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Hope Unlocked

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Xiao Zhan paced back and forth. Today marked his first TV appearance in over eight years, and he just finished doing his own hair and makeup. He appreciated that the staff had prepared him a private dressing room, just a small one tucked away in a corner; he was used to minding his own business nowadays. People were surprised to see him come alone, but it’s not like he had anyone to bring.

There was a time, ten years ago, when Xiao Zhan was the biggest star in China. Walking through the busy streets, you couldn’t go ten feet without seeing his face plastered on the side of a bus or on the LED screens of a skyscraper. If you were a mom, not a day went by without your daughter begging to go see Xiao Zhan in concert. And if you were a son, your mom spent all day comparing you to him.

That narrative changed with 2.27 - a smear campaign led by the darkest souls on the internet - and Xiao Zhan’s world crumbled as quickly as it formed. It was disgusting. Companies pulled their sponsorships, Xiao Zhan somehow became the root of every celebrity scandal, and his fans pulled one insane trick after another to try to regain his support, but these just backfired spectacularly. When things seemed to calm down, Xiao Zhan edged back into promoting but it was like a switch had been flipped and the haters doubled down. They found every reason to criticize him and created controversy out of thin air. No one could speak up for him without being attacked as well.

Xiao Zhan stopped trying after two years of witnessing everyone around him get hurt. The tipping point was seeing his parents’ haggard faces, marred with chain-like wrinkles that anchored their mouths into permanent frowns. He knew they read the articles and hate comments about him as the dinners his mom cooked became more and more lavish. His mother’s love and concern manifested in a feast every night - an extra spare rib on his plate here, a heaping bowl of hand-pulled noodles there. He decided enough was enough and retired without a word, giving up the life of a celebrity and returning to an old career. He had enough savings to live quietly for about a year, which he spent practicing his art again, taking the time to hone his skills in various mediums and even dabbling in ones that he hadn’t tried before. His fingers were stiff, like he had never held a paintbrush before, but eventually, he relearned how to find comfort in putting stylus to tablet. When he landed his first commission, it was for a small local restaurant in his hometown of Chongqing. The owner saw him sketching in a cafe, doodling in the margins of his notebook. He had a mask and a hat on, so she didn’t recognize Xiao Zhan immediately. But after she introduced herself, complimenting his drawings, she thought that the shy crinkle of his eyes looked familiar.

She mentioned that she was opening up a modern fare restaurant nearby and that she was struggling on the branding. Her knowledge of design was limited, but all the quotes she received from brand consultants and design agencies were out of her budget. She asked if he would be interested. Xiao Zhan hesitated at first, unsure if his skills were up to par, but she insisted until he finally agreed.

He was glad he did, though, because soon they were bouncing ideas off of each other, talking late into the night. She tried out recipes on him, asked him if her menu told a good enough story - and because Xiao Zhan missed having someone to talk to, he found it easy to get along with her. He no longer had to cook single portions, or save leftovers to eat the same meal three, maybe four times.

Her name was Ning Jing. She whirled into his life, tearing down the walls he had thrown up against the battering of the public, and folded him into her haven. She was the eye of a storm - a life raft he found when he had long forgotten that he was lost at sea. She became a comfortable constant he could depend on. As he designed for their restaurant (it became their restaurant when Ning Jing found out that he was almost a better cook than herself and that he didn’t have much of a day job), he found a small bead of happiness unfurling inside of him again.

The restaurant opened smoothly, increasing the pace of their lives for a few months before calming back down again. They fell into a rhythm and realized that their routine was as comfortable as any relationship they had ever had. The conversation was easy, they enjoyed meals together, and had a shared investment in their restaurant. You could consider it dating.

“Are you going to propose to me anytime soon?” Ning Jing asked one day. Two years had passed since they met in the cafe. Xiao Zhan smiled back at her and patted her hand. Even though years had passed since he was in the spotlight, he still had the occasional tabloid try to write about him, and each time, he spent too much money keeping Ning Jing’s name out of the article.

“One day, Jing Jing,” Xiao Zhan would answer each time she asked. He was 34 before he finally allowed himself to get down on one knee. Ning Jing just rolled her eyes at his propriety. They registered their marriage shortly after and held a ceremony for their relatives a year later. Xiao Zhan didn’t curb the news this time.

Past actor-singer Xiao Zhan marries non-celebrity!

Who is Ning Jing? Has-been actor, Xiao Zhan, finds the love of his life!

Xiao Zhan, married at 35!

No, he’s not gay! Xiao Zhan marries a girl!

He also didn’t curb the news when Ning Jing died a few months later in a kitchen fire. The restaurant burned down, taking half of the block and whatever light Xiao Zhan had left in his eyes with it.

Xiao Zhan, widowed at 35.

The tragic life of Xiao Zhan. A timeline.

Xiao Zhan loses wife, restaurant, and hope in kitchen fire.

What caused the fire? A deep dive into the dark mental history of Xiao Zhan. (Opinion piece)

Xiao Zhan retreated into his art once more. He sold the restaurant property for pennies and when his apartment lease ended in Chongqing, he packed two bags and moved to Shanghai. He rented a studio apartment. He ate packs of ramen, stored lonely cartons of eggs in his fridge, and kept them company with cases of beer.

The creative world in Shanghai was a tight knit community and he had no interest in meeting new people. Xiao Zhan spent most of his time designing in his apartment - there were no café inspirations this time around. He focused on building a portfolio first, uploading a few cleaner pieces to his (anonymous) website. The security of the internet was the only way he knew how to slip into a new community without being betrayed by first impressions. Working under a pseudonym, he slowly gained attention for his darker themes and started working with a lot of the local artists that toured the smaller clubs. One of the most popular acts he designed for was a singer-songwriter duo, Bliss, gaining fame for good music, but also for toeing the boundary between friendly and homosexuality. They did nothing to quell the rumors and only added fuel to the flame every time they were spotted in public holding hands, nuzzling each other, or blowing kisses. They didn’t deny anything, but they didn’t confirm it either. Or at least, they didn’t confirm it until they released an album featuring a borderline graphic album cover of two males kissing...and then some. The title track was un-ironically named “Coming Out” - and the rest of the album equally held nothing back.

Xiao Zhan had been drunk when he designed the cover art. More accurately, he was drunk by the time he finished it. As he sketched the two boys kissing, he thought back to years ago, when the image in front of him was more than a little familiar in his mind. He had a beer. Then a second. And as he was chugging the last bottle he could find in his fridge, he hit send to Bliss’s agent and hoped that being drunk only meant better art.

