Quality Check: Isalee
First Published on Chaleuria
The next day, Zhang Zhun and Xiao-Deng made their way upstairs for breakfast. According to the schedule, there was supposed to be an early shoot in the morning. However, when the two reached the restaurant, they were told by the production manager that all filming had been called off for the day. Noticing the sheer number of entertainment reporters milling about the place, Zhang Zhun assumed at first that the cancelation was just a tactic to evade media attention. He only found out the real reason for the break after Xiao-Deng returned from his round of inquiries: Chen Hsin had an upset stomach and had been on an IV drip for his acute gastric inflammation since midnight.
It must have been the glass noodles from the mala broth, Zhang Zhun realized at once; it was his fault that Chen Hsin had to go through such ‘gut-wrenching’ agony. Unaware of the full story, Xiao-Deng jeered, “Is he serious? The mighty king of the silver screen, scared sick just because his love affair has come to light?” At this, Zhang Zhun shot a fierce glare at his assistant. Despite feeling a little wronged, Xiao-Deng shut up without a fuss upon seeing the older man’s displeasure.
Meanwhile, a group of reporters seated at the neighboring table began darting frequent glances at the pair. They muttered among themselves from time to time, appearing to have recognized Zhang Zhun as Chen Hsin’s co-star. When Xiao-Deng and Zhang Zhun were almost done with breakfast, the reporters snuck up to their table and greeted the actor with smiles plastered on their faces. “Is this Zhang Zhun-laoshi? Good morning, we’re from Sun Entertainment.”
“Good morning,” Zhang Zhun returned, cautious and reserved. He nodded at them and prepared to leave, but the group showed no signs of letting up. “What are your thoughts on Chen Hsin’s clandestine affair?” they pressed.
Xiao-Deng immediately got to work: he stepped between the group and Zhang Zhun, blocking the reporters’ way with his tall figure. “What has someone else’s love life got to do with us?” he retorted as he hid Zhang Zhun behind him, half-shielding the older man with his own body. “Ge, you go first.”
“I… will be on the thirty-eighth floor,” Zhang Zhun breathed, his voice drifting lightly by the young man’s ears. Turning his head, Xiao-Deng saw the piteous expression haunting his big brother’s face. Like a dead branch cut away from a flower arrangement, Zhang Zhun seemed withered and gaunt. “I’m going to see him.”
The reporters started shoving at Xiao-Deng, but to no avail. The young man did not budge at all. “There’s no need for this. We just have one question for you!” They persisted, refusing to relent. “Zhang-laoshi, you spend so much time with Chen Hsin every day. Do you know if he’s seeing any other women on the side? Come on, tell us!”
The question stabbed Zhang Zhun to the quick. Towering over the reporters, Xiao-Deng jabbed a warning finger at them. “One more word from you and I’ll smash you to a pulp! Try me!”
Zhang Zhun stepped out of the elevator on the thirty-eighth floor. Right before him were several smokers with filming equipment, while more people could be seen pacing back and forth farther down the corridor. He bowed his head and slowly made his way to Chen Hsin’s room. Many reporters were leaning against the walls, and just as many were sitting on the carpet. All eyes fell on Zhang Zhun, sizing him up as he walked through their midst. When they saw him press the doorbell to Chen Hsin’s room, the sensitive crowd began stirring. Bits of their muttered conversations drifted into Zhang Zhun’s ears: “Who’s that? Looks kinda familiar…”
The door opened. Feng Yunting appeared in the entrance. She paused for an instant when she saw Zhang Zhun, but broke into a gentle smile in the next breath as she greeted him, “Please come in, Zhang-laoshi!” Although Zhang Zhun already knew that she would be the one to answer the door, he could not help feeling awkward about it. Stepping into the room, he heard the young woman drop her voice into an airy murmur, “The gall of you to show up now.”
Zhang Zhun pretended to have heard nothing. “How is he?”
Feng Yunting looked at him with indifference. She was still wearing the same outfit from last night. Exhaustion showed on her face despite her freshened make-up; it was evident that she had not managed to get much rest. “The fever’s gone. It’s nothing serious.”
Zhang Zhun walked toward the bed. He had been in this room many times before; he knew exactly where everything was, down to the placement of the furniture. But now, those surfaces with covered with Feng Yunting’s belongings. Bright-colored dresses were draped over the backs of chairs, while tables were laden with expensive bags and scarves. Zhang Zhun turned his head away and saw Chen Hsin lying on the large bed with an IV drip in his left hand. A large clothes rack stood close by, serving as a makeshift holder for the saline drip bag.
