Quality Check: Isalee
First Published on Chaleuria
After showering, Zhang Zhun lay down in bed once more and idly browsed the channels on TV as he waited. It was almost midnight, and Chen Hsin was still nowhere to be seen. For reasons Zhang Zhun could not understand, unease churned within his heart; the chaos weighed on his chest. He knew that Chen Hsin would never say anything out of line, but their relationship had made him timid. He felt as if he were walking on tightrope, or teetering on the very edge of a precipice, and the slightest mishap would send him free falling to his doom.
His phone rang, and Zhang Zhun shuddered with a start. Flashing on the screen was Xiao-Deng’s caller ID. Haunted by a guilty conscience, Zhang Zhun did not dare to answer the phone. The noise stopped, but resumed shortly after. As the phone began ringing for the third time, he picked it up at last, and an urgent yell thundered in his ear, “Where are you, Ge?!”
“I…” Zhang Zhun paused for thought. “I’m not at the hotel right now.”
Silence – absolute, dead silence – descended on the other end. Then, little by little, Xiao-Deng’s frantic and irregular breathing became audible. “Ge,” he said, “if you’re at the Grand Hyatt, stay put and don’t come out. Don’t answer calls from numbers you don’t recognize.”
Zhang Zhun tensed. “What happened?”
“Chen Hsin…” Before Xiao-Deng could complete the sentence, however, someone called out his name. The next instant, the beginnings of a commotion could be heard on the young man’s end, and the line went dead.
Zhang Zhun knew that he could not call his assistant again. His first instinct was to check on Chen Hsin at once, but try as he might, not one of his numerous calls made it through. Something had gone wrong, and he could not help but think of the worst. Snatching up the remote, he raced through the TV channels in a frenzy. He flicked through every single one of them, from the first to the last, but it was too late at night for any real-time entertainment programme to be found on air. He slumped on the bed and fell into a daze.
Several moments later, he got up and started getting dressed. All the while, he remained in a state of helpless confusion, lost and uncertain even after he had pulled on his clothes. His phone was ringing again; this time, as expected, the call had come from an unknown number. Zhang Zhun clamped his hands around his head as he waited for the noise to pass – but the calls kept coming, one after the other, and the torment lasted for about an hour before the ringing began to cease.
In that hour, Zhang Zhun thought a lot about what could have happened. The most plausible of all was that Chen Hsin might have given them away by accident. Yet, Zhang Zhun knew the man too well to be convinced by the idea; Chen Hsin was too articulate, too good with words to ever blunder in his speech… Zhang Zhun’s blood froze all of a sudden. What if Chen Hsin had come out to the public deliberately? Zhang Zhun broke into a cold sweat as soon as the possibility struck. Only a single thought remained: he was done for. Everything he had – his career, his family, the life that he had built with blood, sweat and tears – was about to be ruined.
He unlocked his phone, opened his browser, and entered “Chen Hsin” in the search bar with trembling fingers. Instead of tapping on the search button, he went on to type out “Zhang Zhun” as well, linking their names together for the very first time. Only then did he tap to confirm the search. The results rolled out in an instant, stark and horrifying in all their dreadful glory.
“Chen Hsin’s relationship wrecked on set! The king of the silver screen loses his head to a man?!”
“Bonding through acting: Chen Hsin and Zhang Zhun spotted with couple earrings!”
Several trending topics later, Baidu Knows showed up, deluged with questions about the two of them:
“Can someone tell me who in the world is Zhang Zhun? Some wannabe trying to use Master Chen as a jumping board?”
“Chen Hsin isn’t gay is he? My life’s a total lie!”
“A man using gay rumors for a shot at fame? F***ing disgusting. Someone please hurry up and dox the hell out of this lowlife already!”
Zhang Zhun clamped a hand over his mouth, nauseated. Forcing himself to ignore the acrid burn at the back of his throat, he continued scrolling. The source that broke the news was a verified account on Weibo. Its ID, “Sun Entertainment,” jolted Zhang Zhun’s memory; the reporters who approached him the other day in the hotel restaurant mentioned that they were working for this company.1
The Weibo post containing the scoop had a very short lead-in, only a few words long. The text was followed by a series of nine images showing both of them wearing the same tiny fish stud. Chen Hsin’s photos were freshly taken, shot on site at the press conference with a handphone. Photos of Zhang Zhun were dug up from older sources, and showed him attending various events in the past. The last image was a comparison between blown-up photos of the studs on their ears.
No matter how hard he tried, Zhang Zhun could not recall whether he had worn the same stud to the restaurant that day. In reality, however, it no longer mattered whether he did or not. Zhang Zhun could never fathom just how keen the paparazzis’ observation and imagination could be, nor how swift they could act on little more than a hunch. After all, he had always been a small-time actor, a nobody; he was not cut out to be a star.