The pair loved it, their agent thought it was perfect, and the general public roared with approval. Two weeks before the album’s release, same-sex marriage had just been legalized across China, and suddenly, their song was the gay anthem heard everywhere. Similarly, the album cover flooded the streets, appearing on subway ads, on large LED panels, and magazine newsstands. Everywhere Xiao Zhan went, he saw his art. Walking outside, he could hear people talk about the album and its racy cover, commenting on gay rights and curious about the anonymous designer behind the scenes. Hearing his pseudonym and seeing his art everywhere stirred up something inside of him that he hadn’t felt for years. There was a point in time that he was used to being recognized everywhere. It was commonplace to walk outside and have cameras shoved in his face, shrill screams following him every step of the way.

But no, it wasn’t exactly the same feeling as before. There was still the recognizable anxiety, but it was damp in comparison. The attention cast on him was like a flashlight that could only find a stencil of its subject, turning him into a featureless shadow. The gray oasis that feathered out from his feet, taking every step with him, gave him comfort. People couldn’t pinpoint who he was - he was safe. And in return, with the somber gratitude gathered over ten, lonely years, he gave the shadow a name - Epimetheus.

But mystery tended to attract a grotesque amount of attention in the world and the spotlight simply grew larger, illuminating more ground. “Who is the anonymous designer that now represents the queer community?” A journalist’s words, not his own. He didn’t mean to become that designer. Not intentionally at least. But his work spoke volumes for where his subconscious liked to dwell. It showed too easily what images focused at full resolution in his mind.

Fans were cruel. They inflicted pain on the very idols they cherished. All of the attention they poured on Epimetheus simply caused more curiosity. People dug and dug until they figured it out; they pieced together not a stencil, but a complete blueprint - and out from the clean, white lines was a big finger that pointed to Xiao Zhan. Anonymity went both ways, and his lawyers couldn’t find any trace of a digital footprint. Xiao Zhan realized that he’d probably never know who drew back the curtains.

Xiao Zhan is Epimetheus!

Xiao Zhan - the gay designer!

From top star to struggling designer to gay rights advocate! Xiao Zhan is back!

Xiao Zhan, who? Why the Queer Community Needed Epimetheus to Stay Epimetheus.

At 38 years old, a clean 10 years after the initial scandal, Xiao Zhan’s name once again took over the press. He declined interviews, talk shows, even promotional deals. He didn’t have anything he wanted to say and didn’t want the renewed label. When he received Day Day Up’s invitation, he hesitated at first, before deciding to ignore it altogether. The second time he was invited, though… The second time, his stomach lurched, and he thought someone was playing a joke on him.


Please accept our official invitation for you to attend the filming of Day Day Up as an honorary guest!

The email included some additional details that were nearly identical from the first digital invitation except for a few changes in date and time. However, at the bottom of the email, in the custom message box that wasn’t even populated the first time around, there was an added note.


Ge, would be nice to have you on the show. - Wang Yibo, Lead Host.

His nails found the flesh of his shoulders and dug down until tiny, red crescents dotted his neck. He tried to calm his breath as he felt his heart start to race. Xiao Zhan knew that Wang Yibo had taken over for Han Ge as the lead host for Day Day Up a few years ago. Sometimes he would flip on the TV and see the familiar face - stony and emotionless by default. Yibo never seemed to tire in the eyes of the public. No matter how many commercials, blockbuster films, prime time weekend dramas he starred in, he was someone that the audience craved. Yibo was intoxicating. Talented. Handsome. Athletic. Single. No tabloid had ever caught Yibo in a dating scandal. Fans were so proud of that fact. To them, Yibo was loyal to his work, dedicated to returning the love of everyone who supported him.

Xiao Zhan almost didn’t believe it. He knew how much Yibo needed to love somebody. How passionately he could love somebody - he knew it firsthand. But if the tabloids couldn’t find something in eight years, Xiao Zhan had to believe it. Yibo was single; he loved his work; and Xiao Zhan never dwelled on it. Not when he was sober at least.

----

In the dressing room, Xiao Zhan’s heart continued to race. He circled the room again, thinking about everything that had passed since the last time he was on Day Day Up. Ten years was a long stretch, and the show had a lot of ground to cover.

Earlier that morning, when he had arrived at the recording venue, a hoard of Bliss fans flanked the entrance. There were even a few Chen Qing Ling fans scattered throughout, holding banners that celebrated the drama’s tenth anniversary. He spotted a pair of fans approaching him, clutching Bliss’s latest album against their chest until they pushed a marker into his hands and begged him to sign. Old habits die hard, he thought, and eyed the calligraphic Xiao Zhan that he had just penned, remembering a different world, a better time. He signed the rest of the albums as Epimetheus.

A female staffer greeted him at the entrance and started to maneuver him through the winding passages. The layout of the studio had completely changed since the last time he had been there. He kept a careful eye on the people around him, recognizing a few of the producers. On the way to his own makeup room, he spotted other rooms labeled with the names of other guests and the hosts of the show. The very first one, which was also the largest, was adorned with a permanent silver plaque - Wang Yibo, engraved in neat letters.

His heart skipped a beat. Wang Yibo. How are you doing, Yibo? How are you doing, ex-costar, ex-best friend, ex-lover?

Xiao Zhan had only himself to blame for the heartache he was feeling. He may have been the first to grow distant, but Yibo was the one doing the growing years ago. He grew astronomically, and Xiao Zhan refused to be his anchor. He let Yibo go. He stopped replying to texts and ignored calls. Xiao Zhan and Yibo had dated happily, secretly, for a full three years. But when Xiao Zhan’s luck ran out, so did his ability to love Yibo without guilt. He disappeared. And Yibo shone brighter than ever.

----

“Xiao Zhan, everyone wants to know - how’d you come to design under a pseudonym? Why Epimetheus?”

A dam seemed to burst in him. One that held back years of emotions - and it was broken by just a few words. He turned to look at Qian Feng, the person who had asked the question. He was another long-time host with a similar tenure as Wang Yibo.

“Can you explain to us how you chose the name?” Qian Feng asked again.

Xiao Zhan might as well have been drowning. The lights were brighter and warmer than he remembered, and the audience looked at him expectantly. He felt the sweat drip down his brows and wished that he had brought a stylist after all. The professionals always used waterproof makeup.

Xiao Zhan was sandwiched between half of the hosts and the rest of the guests. To his right was Qian Feng and to his left were Song Jiyang and Wang Haoxuan - the two lovers that made up Bliss - followed by a young actor he didn’t recognize, and finally the rest of the hosts, including Wang Yibo. Xiao Zhan cleared his throat and imagined that the water from the dam was enough to douse the heat of the attention on him.

