting, which Xiao Zhan notes, smirking. God, Xiao Zhan really shouldn’t spoil him, but he’s discovering more and more that he’s a big sucker for Wang Yibo.

They drop off the bags of fan gifts and letters at Yibo’s place, and Yibo immediately jumps into his shower to wash off the sweaty day. Xiao Zhan looks through his kitchen but it’s no different from before, still only non-perishable foods. He should really take Yibo to a supermarket one of these days and introduce him to the produce section. But for tonight it looks like it’ll be delivery again, so he orders their food while Yibo is in the shower.

Yibo comes out in his bathrobe and plops onto the couch. “Now give me a massage like you promised!”

If Wang Yibo turns into a spoiled, self-entitled celebrity, it will all be Xiao Zhan’s fault for overindulging him.

“All right, all right, bossy. Sit up,” he orders, rolling up his shirtsleeves to his elbows and coming to stand behind Yibo.

He lays his hands on Yibo’s tense shoulders and squeezes gently, rubbing in circles. He’s done this enough times before for previous partners that he knows what to do, knows where to dig in and what parts to smooth over. Yibo’s head flops forward during his steady ministrations on his neck and shoulders. When Xiao Zhan feels the muscles loosen under his fingers, he moves onto Yibo’s right arm and massages the tension away from his forearm and wrist.

Yibo’s breathing is slow and even when Xiao Zhan finishes that he thinks he’s dozed off until Yibo pipes up.

“Can you do my back too?”

Spoiled brat, Xiao Zhan thinks fondly but tells Yibo to lie on his front anyway and perches himself on the edge of the couch. He was going to rub Yibo’s back through the fluffy cotton robe so he doesn’t expect Yibo to pull the bathrobe off his shoulders and bare his back all the way down to his waist.

It doesn’t turn out to be a good idea, Xiao Zhan realizes, feeling the recognizable spark of attraction at the expanse of flawless skin. The curve of Yibo’s back gently dips down into a valley before rising up into tantalizing firm, round—he abruptly cuts off that train of thought, feeling a bit guilty for getting turned on by an unsuspecting, trusting Yibo. He focuses his attention on Yibo’s upper back muscles, resolutely ignoring how soft and supple Yibo’s bare skin feels underneath his hands.

The doorbell rings just as Xiao Zhan is working his way through some knots. Xiao Zhan answers the door while Yibo, the lazy brat, just lies there on the couch. He pays the deliveryman with his own card—can’t always have someone younger foot the bill, even someone with an exponentially bigger paycheque—and drops the bag of food on the coffee table.

Yibo is sprawled languidly on his back, bathrobe pulled up but open at the front. He looks part debauched trust fund baby, part giant, lazy cat as he gazes up at Xiao Zhan. Xiao Zhan swats his legs off so he can sit down and unpack their dinner.

“Will you feed me too like you said earlier?” the little shit asks, the corner of his lips turned up.

Xiao Zhan plops the container of soup noodles on his chest. “Use your left hand. Or you can starve. I’ve spoiled you way too much already.”

-----

Xiao Zhan can tell something is wrong with one look at Yulan first thing that morning.

“What is it?” he asks, immediately on alert.

“Lee Myung-soo wants to meet Yibo in person.”

Yulan doesn’t need to explain further. It’s an open secret in the industry that Lee Myung-soo, the producer of one of South Korea’s most popular television studios, is a total creep and has a penchant for pretty young idols.

“Yibo has already auditioned and received the role, but now Lee wants to ‘assess’ him for the part by himself before signing the contract.”

Xiao Zhan gets why she’s so troubled now.

“I’m trying to convince his assistant that Yibo’s schedule is really crammed at the moment and there’s no space to fit in another audition without risking the start of the show’s production. But they’re very insistent. Lee refuses to move forward with the contract without meeting Yibo himself.”

“What about letting him meet Yibo with others in the room?”

“He insists he wants to assess Yibo’s fit for the part ‘without outside influence or interference.’ He makes it sound like he’s skeptical of Yibo’s suitability.”

Xiao Zhan gets her frustration. From what he understands, it’s actually a tertiary role in the Korean drama but requires someone with exceptional dance talent. Yibo got the role after the director and choreographer witnessed his dance skills and how quickly he took to the choreography during his audition.

“He also says he wants to confirm Yibo’s Korean language skills. The role only has, like, five lines. The character is there to dance, not deliver dialogue!” Yulan continues ranting. “Lee’s implying that if we refuse his request, it’s because Yibo can’t play the part and doesn’t deserve the contract, not because it’s an inappropriate and totally transparent ploy to get a pretty twenty-something alone in a room!”

“I’ll go with him,” Xiao Zhan declares, resolute. He isn’t sure what he can do exactly without pissing off Lee Myung-soo and risking future collaboration, but the thought of naïve, young Yibo walking into a room for a private audition with a creepy producer makes his insides twist awfully.

“Schedule the meeting,” he tells Yulan when she looks ready to argue. “I’ll think of something.”

The morning after next he accompanies Yibo to Lee Myung-soo’s studios. He isn’t sure how much Yulan has told Yibo, if Yibo knows about Lee’s reputation, or if he needs to explain to Yibo about the more unsavoury aspects of the entertainment industry.

Although Xiao Zhan knows he appears every bit the collected, impeccable professional on the surface, his mind is racing with all sorts of skin-crawling scenarios. As they wait, he imagines Lee unleashing his predatorial side when alone with Yibo, catching Yibo off-guard and crowding him against a wall, maybe pawing at Yibo’s face with lecherous hands and trying to kiss him. Or maybe he’ll use the power imbalance to his advantage, ask Yibo to lose a few layers and dance dirty to prove his dance skills or something.

Lee’s attention immediately locks on Yibo during introductions, skipping Xiao Zhan altogether. He stares at Yibo with such intensity that has Xiao Zhan’s insides cringing. Xiao Zhan has the urge to hide Yibo behind him from the big, bad producer, but Yibo seems completely unphased as he shakes hands with Lee, even when Lee clasps onto his hands afterwards.

They converse in Korean, ignoring Xiao Zhan’s presence entirely. When Lee finally puts a hand on Yibo’s arm and looks about to lead him somewhere, Xiao Zhan steps in.

“What’s going on? Where is he taking you?” he asks Yibo, trying to sound calm.

“He wants to see me read the script and go through the choreography.”

“Well, I’m coming with you!” Xiao Zhan insists.

