Quality Check: Isalee
First Published on Chaleuria
“Thank you, sis-in-law!”1 Bottles of Évian water in hand, Xiao-Wang and several other female staff eagerly thanked Feng Yunting.
“It’s too early to call me that,” Feng Yunting replied, shyly waving aside their flattery. Today was the first day of her visit, and she had bought refreshments for everyone, including the drivers and runners. “We haven’t even gone official yet. It’s still a secret – a clandestine affair, you know?”
“But, it’s at least half-official now since Chen-laoshi has brought you here.” The girls on set gathered around the young model as they rushed to leave a good impression on her. “It’s pretty normal for celebrities to be attached, anyway. It’s no longer a big deal these days.” They continued chattering among themselves.
Sitting a little distance away, Chen Hsin looked through his script in agitation. Feng Yunting’s appearance last night had been sudden – so sudden that his heart seized and stopped beating when he shook off Zhang Zhun’s hand. Even though she clearly saw the way they were, she pretended to see nothing. Climbing into bed after showering and changing, she even held up two packs of fluorescent condoms and asked him to choose a flavor, strawberry or mint.
Chen Hsin was troubled. The situation had become a headache for him. Just as the girls pointed out, it was no longer a big deal for male stars to be romantically attached. What excuse did he have to keep putting Feng Yunting off? What was he supposed to do – tell her that he had fallen for a man?
“Honey.” Having completed her rounds of socializing, Feng Yunting returned to Chen Hsin. She sat down next to him and wrapped an arm around his. “Those girls were so frustrating. They just kept going on and on without stopping.”
“Do you really want us to go public?” Chen Hsin drawled.
“Can’t we?” she asked, puffing out her cheeks and staring straight at him like a little animal. She looked very pretty today. Her long hair, blown with meticulous care, fell to her waist in a soft cascade. The light makeup on her large eyes emphasized the bright, juicy pop of color on her pouting lips. Her lemon-yellow dress brought out her complexion and hugged her curves in all the right places: from her full breasts to her tiny waist, generous hips, and perky bum. No man could ever bear to reject her.
Likewise, Chen Hsin found it impossible to tell Feng Yunting ‘no’. As he struggled to find a way to deal with her, the door opened. Xiao-Deng came into the room, playing with his phone, and held the door ajar with his foot. Chen Hsin’s eyes stared uncontrollably at the doorway, rapt with anticipation, as if the curtains were about to rise on a show he had waited his entire life to see.
As expected, Zhang Zhun appeared a moment later. His makeup was already done. Sporting a slicked-back undercut and a silver stud glinting in his ear, he entered the room in an exquisite, well-fitted suit. The jacket’s waist, masterfully altered and suppressed, accentuated his figure with clean, perfect lines. A silken ascot tie, black and white in design, sat at his throat while the luxurious scent of his expensive fragrance permeated the air.
Chen Hsin’s scalp began to prickle as desire stirred within him. Beside him, Feng Yunting piped up all of a sudden, “He’s really hot, isn’t he? What a surprise since he looked so plain and ordinary last night.”
Driven to distraction because he only had eyes for the other man, Chen Hsin answered with foolish honesty, “He looks even better on normal days actually, when he isn’t acting. He’s much more relaxed and easy on the eyes. This look is too forced and artificial.”
“Oh…” Feng Yunting replied, dragging out the syllable. “I see. You don’t like his on-screen persona; you like him in real life.” Sensing the double entendre in her comment, Chen Hsin realized he had gotten carried away. He wanted to explain himself, but she turned her attention to her candy-colored nails instead, as if she had not meant anything by her remark.
Zhang Zhun, too, noticed Chen Hsin as soon as he stepped through the doorway. Chen Hsin still looked the same as he did when they parted last night, so dazzling that Zhang Zhun was almost burned by his brilliance. Chen Hsin’s girlfriend, on the other hand, looked just like the flawless poster girls in the vintage picture cards Zhang Zhun had seen as a child. The couple looked so good together, so compatible that they seemed like a match made in heaven.
Chen Cheng-Sen strode up to Zhang Zhun, frowning, and lifted the actor’s chin with a chubby hand. “What’s with the puffy and bloodshot eyes? What were you thinking, staying up at night when you ought to be sleeping?!”
“I was studying the script till pretty late,” Zhang Zhun lied. “It’s the first clinic scene. I didn’t want to screw up.”
“Zhou Zheng!” Chen Cheng-Sen called out, displeasure evident in his face. “Where are those Japanese eyedrops for getting rid of bloodshot eyes?”
Following orders, Zhou Zheng sent someone to look for the medication. Once the runner returned with the bottle, Zhou Zheng passed it to Xiao-Deng with a reminder, “Make it quick. There are two scenes scheduled for today. Don’t take too long!”
The only available seats in the room were the ones next to Chen Hsin and Feng Yunting. Zhang Zhun sat down beside them, feeling awkward, and exchanged greetings with a forced smile. There was a sense of unease about his manner, as if he had trouble holding up his head. However, Feng Yunting was very warm. She reached around Chen Hsin and offered her hand toward Zhang Zhun. “Zhang-laoshi, there was too much of a rush last night for proper introductions. Let us treat you to dinner after filming today, alright?”
Her attitude caught Zhang Zhun by surprise. Quite unlike Xie Danyi, she did not seem bothered at all by her discovery. He took the hand with a light grip; it was so soft and delicate that he could not bear to hurt it.
Meanwhile, Xiao-Deng had uncapped the eyedrops. Placing a hand on Zhang Zhun’s lower cheek, he instructed, “Lift your head, Ge. Don’t be scared.”
