Pairing: Kris-centric; friends!Kris/Lay and Kris/Henry, Kris/Amber
Summary: Li Jiaheng, Kevin Li, Wu Yi Fan, Kris Wu—they’re not sure who he is, and neither is he.
Word Count: ~16,500
Warning: Mentions of domestic disputes, divorce.
A/N: I use a couple of different names throughout this. Kris’s name was Li Jiaheng (李嘉恒)/Kevin Li before he changed it to Wu Yi Fan (吴亦凡)/Kris Wu, so Jiaheng, Kevin, and Wu Fan all refer to Kris, at different stages of his life. Title from Cyndi Wang’s song 下一页的我. Also major love to rubyls for betaing this ;u; ❤
// 因为痛，所以叫青春. because it hurts, that's why it's called adolescence. //
Kevin doesn’t know why he auditions for SM, really.
There are too many people, too many numbers, too large a crowd milling before the audition building when he arrives. He must be crazy, he thinks, to even think about attempting something like this, but he’s fuelled by an unexpected rush of adrenaline, and his two feet carry him inside the building.
Inside, there’s a smaller but equally suffocating crowd in the waiting room. After an hour and a half of debating with himself, he has half a mind to go home—but then they call his number, along with five other hopefuls, and he walks into the audition room in a tense, nervous state.
They like him.
He can tell from the way they nod approvingly at his stature—modelesque—and the way the judge on the right ticks a bunch of boxes and scribbles something down on the paper. The other auditioners stare at him in envy, and he feels a wave of giddiness rush to his head.
The phone call comes three days later, when he’s watching a movie at a friend’s house. “Kevin Li? I’m calling from SM. Congratulations.” He’s rooted to the spot, popcorn in his hand, not sure if the voice that he’s hearing over the phone is real or not, if he’s hallucinating or not. “You’ve passed the first stage of the 2007 SM Global Auditions. We’re willing to recruit you as a trainee—of course, this is subject to conditions, but we’ll discuss that later—would you like to come in for a pre-contractual screening next week or so?”
Three years ago, Kevin wouldn’t have even thought of auditioning for SM Entertainment. Three years ago, Kevin didn’t even know what SM Entertainment was.
Three years ago, when he still lived in Guangzhou, when people didn’t call him Kevin Li but Li Jiaheng, basketball was what he loved. In fact, he had good prospects of making a national junior basketball team—his height granted him a natural advantage, and plus, as captain of his basketball team, he was good at what he did. It was pretty much decided that he’d move to competitive basketball as a career; his coach thought so, his teammates thought so, and he had no thoughts of doing otherwise.
Jiaheng lived with his mother and father in a small flat at the end of a long street, right in the vicinity of his middle school. It was convenient for him—he’d only have to wake up ten minutes before class started to throw things into his bag and run to school, and living in the school neighbourhood meant he could go to the school gym to play basketball anytime he wanted. The elderly couple who occupied the flat next to his also doted somewhat on him, often offering him tidbits of food and other goodies they’d buy at the markets when they saw him in the mornings. He had all the freedom to go out after school with his friends, sometimes visiting the local shops, and on special occasions, the night markets. There would always be red lanterns strung up at the night markets during festivals, casting a dim red glow on the throng of people walking under the passway, and Jiaheng would always stop his basketball team under the lights and tell them to imagine the lights were the red glow of luck, and if they stood there they’d definitely win their next game. His teammates would all laugh at him and push him off to the dragon candy stall, but he stuck by his superstition, and it never failed him.
But circumstances change. Circumstances always change.
“What do you think about Canada?” his mother asks one night, just after comes home from late-night basketball practise. Jiaheng furrows his eyebrows and kicks off his shoes. “Isn’t it a nice country?”
“I...guess so?” he replies, not thinking much of it, but at the back of his mind he recalls a bunch of brochures on the kitchen counter—brochures with pictures of sunny beaches and Canadian snows, thrown on top of immigration booklets—and he puts two and two together. “Why?”
“Oh, nothing, nothing,” his mother says absently, rubbing at her arm as she waves him off to his room. “I was just wondering. Don’t worry.”
He worries though. Of course he worries.
