Being famous was the least of Huang Zi Tao’s concerns. He did not need the publicity, nor did he wish it upon any of his friends. For as long as Tao could remember, he had always been disinterested in the life of celebrities, their actions and their movement. Particularly idols.
Why would anyone dedicate their time to uncovering every little detail about a person that they will never meet? He couldn’t understand why the girls at his school would act the way they did; fawning and gossiping about people not only vastly older than themselves, but would never actually meet them.
Appreciate the music and move on – That’s what he did, anyway. The people behind the music were not the artists; it was a team of people who worked behind the scenes to ensure the idols learned complex dance routines and hit the right notes. They dedicated their lives to ensuring a specific group of people could achieve their best – draw in crowds’ attention.
And for that fact, Tao did not like the idea of being famous. It was far too much work. And for what? People you have never seen in your life know every small detail about your life, both past and present? No thank you.
Dragging his fingers through his black, wavy hair, Tao crinkled his nose as he observed a group of girls gossiping about Korean Idols; their music, their dances … And, perhaps most important – their looks. He just didn’t understand it. The true beauty was in the music itself, not the people who sung.
Adjusting his charcoal grey t-shirt, Tao walked past the group of gossiping girls with a roll of his eyes. What was so good about being an idol, anyway?
Stuffing his hands into the pockets of his jeans, he made his way out of the schoolyard and into the streets of Qingdao. It was late spring, and so the weather had warmed up considerably; the landscape had defrosted after an icy winter and all throughout the surrounding cityscape, the small garden beds bloomed with brightly coloured flowers.
Inhaling the perfumed aroma, Tao’s lips curled up into a content smile. He had finished his schooling for the week and could spend all weekend unwinding; being with friends and maybe even practicing some wushu in his down time – it had, after all, been a while since he was homework free.
Walking up the stairs of the apartment building in which he lived, Tao swung his backpack around; as he waited for the elevator, his hand dug into his bag and he fished around for his house keys. A small sigh escaped his lips as the heavy elevator doors slid open with a low ding and Tao stepped inside.
Most of the students that Tao knew were going home to a house filled with siblings or smiling parents, eager to hear how the last day of school for the week had been. But for Tao, he was returning home to an empty apartment building. No sisters, no brothers – no parents.
That would be there to welcome him, at least. Tao was an only child, his parents preferring to work long days, often traveling to remote parts of China for weeks on end to establish and maintain connections with other offices that the company they worked for would be joining with.
That left Tao alone, in the large apartment – nothing short of beautiful, mind you – alone; cooking, cleaning, maintaining, making sure he saw himself to school each morning. Tao was always left alone. But, he was used to it.
That just meant that he was independent and used to relying solely on himself when it came to surviving. Independence was never a bad thing.
“I’m home,” Tao called sarcastically as he unlocked the apartment door and stepped inside. Unslinging his backpack from his shoulder, Tao dropped it over the back of the nearest chair and kicked off his shoes.
“It’s not like anyone would notice.”
Making his way across to the fridge, he wrapped his fingers around the smooth handle and gave it a gentle tug before peering inside at the almost empty shelves.
Clicking his tongue against the roof of his mouth, Tao’s brows knitted together. There was something he had to do but had forgotten yesterday afternoon, his mind had been preoccupied with the decipherment of his homework. Food shopping – that was what he had forgotten to do.
Closing the door of the fridge, Tao hunched his shoulders as he started back across the spacious living area of the apartment. Catching hold of his backpack with one hand, Tao slipped on his shoes and stepped out of the apartment once more.
Deciding to take the stairs rather than wait for the elevator (which was a good ten floors above him by now), Tao headed down the stairwell and out into the warm street once more. One hand dipped into the pocket of his jeans, returning to his side a few moments late with his phone; headphones coiled around it neatly.
Unravelling them as he walked, Tao allowed his shoulders to slump as he popped the earbuds in his ears, a familiar tune flowing through them. The music, Tao decided, made the walk to the grocery store that much more enjoyable.
