Added on 24th Oct:
My edit, please don't alter, repost or reupload. Thanks.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Zhang Zhehan's POV:
Zhang Zhehan was attracted to Gong Jun from the very beginning.
In a way that a cat was attracted to a ball of yarn.
He would always remember their first meeting, the moment Gong Jun's image being imprinted onto his iris. The fans called Gong Jun's exquisiteness the finest work of Nüwa, the goddess of human creation in Chinese mythology. Even Zhang Zhehan, who still harboured some bitterness about losing the role of Wen Kexing to him, had to admit Gong Jun was indeed very handsome. He couldn't help but admire that well-sculpted nose, those kissable lips and those eyes that were as pure as the streams in a well-hidden mountain, far away from human traffic.
Very much an image of purity and innocence, the 28-year-old looked like a university freshman in a plain white shirt, and a pair of black track pants. Initially, Zhang Zhehan had mistaken him to be one of the supporting actors as he watched Gong Jun trying to learn a basic fighting sequence from their martial art instructor with the same amount of elegance as a toddler learning to walk. He was polite enough to turn his head sideways before masking a burst of laughter with a cough. He blamed his momentary discourtesy on the younger man. Gong Jun was just so damn cute, with his face scrunched up in concentration.
In introspection, that was the first of the many misconceptions that Zhang Zhehan had made about Gong Jun. Ma-Jie soon came forth and brought Gong Jun over to make an introduction. As it turned out, that younger man was only a year younger than him. And he was the one who had taken the role of Wen Kexing from Zhang Zhehan's eager grip.
One thing that Zhang Zhehan took pride in was his ability to be honest with himself. So at that moment, he readily accepted the fact that he felt something for the younger man. How could he not though? Gong Jun was a pristine canvas, so white and pure that the mischievous side of Zhang Zhehan reared its ugly head. The urge to leave his own brushstrokes on it in whatever shades of his choosing was strong.
But Zhang Zhehan reined that yearning back with an iron grip. He was a repeat offender when it came to having onset affairs. They were nothing more than short flings between consenting adults to break up the monotony of the months when the entire crew was confined to Hengdian. He had gone through enough men and women to instinctively know Gong Jun wasn't the type to engage in such games. So he tamped down his desire, stifled the flame before it had a chance to spread. What he didn't know was that a tiny spark remained, waiting to be reignited with a breadth of oxygen.
Zhang Zhehan was a good actor. And he knew exactly what to do to keep Gong Jun at arm's length. He projected an image of aloofness that befitted his status as a senior in the industry. And Gong Jun visibly cowered in his presence, to his glee. When Ma-Jietook them to a nearby Sichuan Restaurant after their first martial art training session, hoping for them to get to know each other, the atmosphere was as stiff as a piece of cardboard. Zhang Zhehan had little doubt that their waitress had mistaken them for being an unwilling pair who were forced to undergo a blind date under the watchful eyes of a rather enthusiastic matchmaker.
At least they didn't get the enthusiastic part wrong. After a rather long and awkward silence, Ma-Jie gave Zhang Zhehan a swift kick under the table. The older man swallowed back a groan of pain. Damn, her heels were certainly high and pointy. But the message was clear enough - as the senior he was expected to take the initiative. So he did.
Zhang Zhehan pulled up a smile, just wide enough to show off his perfect set of teeth. The type he reserved for the press, hosts of shows, and soon to be coworkers. In a show of friendship that was more for Ma-Jie's benefit, he plied Gong Jun with food with a pair of communal chopsticks. Soon enough a small mountain formed on the top of Gong Jun's bowl under the incredulous gaze of the younger man, just as Zhang Zhehan's equally incredulous eyes captured that rapid rising tinge of pink that had taken over Gong Jun's ears.
In all his years in the entertainment industry, Zhang Zhehan had never quite met someone like Gong Jun, who particularly had the phrase "naive, innocent and sweet" tattooed onto his forehead. It was hard to imagine anyone could remain so unadulterated after spending over six years sinking and floating in a current that none of them had any control over. Even Zhang Zhehan, who was often described as a piece of stubborn rock by his best friends Xiao Yu and Su Su had parts of his sharp edges smoothed away. He was made to learn to walk a fine line between making concessions and maintaining integrity, just enough for him to get by as a 17th liner. And yet there was Gong Jun who had enough assets to make him stand out in a cutthroat industry that was filled to the brim with talented and beautiful people, yet struggled on the 18th line. Zhang Zhehan could only imagine how many opportunities that the younger man had turned down. And that was enough to earn some respect from Zhang Zhehan.
Regardless, Zhang Zhehan had managed to cement his position of dominance by the time he made his appearance at the kick-off ceremony. Armed with an expressionless face and a pair of dark aviation sunglasses that covered his eyes, he might as be the martial art instructor than the actor playing a bottom in a dangai series. And to his satisfaction and frustration, Gong Jun appeared to be content with being his sidekick, even though he was supposed to be the assertive and flirty one on screen.
Their chemistry, or rather the lack of it, was jarring. Zhang Zhehan, unlike most in his generation, wasn't particularly attached to his phone, apart from playing Dou Dizhu in any spare moment he could find. But even he had heard about the not so flattering comments that the show was gaining. To receive only 76 votes in a dangai show popularity poll with over 1600 votes really highlighted a bleak trajectory for them all.
Unsurprisingly Ma-Jie soon sought him out to have a word, "Zhang-laoshi, since you like the role of Wen Kexing so much, now is your chance to have an input in his creation."
Ma-Jie, in her infinite wisdom, certainly knew how to play Zhang Zhehan like a violin. And Zhang Zhehan couldn't even blame her because all of them needed this show to work. At least she didn't point out he was at least partially responsible for their current predicament. For that he was thankful.
Zhang Zhehan was the type of person who readily acknowledged mistakes and accepted responsibilities. So he set out to help Gong Jun to get comfortable with the role, while carefully keeping his attraction to the younger man in check.
To his relief, Gong Jun readily accepted his olive branch. He was a dedicated actor who willingly put in the effort. Both of them soon learnt to work together, feeding off each other, like a wheel and an axel that finally fell into their rightful places. Zhang Zhehan could foresee them being friends even after Tian Ya Ke had wrap-up. The kind that exchanged polite greetings during birthdays and significant holidays.
Unfortunately, as Zhang Zhehan was about to learn, many things failed to proceed as his predictions when it came to Gong Jun. On the 7th day of the filming, Gong Jun caught the cameraman having one of his hands down Zhang Zhehan's pants, and Zhang Zhehan reciprocating the gesture by rocking his arse rather enthusiastically.
Almost out of glee, Zhang Zhehan had anticipated Gong Jun to blush the brightest shade of red that was humanly possible. Gong Jun, despite having the face of apex playboy, had always exhibited constraints when it came to relationships, physical or otherwise. Zhang Zhehan had witnessed a few occasions when some of the fans and the staff members trying their luck with him, obviously dazzled by his good looks. And Gong Jun had always declined their subtle invitations with uttermost tact, i.e. by pretending to be an idiot. He was quite convincing too, which was unsurprising given he was an actor after all. Only the tip of his ears turning red managed to betray him under Zhang Zhehan's amused gaze.
Instead, the "naive, innocent and sweet" man had gone deadly white. So white that Zhang Zhehan had seriously considered calling for an ambulance.
Everything changed from that day. It was almost like a switch had been flipped. And Gong Jun seemed to be possessed by Wen Kexing, a flirt posing as a philanthropist. Zhang Zhehan suddenly found himself in possession of a new attachment, in the form of a 186cm man. And that said man had become his second shadow. Whenever the older man turned around, he seemed to be right there, regardless of whether the camera was rolling or not.
Zhang Zhehan found himself unable to escape the full force of Gong Jun. Any objection was met with a pair of wide puppy eyes and a very convincing argument about "creating chemistry" from the younger man. Habit formation was a terrifying thing. Soon enough he got used to having a hand that constantly lingered on his waist, and a pair of eyes that gazed into the depth of his soul, and the lips that whispered sweet words nonstop. Just like Zhou Zishu got used to the presence of Wen Kexing.
