Four years, Yixing thinks. Four years, since a tall boy with the charismatic smile and the dorkiest personality, their duizhang, their leader, had left them.
He doesn’t think about it often—he’s too busy half the time to really think about anything else, but the days when it creeps up on him—
It was never supposed to hurt this much, he thinks.
It was never supposed to hurt at all.
He remembers, quite vividly, the first time they met.
He was seventeen then, fresh faced and young, not knowing a lick of Korean, not knowing anything but the taste of hard work and determination. He had been asked once, in an interview, to describe his trainee years with a color; he had pondered over the question for a while before replying simply, “There is no color, because I don’t know the color of hard work”.
He had no friends—he had acquaintances, sure, but none close enough to hang out with outside of practice, and honestly, Yixing was fine with that. It got lonely at times, but to him, making friends wasn’t as important as advancement, sharpening his skills and working endlessly towards his dream. Besides, it was hard making friends when his Korean was as bad as it was—he managed to get through his classes just fine, but it was awkward to hold conversations with the others as he stumbled and stuttered his way through words.
So he remembers quite vividly the day he meets Wu Yifan.
Yixing had been rushing towards one of the practice rooms after class, not wanting to waste a single second of his day, when he saw him. He’s tall, is his first thought. With his dark eyebrows and sharp nose, he cut an intimidating figure, and even across the hall, Yixing could feel a certain aura emanating from him. He seems like the kind of person that is hard to become friends with, Yixing thinks. People must be afraid of him.
But Yixing has always prided himself on being difficult to intimidate. And besides, the other boy is walking towards him now, with a quizzical look on his face, and it takes Yixing a moment to realize that he’s talking to him.
“Hi,” he greets, and with surprise, Yixing notes that the accent to his Korean is familiar. “I’m a little bit lost. Can you help me?”
“Ah—yes,” Yixing replies in Korean, before trusting his intuition and switching over to Mandarin. “Are you new?”
The other boy’s eyes widen in surprise, and Yixing briefly marvels at how much it softens his features. It’s cute. “You’re Chinese too?” he asks, looking relieved.
Yixing dips his head briefly, smiling slightly. “My name’s Yixing. Zhang Yixing. I’m from Hunan, Changsha.”
“Wu Yifan,” the taller points at himself, “I’m from Canada, though I was born in Guangzhou.”
Yixing forgets about practicing as they continue to chat quietly, and it’s only later that night when he’s settling into bed with a small smile on his face, that he realizes that perhaps he has made himself a friend.
Yixing doesn’t have any siblings. He grew up with his parents and grandparents, and some aunts and uncles that came together during important holidays, but for the most part, Yixing was alone. So when he became part of Exo-M, had to live in the dorms with five other boys (eleven, when they were all together in Korea), had to put up with Tao’s incessant asking to shower together, and Lu Han and Minseok’s stealing of all his snacks, Yixing is quite unused to it.
He’s in the middle of the group when it comes to age—the three eldest all happen to be in Exo-M, and he’s fourth in line (fifth, when it’s all twelve of them) after them, with Tao and Jongdae rounding off the maknae line. It’s nice to be in the middle, he thinks, because he gets to have both older brothers and younger brothers now, and simultaneously handle the responsibility of taking care of those younger than him with the privilege of being babied by those older than him.
And baby him they do—you practice too much, they say, and force him to take health supplements and warn him about his waist injury. Duizhang—he had gotten in the habit of fondly calling Yifan-ge that, after they debuted—often buys him food when he worries Yixing is losing weight, and allows Yixing to rest his head on his shoulder whenever they have the chance to sit down somewhere. He carries Yixing’s bags for him at the airport and holds him closely by his side when they walk through crowded spaces, as Yixing has the tendency to wander off by himself or fall behind, too distracted or too tired to pay attention.
In return, Yixing defends Yifan when Lu Han or Tao make too much fun of him, suggests they go out and play some basketball by the Han River on the days the pinched look behind Yifan’s eyes appears, frown a little too deep. Yifan’s very good at basketball—he had been captain of his high school’s basketball team, he had bragged to Yixing once—and his tall stature makes it easy for him to lay up baskets and score, but Yixing’s not bad either. He played a lot in his childhood with other kids around his neighborhood, so he has his own tricks, but even Yixing will admit that his own skills really only improved after he started playing with Yifan.