With his arms laden with heavy plastic bags, Tao began the trek back home through the store-lined streets, glancing inside each one at the colourful wares on offer or the stylish displays in the shop front windows when something caught his eye.
It was quite large and brightly coloured, yet the vastness of the window made it seem a lot smaller than it was. And for good reason.
Closing the gap between himself and the object that had caught his attention, Tao’s lips pressed together into a thin line. It was a flyer. A flyer for a global casting audition for S.M Entertainment. With a roll of his eyes, Tao turned from the shop front and continued his way home.
Why would anyone want to put themselves through that?
It had been a good six weeks alone before Tao’s parents returned to their large apartment; something Tao was not quite sure how to feel about. When his parents were at home, they would ask him questions about his day, offer to help with any homework he might have. That was their attempt at making it up to him for their prolonged, reoccurring absences.
And, to be honest, Tao was not sure how to react. He was used to being on his own. He was used to being independent and having nobody to ask for help. Instead, when his parents would return, he would find himself wandering the streets during the day to try and avoid them.
It wasn’t something he was proud of, they were his parents after all and he should be excited to finally be able to spend time with them. That was how Tao used to see it. But every time they would return home he, much younger at the time, would get his hopes up. He would have their time together planned from the moment they woke up to the moment they went to sleep. And, just when he would think everything was absolutely perfect, they would leave again.
And Tao would be alone. Tao was always alone.
So, instead, he simply stopped caring. He would distance himself from them whenever they were home. Avoid them as much as possible. It wouldn’t hurt as much when they left again.
The moon was high in the sky when Tao returned that night; the stars glistened against the navy heavens, the air – still warm. Hesitating for a moment outside of his apartment, his hand positioned above the door handle, Tao allowed his shoulders to slump as he let himself inside.
After putting off returning home for as long as he could, he had hoped that his parents would long be asleep. And whilst that was the case for a lot of people’s parents, it was not the case – at least, this time – for Tao.
Instead of being asleep as he had hoped, the two sat in the living room on opposite ends of the couch, unspeaking. After slipping off his shoes, Tao sighed as he allowed his bag to fall into the doorway.
They beckoned him over. Tao did as he was told and stood in front of them, his head bowed in apology as they let forth a relentless scolding.
“Do you have any idea what time it is?”
It wasn’t as though they cared in the first place.
“Eleven?” Tao shrugged.
“Two o’clock Zitao! Two o’clock in the morning!”
“Do you know what can happen when you stay out that late? The type of people that lurk in the streets?”
Yes. “No,” Tao said simply.
He stood in silence as he listened to his parents yell, genuinely confused as to why they were concerned about him at all. They had more important things to do with their time – he knew that. Tao also knew that, no matter how much he tried with his classes, his wushu – anything he did, that he would amount to nothing in their eyes.
His interests were different to theirs. He would never follow in their footsteps. It was really quite simple.
Lifting his gaze slowly, he noticed something that sat on the couch between his parents; a piece of paper, brightly coloured; familiar.
“What’s that?” he asked, interrupting his parents. Slightly taken aback with his question, the two fell silent. Taking a step forward, Tao snatched it up from the empty couch cushion and inspected it. A flyer. The very same one that he had seen in a shop window some weeks ago.
His parents, annoyed at the interruption began their lecture once more until they were cut off – again.
“Why do you have this?”
Giving up, Tao’s father threw his hands into the air in exasperation.
“I’m going to bed,” he said simply before getting to his feet. “If you ever stay out that late again-”
“Why do you have it?” Tao repeated firmly, dropping the flyer back onto the couch.
Running his fingertips through his dark hair, Tao’s father sighed.
“We thought you might be interested.”
Holding back a snort, he watched as his mother got to her feet and followed suit, already in her pajamas; her hair in rollers.
“Wouldn’t it be nice,” he heard her say as she made her way into her en suite, “to have an Idol as a son?”
