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When Xian Le had first debuted, the internet had quickly become taken with his lopsided dimples.

His first fans were, surprisingly, the older women. They took endless numbers of screenshots of his debut music video—titled ‘Waiting,’ which had been about a pre-teenage boy navigating the wonderful marvels of growing up and waiting for when he’s finally old enough to become someone important—and circulated them around on the internet. They thought he looked like an angel. His blond hair was so bright and pale that it almost seemed like light itself, styled pretty so that it curled around his face. His eyes were big and, when he smiled, they crinkled at the ends. When he opened his mouth and sang, his voice was clear and lovely.

All of this made him extremely endearing to them. Within the week, the netizens were calling him the little angel of their generation.

Following the older women came the teenagers. Those that were around Xian Le’s age and just slightly older, the ones that were very good at being fans of popular idols, that would go to school and chatter with each other about Xian Le’s newest appearance or the silly video a fan caught of him tripping in the airport. They praised him for standing out from the rest of the bunch of idols, how he was different because of how serene and sweet he came across in the interviews. Even at thirteen, everyone could tell that he would grow up to be an excessively handsome and well-spoken young man.

With the teenagers came the sweeping internet fame. After this point, no one could tell you exactly how Xian Le skyrocketed to a terrifying level of popularity. For the rest of the country, it almost felt like they had fallen asleep one day and awoken the next and found him, suddenly, plastered on every billboard and magazine cover.

His oldest fans will remember all of the nicknames that were given to him during that early era. ‘Steamed Bun Fairy’ from the number of paparazzi photos taken of him after sets and performances with a large steamed bun stuffed in his mouth. ‘Mint Angel’ from the time that a fan had yelled to him that it was their birthday and he had scrabbled through his pockets for an impromptu present, singing happy birthday on the spot and pressing a mint into their hands.

These nicknames are still used today, all these years after his downfall, but not with the same sweet tone of endearment as before. When they’re brought up now they’re brought up sarcastically, in the same way people would talk about a high school classmate who never made much of themselves. Usually as a point of comparison. Usually as a quick, effective example of a fuck up.

And even when Xian Le is brought up in conversation, the topic always moves on as quick as it begins. Truly, there’s nothing more to say about him. The public has long lost interest.

 

.

 

Hua Cheng has been Hua Cheng since he was fourteen years old. His debut song was titled ‘The Day You Left’ and was about a breakup, the same as all of the most boring and successful ballads. It contended with dozens of other happy and sad and silly songs for the Top 10 Chart that month, but had overtaken them with an upstart that surprised the public. He had been so incredibly young—an age that people would have typically laughed and teased for being too young to even know what love was, let alone heartbreak—but had such moody eyes and such a sad, sad smile that he’d collected thousands of fans overnight. 

That was the beginning of it all.

If you had looked him up then, in the early days of his profile, you would be able to learn with surprise that he was the son of two well-known businesspeople. This wasn’t a surprise given others that entered the music industry—only those with money and connections generally have enough resources to even begin the journey into stardom. As the years pass, his profile would have expanded to where you could learn that he had been taking vocal lessons with a retired opera singer from Singapore. If you were to listen very closely to his songs, you would be able to detect the tremulous vibrato in his lower registers as a soft hint back to this history. This is a quality of his voice that his fans would reference, constantly, as one of their favorite characteristics of Hua Cheng.

And then—if you were to follow him a few years more, to the second exactly ten years from the debut of his first music video—you would be able to find him reclining back on a leather couch, swirling an iced coffee in a loose grip, and wondering when the hell his manager would let him leave.

Hua Cheng leans his cheek against the couch in Ming Yi’s office and tries not to fall asleep. He changes his mind and tips his head back so that it hits the wall behind him, a stiff feeling tugging at his scalp when he feels his moussed hair presses strange against the wall.

“Stop that.”

Hua Cheng ignores the voice and takes a long sip of his iced coffee. Ming Yi emerges from the door, frowning.

“You’re going to ruin your hair,” Ming Yi says. “The stylists already went home for the day, no one will be able to fix it in time for your performance.” Hua Cheng doesn’t move, so Ming Yi lifts the cup of iced coffee from his hands, holds it out far enough that Hua Cheng eventually sighs and shifts to lean forward.

“I’m going to fire you,” Hua Cheng says, snatching his cup back.

“I work for your parents, not for you,” Ming Yi says. He beckons with a manilla folder in his hand. Hua Cheng pins him with a pointedly strong glare before walking over.

They take seats at the desk. What Ming Yi has is a list of songs and demos that he’s purchased for Hua Cheng’s next album. This is a task that had once gone to Hua Cheng during those early years, but that he has since refused to do. As the years continue, his patience has worn too thin to parse through unoriginal and boring pop track after pop track without wanting to burn the whole lot. Ming Yi and the rest of his team has since realized that leaving Hua Cheng in charge of picking songs for an album would mean that there would be no album at all.

Ming Yi can’t help but say it nonetheless. “You should be picking your own songs.”

“It doesn’t matter what I sing, people will buy it anyway,” Hua Cheng snorts. He flips through the sheets of lyrics in the folder, skimming them. A club anthem. A dark song. Another breakup song. Hua Cheng pulls this one out and raises an eyebrow at Ming Yi. It’s the look that his fans consider to be exceedingly sexy and that Ming Yi considers to be Hua Cheng’s worst trait. “What is it about my face that says breakup song?”

“Pick your own songs if you’re just going to complain,” Ming Yi says, snatching the coffee from Hua Cheng’s hands before it spills to stain the pages.

“Do I look like someone who gets broken up with?”

“It’s in your key. And it’s produced by one of the most popular DJs. I had to outbid Shi Wudu for this one.”

Hua Cheng laughs and continues flipping through the folder. “Hope you had fun with that.”

Ming Yi leans back in his chair and crosses his arms, looking relatively unmoved. Hua Cheng isn’t fooled.

“You did? That’s mean of you,” Hua Cheng grins.

“Keep looking,” Ming Yi orders.

If Hua Cheng had been in a more playful mood, he would have considered playing along with Ming Yi and paying someone to go behind his back and select a whole new collection of songs for the album. But he isn’t, so he flips.

Club anthem. Experimental electronic. Dark song. Ballad. One about unrequited love—Hua Cheng doesn’t have the energy to start shit over this one, so he keeps going. Dark. Experimental. Ballad.

He stops at the last song.

Ming Yi usually has a quite particular style of album structure that he likes. He’s fairly traditional in terms of song selections. This one, however—Hua Cheng doesn’t know what to make of it. The chords look quite unique, but the lyrics are naive.

Hua Cheng pulls it out to get a better look.

“That’s from an up-and-coming songwriter,” Ming Yi says. “Brand new.”

“Why this one?”

“I thought the lyrics would fit you.”

Hua Cheng flips the page and lines up a finger with a portion of the chorus—‘ Did you once love me, too ? Did you think of me, too ?’ He gives Ming Yi a very pointed stare.

Ming Yi shrugs. He unscrews the cap of his barley tea bottle.

“Everyone likes it when pretty boys pine.”

Hua Cheng considers threatening him with contract termination again, but Ming Yi plows on after taking a sip.

“It’s a new side of your image. Something sweeter. Your fans will eat it up.”

“This song sounds like it was written by a child.”

“Doesn’t sound like it was.”

Hua Cheng holds out his hand. “Demos?”

“In the folder.” Hua Cheng opens it and glances in, sees the flash drive sitting at the bottom. “Listen to all of them by the end of the week.”

“If I hate any of them, we’re going to take them out.”

Ming Yi scoffs. Hua Cheng takes that as a concession. He brandishes out the lyrics for the last song.

“We can start with this one. I don’t want this.”

“Listen to it first.”

“Don’t need to. I already know.”

Ming Yi rolls his eyes. “The melody to that one is really good. It’ll show off your falsetto.”

He’s more stubborn about this than Hua Cheng was anticipating. He waves the sheet around a bit, but Ming Yi doesn’t budge. Given that teasing him isn’t paying off, Hua Cheng sighs and tucks the lyrics sheet back into the folder. “If I don’t like it, I’ll fire you.”

“You can’t fire me,” Ming Yi says in reminder, rolling his eyes when Hua Cheng points at him threateningly one last time on his way out the door.

 

.

 

Hua Cheng listens to the songs for the first time while a stylist is taking off his makeup with wipes. It is just after a television appearance on a popular variety show, where he was forced to sit there on a stool and laugh and play nice with obnoxious hosts for four hours of recording. He is quite sweaty from the bright stage lights and quite annoyed from having to listen to their grating voices, and puts in his earbuds so that everyone knows to not bother him.

He plays the demos from Ming Yi, telling himself that it’s the last bit of work that he’ll do for the night before going for some meat skewers on his way home.

He starts from the top.

The first song—something slow, that would show off his low tones. The demo artist on this one has a voice that is lower than his own, but he could already see what Ming Yi had been envisioning when he picked this one out. Hua Cheng never did figure out why low notes were always such a favorite with his fans. The dripping masculinity of it all, he guesses sarcastically, before going onto the next track.

The second. A dance song, about partying and living recklessly while young. Typical and forgettable, but it does have a nice beat. Hua Cheng doesn’t mind it, particularly because it sounds like it’ll be fast to record.

Third. Likely his title track. Sounds very fun and nice, but safe and uninteresting. An earworm that he’ll definitely hate by the time they finish recording, and that he’ll loathe after promoting it for months in shows and concerts.

Fourth. A ballad. Breakup. Pretty piano backup, one that he already knows Ming Yi will want him to play live in performances. How annoying.

Fifth. Sixth. Seventh. He closes his eyes and starts to lose track. They all begin to sound the same—if not with each other, then with other music he’s already heard before. Pop music, he decides, is so incredibly boring.

Twelfth. The final one. He presses play—

And notices his eyes in the mirror—open wide to where they almost hurt—before the shock even sinks in.

He takes his earbuds out. Doesn’t say anything more, sits extremely still in the makeup chair as the stylists chatter around him and clenches his jaw so tight that it starts to hurt his teeth. He has to plaster on some semblance of a smile when the staff finishes and he does his round of thanking them all before leaving the studio.

Holds it in all through the car ride back. Makes it into his apartment, ignores the three missed calls from Ming Yi, throws his phone on the couch.

Goes to his work computer, the one with the nice speakers, and pulls up the final track again. Lowers himself slowly into the office chair, listens, feels his heart hammering in his chest. Drags his fingers through his hair and wonders if it could even be possible.