Yifan always beats him, but that’s okay.
As long as Yixing can make Yifan happy in some way, Yixing is more than willing to always lose.
He had expected to see Yifan, had prepared himself to see him. He’d talked to his manager beforehand, who’d given him the unnecessary warning about bad press, should anything untoward occur, and yet—
And yet, when Yixing enters the venue, it’s like his body freezes, and he can’t breathe.
He swallows past the knot in his throat, forces himself to not stare, to not look up to the boy—the man, he corrects himself—standing across the room. Forces himself to repress the memories, the way his heartbeat thunders duizhang duizhang, duizhang in his ears, the way his hands long to reach out, tuck himself behind Yifan’s broad shoulders as if he’s twenty-two again, shy and nervous and naive.
He pretends to be okay.
Yixing is foolish, he knows now, foolish enough to believe that he had worked past this, that it wouldn’t hurt anymore, to think of the way twelve boys had set out to accomplish their dreams, and how they had ended up here, nine, not twelve, men.
He tells himself that he doesn’t blame Yifan, but still, his body aches with phantom pain, longing for the piece of him that left with Yifan that day he walked out the door and didn’t look back.
Two sides of a coin, their fans used to call them.
Yixing, in charge of writing the melodies and instrumentals, and Yifan, writing out the lyrics to match. It had been just something they had done for fun sometimes, when they couldn’t sleep in the dorms, but one night Jongdae had walked in on them and commented casually, “You should perform that as a talent on one of our next schedules.” And the idea had stuck.
They spend their free time writing more and more music, adding to the collection of files stored safely on Yixing’s flash drive, and they mess around with covers of some of their favorite songs. They even perform some of them—Rainbow, by Jay Chou that time on the radio show with Zhou Mi, Fei, and Jia.
“You’re not even a singer,” Luhan laughs once, at Yifan, when they overhear him singing in the shower. “You’re our rapper.”
Yixing disagrees. While Yifan will never be a main vocalist like Luhan or Jongdae, his singing voice still has an appealing quality to it—it’s husky, hits deep notes that Yixing can only dream of reaching, and best of all, soft. It’s a contrast to his fierce and cold image, and perhaps that’s what Yixing likes about Yifan’s voice the most—it reveals the dorky, sweet side of him that Yixing knows the public doesn’t often see.
They’re onstage, and the commentator is speaking, but Yixing can’t hear him, can’t hear past the whispers from memories four years ago, the quiet sobs of the other members the night duizhang left, the slow, melancholic melody to “Promise”.
It haunts him.
He can’t—won’t—admit it, but it haunts him.
He stares at Yifan, standing a few feet across from him. He lets his eyes sweep across his figure- the long legs, strong hands, intense gaze. Nothing has changed, and yet, everything is different.
Yixing knows how hard Yifan’s tried to run from them—how much he’s shifted his image from that of an idol—and it stings, in a way, to think that he’s ashamed. To think that in his mind, they’re no longer important to him.
It’s silly of him, to expect Yifan to care, but Yixing has always been a hopeless romantic, trying to find the silver linings of every dark storm that comes his way, and he just—
He just wants Yifan to prove that he cares. Even if it’s just the smallest of slivers, even if it’s barely there. Still. He just wants him to care.
Yixing stares hard at him, waiting.
He doesn’t know what he’s waiting for—half of him just wants Yifan to look back, to acknowledge his presence, to do anything, something, while the other half wants him to continue to look away because the tie around his throat is threatening to choke him.
He knows that Yifan’s aware of his presence. Yifan’s always been perceptive- his choosing to ignore Yixing is intentional.
Something that tastes a lot like disappointment settles on his tongue.
In their old lineup, Yixing always stood to the left of Yifan. It’s not just based on height—the managers know that they’re close as well, and out of the six, Yixing is the best—after Yifan, of course—at speaking during interviews or mentions. It’s natural, for Yifan to pass the microphone to Yixing for certain questions, hands and fingers brushing softly over each other.
