When Wang Yibo’s team appears around the corner, Jinglei instantly thinks, oh god, I’m in trouble.
This was not supposed to happen. Their appearance times at the Shanghai Fashion Week have been carefully orchestrated in order to prevent this exact thing from happening. Just two days ago, she’d had a call with the event management lead to confirm that Wang Yibo and Xiao Zhan will not be seen in the same space together, whether in public or backstage, and had received a ringing affirmation that barring a major natural disaster, they would be kept at a very discreet distance from each other.
But Xiao Zhan’s photoshoot had overrun by fifteen minutes, then further delayed because he’d taken a five-minute toilet break when they were done, and yet again delayed because he’d run into Zhang Yixing in the corridor and spent another five minutes in genial small talk, and now they’re twenty-five minutes late and walking right towards the arch-rival’s team.
Xiao Zhan turns to raise an enquiring eyebrow at her. “Okay, how did this happen?”
“Uh,” Jinglei says, staring at Yibo with wide eyes. “We fucked up, clearly.”
Xiao Zhan sweeps his gaze meaningfully over the event photographers, video crews and special-access journalists who’ve all stopped their various activities to stare with equally wide eyes at China’s top two models and fiercest rivals marching firmly towards each other into the same space. Jinglei can practically see the clickbait headlines materialising in the air. ‘Xiao Zhan and Wang Yibo met backstage. You’ll never guess what happened…’
“Make the best of it, laoban,” she murmurs.
“When do I not make the best of things?” Xiao Zhan replies. When he turns towards Yibo, now less than three metres away and rapidly closing in, he’s got his perfect, warm, welcoming smile on. The smile that could launch a thousand ships. The smile that causes the entire country to buckle at the knees for him.
The entire country, that is, except Wang Yibo, the coldest-faced, stoniest, stiffest stick-in-the-mud that Jinglei has ever had the displeasure of meeting. He has come to a stop two metres away from them, eyeing Xiao Zhan with a look of contempt that makes Jinglei bristle.
Yibo is as famous for his coldness as Xiao Zhan is for his warmth. A significant segment of China’s population admires him for being ‘straightforward’ but personally, Jinglei thinks he’s a rude, condescending ass. She still hasn’t forgiven him for saying in an interview that he doesn’t consider Xiao Zhan a rival. The nerve! He can’t even hold a single candle to Xiao Zhan. Not even a tiny candle. Not even the base of the candle.
“Hello, Yibo,” says Xiao Zhan, his voice almost coyingly sweet. “It’s been a while. You look good.”
“Mn,” says Yibo noncommittally. His lip curls as he glances at Xiao Zhan’s Gucci trench coat. Jinglei has to admit that the trench coat is a special kind of hideous. For a famous legacy fashion brand, Gucci’s clothes frequently leave much to be desired. But Yibo’s sparkly, gaudy, bejewelled Chanel jackets aren’t exactly tasteful fashion, either. He has no right to be judgy about Gucci.
“I wish you all the best with your show,” says Xiao Zhan. He’s making such an effort to be pleasant to this block of wood.
“I’m sure you do,” Yibo says.
Jinglei’s head whips towards the journalists. They’re hanging onto every word as though this interaction marks the pinnacle of their journalistic careers.
Xiao Zhan continues smiling. “Well, have a good week, Wang-laoshi.”
“Try to do better at avoiding me over the next few days, Xiao-laoshi,” Yibo says.
“Laoban,” says Jinglei loudly, “we’re running late.”
Xiao Zhan nods and resumes walking, brushing past Yibo in two long, elegant strides. Jinglei doesn’t bother to see what Yibo does. She’s busy fuming as she hurries to keep up.
“That asshole!” she bursts as soon as they’re safe in their dressing room. “I can’t fucking stand him! He was shading you!”
“Yeah, he’s an ass,” Xiao Zhan agrees. “Let’s not do this again. That was not my idea of fun. I’m assuming we’ve already gotten into the trends?”
“Yes,” says He Feng, their social media manager. “You just got on the trends. Xiao Zhan Wang Yibo backstage scuffle. Entered at number five.”
“Scuffle?” Jinglei objects. “Talk about misrepresenting the facts. Laoban was so courteous to him.”
“Oh, here’s another one,” He Feng says, scrolling. “ Wang Yibo tells Xiao Zhan to avoid him. Entered at number eight. It’s even got a video. And your CP supertopic is exploding with pics of the two of you staring at each other. I have to say, you look pretty good together.”
“I can’t believe these two have a CP supertopic,” Jinglei mutters. “We should’ve gotten it shut down ages ago.”