Things escalate in the coming weeks—there are angry, hushed whispers that go on behind closed doors, and sometimes there are things that sound through the walls: his father's booming "I'm not leaving behind my business," his mother’s pleading voice. It’s nothing new to Jiaheng. Unlike his mother would like him to think, feigning placidity, he’s not completely oblivious to things, and there’s no way that he’d miss something like this under his own roof—but he’s always turned a blind eye. It’s cowardly of him, he knows, but he’d never been a particularly courageous person.
He hopes, foolishly, that maybe a new country would heal his parents’ deteriorating relationship, because he’s heard a new country means a fresh start and a fresh outlook and fresh opportunities—but something tugs in his heart and it aches like denial.
So when he’s standing at the gates of the airport, his Guangzhou childhood packed neatly into a single suitcase behind him, mother unspeaking on his left, father stonily silent on his right, he wonders if he should’ve mustered up the courage to say no.
Kevin accepts SM’s offer.
Pre-contractual negotiations go well—they’re keen to have him, even without the second audition, if he’s willing to fly to Korea immediately to start training in November. He gets the signature from his mother after a week of persuasion, and his father mails him the other documents he needs for his visa. Two weeks later, as he’s walking down the tunnel leading to the plane, gripping the strap of his backpack in one hand and his passport in the other, he realises with a sickening jolt exactly how real this all is.
Contrary to his mother’s belief, it’s not that he particularly wants to be a star, or to move to a foreign country and start anew for the second time in his life. It’s more a butterfly effect of sorts; one thing leading to another, to another, to another.
And if he’s absolutely truthful, it’s escapism.
After they’d moved to Vancouver, he became Kevin. Jiaheng had been too difficult for his new classmates to pronounce, so upon his father’s suggestion, he’d cast aside his Chinese identity and tried to integrate himself as well as he could into a completely Western culture. But things happened, and these things gave Kevin no choice but to find some way to distract himself.
Vancouver was great at first. There were a bunch of technicalities that his parents needed to sort out like legal documentation, bills, rent, jobs, so cooperation was called for. There was temporary peace; a ceasefire; an armistice that Kevin wished could last forever.
A war doesn’t end just like that, though.
Something that’s rotten from the inside can’t be cured. Instead, Jiaheng stood helpless as the fading red string tying his once-loving mother and father together wound around his neck, suffocating him, and finally, after a year of tension, snapped.
Korea is not welcoming.
Or rather, Korea is not as welcoming as Vancouver had been.
It could just be the change of circumstances—after all, Kevin’s now part of a group of trainees who are fighting tooth and nail for recognition—but the smoggy, overcast Seoul weather and endless rows of grey high-rise buildings dampen his spirits. In these moments, he kind of, barely, misses the Vancouver sun, the English he had finally grown accustomed to after two and a half years, but he promises himself to push ahead and stick it out.
A trainee by the name of Henry is the first person who actually tries to properly talk to Kevin.
“Hey! You’re that new Chinese trainee from Vancouver, aren’t you?” Henry says eagerly in English, and Kevin manages a polite smile and nod. “That’s cool, I got scouted in ‘06 at Toronto. I was helping out at the auditions this year, you know, I saw your audition. Nice acting.”
To the other trainees, Henry’s not really a trainee anymore, because there have been rumours floating around about SM wanting to release a boyband targeting the Chinese market—and Henry had gotten a pretty outstanding reaction on his violin solo in Super Junior’s music video for Don’t Don. It’s almost confirmed that Henry’s made it, made it, out of the depths of the ever-growing trainee pit. Kevin wants to ask him how he handles it, the influx of constant snide comments, the glares that the other trainees shoot at him behind his back, sharper than daggers—but he doesn’t. Kevin’s learnt to be reticent. He’s learnt to speak a lot less now.
“Thanks,” Kevin says instead, leaving his more morose thoughts locked in his mind. There’s no need to start a fire so early on in his training period. “Are you excited?”
Henry shoots him a smile. It’s strained at the corners, almost inconspicuously, but Kevin sees it. “Where did you hear that? I’m not debuting. At least—I don’t know if I’m debuting or not yet. Nothing’s certain.”
“Oh, sorry, I just thought...” Kevin says. He suddenly feels utterly helpless. “Nothing’s ever certain here, is it?”
It gets better. Not by much, but he grows accustomed to the daily routine, the food, the foreign faces slowly becoming more recognisable, and it gets better.
Kevin has a knack for languages—he picks up Korean faster than the tutor expects, and it’s something to be thankful for, because the main problem for foreign trainees is that language barrier.