Lee’s assistant breaks in in fluent Chinese. “We already discussed this with your agent. Mr. Lee would like the opportunity to appreciate Wang Yibo’s talent by himself.”

“I am Yibo’s manager. If Mr. Lee has any questions or concerns about Yibo’s skills or experience, I’m happy to address those with him during Yibo’s performance.” Xiao Zhan gives Lee and his assistant his most winning smile.

“I’m sorry if it wasn’t made clear. The purpose of this second audition is to appraise Wang Yibo’s fit for the role without distractions or undue influence.”

Xiao Zhan isn’t deterred, still smiling amicably. “But my understanding is Yibo has already been offered the role by the director. Surely, this is a formality.”

“I can assure you this is not a formality. If this audition does not happen under the agreed upon circumstances, Mr. Lee does not have the confidence to offer Wang Yibo this contract.”

Lee seems to take that as the final word and pulls Yibo by the arm after him.

Before Xiao Zhan knows it, he has latched on to Yibo’s other arm so Yibo is like a poor rag doll pulled between them.

“Wherever he goes, I go,” he declares, his voice serious and steady. He stares Lee down, knowing he’ll understand what he means.

Lee’s gaze is intense and unwavering as he looks back at him, then at Yibo, then back at him. Xiao Zhan tries to appear cordial but firm, though he’s probably ruined all semblance of geniality.

Lee barks something at Yibo and Yibo answers politely. Then Lee and his assistant leaves, obviously dismissing them.

“What did he say?” he asks Yibo on their way out.

Yibo doesn’t meet his eyes. “He says it’s very unprofessional to date your manager and bring your boyfriend to work meetings. I told him you’re not my boyfriend.”

Xiao Zhan is aghast. Lee thought he was a possessive ogre of a boyfriend.

“But I think Zhan-ge was very cool. Why don’t you act like that more?” A hint of a pleased smile plays on Yibo’s lips all the way back to the office.

They lose the contract. Lee makes it clear that while he’s impressed by the talent Wang Yibo has exhibited in his previous work, he is put off by the sheer unprofessionalism of his agency and refuses to work with Wang Yibo unless there is a change in his management.

Yulan doesn’t seem as upset as he’d expect when she breaks the news to him. She does raise an amused eyebrow though. “He did mention it’s extremely unprofessional to be sleeping with the talent. Just what did you do or say to give him that idea?”

She laughs as Xiao Zhan’s mouth drops open. “Never mind. It’s probably for the best that Yibo doesn’t have to go near that creep, anyway.”

-----

Yibo may text him throughout the evening but he never calls him afterhours, so it’s all the stranger when his name shows up on caller ID shortly after nine.

Xiao Zhan answers right away, “Yibo?”

“Zhan-ge.” Yibo’s voice is quivering.

Alarmed, he shoots up from the couch. “What is it, Yibo? Are you okay?”

“No… can you come over please?” Yibo’s voice is almost a whisper. “I’m… scared.”

“Scared? Is something wrong? Are you in trouble right now?” Xiao Zhan is already snatching up his keys and jacket.

“Yes. No! I mean, everything is fine, but I just… don’t want to be alone right now. Can you come over please?”

Xiao Zhan doesn’t bother with the laces on his shoes before he’s out the door. “Hang on, I’m coming now. I’ll be there as soon as I can, okay?”

“Okay, Zhan-ge.” Yibo’s voice is small, meek.

Of course, traffic in this city is a pain even at this hour. Xiao Zhan lives in the same quadrant of the metropolis as Yibo, but of all times he just has to be trapped behind the slowest drivers. He pulls into the first available parking spot he sees outside Yibo’s building, not caring he’s parked diagonally, and rushes up to Yibo’s floor.

Yibo must have been watching for his arrival because he opens the door before Xiao Zhan gets in front. He has a blanket wrapped around his shoulders, making him look meek and small, even though he’s just shy of Xiao Zhan’s six feet.

“Yibo, are you okay?” Xiao Zhan asks, circling his arms protectively around Yibo’s shoulders by instinct.

Yibo shakes his head, making Xiao Zhan’s heart seize with fear and worry.

“What happened?”

“I-I watched a scary movie.”

…What?

His incredulity makes Yibo pull back, embarrassed. “Seungyoun dared me to watch this movie and said if I made it through ten minutes, I wouldn’t have to tell him who I…” he stops, too embarrassed to continue.

Xiao Zhan can’t decide who the bigger idiot is: Seungyoun for pulling this stunt knowing full well how easily scared shitless Yibo is or Yibo for actually agreeing to it.

“Please don’t be mad,” Yibo begs. “I’m sorry.”

Xiao Zhan sighs, quashes his frustration in the face of Yibo’s genuine distress and shepherds him into the condo.

Which is unnaturally, almost blindingly bright. Apparently, Yibo has turned on every light in his place.

Xiao Zhan deposits Yibo on the couch and goes to turn some of the lights off but still leaves every room lit. Then he makes some tea for himself and Yibo in the kitchen. Yibo looks like a meek, little kid cocooned in his blanket on the couch. When Xiao Zhan sits down beside him, Yibo immediately scoots over to curl up and bury his face in his neck.

Xiao Zhan wraps a hand around his shoulder, asks gently, “Feeling better?”

Yibo nods against his neck.

“Why did you do that when you’re so scared of horror movies?”

Xiao Zhan can see the tips of his ears turn pink. “It’s not like I wanted to! Seungyoun called me chicken for not doing anything about—” he suddenly breaks off. It’s obviously something he doesn’t want to tell Xiao Zhan. “Anyway, it’s not true, but he dared me to watch ten minutes of this movie or else I’ll have to tell him about who it is—” Again, he stops abruptly, not about to share whatever it is with Xiao Zhan.

Xiao Zhan really doesn’t care what went on between them. “It doesn’t matter now, but don’t do that again, okay? Don’t upset yourself for no reason. You’ve got enough on your plate so you need to take care of yourself, not distress yourself over unimportant things.”

Yibo nods, sips his tea.

“Do you still feel scared?”

Yibo shakes his head.

“Good, I’ll stay a little longer before going home then.”

“I’m sorry for causing you trouble.” Xiao Zhan’s heart squeezes at his genuine contrition. “But can you please stay over tonight? I don’t want to be alone.” He sounds so desperate Xiao Zhan can’t refuse him.

Xiao Zhan is starting to realize that he can’t deny Wang Yibo anything, and it should alarm him. He resigns himself to staying the night. It saves him the drive home and he’s already in clothes he can sleep in anyway, having rushed here in sweatpants and an old T-shirt. “Okay.”