 

.

 

What had Xian Le meant to him? What an impossible question.

When the interviewers ask him—“What made you want to pursue music?”—he always spun some stupid story about how he had loved and felt at home with music ever since he was young. Something about how it always felt like it had been the language that he best expressed himself with. A language he learned from his mother first when listening to her sing while she cooked—asinine, as he had grown up with a home chef who made all his meals—and that was trained up by his first singing teacher. A forgettable and bland answer that’s always easily moved past for the sake of the more exciting questions about his diet or his dating life or his ideal partner.

Only very few have managed to put it together.

Granted, it would have been quite hard. By that time Xian Le had already long fallen out of public favor, so it’s only a few sparse fans on the internet that post on forums wondering if Hua Cheng had been a fan of Xian Le’s. Only two or three comments pointing out the similarities of their story in that both of them started singing at the same age and skyrocketed to fame so incredibly quick. None of them lamented for Xian Le or wondered if the two of them might have collaborated if Xian Le was still in the industry, if the scandal had not happened.

Hua Cheng doesn’t see any of these. Hua Cheng doesn’t have the time to surf the numerous internet forums about him. What Xian Le means to him is like a well-kept secret of his own—a well-kept and shameful secret.

There had been one singular reason that Hua Cheng had started pursuing music, all those years ago. It was because he—at the time—had thought he was in love.

 

.

 

Hua Cheng gets the contact information from Ming Yi. He’s not entirely certain that his hunch is correct—and it’s such an impossible and idealistic hunch that he wishes he could be proved wrong as soon as possible, just so he could shake some sense back into his head.

His head, of course, is not the problem. The problem is his heart and its complete, utter conviction that the voice he had heard in that final demo track is Xian Le’s.

The contact information gives him an email. That email leads him to a YouTube page and not much else. The YouTube page has a small number of followers but many, many videos spanning back nearly ten years. All of them have similar thumbnails—of someone sitting in front of the camera with a large, light guitar. Hands resting over the strings. Camera always cut right before it reaches the face.

Hua Cheng clicks on one. And another. And another. All of them covers—of jazz, pop, indie, rock, a combination of it all. It only takes him a minute to be convinced—he could recognize that voice anywhere, with all of the years that he spent listening to the only two albums released by Xian Le—but it takes him a few hours for him to compose himself.

Ming Yi is given the thankless job of tracking him down.

Hua Cheng is not ashamed to put the pressure on him this time—makes a show of it, actually, by calling him every two hours to ask if he’s made any progress. He’s not entirely certain why he’s feeling so rushed and desperate, but there is something in himself that knows that if he were to slow down even the slightest, he may never be able to find…whatever it was he was looking for.

Six hours. That’s all it takes.

Xie Lian, 27 years old, currently residing in Los Angeles, California. Server in a small meat bun store in Westwood. Open from 9 to 8 on weekdays, until midnight on weekends.

 

.

 

They rent out a three-bedroom apartment in the area. It’s close to a studio that Ming Yi has already staffed with people from their label. He doesn’t push Hua Cheng for details as to why he’s suddenly so adamant about recording in Los Angeles—only forces him to promise that he’d be on-site to record at 9 AM, sharp, every morning. Hua Cheng agrees before promptly walking out of the front door.

 

.

 

San Lang has long forgotten the first time he saw Xian Le, but it likely went a little something like this—

He had come home from school, exhausted and irritated at his classmates. His school was supposedly the best in the city, filled with the brightest students with the most affluent parents, all of them born and raised to lead the country in the future. A never-ending mass of privilege and entitlement that rubbed him the wrong way, even from a young age, to the point where he acted out constantly in classes and argued with many of his classmates. He found them stupid and simple and soulless and was convinced in his young age that there was no one in this bleak world that would have even the slightest scrap of authenticity.

San Lang would likely have had his bag and coat taken from the butler and gone upstairs to change out of his uniform. He would stay there for as long as possible, in his room, until he was inevitably called downstairs by his private tutor to begin on his homework.

There likely wasn’t anything different that he did on that particular day, up until that point. He had probably turned on his TV for background noise, changed into house clothes, picked up a book from his desk, settled in an armchair by the window to read one of the sparse fiction books he was allowed to own—

And was probably distracted by an entertainment report blasting from the news channel, about a new teen idol that had debuted just a few days before. Had probably scoffed at the concept of idols but watched the music video that played afterward for the satisfaction of confirming his suspicions that it would be someone recycled and boring. Had probably stared at how blond Xian Le was at the time, how intensely his dimples bunched when he was happy, how his laugh looked so bright and sweet despite how fake it surely was.

 

.

 

It’s a Tuesday morning. A very tall man in a black facemask stands at the front of a line in a small meat bun store.

He glances at the cashier. Who smiles. The other staff at the meat bun store stare at this strange customer from a fair distance away, thrown off by the weird air around him, but the cashier looks completely unbothered. The weird hat that he’s wearing—styled to look like the twisted top of a meat bun—moves with his head. The stranger’s eyes track it as it moves.

“Hi, how can I help you?”

The stranger’s eyes crinkle, as if he’s smiling. The rest of the staff are surprised by the deep tone of his voice when he speaks.

“This is my first time here. What would you recommend?”

The cashier shifts his weight and smiles a little brighter. “We’re well known for our pork and napa buns, they’re made with our special house recipe. If you’d like, you can see our menu here—” He reaches forward to grab one of the menus on the counter, but the stranger shakes his head.

“Which one is your favorite?”

The little bun hat tilts to the side. “Oh, me? My favorite is the pork and shrimp ones.”

“I’ll have that one then.”

The cashier nods and starts tapping at the screen. “Sure. How many would you like?”

“Just the one,” the stranger says.

“Okay. For here or to-go?”

A pause. It’s a little longer than normal, enough to where the cashier glances up.

“To-go.”

They complete the rest of the transaction. The stranger lingers a little at the napkins stand, scanning the restaurant and looking up at the menu, but the cashier doesn’t take notice. The line has gotten long during this conversation and he’s too busy listing off ingredients to the chicken and chive buns to notice the stranger throw him a few more glances before disappearing out the door.

 

.

 

It’s Xian Le—Xie Lian, rather. Or from the name tag, Hua Xie. A fake name, likely so that he isn’t found by the paparazzi.

It’s a bit of a stretch since Xian Le hasn’t been seen in the public eye for years so he has no visuals to go off of, but Hua Cheng is sure it’s him. Just that voice, those eyes, that smile—he has no doubt.

A multitude of feelings swell up. Among them is excitement. Incredible surprise, at the degree of his luck. Shame, at hunting him down like a stalker. Terror, at finally being so close.

 

.

 

Xian Le becomes a staple of Hua Cheng’s life quickly and silently, as he does in everyone else’s. It is almost as if they all wake up one day and acknowledge Xian Le as someone that has always and will always be there in media. His face is plastered constantly on commercials and billboards and his singing blasting from every store because it has always been that way and it always will be that way.

And San Lang began to hate him—hated him persistently for everything that he represented—until he caught the tail end of an interview one day while trying to read in his room with the television on.

This, San Lang remembers with blinding clarity.

Xian Le had been sitting on a couch but had gathered himself to the end closest to the interviewer, hands folded on the armrest and listening to questions with an earnestness and eagerness that San Lang had never seen before. He had been dressed in soft and pastel colors, as was typical of his image at the time, with pristine white shoes.

“You’ve accumulated quite a big fan following since your debut a year ago,” the interviewer says, to which Xian Le flushes pink. “I see all of them out on the streets—they wear your shirts!”

“Th-Thank you,” Xian Le says, smiling bashfully.

“Have you seen them around?”

Xian Le nods and turns even redder. San Lang remembers thinking about how surprised he was by Xian Le’s lack of eloquence. He would have expected that someone would have trained him to respond more effectively to interview questions.

“What do you feel when you see them around?”

“Oh, I—” Xian Le plays with his hands for a bit, and then responds quickly with a small laugh. “Sorry, these questions make me feel quite shy. I’m still very overwhelmed by the idea that anyone likes my music at all. It makes me feel things in my heart that I can’t put into words.”

The interviewer laughs with him. “That’s very sweet! They make you feel things in your heart? What a cute way of putting it.”

San Lang remembers staring. He remembers putting down his book and walking to his television, standing right in front of it and staring. Xian Le had been so large on his screen that his face was nearly the size of San Lang’s torso, each eye the size of San Lang’s hands.

“Is it cute? I wouldn’t know,” Xian Le says, shaking his head. A few strands of his blond hair slip out from where it had been tucked behind his ear and cup at his cheek. “I feel so warm when I think about how people love my music enough that they like me as well. It makes me feel a little bad, actually.”

“Oh? Why is that?” the interviewer asks, face carefully contorted into concern.

Xian Le laughs nervously and scratches at his arm with a hand. “I don’t want to feel like I’m tricking people into liking me just because they like my music, you know? We’re two different things, even though we’re so connected. I like to write music from my soul, but I also have parts of me that I don’t show through my music...sometimes I wonder if I need to warn people of that before they love me in the way that they do.”

San Lang remembers laying a hand along the bottom of the shelf that his television sat on, unsure himself why he feels that sudden urge to reach out.

The interviewer laughs again and San Lang remembers the intense irritation that he had felt from hearing that sound, an irritation that only swells as the interviewer continues, “Nonsense! You’re such a sweet person, your fans just have a good eye in judging character.”

It does not take a master of nonverbal communication to see the way that Xian Le leans in on himself, even as he laughs politely at the compliment.

San Lang finds himself surprised by the extent of his own fury. He has never felt protective of anyone before in his life, but he feels a strong pull to protect and shelter Xian Le from—from what, exactly? Even he doesn’t know, being so young that he barely understands why his hands shake as the interview continues with Xian Le being more reserved, though it doesn’t show explicitly on his face. The vulnerability from before is shut off, and he is closer to what San Lang had expected from him when the interview first began—polite and charming in a safe way.

But that is not who he is. San Lang knows that now. He had witnessed it in that small moment during that interview and chases it through the next few years—in the fan forums and the television appearances and the music videos and album releases—through songs with lyrics so raw and lonely that San Lang finds himself listening to them in bed, staring up at the ceiling, and crying.

In this way, it is not surprising at all when he begins taking voice lessons, convinces his parents to find him an agent and a company, sheds his old identity for Hua Cheng instead to take his place.