“No, leave it,” Xiao Zhan says. “It’s amusing.”
“Your sense of humour is very weird to me sometimes,” complains Jinglei. “What’s so funny about people thinking the two of you should be a couple when you hate him so much?”
Xiao Zhan chuckles, turning to the mirror. “It’s funny to see the insane things that people come up with. Anyway, forget the trends. Let’s get moving.”
A bouquet of flowers is delivered to Xiao Zhan’s dressing room the following day before his walk for Gucci. The card simply says ‘Go get them, gege.’
Jinglei smirks as she presents it to Xiao Zhan when he hurries into the dressing room in a whirl of fluttering clothes. “Here’s your daily pick-me-up from your mystery lover.”
Xiao Zhan makes a show of shaking his head even as a little pleased smile hovers about his lips. “This romantic fool. What am I supposed to do with flowers?”
“Oh, I don’t know, put them in your hotel room and admire them? They’re flowers! Be nice to them.”
Two of Gucci’s regular hair and makeup artists descend into the room then and Xiao Zhan grabs the flowers to examine them as he’s ushered into the makeup chair. Jinglei teases, “Look at you, pretending not to want them when you can’t even take your eyes off them.”
“I told him not to send me anything. The dressing room is enough of a mess as it is without his random gifts cluttering up the space.”
“You’ll miss them if he stopped sending anything,” Jinglei points out. “And don’t think I can’t see right through your pretense. You can’t even settle until you’ve gotten his gift for the day.”
“Stop exposing me, jie,” Xiao Zhan says.
It’s actually very sweet, what he has with his secret boyfriend. As far as Jinglei knows, they’ve been together for about four years now, before Xiao Zhan’s meteoric rise to fame, but Xiao Zhan keeps his identity secret to protect his privacy. Their dedication to each other is amazing in this industry of false connections and cheating relationships. Mystery lover, as they call him, never fails to send a daily assortment of gifts to Xiao Zhan during the Shanghai Fashion Week, anything ranging from necklaces and massagers to boxes of tea and flowers, and Xiao Zhan’s careful to block out one or two-day breaks every other week despite his hectic schedule to spend time with him in their Beijing apartment. They’re rock solid and Jinglei knows how much the relationship does to keep Xiao Zhan anchored amid the craziness of his career.
She sometimes wishes that Xiao Zhan’s relationship was something they could go public about. Xiao Zhan’s absolute devotion to his boyfriend, the way his entire body comes alive when he talks about him, the way he anticipates the gifts, the way he rushes home whenever he can to be with him. It would give everyone the opportunity to see the tender side of Xiao Zhan - that beyond his glamour and stunning beauty and flawless angles and lauded eloquence, he’s also completely loyal to the person he’d gotten together with when he was still a struggling part-time model. The public soaks up love stories like that. But Xiao Zhan doesn’t want to have the slightest hint of his relationship getting out to the press, so the staffers who work regularly with him stay discreet.
“At least, you’ll have four days off when the fashion week ends,” Jinglei says. “Going anywhere with him?”
“Mm, yes. Phuket.”
“Crowded,” comments Xueying, one of the makeup artists. “I went there last year, thought it was going to be relaxing. I just ended up fighting off people everywhere I went.”
“Well,” says Xiao Zhan, with a little smirk, “we’re not planning on spending much time outside of the hotel suite. We’ve got a private pool and everything.”
“Ooh, raunchy,” Xueying says, and everyone laughs.
“You’re still trending with Wang Yibo,” says the other makeup artist, A-Ying. “Today’s top topic is Yibo and Xiao Zhan’s everlasting rivalry.”
Jinglei instantly scowls. “I can’t believe that people are still on about it!”
“Come to think of it,” Xueying says, efficiently applying eyeliner close to Xiao Zhan’s waterline, “how did their rivalry even get popular? They’re not the only luxury brand models in China.”
“They’re the best of the best,” A-Ying says. “They’ve been consistently ranked as number one and number two in the celebrity star power charts for almost three years. No one else has come close to kicking them off. Of course their fans will get into wars over who’s better.”
“You sound like you want me to get kicked off,” Xiao Zhan interjects, injured.
“Never,” A-Ying assures him as she sprays his hair. “You are the star of our hearts.”
“It’s because they’re complete opposites,” Xueying says. “Our Xiao Zhan is the nation’s son-in-law. Wang Yibo, on the other hand…”
“Is our nation’s pain in the ass,” Jinglei grouses. “I can’t understand why he’s popular.”
Xiao Zhan peeks at her. “Can’t you?”