The Hengdian summer was unbearably humid and stuffy. And the tiny flame that Zhang Zhehan thought he had stifled out reignited.
Before he knew it, Gong Jun had captured all his attention. The younger man was as sweet as the daily apple that he gifted to Zhang Zhehan, as sweet as the forbidden fruit that grew in the Garden of Eden. And Zhang Zhehan, who was competitive by nature, was never the one to back down from a challenge. So he reciprocated with lingering looks and coy smiles. He gently ran his fingers along with Gong Jun's hair as sunlight cast a myriad of colours in his eyes. He purposely let his costume slide down to show a hint of skin so he could see Gong Jun swallow, his adam apple bobbing in his throat. Like a child playing with fire, Zhang Zhehan even playfully presented a mostly eaten apple, daring Gong Jun to take a bite from his hand. To his surprise, Gong Jun didn't back down. He took a nibble while his eyes fixated on Zhang Zhehan with a bright glint that reminded him far too much of a puppy that was grateful for a treat.
Startled, that was when Zhang Zhehan realised he had screwed up by going too far.
And that night, when Gong Jun came to his hotel room under the disguise of going through the script together, Zhang Zhehan couldn't find it in himself to refuse him. And for the next few hours, they did many things while their scripts laid forgotten at the far side of the room.
The older man still couldn't quite understand how he came to agree to be Gong Jun's sex partner for the duration of the filming. He blamed it all on Gong Jun's exceptional handsome face, and his equally exceptional skills in bed that he seemed to be able to acquire in no time. He turned out to be an exceptionally keen and capable student in all areas.
"Let me be the one," Gong Jun whispered as he had Zhang Zhehan pinned beneath him. With all the pent-up emotions that Zhang Zhehan wasn't in the position to decipher, Gong Jun clumsily sought for the older man's lips.
And Zhang Zhehan was far too engrossed by the bodyweight that had forced him into the softness of the mattress, and the tips of Gong Jun's hair brushing against his cheeks at that point. In his dazed state, he couldn't find a comeback for that.
By the time he was able to form a coherent thought, Gong Jun was already soundly asleep next to him. A mark had been left on the once pristine canvas, so what was done was done. He didn't have to debate about this anymore, Zhang Zhehan realised. And with that, he snuggled up against the younger man, who readily accepted his presence by draping his arm around him. He found himself in a heated cocoon on a hot summer night. For the first time in his life, Zhang Zhehan who had always shown an aversion to heat didn't mind it so much.
Gong Jun was an attentive partner. Even out of bed, he was just as considerate. So much that Zhang Zhehan felt a surge of envy whenever he thought about the man or woman who would one day form a long term relationship with the younger man. But for now, he allowed himself to indulge in his borrowed affection as Gong Jun held a fan over his head to shield him from the sun, fed him chicken soup after he suffered from heatstroke, fended off toxic fans when Zhang Zhehan became their target.
Gong Jun was so perfect and lovable that by the third month Zhang Zhehan had almost forgotten the true nature of their relationship. He was so earnest and sincere in everything he did that Zhang Zhehan was led astray. Eventually, he started to see things when he shouldn't, felt for things when they didn't exist.
Zhang Zhehan's rude awakening came on the day of the wrap-up. After filming the final scene where Wen Kexing reached for his light, the director announced the end of the shooting of Tian Ye Ka. With the roaring cheers, the staff came forward with bouquets to present to the main cast, and all of them gathered to take memorial photos. Amidst the celebrations, Zhang Zhehan caught a glimpse of Gong Jun whose smiles were just as bright as those around them, and something inside of him shattered into pieces.
So Zhang Zhehan decided to cut the Gordian knot by taking the easy way out. He quickly packed a bag and booked a plane ticket to Kunming, the hometown of Zhou Zishu.
In the "City of Eternal Spring", between the occasional downpours, the sun remained overpoweringly bright. He found solace in the Yuantong Temple as he strode along a gently sloping garden path. He dissected his feelings, which he firmly believed to stem from playing Zhou Zishu as he made his way between a large fish pond, and stone bridge and then an elegant octagonal pavilion that connected to the rest of the complex. As he slowly separated himself from the fictional character that he played, he managed to find clarity. He wasn't Zhou Zishu, just like Gong Jun wasn't Wen Kexing. And whatever had transpired between Zhang Zhehan and Gong Jun held little resemblance to the emotional entanglement between the two zhiji who now shared an eternity together.
Satisfied that he had everything sorted out, Zhang Zhehan booked a plane ticket back to Beijing. Xiao Yu was the only one he had shared his itinerary with. To his surprise, it was Gong Jun who waited for him at the arrival gate instead.
The man stood out like a crane in a crowd with his tall figure and long limbs. He was familiar and yet barely recognisable. Zhang Zhehan could tell Gong Jun had put in some effort to make himself look presentable, with his freshly shaved face, and well-groomed hair. And yet no amount of makeup could hide his haggard face and the dark shadows underneath a pair of eyes that had lost their usual lustre.
Just one look at him, Zhang Zhehan's resolve crumbled like the bricks on an ancient city wall. At that moment he would have agreed to anything if Gong Jun had put forth his demand.
Gong Jun did.
And he only wanted to be Zhang Zhehan's friend.
A friend with some additional benefits.
Nüwa (女娲): the mother goddess of Chinese mythology. She is credited with creating humanity and repairing the Pillar of Heaven. Gong Jun's Chinese fans often complimented Gong Jun on his good looks as 女娲毕设 (the finest work of Nüwa).
Naive, innocent and sweet (傻白甜): a popular slang term describing someone innocent and sweet, who doesn't like to scheme.
A flirt (搭讪人) posing as a philanthropist (大善人): A philanthropist (大善人) shares a somewhat similar pronunciation with a flirt (搭讪人).
Gong Jun's POV:
Gong Jun was indifferent about Zhang Zhehan initially.
He was yet another co-worker, to get along with for a few months before becoming one of the numerous names that occupied his We-Chat contact list to exchange occasional seasonal greetings with.
Although he had little trouble admitting that Zhang Zhehan was beautiful. But so was everyone else in this industry. Not that he could deny that there was something different about the older man.
Zhang Zhehan was a man made up of sharp edges and harsh lines. They formed his well-defined jawlines and facial features. And yet there were hints of softness and fragility to him, highlighted by those expressive almond-shaped eyes and soft full lips. The contrast was beautiful. So beautiful in a way that tended to spark ugly thoughts and dark desires. But that it had nothing to do with him.
Or so Gong Jun thought back then.
From a young age, Gong Jun knew he was different from the others. Apart from the affinity he felt toward his family that stemmed from sharing a bloodline and a sense of responsibility, he had trouble forming emotional attachments. He had many "friends", as defined by convention, he supposed. They were drawn to his side by his easy temperament and good looks throughout his education and his career. And he never had many issues with getting along with them, knowing how they like to see him. They played online games together, hang out for drinks, shared resources and connections. And as long as he adhered to their perceptions of him, these relationships continued, delivering mutual benefits. Even when some of these inevitably fell apart due to time, distance or other factors, he felt little anger or regret. There was mild annoyance at most, with his controlling nature being irritated. To Gong Jun, these people were nothing more than passing sceneries on a long journey. Blurred images of trees that lined the road as a car drove by at high speed. Everything and everyone was predictable, like the indistinguishable shades of greys that filled an entire canvas.
He didn't expect the Tian Ya Ke project and the people he was about to work with to be any different. In his acting career so far, he took part in relatively small projects that were shot outside of Hengdian. And given "heng piao", the veterans who frequented Henddian tended to exhibit a sense of superiority, he had expected to be made to earn his place amongst a cliquey crowd. In anticipation, he slid on his easy-going facade, which had always helped him to endear himself to others quickly.