 

.

 

The stranger returns to the meat bun store until he’s no longer a stranger. He’s not easy to ignore at his height. That, plus the fact that he comes at the same time every day with the same black mask on, causes the staff to start looking for him around to five in the afternoon. There is a reason why their eyes are peeled—he is still too unsettling of a presence for the staff to serve him, shrouded in his air of mystery, but the cashier never seems to mind.

It takes a few more visits before names are exchanged. The stranger reaches his hand over the counter without warning one day and says, “San Lang.”

The cashier stares at it, dumb for a few moments, before grabbing and shaking it. The smile comes back.

“Nice to meet you, San Lang,” he says in return.

“And what should I call you?”

The pause is so minute that almost no one catches it.

“Hua Xie is fine.”

 

.

 

It’s funny, being in love with someone you don’t know, who doesn’t have the slightest idea that you exist. Hua Cheng used to wonder what a sad predicament that he was in, wonder how he could have gotten sucked in by the entertainment industry and made a fool for some carefully groomed, cultivated persona launched for the sheer purpose of money-making—

But Xian Le had not felt like that. Maybe that’s why everyone had loved him at the time, because he had felt different. Because when he stood in front of the interviewer with his little guitar and smiled and said, his voice incredibly earnest, “I think music is love. When I sing, I’d like to think that even the smallest measure of love goes from me to you. Isn’t that nice? That this is a way we can come together.”—when he did all that, was it possible to not love him?

It was even beyond love, maybe, for Hua Cheng. Perhaps something of Xian Le’s spirit had burrowed into his soul when he was young and in love—a degree of that heart—and rotted away with his fall.

 

.

 

“Stop.”

Hua Cheng stops. He shifts his weight, takes off his headphones, and sighs.

Ming Yi’s voice comes into the booth through a speaker. “What are you doing?”

“What do you mean?”

“Why are you singing like shit?”

Hua Cheng would have laughed if he had been in a better mood. “You’re going to hurt my feelings.”

“I’m serious. We can’t use any of this. You sound like some evil robot. Listen to yourself.”

The song plays back. Hua Cheng is forced to admit that Ming Yi is right—he’s never been the type that loves listening to his own voice in recordings, but this take is objectively awful. The voice in the track sounds like it’s never been happy for a single day in its life. It’s an extremely dissonant sound next to the heavy bass beats, meant to emulate pulsating club walls.

“We came to record here in LA because you said you wanted a change of pace. I don’t care about that, but the label wants this next album done in two months so you can be promoting it by summ—”

“I know. Shut up.” Hua Cheng puts the headphones back on and stretches his neck. He hears something pop and winces.

“I could really care less if you get it out,” he overhears Ming Yi muttering to himself in the booth. “If your parents wouldn’t give me hell for it. They’re already rolling out the promos.”

Hearing that makes Hua Cheng’s headache get worse. There’s something about all of this that makes Hua Cheng want to walk right out the door, get into a car, drive the twenty minutes to a small meat bun store in the next neighborhood over.

He ignores Ming Yi and raises a finger, circling it once. “Go again,” he says.

 

.

 

In time, San Lang and Hua Xie become some semblance of friends. It’s hard to avoid when they run the same schedules—a few over-the-counter conversations turn into seated chats into a request, quieter and shyer than San Lang’s usual timbre—“I want to try the noodle shop you were telling me about last week.”

 

.

 

Hua Cheng is not supposed to hate his fans, but he does.

He hates them because they are vapid. Because they love him aimlessly and desperately and in an impossible way, beyond anything anyone could ever humanly deliver and beyond what any human being should be loved. Because they send him gifts of things that he says he likes in interviews, but send them in such a mass that he no longer finds himself liking these things. Liking things becomes so performative that he doesn’t find himself liking anything anymore.

In his industry, his fans are his lifeblood. He needs them to buy merchandise and albums and concert tickets, to take to the internet to sing his praises so that others can be converted into giving him their money. It’s all like a damn cult, with him as some twisted cult leader. The day he realizes this he is sitting in a dressing room before an appearance on a show, having mascara slathered onto his eyelashes, and it makes him laugh so hard that the stylist nearly pokes out his eye.

Hua Cheng feels like a scam, but that does not bother him. Perhaps it would bother him if he had more of a soul, he reasons. He feels no remorse about taking their money, lying to their faces about being so thankful and grateful on awards shows, posing and smiling when they come for autographs or photos. Has to stop himself from cackling when a few of the younger fans tear up when they see him, so moved by his presence and existence outside of their computer screens that they nearly fall over.

It serves them all right. His music is soulless. He doesn’t see anything beautiful in it—he puts no love in.

If they’re fooled so easily, so desperate to find someone to idolize, then that’s their fault.

 

.

 

They are sitting outside a small bubble tea shop as the sun sets. San Lang is watching Hua Xie as he plays with a reusable boba straw, stirring his matcha and talking about the new change in recipe that they made to the custard buns.

“We’re expanding into more and more dessert buns,” Hua Xie says cheerfully. “They’re pretty good. You should try some next time, I think we’re releasing red bean buns soon.”

San Lang looks more agitated than usual. He just nods. “If you like it, then I’m sure they’re good,” he says, without much feeling.

Hua Xie peers at him as he takes a sip. He seems to hesitate.

“Well, if they’re not your favorite, you can still opt for the savory ones. We’ll still be offering those. Your favorites are the egg and chive ones, right?”

San Lang hums. He sighs. Hua Xie sits there, looking a little awkward and like he wants to say something. San Lang ends up breaking the silence first.

“Do you sing?” he asks, suddenly.

Hua Xie startles. He knocks over his cup of tea onto the ground and the top pops off, splashing green everywhere.

He looks down, eyes wide. It takes him a moment to realize what has happened—San Lang has already bent down with napkins.

“Sorry. That question was sudden.”

“No, that’s fine,” Hua Xie says, quick, and bends down to help him. They throw the rest of the cup into the trash. The bunches of green-soaked napkins look like leaf litter.

All of San Lang’s agitation seems to have changed into something slower and sadder. “I’ll buy you another one,” he says.

Hua Xie holds up his hands. “No, no, no, that’s fine! I was about done with it anyway.” He laughs. It sounds extremely uncomfortable. “I was just surprised by the question.” He laces his fingers together. Changes his mind and sets them flat on the table. “What made you ask?”

San Lang opens his mouth to respond—and then closes it and smiles, thin. “I just thought…you sounded a little similar to a YouTube channel that I follow. The singer doesn’t show his face, but something about you reminded me of him. Sorry, it’s a weird thing to ask.”

Hua Xie takes a visible breath. He laughs again and it’s genuine this time.

“Oh. Oh! Yes, wow. I do have a YouTube channel.”

“White Songlark?”

“Yes. Wow. That’s me!” Hua Xie laughs once, breathy. “I’m surprised you can tell it’s me. Did I put my name on it?”

“No.”

“What? Then how did you know?”

San Lang shrugs. “I really like your voice.” He looks more hunched over.

On the other hand, Hua Xie is sitting up straighter.

“I always liked music since I was little,” he says, leaning in. There’s a brightness to his voice that isn’t usually there. San Lang’s eyes flicker up, through his lashes. “But I’m pretty shy about it, I don’t like going around and telling people about it. Sorry. Did I scare you?”

San Lang smiles. It crinkles his eyes. “No. I couldn’t decide if I wanted to bring it up or not. I didn’t know if it was really you.”

“Oh, it is—it is,” Hua Xie says. “You have such a good ear, San Lang.”

“I also like music.”

“Really! I don’t think we’ve talked about this before. What type of music do you like?”

A small hand-wave. “I’ve been listening to a mix of people recently. I don’t really like pop music.”

“Hmm. That’s true, you don’t look like someone that would like pop music.”

“I don’t look like someone who’d like pop music?” San Lang teases.

Hua Xie turns a little pink and tries to laugh it off. “No—no! Not in any bad way.”

“Then in what way?”

“I didn’t mean anything by it.”

“What did you mean, then?”

“Oh, you know—” Hua Xie breaks off into another laugh at San Lang’s single raised eyebrow. “Really! I didn’t mean much. Only that you looked too—what’s the word? Artistic, maybe?”

“Too artistic for pop music?”

“Too worldly, maybe.” Hua Xie gives a solemn nod, as if satisfied with that answer. “Too knowledgeable.”

“I didn’t realize you could be too worldly for pop music.”

“Well, you just seem like someone that thinks very—well, I don’t want to say broodingly —”

San Lang chokes on his tea. “Broodingly—”

Hua Xie looks embarrassed again, shrinking back a little more in his seat. “Again! Not in a—not in an overly edgy way. I don’t know how to explain it—just that I’m not at all surprised that you don’t like pop music.”

San Lang shakes his head and continues to cough. He catches Hua Xie’s concerned look and shakes his head.

“Down the wrong pipe,” he says, pointing at his throat.

Hua Xie smacks him gently on the back.

“Some pop music is good, though,” he continues. “And I think it can be pretty powerful sometimes. It’s amazing that you can send such beautiful messages in a way that a ton of people understand. You should—maybe you should drink some water.”

San Lang shakes his head rapidly, clearing his throat a few times. When he next speaks, his voice is still thick, but a little clearer.

“I did notice that you cover a lot of pop music on your channel. I liked the songs you covered.”

Hua Xie’s smile is bashful. “Thank you.”

 

.

 

It takes nearly four years for Hua Cheng to release his first album. It turns out that he is a naturally good singer and picks up pitch and breath control very quickly with his voice coach—any remaining jagged edges would not be a problem, as it would just add to the charm of his age with the fans.

The long delay stems from the fact that he had painstakingly written all seven songs in his album and fought a long, hard battle against his parents and new staff to have them added to the album. He had received a tremendous amount of pushback due to the fact that the songs had been, in their words, “childish and simple.” His parents told him that they would rather him not release an album at all, even after all of these years of hard work and money spent on lessons and production, than have him release something that would make him a laughingstock.

Hua Cheng had argued back against all of this with a fury and intensity that had everyone eventually giving up. He allowed for some minor changes to be made to his songs—some chord shifts, some lyrics changed here and there—but otherwise got his way and began to record.

It is around then that Xian Le’s fall begins.