It’s something he knew already though, because there’s no other way that his English could’ve improved so much in the span of two short years if he didn’t have some natural linguistic ability—and if he didn’t rely on learning English as a crutch. He’s lost count of the number of movies he’s watched on his laptop, headphones at full volume, concentrating, concentrating, concentrating, so he doesn’t have to hear the sounds of his father’s booming voice in the background, doesn’t have to know. He immersed himself in films, studied the actors’ expressions—a perfect mask in a make-believe world, plastered over their true faces—and wished he could do just that.
Basketball signups were over by the time he’d arrived in Vancouver, so he couldn’t even join the team, and plus, their standards were much higher than in Guangzhou’s No.7 Middle School. Kevin searched for another way out, and, inspired by Hollywood movies, found it in the school’s drama club.
Henry needn’t have worried—his debut is confirmed, just before the new year. Suddenly, he’s around a lot less, and Kevin throws his spare time into studying Korean. There are odd pronunciation rules he has to remember, vocabulary he has to remember, and more importantly, formalities he has to remember. He’s been taught by Henry that he really doesn’t want to get an official’s title of address wrong if he wants to last in Korea.
Kevin puts off calling his mother until Chinese New Year.
It’s not that he doesn’t want to hear her voice, because she’s his mother, and he misses her, but he’s not sure that his heart can be trusted to stay strong if he hears her pleading voice from 5000 miles away.
“Jiaheng,” she says, surprised. Her voice sounds strained. “Oh, Kevin, why haven’t you called until now?”
“I’m sorry,” he mumbles into the phone. The dorm is cold and dark at night, and desolately silent. If it were China, the streets would be filled with firecrackers, but this is Korea, and they celebrate 설랄—Seollal—not 春节—Chun Jie—and there are no firecrackers, but rice cakes. “I was trying to settle down here, and they keep us busy. Training, and stuff.” It’s a half-assed excuse, and he knows it, but his mother seems to be happy enough with it.
“Are you eating well?”
No. The company put me on a diet. “Yes, don’t worry about me.”
“That’s good, that’s good.” His mother sighs, a heavy sigh that means something is on her mind. “Jiaheng, I know this isn’t the best time, but I have something to tell you...”
Kevin’s stomach does a backflip. It’s something big. “What is it?”
“Do you remember Nicholas?”
“Yes, I remember.” That’s a half-lie. After his mother finally left his father, snapped, dragging Kevin with her to live temporarily at her sister’s empty investment apartment, she’d channelled her energy into desperately dating Canadian men, “because they have more values, and actually listen to you”. Every month or so, she’d bring back someone new to introduce to Kevin. Nicholas is probably one of those men, but Kevin’s not sure which one. They all looked the same to him.
“I want to marry him.” His mother’s voice is shaking, crackling over the telephone line. “I can’t take it any longer. Jiaheng, your father and I—we’re getting a divorce.”
Kevin only realises later that it wasn’t his mother’s voice shaking, but his own hand.
“You don’t smile a lot, do you,” Henry remarks one day after Korean classes, sitting down next to Kevin and chucking him a can of coffee. “Are we going after the cool, chic image?”
It’s an inconspicuous comment, and Henry probably intends for it to be taken lightly, but it hits Kevin harder than it should. Kevin ducks his head. It’s difficult to smile these days, when he thinks about the long telephone conversations he has with his mother, reassuring her that her decision is the right one.
“My parents are going through a divorce,” he explains, bitterness lacing his voice. Henry’s smile instantly fades and his expression morphs into one of guilt, and Kevin regrets his words, because that’s not what he’d intended. “It’s okay, don’t worry about it. It was bound to happen anyway.”
“Oh man, that—that sucks,” Henry says, scratching the back of his neck. “I’m sorry dude, I didn’t know. I don’t know what to say.”
“You don’t have to say anything.” Kevin laughs. Comfort isn’t what he needs right now; just time to adjust. Word’s gotten around—it always does—and he only sees almost mockingly sympathetic looks directed at him. Comfort only reminds him of how pathetic he’s being. “Seriously, don’t worry about me, I’ll get over it.” He pauses and turns the coffee can around in his hands. “In any case, you have a debut to make.”
Two new Chinese trainees join them that year.
The first one is a boy called Zhang Yixing.
“You’re...really tall. And I don’t know how to pronounce your English name.” Yixing says, perplexed, when Kevin introduces himself. “Can I just call you Jiaheng ge instead?”
