Friendship. Trust. What did they mean? Was it simply something that you would give away to another without so much as a second thought? Was it something that was flimsy, made to be broken or was it something more? What is it like to have a friend that you can always rely on; to call when you are feeling down? What is it like to give away a part of you to someone else – trust them wholly, unquestionably? What is it like to know that they will always be there?
That was how things were supposed to be, but in reality, everything was always going to be different. They were always far from how they were supposed to be. Always. And it pained Kris to see things always turn out as such. Most of the time, he just couldn’t take it.
Kris’ heart felt as though it was breaking in two as he began the journey to visit the one he loved most. With his hands stuffed into his pockets and head bowed in an attempt to avoid the crisp winter wind, he retraced his steps. Kris’ body felt numb and whether that was due to the cold or the sadness and guilt he was feeling, he did not know. But what he did know was that whatever it was he was feeling …
It hurt more than any other form of pain that he knew.
Not once did Kris imagine he would be saying goodbye to the one he loved, but he had no choice. He couldn’t bring himself to leave without one final farewell.
Crouching on the floor, Kris unlaced his dampened sneakers and shrugged off his woolen coat, heavy with the rain that it had absorbed. Kris hadn’t the slightest care that he had been caught out in a downpour without an umbrella. His body couldn’t feel the cold, anyway.
Stepping out of the landing and into the house, the breath caught in Kris’ throat, the bile in his stomach churned uncomfortably the second their voice reached his ears.
“Kris?” they called. “Is that you?”
He felt sick; it was as though the world had begun to spin. Leaning heavily against the wall, Kris hunched his shoulders. Drawing in a deep, rattling breath, he managed to croak his reply.
“Yeah,” he said. “I’m home, mum.”
A dark haired, heart faced lady scurried into the lounge room, her hands tucked behind her back. Although she was trying to keep herself as calm as possible, the lady rocked on the balls of her feet, an excited smile spreading slowly across her elegant face.
“How did the final auditions go?” she asked eagerly. Kris made no move to answer, instead, dropping his gaze and shifted uncomfortably on the spot. His mother, however, had absolute faith in her son’s talent and not once did she believe that he wouldn’t succeed. Closing the gap between herself and her son, she threw her arms around him and hugged him tightly.
“My son, the idol~” she cooed as she released him from her grasp. “I’m so proud of you!”
Kris straightened himself up, determined not to meet his mother’s eyes. Instead, he kicked disinterestedly at the carpet with his toe. Noticing something wasn’t quite right, his mother gripped his hand tightly in hers and gave it a supportive squeeze.
“Is something wrong?” she asked quietly and Kris shook his head.
“No,” he replied. “I … Made it through.”
At this, his mother tilted her head to the side in confusion. “I don’t understand,” she said. “I thought you would be happy about this! You’ve been talking about it for weeks!”
Kris nodded dully, his brow knitted together. “I am happy about it,” he murmured, “I really am. Only …”
“Only what?” his mother asked gently.
“I don’t want to leave you behind.”
At this, her lips tugged upwards into a warm smile and she pulled her son in for a hug.
“Oh my boy,” she soothed, “there are some things in life that you will only get one chance at. You know you need to do this, and I will be there for you every step of the way. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity, and while I don’t like the idea of my baby going off by himself, I know that I will have to let you go at some stage.”
Kris bit his bottom lip and remained silent. His mother smiled, tightening her grip on him.
“Nobody is making you go,” she said quietly. “If you want to stay, you can always tell them that. But I don’t want you to give up on this life changing opportunity just for me. It might take you a while, but if you choose to go, you will know you would have made the right decision.”
Wrapping his arms around his mother gently, Kris felt his eyes begin to sting. Tears of determination, pain and anxiousness began to flow down his cheeks.
“But I’ll miss you,” he said, his voice quavering.
With a smile on her face, Kris’ mother reached upwards and wiped his tears away gently.
“And I will miss you with all of my heart,” she said.