It starts small with rumors. They are all stupid rumors. About how his sweet personality was actually a farce, how he actually made fun of his fans when he was away from the cameras and in the comfort of friends, how he was incredibly ungrateful to his parents and demanded for them to send him money even though he was the one that was making an absorbent amount off of album sales and concert tickets. The rumors begin with people that hate him first, but quickly become discussed in main entertainment magazines and talk-shows.

Xian Le’s appearance begins to waver. He begins to look more stressed in public and his laugh becomes thin. All of this becomes ammunition.

“No, but I—no, listen!” a talkshow host begins, cutting in as the other two co-hosts had begun to joke about what they were all calling Xian Le’s “goody-two-shoes” concept. Their laughter dies down and they turn to look at him expectantly, grins still on their faces. “All I’m saying is that he’s—look at him these days! Can we get a photo up?” A paparazzi photo of Xian Le comes up—one where he’s pulling the hood of a sweatshirt over his face to hide all but a small frown, mid-stride, clearly trying to get somewhere quickly and with minimal detection. “Would he be acting like this if he was innocent? He’s clearly stressed that everyone is starting to figure him out!”

“That’s what I’m saying!” one of the co-hosts hollers, loud, slapping the armrest of her armchair dramatically. The studio audience bursts into laughter. “That’s what I’ve been saying! That’s what I’ve been trying to tell everyone for years! I don’t buy his act, there’s no way that he could be so pure—come on , he’s a teenage boy!”

“Right?”

“His marketing scheme works because of that face —look at him! Those dimples could make any parent cry—” Another round of laughter from the audience. “—But I don’t believe he’s actually like this. He probably curses just as much as anyone else and complains about all of the fans chasing after him. Could that be fun for anyone ?”

“And see—it would be better if he knew when to drop the act,” the first host begins, while the other two nod furiously.

“I agree!”

“Yes!”

“If he knew when to drop this act—because, come on, no one could be this pure. How are we expected to believe this, that he’s an actual angel? But he just keeps faking it and faking it and—really—it’s becoming hard to watch. It’s so fake it makes my teeth hurt.”

More laughter. “Didn’t you just have a dentist appointment the other day for cavities?” a co-host teases.

“Yes,” the first host says, playing along, holding his face and looking pitiable. “Xian Le gave me cavities with his act—please—for the sake of the nation’s dental health, someone tell him to stop.”

 

.

 

Ming Yi is the only one that knows the truth.

Hua Cheng doesn’t think he knows the full truth—he likely doesn’t know how far back it goes, doesn’t know that Xian Le is Hua Cheng’s whole reason for taking on the music industry with a vengeance—but he does know of Hua Cheng’s deep-set hatred and knows that it may have something to do with the reason why they are in LA because of a YouTube page.

“You’re just tormenting yourself,” he says one night when they’re sitting around the small table in their rented apartment, a beer each and a pile of cracked and uncracked sunflower seeds between them.

“No. I’m happy,” Hua Cheng says. “See?” He gives Ming Yi his grossest, fakest smile.

“Disgusting.”

“My happiness disgusts you?”

“No. You disgust me.”

“Hmm. Truly the worst friend anyone could have.”

Ming Yi raises an eyebrow. “You consider us friends?”

This question is surprisingly painful. Hua Cheng covers for it by cracking open a seed between his teeth to save himself from responding. Ming Yi, after all these years, doesn’t miss it.

“I didn’t think you considered yourself as having any friends.”

“That’s mean.”

Ming Yi ignores him.

“I didn’t think you cared enough about anyone to consider them your friend.”

It’s hidden behind Ming Yi’s usual facade of blank indifference, but Hua Cheng can tell that he is serious with this statement.

Is he wrong? Not entirely. Having friends requires a blanket level of trust and openness—he’s seen what happens when people are trusting and open.

The reminder makes him clench down on his beer bottle to where his knuckles turn white. Ming Yi’s eyes flicker down to it and back away.

“I don’t know why you do this work if you hate it. You hate your fans, you hate singing, you hate giving interviews, you hate appearing in shows, you hate maintaining a persona, you hate recording music videos, you hate makeup, you hate having your hair done, you hate—”

“I come across like that?” Hua Cheng cuts in, just to spare himself from hearing the rest of the list.

“The rest of them don’t see you as a demon, but I do.”

“Thank you. But you’re wrong, I do like things.”

“Oh, I know.”

“You do?”

Ming Yi takes a sip from his drink. “You like that YouTube person.”

Hua Cheng feels tired. He lowers himself until his face is pressed to the tabletop. It feels cool against his cheek.

“Am I wrong?”

“Yes.”

Ming Yi snorts.

“No. Actually. You are,” Hua Cheng says, and this time he is being honest.

“Then what is it?”

“I like what that YouTube person represents. I like what he believes in.”

“That’s what I said.”

“No, you said him . There’s a difference.”

 

.

 

It is almost funny, how many little similarities there are between Hua Xie and San Lang.

They both like rainy weather. They both wear size 9 shoes. They’re both allergic to dust. They’re both morning people. They both like singing.

Hua Xie grows extremely excited about this last similarity. It takes him the better part of a week, but he does finally manage to convince San Lang to show him his singing. San Lang pulls out his phone and plays a small video, recorded from a time that he was out singing with friends, and Hua Xie’s mouth falls open with surprise.

“But your voice is amazing!” he says, a little too loud for the small streetside cafe they’re sitting. A passerby, walking their pomeranian, turns to stare. Hua Xie flushes and quiets down, leaning forward as San Lang takes back his phone and sips from his cappuccino.

“That’s really not true,” he says.

“No, it is! I’ve been around singers before, you have an amazing voice. You definitely took lessons, right?”

San Lang smiles. “You can tell?”

“Of course! It’s so obvious. Either that, or you’d be a genius. You have so much control in your voice, I don’t think your pitch was off for even a single moment.” Hua Xie starts playing with the sleeves of his sweater, which he tends to do when excited. “How many years?”

“How many years have I been singing?”

“Yes—or—how many have you been taking voice lessons?”

“Mmm. Mmm…maybe ten?”

“Ten years! Wow.”

Hua Xie’s face is flushed, his grin so wide that it makes his dimples very apparent. They’re quite unique in that they’re lopsided, the right one just a bit higher than the left. San Lang stares at them with a small smile.

He points at his own cheeks in reference. “I didn’t realize you had dimples.”

Hua Xie’s hands clamp down on his face. He does it so fast that it almost looks instinctual. He lowers them just as quickly.

“You hadn’t seen them before?”

San Lang shakes his head. He’s still staring, especially now that Hua Xie’s hands are back out of the way. “No, I think they only come out when you smile wide. I hadn’t noticed them before, but they’re cute.”

Hua Xie coughs and waves away the compliment.

“It makes me so happy that you like singing so much,” Hua Xie says, as a very clumsy transition. “I have a guitar—actually, you know that, don’t you? From my videos?” He breaks into a laugh, which still wavers slightly. “If you wouldn’t mind, I’d love to sing together with you sometime.”

San Lang nods. “I’d love that. You can teach me guitar.”

“Oh, you’ve been wanting to learn? I can definitely teach you, it’s actually fairly easy to learn. I’m sure you’ll pick up very, very fast. You look like a fast learner.”

 

.

 

Once the media circus begins, it does not take long before it snowballs out of control.

The rumors were easy to dismiss in the first few months, with the strength of Xian Le’s fan backing. They dismiss everything, scold the reporters for their audacity in fabricating such lies, post tearful videos and letters about how they will stand by Xian Le despite anything.

But they persist—to a length and an extent that even the fans can no longer keep up with. One particular forum post sums it up nicely—‘ how could we be expected to fight the entire world?

Old interviews and old photographs surface. Lines are taken out of context, spread in articles, and these become frequently cited as the most condemning evidence.

One of the most incriminating is an old interview, taken about a year after his debut—one where Xian Le is sitting at the far side of a couch, hands folded on the armrest, looking nervous when he admits, “— I also have parts of me that I don’t show through my music...sometimes I wonder if I need to warn people of that —”

This is taken and circulated. Fingers are pointed at his appearance on that day, citing this as one of the few times that his carefully curated mask of innocence slipped, a time that he was too cocky to keep his humanness hidden. His disingenuousness is now the crux of the complaints against him. It’s said that there is no faker pop idol than Xian Le, no better example for how soulless and remorseless that industry is, than the teen that has been at its head for the past few years.

It swells until the day the final nail in the coffin comes. It takes the form of a cell phone video that is circulated online, blurry and grainy from the darkness. There is a solitary voice cutting through the white noise, one that is irrefutably Xian Le, saying—

“I’m tired. Let them say whatever the hell they want. I don’t care about any of them anymore.”

It is a shock. It is the first time that Xian Le is caught cursing on camera, and the difference between that and what had been promised from his character is too much for his fans to handle. That, with the added insult of him no longer caring about their support, turns the last of them against him. Given the fact that Xian Le has no clear intentions to apologize or recover his image, they leave him in droves.

It’s over. And perhaps the saddest truth is that no one person had born any particular ill will towards Xian Le from the beginning. No one actively hated him, not enough to orchestrate this complicated degradation of his character in the public eye. But once it began, it was too hard to stop. It was too hard to fight conformity—to stand counter the current when the current is so strong and overwhelming and unanimous—and it became too difficult to parse out truth from rumors when all rumors are spoken with the same weight and certainty as truth.

The media simply found it too easy of a target. It is likely that they only wanted the attention and the laughs, wanted to make the easy jokes that were so unanimously appreciated, wanted to feed into the entertainment and energy at the expense of this silly, vapid pop star.

The formal announcement from Xian Le’s label that they were terminating his contract was met with glee.

Finally !” a talkshow host booms on the day the news breaks, his two co-hosts chortling at his side. “My God, why did it take so long?”

The comical frustration in his voice—the theatricality and ease of it all—makes the studio audience explode with laughter.

 

.

 

The weather is growing hotter and hotter with every passing day. However, it is still chilly at nights after the sun goes down and the breeze returns.

Hua Xie likes leaving the window open because his apartment is situated right above a pizza place and because he likes the smell of tomato and melting cheese. He says it makes him happy. San Lang doesn’t care enough to comment either way, and so in late afternoons when they sprawl out on Hua Xie’s living room—San Lang leaning against the television stand and Hua Xie cross-legged on the couch, guitar in his lap—the breeze often tousles their hair into their mouths when they sing.