They’re both Chinese, but Yixing’s very different from Kevin.
For one, Yixing grew up with the public eye fixed on him, and he’s actually here to fulfil his dreams. They complement each other in a way—Yixing may not be the best at languages, stumbling over the foreign Korean syllables, but what he lacks in eloquence he makes up for in dance, the way Kevin makes up for his sub-par dance skills in the way he speaks. It’s not that he’s consciously focussing on it, but during group choreography sessions Kevin’s eyes fall naturally onto Yixing in the mirror of the practise room, and he sees that Yixing has both dedication and talent that surpasses his own. Kevin’s realised by now that his height and gangly limbs don’t quite allow him to make his moves as smooth as the rest of the trainees; that he’ll always be that awkward stand-out with almost a full ten centimetres in height above the rest. He’ll never be the best dancer, but it’s just something he has to accept. No one in the world can be good at everything, after all.
The other thing that sets them apart is Yixing’s naïveté.
Yixing is unjaded and has pure intentions. Kevin would never have guessed that Yixing had been in the industry for close to eight years if Yixing hadn’t told him as he was moving the last of his belongings into the room. The last trainee had quit, so the company had told Yixing to room with Kevin. He doesn’t mind, welcomes it, even, because Yixing reminds him of China, and of happier times. The way Yixing smiles, eyes lighting up, a single dimple forming on his right cheek, is reminiscent of a childhood innocence that Kevin has long thrown away.
The second recruit is a girl from Los Angeles. Her name’s Amber, and Kevin feels an affinity with her.
Amber’s easy to talk to. Kevin suspects that charm of hers is half the reason she was recruited, because she quickly becomes friends with all the trainees, even the Korean ones, despite not being very proficient at the language.
“Oh, your English name’s Kevin?” she says, when they finally have a chance to speak alone. “Damn, why didn’t you tell me before? I’ve been calling you Jiaheng ge all this time, ‘coz that’s what the management lady told me to call you.”
Kevin shrugs. He hadn’t thought much of it, and it was nice to have an affirmation of his Chinese self in a foreign country. “I dunno. It was too much hassle to correct you.” Amber peers closer at him, and he backs away, hands held in front of him. “What are you doing?”
“I kind of see it,” Amber says, tilting her head to the side. “You don’t really look like a Kevin though, if you get what I mean.”
Kevin laughs. He didn’t think so either, but his father had thought it was a fitting name. That’s telling of how much his father actually knows about him, though, simply saying, “Kevin? Kevin’s a good name, very reliable,” and changing his legal records without so much as a confirmation of assent.
“I didn’t think so either,” he says back, pondering. “What do I look like, then?”
Amber purses her lips. “I dunno. You kinda look like a Kris. Not with a ‘C’, but Kris with a ‘K’.”
Kris. It’s a nice name, short, crisp, and assertive. Kevin likes it.
“But hey, a name isn’t something you can change so easily, is it?” Amber grins. “Anyway, can I call you Kevin? I really cannot handle this “we’re gonna make you speak Chinese wherever we can” policy the company’s hounding me with much longer.”
It takes a year and three months for the divorce papers to be finalised.
It was meant to be finalised in three months. The reason it drags on is because his father has a bunch of investment properties back in Guangzhou under his name and hadn’t signed a pre-nuptial, so his mother wants to claim back. The whole situation calls for a group of accountants, solicitors, and escalates to the courts where they’re ordered to attend a series of court-controlled mediation sessions, and it’s just messy, messy, messy.
As much as he says that he misses his family, Kevin’s actually glad he’s not there to witness the process. He knows how adamant his father can get, and how bad the bouts of his mother and father arguing, screaming at each other can get, and remembers all too clearly how many times he’s shut himself in his room, pillow over his ears. So, selfishly, he’s glad that he’s in another country.
However, there’s also a custody battle.
His mother wins. She doesn’t just win, she demands an order for limited contact to be placed on Kevin’s father, so that he can only contact Kevin under specific permissions. His father apparently hadn’t cared too much about it, just signed the necessary documents, broke off contact, and Kevin really hopes it’s only apparently that he hadn’t cared, that it’s just his maternal aunt siding with his mother and painting his father out to be an uncaring bastard, because no matter how much Kevin might despise his father it still fucking hurts.