Zhang Zhehan was a senior with a much larger portfolio under his name. And as such, Gong Jun had expected a certain type of behaviours from him. After all, he had seen the older man stifling a snigger while he deliberately took his time to learn a fighting sequence, however discreet Zhang Zhehan thought he was being. He reminded Gong Jun of a large cat, with his lithe body and prideful demeanour. And yet an hour later, he was at the receiving end of Zhang Zhehan's full attention when he piled a small mountain of food on his bowl, in an awkward gesture of friendship. He knew much of it was under the duress of Ma-Jie. Still, he saw the older man's willingness to find a common ground.
To him, Zhang Zhehan was a strange creature. The aloofness that he clad around himself was shed faster than A-Xu washing away his disguise. And underneath it, the older man was unbelievably genuine and kind, unlike anyone else Gong Jun had encountered in the industry in all these years.
To maintain his humble image, Gong Jun called Zhang Zhehan Zhang-laoshi. He always ensure his pitch was slightly lowered to show sincerity whenever he spoke those three words. He just never expected the older man to take on the title quite seriously. Zhang Zhehan eagerly went over the scripts with him, discussed the characters and their evolving relationship, sharing thoughts and tips without any reservation or self-preservation.
Like anyone who had witnessed the alluring "dividend" after a dangai series had gone viral, both Gong Jun and Zhang zhehan understood how it all worked. The main actors were to forge an intimacy that was to be captured by both the main cameras for the show and the secondary cameras for the behind-the-scenes footage. The perception of closeness was specifically developed to create hypes amongst their target female audiences. But ultimately, they were competitors within a niche industry, grappling for the attention of the one crowd, same pool of brands and other resources. Anyone would have used the opportunity to establish dominance in a relationship early on, which would translate to all their future interactions. And yet, there was Zhang Zhehan who seemed to only care about the greater good of the show, with the single-mindedness of a true professional actor. While Gong Jun played his role of "naive, innocent and sweet by choice, Zhang Zhehan might actually be one, to Gong Jun's surprise.
More than once, Gong Jun felt genuine concerns for the older man, who had put himself in the perfect position to be taken advantage of. Especially when he witnessed the cameraman fondling him like he was a hole for his dick. Indignation washed over Gong Jun. It was so overwhelming that he never even had a chance to examine such a rare surge of emotions. He saw red in a world that had been grey for a long time.
At that moment, all Gong Jun could think of was Zhang Zhehan deserved to have better. And how he could show the older man that he was that better choice. So he did. While he had little practical experience in wooing, he had seen it be done plenty of times before. Surely it wasn't rocket science. So he went on to ply Zhang Zhehan with food, drinks and honeyed words, shelter him from the harsh sun and the toxic fans.
Just like that, Zhang Zhehan's hardened shell was easily softened by Gong Jun's mung bean soup, chicken soup, yu fen, daily apples and big soft eyes that begged for his attention. His Zhang-laoshi resembled A-Xu in many ways. Now that he had gotten into the role of Zhou Zishu, he became this an exquisite beauty like a high-grade jade stone after having its rough outer layer filed away. Gong Jun eagerly took advantage of Zhang Zhehan's growing resemblance to the ex-leader of the Window of Heaven, especially his "harsh words and soft heart" aspect. As it turned out, Zhang Zhehan was unable to resist Gong Jun's puppy eyes, just like A-Xu was weak against Lao Wen's pouty looks.
Gong Jun knew very well what Zhang Zhehan liked about him: his innocence, naivety and earnestness. And that knowledge came in handy for a long time to come. Gong Jun had shown little reservation to use it to his advantage.
At first, Gong Jun tried to secure his arms around Zhang Zhehan's waist under the pretence of "following the script" despite the camera was no longer rolling. His fingers were just long enough to encompass the enticing curves that formed his waistline. Zhang Zhehan glared at him but didn't try to break away from his hold under Gong Jun's innocent smile. Then the younger man set out to purposely intrude on the older man's interactions with other co-stars and staff members in the most inconspicuous way possible. And soon the entire cast and staff got used to seeing them as one entity. Their good nature teasing eventually resulted in Zhang Zhehan's silent acceptance of this development. Even bold phrases such as "Your lao gong is looking for you" ceased to draw a reaction out of him. After they had entered into a sexual relationship, Gong Jun's request to forgo condoms was only met with momentary hesitation that quickly dissolved under his pleading looks. Zhang Zhehan relented on the condition that both of them were to be tested first. Given the older man's careful nature in sexual matters, it was akin to his wordless commitment to a monogamous relationship for the time being. For that Gong Jun basked in glee that only surfaced on his handsome face once he was out of Zhang Zhehan's sight.
Just like that, Gong Jun slowly and steadily encroached on Zhang Zhehan's long-established rules, one step at a time. It was a slow and yet steady process that caused little alarm. Zhang Zhehan's initial uneasiness quickly faded as he became accustomed to Gong Jun's presence.
Gong Jun found much enjoyment in this new arrangement. He was delighted to see Zhang Zhehan's delectable mouth forming a heart shape as he smiled beneath the fan that Gong Jun held over his head. It was the same smile that surfaced on his face after he came down from an intense orgasm, eyes bright and shiny. In light of everything, Gong Jun looked forward to the wrap-up of Tian Ya Ke, a milestone for their relationship to take on a more permanent form. Because why not, since both he and Zhang Zhehan had found gratification in this mutually beneficial relationship. A smile formed on his face as he posed for the camera that captured the commemorative occasion with all the casts and staff surrounding them.
In hindsight, Gong Jun should have foreseen what was to happen next. Zhang Zhehan had always been a force of unpredictability. He was gone after the wrap-up celebration, leaving behind nothing but an empty hotel room that was cleared out by Xiao Yu. Gong Jun saw his plan crumbling right before his eyes as he felt a stripe of wetness on his face. In his shocked state, he sought out a mirror. In his reflection, he saw his red-rimmed eyes brimming with more tears that waited for their turns to leave their marks on his cheeks. Of course, Gong Jun had cried before, mostly in scenes that required such depiction. But this was different, and that knowledge left him feeling perplexed.
So he took his own escape to Dandong. He needed the time to reflect, strategise and plan. He knew what he wanted, and he just had to figure out how to get it.
As Zhang Zhehan turned out to be a lot more wilful than Gong Jun had anticipated, he recognised the challenge that he was about to face. And to win the war, he was willing to lose a few battles. If he had to settle for a relationship that wasn't built on commitment, it was a compromise he was willing to make. For the time being, anyway. He was confident that he would win Zhang Zhehan over, given time. Just like how he managed to win over Xiao Yu with his sad eyes and pleading looks.
Xiao Yu initially resisted Gong Jun's repeated questioning about his childhood friend after Zhang Zhehan refused to answer any of Gong Jun's messages. But eventually, he gave in and shared the older man's returning flight details with him. He even gave Gong Jun a slap on the back with a sympathetic smile, "Zhehan is stubborn and spoiled, be sure you know what you are yourself getting into."
Gong Jun of course did.
As he expected, his compromise paid off. And Zhang Zhehan was amicable with his suggestion. So they cemented their new status as friends with benefits by checking into a nearby hotel instead of spending the next hour or so battling their way back to the city.
In a darkened hotel room, Gong Jun let joy washed over him as Zhang Zhehan made no protest when he pushed his naked erection into the older man. He groaned under the forceful intrusion. His body was rigid and stiff, showing no sign of recent intercourse. Feeling very pleased, Gong Jun awarded him with soft pleading sounds that he knew Zhang Zhehan liked while showing little mercy as he attacked the older man's exposed neck with sharp teeth. Just as he had expected, Zhang Zhehan relented, forcing himself to relax beneath him. His soft heart chose to indulge his younger partner despite his own discomfort. And Gong Jun felt contentment for the first time in weeks, with a Zhang Zhehan shaped void being filled.
The newly mended relationship face some challenges given they no longer worked together. Each of them had their schedules to adhere to and commitments to fulfil. They did find stolen moments here and there, meeting up in different cities under disguises.