It is very easy to sing together. They don’t speak, often, on days like these. What they do instead is laze around with glasses of cranberry juice and listen as Hua Xie plays with random chords, humming and strumming to find progressions that sound pretty or familiar, before he starts off with a few sparse lyrics. There is a nice ease in how their voices slide against each other, tenor to baritone.

“Do you know this one?” he asks, between bars.

San Lang shakes his head. When they’re alone in Hua Xie’s apartment, he never wears his black facemask. Without it, he looks much younger.

Hua Xie plays it a few times, repeats the chords and the lyrics. With the shifting sunset pinning shadows to the dust motes that sway in the room, it feels as if time is rolling back and forth, indeterminately.

San Lang speaks up during either the second or third repeat.

“This one is so sad.”

It takes another one or two times before San Lang memorizes the chorus and finds a harmony to sing along with. Hua Xie breaks into a wide smile, wide enough that it pushes out his dimples.

“You always learn so fast, San Lang,” he says, appreciatively.

San Lang shakes his head. He’s busy watching Hua Xie’s hands, the way that the string whispers metal when he slides his fingers along the fretboard. When his hands tap down, the soft clacks mirror the ticking of the clock on the wall.

In twenty minutes, they have moved on to another song. This is one that they both know, an old standard that makes San Lang grin when Hua Xie starts playing it. He knows the lyrics to this one and slides into an easy harmony at the beginning, hitting a surprise fifth at the chorus that makes Hua Xie break into laughter in the middle of the song. It breaks the melody into something happier.

“You should become a professional,” Hua Xie teases. He starts to improvise with fingerpicking patterns deviating off of the base chords, and San Lang turns back to watching his hands.

“Like a singer?”

Hua Xie nods.

San Lang’s lips quirk upwards. “I should start a YouTube page of my own?”

Hua Xie laughs again. It makes his index finger catch the A string at an off angle and rings a dull noise, not at all like the other resonant notes. He rights himself in no time.

“Yes. Then everyone could hear your lovely voice whenever they wanted.”

San Lang shakes his head. “You’re too nice.”

“Why not? It’s your voice. You’re the only person in the world that has it.”

San Lang shakes his head again, but he doesn’t say anything this time. His gaze has slipped from Hua Xie’s hands and onto the wooden floorboards. The sun drops a little lower, elongating the shadows in the room.

Hua Xie does not notice. His eyes are on his right hand as his fingers flex, repeating the same staggered chords.

“Even if you didn’t have a lovely voice, I would still tell you to sing. I would tell anyone to sing.”

 

.

 

Hua Cheng’s phone is knocked out of his hand by a pack of eye masks.

His irritation spikes—he had been texting Xian Le and had already been in a bad mood, as an extension of the bad mood that he seems to be perpetually trapped in these days.

He picks up the pack and throws it back at Ming Yi. Ming Yi sighs.

“Seriously?”

Hua Cheng doesn’t want to fucking talk to him. He picks up his phone again and watches the music video of the artist Xian Le had recommended to him earlier today. Something about it just makes Hua Cheng feel more hopeless. He feels like he is simultaneously very close to and very far from what he was looking for.

The pack of eye masks is set on the table next to him. When Ming Yi speaks, Hua Cheng can tell that he’s pissed.

“Don’t make my job harder than it already is. You know we have to go back in a few weeks—fix these dark circles before your parents notice.”

Hua Cheng isn’t in the mood to acknowledge him. He ignores him for now, waits until he leaves the room before tearing the pack open and reaching in with a sigh.

 

.

 

Xian Le’s fall is a blur to Hua Cheng.

It feels like a nightmare. He doesn’t remember those days. He doesn’t remember doing much of anything aside from lashing out at his parents and his staff, spending a copious amount of time on his own, listening to Xian Le’s songs and trying to quantify for himself the degree of heartbreak and anger that he feels towards the world.

It is not Xian Le’s fault. This much Hua Cheng knows—it was never Xian Le’s fault.

It is up to him, then, to identify who is to be blamed. And he settles on a target.

The night that he does, he feels a wave of quiet clarity. The clarity does wonders for his fury. It packages it up and helps him direct it—revenge would be ineffective if it did not have a purpose.

Hua Cheng’s producer and manager wake up the next morning to find that he has deleted and erased all of the songs from the album, the ones that they have been painstakingly rewriting and remixing to be acceptable for listeners.

They are told that he will not sing these old songs. They are told, instead, to purchase six new songs from the most well-known songwriters in the pop industry. They are told that he wants a guarantee that this album will sell out, or that he would see to it personally that they are all fired.

 

.

 

“Do you have any particular person that you imagine singing to?”

“Hmm. Huh...”

“It’s okay if you don’t.”

“I’m not sure. I suppose I’ve never thought about it before.”

The gentle, consistent strumming of Hua Xie’s guitar playing fills the room. The sun has long set, but neither of them moved to turn the lights on. Their faces are painted rich blue and soft white by the residential lights outside of the window.

Living rooms and kitchens nearby apartment buildings are lit up—if either of them turned to look, they would be able to see perfect dioramas of little lives on display, scattered throughout the darkness.

“I don’t think I’m singing to any one person. Do you feel like you’re singing to anyone?”

San Lang leans back on his arms, relaxing his neck to where his cheek leans against his shoulder.

“Yes.”

“Oh! That’s very cool. Someone specific?”

“I’m not sure about that.”

“Then who? Your parents?” Hua Xie asks, glancing up in curiosity.

San Lang snorts. There is venom in his voice that is usually not there when he responds, “Absolutely not.”

“I see,” Hua Xie says, leaving it at that.

He plays slowly for a while longer, eyes tracking shadows from the headlights outside cast onto his wall, before he suddenly stops.

“Want to try?”

“...Your guitar?”

“Didn’t you say you wanted to learn?”

Hua Xie gets off the couch and moves closer, repositioning himself carefully at San Lang’s side. He grins and holds out the guitar by the neck.

Shuffling follows. San Lang follows a stream of directions on how to hold it and where to keep his fingers and angle the guitar, so that when he tentatively strums a string the sound comes out uncertain but clear.

“Do you like playing the guitar?”

“Mmm. Mmhmm. I find it soothing to sing along to it, don’t you? Careful with your wrist—move it—yes, like that. If you keep it too tense, you’ll hurt yourself over time.” Hua Xie demonstrates with his own, moving it to and fro to demonstrate different angles.

“Like this?”

“Yes. You’re such a fast learner, San Lang!”

“You’re really too kind. Are you sure you’re not just teasing me?”

San Lang says it jokingly, but Hua Xie grins.

“Not right now, no.”

 

.

 

Hua Cheng does not keep constant contact with his parents. They are busy—have always been busy since he was younger—with the running of their separate companies. Their interest in him did pique slightly after he declared his interest in pursuing music all those years ago and has held constant at a higher level than in his childhood, now that his popularity is bringing attention to their work as well. Many of Hua Cheng’s fans endorse supporting his parents’ companies, saying that they had to give back to parents who clearly raised Hua Cheng with so much love and support, like he always says when he wins at award shows.

In reality, the three of them were never particularly close. If he was asked to describe them, honestly, he would probably just say that they were two other people he had to co-exist with on this planet.

This is why it’s annoying that his father has the audacity to say, while they’re video calling for the first time in a few months, “You look stressed.”

Hua Cheng forces himself to smile. He had been looking forward to this hour-long break in recording and had planned to swing by that pastry store he went to with Xian Le last week for a cheese toast, but Ming Yi had told him that his father was going to call and that he would need to be on standby for that. This is why Hua Cheng is still sitting in an office outside of the studio, phone camera tilted down enough that it hides his forehead as he massages circles into it with his fingers to keep from getting visibly annoyed.

“This album is difficult to record.”

“Are the songs bad? You can still change them, can’t you?”

A pang in his head. Hua Cheng digs his thumb into his temple.

“They’re fine. It would be a little late for that, anyway.”

“Then what’s the problem? Fans harassing you?”

They’re not—at least not more than usual. Of course the news has traveled in the past few weeks. A few of the more frenzied fans have already found his apartment, but they usually stay a respectful but creepy distance away. And of course he still goes out into the city in disguises and with security trailing behind him, but that’s nothing new. When people do recognize and trap him in some conversation, he’s gotten very good at giving smiles that look like they mean something, without actually expending even an ounce of sentiment.

“It’s nothing, really,” Hua Cheng says.

His dad snorts. He has been typing away on his laptop the entire time they’ve been having this conversation, his pace never slowing even once.

“Well. Seems like you’re at the end of the line then.”

Another pang.

This is another message that his parents have been pushing since he first debuted—that they don’t understand why he does this work if he seems to hate it so much, that they’re just waiting for the inevitable day he gets bored of keeping up this farce and drops it all. He wouldn’t be surprised if they had a bet between the two of them when he would stop pretending.

The worst is that they’re not entirely wrong. In fact, they’re not wrong at all. But there’s something about the way that they say it that makes him furious.

“Maybe,” Hua Cheng grits out.

“You’ve always hated singing. I could never understand why you kept doing it.”

“I don’t hate singing.”

“It definitely seems like it.”

“Well, I don’t,” Hua Cheng says, and suddenly feels like a young child throwing a tantrum. He digs a blunt nail into the side of his head for the extra pressure.

“I mean, I guess anyone would like being famous.”

Blood rushes to his head. He has the sudden urge to laugh and smash something into pieces.

“Ming Yi is calling for us to start again,” Hua Cheng lies instead. “I’m going to go. I still have to eat.”

“Oh, sure, sure,” his dad says, dismissively, before the line drops.

 

.

 

Their industry hinges on idealism. Hua Cheng thinks it attracts idealists.

He thinks it is this way because it is supposed to be a simple act—loving someone, loving who you think someone is—that none of them ever slow down to consider if this idealism is suffocating. They do not know how to love someone en masse unless that person is perfect. Unless that person has an image that is so unanimously pleasing to the public that they may be granted with unchallenged popularity and love.

It makes sense why the backlash is so severe. At least in the case of Xian Le, it must have been like waking up from a dream—against their will, into a reality too far away from the dream.

But it feels so cruel. To Hua Cheng, it feels like a heartbreakingly, inexplicably cruel act. To elevate someone against their will, to strip away their complications until they’re beautiful, to make them both less and more of a person at the same time.

This sinks in one night, a few years after his debut, when he is laying in his bed and lacking sleep. The enormity of the realization that he had contributed to Xian Le’s crippling sense of loneliness, that he had believed the same, that he had been one of the many reasons Xian Le had chosen to fall into being hated rather than fighting to remain perfect and loved—makes Hua Cheng cry until his eyes are swollen until the next day.