They finish the rest of their tea in silence, and Xiao Zhan takes their cups to the sink to wash up.

“We should go to sleep soon. You have a commercial to film at 8:00 tomorrow.” Xiao Zhan reminds him, thinks of his own early meeting with Yulan about shuffling three new promotional events into Yibo’s schedule next week.

“Yeah, let’s go to bed,” Yibo agrees. “My bed is big enough for both of us.”

Xiao Zhan is fine crashing on the couch—it’s probably better than his own mattress anyway—but doesn’t resist. If Yibo is too scared to sleep by himself tonight, Xiao Zhan will oblige him.

He’s on his back about to drift off when Yibo, in a voice just above a whisper, confesses beside him. “Seungyoun and I were talking about dating.”

Xiao Zhan blinks away the heaviness of sleep. “Oh?” Seungyoun and Yibo? He pictures dimples and a gremlin smirk he has come to know so well.

“What should I do if I want to date someone?”

Xiao Zhan carefully keeps his voice neutral, devoid of judgment or dismay. “As an idol, that would be very risky for your career right now. But you already know that.”

“But what if I dated someone anyway?” Yibo presses.

“Well, you’ll break a million hearts and not sell any more singles.” That is the simple, unfair truth. Xiao Zhan delivers it as gently as he can.

He continues after a pause, assuring Yibo, “But it’s just for now. When your career is more established and your fame is secure, you can be open about your relationship. It’s the same for Seungyoun, so he understands what’s at stake here.”

Yibo scoffs. “I don’t want to date Seungyoun! I’m not talking about him.” Something in Xiao Zhan eases with relief.

“Okay, whoever it is, they’re going through the same thing too so they’ll understand.”

“No, I don’t want to date another idol. What if I just want to date a normal person?”

Xiao Zhan would be doing Yibo a disservice if he cushioned the truth. “Well, honestly speaking, it won’t be easy for that person. It’ll be hard being with a busy, high-profile person always in the limelight. When the relationship is exposed, their privacy will be invaded, they’ll be the center of attention whether they like it or not, and they might even have to deal with jealous, crazy fans on top of the tabloids.”

He adds, to soften the blow. “It really comes down to whether that person is willing to go through all that. But if that person really likes you and is willing to put up with it to be with you, then there’s hope of a relationship working out.”

Yibo is so quiet he almost doesn’t hear what he says next. “Would you do it?”

“Date an idol?” He actually hadn’t thought about it, though he does have regular interaction with celebrities from working in the industry. He’d just always assumed celebrities would be more interested in each other, not someone ordinary like him. “I would know better than anyone how challenging it is for both sides. But if you’re in love, then you’re in love. You can’t control who you have feelings for. And if you don’t give it your all for love, then you might lose out on the best thing to happen to you and regret it for life.”

Xiao Zhan gives it a moment to let that sink in before tackling his biggest concern. With all seriousness, he says, “Now tell me the truth. Are you dating someone?”

“No. I’m not dating anyone.” Xiao Zhan can hear the honesty in his voice and relaxes in relief.

“Okay, good. You’d tell me if you were, right?”

“I promise if I were to date someone, you’d be the first to know.”

“Okay, good night, Yibo.”

“Good night, Zhan-ge.”

-----

It’s on Day Day Up that Yibo inadvertently drops the bomb.

Xiao Zhan is in the middle of discussing media strategy with agency management when a production assistant interrupts the meeting to deliver the message.

By the time he gets to the recording room, the damage is already done.

Of course, Yibo’s older, mature, and more media-savvy cohosts already tried to smooth things over and moved the show on as if nothing had happened, but the news is already blowing up online.

Pop idol Wang Yibo admits that he is in a relationship on Day Day Up

No longer on the market, Wang Yibo confesses to having a ‘special someone’ he sees ‘regularly’

Cold, aloof star Wang Yibo is dating someone, reveals on live show

Xiao Zhan can feel a headache coming on just scrolling through headlines. Day Day Up hasn’t even finished airing yet and already the tabloids are on Yibo like hyenas. Angry, jealous fans are castigating him on social media too.

But however much they’re tearing him apart now, Xiao Zhan is going to kill him himself.

He has to wait until the live show has wrapped up before he can do anything. He waits impatiently in the recording room, fielding calls from Yulan and the rest of the agency about what’s happening with Yibo in the meantime.

When the show is over and the hosts have exited the stage, Yibo has to be escorted by security to his dressing room where Xiao Zhan is waiting for him.

Yibo actually cringes when he sees Xiao Zhan’s thunderous expression.

“I’m sorry, Zhan-ge. I didn’t mean to say it,” he immediately starts, desperate.

Oh, Xiao Zhan knows he didn’t mean it. It doesn’t change the fact that he still unleashed a PR nightmare.

Xiao Zhan can tell it was an innocent quip, and it would have been completely inconsequential if Wang Yibo were anyone other than a celebrity.

Yibo’s cohosts had been bantering on the show about relishing some time apart from your spouse, and Yibo just had to mindlessly add, “Not me, I’m happy being with my special someone regularly.”

The live audience made noises of surprise, and his cohost tried to smooth over his gaffe by teasing, “Please, like you’d know all about being chained to someone in holy matrimony.”

But it had been Yibo’s blundering denial that had sealed the final nail in the coffin. “Oh, we’re not—I mean, I’m not married…”

Xiao Zhan isn’t angry that Yibo misspoke. He isn’t even that angry that Yibo kept this from him. He’s angry that Yibo openly denied this to his face when asked outright.

“Why did you lie to me?” Xiao Zhan demands, arms folded across his chest.

“I didn’t lie to you, Zhan-ge!”

“I specifically asked you before if you were dating someone and you said no. You even promised you would tell me if you were.”

“I wasn’t lying! I’m really not dating anyone.”

“Then what was that back there?”

Yibo stares at the floor, unable to meet Xiao Zhan’s gaze. “I do have someone I like. And it’s true that I’m in touch with them regularly,” he confesses. “But we’re not dating, I swear. That person, um, doesn’t even know I like them.” He mumbles the last part.

If this were any other time, Xiao Zhan’s heart would ache with sympathy for Yibo, who for all his fame and fortune still has to go through what everyone else has to go through. But as Yibo had just created a huge PR mess for him to clean up, Xiao Zhan is not feeling charitable.