Tucking the basketball under his arm, a quiet sigh escaped Kris’ parted lips. The soles of his teammates shoes squeaked loudly against the polished wood floor, the empty gymnasium only serving to amplify the sound.
Passing the ball quickly so as to avoid his coach barking something at him, Kris dragged his fingertips through his long, black hair. He was unable to stop the anxious feeling in his stomach and it was throwing him off his game. Or rather, practice.
Normally, an empty gymnasium an hour before the grand final would be enough to set off anyone’s nerves; as the coach would usually tell them, turning those nerves into adrenalin was always the key. However, the grand final was the least of his worries. His hands would shake and whenever he was passed the ball, he would fumble, often allowing the ball to slip from his fingers and roll out of court.
Sucking in a deep breath, Kris balled his fists and allowed them to drop to his sides. He couldn’t afford to be anxious now; it was the last game of the season – and the last game he would be playing in Canada. As the captain of the team, he was expected to remain levelheaded and calm at times such as this.
But Kris was anything but calm right now, and he wasn’t the only one who noticed. A frustrated growl escaped his lips and he hunched his shoulders, trying to focus on anything but the nervous churning of his stomach.
Teammates moved around him, offering mumbled words of encouragement here and supportive claps over the shoulder there. Kris stood with his shoulders slumped, eyes glued to the key that was painted on the hardwood floorboards. He didn’t want to meet his teammates’ eyes for fear of letting them down.
“Thanks,” he muttered in response. “Now get back to those Lay-ups.”
Making his way to the sidelines, Kris slumped onto the bench, grabbing at his water bottle, soon joined by his coach.
“If this Korea thing is bothering you so much,” he reasoned, “then don’t go. It’s simple.”
Tightening his grip on the water bottle, Kris shook his head. “I have to do this,” he said. “I need to.”
Kris, although liked by many, only had a few close friends; people that he knew he could trust with anything. People who were always going to be there for him, regardless. He knew that despite the distance that will soon be between them, they would continue to be friends and support one another.
Saying goodbye was always the hardest part. So, when the day of his departure arrived, Kris spent as much time as he could with those who mattered the most. Early in the morning, he had a farewell breakfast with his friends, promising he would return as one of the most influential and determined idols on the planet. A person people can look up to.
Unknown to his friends, Kris planned on becoming that person.
The rest of the day he spent with his mother. She prepared his favourite lunch and they sat together in the living room and watched his favourite movie – something to calm his nerves. And, it worked.
Until it was time to say goodbye, of course.
The entire taxi ride to the airport was spent with Kris’ mother going over a checklist, worried her son might leave something behind. Kris himself sat with his head bowed, fingers twisting together in the back seat as he choked out answers.
“Did you remember to pack—“ his mother began and he offered her a nod.
The taxi ride took longer than expected, yet Kris was hoping that somehow, it would never arrive at the airport. Because the sooner it did, the sooner he would be crammed onto an international flight; because the sooner it did, he would be leaving the life he knew behind and venturing into the unknown; because the sooner it did, he would have to say goodbye to the most important, influential person in his life – his mother.
It was always going to be difficult.
But no matter how difficult it would be, Kris knew that deep down, this is what he wanted.
Wiping his burning eyes with the back of his jumper sleeve, Kris leaned back into the leather seat; he was the last person to board the plane – standing in the terminal right until the last boarding call came over the intercom. They were waiting. For him.
“Go,” his mother had encouraged him through her sobs. “A whole new world awaits you.”
Kris closed his eyes as he remembered their conversation just moments before.
“But I don’t want to leave you,” he had begun before his mother cut him off with a gentle push towards the aero-ramp.
“You’re not leaving me,” she had said. “You’re chasing your dreams – that’s all.”
Reaching under the chair, Kris unzipped his black leather bag and fished around inside for his iPod. Unravelling the headphones, he popped them in his ears and closed his stinging eyes.
Chasing his dreams? Who knew he would have to sacrifice so much?