Chen Hsin stared at Xiao-Deng’s hand, jealousy churning in his gut despite the tameness of the gesture. Even his tone was steeped in sourness as he remarked, “What’s so scary about eyedrops?”
Missing the envious sting in Chen Hsin’s voice, the young assistant grinned at Zhang Zhun. “Ge, I’m going to tell them, okay?” Then, he tilted his head towards Chen Hsin and revealed in a tone of familiarity, “He gets really anxious when putting in eyedrops.”
Zhang Zhun was indeed a little nervous. A blush suffused his face, and his fingers clutched at the pressed creases running down the front of his trousers. “Are you done yet? Hurry up!”
Chen Hsin never knew that Zhang Zhun was afraid of eyedrops; he had not gotten the chance to learn these tiny, innocuous details about the other man. Unable to tell whether this newfound awareness filled him with more jealousy or longing, Chen Hsin began watching the two men as if he were observing a flower about to bloom.
The first drop fell. Zhang Zhun shuddered, and a soft ‘ah’ welled up reflexively from the depths of his throat. The exclamation was so faint that it was inaudible even to Zhang Zhun himself, but Chen Hsin caught it. He heard the whimper loud and clear, amplified a thousandfold, and felt it thrum against the core of his heart.
“Isn’t he adorable?” Feng Yunting commented, taking hold of Chen Hsin’s hand and tangling their fingers together. “I’ve never seen a guy who’s afraid of putting eyedrops in his eyes.” Sounding cheerfully innocent and naïve, she gave voice to the exact sentiment on Chen Hsin’s mind. In this very moment, she became so endearing and lovable in his eyes that he could not help but want to squish her soft, pink cheeks.
“Ge, stop tensing up. It’s all spilling out!” Xiao-Deng wiped at Zhang Zhun’s face with frantic hands. The medicated fluid soon seeped through his fingers. Chen Hsin felt the urge to spring up and take over from the younger man. Let me do it – he wanted to say, but Feng Yunting kept her grip on his hand and held him in place as frustration mounted within him.
“It’s fine. This will do.” Zhang Zhun pushed Xiao-Deng away, and Chen Hsin’s gaze fell on Zhang Zhun’s face. Zhang Zhun’s eyes were closed, his lips slightly parted, while a mess of criss-crossing wet streaks covered his cheeks like tear stains yet to dry. This must be how he looked last night after they parted ways, Chen Hsin took the liberty to imagine to himself.
So many people were milling about in the room: the director, the production manager, the lighting and camera crew… So many dozens of eyes surrounded them, but Chen Hsin could no longer suppress his desire from crossing the line. He took out his phone and leaned toward Zhang Zhun, shifting his long leg at the same time until it nudged against Zhang Zhun’s thigh. Sensing the press of Chen Hsin’s limb against his own, Zhang Zhun withdrew his leg without a word. In response, Chen Hsin returned his phone to his pocket and slid his hand into the shadows between their hips where one of Zhang Zhun’s hands was resting on the edge of his seat.
One little finger pressed down on another. Startled, Zhang Zhun unconsciously turned his head toward Chen Hsin. Feasting his insatiable gaze on the look of surprise on Zhang Zhun’s face, Chen Hsin began rubbing the other man’s finger with slow, sensual strokes.
Despite their little fingers being the only point of contact, Zhang Zhun’s entire body trembled tautly. His eyes stung so much from the sensation that he could not open them. In the dark, unable to tell if others had noticed, Zhang Zhun lost his head to the taboo, illicit thrill of their almost adulterous touch. Uneasy as he was, he could not bring himself to pull away.
“Whoa! Look at those tightly-clasped hands!” Chen Cheng-Sen suddenly spoke up nearby, scaring Zhang Zhun out of his wits. He froze in place, not daring to move a muscle. Then, he heard the director continue, “Not only did you find yourself a girlfriend in secret, you even hid it from me!”
Chen Hsin did not respond. On the other side, Feng Yunting’s sweet voice spoke up in his defense, “It’s my fault, Chen-ge. I was the one who asked him not to tell. Don’t blame him anymore, okay?”
Blinking, Zhang Zhun opened his eyes in spite of the pain. He saw Chen Cheng-Sen’s face through his blurred vision. Following the older man’s teasing gaze, his eyes then fell on Chen Hsin and Feng Yunting’s locked hands. In an instant, Zhang Zhun’s heart was hollowed out. He felt nothing – neither a shred of hate nor a prick of hurt. All sensation faded away. He curled up his little finger in silence and fled from Chen Hsin’s hand.
“Everyone, get ready!” Zhou Zheng announced with a clap, standing in the middle of the room. “We’re shooting the first clinic scene today. Make sure to stay on your toes, all of you! Chen-laoshi and Zhang-laoshi, please begin your walk-through.”
- Sis-in-law: In Chinese culture, it is common for an individual to address men who are close to them in age as ‘brothers’, as a sign of friendliness and respect. By extension, their partners are often addressed as ‘sisters-in-law’ even if they are not actually married.
- When this term is used to address a girlfriend/unmarried partner, it can be perceived as a form of flattery to the woman. This is because the term (1) suggests that the relationship has been accepted and validated by the man’s friends and family, and (2) confers some form of pseudo-legitimacy to a relationship where there may be none.
- In this chapter, by addressing Feng Yunting as ‘sis-in-law’, the crew members are suggesting that her status as Chen Hsin’s partner is confirmed. Since this is not the case in reality, the use of such a term becomes a form of flattery to Feng Yunting.