With his plush leopard on his lap, Tao turned his head to glance out of the small plane window. He certainly had a tough time trying to find his way to the airport, but it didn’t bother him. He was here, and that was all that mattered.
The sky was grey, heavy with rain; the smell of it mixed with the asphalt of the tarmac still lingered in his nostrils. The pit of Tao’s stomach churned with nerves and he gave his plush leopard a tight squeeze. He had made it. He had been recruited into a Korean agency through their global casting scheme.
The corners of his lips tugged upwards into a sad smile as his eyes travelled towards the airport terminal in which he had just come; all along the large window stood families of those who had boarded the flight. All seeing their loved ones off.
Tao had come alone. He had nobody to say goodbye to. He had nobody to see him off one last time. He had nobody to hug and tell them that he would miss them; that he loves them. But, that was what Tao wanted. It was a lot less painless that way.
As the plane moved slowly away from the terminal and sped down the tarmac, Tao closed his eyes. Why did he even bother going to the auditions? He was so against it. Letting out another quiet sigh, he gave his plush leopard another tight squeeze.
Was it because he wanted to make his parents happy? Or was it because he wanted to be the one to leave them; to show them what it was like to be the one left behind?
Lifting the leopard up towards his face, Tao’s lips curled into a slight smile.
“Both,” he murmured. “Both.”
Tao lay on his bed late one evening, a book in his hands and his leopard at his side. Across from him, his roommate and his first real friend, Kris, sat on a bed of his own, his laptop on his knees, chuckling at a movie that he was watching.
The loud, shrill sound of Kris’ mobile phone pierced the air and he sat up, glancing at the caller id before ignoring it once more.
“Your mum?” Tao asked from across the room and Kris nodded dully.
“Yeah,” he murmured. “It’s her – again.”
Tao smiled grimly. It must have been nice to have people care. To always check up on you.
“Why don’t you answer it?” he asked and Kris shook his head.
“I can’t,” he said quietly. “Because if I do, I’ll want to go home. I don’t want to let you all down, but I don’t want to let my mum down, either. “
“I understand,” Tao said as he put his book down and patted the spot on his bed next to him. Kris crossed the room and took a seat on his roommates’ bed cross-legged. Forcing a gentle smile, Tao turned to face the other.
“But if you continue to ignore your mothers calls, she will worry.”
Dragging his fingers through his hair, Kris exhaled loudly.
“You’re right,” he said after a while. “You always know what to say. Thank you, Tao.”
Giving a slight nod in response, Tao picked up his stuffed leopard and sat it in his lap.
“You’re welcome,” he said.
Kris leaned his back against the wall and clicked his tongue a few times, pondering. After a few moments of silence between the two, he straightened himself up and turned his head to face Tao.
“What about you?” he asked. “When your mum calls you, what do you do?”
Tao stared at his roommate for a moment before breaking his gaze away. At this, Kris laughed heartily.
“You need to think about that?” he asked kindly. Sucking in a sharp breath, Tao lifted his gaze and smiled.
“I would answer,” he lied.
Claustrophobic. That’s how it always felt having people follow you all of the time; Tao felt surrounded. He was shoved in one direction, and then the next as he fought to stay standing as, all around him, fans swarmed in an attempt to get the best spot to see their idols.
Tao felt as though he was always suffocating. He felt that every time he would be out in public, he would return to the dorms bruised and sore. But that was expected. He had to continue to work hard for the people who would push him; he had to continue to work hard for the people who would follow him, who would spend their nights camping outside of the dormitory.
Kris was following his usual evening regime in the small en suite and Tao rolled his eyes, taking a seat on his bed. Picking up his leopard, one that he had loved and cherished since he was three, Tao inspected it closely.
“Leopards aren’t your favourite animal,” a fan had told him flatly. “You’re lying. Pandas are your favourite animal.”
“Leopards are scary, you can’t possibly like them!”