Gong Jun disliked travelling as much as he disliked making cumbersome arrangements. And yet those thoughts were far from his mind as he pressed the back of the older man against the slippery shower wall in a hotel room that he had booked for the day. He enjoyed seeing Zhang Zhehan struggling to find his balance while impaling on his erection. A balance that was further compromised after he propped one of Zhang Zhehan's legs over his shoulder. Zhang Zhehan's face scrunched up in efforts. But whatever harsh words he intended to deploy never made out of his mouth as he moaned incoherently. By that point, his body was an instrument that Gong Jun was well versed in. And he was a generous lover as every thrust of his hips caused a delicious tremor that travelled across Zhang Zhehan's entire being.
For his new role as a firefighter, Zhang Zhehan had cut his hair short. It took no time for Gong Jun to get used to moulding his large hand around Zhang Zhehan's scalp, as gripping the other man's hair with his fingers was no longer an option. Gong Jun enjoyed the additional sense of control he had over the older man, as he kissed those enchanting lips, feeling the sharpness of his canine teeth. His eyes were wide open as he watched Zhang Zhehan's glazed over in the post-coitus bliss. The heated water formed a warm cocoon around them, separating them from the rest of the world.
Zhang Zhehan was still wilful, despite his continuous accommodation to Gong Jun. After the water was shut off, Gong Jun tried to carry Zhang Zhehan back to the bed. His chivalrous attempt only resulted in a slew of curses from the older man as he blushed bright red. Gong Jun sometimes forgot that apart from thick smooth furs and soft belly, his cat also possessed a set of sharp claws. As the humble one in the relationship, Gong Jun withdraw his support like Zhang Zhehan had demanded, just to see the older man stumbling. His lips curved upward, knowing it was hidden from the other man's view. He of course caught the other man before his knee hit the floor, knowing how fragile it was. And that was sufficient enough to silence Zhang Zhehan for the time being. Gong Jun was able to enjoy a peaceful night, keeping his lover in his arm securely. It was a position that Zhang Zhehan soon got used to, just like how he got used to being the receiving end in all their sexual activities.
Toward the end of February, Tian Ya Ke was renamed Shang He Ling and slotted for release on Youku. To the shock of everyone, the least anticipated project out of Dangai 101 turned out to be a hit. And that was the beginning of a rollercoaster ride that no one could get off.
Their Weibo accounts and Super Topics took off, with more and more fans following them each day. So did the number of requests for endorsements and variety shows. Gong Jun knew his skeletal team was ill-equipped to deal with the sudden influx of demands, and he had a few options at that point. He could expand his team by recruiting more experienced personnel or contracted an outside agency to assist in that aspect. Instead, he chose to call Zhang Zhehan, with a voice that quivered with both excitement and overwhelms.
And his soft-hearted Zhang-laoshi readily agreed to step in with his more experienced team to show them the ropes of the trade, in the same way he selflessly shared his tips and experiences with Gong Jun back in Hengdian.
Gong Jun was satisfied with this development. This was to be yet another form of entanglement, ensuring their names were further connected. By the time they announced the Tom Ford endorsement deal where they were to promote the same lipstick with the same link, both of their names were on everyone's lips. What they chose to do shocked everyone in the entertainment industry. Not even married couples were willing to share their traffic and sales stats this way, as demonstrated by the long stunned silence from the Tom Ford representative when she first heard the proposal.
And their sexual relationship in private translated well into their public interactions. Their undeniable chemistry was captured by countless cameras, seen by their legions of fans, as the Lang Lang Ding Super Topic overtook another couple that had dominated the CP chart for a long time.
Under the pretence of fan service, Gong Jun allowed himself much leeway. Whenever he was in the presence of Zhang Zhehan, his gaze inevitably lingered on him. He even daringly held the older man's hand underneath a tablecloth that he purposely adjusted. The older man gave him a glare before withdrawing his fingers. And Gong Jun found enough generosity in himself to only take this issue up to the older man once they made their way back to their dressing room. Then the older man went down on his knees with a cushion placed underneath them. His fingers tightly hold onto Gong Jun's as he tongue coated Gong Jun's erection with a thick layer of saliva. In a form of retaliation, which was wholeheartedly welcomed by Gong Jun, Zhang Zhehan became just as daring as he was. He casually leaned onto Gong Jun, pumped his shoulder with his own, purposely rested his leg on the younger man.
The world was their oyster, shaded in bright pink. As pink as the pink powers and flower petals that they showered onto each other during the game of tag they played in Happy Camp. They chased each other in circles, in a world of their own. As pink as the kiss that Zhang Zhehan stole during the break, while they were away from the rolling cameras and public eyes. The tip of his nose was tainted pink as it brushed against Gong Jun powdered cheek, leaving the younger man dazed.
Gong Jun wondered if the feeling of warmth that seemed to have taken permanent residence inside of him had a name.
"Heng piao (横漂)": people in the filming industry who come from other regions to work in Hengdian.
"Naive, innocent and sweet (傻白甜): a popular slang term describing someone innocent and sweet, who doesn't like to scheme.
Yu fen (渔粉): a rice vermicelli dish made with a fish soup base.
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My edit, please don't alter, repost or reupload. Thanks.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
Zhang Zhehan's POV:
Zhang Zhehan had long resigned himself to a life of ordinariness. To be one of the many green leaves that solely existed to complement those who were destined to be the flowers that captured everyone's eyes. Ten years in the industry, and he had yet to make a splash. The bitter reality was enough to kill most of his ambitions and dreams at that point. So one day, when he woke up to find himself becoming a flower in a vast garden made up of all the bright hues was a surreal experience.
The release of Shang He Ling changed his life. All of a sudden, he wasn't just yet another familiar face that appeared on TV and social media from time to time. He now had a name that people actually bothered to remember. A new path unexpectedly emerged. And it was paved with countless gold and flowers. It stretched onward, with no ending in sight. He could see it taking him to where he had always wanted to go. Suddenly, all the dreams he had since childhood seemed to be achievable with hard work. With the blinding sunlight that illuminated his path, he failed to see the brambles and thorns that were carefully concealed by all things that were beautiful and shiny.
His world was turned upside overnight, in the best way possible of course. Friends, colleagues and ex-classmates that he hadn't heard from since graduation all seemed to materialise from thin air. So did the request for collaborations and endorsements. His relationship with Gong Jun ended up being the only constant in a world that was no longer recognisable. It had only strengthened as they progressed through the promotional period of Shang He Ling. Their studios planned shared events, coordinated the matching outfits, and timestamps of their posts. All the intricate details depicted a dedicated and heated relationship. Gong Jun and Zhang Zhehan, the two names that became so firmly intertwined that even Zhang Zhehan at times had trouble telling the illusion they presented to the world apart from the reality of their association.
Gong Jun certainly played his role well. He showered Zhang Zhehan with gifts and attention, clothing and accessories from trendy niche brands that Zhang Zhehan hadn't heard of, new tasty healthy snacks that he had come across, and sharing bits and pieces of his daily life. Zhang Zhehan was a little dumbfounded to find himself at the receiving end of typical wooing techniques that he also used to practice when he had a girlfriend. A girlfriend who swiftly left him after he had sustained a major injury to his knee and lost his agency.
Not willing to back down from what was clearly a challenge, being a naturally competitive person Zhang Zhehan of course responded in kind. Amongst all the gifts that he had given in reciprocation, there was a ring from TASAKI's LABELLO collection, a brand that he was about to endorse. He dared Gong Jun to accept it, while he casually talked about teasing the fans, cementing their perceptions of them as a couple. He made all sorts of excuses as he held onto the other ring in the set.
