Pairing: Yixing/Kris, platonic(?) Yixing/Kris/Tao
Word count: 8k
Summary: As China's most popular and most charming young novelist, Zhang Yixing is living the life of his dreams. That is, until his editor and longtime best friend Kris Wu is assigned to Huang Zitao, EXO Entertainment's newest young author—and Yixing's biggest online anti. Yixing/Kris, platonic(?) Yixing/Kris/Tao. Modern Chinese novelist AU
if on a shanghai afternoon two writers
Once, when their partnership was still young, Yixing sat down and wrote a list of pros and cons of having Kris as his editor. He's since destroyed the list, more for the sake of Kris' ego than any other reason, but he has it memorized and constantly updated in his head. On the list of pros, in approximate order of importance: his ability to wrangle extensions from their publisher like water from stone, his almost-smothering attention to detail, his willingness to go to bat for even the most half-formed of Yixing's writing whims, his smile, and his collarbones when wearing a v-neck.
On the cons: his almost-smothering attention to detail, especially when it came to Yixing's writing; his inability to let anything go, always acting like a dog worrying its favorite bone; and, underlined twice, his tendency to appear uninvited and unasked for in Yixing's private space.
So Friday morning finds Kris striding into Yixing's bedroom and announcing, without preamble, "I'm not going to let you title the collection 'Tears Airport.'"
In a blazer and nice slacks, Kris looks office-ready, except for his bare feet. When Yixing turns over, trying to ignore him, Kris smacks lightly at Yixing's legs with the newspaper he has rolled up in one hand. "Leave me alone," Yixing complains, pulling the covers over his head and trying in vain to trip Kris as he walks by. "I'm still asleep."
"Some of us didn't go to sleep until three because we were told we needed to have a draft in by this morning, or else."
"That's cute," Kris snorts. "'Tears Airport' is still a terrible name. It doesn't even make sense."
"If you read the title story—"
"I did. I liked it." A pause, and Yixing waits under the warm, breathless cocoon of his blanket. "Cut it from the collection."
"What?" Yixing blurts out, whipping the blanket off his face in shock.
"Cut it from the collection," Kris repeats patiently. He shoves Yixing's feet back under the blanket as he makes his way to Yixing's closet. "Or rework the ending. It doesn't fit with the rest of the stories. It's too," he gestures with one of Yixing's shirts, still on the hanger, "mushy. You should sit on it for a while." He hangs the shirt back in the closet, picks another, and misses the face that Yixing makes at him. "Let's talk about it when you're up."
"Why are you even making me get out of bed? I don't have any deadlines, I'm not supposed to be doing any interviews—"
"POP Magazine asked for a photoshoot at the last minute, to fill a few pages," Kris explains. "I said yes. You can promote your new stationary line—"
"EXO's new stationary line—"
"While drumming up some press for your new story collection, which will not be named 'Tears Airport,'" Kris finishes. "Then you have a coffee date with Lu Han. I scheduled a hair appointment for you, too. And then, probably, I'm going to take you to dinner." He scrutinizes another one of Yixing's shirts, holding it up against a pair of dark jeans hanging over his arm. When he turns to smile at Yixing, his teeth are very white. "If you behave," he adds, throwing the outfit on Yixing's bed.
"I hate you," Yixing declares.
"You love me," Kris says, smug as he brushes Yixing's hair out of his face, "and you know it."
And that, Yixing thinks as he reluctantly rolls out of bed, is something on both his pros and cons list.
There are worse things in the world than being the star author of EXO Entertainment. For the most part, Yixing would even go so far as to say his life is blessed. At 23, Zhang Yixing, art name Zhang Lay, is already the author of ten books: three short story collections, five novels, one collection of half-poetry half-lyrics, and an assortment of essays that, Kris usually says with an exasperated sigh, sounds exactly like a parody of a self-help book written by a twelve-year-old, and is probably just as useful. In the most recent Rich List of Chinese Writers, Zhang Lay came in at five. Not a bad position, considering Yixing's almost a decade younger than the second-youngest writer on the list and wrote the bulk of his work while still in college. Yixing has a nice apartment in the Puxi part of Shanghai, a car he never drives (but Kris does, when they go out of town together), enough money saved up to move his parents closer to him once they get old, and his picture smiling down from the shelves of Xinhua Bookstore and magazine stands alike. His life is good. There isn't much more he wants.
There's just one little thing.
"Two little things that I wanted to talk about, actually," Lu Han says as he takes a loud sip of his frappuccino.
"I can't believe you made me come to a Starbucks," Yixing grumbles. "You write restaurant reviews for our magazines. You should know better places to go to."
"I write restaurant reviews for teenage girls who are planning how best to get their boyfriend to put his arm around their shoulders," Lu Han points out. "Also for pre-pubescent girls who like to dream. Besides, what's wrong with Starbucks?"