 

.

 

The last song that they record is Xian Le’s song.

They manage to finish it in one day. Hua Cheng’s first take is so perfect, they find that they only need to go over it a few more times for backing and melodies before they start the editing, mixing, and mastering.

“I have to say, I’m impressed,” Ming Yi says, his voice filtering into the booth through the speaker. “Great work. And you kept complaining about this one, too.”

Hua Cheng is looking at the lyrics and feeling very numb inside. “It’s grown on me.”

“I can tell. You don’t sing like you hate it.”

“It’s a good song,” Hua Cheng agrees, picking up the sheets as he leaves the booth.

There is already an audio engineer at work on the track, and when Hua Cheng enters the control room she has headphones on and seems to be nodding along to the beat. He sits back on the couch and uncaps his green tea, waterfalling it into his mouth as he reads the lyrics again. Ming Yi claps his hand down on his shoulder.

“At this rate, we’ll be done soon. I’ll let your parents know, they’ll probably get us plane tickets for next week to head back.”

Hua Cheng’s mind doesn’t catch up to what he’s saying at first.

“Next week? Why would we go back next week?”

“Well, we’re done here,” Ming Yi says, throwing him a puzzled look. “At least with the major pieces of recording. If there’s anything that needs to be re-recorded, we can just do it back home.”

Hua Cheng sets down his tea. He’s starting to feel something strange—fear, maybe? Panic?

“We don’t have to be done with the album until next month.”

“That’s a rough deadline, you know that. We can start early on promotions so you’re not pressed for time later. This is a good thing. You’re really—are you okay?”

“Mmm.”

Hua Cheng nods and stands up, stretching. He suddenly feels very restless.

Ming Yi grabs him by the shoulder. “Is this that YouTuber?”

Hua Cheng shakes him off. He turns to the sound engineer and taps her on the shoulder, attracting her attention. She takes off the headphones and stares at him quizzically.

“Hungry?” Hua Cheng asks, wearing his best fake smile and ignoring the way that Ming Yi is pinning him with a serious stare. “I know a good lunch spot. I can bring back meat buns for everyone.”

 

.

 

“It’s funny how we became friends, right?”

“What do you mean by that?” San Lang asks. He’s sitting on the ground with Hua Xie’s guitar again, strumming the same pattern of chords that Hua Xie first taught him a few days ago.

He sounds less uncertain now. Hua Xie is staring at his hands, a small and unreadable smile on his face.

“I just realized the other day that I don’t know much about you. Don’t other people get to know each other first over little things before they become close friends?”

San Lang looks up, smiling. “We’re close friends?”

Hua Xie flushes a bright pink and waves his hand in the air, glancing off to the side. San Lang snorts and gives him a gentle, teasing nudge.

The shift in angle throws off his next chord just slightly, but he picks it back up again with ease.

“We did get to know each other over little things. We both like meat buns.”

Hua Xie laughs at that.

“That’s true.”

“And we both like music.”

“We both like singing.”

“I think that’s already two big things that we have in common,” San Lang says. He catches Hua Xie staring at his hands again and strums the strings with a great flourish, making Hua Xie laugh.

“That’s true. All friendships are different.”

“Are there things that you want to know about me?” San Lang asks.

The fall into an easy silence for a few beats as Hua Xie thinks and San Lang continues to play. The chords are beginning to sound irritatingly repetitive, so San Lang switches the order of them. Though they are still the same notes as before, that small shift made them feel very different.

“Why do you sing?” Hua Xie asks.

San Lang snorts. “That’s still about music.”

Hua Xie doesn’t smile or laugh in response, not in the same way that he normally would. San Lang glances over at him out of the side of his eye, sizing him up. He stops strumming, and that makes Hua Xie react.

“Sorry—you’re right—that is still about music.” He laughs, but it doesn’t sound genuine. “Umm, let me think—”

“I don’t mind,” San Lang says. “But I don’t know the answer. I’ve never thought about that before. You’ll have to give me a moment. But do you know your answer?”

“For why I sing?” Hua Xie asks.

San Lang nods. He passes the guitar back to Hua Xie, who takes it and halfheartedly plucks a melody from the strings. It sounds more melancholy than usual, matching the darkness outside of late night.

“I don’t know why I sing. I started singing because I wanted to connect with people, but I don’t like the way that people look at me when they see me sing.” Hua Xie sighs. San Lang closes his eyes and leans back to where his head hits the wall.

“How do people look at you?”

Hua Xie laughs again, disingenuous.

“I think you know how.”

San Lang opens his eyes. “I might, but I don’t want to assume it’s the same for you.”

The guitar stops again. The silence that follows it is quite wide and expansive.

“I used to like singing for other people. I liked it a lot because I could see in their eyes that they could feel me when I did it, like we were connected. But I think that over time they were too charmed by the music and they started to stop seeing me and just see—I don’t know what they saw. Someone—more than who I actually was.”

“Mmm.”

“Does that make sense?”

“It does. I know that look.”

“You’ve felt it too?” Hua Xie asks, glancing over. San Lang nods.

“It’s a way that they look through you. I’ve felt it. It makes me feel less than human.”

Hua Xie sets down the guitar and pulls his knees up to his chest, hugging them with his arms. “Yeah.”

“I hate feeling that way. It makes me want to never sing again,” San Lang says, more to the ceiling than to Hua Xie.

“I’ve felt that too. Like I never want to open my mouth and give them the satisfaction,” Hua Xie adds. “But I don’t think I blamed them for seeing me that way. I think I hated myself the most. That I somehow caused them to—that I did something for them to see me so wrong.”

San Lang turns towards him, eyes wide. “You felt that way?” he asks.

Hua Xie nods. “That’s why I asked you that question a while ago. I don’t know if you remember.”

“Which one?”

“The one about if there’s anyone that you sing to.” Hua Xie turns and buries his face into his knees. “Sorry. That was actually a really selfish question.”

San Lang reaches out, as if to lay a hand on Hua Xie’s shoulder, before he freezes. He grabs his own hand instead.

“It didn’t feel selfish,” he says.

“It was,” Hua Xie whispers. “You just looked so happy whenever you sang. I was so jealous. I thought you knew something that I didn’t.” Another sad laugh. “I wanted to know your secret.”

 

.

 

Hua Cheng doesn't know what he’s doing.

He doesn't know why he came all the way to Los Angeles, doesn't know what in the world drove him to be so desperate to see Xian Le face-to-face. The darkest parts of him, the most self-loathing parts, are convinced that he did it because he is still nothing more than the idealizing fanboy he had been many years ago, naive and helpless to the depths of the hurt that Xian Le had been going through during the time. And perhaps this is a portion of the truth—that he had been driven by curiosity more than anything else.

But it is likely only a portion. Even in his own self-loathing, Hua Cheng knows he had hoped to find something in Xian Le. He couldn't vocalize exactly what it is, but he's realizing now that he desperately needs to figure it out.

Being around Xian Le had always made his heart hurt in ways that he had never anticipated, but there is something particularly painful about being around him when his head is bowed and his voice muffled. There is a waver in Hua Cheng’s voice, now, when he speaks.

"I don't think that's selfish at all," he whispers. He wonders if Xian Le can even hear, with the way that his arms are draped over his knees, closed over his ears.

Xian Le has a particular laugh that Hua Cheng finds interesting—it is a soft, gentle exhale through his nose that sounds a little like disbelief and a lot like pain. This is the little laugh that Xian Le does now, and it makes Hua Cheng's throat burn like it does every time he hears it.

"You don't have to be so nice to me, San Lang," Xian Le says.

He turns his face just slightly, enough that his cheek is resting on his knees. Hua Cheng sees the way that the darkness pools just gently under his high nosebridge, shadowing half of his cheekbones. His eyelashes had always been noticeably long, downturned to where they always cage his irises, but in the darkness they cast spindly shadows to the side of his eyes. His small mouth, usually drawn up into a smile, is pulled into a pensive frown.

His face is so similar, and yet so different, from the Xian Le that Hua Cheng had remembered from his youth. Though Hua Cheng had grown up with so many photos of Xian Le broadcasted through media, it had not truly sunk in until their first meeting a few months ago that Xian Le would have aged. His cheeks are thinner than any of those photos, stripped of their baby fat in the years that have passed.

"You think I'm lying to you again?" Hua Cheng asks, keeping his voice as neutral as possible. "You never seem to believe what I say."

Xian Le does the sad little laugh again.

"Some of the things that you say are just too good to be true."

The burn in Hua Cheng's throat travels down, blazing a path past his heart and lungs. He remembers his parents' indifferent reactions the first time he announced that he wanted to be a singer, remembers the way that Ming Yi watches him tiredly from control rooms while he sings, remembers the way that his fans look at him. He remembers, very dimly, echoes of the songs that he had written so many years ago for his first album. So many of those had been filled with a hope that he hasn’t felt in ages.

"I don't think it's selfish of you to want to be happy."

That makes Xian Le take pause. "It feels different when you put it like that," he says, smiling.

"But that's what you're saying, right? That you don't feel happy singing anymore."

Xian Le nods. He props his chin on his knees and stares straight ahead. "A long time ago, I really hated everything about singing. Then, a few years back, I started my YouTube channel and...and things were a little easier after that. But then I met you, and..."

He trails off. Hua Cheng waits for him to continue, but it seems after a while that he is not going to continue.

"Is it difficult for you? Being around me?"

Hua Cheng thinks it's a trick of the light at first, but then he leans forward and realizes that it isn't—Xian Le's eyes are glossed over with tears, his nose just a little red.

He feels as if he's been kicked in the gut.

Xian Le notices that Hua Cheng has spotted his tears and laughs. He reaches up and swipes at his eyes as quickly as possible, turning his face away just enough so that Hua Cheng can no longer read his expression.

It is this movement that makes Hua Cheng realize how vile he is.

He realizes, in a rush, how terrible it is to use Xian Le for answers, to deceive him into thinking that Hua Cheng is someone that he is not, to push him to the point of tears. He realizes that it is just another way for him to see Xian Le for more than who he actually is—to place pressure on him, to idealize him as someone that Xian Le doesn’t actually want to be.

Hua Cheng had been doing what he fears the most. All of the anger that he had been building for the past few months bursts in towards himself.