With the ring's true significant well concealed, Gong Jun was easy enough to persuade. He smiled at Zhang Zhehan adorably, like a Samoyed being handed his new toy. Excitements danced in those innocent eyes. Zhang Zhehan could see a reflection of himself in those as he smiled in reciprocation, like the cat that got the cream. His heart swelled with love, with just a tiny bit of bitterness. Only a "naive, innocent and sweet" person like Gong Jun would fail to comprehend the significance of such a gift. It hardly mattered, not when it worked in his favour. In his glee, Zhang Zhehan allowed himself to be submerged in the fantasy of owning the younger man, tying their future together in a form of a formal commitment that he knew he could never have. Borrowed times and lent affections hardly mattered when the kiss Gong Jun pressed against his lips felt so warm and real.
Near the end of the second concert, Zhang Zhehan made a sincere promise to Gong Jun right on the stage, before the massive crowd. He purposely removed his earphone, shutting out the outraged plea from the director. Right there, he made a promise of forever to be by Gong Jun's side, as a friend, a brother, or whatever capacity that the younger man might allow him to play in his life. He had placed that decision in Gong Jun's hands, and he would never fault him for his choice. This promise was a one-sided act after all.
Their sexual relationship continued afterwards. It was to be expected. Given the amount of attention they received currently, it would be difficult for either of them to secure sexual release safely elsewhere, so why rock the boat unnecessarily? So they continued to meet up whenever they could, squeezing time out of their tight and often conflicting schedules.
Gong Jun bought him a hot search in celebration of his birthday on 11th May. It boosted Zhang Zhehan's traffic stats and of course it also further enhanced Gong Jun's image as a dedicated boyfriend in the eyes of their shipping fans. Zhang Zhehan's staff teased their boss good-naturedly, as he blushed bright red like an adolescent falling in love for the first time.
The world saw them as being in love, so did Zhang Zhehan at times. His entire world had taken on a pink hue. It was as pink as the pink powers and flower petals that they showered onto each other during the game of tag they played in Happy Camp. The perfection only fissured when they were no longer at the front of the cameras. In the darkened hotel rooms or his home, sex became the most prominent part of their interactions. Zhang Zhehan had gotten used to the eager kisses, impatient foreplays, the fast and hard poundings as the younger man drove into him with almost frightening intensity. He let himself float and sink in the ocean of desire, being overwhelmed with the force that was Gong Jun.
Gong Jun always readily passed out after cumming inside of the older man. His body demanded compensation for all the overwork he had put it through. Zhang Zhehan, on the other hand, was often left awake as his back and arse ached uncomfortably. They were just as uncomfortable as the thoughts that circulated inside his brain. He knew exactly what a relationship like this would entail - friendship with benefits. And those benefits should only limit to mutual sexual gratifications. He certainly had no right to expect anything from the younger man that verged into the boyfriend territory. It was just that Gong Jun's tenderness and attention could be so confusing at times.
Those nights were often uneasy to get through, but he somehow managed to anyway. As dawn came near, he found solace in his troubled sleep. And almost always, Gong Jun was gone by the time he woke up. Always so perfectly timed to evade any awkwardness.
But there were also times that they managed to find consecutive days to spend together. And Zhang Zhehan had always loved those. He found himself waking up to the tantalising scent of cooking that drifted its way from the kitchen. He got out of bed, and padded his naked feet to the kitchen, to see his friend making breakfast for the both of them. It felt so right that Zhang Zhehan could imagine them sharing those mornings for the rest of their lives.
He knew as soon as Gong Jun's eyes landed on his naked feet he would make a fuss. And Zhang Zhehan banked on it, as he enjoyed the attention. He loved the warm touches of Gong Jun's long fingers on his ankles, as he fitted fluffy slides onto his feet. Just like that, those ugly cracks healed. Contentment filled Zhang Zhehan's heart. At that moment, his world was perfect.
He soon tasted a tinge of bitterness on the tip of his tongue, even as his mouth was continued to be filled with honey as his popularity soared. If he had thought his newly found fame, a fame that both he and his team struggled to get used to would give him a wider range of filming projects to choose from he was sadly mistaken. As it turned out, his schedule was filled with nothing but endorsement activities and variety shows for the next few months. He was an actor, damned it, when was he going to do the actual job he was trained to do?
His polite inquiries to his management were always met with sweet promises that were made in convincing words and seemingly sincere gestures. They convinced him that he shouldn't waste his value as an actor on mediocre shows so they needed the time and resources to secure the right kind of projects for him. While they networked and traded favours on his behalf, he needed to do his part too. He was to generate enough traffic to demonstrate his commercial value to all the potential investors of these projects. And Zhang Zhehan believed in them. After all, they were the only ones who saw potentials in him when he was at rock bottom. So he diligently performed his duties, endorsing a wide array of products and brands. He smiled and posed as the camera circled around him like vultures, reducing him to a medium to create values for all parties involved.
He followed orders like a good soldier, as these people dangled two prominent projects right before him like the sweetest carrots. One was a modern-day political-legal drama that would allow him to work with an award-winning actress; another was a period drama to be created by a legendary team that had produced numerous highly acclaimed hit TV series in the past. And of course, he was keen on both of them. How could any actor refuse opportunities such as these?
By late April, Zhang Zhehan had come to realise he was nothing more than a golden goose that they were willing to slaughter if it meant they could get hold of the golden eggs sooner. His contract with them was relatively short. At the time of signing, he was an uncertainty that they weren't ready to commit to on a long term basis. And that played to Zhang Zhehan's favour now. He quietly explored alternatives as the expiration date drew near.
Around that time, slanders and brainwash packs that targeted him and his fans became more rampant. It was nothing out of ordinary for those who had been in the industry for a while though. Plus, even negative attention generated traffics and stats in a twisted system that was open for manipulation by those with the means. So he didn't pay too much attention, leaving his studio to deal with them as everyone else did.
Things started to get out of hand soon after, like snowballs rolling down a steep hill, gathering size and momentum each day. By June, he was the target of multiple fandoms as the rumour about his "girlfriend", "marriage proposal", "diamond ring" and his "university entrance scandal" circulated on Douban, Zhihu, Weibo and WeChat. They spread from one platform to the next, like wildfires going out of control with a strong summer wind. People readily ate up all the "melons". All they cared about were their juiciness. Whether those ugly rumours and photoshopped images held any grain of truth hardly mattered.
Malevolence continued to haunt him day in and day out. He remembered seeing Gong Jun and his photos being photoshopped to funeral photos, to be circulated and mocked. As much as he remembered his and his studio's Weibo accounts being relentlessly attacked for days at a time for the most trivial reasons such as wearing a certain brand of shoes or a certain outfit. His name frequented the Hot Search chart day in and day out against his will, while people made the ugly accusations of him buying the search terms to get himself trending. Even his hospitalisation led to a slew of mockery and condemnations. By the time he finally took notice of the situation he was in, his world had transformed itself into a giant quagmire. He was already waist-deep in it. Malice had clung onto his feet firmly, continued to drag him down.
Gong Jun had certainly tried to help, like a great friend he was. Zhang Zhehan wasn't quite sure about the direction that Gong Jun's management had taken, but the younger man seemed to have delegated most of the promotional activities of his new series The Flaming Heart to his studio. But on the days that things got particularly bad, Gong Jun purposely made a post or two on his Weibo account, featuring pictures of his new character. And that was enough to draw some heat away from Zhang Zhehan. Some of his trends started to fall as the paid scoop account's attention got diverted. On the downside, it also meant the younger man had painted a target on his back. The paid scoop accounts were like hungry wolves, they were drawn by the scent of blood. They eagerly dug out the old news of Gong Jun dissolving one of the companies under his name and spun a story around it. Within the hour, there were already videos of "tax experts" "educating" the public on how this was a typical tax evasion technique employed by celebrities. Tax evasion was a serious allegation in China, one that had ended the careers of quite a few high profile celebrities. Zhang Zhehan knew things were going out of control, so he made it abundantly clear to Gong Jun that was he to stay out of his business.
"I'm perfectly capable of dealing with it," He said sternly in a video chat to Gong Jun, then his voice softened, "I have a good team, and they have my back. Don't worry".