"Nothing," Yixing sighs. "Just woke up too early after too little sleep."
"One that Kris has already pushed back for me," Yixing admits.
Lu Han hums sympathetically, but Yixing can't help resenting him, just a little. For Lu Han, writing is a routine, methodical, and slightly ironic process. No one knows that the man behind Xiao Lu's Hot Pick of the Week is, well, a man, 24 years old, and prone to eating duck blood soup with as much relish as strawberry cream cake. Lu Han's work is usually rife with exclamation marks and emoticons, and, when the mood hits him, embellished in the margins with Hello Kitty gifs that his editors have to remove. If you wanted the same freedom, Lu Han often tells him, you shouldn't have let Kris use your picture to sell your books, which usually ends with him being chased out of Yixing's office by an irritated Kris.
Now, Lu Han perks up and, chewing on his straw, sneaks a corner from Yixing's coffee cake before he asks, "Did you hear who just signed a contract with our company?" When Yixing shakes his head, Lu Han sucks in his breath and announces triumphantly, "Huang Zitao."
Yixing pauses. He drinks another sip of coffee, stalling. The truth is, Yixing has trouble remembering the names of the agents, typesetters, and other editors that he sees on a weekly basis when he visits Kris in his office. About a month ago, Yixing was stuck in a taxi for fifteen minutes by the side of Nanjing Road, trying to remember his own address. It's a romantic writerly habit, probably, to be found wandering around People's Square at dusk, lost in the crowd and missing a dinner appointment with a potential sponsor, but when it comes to casual conversation, and Lu Han staring at him expectantly, it puts Yixing at a bit of a loss. Finally, when he can't bear it anymore, Yixing puts down his coffee cup and says, "I have no idea who that is."
Lu Han snorts. He whips out his phone, something befitting Xiao Lu in its bright pink case. "Oh yes you do," he crows, brandishing the screen at Lu Han's face. "Because we're all but certain he's the guy behind Tao Tao."
Yixing's coffee goes down the wrong pipe and immediately he starts coughing. He's glad, suddenly, that they're in a Starbucks and not one of those cutesy bubble-tea-and-ice-cream places Xiao Lu always visits. Yixing's no Wang Lee Hom or Jay Chou, but there’s still a determined pack of fangirls who can spot him from a few feet away, and those meetings usually result in not very attractive Weibo pictures of him the next day. He and Lu Han share enough readership that going to a Xiao Lu recommended café would probably end with him showing up on every Wenxuecity BBS with coffee coming out of his nose.
"How certain is certain?" Yixing asks when he recovers, reaching for Lu Han's phone.
"Ninety-five percent," Lu Han says proudly. Over Yixing's grasp, Lu Han pans through a gallery of his own stalker-like photos before settling on an image of a tall, young, dark-haired boy walking out of the EXO Pudong office, their director chatting by his side. The picture is too blurry for facial features, but Yixing thinks he detects a strong nose, maybe hooded eyes. "This was yesterday," Lu Han explains. "I heard the director specifically say he admired his work as Tao Tao. And it makes sense, doesn't it? Huang Zitao. Zitao. Tao Tao."
"This is Tao Tao?" Yixing squints at the screen.
"The one and only," Lu Han says, and shoves the screen so close to Yixing’s face he almost goes cross-eyed.
An Internet sensation, Tao Tao holds court on his Sina blog to the tune of millions of visitors a day. Facts that everyone, especially Yixing, knows about Tao Tao: He's a wushu artist when he's not writing, he's young, he dropped out of college, he once dated a girl who left him for an older and richer man and has been single since, and to him life's greatest sin, as he put it, was to live any less than the extreme. His Sina blog consists mostly of short essays railing against the education system, adults, institutions, his friends, society, and once, weirdly, celebrities who cry on game shows. In the beginning, when Yixing was still winning Mengya essay contests, he and Tao Tao both burst onto the post-80s writing scene at the same time, and Yixing had found him charming, even a kindred spirit.
Then Zhang Lay published his first short story collection, Every Day Look Up, and he and Tao Tao officially split ways.
No writer is universally loved, especially not when his output is mostly aimed at high school students sick of exams, young professionals with boring love lives, and the occasional grandmother who is out of TV dramas to watch. But Zhang Lay, for the most part, has managed to scrape by with only the occasional raze. Kris likes to say it's because Yixing's natural earnestness and well-meaning kindness comes through full-force in Lay's writing. Lu Han likes to say it's because Yixing's picture is so good-looking that female critics are too overcome and male critics are too mad to write anything.