“Epimetheus is the Titan god of Hindsight,” Xiao Zhan explained, speaking with slow, measured words. “Most people are more familiar with his brother, Prometheus, who represents foresight, famous for being extremely intelligent, crafting humanity out of clay and stealing fire from the gods to give to us to build civilization. Barely anyone has heard of Epimetheus, though, and to the degree that Prometheus was lauded for being clever, Epimetheus was taunted for being foolish. Prometheus created man; Epimetheus created animals. He doted on his creations and gave every single last positive trait to the animals until Prometheus and his humanity had none left to use. For Epimetheus, as the god of “hindsight”, also interpreted as “afterthought”, humanity was an afterthought.”

The pause Xiao Zhan took allowed the audience to digest the short mythology lesson, but more importantly, it was for Xiao Zhan to gather the courage to continue. “Years ago, that’s how I felt. I felt that my humanity was an afterthought. The people who engaged in the hate online did not view me as a person. They only saw me as an instrument to use for their own benefit. They kept me from working. They attacked me, my friends, and my family - and kept me from feeling like a whole, worthy person. Now, in hindsight, I can say that I did struggle, I did cry, I did feel that it was unfair. Everything is clearer in hindsight.”

A dozen different cameras and phones captured every angle of Xiao Zhan. They were a kaleidoscope around him, sealing each word of his into permanence. People at home would watch the fractured, post-production version of his speech.

“That’s why I chose to design under the name of Epimetheus. In hindsight, I learned a lot. I wouldn’t do it any differently. The eight years spent out of the spotlight let me pursue a lot of my passions, and I have a brand that I’m proud of now. Rather than let myself stew in the injustice, I let those memories retire, and now they’re only an afterthought. That doesn’t mean it didn’t and doesn’t hurt any less, but I’ve healed a bit. In contrast, I hope the people on the other side of the screen, when before they acted like the foolish Epimetheus, acting with no foresight, will have grown from that time as well. I hope that those people who spent so much of their time hating and attacking people online, wherever they are now, I hope that they look back with clarity, too, and realize humanity should never be an afterthought.”

A few beats of silence followed when Xiao Zhan finished his thoughts. Someone on stage was the first to clap before the whole studio erupted. Xiao Zhan felt a weight lift off of his shoulder, but only the corners of his mouth dared to curl in a small, acknowledging smile.

“Thank you, Xiao Zhan. You mentioned the eight years you spent out of the spotlight. Do you mind sharing a little more about what you did during those years? We all know you opened a restaurant quite early on. And that…that you were married for a period of time,” Qian Feng navigated rough waters. “You were the victim of some terrible-"

Xiao Zhan stopped Qian Feng. “Sorry for interrupting, but I don’t like that word. I don’t want to be seen as a victim. Maybe I was, but since reflecting over the past few years, I realized that it isn’t productive for me to label myself as a victim. I’m past that now, and I have a lot of hope for the future.”

“Xiao Zhan.”

His lips went dry when he heard his name. He recognized the voice too well. While everyone else turned to look at Wang Yibo, he kept his eyes on the audience. A wave of nerves crawled up his back. The other guests, especially Song Jiyang and Wang Haoxuan, looked excited - nervous even, just like the rest of the audience. Everyone craved the pending interaction. Xiao Zhan and Wang Yibo were once powerhouses together, finding fame after the release of Chen Qing Ling. They were never officially a couple and even though so many fans hoped it was true, they knew in the back of their minds that it was just wishful thinking. But that didn’t stop the audience today from waiting with bated breaths to hear what Yibo had to say.

“Xiao Zhan,” Yibo repeated, and Xiao Zhan finally turned to meet his eyes. Noisy chatter followed in the audience; the phone cameras switched back on. “You’ve mentioned hope a lot. Having hope for the future, for yourself, and for others. Your art has given the LGBTQ community a lot of hope, too. From what I understand, Epimetheus is also known for giving the world hope. Did you have that story in mind, too, when you chose the name?”

Xiao Zhan kept his shaking hands out of view behind his back and silently thanked the producers for investing in hands-free mics. He shouldn’t have been surprised. Of course, Yibo would have done his research prior to the shoot. He gnawed at the inside of his lip and remembered the other reason for choosing the name Epimetheus. Hope was a gift that was born out of romance.

“You must be referring to Pandora’s box,” Xiao Zhan said.

“I am.”

Xiao Zhan’s eyes fluttered around, only making eye contact with Yibo every few seconds. He wanted to shudder under the intensity of Yibo’s gaze. He also wanted to take the other’s hands in his and share this story privately. He felt feverish - hands clammy, wringing at his own wrists.

“But Wang Yibo Lao Shi, wasn’t Pandora’s box filled with evils? I thought it was because Pandora opened the box out of curiosity that the world now has things like envy, illness, and pain.” The new voice chipped away at the tension. Xiao Zhan turned to Song Jiyang and nodded in understanding.

“You’re right, Song Jiyang,” Xiao Zhan said, relieved that the conversation shifted off of Yibo. “Pandora is known for releasing the evils into the worlds when she opened the box, but she shut it out of fear almost immediately and trapped one final trait inside of the box.”

“And that trait was hope?” Wang Haoxuan asked. The pair that made up Bliss was completely engrossed in the story.

“It was,” Xiao Zhan answered. “But Pandora had no idea what was left inside the box, and she was too scared to open it again. It wasn’t until Epimetheus found her with the box that he got curious, too. Eventually he heard a soft whisper and realized that the something from inside the box was claiming it was hope. With Epimetheus’s encouragement, Pandora finally agreed and the two of them opened the box together and let hope out into the world.”

Song Jiyang and Wang Haoxuan nodded in tandem.

“And what was Epimetheus’s relationship with Pandora?” The heads turned back to Wang Yibo. It was barely a question. Yibo had demanded the answer, knowing it himself, like a professor quizzing a student.

Xiao Zhan hated being caught off guard, and Yibo always knew how to get him. He stared across the stage at the man he was once so familiar with. His own memories tugged his heart in every direction, and all he wanted to do was say that he was sorry. He wanted to explode with apologies, to run to Yibo and spill tears onto his chest. He wanted Yibo to see it as proof that he had never let go of the pain. He wished that Yibo would kiss away the tears from his face like old times. He hoped Yibo would say it was okay.

Xiao Zhan clenched his fists so tightly that his nails ached from the force of being pressed against the skin of his palms. He wasn’t sure what he would say if he opened his mouth again.

“They were lovers,” Yibo answered for him. “Weren’t they?” It sounded like an accusation. Yibo was blaming Xiao Zhan for giving him hope once.

Xiao Zhan couldn’t bring himself to articulate an answer before Song Jiyang broke the silence again.

“If they were lovers, are we supposed to interpret the story to mean that hope is a product of love?” Song Jiyang turned to his boyfriend and smiled sweetly. “Haoxuan, did you hear that? Babe, our love gives me hope.”