And as if the whole situation wasn’t enough already, there’s one final thing, the garnish on the dish, the salt rubbing, grinding, into the fresh wound.
With the transfer of custody, there’s the problem of his name.
The courts said he could keep his old name—his father’s last name—and it wouldn’t affect anything. The thing is, his father had in the heat of the moment said that if the situation was like this, he would rather erase Kevin from his side of the family records and make a clean cut. At least, that’s what his mother told him. She gave him an option: said that there was no need for him to take sides, and she didn’t want to pressure him, or influence him, but inside, Kevin knows that his mother desperately wants him to side with her. She’s fragile, much more fragile than his father. Although they’ve both moved on—his mother with Nicholas and his father to some faceless, nameless woman his aunt refers to as a wily fox-lady—his mother’s been affected a hundred-fold more. Kevin doesn’t want to see her get hurt more.
“I’ll change my name,” he says, and he can almost feel his mother’s relieved satisfaction oozing over the telephone line. “What do you want me to change it to?”
His mother suggests Yi Fan. With her last name, Wu, it makes Wu Yi Fan, and it means “extraordinary”. It sits strangely on his tongue, but it’s as good as any other name. Kevin—Wu Yi Fan, Wu Fan—agrees.
“How about you change English name too?” his mother suggests. “You never liked it in the first place.”
It’s a fair point. Wu Fan thinks back to his conversation with Amber, and how he’d taken a liking to the name she’d given him. He’d searched it up later, curious as to how exactly he looked like a ‘Kris’, but had only found articles describing a ‘Kris’ as an ‘asymmetrical dagger or sword most strongly associated with the culture of Indonesia’, next to pictures of lethal-looking bone weapons, and wondered if Amber was trying to say that he looked like a wild animal hunter or psychopath or something. When he’d asked Amber later, she’d told him and with an amused expression that the name meant something like ‘follower of God’. Wu Fan wasn’t religious, but he could relate a lot to the idea of constantly searching for something he could never have. It struck a chord in him.
“Kris,” he says to his mother, with a certainty he didn’t know he had. “Kris, with a ‘K’.”
“I’m so sorry,” Amber says, when she finds out. “But wow, did you really change your name to Kris?” Her voice is soft, sincere, and Wu Fan tries to take comfort in this, but he hears too much pity laced in the undertones, and pity isn’t what he wants. What he wants is a clock that can turn back time, so he could go back to that moment before things started falling apart and fix it all.
“Don’t be. And it’s a good name.” Wu Fan purses his lips. “You were wrong, by the way.”
“About what?” Amber says, frowning. Wu Fan chuckles.
“About names. You said you couldn’t change a name so easily. You were wrong—a name is something that you can change with a few legal documents. Just like that.”
“Well, I guess I was wrong then,” Amber says, grinning. “But your new name is cool too! Handsome. Like you. Hen shuai! Uh, not...because I chose it or anything...although maybe that does have something to do with it,” she finishes with a raised eyebrow, stroking her chin mock-thoughtfully.
Wu Fan laughs again. He knows Amber is trying to lighten up his mood, and this is exactly what he loves about being around her. Amber slaps a hand on his back. “Hey, don’t blame yourself for it, okay? It’s not your fault.”
Wu Fan looks to the ground and nods. “Don’t worry, I’m not.” He can’t meet Amber’s eyes. As good an actor as he thinks he may be, he can’t look Amber in the eyes and tell a lie, because it’s Amber, and he can’t lie to Amber. Plus, she would probably punch him really hard in the gut.
It’s stupid to blame himself, he knows. How many times has he heard that it’s never the child’s fault? That the child is the innocent victim caught in between unreasonable adults, dragged into a whirlwind of papers and legal documents and custody battles? It’s happened to friends before, and he remembers back to when he was fifteen and back in Guangzhou and his teammate from the basketball team had turned up to basketball practise one day with puffy eyes and a croaky voice and confessed in the locker rooms that his parents had signed the divorce papers. Wu Fan hadn’t understood it then, but he understands it now, just exactly how much turmoil his teammate’s heart must’ve been in.
Still, it’s impossible to vanquish that seed of doubt. It’s impossible to banish the feeling that his disconnection and blind-eye had somehow been the catalyst of these series of events, and every time he thinks about that, the knife in his gut digs in just that little bit more.