The first month had been the hardest. Being in a completely new country where you knew nothing was absolutely terrifying for Kris. He couldn’t speak the language as well as those around him and, despite staying up late night after night to practice his Korean, Kris was worried that he would somehow, accidentally say the wrong thing and get laughed at – or offend.
He felt as though he wasn’t getting anywhere; simply running in circles. And, as the days dragged on, he began to give up. No longer did he care if his vocals would be off key or if he missed a beat during dance practice. All he wanted to do was stay in his room. Seldom did he talk, despite others trying to communicate with him – Kris found himself eating less, too.
The only thing he would look forward to was the occasional phone call from his mother (“just to check up on her big celebrity” as she would always put it), but each time his phone would ring and he would hear her, Kris found himself yearning to return home.
And so, he stopped.
He stopped answering calls from his family. At first, it started with a quick:
“I’m sorry I can’t talk right now – I’m really busy.”
But after a while, he just avoided the calls altogether.
A quiet sigh escaped Kris’ lips as he watched his phone light up; a photo of his parents smiling happily, the caller id. Hesitating with his thumb positioned just above the answer button, Kris watched as the illuminated screen dulled slowly, the call ringing out; met with the monotonous beep of his message bank.
Allowing his shoulders to slump, Kris slipped the phone underneath his pillow. It hurt each time he would avoid calls from his family, but it would hurt so much more whenever he did answer. And each time he did, Kris was left wandering if he had made the right decision to pack up his life and move.
He didn’t want it to be like this; Kris wanted to make his family proud. He wanted to work hard and always do his best, but no matter how much he tried; no matter how much sweat and tears he put into his training, his learning – everything he did – Kris felt as though he could not progress.
“Don’t give up,” Kris muttered to himself as the shrill sound of his ringtone echoed throughout his empty dorm room. Sliding his hand under the pillow, he drew out his phone; the familiar caller id flashed across the screen once more.
Exhaling quietly, Kris pressed the mute button on the side of his phone and almost immediately, the room fell silent. After one final glance at the illuminated screen, Kris tucked the phone away under his pillow once more.
But if he was to give up now, all of his troubles would just go away …
Dragging his feet slowly along the tiled hallway, Kris stuffed his hands into the pockets of his jumper and followed behind two of his fellow trainees, Kai and Suho respectively, catching snippets of their fast conversation.
They were excited to meet the newest trainee of SM Entertainment for the first time; one who would be introduced to those under the label at some point that afternoon. Picking up his pace, Kris caught up to his label mates and, waiting for a break in the conversation, he spoke slowly.
“Who is the new trainee?” he asked, his brow creasing as he thought about what to say next. “Where is he from?”
Kai offered the older boy a warm smile. “He’s from Qingdao, China, hyung.”
Kris’ eyes widened and his heart gave a hopeful lurch. He was Chinese, too? The corners of Kris’ lips tugged upwards into a small smile as he continued to follow behind the two. At last, this was his chance to fit in with somebody. This was his chance to make a friend.
The younger boy stood in the corner of the shared dorm room uncertainly. His messy black fringe fell into his eyes, dark grey bags lined them. Despite that, his eyes shone with a mixture of curiosity and nerves. Taking a step away from the corner, the boy looked around the room.
“Can I put-“he began in broken Korean, motioning first to his shoulder bag and then to the bed closest to him. “There?”
Kris nodded once and offered him a friendly smile. He knew as well as any what the boy must have been feeling; in a country where he knew nothing about, unable to communicate as well as he would have liked …
“Of course,” Kris replied in Mandarin, pleased when the others’ eyes widened with surprise. “Make yourself at home. I’m Kris; it’s nice to meet you.”
“Tao,” the other responded after a few moments of silence passed between the two. “It’s nice to meet you, too.”
Dropping his shoulder bag onto his bed, Tao let out a quiet sigh, turning to face his roommate.
“How long have you been here for?” he asked and Kris noted how relieved Tao seemed to look that he could communicate with somebody.
“Longer than I would like to admit,” Kris replied jokingly. “Here, after you unpack, I’ll show you around.”