“So he’s good-looking,” Jinglei says. “He’s young and pretty and he makes a big deal out of being a motorcycling enthusiast and a skateboarder and a dancer and who knows what else. So what? He has the personality of a rock.”
“Rocks can be very cool and unusual,” Xiao Zhan says. “He’s a unique rock. You can’t say there’s another celebrity in China who’s quite like him, can you? Who else gets away with monosyllabic answers and cheeking his fans?”
“Why, laoban,” Jinglei exclaims, “it almost sounds like you like him.”
Xiao Zhan gives her a comical eyeroll. “Haven’t I made it clear that I detest him as a person? It’s just that he’s professionally good at what he does. You can’t deny that. In fact, Jing-jie, I’d go so far as to say that you find him interesting from a professional perspective.”
Jinglei raises her eyebrows at him, but Xiao Zhan merely laughs at her. He’s not wrong, actually. Jinglei has worked with celebrities for over ten years, and Wang Yibo is the only other celebrity who has piqued her interest in the same way that Xiao Zhan has. They could both be considered a once-in-a-decade phenomenon. It’s unheard of to have two top models active and insanely popular at the same time, and the country has spent the larger part of the last three years bouncing back and forth between the statuesque, elegant beauty of Xiao Zhan and the cold, sensual beauty of Yibo.
It’s actually a pity that they aren’t friends. They would be unsurpassably beautiful together; the joint photoshoots alone would be legendary. They would most likely become China’s top ranked CP. But Xiao Zhan hates Yibo, and Yibo hates Xiao Zhan, and never the twain shall meet, except for tense run-ins at Shanghai Fashion Week that end up on Weibo’s hot trends as Xiao Zhan Wang Yibo backstage scuffle.
Jinglei doesn’t even really know why Xiao Zhan detests Yibo so much. Xiao Zhan likes everybody. You have to be a truly bad person for Xiao Zhan to dislike you. But by the time she joined Xiao Zhan’s team, he and Yibo were already at loggerheads, so she wasn’t witness to the origin of the dislike. As far as she can make out, it started three years ago when Xiao Zhan had joined a modelling variety show where Yibo, a rising star rumoured to be courted by Chanel, had appeared as a guest mentor on one of the episodes. He’d bluntly criticised Xiao Zhan after his walk for “having the looks, but no presence. A flower vase”.
It wasn’t a bad comment by any degree. In fact, Xiao Zhan tends to welcome constructive criticism like that. But for some reason that nobody really knows, Xiao Zhan and Yibo had walked away from that episode absolutely hating each other, and the feeling was solidified when they scored contracts with Gucci and Chanel and became China’s It Boys.
They don’t fuel any rivalry in public. Xiao Zhan never talks about Yibo where anyone except his team can hear, and both agency teams go to great pains to keep them completely separate to avoid as many fanwars as possible. But just being number one and number two, far ahead from the rest of the pack, makes them a prime target for gossip, fanwars and rumour-mongering, and two years into working with Xiao Zhan, Jinglei’s already tired of it. Sometimes she wishes that Yibo had never been born.
“At least he’s not here today,” she says, thinking aloud. “You can focus on your show without any distractions. Tomorrow you’ll both be at the Fashion Awards, but only to receive awards separately, and you’ll be seated far from him.”
“Good,” says Xiao Zhan, blinking at himself in the mirror. “Honestly, Jing-jie, don’t stress about it. It’ll turn out alright.”
“It always does,” she says, mollified.
Everything gets off to a very good start the next day. Xiao Zhan is still flushed with the success of yesterday’s show, the whole team is in high spirits, and they’re on their way to receive the most prestigious award in China for modelling. They’ve secured three new magazine covers and interest from the Italian clothing brand, Tod’s. Xiao Zhan’s star is riding high and nothing is going to stand in his way, least of all Wang Yibo, posing by the stairs for his Weibo photoshoot.
Because Jinglei is alone, she pauses to watch him for a bit. He’s dressed in yet another sparkly Chanel jacket that makes him look like a rich widow, extravagantly draped with pearls and styled with dramatic bangs falling over his eyes as he looks moodily into the camera.
He’s very good. Extremely good. Infuriatingly good. Watching him objectively, Jinglei can accept that as far as modelling goes, he does indeed have the chops to rival Xiao Zhan. Far from deterring people with his brand of coldness, his aloof attitude only makes them want to get closer to him. He has a way of pushing the boundaries of bluntness without quite going over into disrespect; he appears unfriendly and reserved but manages to give off a tantalising hint that he could be much more than that if he likes you.