“You’re so cute, oppa – just like a panda.”
“Here, oppa! I got this panda teddy just for you!”
Leaning forward, Tao’s hand disappeared under his bed as he felt around for something soft; the plush panda that a fan had given him. A long sigh escaped his lips as he placed it onto his pillow and got to his feet, the leopard still tucked under one arm.
Looking around the room for a place to put it, Tao hesitated as he moved towards the wardrobe. Shoving the teddy roughly atop the highest shelf, he covered it with a jumper; messily folded, but it did the trick.
Turning away from the wardrobe, Tao allowed his shoulders to slump. The leopard, a gift from his childhood friend, Chu hua, had been with him from an early age. When his parents moved across the city, he seldom saw her, and was sure that she had forgotten all about him.
But the leopard remained with him; always there to comfort him when he was sad or afraid. Sucking in a deep breath, Tao took a step away from the wardrobe. It was time to let go of it, he decided. Crossing the room, he stopped next to his bed and stared blankly down at the plush panda.
Pandas weren’t so bad.
“Everyone has a chance at happiness. Our chance simply has not come yet, but it will – one day,” Tao said quietly and Kris’ lips curled into a warm smile.
The latter had come to rely on Tao’s aid more and more throughout their debut; the youngster always knew what to say to put the others at ease. Even if it was so much as a smile, the members of EXO always knew they could rely on Tao when they were feeling low. Tao, however, never spoke about his issues.
“Now come,” he said as he got to his feet, offering Kris a hand. “We have an interview that we need to get ready for.”
“Oh right,” Kris mumbled, taking his friend’s hand and allowing himself to be pulled to his feet. “That.”
As the boys readied themselves for the interview, their stylists fussing over them, Tao hung to the back, lost in thought. Korean interviews were something he always dreaded. His Korean was far from the level he would have liked it to be at. And, when the members would speak quickly, he would have a hard time following along.
Zhang Yixing, noticing something was up made his way over to the worrying boy and pulled him into a reassuring hug.
“Don’t worry,” he encouraged. “You will be fine – I’m sure of it.”
The knot in Tao’s stomach tightened painfully as he forced a smiled up at the older member.
“Thank you,” he murmured. But deep down, Tao was terrified. If he made one slight mistake, he would let down the other members, the company, the fans – everyone would know of his mistake.
Shaking his head, Tao exhaled slowly. He was getting himself worked up for nothing. If Yixing had faith in him, he knew he would be okay.
With his hands tucked neatly in his lap, Tao sat, straight backed and attentive as he listened to the interviewers. With the occasional smile or pout at the camera, he knew he was doing a fantastic job. But despite his warm grins and eye smiles, Tao was panicking. It was exactly what he thought the interview would be like.
The interviewers conversed quickly, so much so that Tao’s mind was working overtime in an attempt to understand the simplest of things. And while they hadn’t yet asked him anything, he knew it was only a matter of time. Kris and Yixing, who both knew of his nerves, would shoot concerned glances towards him every few minutes to see how he was coping.
“Ask if they could repeat the question more slowly if you get stuck,” Yixing had said before the interview began.
“Or ask one of us to translate it if it helps,” Kris had added. Tao had thanked them for their concern but had promised it would not be necessary. Tao was a proud person. He had been working hard, studying his Korean and didn’t want to let his fans down. They had done so much for him, but … He still wasn’t confident. If he had someone translate the question for him, his fans would know that he hadn’t progressed with his Korean.
“Is it true that you do not have a girl that you like, Tao?”
Blinking, Tao fixed his attention onto the interviewer who had just asked him the question and thought over the question slowly. Offering them a polite smile, he nodded.
“That is true,” he said and when he saw the interviewer’s eyes widen in surprise, a wave of panic washed over him.
“You do have someone you like?” they asked and Tao looked around the members in a silent plea for help. It was Kris who stepped in first to assist his friend.