To a chorus of screams from the audience, Song Jiyang then turned to the crowd, knowing exactly the effect he had. “I hope that our love can give hope to non-traditional couples everywhere. We’ve accomplished a lot this past year, but I hope that we can continue to make strides. Xiao Zhan Lao Shi, thank you so much for sharing your story and for designing for us over the past few years. I had no idea that there was such a special meaning behind Epimetheus, but I’m glad that our music is strengthened by your beautiful message. Can we all give Xiao Zhan a round of applause? Thank you so much, Xiao-laoshi.”

Xiao Zhan bowed awkwardly to the cheers of the crowd, still trying to construct an answer to Yibo in his mind. However, when the studio quieted down, the hosts rolled with the excitement and asked Bliss more questions about their relationship and their latest album. With relief, Xiao Zhan settled into robotic nods, clapping when necessary, and tried not to steal glances at Yibo.

As the hosts introduced the next activity and the guests shuffled around, Xiao Zhan felt a soft elbow at his side. He jumped, thinking it was Yibo, but relaxed when he saw that it was just Song Jiyang. The other gave him a nod and a reassuring smile. Xiao Zhan put two and two together and realized Song Jiyang had purposefully taken the attention off of him earlier, probably sensing the tension that surrounded him. He mouthed a “thank you” and to his surprise Song Jiyang smirked in response, gave him a cheeky wink and - from what he could tell - whispered “加油.”

Xiao Zhan managed his expression with difficulty and found his seat a beat after everyone else. He needed to get a stronger grip on his emotions. The conversation before only constituted about a quarter of the whole recording, and the hosts would soon make their way back to him. The format of Day Day Up wasn’t that of a typical interview. Instead, hosts and guests participated in a series of activities that highlighted different parts of Chinese culture, aiming to educate the audience. Today, Day Day Up was exploring the historical significance of literature and the arts in the LGBTQ community, including traditional Chinese texts that depicted examples of homosexuality in ancient China. The guests today were here to represent modern contributions that included Bliss’s music, Xiao Zhan’s art, and - he finally realized - the young actor’s transgender identity and his role playing a transgender character in an upcoming movie.

Song Jiyang and Wang Haoxuan were definitely the focal point of today’s episode. The pair answered questions about the motivation for their album and described the song writing process for Coming Out.

“Honestly, this album was probably the least difficult for us to write, but the most difficult one for us to release,” Song Jiyang started and Wang Haoxuan picked up where he left off. “The lyrics and the melodies came naturally. We were just translating from our own experiences and drawing from inspiration we’ve collected over the years.”

Song Jiyang nodded excitedly and took over. “There was so much inspiration. We realize that we’re only able to be here today, comfortable with our own love, because of the years of struggle and progress that people made before us.”

Where Song Jiyang ended, Wang Haoxuan seemed to begin. “Right, and it’s so exciting to be able to share the stage, even today, with people we’ve looked up to for so long. Xiao Zhan Lao Shi, we were shocked when it was revealed that you were Epimetheus. We had no idea that someone we’ve looked up to for so long was designing for us. And for us to be able to share the stage with you today…and for Wang Yibo Lao Shi to be here, too… Jiyang and I were honestly so nervous when we were backstage.”

Wang Haoxuan’s voice trickled off as he looked back and forth between Xiao Zhan and Wang Yibo. Song Jiyang stepped in, laughing nervously at both his and his boyfriend’s awkwardness. “We were. I think we spent a good hour deciding how we would bring it up. But both of us watched Chen Qing Ling when we were young, and it helped us come to terms with our own sexuality. The drama did a really good job capturing the love between two soulmates, especially during a time when there was still a lot of censorship in the media. We were really able to learn that love is love and that it’s never an outsider’s business to police it.”

The audience seemed to collectively cue into a giggle, unable to contain themselves as a result of the candor onstage.

“Thank you, Jiyang and Haoxuan,” Yibo said to the pair. He had diligently listened to the two and nodded where it was appropriate. His focus never strayed from them. Xiao Zhan, on the other hand, was visibly surprised when the two mentioned him. Xiao Zhan had worked with Bliss for almost two years now, and Jiyang and Haoxuan felt like younger brothers to him. When he was Epimetheus, he never hesitated from jumping on calls with his clients, but he was careful never to reveal his true identity. It hadn’t occurred to him that Jiyang and Haoxuan might’ve been fans of him beyond his art.

“Chen Qing Ling definitely holds a special place in my heart, too,” Yibo continued. “I won’t speak for Xiao Zhan, but I think that everyone who worked on it came away with a lifetime of memories. To put it bluntly, it was a pivotal role for me. A homosexual character. We can admit that now, right? Ten years ago, we definitely couldn’t frame it that way. But we should recognize it now. Lan Wangji was a man who loved another man. I didn’t understand how to show that at first with my acting, but I’ll let the final product speak for itself and let the audience decide if I successfully translated Lan Wangji’s love for Wei Wuxian on screen. What I can say confidently, however, is that his love has inspired me in many ways as well, just like how you said Chen Qing Ling inspired you two.”

Song Jiyang and Wang Haoxuan nodded aggressively, hanging onto each word. No one on stage or in the audience missed how Wang Yibo looked over at Xiao Zhan when he mentioned Wei Wuxian. Over the past years, Wang Yibo offered very little in reflection over Chen Qing Ling. At best, he was cordial to the topic, at worst he refused to answer any questions associated with the drama.

“It was a good experience.”

“Everyone treated me very well.”

“It was enjoyable.”

“Please continue to support everyone from the drama.”

Even the other hosts were surprised by how much Yibo had just shared. But he wasn’t done. Yibo turned to Xiao Zhan. For how much he had just said about love, there was no warmth in his eyes as he asked his next question. “Xiao Zhan, what about you? While we’re on the topic of inspiration, did Chen Qing Ling influence your art? What are your sources of inspiration?”

Indeed, Yibo knew exactly how to catch Xiao Zhan off guard. And he knew exactly how to hurt him, too. His words burned, chasing away any leftover chance he had to disappear into the shadows. Here on stage, Xiao Zhan had no control - Yibo called the shots. The audience didn’t need to know the weight behind Yibo’s words. As long as Xiao Zhan could understand it.

Yibo, you know what inspires me. It’s you. It’s always been you.

Xiao Zhan gathered his thoughts and considered the lines he had practiced. He had come ready to answer difficult questions. He had answers prepared for everything from his short marriage to his unconfirmed sexuality. Even if China had made strides, taboo was difficult to erase.