“I was going to say we’re not in a relationship back there but didn’t want to draw attention to that person. But I messed up anyway, right?” Yibo asks softly, looking up, and Xiao Zhan can see the desperation in his eyes not for his sake but for the other person’s.

“Sort of. The tabloids don’t know anything, only that you’ve implied you’re with someone. They don’t know who it is, but social media is blowing up with speculation. I think it’s best if you refrain from being in contact with this person for now. For both your sakes,” he stresses when Yibo looks like he’s about to say something.

Yibo looks adequately ashamed, so Xiao Zhan takes pity on him and moves into damage control mode.

“I’ll arrange a press conference for tomorrow or the day after. We’ll say that you were just generally speaking on Day Day Up, that everything was blown out of proportion, and the truth is you’re single and not in a relationship. Everyone knows the tabloids will run with anything, so we’ll set the record straight. Best case scenario, speculation will hopefully die down and this will blow over soon. Don’t see that person for now—the last thing we need is a snap of you cozying up to someone after publicly declaring you’re single. Got it?”

“Yes, Zhan-ge.”

“And don’t look at social media unless you enjoy torturing yourself. Now get changed and I’ll drive you home. I’ll get someone to bring your motorcycle home for you—don’t give me that look. People are probably watching your ride right now.”

-----

Xiao Zhan knows immediately that taking Yibo home is the wrong idea as soon as he rounds the crescent in front of the building. There are several cars parked around, obviously reporters on the lookout for a certain motorcycle to appear.

“Never mind, we’ll stay at my place,” he tells Yibo, smoothly maneuvering the car out before anyone can catch a glimpse into the passenger seat.

A song finishes on the radio and the host starts speaking. “Many hearts broke tonight when the idol Wang Yibo revealed just a couple hours ago that he’s got someone special. Now who this lucky person is we don’t know, but we’ve got a few good guesses. Number one is—” Xiao Zhan turns off the radio, plunging the car into silence.

“Aren’t you curious who it is?” Yibo asks quietly.

Xiao Zhan glances at him, but he’s staring out the window. “It’s my business to know whether you’re dating someone because I have to manage your public profile. But it’s not my business who you secretly like or want to date. You don’t have to tell me unless you want to.”

Yibo doesn’t say anything for a while that he takes Xiao Zhan by surprise when he finally murmurs, “Seungyoun thinks I should tell this person about my feelings.”

“That’s usually the right thing to do when you like someone.”

“I don’t think he sees me that way,” Yibo confesses, sounding so innocent and young.

Xiao Zhan’s heart breaks for him.

“Well, you won’t get a real answer unless you try, right?” he pushes gently.

“But I don’t want to risk the way things are now between us! I, um, see him on a normal basis and I don’t want to push him away. I don’t want to make it awkward between us or make him feel uncomfortable by having feelings for him,” Yibo explains. “The last thing I want is for him to pull away because he doesn’t like me back. But is it wrong to keep this from him? Is it wrong of me to let him believe we’re just friends when I like him more than that?”

Thankfully there are few cars on the road at this late hour so Xiao Zhan can contemplate how to answer these hard-hitting questions.

“It’s ultimately your decision to confess your feelings to this person or not,” he finally says. “It is a risk. If you don’t tell him how you feel, you will have to live with how things are now. But if you do, there is a chance it can lead to something else.”

“Seungyoun thinks I should tell him, but actually, Sungjoo, Wenhan, and Yixuan don’t think I should.”

Just how many people know about Yibo’s feelings for this mystery guy? Xiao Zhan isn’t jealous and he respects who Yibo takes into his confidence, but now he feels like he missed some obvious part of Yibo that didn’t go unnoticed by others.

“Why not?”

“Um, they think it might turn out badly, and I would be overstepping boundaries and putting him in an unfair position, because,” here Yibo’s voice drops to a low mumble, “we technically work together.”

Xiao Zhan is struck speechless for a moment, eyes wide. Oh God, of course. Yibo likes someone at the agency. Or on Day Day Up. Or someone he’s currently filming with. Why hadn’t he thought of that? He’d just assumed all this time that it was a friend of Yibo’s, not someone related to him in a professional capacity. Now he understands Yibo’s anguish and predicament: Yibo may like this guy very much but he can’t act on it without potentially ruining their professional relationship.

Yibo sees his stunned expression. “Is that bad?”

Xiao Zhan clears his throat and carefully answers, “It’s not bad, but it’s not ideal either. You can’t control who you develop feelings for after all, but it complicates things when it’s someone you work with. Even if it doesn’t work out, the two of you will still have work together.”

“So you think I shouldn’t do it either?” Yibo sounds miserable. “But you told me before that if you don’t give it your all for love, you’ll regret it forever!”

“Oh, sweetheart.” Xiao Zhan pulls the car over before turning to give him his undivided attention. “You have to do what’s right for you. It’s your decision, and it is a risk. But love is always a risk. That’s why the reward is so great. It can go south, and I won’t lie, it’ll be tough if you work together, but if there is even a small likelihood it can work out, then would you really pass up a chance at happiness?”

Yibo is silent the rest of the drive, deep in thought. Xiao Zhan’s heart remains strained in his chest for him. Despite Yibo’s fame and widespread success in music and acting, he’s still so young, and there’s so much in life he still has to go through.

Xiao Zhan’s bachelor pad isn’t fancy, but it’s clean and tidy that he doesn’t need to be embarrassed or straighten up beforehand when guests come over.

“Bathroom’s over there. You can take the bed, I’m fine with the couch.” It’s secondhand and sags in the middle, not fit for guests.

He’s busy checking his phone and emails—fourteen calls from the agency—when Yibo comes out of the shower, dressed in Xiao Zhan’s clothes.

“It’s late. Come sleep. Your bed is big enough for both of us.”

Xiao Zhan makes a noise of agreement, still focused on his emails, but feels himself be tugged up and pulled toward his bedroom.

“Okay, okay, let me just finish this email,” he promises. Once he’s finished typing out explicit instructions to agency staff to neither confirm nor deny anything until he gets in, he tugs his tie off and strips out of his clothes for a shower.

His mind remains on damage control throughout washing himself and brushing his teeth. He even forgets about Yibo until he gets into bed and Yibo rests his head on his shoulder.

“Zhan-ge.”

“Yes?”

“I know I shouldn’t have said what I said earlier, but I meant it. I really am happy just being with my special person,” Yibo confides quietly to his chest.