Amber sighs and pulls him into a hug. She’s warm, and smells faintly of pinewood, very different from the harsh perfumes and fragrances he remembers his mother using. “Hey. Kris. Hang in there.”
For once, Wu Fan doesn’t pull back and ruffle her on the head like he normally does, just intertwines his fingers with hers and breathes deeply.
It takes a while for him to get used to his new name. Kris. “Kris oppa!” “Kris hyung.” Wu Fan. “Wu Fan ge.” “Kev—shit, I mean, Kris.”
People still slip up and call him by his old name more often than not, and Wu Fan wants to tell them that they don’t have to look so guilty when they slip up because that just makes the mistake ten times worse.
In any case, he’s decided that if he’s going to make a clean break, start anew with a new name, he might as well leave all the remnants of his old self behind. He decides to throw away everything related to his father—and he does, throwing away music albums, photos, books. He almost succeeds, except there’s one thing he can’t bear to part with.
It’s a necklace—a small, circular metal necklace engraved with Li Jiaheng that his father had mailed to him with his official documents back in 2007, when he was applying for his visa to train with SM. “Good luck. You must do well,” his father had written on a post-it note stuck to the front of the documents. It was the only word of encouragement he’d ever heard from his father, because his father had always been stoic about everything, ambivalent at most about the things Wu Fan did. Without realising it, Wu Fan’s worn the necklace everyday for two years.
Wu Fan tries, but he can’t throw that tiny remainder of his father away. He’s his mother’s child, but he’s also his father’s child. As much as he despises his father for giving him up so easily, he feels just that tiny bit of guilt for abandoning the last name his father has given him, the last name that he’s lived with for eighteen years. He can’t completely throw his father out of his life, even though his father has thrown Wu Fan out of his.
It feels like if he did, he would be denying half of himself. That he would only be half a person.
Sometimes, Wu Fan has dreams.
In those dreams, he’s back in Guangzhou, in his familiar neighbourhood with the elderly couple next door, the red lanterns of the night markets, the dull pink walls of his school buildings. He’s ten years old again, the age where the world just begins to become clearer, the edge of corruption, but everything is still barely blissful through rose-tinted glasses. He’s holding hands with his mother and his father, and their hands are warm and comforting. It’s a time he calls 以前, before, before his world started to deconstruct itself.
But then, the Guangzhou streets morph into the peak of a craggy mountain, unrelentingly cold winds spelling resentment, and suddenly Wu Fan’s hands are freezing because his parents’ hands are no longer holding his, and they’re running down the mountain, faster than Wu Fan can run after them. Wu Fan chases, chases, and chases, but his parents are just out of reach. He comes to a crossroads. Wooden arrows point in a multitude of directions, but the destinations have no names. Blank. Unlabelled. Wu Fan’s lost.
“Come here!” a voice rings in his ear from the left—his mother’s. He runs, relieved—but then his father’s voice booms from the right, and he’s rooted to the spot in indecisiveness when the ground beneath him turns into a swamp and he’s being swept down raging whitewater rapids, struggling for breath. The scattered direction arrows course down the river beside him, bobbing in the water, and only then he realises that burnt onto the back of the wooden arrows are his names, 李嘉恒, Kevin Li, 吴亦凡, Kris Wu, the only thing that can keep him afloat in these rapids—and he can’t hold on to any of the pieces.
Wu Fan wakes up in a cold sweat, wheezing and coughing every single time, sheets tangled between his legs, feeling nauseous to the core. Yixing, who still shares the room with him, looks over at him with sad, concerned eyes.
“You were dreaming again,” he says, voice hushed. He looks exhausted. “I could hear you talking in your sleep. Again.”
“Sorry,” Wu Fan says. He can’t breathe. “Sorry for waking you.”
Yixing doesn’t complain about it, though. He’s too good natured for that, and Wu Fan is entirely too sorry towards Yixing for making him an involuntary witness of his own inner demons, but Yixing also doesn’t try to discuss it with him.
Wu Fan understands. It’s not like Yixing doesn’t have his own problems with his parents—a launch into showbiz when he was too young to even understand the consequences, and once he’d taken that path and it became his everything, an operation back in 2004 that almost took away his voice—so it’s understandable why he’d be reluctant to bring up something that might open up old wounds.
The cicatrices are there already, and cicatrices never completely fade.
Wu Fan tries to go back to sleep, restless, but those nights are the longest.