He feels disgusting. He feels ashamed.

He feels that he needs to leave, immediately.

Hua Cheng stands up so fast that he hurts his knees, feels the room spin from the stark change. He can feel Xian Le looking up to him.

"I'm sorry," he says, does his best to sound as earnest as possible.

"For what?"

He's left his cell phone and jacket back on the couch. It's a quick three steps to pick it up, check his notifications. Unsurprisingly, Ming Yi has called him two times in the few hours that he has been at Xian Le's place. He suddenly feels fearful that Xian Le would see his phone and deduce his identity, and stuffs it into his pocket.

Xian Le has gotten up too and holds his guitar close to his chest, watching Hua Cheng with wide eyes.

"Are you—oh. Is it time for you to leave, San Lang?"

It hurts. Hearing Xian Le call him San Lang hurts, hearing the confidence with which he says it—it’s all incredibly painful.

He tries to smile. It feels like poison on his face—he's sure it looks it, too—but he tries nonetheless.

"I do. I have to leave. Don't worry about seeing me out. Sorry again."

Hua Cheng moves fast. He does his best to close himself on the other side of the door fast enough to spare Xian Le from having to respond. He manages to do just that.

 

.

 

For all the grief that Hua Cheng gives Ming Yi, Ming Yi is very good at his job. He is always on time, manages to keep Hua Cheng running to his schedule with pinpoint precision, and always is attentive to Hua Cheng’s needs despite coming across as frumpy. He’s very good at maintaining communication with Hua Cheng’s parents and television stations and his managing company, and manages to keep Hua Cheng’s calendar packed with events and appearances whenever he needs to promote.

Ming Yi, however, can also be too good at his job.

He contacts Hua Cheng’s parents too quickly about the completion of the album. He agrees too easily with them on returning home earlier. He is too efficient in booking them plane tickets for two days after the day that Hua Cheng comes home late, miserable, from Xian Le’s place.

Ming Yi is the reason why Hua Cheng is laying down on the couch, staring blankly up at the ceiling, thinking about whether or not Xian Le would even want to receive a parting message from him, if it’s worth saying goodbye.

He is in the middle of drawing up a pros and cons list. The list looks a little like this:

Pros: it is the more polite thing to do. It gives him closure with Xian Le. It gives him the chance to come clean about the deception and his reasons for approaching Xian Le in the first place. He could be a little more honest. He could treat it like a confession of his true thoughts, all lies put aside. He could apologize. He could write his thoughts and feelings out carefully and coherently.

Cons: it is incredibly pretentious. Given that Hua Cheng no longer has the time to see Xian Le in person—perhaps a blessing in disguise—he would likely have to send him a letter, as he does not have Xian Le’s phone number. Letters can be quite creepy, and Hua Cheng is painfully aware of how creepy he has already acted. Xian Le may not even want to hear from him. He may be more satisfied just letting Hua Cheng phase, slowly, out of his life.

Ming Yi is a very, very good manager. When he walks in and catches Hua Cheng reclining dramatically on the couch, arm thrown over his eyes, he sighs. Hua Cheng lifts his arm to glance at him.

“You have to at least tell him you’re leaving,” Ming Yi says.

“He doesn’t want to hear from me.”

Ming Yi rolls his eyes. “Say goodbye anyway. It’s only nice. This is the last time you’ll see him.”

“I don’t have his number.”

Some rustling of Ming Yi going through his bag, and then Hua Cheng has to duck as a legal pad is thrown at his head. A pen follows a second after, stabbing him in the shoulder before bouncing into a crack in his couch cushions.

Hua Cheng gets up to dig for the pen, forehead pressed to the back of the couch.

“I don’t know what to write.”

Ming Yi groans. “You wouldn’t be this upset if you didn’t know what to write.”

Hua Cheng shakes his head. He’s tired and his head hurts.

“Figure something out. He’s at that meat bun store, right? The one you kept going to?”

“...Yes.”

“I’ll get someone to run it over after you’re done. You have twenty minutes.”

 

.

 

Hua Xie arrives at his afternoon shift and is instantly handed a lumpy envelope by one of his coworkers.

He opens it and finds, strangely, a small music player with earbuds plugged in. He turns it over in his hands, bemused and convinced that this is some strange prank, but decides to turn it on for fun anyway. He does so and waits for it to load while he’s headed into the backroom to drop off his stuff.

The screen comes alive after he drops his backpack onto a chair. Tabbing through the screens, he realizes there’s only one song saved on it.

His curiosity gets the best of him. He puts in the earbuds and presses play.

The song starts at the one-second mark. A familiar voice sings, gently, “ Turn off the radio ... turn off the lights you know ...”

Hua Xie freezes, completely still aside from the slight shaking of his hands, as the time marker continues to track to the end of the song. The earbuds are not noise-canceling and it is possible for him to hear the chatter from the storefront as the lunch rush wraps up, but Hua Xie doesn’t notice.

The song is only a little over four minutes long. However, there is another minute left on the track. When the song fades out, that same voice pauses before continuing, “ You once asked me if there was anyone that I imagined myself singing to—

Hua Xie reaches the end too fast. He looks up, dazed, and scans the office.

He replays it. Replays it again. Looks outside past the window, up to the sky—

Where San Lang is sitting in a private jet, already over a thousand miles away, chin propped on the palm of his hand as he glances out at the thick clouds blanketing the earth below. He is humming a familiar melody, fingers tapping a familiar beat.

 

.

 

The months leading up to the release of Hua Cheng’s new album, Promenade , are frantic.

Music videos took around two months of recording and editing before they were considered polished enough for release. Photoshoots are scheduled and carried out under blistering lights and cakes of makeup. Hua Cheng stands and smirks and turns and rolls his shoulders and follows whatever ridiculous movements are ordered of him. He appears on shows and talks about his upcoming album, talks about his inspirations and his favorite tracks on it and how he hopes that everyone will enjoy it as well.

It is stupid, soulless work, but it is easier to do because Hua Cheng knows that it will be the last time. This is the final album—Ming Yi and his parents already know it, all of them nodding without the slightest hint of surprise when he finally tells them of the decision.

“It’s been good work,” Ming Yi says when Hua Cheng teases him about how he has to job hunt. “Now I’ll have time to relax.”

“You won’t miss me?”

Ming Yi scoffs, but he does smile just slightly when Hua Cheng smacks him on the shoulders.

The fans are a little different. Their reactions are split down the middle. His announcement, which he revealed at the very beginning of promotions for Promenade , is brushed aside by half of them. These fans say that there’s no way he could stop singing, or that he would inevitably come back, especially since he’s so young and still at the height of his career. They say they can’t wait until Hua Cheng’s inevitable announcement that this was only a temporary break and that he would come back, and that they can’t wait to laugh at the other foolish fans when that does come to pass.

There is another half that is in mourning. These are the fans that flood the internet with videos of them crying but celebrating his career. They share screenshots of their ten preorders, tweet about how proud of him they are. They’ve taken lyrics from one of Hua Cheng’s earlier songs—“if we have to end, then let’s make it beautiful”—and edited them onto t-shirts and posters, selling them to each other. They make large donations to Hua Cheng’s favorite charities with the profits.

Hua Cheng, despite himself, does find this sweet. Maybe it’s the sentimentality of being close to the end, but he supposes that there is some true sentiment behind the blind fanaticism. He acknowledges that it’s acceptable for them to coexist.

The music video for the first single is released a week before. It’s the catchiest track in the album, one about being in love and wanting to shout it from the rooftops. The music video rakes in millions of views within the first day, a speed that makes Hua Cheng laugh when he sees it. The second single is released two weeks after that, of the song that Xian Le wrote for him. This one does much worse in terms of views, but there are a few scattered comments on how this one feels so different from what Hua Cheng usually does. They theorize that the song is his farewell to them.

The full album drops three weeks after that. It sells amazingly. When the Promenade tour is announced just one week after that, tickets sell out incredibly fast for all ten shows.

On the night of the first show, the weather dips uncharacteristically low. When his van drives up to the venue, the gaggle of fans held back by security are dressed in larger jackets than they would normally be for late summer. They scream once his car turns into view and wave their signs over their heads, yelling for him to look their way or that they love him so much.

The sight doesn’t seem as stupid as it did before. Hua Cheng finds that his smile feels slightly genuine as Ming Yi moves around to his side of the van, opening the door just enough for Hua Cheng to make out his very grim face.

“Ready?” he asks. “One of the last times you’ll have to do this.”

Hua Cheng’s grin grows. He steps down from the van and is instantly barraged with bright flash and shouting. He is not wearing his usual hat or facemask and doesn’t walk with his face down. Since it is one of the last times, he may as well take it all in.

The screaming escalates once he steps into the thin path up to the venue, lined with bodyguards that are holding back the fans.

“We love you Hua Cheng!”

“Hua Cheng, look this way!”

“Hua Cheng! Hua Cheng!”

“I love you!”

There are only a few voices that he can pick out easily, the ones that are shriller than the others or the ones that sound like they’re being murdered in a horror movie. It all makes him laugh to himself.

“San Lang!”

It is not as shrill or as frantic as the other screams. He thinks it’s a trick of his mind. His smile falters for a moment, but he keeps pushing through. One of the last times.

It comes again, louder this time.

San Lang !”

He glances over to the crowd on the right. His eyes burn from the brightness of the flashing cameras, and he has to squint to comb through the crowds.

The fans on that side shriek with excitement when they realize that he’s looking their way, reaching forward to see if they can make it any closer. Only one hand is still shooting straight up in the air, bouncing slightly as if its owner was jumping.

Hua Cheng jumps when he feels a hand on his shoulder. He thinks it’s one of the fans at first, one that made it past security, when Ming Yi’s face appears at his side.

“What’s wrong?”

Hua Cheng looks back out to the crowd. The hand is still jumping, but Hua Cheng can’t make out the person that it belongs to. They’re standing too far at the back, near the end of the crowd.

Ming Yi tracks his gaze, holding a hand over his eyes.

“I thought I heard someone call my name,” Hua Cheng says, craning his neck.

“They’re all calling your name.”

“No—I mean—my name —”

There is some pressure now, from the other security guards, to move him forward. They grab at his arms and shove him, chiding him for taking too long, but he doesn’t mind them.

“You think it’s someone you know?” Ming Yi asks, yelling to be heard above the chaos.