Xiao Zhan doesn’t know why he’s telling him this, or why there’s a sudden pang in his chest. “Okay.”

-----

Xiao Zhan arranges the press conference for the very next afternoon. The sooner a statement is put out, the quicker they can stop this before it snowballs into something worse, or that is the hope, anyway.

He delivers an official denial to tabloid reporters and gossip columnists, explicitly declaring that Yibo is single, not dating anyone, and definitely not in a relationship. He explains that Yibo’s comment had merely been simple banter, not based on truth, and does not reflect his current situation.

Of course, the press doesn’t buy it. Some reporters challenge him, pointing out, “Wang Yibo’s offhand comment came out too naturally for there not to be some element of truth,” a comment that Xiao Zhan had been expecting, and, “Even if he’s not officially in a relationship, he’s slipped up and pretty much confirmed the existence of a love interest. Who is this person?” In flawless PR fashion, Xiao Zhan doles out perfectly crafted responses that say nothing at all and give nothing away.

As he expected, the official denial fuels further rumours and speculation, but he hopes that the sooner people look and find no proof, the sooner they can accept this is just the factless product of over-exaggeration and get over this.

In the days that follow, theories and speculation about the identity of Wang Yibo’s sweetheart flourish and dominate social media. The top three most popular guesses are a fellow agency pop star Yibo previously collaborated with, an up-and-coming young actor in a film Yibo had a role in, and—the public’s favourite—an unknown ordinary fan who somehow won Yibo’s heart. Some of the theories are even plausible enough that Xiao Zhan might probably believe them if he didn’t work with Yibo and know him so well.

As reporters and some of the crazier, more zealous fans continue to surreptitiously mill around his condo, Yibo stays at his place for the next little while. He tries to financially compensate him for the trouble but Xiao Zhan would never accept money from a friend in need, so Yibo insists on paying for all the groceries and even buys new things for his place. He even purchases a new couch that is way too luxurious and expensive for Xiao Zhan’s apartment (“That’s too much, you can’t do that!” “I’m not buying it for you, I’m buying it because I’m sick of this old, crappy couch.”). Yibo also helps himself to Xiao Zhan’s clothes, his own clothes being back at his condo and his curated idol wardrobe at the agency.

Living with Yibo is nice. They leave the apartment together in the morning, Xiao Zhan to the office and Yibo to wherever he needs to be at, whether the studio or filming location of the day, and they return when it’s dark and eat something together before collapsing for the night on Xiao Zhan’s bed. Xiao Zhan is so used to being on his own that he didn’t realize how much he missed having company around. It doesn’t escape his notice though that there is a growing, inexplicable tightness in his chest whenever he looks at Yibo recently.

Just like he’d ordered, Yibo obediently does not have any contact with his love interest, the “special someone” at the center of this media shitstorm for Xiao Zhan, though they’re probably texting everyday. Xiao Zhan catches himself wondering who it is when he sees Yibo typing on his phone, what they’re talking about. He wonders if that guy has a clue what Yibo feels about him, if he has any inkling that the current media frenzy around Yibo might have to do with him. If Yibo has made up his mind yet about confessing his feelings for him.

Whoever this guy is, he doesn’t know how damn lucky he is.

Knowing that Yibo likes someone else makes it a bit awkward for Xiao Zhan when Yibo unconsciously does things like curl up against him in bed or rest his head on his lap on the couch. He didn’t really notice until now how their usual behaviour borders on intimate—how inappropriate it all is, given Yibo’s feelings for someone else. It’s inappropriate that Xiao Zhan now notices things like how Yibo smells of his own drugstore brand shampoo or how cuddly he looks in one of Xiao Zhan’s old hoodies. How soft he looks in sleep, and how he takes forever to get up in the morning despite his busy schedule but Xiao Zhan doesn’t have the heart to force him out of bed. How Xiao Zhan finds himself stocking the fridge with the ingredients for Yibo’s favourite dishes a couple times. Or how Yibo putters barefoot around his apartment, looking like he belongs here in Xiao Zhan’s ordinary life.

It’s a dangerous thought and Xiao Zhan knows no good will come where it leads. Especially when who knows how long until Yibo gets together with this guy.

He wants Yibo to be happy, and if Yibo wants to be with this guy so badly that it’s worth risking his career for, Xiao Zhan isn’t going to stand in his way. He does wish Yibo would exercise discretion though, so he won’t have to handle the media fallout.

He makes sure to tell Yibo that over a simple dinner of stir-fried rice. “If you decide to tell that person you like him and you two start dating, promise me you’ll be discreet and keep it on the down low.”

Yibo’s chopsticks still in midair. “You don’t mind if I date?”

“Don’t get me wrong, I don’t need to tell you how badly this can go for your career—just look at what’s happening now when you’re not even dating him,” Xiao Zhan points out. “But if you really like him,” here his heart twinges again and he has to force himself to concentrate on his next words, “and really want to be with him, then I can’t stop you, can I? Just don’t do anything brash or careless. For both your careers.”

“He’s not an idol,” Yibo admits hesitantly. “I think I’m happy just like this… I don’t want to ruin his life. He doesn’t deserve that.”

Xiao Zhan’s heart clenches at the quiet resignation in his voice, and his hand is across the table holding Yibo’s before he knows it. What Yibo said is right, but he can’t stand that Yibo thinks he can ruin anyone’s life. “You’re gorgeous, talented, and super successful for your age. Anyone would be lucky to have you.”

Yibo’s gaze drops to his food. “He doesn’t care about those things,” he mumbles. “He’s not shallow like that. He’s pretty perfect actually…”

Xiao Zhan doesn’t know why that feels like a punch. “Well, if he can’t see what an amazing catch you are, he’s not so smart, is he?” Wow, that came out jealous and petty. Xiao Zhan is self-aware enough to know he’s not as unaffected as he’d like to be.

“Zhan-ge is being too nice. I’m not that great… Actually, one of the things I like about him is that he knows what I’m really like. I’m not as good as people like to think, and I’m not as bad as my haters make me out to be. He sees the real me, and, um, he’s just not into me.”

Xiao Zhan hates what he’s saying, even though he knows Yibo is just being realistic. Yibo should never think that he’s anything less than wonderful and desirable.

Yibo continues, “Anyway, it’s okay. I don’t want to give him any more trouble than I have already.”

Any more? “So he knows that all this is happening because of him?”