Days morph into weeks, into entire months. The nightmares don’t stop, but Wu Fan’s learnt to keep silent and not wake Yixing, and he thinks that’s as about as good as it can get.
Amber’s offered a debut in a new girl group SM Entertainment have planned called ‘f(x)’, and she grumbles slightly to Wu Fan about her only parts being in nonsensical English, but she takes it anyway. Everyone does—Wu Fan knows by now that in SM, you take everything, anything you can get, and a debut is an opportunity that Amber would be crazy to pass up.
“Be glad they didn’t ask you to put on a frilly dress or grow out your hair,” Wu Fan comments, and Amber sticks her tongue out at him. “I’m just saying!”
“I know, I know,” she replies, taking off her cap and tiptoeing to pull it down over Wu Fan’s head. She pats him on the cheek. “Hey, make sure you call your mum. You said it was her birthday tomorrow, didn’t you?”
“I will, I will,” he says, rolling his eyes. Amber grins and gives him a double thumbs up.
Wu Fan would be surprised that she even remembers, but he knows Amber well enough by now to realise that this is something so characteristic of her. The thing about Amber is that she genuinely cares about people. The things that he thinks he can’t tell others, won’t ever be able to tell others, he ends up telling Amber, and she always, always listens. He’d told her about his nightmares, about his parents, and she’d hit him on the arm and commanded him to make weekly calls to his mother. “Parents are precious,” she’d said. “I’m in no position to talk, but I think we should be glad we still have both of them, no matter how bad our relationship with them is. And we should always love them unconditionally, right?”
She’s right, of course. He can’t muster up the courage to call his father, and he’s not sure he wants to, but his mother really appreciates the calls, and Wu Fan can almost physically hear her recovering from the divorce as she gushes about Nicholas and refurnishing the new apartment and chides at him to eat more. She’s making positive progress, and she’s happy; happier than Wu Fan can remember her ever being when she was with his father, and that makes everything worth it.
There’s still something missing though.
It might be the gradual lightening of his mother’s emotional dependency on him, the gradual wearing away of the burden of worries that was once pushed straight onto Wu Fan’s shoulders, but Wu Fan’s not convinced that’s entirely it.
He can’t place his finger on it, but there’s still a growing void inside him, and it feels like every day, he’s slipping more and more into autopilot.
Halfway through 2010, a new Chinese recruit joins them.
“Hi,” the new trainee says, a bright smile on his lips, greeting tinted with a heavy Beijing accent. City boy, Wu Fan thinks. Even his clothes scream metropolis. “I’m Lu Han. Is this the dance studio?”
Lu Han has everything that Wu Fan wishes he had: a well-off family, a happy family, and an upbringing that was privileged in every way (as much as Lu Han insists otherwise, Wu Fan thinks that Lu Han’s parents paying for his insane tuition expenses in Korea is privilege enough). Wu Fan knows he should just count his blessings, but jealousy is human.
That’s not to say that Lu Han doesn’t work hard. High-school aged Lu Han might’ve been different, from what Wu Fan hears, but Wu Fan sees none of that flippant airiness and rebellion in the Lu Han today. Lu Han works hard, just as hard as the other trainees, but there’s still this unmistakable sheltered air around him, in the way that he lazes about on his days off, dirty clothes in a pile on his bed, reading manga. His Korean is good—probably better than Wu Fan’s even—but he has had the opportunity to study at Yonsei, and Yonsei is prestigious and expensive.
“So I never asked, but how long have you been training for?” Lu Han asks one afternoon, lying on the sofa in the dance studio, and it’s only then that Wu Fan counts the months backwards and realises that it’s been three whole years.
“You’re not excelling at anything,” the training department director says to Wu Fan. He’s sitting in the office awaiting his half-yearly progress report, and Wu Fan fidgets when he hears the director’s disappointed tone. “Except for language—of course, your marks for that have always been excellent—and your acting is above average, but look at this.” He points to a graph circled in thick red marker. “You’re still lacking in vocal skills, and your dance performance has been appalling. Consistently. You can’t become an idol just by speaking languages.”
Wu Fan grits his teeth. He’s still doing better than most people, though, that’s for certain. Half the trainees that he’d met back when he’d first joined had already long given up, unable to stand the trainee lifestyle. He’s seen a dozen new trainees come and go, their initial excitement morphing quickly into disillusion, some not lasting even a month. So, he’s doing well—just not well enough.