“Chen Qing Ling was definitely a source of inspiration. Like Wang Yibo said, everyone who played a part in the drama came away with something significant. I have always wanted to be a voice for those without voices. That drama was a start, and my art is a continuation. But my inspiration is truly those who I design for. Song Jiyang, Wang Haoxuan, thank you so much for your kind words, but I have to return the sentiment wholeheartedly. Your music speaks to so many people, regardless of their own sexuality. I think we’ve come full circle. You drew inspiration from me, and similarly, I’ve been inspired by you two.” Xiao Zhan smiled as he spoke. It was a practiced gesture. So many years and he hadn’t forgotten how to put on a façade in front of a camera. “That’s where I would say a lot of my inspiration is from lately.”

Bullshit… Xiao Zhan felt like a fool hiding behind his smile as the recording continued. He had found a new curtain. One that weighed so heavy on him that it hurt to turn his head and steal glances at Yibo. The Coming Out cover art? Inspired by the music? Maybe. But there was more.

The scene he drew was of two faceless guys. It was a kiss backstage. A silhouette. He forgot who hooked their legs around the other first. I think I like you. Arms intertwined and fingers laced. Tongue to neck. I know I like you. A head thrown back. He heard a moan escape. Yibo. Do you… Do we… Can this be more? Hidden in the curtains. A hand disappearing. It was ice against his skin. An audience tucked around the corner. Zhan Ge. Let’s go. A sticky, desperate kiss. Follow me. He pressed their bodies together. Skin and only skin. His slim frame. His broad shoulders. An empty dressing room. Please… Please. Swollen lips against his bruised neck. A kiss that lasted forever. Xiao Zhan had no doubt Yibo recognized their first time.

The recording ended shortly after. Xiao Zhan ripped the mic off of his face and didn’t bother with the glue that the tape had left behind, tacky on his skin. He escaped to his dressing room, at a pace just shy of a run. He shouldn’t have agreed to the interview. Nothing went wrong, but he didn’t feel right. He stared at himself in the mirror and noticed that there was barely any makeup left on his face. His ears were red. Xiao Zhan laughed at the irony. There’s no name to hide behind anymore. You’re foolish and dumb. Foresight? Epimetheus, who? It’s just you, Xiao Zhan. Just the person who hurt Yibo. You took everything from him. He hates you.

Xiao Zhan could think of nothing but Yibo’s stare. He couldn’t recognize it, not without the warmth he remembered. It was an image at the edge of his consciousness, a powder thin memory rubbed away by years of friction spent trying too hard to remember.

A knock interrupted his thoughts. “Xiao Zhan Lao Shi?”

He recognized Song Jiyang’s voice and did a once over in the mirror. There were visible nail marks at the base of his neck. “Come in.”

The younger boy shuffled into the room, taking a seat next to him.

“How are you, Xiao Zhan Lao Shi?” Song Jiyang asked. When there was no response, he continued in an even softer voice than before. “Are you okay? Wang Lao Shi was a bit harsh wasn’t he…”

Xiao Zhan turned abruptly to Jiyang. “No, he-” Xiao Zhan took a second to think. “I deserved it.”

“I guess it’s not much of a secret that Wang Yibo and I used to have something,” Xiao Zhan said, realizing he had no reason to hide a secret that the other had already figured out. “I’m not good at hiding my feelings, not when it comes to him.”

Song Jiyang nodded in understanding. “It’s okay. I get it. When it comes to Haoxuan, it’s like everything and nothing comes easy. When we first started dating, we weren’t sure what to do either. Sure, people say they’re more accepting nowadays, but actions obviously speak louder than words. People are still uncomfortable around us and not everyone accepts the kind of love we have. I shouldn’t even say a ‘kind’ of love - it’s just love. But it’s so much harder because of all of the connotations homosexuality still has in our society. I can’t even imagine how hard it was for you and Wang Yibo.”

His words brought memories back to Xiao Zhan. Dates in hotel rooms, managed expressions on stage, hidden messages embedded in social media posts. Xiao Zhan missed it so much. No matter how hard it got, he had found so much comfort in Yibo. The two of them figuring it out together, desperate to make their relationship work.

“Song Jiyang. What would you think if you were in my shoes? What would you do?” Xiao Zhan asked. He felt a little ridiculous asking a twenty three year-old for relationship advice. “It’s probably too late, right? I- never mind. I don’t even know what I wanted to accomplish coming on the show today.”

Song Jiyang shook his head. “No, it’s never too late. Xiao Zhan-lao shi, I think you’re interpreting Wang Yibo’s actions wrong. He invited you, didn’t he? Wang Yibo wanted you here and asked you specifically to come onto an episode that was about homosexuality. He obviously wanted to talk to you. Or at least see you,” Song Jiyang insisted, noticing how Xiao Zhan's wrists were rubbed red with worry. He fretted that his words weren’t coming across correctly. “It’s just the way he acts. It’s a defense mechanism. Don’t just take it from me. Xiao Zhan Lao Shi, I think you should talk to Wang Yibo. He made the move to get you on the show. You need to reciprocate. I really do think he was reaching out to you.”

Xiao Zhan knew Song Jiyang was right. Wang Yibo was always the one reaching out and Xiao Zhan was always the one hurting him. For months after he had already stopped responding, Yibo persistently kept texting him.

Did I do something wrong?

Please stop ignoring me.

I don’t want to do this without you.

Zhan-ge, I need you. And I know you need me. Please don’t be like this. I want to be there for you.

I can be there for you.

I’m here for you.

Always.

And Xiao Zhan would always remember Yibo’s last few texts.

“Song Jiyang, would you want to hear an apology?” Xiao Zhan asked. “Would you want an apology from the guy who broke your heart?”

“No, not really,” Song Jiyang confessed, imagining if Wang Haoxuan had one day decided that their relationship wasn’t for him. “But I would want to talk. I’m sure he’d need some closure, but also because I deserve an explanation if that really happened.”

Xiao Zhan sighed, head in his hands and contemplated the conversation that was about to come. He couldn’t run away anymore.

“Thank you, Jiyang,” Xiao Zhan said. “I’ll talk to him.”

After Song Jiyang left, Xiao Zhan stayed in his dressing room for a while longer. His mind ran wild with everything that could happen. Yibo hadn’t given him much to work with while on stage and he wasn’t sure how exactly the other felt. Sad? Hurt? Confused? It was probably a combination of everything.

Xiao Zhan emerged from his room and walked down the hall. The studio was much quieter and only a few staff remained. He hoped that Yibo had already left.

One knock. A second knock. A third.

Just as he was about to give up, the door opened.

“Sorry, I was just cleaning-” Yibo froze. “Xiao Zhan.”

Yibo was a different person off stage. The confidence that the audience brought him, the spotlight he loved - all of that was a character for him. Xiao Zhan finally saw someone he felt familiar with.