He was very convincing at it, as he should, given he was a good actor. So Gong Jun reluctantly agreed, after he was sufficiently distracted by Zhang Zhehan's flesh thighs that he purposely put on display beneath a pair of shorts that were far too short to be decent. By the time they ended the call after an enthusiastic session of phone sex, Gong Jun was sufficiently convinced.
Things only continued to go downhill from there. Each step forward left behind a trail of blood on the path that he was made to walk on. And yet he persisted, as he stubbornly held onto the hope that things would eventually work themselves out. It was hardly the first time he dealt with cyberbullying after all, they were just never at this scale.
His management redirected his attention to his upcoming concerts. So he diligently practised his songs and choreographies, tried on the costumes, planned with people who were in charge of various aspects of the shows. He even trademarked the jellyfish image and organised surprise gifts that he planned to give to his fans, thanking them for sticking with him through thick and thin. He threw himself at all those things that made him happy, just so he could avoid seeing the oncoming train that was about to hit him head-on.
On 12th August, Zhang Zhehan carefully picked out an Off-White outfit from a rack of options that were presented to him. He then asked the makeup artist to add colours to the sickly pale hue of his skin, conceal the dark circles that seemed to have taken a permanent residence under his eyes. Bloodshot eyes from lack of sleep were easily remedied with an eye drop that specialised in neutralising redness temporarily. Armed him best smile, Zhang Zhehan made his appearance on the Taobao livestream of One Leaf skincare, knowing a filter would be in place to help him perfect the illusion he wished to present. For the next hour, he animatedly played games, talked about the Shang He Ling concert, all the good memories that he shared with his fans. He even jokingly wished for a wide smooth road ahead without the need to "blaze his way through brambles and thorns".
He knew it was likely to be his last opportunity to say a few parting words for those who had loved him, so he chose them carefully. He talked about well wishes, loving one another, and sharing that love around to all those in their lives. And he ended the live stream waving his hand, silently said his goodbye. The livestream was a roaring success. His super topic bubbled with excitement as a set of his promotional photos made it to Weibo.
His career ended on 13th August. The quagmire finally swallowed him whole. His management didn't fight for him. Not when they were too busy dealing with their own troubles that were about to come their way. Rather conveniently, he ended up serving as a distraction. He supposed his residual value was to buy them more time.
He didn't fight the outcome. He was defenceless against the onslaught of public opinion in a time that was already high in tensions and emotions. Tens of thousands of water army accounts miraculously materialised, many managing to leave behind their comments within a mere minute of an official news outlet releasing their statement on the matter. Their carefully planned words were filled with seemingly righteous anger, perfectly crafted to sway opinions and distort perceptions. And soon the real bystanders joined in, with their emotions already riled up. Anyone who attempted to speak out for him was effectively silenced by Weibo, as proven by an author who innocently raised a question. Suffice to say no one else dared to afterwards. No one other than his fans who obediently bowed their heads with him, and willingly took on any criticism. They still went to his Weibo account and left their words of encouragement. And that, in turn, made them the victims of intense cyberbullying from random strangers online. Zhang Zhehan read every one of those comments under his Weibo post with tears in his eyes before deleting them one by one, so only the hateful comments remained in the end. It was the least he could do for the stubborn ones who still chose to remain by his side.
His fate was sealed in a matter of three days. He closed his studio and farewelled his team with sincere apologies and generous severance pays. And there wasn't much to do beyond that point. His phone had gone eerily quiet for the first time in six months, saving for his overly concerned mother, and his childhood friends Xiao Yu and Su Su. The crowd around him, those who eagerly fought for his attention and time in the last six months disappeared quietly, like the waves receding during low tides. And Zhang Zhehan who had gone through many ups and downs in his career already anticipated such swift changes so it failed to make much impact on him.
The only other person who persistently called and texted was Gong Jun, who was locked away in Hengdian shooting the Legend of Anle. Zhang Zhehan had little intention to take any of his calls or read any of his messages. He already knew what they would be about anyway. Gong Jun had spent the last six years looking for a break, and now he finally secure one Zhang Zhehan doubted he would let anything or anyone stand between him and his gaol. Zhang Zhehan understood the overwhelming need to succeed in such a cutthroat industry. So he could never fault Gong Jun for cutting ties. Instead, the older man decided to be the graceful one and spared both of them that particular awkward talk.
So he went back home, packed a bag and headed to the airport. Once he was there, he brought a new sim card from a telecom store to replace his current one which was discarded on the spot. He only gave his new number to the close few, before deleting all of his social media apps. And then he bought the first available flight out of Shanghai with a mask firmly on his face, and a cap casting shadows over his eyes.
And for the second time in his life, he chose to disappear from Gong Jun's life without leaving behind a word.
Naive, innocent and sweet (傻白甜): a popular Chinese slang term describing someone innocent and sweet, who doesn't like to scheme.
Melons (瓜): a popular Chinese slang term describing rumours or speculations.
Blaze one's way through brambles and thorns (披荆斩棘): a Chinese idiom describing fighting the way forward through obstacles. Zhang Zhehan used these exact phrase during his One Leaf livestream.
Water army (水军): Internet ghostwriters or bots who are paid to post online comments to spread misinformation, gossips, and manipulate public opinions. They are very rampant on Chinese social media platforms.
Gong Jun's POV:
Gong Jun let Zhang Zhehan believe the ring was the older man's idea. One could never lure a stray cat into their home if the cat wasn't willing. And Zhang Zhehan could definitely be a skittish kitten at most unexpected moments. It was one thing that Gong Jun had learnt when the older man chose to leave him without an explanation after the wrap up of Shan He Ling.
So instead, Gong Jun carefully made his plan and executed it with fineness. Many gifts were bought along the way, snacks, accessories, clothes etc. He upped the game slowly, challenging the older man to raise the stake as well. Just as he anticipated, as Gong Jun upped the ante, so did Zhang Zhehan, fallen prey to his own competitive nature. It was a very pleasurable process for Gong Jun, one that immensely satisfied his need to imprint himself into every part of Zhang Zhehan's life.
In May, Suzhou was immersed in a jubilant atmosphere. Their faces were plastered across the entire city as Youku, the brand endorsers and the fans all chipped for a wedding that was to take place under the thinly veiled disguise of a farewell. Gong Jun thought they had the well wish of the entire world when a TASAKI's LABELLO ring was slid onto his finger. He reciprocated the gesture like they were a pair of newlyweds at their wedding ceremony while grinning with far too many teeth exposed. But he quickly composed himself. Like a harmless Samoyed, he kissed his Zhang-lao shi with gentleness and warmth.
And a day later, he received a promise of forever from the older man in the Suzhou Olympic Sports Center, with all those present as their witnesses. He buried his head against Zhang Zhehan's shoulder. Satisfaction swelled in his heart. It was so much and so overwhelmingly big that he thought his heart might burst open right there.
Their overt collaborations ceased from that moment onward. With them out of the promotional period of the show, they had to be more cautious in their interactions. But there were plenty of other ways to further cement their relationship both commercially and privately. They continued to share resources, utilised matching outfits from carefully selected brands, especially those with relevant brand histories or stories, timestamp their posts, and incorporate CP elements in their respective promotional activities. Gong Jun who had always managed all his social media activities personally was well versed in the game, and it was one lesson he gladly shared with his Zhang-lao shi and his team. Their studio had a calendar synched, documenting all the important dates in their association. And many plans were made in accordance. The commercialisation of their relationships had an added benefit. It served as a wonderful excuse to continue tying them together, in a way that Zhang Zhehan couldn't refuse.
One thing that bothered Gong Jun about the sudden shoot to fame was how it had propelled both of them into the limelight. While he didn't particularly mind being called lao gong by a bunch of teenagers, playing on the pun of his last name, he wasn't that happy about his Zhang-lao shi quickly becoming the nation's lao po. And that nickname soon made it to their overseas fandom and became one of the few Chinese words that their non-Chinese speaking fans quickly picked up. While Gong Jun took the pleasure of knowing the older man had finally received the attention he rightly deserved, he didn't particularly appreciate the ogling of what was rightfully his. Particularly not those photos, gifs, video clips, fan art and fanfics that were fixated on Zhang Zhehan's tiny waist, perky chest and the perfectly formed arse that reminded him far too much of a ripe peach that was ready to be devoured.