Chen Hsin was awake. He had already seen Zhang Zhun. Moving his eyes in contentment, he called out to the other man, “You came empty-handed?” The hoarseness in his voice added an almost comical touch of vulnerability to his being.
Zhang Zhun was tickled by the question. “Was I supposed to have come bearing an offering of fruits?”
Chen Hsin answered with a lift of his right hand, gesturing toward the long decorative table near the door. The tabletop was covered with all kinds of fruits and flowers. “Not only did you come late, you didn’t even bring anything for me.”
A chair had been placed by the bedside; it seemed that many others had indeed been here before Zhang Zhun. He glanced at Feng Yunting before sitting down in a restrained manner. “I’m giving you face just by showing up.”
Chen Hsin laughed. Two deep lines appeared on his cheeks, making it clear that his joy was genuine. His eyes, brimming with deep, lingering affection, traced over Zhang Zhun with care. Then, Chen Hsin said all of a sudden, “I just wanted to see you.”
Zhang Zhun felt his hackles raise at once. He tensed as if he had been stripped bare before others, reeling from the swell of feelings within him – shame, panic, and just a touch of clandestine, immoral delight. Feng Yunting sighed. She crossed her arms, turned her back on the men, and walked towards the window. Her narrow shoulders shook with effort as she restrained herself.
“Well, as long as you’re fine…” Zhang Zhun wanted to get up. Realizing that the older man was planning to leave, Chen Hsin stretched out a hand from under the thick covers. It lay on the bed, damp with sweat, slanting across the edge of the mattress. Electric shocks tore through Zhang Zhun’s body at the sight. He stole a nervous look in Feng Yunting’s direction and saw her tidying the pretty assortment of fragrances on the table, with the delicacy and care of a feminine touch.
“Careful, or you’ll catch a cold,” Zhang Zhun muttered as he started to push Chen Hsin’s hand under the covers again. At the first touch between the two trembling hands, however, Chen Hsin closed his grip around Zhang Zhun’s fingers. He held on tightly, as if he would crush the palm within his grasp. “This will keep me warm,” he replied. “You Sichuanese are so good with hot, spicy foods, even your temperaments carry the same fiery sting…”
Zhang Zhun prickled all over now. He felt nothing but heat, sharp and biting, just like the fiery food to which he had been compared; his chest burned with guilt, and sweat broke over his skin as hot breath filled his nose. Chen Hsin began kneading his hand. As if he was making a study of the older man’s bones, Chen Hsin rubbed Zhang Zhun’s palm slowly, caressing him bit by bit until Zhang Zhun felt his heart ache from the tenderness of the touch.
“Tell me about your dreams,” Chen Hsin said out of the blue.
Despite the abruptness of the utterance, Zhang Zhun understood at once and replied with his own line, “I don’t dare to…”
“What are you afraid of?” Chen Hsin’s hand moved up Zhang Zhun’s forearm.
“I don’t know. I’m scared of recalling… but it’s always there in my head.” A change came over Zhang Zhun’s expression, as if a hard shell had been peeled away to reveal the softness underneath, and an air of quivering vulnerability suffused him in a heartbeat. Feng Yunting looked at them in surprise. The pair seemed to have created a world of their own; the atmosphere between them left no room for any form of intrusion, not even a needle or a single drop of water.
“I want to know…” Chen Hsin sat up in bed with difficulty and pulled Zhang Zhun into his arms. “Everything’s fine now. I’m here for you,” he said as folded the older man to his heated chest, losing himself in the embrace. “See? It’s possible for you to accept physical contact.”
Zhang Zhun’s feelings boiled over; they thrummed in his voice as he breathed out a sigh. “… You’re the only one.”
Feng Yunting knew that they were just practicing. She understood that those suggestive glances and explicit lines were all part of the film; such was the nature of the film in which the men were involved. But she could not bear it – could not stand how besotted Chen Hsin looked as he caressed the man in his arms and murmured in a hoarse voice, “I can hear your heartbeat. Can you hear mine?”
“Enough!” Feng Yunting blew up at last, sweeping all of her well-arranged fragrances onto the floor. Chen Hsin seemed to have been waiting for this exact moment. He loosened his hold on Zhang Zhun to toss her a calm glance. In the brief moment when their eyes met, Feng Yunting understood. Her feelings subsided. “Go on with your practice, Honey. I’ll get some milk for you,” she said as she slipped on her cardigan. Her skirts swishing about her, she opened the door before turning back and adding sweetly, “You two take your time.”
The scene for which Chen Hsin and Zhang Zhun are practicing takes place in Chapter 8.2.