“Well, no. But with all the attention I’m getting right now, it’s really inconveniencing him too. It’d be even worse for him if I started pursuing him. I’m fine with how things are now between us anyway. Really,” he affirms at Xiao Zhan’s look.

Well, Yibo may be fine with not acting on his feelings, but Xiao Zhan isn’t really okay with keeping the status quo. He does enjoy Yibo’s company and likes having him around, but that’s exactly the problem. He’s getting too used to having him near and seeing him everyday, and he can’t keep going on like this. Yibo is going to move out eventually. Actually, his condo is probably no longer being camped; his stalkers have likely given up after he hasn’t returned in a week. He can move back any day now, but Xiao Zhan suspects he also needs someone around.

All of this is just temporary, and Xiao Zhan knows he’s getting far too attached too quickly.

So he does what he knows is right for himself: he takes a step back.

He didn’t even realize how close he and Yibo had gotten in the months they’ve known each other. They’ve just fallen in sync so easily, gotten along so well that they can be themselves with each other. It just feels so natural to share space together. 

They may have long surpassed the perimeters of a professional relationship and are now good friends, but Xiao Zhan is aware that they’re pushing even the boundaries of friendship.

They sleep in the same barely large enough bed, for God’s sakes, and Yibo even wears his clothes. Not that Xiao Zhan is blaming Yibo, but Xiao Zhan is aware that he’s become a big, big sucker for Yibo and will just go along with anything he wants.

So that night when Yibo crawls into bed, Xiao Zhan hesitates in the middle of changing. That’s another thing: when alone, he can sleep in whatever he wants. Now he has to at least put on a T-shirt.

“You can have the entire bed. I’m going to crash on the couch.”

“What? Why?”

“There’s more space.”

“We have enough space here. You didn’t mind before.” It’s really not enough space. It’s just wide enough for them to lie side by side but doesn’t allow any room to toss and turn without bumping into each other.

Xiao Zhan sighs when Yibo looks confused. “Don’t you think it’s not right for us to be sleeping in the same bed?”

Yibo looks even more confused. “Uh, no? We’ve been doing it all this time, and it hasn’t been a problem until now.”

Is he being obtuse on purpose? Does Xiao Zhan need to spell it out for him? “Don’t you think the guy you like will find it weird that you’re sleeping with me?”

Now Yibo looks flustered. “But it’s not like that!”

“Well, how does he know that? Does he even know that you’re staying here with me?”

Yibo doesn’t know what to say, just flaps his mouth awkwardly. Obviously, a no. If he’s this bad with this guy, no wonder he hasn’t gotten anywhere.

Xiao Zhan sighs again. “You better tell him. It’d be even worse if he finds out later.”

He beds down for the night on the new couch.

-----

Xiao Zhan tries to gently extricate himself from the inseparable pair they’ve unintentionally become. Yibo doesn’t take it lying down.

“Why do you insist on sleeping on the couch? The bed is perfectly fine!”

“Actually, I think this couch is probably better,” Xiao Zhan answers, not looking up from his phone, where he’s scrolling through the latest Wang Yibo gossip the rumour mill is churning out.

In true tabloid fashion, if they can’t dig shit up, they make shit up. After not scoring anything they can use between Yibo and fellow idols he’s connected with even remotely, the tabloids have turned to claiming that Yibo is secretly dating some millennial trust fund heiress.

“Don’t ignore me,” Yibo grumbles. “If you don’t like the bed, I can get us a bigger, better one. How about it?”

That makes Xiao Zhan look up at him in disbelief. What a wonderful world Yibo lives in, one where money solves all problems. “If you have the money to buy a bed, why don’t you just buy a second bed instead of a bigger bed?”

“That’s not the point. Why won’t you sleep with me?”

God, does Yibo hear himself?

“Why are you avoiding me?” Yibo gets straight to the point, towering over Xiao Zhan on the couch, arms crossed.

If Yibo really doesn’t understand why, he might as well explain it to him. Again.

“I’m not avoiding you. I’m just following the appropriate behaviour between friends. And friends don’t sleep with each other in the same bed night after night,” Xiao Zhan emphasizes the last part. “It’s for your own good too. What will that guy think if he finds out that we sleep together? Do you really think he’s going to believe we’re just sleeping together? You’re asking for misunderstandings to happen.”

“Never mind what he thinks!” Yibo flaps his hands, but Xiao Zhan keeps going.

“Also, please don’t take this the wrong way. You’re always welcome to stay here, but have you thought of when you’d like to return home? It’s been more than a week, so it’s probably safe for you to go back if you want.”

That shuts Yibo up. “Do you want me to go?” he asks tentatively.

“No, I just said you’re always welcome here. But frankly, my place is nowhere near as nice as yours—”

“No, it’s fine. It’s perfect!”

“—and don’t you think that it’ll give that guy the wrong idea if you keep living here with me?”

“Why do you care so much about him all of a sudden?”

Xiao Zhan rubs his eyes, exasperated. “I’m thinking of this for your sake. You’re going to ruin your chances with him if you don’t do something about it.”

“I already told you I’m okay with how things are between me and him. I’m not going to pursue him. It’s not fair to him, so nothing’s going to happen between us, okay?”

Xiao Zhan tries a different tactic. “But what if people misunderstand what we are? You may not care what that guy thinks since nothing will change between you, but what if people think that I’m with you?”

Yibo looks absolutely dumbstruck. Has it really never occurred to him that people might take their closeness a different way?

Has Xiao Zhan been friendzoned so much that Yibo can’t fathom him in any other light? Xiao Zhan wants to hide his face in his hands. He’s not that old… is he?

“You mean in case you want to meet other people,” Yibo says slowly, understanding dawning.

Well, not exactly, but same idea. “People are going to think things with the way we behave now. We practically live, eat, and sleep together. That’s what couples do, which we’re not. Maybe you should keep that in mind so we don’t give out the wrong impression.”

Yibo still looks like he’s processing what Xiao Zhan said. “Does this have to do with Ling-jie?”

Xiao Zhan is taken aback. What does Yibo’s stylist have to do with anything?

“She likes you. And she’s noticed that I’ve been coming in wearing your stuff. Are you bringing this up so you don’t miss out with her or something?”

Xiao Zhan shoves away his bewilderment that Lingzhen is interested in him. “No, this isn’t about her,” he quickly assures Yibo, though he’s not sure why Yibo is suddenly upset.

“So you’re saying this in case you want to, what, bring someone over? Afraid that I’m going to be in the way? Make them think you’re unavailable?”