Zhang Zhehan wasn't helping the matter either. Not when the fans were quick to unearth all the racy contents of him smugly showing of his tantalising assets in various angles and countless settings. Not when he acted with unnerving familiarity with other male celebrities, particularly the handsome ones such as Xu Kai. Not when he appeared in Happy Camp with wet clothing clinging onto his form, leaving very little to imaginations. He even had the audacity to play the game of surfing, which consisted of him kneeling on a surfboard, attempting to snatch food away from his teammate's fingers with his mouth.
Jealousy was sharp and ugly. And inherently unfamiliar and yet fascinating. Gong Jun marvelled how it only seemed to ever make an appearance when it concerned Zhang Zhehan. Despite the magnitude of emotions, he reined in his displeasure, at least outwardly. He instinctively knew the older man wouldn't take it kindly.
Instead, he found solace in other ways. Such as making his Zhang-lao shi wrap those tantalising lips around his erection instead, as he thrust into his heated mouth while keeping a tight grip on his hair. He coaxed the older man into calling him "Jun Jun" in public, and "bao" in more private settings. He particularly liked when Zhang Zhehan, a man who was a year older being reduced to calling him "ge ge" in bed, as he pounded into him with a force that soon reduced those words to incoherent groans. Those well-toned thighs tightened almost painfully around Gong Jun's waist, as the older man's entire body tensed up like a bowstring that was pulled to its fullest. Gong Jun enjoyed those moments, fully knowing he was the only one that mattered in Zhang Zhehan's world. As he gazed at his own reflections in the orgasm dazed eyes, he was gleeful in the knowledge that he was the only one allowed to have a free reign to this body.
And as added benefits, Zhang Zhehan was much more amenable post-coitus. Gong Jun had managed to convince him to wear more conservative clothes and keep his distance from his male friends in the future with his sweet pleas.
It was only during the darkest hours of the nights, Gong Jun allowed himself to fantasise about keeping the older man hidden away. In a house that was situated far away from human habitation, Zhang Zhehan was to be bound to a bed with a set of chains that he handmade himself. In this golden gilded cage that he had built for his beautiful canary, to be filled to the brim with all the finest things that he could now afford, Zhang Zhehan would finally be his and his alone. And those dreams tended to leave him with a raging erection that took a long time to take care of in the absence of his obliging lover.
2021 was a year of major upheavals for Gong Jun. He was a man who got used to driving on a suburban road for most of his career and now suddenly found himself on a highway, travelling over 120km per hour. But he was level headed in the face of everything that was happening. His aim was big but he also understood the need to take a smaller step to get there. If anything, he had become more cautious. He was now at the big league, and this tightly knitted circle didn't take kindly of those who came in uninvited.
Fame took a much bigger toll on Zhang Zhehan, on the other hand. His more prominent backings made him a much bigger threat in the eyes of those who cared. Since hitting the Jackpot with Shan He Ling, Gong Jun had set aside at least an hour a day online, diligently conducting environmental scanning to see what was looming on the horizon. He couldn't entrust such an important task to one of his staff, not even his long time manager Xiao Xiong who had been with him for five years now. So it was only natural for him to see the troubles that Zhang Zhehan had found himself in.
Their impact on the older man was very noticeable. Whatever weight he had managed to gain after the wrap up of Shan He Ling was once again lost. His chubby cheeks had given way to gaunt lines of the cheekbones that had become even more prominent now. But it was most noticeable in his eyes. The gentleness of A-Xu remained even after all those months and yet it was tainted by the dark shadows of fatigue and anxiety.
Gong Jun had tried to help, attempted to divert some of the heat away from the older man when things got out of control. But it was like fighting a raging bushfire with nothing but a bucket of water. Knowing how futile it was, when Zhang Zhehan told him to back off, he did.
When the "scandal" broke out on 13th August, Gong Jun was in the middle of shooting the Legend of Anle. It was a fully packed day, with very little break in between. By the time he was off work, Xiao Xiong had buried his phone with unanswered messages and missed phone calls. When she finally got hold of him she quickly filled him in on what was happening, along with a message from Zhang Zhehan.
"Xiao Yu-ge had called. Zhang-lao shi said to unfollow him on all social media platforms immediately, and deleted all posts that are associated with him." Xiao Xiong said, her voice was hoarse over the phone line, "You need to cut ties right now. It would be best if you have a statement ready. We have come up with a few versions for you to consider."
Despite Xiao Xiong's repeated and persistent pleas, Gong Jun didn't do any of those things. He was not in the habit of kicking someone when they were down. Especially not doing it to the one person who still thought about him when himself was in hot water.
It hardly mattered though. Soon all of Zhang Zhehan's social media accounts along with his related super topics had been shut down. All of his works were erased. Apart from all the scolding and slandering, his presence in this world was effectively eradicated. If Gong Jun ever had any doubt about human nature, he had certainly seen enough to fully appreciate its coldness and fickle nature.
Gong Jun understood the vulnerable position he was now in due to his tight association with Zhang Zhehan. The sharks, after their enormous feast, were ready to hunt once again. Any sign of vulnerability from him could draw an open attack. So Gong Jun smiled at the cameras that were pointed at him, dutifully reciting the lines that were part of the script, and gazed at his beautiful co-star with deeply rooted love and affection as his job required of him.
And in the moments that he finally found some privacy, he made phone calls and sent WeChat messages to Zhang Zhehan. Unfortunately, all of them went unanswered. At first, he wasn't overly concerned, believing the older man was busy dealing with his crisis. By the time he realised the older man was no longer in Shanghai, as revealed by a late-night drive to his apartment, Zhang Zhehan was long gone.
The fact that Zhang Zhehan had chosen to disappear from his life without a word for the second time derailed Gong Jun. He could hardly believe this was happening once again. Not after he had carefully built and cemented a relationship with the older man in all those months. Now what they had managed to build was on the verge of collapse right before his eyes. He signed with an increasing sense of frustration, like millions of ants gnawing at his heart.
Xiao Yu sounded surprised when Gong Jun reached out to him. Gong Jun supposed most of Zhang Zhehan's acquaintances had chosen to keep their distance given the situation.
"I need to see him," Gong Jun said, his tone firm and strong.
Xiao Yu went quiet on the other side of the phone line. But Gong Jun was patient. In all the months dealing with Zhang Zhehan, he had learnt to appreciate the value of such virtue.
After a long pause, Zhang Zhehan's childhood friend finally broke the silence, "He doesn't want to see anyone. Not me, not Su Su, not even his mother. At least, not yet."
Gong Jun could understand the need to lick the wound, to find solace in unhindered solitude. Just not as much as he understood the growing sense of urgency inside of him, like an over boiling kettle that had been left on the stove for far too long.
"You don't understand, Xiao Yu-ge," He purposely softened his voice, made himself sound small and vulnerable. Every word quivered with emotions that he purposely set loose, "It's me who needs to see him. So please..."
Zhang Zhehan's POV:
Zhang Zhehan made a small rural town in Hebei his new home, however temporary it would be.
It was one of the many small ones scattered around the rural areas of China. They were typically less populated, with most of the younger generations leaving it to pursue better opportunities in the bigger cities. Those who chose to remain behind were either too old or too young for such endeavour.
Initially, the locals showed great interest in a newcomer who seemly appeared out of nowhere. Zhang Zhehan presented himself as a photographer who was there to capture the beauty of everyday lives. And soon these good-natured people let him be. Even though the Internet was widely available, most of them showed very little interest in online gossips and scandals.