“I think Tao misunderstood the question,” he said and Tao nodded his head quickly. “Right?”
“Yes,” Tao said, nervously. “I misunderstood.”
Bowing apologetically at the interviewers, Tao slumped his shoulders in shame.
“I’m sorry,” he said slowly. “I will not misunderstand again.”
If one was to ever say that, as an idol, fans didn’t care what they say – they would be wrong. News of Tao’s misunderstanding spread like wildfire, even before the interview was released. Those who flocked to the interview as an audience had filmed his mistake and posted it online for others to see. And everyone knows that once something is on the internet – it is on the internet forever.
Tao didn’t speak that night as the members of EXO spent their evening together chatting. They had tried to comfort him, countless times, but he would refuse to listen to them and instead, distanced himself from them.
From inside the dormitory he could hear the calls of angered, hurt or let down fans that surrounded the building and Tao did not know what to do. His one slip up, after trying so hard to make his fans proud had hurt them. He knew that he could try and assure them that there was no special girl in his life all he wanted, but they wouldn’t listen.
“I hate you!” Tao heard. “How could you do this to us?”
“You betrayed us!”
A quiet sigh escaped Tao’s lips as he leaned his head back against the wall, his hands hugging his knees into his chest.
“I’m sorry,” he murmured quietly.
“Just try and ignore them,” Minseok called from his spot on the couch. “Don’t let them get to you. They will forget soon enough.”
Shaking his head, Tao tightened his grip around his legs and glanced out of the window.
“No,” he said quietly. “They will never forget.”
The fans were unrelenting with their insults and hurtful comments as they speculated who the mysterious girl that held Tao’s heart could be. They researched and pried into personal information; Tao’s past. His childhood. Everything that lead up to his becoming an idol that hadn’t already been exposed was.
Fansignings were always difficult; for every member. However, on this particular occasion, the tension in the air was so thick that it could be easily cut with a knife. It was here that Tao was either ignored completely by fans, or endured vicious comments.
No amount of training or experience as an Idol could have prepared him for that fansigning. A girl, at least three years younger than he made her way down the line of members, greeting them warmly until she stopped in front of him. Her eyes darkened and her lips curled upwards into a sinister smile.
“I know,” she said bluntly and, taken aback, Tao stared up at her.
“Know what?” he asked as he waited for her to pass him something to sign.
“I know who the girl is that holds oppa’s heart,” she replied. Reaching out, she placed a photo face-down on the wooden table.
Resisting the urge to roll his eyes, Tao uncapped his pen. There was nothing that this girl could possibly say that others had not told him countless times before. Digging his fingernails under the photo, Tao flicked it over in one smooth movement. The second his eyes fell upon the photo, he froze.
It was only a small photo, but it was her. The fan had uncovered an old photo of himself, no older than ten, his arm draped around she shoulders of his childhood friend Chu hua; a happy grin both of their faces.
Well, at least, that is what the photo was supposed to be of. Instead, the one that the fan had passed him had been crumpled; Chu hua’s face had been scratched at until it was no longer distinguishable. The left corner had been covered in red ink that spread out across the small form of Chu hua.
“Do you like it?” the fan asked icily and Tao slowly lifted his gaze to meet hers.
“How did you find that?” he asked, a lump forming in his throat.
“The photo?” the fan taunted, “Or the girl? Both weren’t hard to find.”
Shooting another quick glance down at the photo, Tao felt his stomach churn. Was that ink, or was it-
“What is it you want?” he asked firmly and the fan shook her head. Her hand darted out and she snatched the photo away from him.
“I want to teach you a lesson,” she said. “We all do.”
If Idols thought that fans were bad, they were far from wrong. Perhaps even more unrelenting were the anti-fans. When they found something that could impact on the lives of those who they did not like, they would not stop until they had made whosever life it was as miserable as it could.
It began simple enough; letters talking about how much they disliked Tao and what he has done. At first, Tao had listened to his members.