After explaining that his luggage would be brought around to the dormitories later that evening, Tao set about unpacking his shoulder bag, placing his belongings inside the dressing table drawer; a well-loved, plush leopard decorated his bed; one of its plastic eyes had been chipped and its fur had been worn off in patches.
“Leopard?” Kris observed and Tao nodded once, a friendly grin spreading across his face.
“It is my favourite animal,” he replied. “And I’ve had him for most of my life. It made sense for me to bring him along, too.”
“It does,” he said. “I only wished I had brought a friend along with me, too. Come on, I’ll show you around.”
Tao followed after the taller boy as they made their way through the dormitory – Kris pointing out the kitchen, bathroom and other trainee’s rooms as they went - and out into the warm street; the pleasant afternoon sun bore down upon them.
“The SM building is just over here,” Kris said, turning to glace over his shoulder at the newest addition to the dormitory. “It might take a while to adjust, but you will like it here.”
Quickening his pace, Tao caught up, matching his stride with Kris’. Shooting a curious glance at the other, Tao tilted his head to the side.
“How long did it take for you to adjust?” he asked and Kris looked at the ground.
“A little while,” he said slowly.
“Really?” Tao exclaimed. “And do you like it here?”
“Yes,” Kris lied. “I do.”
The loud, shrill sound of Kris’ phone broke the silence of the dorm room and Tao looked up from his book, his gaze moving first from the flashing phone that rested on the nightstand to its owner. Kris propped himself up on his elbows and stared blankly at the phone before quickly snatching it up and lowering the volume. The room quickly faded into silence once more and Tao tilted his head to the side.
“So,” he noted sarcastically, “if you were to ever miss one of my calls, I’d know why.”
When Kris remained silent, Tao exhaled quietly; folding the page of his book inwards, he closed it, placing It by his side.
“Who was it anyway?” he asked and Kris shook his head. Getting to his feet, Tao crossed the small gap between their beds and sat down next to the other.
“You don’t have to talk about it if you don’t want to,” Tao murmured. “I understand what some girls are like. Always callin—“
“It’s my mum,” Kris cut off, watching the screen on his phone slowly fade to nothingness. Allowing his shoulders to slump, he tilted his head upwards, his back leaning heavily against the bedhead.
Confused, Tao watched him for a few moments before speaking once more.
“Then why didn’t you—“
“Because,” Kris said quietly. “If I answer, I’m scared I’d want to leave.”
Tao didn’t press the subject any further. Instead, he sat silently by Kris’ side, his hand resting reassuringly on the others arm.
As the months passed and the day of their debut drew nearer, Kris found it easier to communicate with those around him. His Korean had improved drastically and he put his all into every practice session; every dance rehearsal and every recording.
The members of EXO looked up to him and, even though Kris still yearned to return home, he held his head up high, determined to make his family proud. And he owed it all to Tao.
Tao had helped him when the going got tough, when he felt alone, homesick, or when he just needed somebody to talk to. It was Tao who helped him to come out of his shell, and for that, he was thankful.
He had excelled – he had finally become the person he wished to be.
After encouraging Sehun upon the conclusion of a particularly difficult dance rehearsal, Kris crossed the room to where Tao was waiting, leaning against the wall. With his arms folded, Tao pushed himself from his position on the wall and smiled at his friend.
“That was a difficult practice session,” Tao said in Mandarin and Kris creased his brow.
“Please try and speak in Korean,” he replied. “I know you’re still not comfortable with it, but I can help you if you’d like. It’s good practice.”
Tao bowed his head, his shoulders slumping as he took in what his friend had said.
“Sorry,” he murmured in Korean once more. “You’re right.”
The two headed out of the dance room and headed towards the landing when they were stopped by a pair of familiar faces. Chanyeol stood on the landing of the stairs, arms tucked behind his back, waiting. Baekhyun, noticeably shorter than the other stood at his side; the two, deep in conversation. Both stopped when they saw the pair.