Under related topics, clips from the press conference were already available. Zhang Zhun tapped on a link at random, and Chen Hsin’s face appeared onscreen. “Feng Yunting did not tell the truth,” he said, tilting back his head a little to look at the reporters from under his curled forelock. “I’m here to set the record straight, and there’s only one thing I want to say – the breakup was my idea, not hers.”
The declaration sent the reporters into an uproar. “Chen-laoshi,” someone asked at once, “are you trying to defend Feng Yunting?” Wittingly or unwittingly, the reporter gave the actor a chance to present himself as a perfect lover. “Could it be that you still have feelings for each other?”
Just as Chen Hsin was about to reply, another hand shot up in the crowd; the label on the sleeve identified this reporter as an employee of Sun Entertainment. “Chen-laoshi!” he called out, and Zhang Zhun felt his heart seize. In this instant, he realized that the sight of Chen Hsin being grilled in public was far more gut-wrenching than any fear he had felt for himself mere moments ago. “Everyone, please take a look at Weibo right now,” the man continued, directing his attention to the crowd around him. “Check out Sun Entertainment’s latest scoop: the truth behind Chen Hsin’s breakup with Feng Yunting – award-winning actor falls head over heels for another man!”
The video became shaky. There was no doubt that all the reporters were getting their phones out and rushing to open Weibo; no one had any attention to spare for Chen Hsin. But Zhang Zhun kept his eyes on the man waiting onstage. Blurry as the image was, Zhang Zhun could tell with every certainty that the younger man was afraid.
Despite the fear within him, Chen Hsin’s mind remained clear. He knew that he must not look at his phone; it would be as good as admitting his own guilt if he took so much as a glance. The reporters became restless. Then, like the abnormal ebbing tide before a tsunami, the crowd fell into an eerie, momentary silence. Keeping his countenance, Chen Hsin tried to recall anything that might have given them away. Was it the kiss they shared in spite of themselves in the alley?2 Was there an accidental leak of promotional photos, perhaps…?
The quiet passed, and a barrage of questions crashed over the actor in an instant. “Chen-laoshi, is this true? You broke up because of a gay film? Was Feng Yunting a victim?!”
Chen Hsin smiled, looking innocent and somewhat mocking. “I haven’t the slightest idea what you’re talking about.” Numerous reporters began holding up their phones for him to see, but they were denied all further contact with the actor in the blink of an eye as Zhou Zheng appeared with his team. Fending off the media on one side, the film crew quickly escorted Chen Hsin off the stage, and the footage ended with the image of the man being sent into the elevator.
Before Zhang Zhun could let out a sigh of relief, his screen cut away to the caller interface, and the video was replaced by two large flashing words, ‘Chen Hsin.’ He hurried to answer the call, “Hey?!” No reply. Not a sound could be heard from the other end, so Zhang Zhun spoke no further as he waited out the silence.
More than three minutes later, the sound of a sigh came through on the phone. Chen Hsin’s voice followed, heavy with weariness. “Something cropped up…”
“Are you alright?” Zhang Zhun asked, anxious.
“I…” The question appeared to have taken Chen Hsin by surprise. “I’m fine,” he replied, sounding a little more spirited. “Xiao-Deng said that he’d already given you a call.” Zhang Zhun could hear the man moving about as he spoke; he supposed Chen Hsin must be back in his room. “The ear stud was the problem,” the younger man continued, “I got carried away.”
Listening to Chen Hsin’s voice, Zhang Zhun relaxed and fell back onto the bed. Yet, for some unknown reason, the ceiling lights seemed so glaring, so blinding, that his vision began to blur with tears. He wiped the wetness away in a pique.
“Things will be fine,” Chen Hsin said, amidst the soft creaking of a mattress; he had gotten into bed as well. “My manager arrives tomorrow. She’ll head straight to the Hyatt after touching down.” Sounding as if he had buried himself under the covers, he added in a muffled whisper, “Xiao-Deng and I will make our way there a little later.”
Zhang Zhun rolled over and burrowed under his blanket too. Just like his lover, who was two streets away and all alone in his room on the thirty-eighth floor, Zhang Zhun lowered his voice in the dark. “Can we… not end this call?”
After a quiet pause, Chen Hsin replied with some awkwardness, “Actually… I’ve downloaded Wechat, but I don’t know how to use it.”
“I’ll teach you.” Like a cowering fool, Zhang Zhun tucked his covers tight around his head and body, leaving his feet exposed on the bed. “Go to ‘add contacts’ and type in my number.”
- Zhang Zhun is referring to his run-in with a group of reporters in Chapter 33.2.
- Chen Hsin is thinking of the kiss that took place in Chapter 31.2.