“What are you still doing here?” Yibo asked, voice clipped and on the offensive. He noticed the red marks on Xiao Zhan’s neck and the imprint that the microphone had left on his cheek. When he saw Yibo’s eyebrows scrunch, Xiao Zhan felt relief at the thought that the other still showed concern for him.

“I wanted to talk to you,” Xiao Zhan explained. “Can I come in?”

Yibo nodded and led them to the set of couches he had in his room. Xiao Zhan observed him the entire way, and wished he was always bystander to the man in front of him, so he could appreciate the way he walked - hands tucked in his pockets, or how he sat - fully drowned in the couch.

“How are you?” he asked softly after they had sat in silence for a few minutes. His skin felt thick on him. He wasn’t surprised when Yibo didn’t respond.

“Yibo, I’m sorry,” he whispered. His eyelids were heavy, his jaw stiff, and it felt as if someone had oiled his joints with molasses. “That’s not what you deserve, but I’m sorry.”

Yibo turned to look at him. Xiao Zhan’s throat tightened as he recognized the way Yibo fought back tears - eyes squinted tightly, chin tucked in, two veins that only ever popped out on the right side of his neck. “What are you sorry for?”

“Everything? I’m sorry for hurting you.” He missed how easily he used to cry in front of Yibo, but his body refused to let any tears fall. He would be steeped in guilt, not tears. He wanted to hurt.
“I caused you pain, and I didn’t give you an explanation. I didn’t let you be a part of my life. I didn’t stay a part of yours. I couldn’t be there to celebrate with you or to cry with you. I just wasn’t there for you. I wasn’t the boyfriend that I wanted to be. I broke my promise, and I did something terrible. And I’m sorry for all of that and more.”

Xiao Zhan knew he wasn’t in a position to ask for forgiveness, but he wanted it so badly. Yibo barely reacted to a single word he said, which made Xiao Zhan very aware of himself. His sweat caused his bangs to clump together. His belt dug uncomfortably into his waist, and the leather of the couch was sticky against his skin.

“You left me,” Yibo said. He grimaced as he felt the heat behind his eyes. “And do you know what that forced me to do? You forced me to leave you, too.” Xiao Zhan had the echo of an apology on his tongue again, but Yibo left him no room to speak.

“You left me, which basically was you telling me that I wasn’t good enough. I wanted to be there for you, but you didn’t even want me. Did you just think that I could stop? That I could stop loving you? Did you think it was going to be easy for me just because it was easy for you? Because it doesn’t fucking work like that. Did you just hope that I would be okay? Is that what I was supposed to assume when I figured out you were Epimetheus? Was that your first apology? Because I didn’t want it then either.”

Xiao Zhan felt a knot form in his stomach as he considered what Yibo had just said. Each accusation spotlighted another one of Xiao Zhan’s mistakes.

“You wanted me to recognize you, didn’t you? You drew our first time. You practically begged me to do it. If you were going to leave, you should’ve stayed gone. Because then I wouldn’t have wanted you back. I wouldn’t have needed to be selfish… I wouldn’t have needed to do this to you.”

Xiao Zhan felt the horror snake through his body - the realization bubbling up. He didn’t expect this.

“Did you figure it out yet?” Yibo asked.

Xiao Zhan didn’t want to believe it. “It was you who-"

“Who sold you out? No, you don’t get to say it like that. You can’t accuse me of anything. That’s too easy,” Yibo had a crazed look in his eyes, and his voice raised in volume with each word. “You wanted me to find out. You knew I would find out because you knew that I never stopped looking for you. Why didn’t you just stay quiet? You could’ve kept ignoring me. Why did you accept my invitation today? Why keep hurting me?”

“That’s not what I wanted!” Xiao Zhan yelled at the now empty space in front of him. Yibo had stormed off of the couch, stretching the distance between him and Xiao Zhan as far as he could manage.

“You can’t hide anymore. I’m not letting you.”

“Yibo, that wasn’t your choice to make!”

“But did you even want to hide? You definitely didn’t make it hard for me to figure out you were Epimetheus.”

Xiao Zhan couldn’t get a word in.

“You tortured me. It was harder not to hear about you. You went and opened a restaurant. You got spun into all these rumors with some girl. And then, for fucks sake, you actually got married!”

“Yibo, I didn’t-"

“No, I don’t care what you have to say! Who the hell was she? Did I cross your mind at all? You know, I guess I did because it’s uncanny. I knew it was you almost immediately. Even before the album cover. I just don’t understand how you could do it. The way you draw. The way you used to draw for me. And the stuff you draw. It hurt even more.”

Xiao Zhan’s vision blurred as Yibo continued talking.

“I couldn’t understand how you could just do that and think it was okay. Xiao Zhan, Epimetheus, whoever you are - whoever you think you are - I couldn’t just let you hurt me all over again while you get to be all good and happy with the world. So yeah, it was me. I did it. I was the one who told the press that you were Epimetheus.”

Xiao Zhan’s nails were at his neck, clawing up skin again. “I don’t believe you. How could you do that to me? You know how much shit the press did to me back then. You know how much that affected me.”

“Do I?” Yibo asked. “Because the last time I checked, you left me during that. Maybe I would’ve known if you didn’t leave me. Or I don’t know, if you had at least talked to me? Texted me back?”

“No, you don’t get it!” Suddenly, Xiao Zhan was up too, feet driving him towards where Yibo had planted himself near the wall. “I left for you!”

The volume of his voice scared both of them. His fist was at Yibo’s chest, clenching the fabric of his t-shirt. “It was so you could do what you needed to do. It was so you didn’t have to see me fall apart day by day. It took me eight years, Yibo. Eight years for me to finally get some semblance of a life back. But you took that away, too.”

He pushed Yibo away. He didn’t have anything left to say, and Yibo didn’t stop him as he walked towards the door. Something had gone wrong because this wasn’t amongst any of Xiao Zhan’s imagined scenarios from before. In no dream of his was his throat sore from yelling.

When the door closed behind him, Xiao Zhan collapsed to the ground, tears hitting the floor before his hands could. The studio was empty, and he cried loudly. He cried loudly, because the walls were thin, and he selfishly didn’t want to hear Yibo cry, too.

----

The broadcast aired three weeks later, and Xiao Zhan’s voice filled living rooms across the nation. The post-production team had given themselves a large creative license on his segment, and watching the show on screen, Xiao Zhan almost felt sorry for himself. Everyone else certainly did. That evening, tissue boxes were raided, and “Epimetheus” became the most popular search. “Epimetheus and Pandora” trailed a close second and after that, “Xiao Zhan and Wang Yibo.”