“Kris!” Chanyeol grinned, clapping him over the back good naturedly. “Come eat with us!”
Kris’ lips tugged upwards into a smile and he nodded his answer. “Sure, that would be great. I’m starving!”
Baekhyun’s eyes travelled towards the shorter of the two; his dark, wavy hair hung in front of his eyes.
“Tao, you’re welcome to join us if you’d like!”
Tao shook his head and side stepped around them. “No thank you,” he said as he started down the first flight of wooden stairs. Kris excused himself and started after his friend, taking two at a time until he had finally caught up.
“Tao,” he called but the other did not stop. Quickening his pace once more, Kris caught the younger boy, catching him by his shoulder.
“Tao,” he repeated firmly. “What’s wrong? Aren’t you hungry?”
“No,” Tao replied, not bothering to look at the other. “I want to be alone.”
Shrugging out of Kris’ grip, he continued down the stairs, ignoring Kris’ shouts of concern.
He stood there for a short while until Baekhyun and Chanyeol joined him, as unsure as he was as to what just happened. It was Baekhyun who spoke first, breaking the silence between them.
“Where’s Tao?” he asked. “Is he okay?”
Chanyeol nodded. “Did he not want to eat with us? All of the good stuff is probably gone by now.”
Kris exhaled slowly, turning to face the two. “I’m sorry,” he said. “You can go get something to eat. I’m going to go find Tao.”
Their debut had come and gone; the members of EXO had not anticipated the amount of attention they would receive. Night after night, crowds of fans would gather around their dormitory, chattering loudly, cameras in hand; completely oblivious to the fact that their actions were preventing those who they loved from sleeping.
Utterly exhausted, they would collapse on their beds, welcoming a decent night’s sleep. However, each night, it was always the same. The group that waited outside of their dormitory would call out and cheer, disturbing not only those who lived in the dormitory, but those who resided in the apartments surrounding.
Should the fans be quiet, the members would fear that the fans would be sneaking around the yard, or worse, had broken inside the dormitory itself. They were exhausted, overworked and malnourished. But yet, they still had their fans best interests at heart and worked hard to please them.
It was fan signings, however, that were the most challenging. Remarks were relentless when it came to picking favorites and, each boy was compared to one another constantly.
“Your eye bags,” one fan noted as she addressed Tao, “are very noticeable. You remind me of a panda~”
Tao offered the fan a warm smile. “I don’t like pandas,” he said. “My favourite animals are leopards.”
At this the fan scoffed. “You're lying," she snipped. “How could you? Your favourite animal has to be a panda.”
“You’re right,” he sighed. “My favourite animal is a panda. I was just … Testing you.”
Tao fell silent, slumping into his chair as he watched her move onto the next member, proclaiming her love for him. One thing he had come to the (rather fast) realisation of was that he had no say in what he likes, what he thinks and what he does. Any little thing they did, they would be watched, if not by at least a hundred pairs of eyes at a time.
Kris wasn’t taking too well to the attention and pressure, either. Having come from Canada, fans were set on unearthing details about his past life; more often than not, things that he himself did not wish to remember, and gossiping about them.
On more than one occasion, a photo of himself and a female classmate of his had surfaced online and hateful comments and rumors began to spread about the two. Realising the severity of the harshness towards the girls in his photos – all friends of who he had grown up with - and the damage it could do should they discover the remarks, had publically asked the fans to stop.
During a particular signing event, he was approached by a girl who brought up the hateful comments, addressing his friends spitefully.
“You should just forget her,” she said, “she is worthless!”
Kris listened to her for a second before he realised who they were referring to. His eyes widened in disbelief and he shook his head, dragging his fingers through his styled chocolate hair.
“They are friends,” he said firmly. “I do not want to hear you talk about them as such. Please leave.”
The girl, taken aback by his response grinned triumphantly, happy to have evoked him to react as such.