So it’s strange now, when they do interviews and Yixing instinctively looks to his right to wait for the microphone to be passed, only to remember that it’s Kyungsoo who stands next to him now, and Jongin, instead of Lu Han, on his left. Of course, standing next to Kyungsoo is nothing new—he’s always stood next to him, when it was Exo-K and Exo-M together, but having Jongin fill in Lu Han’s space only reminds Yixing of the three that have left.
It stings, but Yixing doesn’t let it show, pasting a smile on his face that he knows brings out the dimple on his right cheek.
He doesn’t think about the way Yifan used to lean down to whisper in his ear, when the interviewers were asking the other members questions, how sometimes he’d pull Yixing aside and out of formation just so he could talk to him.
He doesn’t think about the way Yifan would sling an arm around his shoulders when Yixing cried during award shows, his thumb pressing into his bicep to slowly work out the knots there.
He doesn’t think about the way Yifan left him.
It’s not the first time they’ve run into each other since Yifan left.
Artist circles overlap frequently, after all, and in a large capitalist country like China where the famous are sponsored by the same few companies, it’s not hard for Yixing to find connections between him and the rest of the previous Exo members. Add onto the fact that each of them have participated in multiple variety shows or worked on acting projects, and it was virtually impossible to avoid encounters at awards ceremonies at the end of the year. A couple years ago, for example, he had been seated a table away from Yifan at the Harper’s Bazaar Charity Night. He had spent the entire evening staring decidedly at the tablecloth, determinedly not looking at the back of Yifan’s new hair job—had it been blonde? or silver?—and throwing himself into conversations with the people around him when he found he couldn’t control his eyes from slipping in his direction.
There had been one moment though—one breathless, tense moment when their eyes had locked, despite Yixing’s best efforts, and stayed. Yixing had allowed himself to stare during those stolen few seconds, and he felt emotions that he thought he had long locked away bubble up to the surface. Yixing had never found Yifan hard to read, but in that instant, he had no idea what the other was thinking. Unable to stand it, he looks down, to the side, anywhere, but back at Yifan. When he dares to look up again, Yifan is turned back around, and Yixing can do nothing more than gaze at the back of his head, the familiar slope of his shoulders. He doesn’t look in his direction again for the rest of the night.
In contrast, last year, he had been tabled next to Lu Han at the same event, funnily enough, and they had exchanged quiet words before Yixing grew tired of talking over people and mouthed if he wanted to leave early. Lu Han, as always, understood him quickly and nodded, standing up almost immediately, Yixing leading the way out before Lu Han caught up, bumping shoulders with him and grinning widely. They fall into conversation naturally, like nothing had ever changed between them, like Lu Han had never left. And while being with Lu Han will always be sweet, will always feel like he’s coming home, it leaves a sour taste in his mouth as well because he can’t help but think about Yifan, and how it’ll never be the same again. His heart mourns the idea.
It happens in slow motion—
He vaguely registers the host saying Yifan’s name and the applause of the audience through the furious rushing of blood in his ears, too focused on studying the stitching of Yifan’s carefully tailored suit, the shininess of his polished shoes. Yixing thinks that if he tries hard enough, he can see his reflection in them.
His nails, carefully trimmed, pierce the palms of his hands as he interlocks them tighter in front of his body, like that will protect him.
He only moves his gaze upwards once those same polished shoes start moving, bringing the tall figure attached to them closer to him. He brings his eyes up, perfectly straight, and is greeted with the sight of his shoulders. The same shoulders he used to let me lean on, the thought slips unbidden into Yixing’s mind, and he struggles to keep his expression neutral.
One step after another, closing the already scant distance between them, and still, Yixing refuses to look him in the eye.
He passes by close enough for Yixing to smell the cologne he’s wearing—it’s different, of course, Yifan has enough money to buy whatever kind of cologne he wants to wear now—and the strangeness, the unfamiliarity of it all makes Yixing’s heart twinge.
He resolutely keeps his gaze faced forwards.
A heartbeat, two, and his steps finally take him past Yixing, off the stage, and—
Time starts again.
Yixing feels nothing.