He’s the perfect foil for Xiao Zhan, the way Xiao Zhan is for him. And Jinglei has to acknowledge that their number one, number two rivalry has been very valuable in keeping the both of them in the spotlight. If she’s generous about it, they’re good for each other.
In hindsight, she should really have known.
In further hindsight, she should never have gone back to the dressing room in the middle of the very long, very boring awards show just to get started on packing up the mess of clothes, makeup items, skincare items, lotions, water bottles, earphones, tablets, and a hundred other random paraphernalia that follow them around to all of Xiao Zhan’s schedules. But Xiao Zhan was safely seated in the big hall, suppressing his yawns, and she had nothing to do, really, so she decided to get a headstart on the packing up so that they could all go back home a little earlier when the show ended.
That fateful decision sees her crouching at the back of a huge rack of clothes, sorting the various bits of Xiao Zhan’s personal and branded costume jewellery into their proper boxes, when the door opens and someone stumbles in.
Jinglei’s about to poke her head over the clothing rack to see who it is, but her blood runs cold in the next second when she hears the familiar sound of Xiao Zhan’s flirty giggle. “How much time do we have?” he says.
“Half an hour, maybe,” replies the person with him, and Jinglei almost swallows her tongue in shock.
She could swear that the voice belongs to Wang Yibo. She’d heard it just hours earlier during his photoshoot, when he’d asked the photographer if he should look to the left or right. And when she risks a peek around the clothing rack, it is indeed Yibo, kicking the door shut, locking it, and backing Xiao Zhan up against the wall.
“Mm, you smell so good,” says Yibo, and proceeds to make out with Xiao Zhan in the filthiest way that Jinglei has ever seen.
She’s cool. She’s calm. She’s so on top of this. She’s, fuck, she’s freaking the fuck out.
What the actual fuck! What the fucking fuck! What the fuck is this!
Before her fascinated, horrified eyes, Yibo works his hands between them, unzips Xiao Zhan’s pants in a way that shows he’s very familiar with unzipping pants in general, and pushes it down to Xiao Zhan’s thighs.
Xiao Zhan isn’t wearing underwear. Of course. Jinglei isn’t surprised by this; Xiao Zhan tends to be rather a private exhibitionist, if such an oxymoron is possible. But Yibo’s hand is on his very red, very hard dick, and Yibo is mouthing those filthy kisses against Xiao Zhan’s tilted throat, and Xiao Zhan is making needy little moans that she’s never ever heard him make before, and this is all fantastically awkward.
It gets worse in the next second.
“Are you still plugged up?” Yibo demands, breathless.
“Fuck. You’re amazing. I couldn’t believe it when you sent me those pics. You’ve been walking around with it all day?”
“Long enough. Get it the hell out of me, baby.”
They maneuver their way to the sofa in the middle of the dressing room, Xiao Zhan bends over it, and Yibo proceeds to unzip himself and pull out the biggest cock that Jinglei has ever seen.
“God, look at you,” Yibo pants, doing something with Xiao Zhan’s ass. “You’re loose and you’re still wet, fuck.”
Xiao Zhan tosses a tube of lube over to him. “Hurry up.”
Jinglei slumps back against the clothes then, drawing her knees up and covering her face. The sounds that they make are more than enough for her to be in the loop on exactly what they’re up to; the moans, increasing in volume and frequency; the “fuck, right there, yes, so good” that Xiao Zhan’s dropping every other second, the “you’re so tight, so hot” that Yibo breathlessly replies with, the lewd slapping of skin against skin as they commence thrusting, the breathy “Zhan-ge, Zhan-ge, you’re incredible” , more thrusting that seems to go on forever, and then the inevitable, “I’m coming” followed by two loud, long drawn out whines that merge into each other.
“Nrgh,” Yibo says after, his voice muffled.
“Nrgh,” Xiao Zhan replies, very eloquently.
“Mmm. Are you okay, baby?”
Jinglei risks another glance. They’re slumped over the sofa, still obviously joined. Yibo’s leaning his forehead on the back of Xiao Zhan’s neck.
“I’m so good. You fucked me so good.” Xiao Zhan sighs and lifts himself up from the sofa. Yibo pulls out and they cuddle together, exchanging kisses that now seem syrupy and slow compared to the filthy, no-tongues-barred making out of ten minutes ago. “I’m going to be feeling this when I go up on stage later to collect that award.”
“Can’t wait for this week to be over so I can take my time with you,” Yibo says.
“Thought you were into these dirty little quickies.”
“Well, I do , but that’s all we’ve been having for two weeks now and I’m done with not having enough time. I just want to get you into bed and fuck you for hours.”