“No!” He isn’t the type to bring strangers home, but he doesn’t understand why Yibo is getting worked up about this. “I’m just thinking of you and the person you like. If he mistakes our relationship, then that would be unfavourable for you, right?” he says gently, trying to calm Yibo down.

“Stop using him as an excuse. He isn’t interested in me, okay?” Yibo barks out. He spins around just as Xiao Zhan thinks his eyes look shiny. “I’m going home.”

“Did I say something wrong?” But Yibo is already grabbing his things and leather jacket.

The door shuts to Xiao Zhan’s utter confusion.

-----

Yibo avoids him after that, even ceases texting.

It’s not like they saw each other everyday before Yibo started staying at his place, but his sudden removal from Xiao Zhan’s life feels like a gaping hole.

He’s still not sure what exactly had upset Yibo and caused him to storm out. Had he been waving Yibo’s unreciprocated feelings in his face too much? He didn’t mean to. He just meant to illustrate his point: that they’re acting too much like a couple when they’re not and it can be disadvantageous if people were to get the wrong idea. He hadn’t mentioned that he is also getting affected by it, the way that Yibo fits so naturally and perfectly in his life when Xiao Zhan knows he doesn’t belong here, that it’ll only get harder to disentangle down the road the more Xiao Zhan gets attached.

He tries to fix things, unable to bear Yibo being unhappy with him.

I’m sorry. Can we talk about what happened the other day? Read at 12:55.

Can you at least tell me what it is that I said or did? Read at 18:17.

If it’s about that guy, I didn’t mean to talk about him so much. I won’t bring him up again if it bothers you. Read at 12:21.

Is it safe at your place now? Any more people hanging around? If you don’t feel comfortable, you can always come over. Read at 17:45.

I’m really, really sorry for upsetting you. Please tell me what I can do so you’ll forgive me. Read at 21:30.

Yibo keeps ignoring him. He dutifully answers work-related texts though, so Xiao Zhan tries to tack on what he wants to say after business messages in hopes Yibo gets in the swing of talking to him and responds, but to no avail.

The silence is awful, but it’s Yibo’s cool neutrality when they’re interacting that really twists the knife. Yibo who used to be so open with him is now aloof and shut off, like they’re strangers. Even staff at the agency have noticed Yibo’s sudden reservation around Xiao Zhan, though they’ve said nothing, only raised eyebrows.

Xiao Zhan is still struggling to get used to this new distance when finally after a long day at the office, Yibo corners him in the underground parking lot. It’s late enough that there are only a few vehicles left, including Yibo’s motorcycle.

“Zhan-ge, can we talk?” he mumbles, not meeting his eyes. Relief washes over Xiao Zhan that Yibo is finally coming around.

“Of course,” he quickly agrees before Yibo can have second thoughts.

“Not here though. Let’s go somewhere private.”

“Sure, wherever you want.” Xiao Zhan unlocks his car door but Yibo doesn’t budge.

“I’ll show you where we can go. Just follow me in your car.” Yibo heads towards his own motorcycle.

By “private,” Xiao Zhan wasn’t expecting the riverside pedestrian footpath just off a main road Yibo leads them to. It’s quiet and semi-secluded with trees though there are still a few people strolling about far away. It doesn’t escape his notice that it’s public space—Yibo doesn’t want to do this in an enclosed area or either of their homes.

“I’m really sorry for—” he begins when they’re seated on a bench overlooking the water, but Yibo cuts him off.

“It’s not you.” Yibo stares straight in front of him instead of at Xiao Zhan. “It’s me. You did nothing wrong. I overreacted, and I know it wasn’t acceptable the way we were acting.”

“It’s all right,” Xiao Zhan says soothingly. “We get along really well. And it’s nice having someone around after being by yourself for so long, so we just got carried away,” he explains, though he knows that’s putting a nice spin on things.

“That’s not it.”

Xiao Zhan is confused.

“I’m sorry that I got upset that you want to meet and date other people. You should be free to do that if you want. I know I was clinging onto you, and that I was acting inappropriately, crossing the line and imposing on you—”

“Hold on,” Xiao Zhan interrupts. “You weren’t imposing on me. I like having you around. And it’s not because I want to date other people, I really was concerned that you’ll ruin your chances with that guy you like because he’ll think you’re with me.”

Yibo suddenly looks so guilty. “Um, about that… I think it’s about time I came clean with you. I shouldn’t have kept this from you. I didn’t mean to do it for so long.”

He takes a moment to gather his thoughts. “Remember how I said I wasn’t going to go after him because he doesn’t deserve the chaos that comes with being with me?”

Xiao Zhan nods, tastes the same bitterness as last time. Yibo should never think that he’s not worth the trouble, even if it’s true it won’t be easy for someone to be with him.

“I still stand by it. You should know that I don’t expect anything, and I’d understand if you feel uncomfortable and want nothing further to do with me. I’ll make sure Yu-jie knows it’s not you, that you didn’t do anything wrong.”

“Yibo, what is it?” Xiao Zhan probes gently, though realization is starting to dawn on him.

“You’re the one I like.” The confession bursts out like a dam breaking open. “I wasn’t going to do anything about it. I was satisfied just being with you, even as friends, and spending time together. Seungyoun could tell I liked someone and thought I should go for it, but the others were right that it wouldn’t be fair for you since you work for me. So I kept my mouth shut. Then it felt so nice just being close to you and living with you, and I just wanted it to continue like that. So I kept not saying anything and just let you think we were friends. I thought it would be enough for me.”

Yibo takes a deep breath to steady himself, then plunges on. “I’m sorry that I crossed the line and took advantage of you, and for not telling you the truth all this time.” He sounds deeply ashamed. “And I’m sorry if I ruined everything for your job. I know this wasn’t what you signed up for when you took this job,” he finishes meekly.

Xiao Zhan doesn’t know what to say or think, frozen in disbelief. All this time and he’d had no idea.

He’d truly believed that Yibo had fallen for someone and was going through the same trial of unreturned feelings everyone goes through at some point in their lives. But in actuality, Yibo likes him.

How does he feel about that? Well, to say that Xiao Zhan has always viewed him in a professional capacity would be a blatant lie. They’re good friends, but even that wouldn’t be completely truthful. Xiao Zhan is absolutely charmed by Yibo’s pure, ingenuous nature and can’t deny the lightness he feels just being around him.