“It’s your third year being a trainee. You’ll need to pick up your dance marks or you might not be considered for SM’s next project, and that’s really your last chance. I’m saying this because you’re approaching our age limit, and your provisional trainee contract is almost coming to an end...so there’s every possibility that you could be dropped. Do you understand?”
Wu Fan feels his heart jolt in his chest. But then he rationalises—his situation is nothing compared to Joonmyun, who’s been there two years longer than he has, who tries his absolute best at everything, and still comes out of the office with a tired, drawn expression every single time. It’s nothing compared to Jongin, who’s four years younger than Wu Fan, but has been training incessantly since he was twelve. They both work themselves to the death, chasing after their dreams, and they’re both much more adept at this idol business than him, but there are no prospects of debut for them, either.
With a grimace, Wu Fan reminds himself that he is in no position to complain.
The director sighs as Wu Fan bows and turns around to leave.
“Wu Fan, wait. I’m not meant to say this to you, but personally, I think you have potential. I understand that your...private situation might be difficult for you, but the moment you’re distracted and lose motivation, it’s over. I’m not too keen on losing another promising trainee, so...try to renew yourself. Reflect on why you joined SM, and renew that motivation. Just a word of advice.”
It’s good advice.
Or at least, it would be good advice to any other trainee. For Wu Fan though, it doesn’t quite work. As he’s walking down the corridor from the director’s office back to the training rooms, Wu Fan begins to realise what the void inside him is, why he’s merely going through the motions.
The problem is that Wu Fan doesn’t have any motivation to renew, because the only true motivation in him joining SM had been to escape from a situation that had been too ugly for him to handle. Now that reason is gone, and Wu Fan finds himself muddle-headed and lost. What makes him different, is that SM hadn’t ever been completely for himself. He likes acting, and he’s good at it, but that hadn’t been—and isn’t—the driving force pushing him through the gruelling trainings. He’s simply adapted to it, turning it into a mechanical routine, and now that he doesn’t have to use it as a distraction from his parents’ situation anymore, it’s lost its purpose. That’s why he’s not improving.
Suddenly, Wu Fan’s reminded of the times he was the captain of his basketball team, tirelessly training for hours and hours and never complaining because that was what he wanted to do. He had a burning passion and a single-minded objective, and more importantly, it was all for his own enjoyment. Suddenly, he wants to go back to Guangzhou, to reunite with his childhood friends again, meet his basketball team again, talk about the good times again.
And suddenly, he’s ready to abandon it all, because what a waste of time, how stupid of him, using something as life-changing as this as a mere crutch.
It’s twilight when Wu Fan slips quietly out of the dorms. The suitcase he’s pulling behind him wheels with interspersing clacks on the pavement. The horizon is strangely orange today, and smells faintly of smoke. It’s like the sky is burning down.
If someone had been there to stop him, he probably wouldn’t be doing this, but Henry’s busy coming to terms with the repercussions of Han Geng’s suing SM, Amber’s still back home in Los Angeles healing her injury, and Yixing spends entire days and nights in the dance practise room. Yixing’s been chosen to replace the injured Jonghyun at SHINee’s December concert, so he hasn’t shown his face at the dorms a whole lot the last month, instead saying with a smile that it’s easier to sleep on the couch in the practise room so he doesn’t lose too much practise time. There’s a lot of choreography he has to remember, and not nearly enough hours in the day. Every second is precious, and suddenly Wu Fan remembers that he’s not getting any younger.
So with Amber gone, and Yixing busy, there’s really no one to stop Wu Fan from leaving.
He packs slowly, item by item, lost in deep thought. Honestly, he knows what he’s about to do is rash, but it’s either take a risk or be stuck in a rut forever. Plus, even if he changes his mind and doesn’t end up leaving, it would be a much needed break from the confines of the company.
His luggage, which starts off as the necessary underwear and clothes, starts to house a strange assortment of items—a red and blue bandanna from Henry from the first time they’d played basketball together, a notebook from Amber, a volume of some shounen manga about basketball that Lu Han had insisted he read—and Wu Fan wonders what they would think of him for doing this. Buried in a box of books, Wu Fan also finds an old MP3. It’s been untouched for years, replaced with an iPod the vocal coach insisted all the trainees use, but for old times’ sake, Wu Fan slots in a fresh AA battery and fits an earbud into his ear.
Wu Fan pulls the door firmly shut behind him.