“Soon,” Xiao Zhan promises, his eyes sliding shut with a sweet smile.
“How much time do we have left?”
“I don’t know.”
“Ten minutes,” Yibo says, consulting his watch. “We can…”
“Please, for the love of god,” Jinglei yelps, “get fucking dressed.”
There’s a very loud pause.
“Who the fuck is that.”
They speak at the same time.
“Jing-jie, come out,” says Xiao Zhan.
When she peeks around again, they’re both clothed and standing apart, staring at her. Yibo is glaring, shoulders stiff, hands balled into fists, and he’s very intimidating like this, but Jinglei glances at him dismissively and then focuses on Xiao Zhan, who’s fixing his buttons with a sheepish air.
“What are you doing here?” he asks.
“I should be asking you that!” Jinglei retorts, rising up. “Why aren’t you in the hall?”
“My award isn’t due for another twenty minutes.”
“You planned this, this rendezvous in advance,” Jinglei says, her mind working furiously. “You’ve done this before!”
Xiao Zhan coughs. “Many times, in fact. Uh, Jing-jie, I’m sorry, I had no idea you were here.”
“You’re seeing him! He’s the mystery lover!”
“He is,” Xiao Zhan admits.
“You’ve been fooling us for years!”
“No, not fooling. Jing-jie. Let me explain.”
“Oh yes, I have to hear this.”
Xiao Zhan catches hold of Yibo’s hand, interlacing their fingers, and when they look at each other, it’s with such genuine affection that Jinglei softens, even though she tries not to. “You see, we started seeing each other just when we were starting out in our careers, and we knew that we wouldn’t get anywhere if people found out about us. And after Yibo got popular first, we couldn’t deal with the thought of all the scrutiny and attention he’d get if we publicised our relationship. So we decided to go the opposite direction instead. We would be strangers in public, even rivals, so that people wouldn’t have any cause to spread rumours about us being together. And you’ve seen how crazy it is yourself - even with the whole world, including you , thinking that we’re strangers, we still have a CP supertopic! Can you imagine what it would be like if we were known to be friends?”
“It would be insane,” Jinglei says.
“Yes. So we have to save ourselves. We don’t want our careers to affect our relationship. If push comes to shove, we’d rather stop working than break up. But it doesn’t have to be that drastic, you know? We can have both, if we’re careful and smart about it. And that’s what we’ve been doing.”
“Smart about it - you mean, like having quickies in the dressing room in the middle of an awards show?”
Xiao Zhan’s lips tilt up into a coy smile. “Oh no, that’s just us having fun.”
“You fooled me completely,” she sighs. “I really thought you hated him.”
“He’s said some bad things about me, hasn’t he,” Yibo says. He’s not glaring anymore. In fact, the coldness has completely melted off him. He’s smiling as wide as a child, cheeks upturned, giving Xiao Zhan a mock glare.
“Not anymore than what we’ve agreed to say about each other,” Xiao Zhan says, poking him.
“I guess I should have known. You don’t hate anyone, Zhanzhan. Your hatred towards Yibo was weird, to say the least.”
“But all of you thought it was real.”
“Maybe you should be an actor instead. You seem to have a talent for it.”
Xiao Zhan laughs, but says, “Much as I want to continue this conversation, I need to be back in the hall in exactly two minutes. Jie, I know this is a shock to you, but…”
“Oh, go on,” she says, flapping her hands. “I’m not going to stand in your way. Date who you want, sleep with who you want. If you’re happy, I’m happy…that is, as long as I don’t have to see you two having sex again. And I won’t tell a soul, either. In fact, it’ll probably be good for you now that I know. I can run interference for you. Carry your secret messages. Cover your quickies. Make sure no one else ends up in the same situation as I did.”
“You’re an angel, Jing-jie,” says Xiao Zhan gratefully, and Yibo’s looking at her like she’s a god descended from heaven.
They vanish out the door, and Jinglei is sure that the moment they step out they go in opposite directions, putting on their public faces and resuming the cold rivalry that has ensnared the attention of the entire nation for three years and running.
It does make sense, in a way. Two people as beautiful as Xiao Zhan and Yibo can only be meant for each other. And it is touching, seeing how much they do actually love and care about each other. If Yibo is the mystery lover, he’s a lot more thoughtful than Jinglei has given him credit for. He’s been making Xiao Zhan happy for years.
Then a thought comes into her head and she laughs so hard that tears come into her eyes.
Xiao Zhan Wang Yibo backstage scuffle.
The trending topic had been on point, after all.