“Omo,” she cooed childishly, “Oppa is so handsome when he’s mad~”
Kicking the post of his bead in frustration, Kris groaned in exasperation. Nothing could have prepared them for what they had faced; they were thrust into the world of stardom knowing not what to expect and, as a result, the boys’ health had declined considerably.
They could not sleep peacefully without their slumber being disturbed by a hoard of – they called themselves fans – girls pushing and shoving one another to get a prime spot outside their dormitory. They found it impossible to go out to a café for lunch as they once used to, or take a relaxing walk through the streets of the surrounding suburb without being followed; surrounded and knocked about by no less than fifty girls.
Privacy, however, was probably the biggest issue. No longer could they go somewhere without having their photo taken; posted online for anybody to see. They liked to keep up to remain well informed with things that their fans were saying about them. And should a photo be taken of them in something as simple as an outfit the fans did not feel suited their idols, the harsh comments were relentless.
Every aspect of their lives as idols was followed; documented through photos and videos. Analysed. Criticised. The pressure was beginning to grow and the boys, unsure of who to turn to ended up arguing amongst themselves on a regular basis – their only way to exert the pent up anger, stress and anxiety that came hand in hand with being an idol.
Kris found himself missing meals and sacrificing sleep in order to ensure he maintained the image his fans wanted. Every night, he would lie awake for hours, scanning page after page of comments about each member; a knot in his stomach twisting painfully every time he found a hateful comment.
His eyes widened in shock when he found a detailed post on an online blog addressing his past life – his family. It wasn’t a hateful comment, and Kris was thankful for that at the very least, but it revealed aspects of his past life in Canada that he thought impossible to find; school photos, family photos – it was all too much.
Locking his phone, Kris’ eyes travelled first to the sleeping form of Tao who murmured restlessly in his sleep, and then to the window; from below, he could make out the silhouetted figures of those who swarmed around the footpath and road, their faces dimly illuminated by the glowing of their phones.
Was this really the life he had wanted?
Without breaking his gaze away from the window, Kris’ hand found its way to his phone and he picked it up. Unlocking it quickly, Kris scanned through his contacts list and held the device to his ear. It answered after a few rings.
“Hello?” came the voice on the other line and Kris sighed heavily into the receiver.
“Mum,” he began, his voice hoarse, “did I make the right choice?”
Tao smiled warmly at his friend as the two got ready for their morning regime. Brushing his hair quickly, a toothbrush in the other hand, the younger boy clicked his tongue against the roof of his mouth.
“You look like you haven’t slept in weeks,” he observed. “Rough night?”
Kris, messing up his fringe offered Tao a one shouldered shrug. “I could say the same about you,” he said. “You were kicking in your sleep last night and kept whimpering.”
Tao’s eyes darkened and he turned, shooting Kris a forced grin. “I dreamed I was fighting a wushu prodigy,” he said smoothly. “Of course I would be kicking in my sleep. But you – Is everything okay?”
Remaining silent for a few moments, Kris took a seat on Tao’s bed, scooping up a plush panda that sat atop the pillow.
“Where’s your leopard?” he asked as Tao sat next to him.
The other gestured to the open wardrobe; a patchy, spotted paw stuck out from beneath a heap of hastily folded jumpers.
“But why?” Kris asked. “I thought you didn’t like pandas.”
“I don’t,” Tao replied bitterly. “Is there something you want to talk about?”
Chewing on his bottom lip, Kris hesitated for a brief moment before sighing loudly.
“Is this really what our life should be like?” he asked, his voice lowered. “We do anything we can to please people, but in return, we are unhappy.”
Tao shook his head, a sarcastic, monotonous laugh escaping his lips.
“Everything we do, we do for someone else. We have no choice, no say, no privacy.”
Dropping the stuffed panda onto his lap, Kris ran his fingers through his hair.
“I think that goes without saying that we won’t be happy,” he muttered.
Tao smiled, picking the panda up and placing it back atop his pillow. Turning to face his friend once more, he placed a reassuring hand on the others’ shoulder.
“Everyone has a chance at happiness,” he said. “Our chance simply has not come yet, but it will – one day.”