But it’s more than that. He would be lying to himself if he doesn’t admit the desire and attraction that flares up now and then, which he’d always been quick to quash out of a sense of professional duty. He’d even rationalized it by attributing it to Yibo being a gorgeous idol whose career is built on making people fall for his looks and talent. But the truth is he’s not immune to Yibo’s appeal, and the last few weeks living with him has only proven how right it feels being with Yibo. He wants Yibo. And if he were to be completely honest with himself, even though he wants foremost for Yibo to be happy and would always support his decision, he’d been jealous of this anonymous guy Yibo had fallen for and cares enough about to sacrifice being with him to protect him.

But to think all along it had been him Yibo meant and was doing it all for. The revelation fills him with peace, lightness, and a pervasive joy.

Yibo gets up stiffly from the bench. “I’ll leave you alone now.” He begins marching back to his motorcycle.

Oh dear, his silence must have given Yibo the wrong idea. “Wait!” Hurrying, Xiao Zhan catches his shoulder. “I didn’t get to speak yet.”

Xiao Zhan can see and feel Yibo steel himself as he turns around, as if preparing to face the music. He smiles gently at Yibo, hopes he can feel the warmth in his gaze and be assured that Xiao Zhan isn’t about to break his heart. “You’re right, this wasn’t what I signed up for when I took the job.”

Misery and shame cross Yibo’s features but he meets Xiao Zhan’s eyes evenly, bracing himself to hear Xiao Zhan out.

“I got something so much better.”

Now it’s Yibo’s turn for disbelief. “What?”

The corner of Xiao Zhan’s mouth quirks up. “I met a sweet, gorgeous, amazing idol whose company I enjoy very much and who cares about me enough to give up what he wants to protect my privacy and wellbeing. But he’s wrong about something.”

He doesn’t look away from Yibo, hopes he can see the sincerity in his eyes as he says his next words. “He is worth every piece of trouble, and I’d be honoured to have him.”

For a moment, Yibo, astonished, doesn’t make a sound. Then he stutters out, “But you—you said before that you know better than anyone how hard it is to be with a celebrity.”

“Yes, and I meant it. I also meant it when I said you are an amazing catch and anyone would be lucky to have you.”

Yibo is still staring at him with boggled eyes. It’s a telltale sign how much of a goner Xiao Zhan is for him that he finds it adorable.

To seal his point, Xiao Zhan leans forward to press his lips gently over Yibo’s.

The kiss only lasts a few seconds. Yibo’s lips are just as soft and plush as they look. Xiao Zhan can tell already that kissing Yibo is addicting, and he doesn’t want to stop.

When he pulls back, Yibo still looks incredulous, like he can’t believe what has just happened.

“Shall I pinch you?” Xiao Zhan teases lightly. “Why is this so hard to believe?”

“You’ve never shown any interest in me.” Yibo’s tone is accusing.

“Of course not. I’m a professional.” Xiao Zhan’s face remains straight even as his mind leaps to those times he’s guiltily caught himself watching, transfixed, as Yibo ran through a sexy dance routine. Or that particular music video of Yibo grinding on the floor. He hadn’t known it was possible for someone to be so elegant and so dirty at the same time. Or that time in a photoshoot when Yibo wore a form-fitting blazer and nothing underneath.

From his smirk, Yibo seems to have guessed he’s recalling the times he’s been downright attracted to Yibo. “When?”

Xiao Zhan isn’t going to indulge him. “Like a true professional, I’m not going to admit to being anything less. So that’s for me to know and you to always wonder.

“But I will confess something,” he says, serious. Yibo deserves to know how strongly Xiao Zhan feels about him too. “I realized we were getting too close, so I put some distance between us on purpose. I liked having you around but it was becoming more than that. All of it was getting to me: having you so near everyday, waking up every morning to you, even being able to smell you. I was liking it too much and getting too used to it when I knew I shouldn’t. I was falling and I knew it,” he confesses to a stunned Yibo. “But we were just friends and you had someone you liked. It wouldn’t be wise for me to get so attached when any day now I could lose you to your dream guy.”

Yibo takes both of his hands, eyebrows pinched. Xiao Zhan can’t bear to see him anything less than happy, especially now, so he lifts the mood. “Who would’ve thought that your dream guy is actually me?” He chuckles, brings Yibo’s hands up so he can kiss his knuckles.

Yibo is smiling now, so Xiao Zhan did something right. “I thought it was obvious how much I liked you.” He shyly admits, “Sungjoo says I can’t shut up about you.”

“Looking back now, I guess it was kind of obvious. But I was so caught up by the idea of you liking someone else that I didn’t think it could be a boring, ordinary guy like me.”

“You’re not boring and ordinary, Zhan-ge.”

“Yes, I am.”

“Okay, it’s true.” A cheeky grin. “But I like how humble Zhan-ge is.”

“Easier to have your way, right?” Xiao Zhan teases. “Can’t you already see how much of a sucker I am for you?”

“Really?” Has he really not realized? Xiao Zhan will have to prove it to him.

But he can think about that later, along with other things like how the hell is he going to date an A-lister or how he might need to look for a new job soon.

-----

His phone goes off just before four that morning. Groaning, Xiao Zhan nudges Yibo’s leg off and answers the call.

It’s the agency, urgently requesting him to come in right away. Xiao Zhan is wide awake at once from the panic in the executive’s voice. He keeps a suit ready for nighttime emergencies like this, so he’s out the door within minutes and striding into the office not half an hour after being woken up.

Yulan’s face is pinched and she has circles under her eyes. “This was taken just a few hours ago. Do you know anything about this?” She gestures at the wall-mounted screens displaying breaking celebrity news.

Xiao Zhan stops dead in his tracks, blood running cold. He stares, paralyzed, at the enlarged paparazzi photo.

Of Wang Yibo in a liplock with a tall stranger in a suit who has his back towards the camera. It is unmistakeably Yibo, the streetlight illuminating his face perfectly. His partner, however, is cast in shadow.

The headline reads: EXCLUSIVE: Idol Wang Yibo caught kissing male lover weeks after mysteriously alluding to having a ‘special someone’ on live show

“So you had no idea either,” Yulan says, seeing his horrified expression. “My God, I can’t believe he would do this in public. I thought he had more sense than that!”

Xiao Zhan doesn’t answer, can’t tear his eyes away from the high definition image of the back of his head. Should he curse the universe that this is happening, or thank the stars that this goddamn photographer didn’t get a clear shot of his face?

He doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry that he now has to clean up the biggest PR mess ever and there is only one person to blame. Himself.

Fuck.