“Don’t let them get to you,” Lu Han had warned.
“We’re always here for you,” Sehun had added.
And, for a while, Tao didn’t let them get to him. Whenever he received a letter as such, he would ignore it. He would smile whenever the members would ask if everything was okay. He would lie, he would say yes. But he would keep the letters regardless.
The hate letters did not last long, however. And soon amounted to threats; threats to his family , threats to his friends … Threats to him. They had set their sights upon him and exploited the vulnerability that the idol was currently experiencing. It was so much easier to get to someone when they were upset or hurt. It was so much easier to get under their skin; to manipulate their mind.
You are worthless.
You will be doing the world a favour if you just kill yourself.
Tao’s chest hurt, his heart felt heavy. Staring blankly at the letters in his lap, he swallowed the lump in his throat. He wasn’t ready for this. Then again, most people weren’t. He knew what these people were trying to do, but he also knew what they were capable of.
And, as much as Tao tried to not let the messages get to him, he couldn’t help it. He was only human, after all.
“Tao,” Kyungsoo smiled as they lounged across the couches and chairs in the living room; a pile of unopened fanmail sat on the coffee table in the middle of the room. “Would you like to read one of your letters next?”
Tao shook his head quickly, folding the letters. “No thank you,” he said.
From his spot on the couch, Jongin sat up. “If it’s too difficult to read,” he offered kindly, “I can read it one out for you.”
Again, Tao shook his head. “No,” he said quickly. “I’ll read it.”
Clearing his throat, Tao unfolded a letter that he had folded and stuffed behind him in haste. Glancing down at what had been written in red ink, his hands began to tremble.
You will be doing the world a favour if you kill yourself.
“Dear oppa,” Tao began, forcing his lips to curl up into a smile.
“Did you see me at the fansigning? I waved at you, but you didn’t wave back. I was sad, but I knew that oppa must have been busy, so it’s okay! Please continue to work hard! Please look for me at EXO’s next fansigning!
Minseok shot Tao a happy grin. “See?” he beamed. “I told you they would forget soon enough! What a nice letter!”
“Yeah,” Tao murmured, looking away.
He remained quiet as he listened to the other members read out fan letters; each one positive. Glancing down at a small pile of unopened letters, Tao exhaled quietly. Collecting them in a small pile, he got to his feet.
“It’s been a long day,” he said, not looking at the other members. “I’m going to take a walk and clear my mind.”
“Be careful!” Jongdae called as he crossed the living room to his shared dormroom. Tucking the fan letters under his pillow, Tao choked back a sob.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered quietly. “I’ve let everyone down. But everything will be okay when I’ve left.”
Balling his fists together, Tao closed his eyes.
“I’m not cut out for a life like this.”
“Did Tao come home last night?” Kyungsoo asked as he bustled around the kitchen. Chanyeol shook his head.
“I don’t think so, why?”
“Because,” Kyungsoo said, “I’m worried. He hasn’t been himself lately.”
Rubbing his eyes, Sehun took a seat on a stool in front of the bench.
“I’m sure Hyung’s fine,” he said. “He probably came home last night when we were all asleep. He needed to clear his mind, remember?”
Clicking his tongue against the roof of his mouth, Baekhyun looked between the members and frowned. Tao did say that he needed to clear his mind, but Baekhyun did not sleep that night, too absorbed in a new game he had downloaded to his phone.
“Maybe we should go check?” he asked. “That would be logical.”
The group made their way down the hallway towards the shared dormitory room and knocked. When they received no answer, Chanyeol opened the door.
Kris stood over Tao’s bed, his gaze cast downwards.
“Hyung?” Sehun asked, his eyes quickly darting around the room. “Is Tao here?”
Kris said nothing. Instead, he gestured to Tao’s bed; scattered across the top were letters.
Swallowing the lump in his throat, Kris lifted his gaze to face the others; his cheeks were streaked with tears – his eyes, bloodshot.
“Tao is gone.”