The next night, Chen Qing Ling’s first few episodes spiked by millions of views, and within a week, the whole country had a renewed obsession with the drama and the onscreen chemistry of its co-stars.

Song Jiyang: Xiao Zhan Lao Shi! everyone loves you!

Wang Haoxuan: congratulations! the broadcast was really well-received!

Xiao Zhan looked at his texts. He replied to Haoxuan with a polite thank you and hesitated on pressing send on his message to Jiyang.

Xiao Zhan: I messed up

Song Jiyang: what?
what happened?

He continued to text back and forth with Jiyang, tiptoeing around the crux of the issue.

Song Jiyang: you’re being dramatic. and you’re avoiding the topic.
tell me what happened

Xiao Zhan: It’s complicated
I got mad at Wang Yibo and I yelled at him

-Song Jiyang added Wang Haoxuan to the chat-

Song Jiyang: sorry Xiao Zhan-laoshi
he was basically reading over my shoulder
but he can help!

Wang Haoxuan: i can!! my last relationship had a lot of rocky moments, too

Song Jiyang: …
nvrmind he isnt helping
Xiao Zhan-lao shi, tell us what happened
why were you mad at Yibo Lao Shi?

Xiao Zhan: He revealed to the press that I was Epimetheus.

Wang Haoxuan: WHAT

Song Jiyang: NO
NO HE DIDNT

Wang Haoxuan: THAT’S NOT OKAY
HOW COULD HE DO THAT?

Song Jiyang: IS HE CRAZY? WANG HAOXUAN DON’T YOU EVER DO THAT TO ME

Wang Haoxuan: don’t worry bby. i would NEVER

Song Jiyang: okay but actually…
i can kinda understand why he did it

Wang Haoxuan: WHAT? NO!!??
JIYANG WOULD YOU DO SOMETHING LIKE THAT TO ME??

Xiao Zhan: Song Jiyang, explain it to me. Please. I’ll listen.

Deep down, he knew he had to understand.

---

Xiao Zhan scrolled through his old texts with Yibo.

February 8th, 2021 Always.
10:42PM

The last message called to him, and his finger hovered over the phone icon next to Yibo’s name. Jiyang had made it clear last night that he needed to reach out this time, but he was still angry. Angry at Yibo and at himself - all while apologies were still on the tip of his tongue. He sighed in frustration. All he wanted was to put the Epimetheus situation behind them.

“Xiao Zhan?”

He looked down in shock. The phone no longer displayed the blue and gray text boxes, and instead, Yibo’s name labeled the top of the screen. Below it, the time signature ticked up as the silence dragged on. His thumb twitched towards the red button that would end the call.

“Hello?” Yibo’s familiar voice said quietly. He almost dropped the phone as he rushed to bring it up to his ear.

“You didn’t change your number.”

“I did,” Yibo said. His voice was clearer now. “You’re the only one who has this number now.”

His mind reeled at the thought of Yibo keeping a separate phone just for him. For all of those eight years, there was still a lifeline out there for him.

“Why’d you call?”

Xiao Zhan could hear music and shuffling in the background. Yibo was probably rehearsing for something, and he couldn’t stop his mind from dipping into memories of previous late-night phone calls that ended with whispered goodnights and see you tomorrows. “Can we talk? Not over the phone, but can we meet somewhere?”

“Xiao Zhan, I’m not going to apologize if that’s what-”

“No! I just- That’s not why-” Xiao Zhan groaned in frustration. “Can we please just meet? We can keep it short. I know you’re busy. I just need an hour. Thirty minutes.”

“Fine, tomorrow night then. I’ll have a car pick you up at nine.”

“Do you need my address?” Xiao Zhan asked, but Yibo had already hung up.

The next night, he waited in front of his apartment a half hour early. It didn’t take more than a few minutes for sweat to collect at his brow. The evening breeze cut through the summer heat, and it was even more humid than the usual Shanghai weather. A warning scent of rain mixed with the salt that already hung in the air, blown over from the coast not too far away.

A few minutes to nine, a black sedan stopped beside him. Collecting his nerves one last time, he got into the back of the car.

He barely shut the door when the driver screamed. “Who are you?”

Xiao Zhan looked at the rearview mirror and met the eyes of a woman in her thirties.

“Wait, you look like…” the driver gasped in recognition, all of the fear was gone as quickly as it came. “Xiao Zhan?”

She turned around, but Xiao Zhan was suddenly a silhouette as a single round beam of light approached her car. Still staring at the rearview mirror, Xiao Zhan felt his blood drain away as he also recognized a familiar outline. His ears started to ring as the growl of a motorcycle grew louder and louder behind them. He could feel his skin crawling in anticipation, remembering the thrill of being on the back of a bike from many years ago.

Xiao Zhan frantically jumped out, not bothering with an explanation and ran over to the motorcycle. In a practiced motion, he swung his leg over the back of the bike and his arms wrapped around the waist in front of him. “Go, please. Oh my god, go!”

His hands searched for the passenger handlebars that Yibo used to have on his old bike. As the speed picked up, his uneasiness grew and a small bump in the road startled Xiao Zhan into hugging Yibo tight, forgetting about his search for the handlebars.

“Who was that?” Yibo yelled over the roars of the bike and the wind in their ears. Yibo had his helmet on, which made it even harder to hear.

“What?” Xiao Zhan yelled back. “Who?”

“The girl! In the car!”

“I got into the car by accident! I don’t know who she is!” Xiao Zhan watched as the pavement blurred beneath their feet. He could feel them accelerating. “Yibo, can you slow down?”

The wind seemed to rip his voice away. Yibo revved the motor, and the two lurched back as Yibo merged onto the highway. Xiao Zhan tightened his arms on impulse.

“Yibo, slow down!” he shouted again. His hands were shaking. He shut his eyes tightly as he felt tears start to form. Yibo continued to speed up, taking full advantage of the empty streets at night.

“You wanted to talk!” Yibo yelled. “You can talk now!”

Xiao Zhan could feel each deep breath Yibo took through his shirt. Each phrase caused Yibo’s abdomen to pull in - torso firm against his arms - and Xiao Zhan couldn’t help it when something stirred inside of him. For the first time, Xiao Zhan noticed how Yibo’s body had changed over the course of eight years. The broad shoulders he had his face pressed against was now a solid frame of muscle he didn’t recognize, and from his embrace, he could tell that the front of Yibo told a similar story of transformation. He was almost thankful that his body was currently too scared to react.

“Yibo, can you slow down?” Xiao Zhan begged. “I can’t talk like this!”

“Talk and then I’ll decide if I should slow down!” Yibo yelled back at him.