“I think it’s my friend.” The cameras are too blinding, throwing spots into his vision. Hua Cheng raises his voice and shouts, “Could you all stop with the photos?”

Something about the request must have been so out of place and strange that the paparazzi actually listen—all of them freezing just for a moment. That’s enough time for Hua Cheng to blink the sparks away and spot the person in the crowd, edging forward just enough for Hua Cheng to make out his profile framed between two other fans’ bemused expressions.

It has been months, but Hua Cheng recognizes him easily.

“Ming Yi! There!”

Given that they have been working together for years, it doesn’t take long for Ming Yi to figure out who Hua Cheng was pointing at. Ming Yi squints.

“That scrawny looking dude in white?”

Hua Cheng slaps him on the shoulder. The security guards are placing more pressure on his arms now, to the point where it’s hard for him to resist as they push him towards the door.

“Please!” Hua Cheng manages to yell over his shoulder. Ming Yi shakes his head and sighs. Hua Cheng sees him wave his hand, dismissively, before the door closes behind him.

The relative silence afterward resounds through his head. He’s pushed off to costuming and makeup, his heart hammering. He sits in the chair and feels his stylists pull at his hair and prod at his face and can only register his own face, too pasty and dazed to ever be considered handsome.

It is about twenty minutes later before there is a knock on the door. Hua Cheng turns so quickly and without warning, one of the stylists accidentally draws a solid line of eyeliner off of the corner of his eye and onto his cheek.

“Hold still!” the stylist scolds, grabbing his chin forcefully and attacking his face with a makeup remover wipe.

The door opens, Ming Yi stepping in.

“Did I get the right one?” he asks.

“Yes,” he says.

Xian Le’s eyes widen when he spots Hua Cheng, mouth falling open. His hair is marginally longer from when Hua Cheng last saw him, curling just slightly around his jawline. True to what Ming Yi had noticed before, he’s in a white sweater that looks duller in the dimly-lit dressing room.

The staring makes Hua Cheng feel very self-conscious. He raises a hand aimlessly to cover his face. That action seems to make Xian Le nervous as well—he coughs, looking away, in the endearing way that Hua Cheng has long learned he does when he’s thinking of what to say.

“Can we have a minute?” Hua Cheng asks.

“What’s wrong with your face?” Ming Yi interjects.

Hua Cheng glances in the mirror. He’s talking about the rogue eyeliner on his cheek.

“The soundcheck is in half an hour,” one of his stylists chides him.

“I’m not asking for half an hour, am I?”

“Oh, you don’t have to make time to speak with me, I didn’t mean to interrupt—” Xian Le begins to chatter, holding his hands up.

“Hua Cheng, your hair is still a disaster,” another one of his stylists says. “That takes at least twenty minutes.”

“It’s just a soundcheck.”

His stylists exchange rolled eyes. Ming Yi also shakes his head and holds open the door for them.

“Make your lives easier for yourself,” he says.

They throw up their hands, dropping hairbrushes and makeup brushes back into cases before storming out. Ming Yi pins Hua Cheng with a look—a you better remember to apologize later look—before stepping out behind them and leaving Xian Le behind.

They look at each other nervously for a few moments, Hua Cheng feeling more and more unsure as the seconds pass. Though it’s been months since he’s thought extensively about what he did to Xian Le, being there in front of him is bringing back all the shame. He isn’t even sure if this is a dream—how is he looking at Xian Le, halfway across the world? For a moment, the confusion in his head makes him believe he’s back in LA.

Xian Le coughs and clasps his hands behind his back, and it brings Hua Cheng back—they’re together, in his dressing room, on the first night of his tour.

“I got your message,” he says, scuffing his shoes. He pulls a small music player out of his pocket. Hua Cheng can only nod, dumbly. “San Lang, I—oh. Should I—would you prefer I call you—”

“San Lang is fine.”

Xian Le nods for a bit longer than he needs to, his gaze traveling around the room—at the costumes lined against the wall, at the tracklists and show posters scattered on the tables.

“What should I call you?” Hua Cheng asks, at a loss of anything else to say.

Xian Le glances back at him. There’s a hint of his usual smile at the corner of his lips, but he looks too nervous to smile in earnestness. “What do you usually call me?”

“Out loud or in my head?”

“Oh…in your head, maybe.”

Hua Cheng feels his heart thump. “Xian Le.”

Xian Le’s face falls slightly. “Oh.”

“Would you…would you prefer for me to call you Hua Xie?”

Xian Le shakes his head.

“You knew that I was Xian Le, right? Even back when we first met? Did you come just to find me?”

This conversation—the conversation that Hua Cheng has always been dreading. He feels numb now, responding—“Yes.”

“When did you know it was me?”

“My manager gave me the demos for my album and I recognized your voice.”

Xian Le’s eyes widen. “Was it my email?”

Hua Cheng nods.

“I’m really—I’m very sorry,” he says. Xian Le looks sadder.

“You apologized a lot on the last day I saw you, too.”

“Because I am,” Hua Cheng says, trying to swallow the bitter taste in his own throat. “When I think about how I tricked you—I’m sorry. I know you wanted to hide your identity considering—everything that happened all those years ago, and I hunted you down without your permission anyway and pretended to not recognize you.”

“…I see,” Xian Le says. He tentatively crosses the room, fumbling a chair over to Hua Cheng’s side before taking a seat and glancing over at him. “I—your recording said that too. I have a lot of questions, still, but I—also, um…if that’s the case, then I have to say sorry too.”

Hua Cheng’s brow furrows. “For what?”

Xian Le plays with his own fingers in his lap.

“I knew who you were, too,” he whispers.

Hua Cheng has already felt like his brain was barely keeping up—what with Xian Le being in front of him for the first time in months and with apologizing openly about something that makes him feel deep shame—but this statement truly stops his brain at once.

“What?”

Xian Le hunches his shoulders a little more, looking up uncertainly at Hua Cheng.

“I actually—I actually knew who you were this entire time. And I knew that you knew I used to be Xian Le. I thought that you might have found me after you bought that song from me, but I didn’t realize that you—didn’t know that I knew.”

“How—how did you know who I was?”

“…Um, you’re really famous,” Xian Le says, smiling a little more obviously now. “You weren’t exactly that careful around me. Did you think that I had never heard of Hua Cheng before?”

Hua Cheng had not been expecting this answer. It makes him lower his forehead into his fingers, grateful for the excuse to look away from Xian Le for the moment.

“You’re really, really famous,” Xian Le reiterates.

“Okay,” Hua Cheng says, faintly. “I get it, now.”

“So it was actually difficult when you—you disappeared like that. I thought that you had gotten…um…sick of me.”

“That’s not the case at all,” Hua Cheng responds, so fast that he almost bites his tongue. “I just—I finished recording my album and we had to come back.”

“Oh,” Xian Le says, leaning back in his chair. He looks visibly relieved. “Oh. That’s—really different then.” He laughs a little now, breathy. “I was so sad. I thought you only came because you were curious about me and then lost interest when you found out I was actually quite boring.”

Hua Cheng’s heart burns. The way that Xian Le says it makes him feel miserable.

“I never—I could never—you’re never boring to me. I just felt it was too unfair to you, to use you for my own problems—”

“You said that in your recording, too. I don’t think I understand what that means.”

It’s more embarrassing to say it out loud, but Hua Cheng hears himself respond anyway—“I wanted to know how you could be so happy when you sang.”

Xian Le laughs again, louder this time. “Didn’t I say that to you?”

“I know. I was surprised by that. But I really—you just looked like you had so much love for everyone when I used to watch you sing. I always wanted to believe in that, too. I just didn’t know how. So I had thought that somehow I could learn it from being around you—”

“But then you realized I didn’t have any answers,” Xian Le says.

Hua Cheng shakes his head. “I realized it’s okay if the answer is just one person.”

Xian Le stares at him. Hua Cheng feels his face heat up. The silence stretches between them, to a point where Xian Le’s face is also turning red—

They are saved by the sudden, loud sound of the door opening again. Ming Yi pokes his head in.

“Your minute is up,” he says, indifferent to how both of them jump at the sight of him. “Sound check in five. Wrap it up.”

Xian Le jumps up, coughing and brushing non-existent dust off of his lap as he does so.

“I’ll get out of your way then, San Lang. Best of luck on your show.”

Hua Cheng stands up as well, follows him to the door. “I’ll come find you afterward—ah—” He pauses, long enough for Xian Le to realize what he’s stuck on and smiling.

“Xie Lian is fine.”

It feels like an honor that he hasn’t deserved, but Hua Cheng manages to smile past the swooping in his stomach.

“I’ll come find you, Xie Lian.”

 

.

 

The YouTube page doesn’t look extremely organized. Videos are not sorted into different playlists. Instead, it’s all one big mass on the home screen. The icon is of a little white bird, messily drawn in MS Paint, to complement the channel’s name.

It was created a few years back and is filled with covers of songs. They’re all shot from the same angle and capture the image of a light brown guitar body and two long, quick hands. The image always stops at the person’s neck.

If you were to scroll through all of the videos, you would notice that many of them look to be quite well-produced. Scroll a little further, and you’d realize that the older videos were captured on a very grainy camera—likely from an older phone. Everything had a duller, yellow tone, with some blurs where the video couldn’t quite keep up with the strumming on the guitar. But the lighting on the newer videos are bright and bluer, colors more vibrant.

There is a moderate following for this channel, a little over ten-thousand subscribers. Comments are generally positive and kind, typically because the channel owner likes to respond to every post that is made under his videos and is known for doing so in a very sweet and enthusiastic manner. It creates a very congenial atmosphere.

It is a channel that updates fairly frequently—typically around two videos every month. Almost all of the videos are of singing, picked up from a mic that you can sometimes make out at the side of the screen in early videos, and that is placed more directly in the center these days. The quality of the microphone has gotten much better over the years, to the point where it now picks up the lovely tenor of his voice with a clarity and richness that it could not before.

The video for this month is different from the others because it is a duet.

The other person in the frame is also cut off, but from the thumbnail and the video you can see easily tell that he’s quite fashionable, has the handsome ease of someone that is comfortably rich. He is wearing a deep red sweater that hangs wide on his shoulders, enough to show off his collarbones. It’s an interesting contrast to the channel owner’s typical white and brings such a stark splash of color that it’s easy for your eye to track automatically between the two of them, thinking how nice they look together.

He waves a little to the camera in the beginning—a playful wag of his fingers that earns him a light nudge—before they begin.