Life was peaceful here. And he found serenity as he walked amongst the partially harvested fields, beneath the trees with leaves that had started to morphe into the brilliant shades of yellows and reds, next to the flowers that were in their last days of bloom. So much that he had even considered taking a permanent residence here, an escape from the outside world. As ludicrous as it might sound, there was a certain appeal to it even though he knew he wouldn't be able to bear a life without being involved with the art of acting in some way. The desire to create was so ingrained inside of him that it was impossible to separate from him at that point.
Apart from taking a few photos here and there, cooking had become a newfound hobby. Not that he was particularly good at it. Yet. Still, he found joy in plentiful fresh vegetables, fruits, fish and meat that were unaffected by commercial farming. He had even considered inviting his mother and the few close friends here to show off his newly improved skills with a tableful of dishes.
Out of all the scenarios he had considered for his life from this point onward, Gong Jun was never part of them. In fact, he didn't expect to see the younger man again. At least not so soon. Not when he wasn't ready to face him yet.
Of course, he had imagined how their paths might cross again. In those nights that sleep came to him uneasily, he had dreams about a distant future where their eyes would briefly meet across a room, with a bustling crowd between them. Gong Jun would have become a multi-award winning actor by then. And Zhang Zhehan would have found his second career, still within the industry that he loved, but far, far away from the limelight that carved out endless scars on him. Time would have passed so much that the names Gong Jun and Zhang Zhahan no longer held any association. Just like that, he would be a stain that was no longer visible in Gong Jun's life. And with the safety of distance and anonymity, just like any adoring fan, he would be free to admire a shiny star from afar.
And yet here Gong Jun was, outside his front door with a baseball cap and a mask to hide his feature. In a set of clothes that were thoroughly drenched by the rain.
Zhang Zhehan's first instinct was to shut the door in Gong Jun's face, who he had initially mistaken as a delivery man who happened to be about Gong Jun's height. Zhang Zhehan had used his service quite a lot in the beginning, on the days that he couldn't make it past the front door without unreasonable fears overwhelming him.
Gong Jun caught the edge of the door before it had a chance to shut. But he failed to stop it from slamming right onto his fingers with brutal force. He lifted his head in pain, and it just happened to be at a perfect angle for Zhang Zhehan to see those moistened eyes behind the rain-soaked fringes.
Suddenly found himself in direct contact with those intense eyes, Zhang Zhehan instinctively stumbled backward, vacating just enough space for an adult male to pass through. And Gong Jun of course took it as an invitation and made his way inside before Zhang Zhehan had a chance to utter a protest.
Not that Zhang Zhehan ever had it in himself to stop Gong Jun. The younger man reminded him far too much of Chopper, a stray puppy that stubbornly followed him everywhere after he shared his lunch with him out of pity. All it took was a few pieces of ham, and a few gentle strokes on the head, Chopper immediately formed an attachment that refused to wane.
Any objection that would have come out of his mouth was effectively silenced as Gong Jun thrust his head onto Zhang Zhehan's chest. A groan emitted from there, it was soft, raw and vulnerable. The older man's heart immediately softened, like the thick snow in the spring breeze. Not knowing what to do, all he had to offer were awkward strokes on his head and sounds that were supposed to soothe but made very little sense.
"Zhang-Laoshi...." Gong Jun's barely decipherable muttering was muffled by Zhang Zhehan's shirt.
Zhang Zhehan's resolve crumbled further, like an ancient city wall that was well eroded by the passage of time. When Gong Jun finally lifted his head for some fresh air, Zhang Zhehan found himself face to face with a pair of eyes that took on an iridescent shine. At that moment, all he could see was himself as a reflection in those eyes, so haggard and worn out.
Shame came over to him, just like that. Zhang Zhehan didn't want to be seen, especially by Gong Jun, of all people. Not when he hadn't shaved for days. Not when his longish hair was in knots and tangles. Not when his face was make-up free so there was nothing to hide his protruding cheekbones and the dark circles that had become permanent features of his face. Not when he suddenly had a feeling that what Gong Jun was about to say could fundamentally change their relationship. Just as much that he worried that he had taken the wrong hint and got himself worked up over nothing.
So all Zhang Zhehan could do were to offer his lips and his parted thighs. For them, sex had been always useful. It filled the awkward silence, glazed over unspoken words, hid mistakes and regrets. Everything looked less obvious under the blinding influence of orgasm.
Just as he had expected, it worked like a charm. Gong Jun had him right there against the wall. Zippers parted, and clothes fell. Gong Jun propped him up with his arms as his erection forced its way inside Zhang Zhehan. The older man felt the rough surface of the wall rubbing against his naked back.
Zhang Zhehan groaned in pain that he had brought on himself. Gong Jun's face was half-hidden by a shadow that was cast on him. In that split second, the older man suddenly felt like a fish on a chopping board, waiting to be gutted and filleted. He tensed up immediately. As if sensing his distraughtness, Gong Jun lowered his head and peppered his neck with soft kisses that intended to soothe. Zhang Zhehan exhaled, as he pushed away a sense of doubt that came to him just as quickly as it went away. Since the day that became a turning point in his life, doubt had become a permanent presence in his life. He could no longer find confidence in anything. Not in his own judgment, nor his ability to place trust.
The intercourse was frantic as it was messy. Gong Jun filled his inside with semen. It made its way down Zhang Zhehan's thighs with the force of gravity when the younger man extracted his softened penis. Under Zhang Zhehan's guidance, Gong Jun took both of them to his bedroom.
As they laid side by side, with naked skin pressed against naked skin, everything quietened down. Their breadth gradually slowed, so did the frantic touches that became gentle caresses that lingered. Without the shield of physical intimacy, Zhang Zhehan suddenly felt very naked, in a sense that had nothing to do with his present state of undress. The urge to get away was strong, but so was his pride. So instead, he waited for Gong Jun to fall asleep like he usually did as he silently planned his not so dignified retreat.
Unfortunately, his plan was interrupted by a sob that broke the silence. Zhang Zhehan's pupils expanded to allow more light in, so his eyes could capture the exact moment those big fat tears started to tumble down from Gong Jun's expressive eyes. Very taken back, Zhang Zhehan's brain came to a halt. The first thought that popped up was "surely the sex wasn't that bad".
He didn't even realise he had spoken those words out aloud until Gong Jun descended upon him. Once again, his head was tightly pressed against Zhang Zhehan's chest, as he sobbed onto the naked skin of the older man. Those tears burnt like acid. Zhang Zhehan didn't realise how much pain he was in until he latched onto Gong Jun with equal force. It was as if a closeness that went beyond the physical sense was the only way to deliver some relief.
"Zhang-Laoshi..." Between the sobs, Gong Jun choked out these words, "Don't leave me. Not ever again."
Zhang Zhehan's entire world came to a still. It was as if he was back in his university days when Chopper was still part of his life. He was so young back then, barely able to take care of himself while surviving on the food from the school cafeteria. Although the dormitory had a strict pet-free policy, Chopper managed to win his roommates over with his stubborn traits and a pair of moist eyes that shined with so much unadulterated love. So the puppy got himself a new home. He made the dormitory and a deserted corner of the school his new territory while evading the watchful eyes of the dorm supervisors. He was a presence of happiness until he was run over by a drunken driver. Zhang Zhehan spent days trying to locate his beloved friend until he found the mud-covered carcass.
Despite the passage of time, guilt lingered. It surfaced from time to time, leading Zhang Zhehan to question whether he could have done better. If only he had tried to secure a proper family to take care of Chopper. If only he was able to spend more time with him. If only he was a better friend... And now Gong Jun held onto him with the same tenacity and stubbornness as Chopper did, with his teeth tightened on his pants, refusing to let go.
The irony was although Gong Jun presented himself as the follower in this relation, often he was the one who drove Zhang Zhehan into a corner. With no escape route in sight, Gong Jun ultimately became the one and only choice available.
Zhang Zhehan shuddered, as his arms instinctive tightened around Gong Jun. All sorts of emotions threatened to overwhelm him. And in an emotional ocean made up of violent waves, the younger man became the only lifebuoy that kept him afloat.