Xiao Zhan groaned in frustration. Yibo had always been stubborn, but this was just mean. He ran through everything he wanted to say. Song Jiyang and Wang Haoxuan had left him with a full battle plan, but he remembered none of it. Instead, old memories crowded his mind. When was the last time he rode on the back of Yibo’s motorcycle? Was it during their last date? Did Yibo know that he had cried alone after that night? He thought back to their argument in the dressing room and about how he was scared to hear the other cry. How many times did Yibo cry alone in that room?

“Yibo, I missed you,” he whispered.

“What?” Yibo yelled at him.

When he opened his mouth again, he felt the cool touch of rain on his tongue. “I said I missed you!”

Yibo dropped the speed by five miles, but that only caused Xiao Zhan’s heart to race faster.

“I missed you every single day! I hated myself back then. I hated that I hurt you. I hated that I lied to myself and to everyone else. I hated that I had to hide.”

He felt them slow down again as he spoke, but the pavement was turning into a black slush beneath them as the storm settled in above. Although the loss of friction gave way to a smoother ride, he knew it was a false sense of security. The thought of hydroplaning on the motorcycle terrified him, but he trusted Yibo with his life.

“Yibo, I want you back,” Xiao Zhan continued to yell. “I don’t care how, maybe you don’t want me, but I’ll do it however you need me to. I just need you back in my life!” The wind got louder in his ears. “Wait, why are you speeding up?”

Xiao Zhan didn’t have a helmet on, and the raindrops were needles against his face. He opened his eyes to see a black expanse of open water. They had turned off the freeway onto an empty road that ran parallel to the coast. The absence of moonlight reflecting off of the surface of the ocean sent chills down his spine.

“Xiao Zhan, that’s not your choice. You don’t get to just have me back!”

“That’s not what I meant!” Xiao Zhan searched for words. “I just… I want to be a part of your life again. I need you to be in mine.”

Xiao Zhan was relieved when Yibo started slowing down again, but the speed continued to drop until Yibo turned off the road and brought them to a stop entirely. Xiao Zhan started to unravel his arms around Yibo, until he felt a gloved hand on his and he froze.

“Yibo?”

“Xiao Zhan, that’s what you don’t understand,” Yibo’s voice was still louder than usual, his hearing dulled by the helmet. “You were never not a part of my life. Even when you ignored me, left me, when you got married, when you became Epimetheus - I always kept you as a part of my life.”

He heard Yibo’s voice begin to crack. Xiao Zhan felt the love pour out of himself when he heard those words - it came in waves that rivaled the ocean crashing near them. “Why?” Xiao Zhan asked.

“Why? Why would I do that or why do I love you so much? Because I ask myself the second question every day.” Yibo moved his hand off of his and acted as if he was going to start riding again. Xiao Zhan jumped off of the motorcycle.

“Stop. Stop running.” Xiao Zhan crossed to the front of the motorcycle and gripped the handlebars. He tried to find Yibo’s eyes hidden behind the helmet.

“I’m the one running?” Yibo asked, voice desperate. “Xiao Zhan, do you even listen to yourself when you talk? How am I the one running when you’ve been running for years? You just ran away, you married yourself off, and you kept hiding. You got to hide while I had to smile and pretend to be okay.”

Yibo jerked the handlebars to the left and tried to push himself off the ground, but Xiao Zhan was faster than him.

“Yibo, stop!” Xiao Zhan pleaded. “Take the helmet off.” He could hear Yibo starting to cry. Muted sniffles escaped every few seconds, and he felt powerless as he saw Yibo’s shoulders start to shake. “You’re the one hiding now!”

“No, I’m not!” Yibo yelled back at him. “I’m not hiding. Why would I hide from you?”

Yibo’s shoulders kept shaking. Xiao Zhan put a hand to each side of Yibo’s helmet, and with tears in his own eyes, slowly lifted up to reveal a face he was so familiar with. His breath hitched as he saw swollen eyes, downcast and heavy from years of pain. He watched as Yibo’s hair became drenched with rain. His shirt stuck to his body completely and Xiao Zhan thought Yibo suddenly looked so small again.

“Did I hurt you that much, ge?”

“What are you talking about?” Xiao Zhan could only think about how much pain was being revealed in front of him.

“Epimetheus. Did it hurt you? When you couldn’t hide anymore.”

“It did, but-”

“Can I be happy that I hurt you?” Yibo looked up at Xiao Zhan. The rain washed away every tear he shed.

Xiao Zhan’s throat was in knots, and he hated that Yibo was asking for his permission. “Yes, you should be.”

“But I’m not, you know.” Yibo reached to take his helmet back from Xiao Zhan, hugging it to his body. Xiao Zhan realized that it was the one he gave Yibo for his 21st birthday.

Now, with empty hands, he wanted nothing more than to wipe the tears and rain from Yibo’s eyes, but shame washed over him and he couldn’t move. He had been the one to hurt Yibo all those years ago, yet somehow, Yibo felt guilty, too.

“You shouldn’t have to apologize,” Xiao Zhan said. His hand reached out when he caught sight of another tear falling. Yibo’s cheek was warm against his palm. The cold from the rain had embedded itself deep into his skin by now. He traced the indent that the helmet left behind and felt his heart leap when the other leaned into his touch. “Yibo, I want to be back in your life.”

Yibo surprised him by taking his free hand and raised it to the other side of his face. Yibo closed his eyes against the tears coming again and leaned forward into the hands he once had memorized. “Zhan Ge, you’re not hiding anymore.”

“I don’t - I won’t hide anymore.”

“I won’t let you hide.”

“I promise. I won’t-”

“Don’t let me hide either.” The words seemed to come out faster than Yibo could say them, and his hand tightened around Xiao Zhan’s wrist. He wasn’t sure what Yibo meant.

“Say that you won’t let me hide anymore,” Yibo pleaded. “I don’t want to hide anymore.”

Xiao Zhan felt his heart break, and the anxiety rushed over him as he finally understood what Yibo meant. “I can’t… You can’t.” He could sense it crawling back up again, the need to run away. Ten years was still not enough time for it to be okay. He couldn’t do that to Yibo now, just like how he couldn’t do that to Yibo years ago. “We couldn’t… the press would… your fans..”

“Zhan Ge, don’t hide anymore. Can we…please not hide anymore?” Yibo opened his eyes again, and his request bore deep into Xiao Zhan’s heart. He watched as every emotion passed between them - all of the pain, suffering, and loneliness that flew out of that one look - and finally understood the necessary backdrop that the dark provided for Pandora and for the world. Yibo was the first to move again, leaning forward, and Xiao Zhan pulled him in the rest of the way. Lips landed on his and this was his answer. No more hiding. No more crying alone. No more secrets, fake names, or helmets. It was a promise he was scared to keep, but this was hope unlocked.