Tao Tao, though, regularly compares Zhang Lay's work to "a children's picture book without the pictures." Also, once, in an incident that almost led to Lu Han and Yixing reverse-stalking him through domain registries and running afoul of Yixing's internet provider and the Chinese government, "bitchy and shallow." Every book Yixing has ever written, minus the songbook, ends up dissected, dismissed, and ridiculed on Tao Tao's blog. With Tao Tao being as popular as he is, it's partially a publicity boon for Yixing. But given the choice, Yixing muses as he pages through shaky photos of Tao Tao's back, he'd probably prefer not getting an ego-bruising to the extra hundred-thousand books he sells.
"Okay," Yixing says, heaving a deep sigh and returning Lu Han's phone. "So I'm sharing a publishing company with my biggest and most vocal critic."
"You can duke it out over pre-orders," Lu Han says, almost dreamily. "It'll be great. I'll have Xiao Lu say something snarky about it."
"Please don’t," says Yixing, laughing. "I think that's the very definition of 'conflict of interest.'"
"I wonder if he's going to keep writing his blog? Do you think he'd tell anyone?"
Yixing shrugs. He drains his coffee and cedes the rest of his cake to Lu Han, who grins at him knowingly. "Who knows," he says. "It'd be embarrassing for him to admit he's part of the industry he hates."
Yixing's phone buzzes, two short bursts, and he reaches for it instinctively. It's Kris' ringtone, and Yixing's probably going to be late if he doesn't leave for the salon. "I wonder what Kris will say about this," Yixing muses, tapping out okay im finishing up now.
"Ah," Lu Han says. He sounds as if he's just found something particularly nasty in Yixing's coffee cake. Yixing looks up, surprised, and Lu Han, like a doctor about to give someone very bad news, puts his hand on Yixing's arm. "So the other thing I meant to tell you," Lu Han says, squeezing with every other syllable, "I went into the building afterwards, and you know how my agent Henry knows everything and can't shut up. Well, I found out who Huang Zitao's editor is."
"And," Lu Han says, making a face, "they assigned him only the best. Because he's young and never had to deal with deadlines and is known for having a temper. So, you know." He chews unhappily at his frappuccino straw. Just when Yixing is about to take it from him in exchange for an answer, Lu Han looks up, frowns, and says, "They gave him to Kris."
Dinner is at Kris' favorite beef noodle place. Kris is waiting for Yixing with his order already on the table, and for two hot seconds Yixing regrets spending his afternoon feeling like some girlfriend Kris has just jilted through a third party. It takes them both getting through an order of xiao long bao, both bowls of noodles, and an extended conversation about Kris' proposal to send the title story of Tiny Airports to Harvest magazine as a preview, before Yixing gets the courage to ask.
"So," he says uncomfortably, "I heard about your new author."
After a beat, Kris puts down his bowl. He drops his chopsticks and soup spoon into the remaining broth and starts to methodically unscrew the cap of his oolong tea. Yixing has been doodling on the paper napkin in front of him, too anxious to look at Kris' face, and when he looks down he sees he's covered the napkin's surface with Lu Han's new favorite phone emoticon: a steamed bun with angel wings and blush marks.
"News travels fast," Kris says flatly. He reaches in his bag and pulls out his phone, powers it off, and finally turns to look Yixing in the eye. Yixing shifts, trying his hardest not to throw some bills down and bolt. This is the way Kris signals for serious conversation, and the last time this happened, Yixing got saddled with a terrible temporary editor while Kris went to Canada to nurse his grandmother. The time before that, Kris thought he was going to get married, and Yixing ended that night drunk and passed out on Lu Han's balcony, wet laundry dripping on his face while he slept.
Yixing puts his pencil down and pushes the napkin away from him. He stares at some point on the table between them, waiting. When Kris doesn't say anything else, he asks, tentative, "Is he really—?"
"Does it matter?"
"Of course it matters," snaps Yixing, hurt.
"You've never cared before," Kris points out. "We used to laugh about Tao Tao's posts. You think he's immature."
"He is immature," Yixing fumes. "And half the time I suspect he hasn't even read anything I've written since 2007. But this is different. This time he's—" a competitor, Yixing means to say. But he stops himself at the last minute, bites his lip. He hadn't meant professionally.
"You should have turned it down," Yixing says instead. "How does the company expect you to be a neutral arbiter?"
"It's not like you and he are going to be working together on anything," Kris says, sighing. He spreads out his hands as if placating Yixing. "And anyway, I asked for it."
The din of the restaurant drops away from Yixing. He sees Kris' face, blurred and indistinct, like a picture captured mid-motion on Lu Han's cell phone. Before Yixing can formulate a protest, Kris continues, "It's just for his first novel. Nothing's guaranteed. He might not even like me. There's no telling how it's going to work out."
"Of course he'll like you," Yixing says, too quickly. "That's what I'm afraid of. That he'll want you to keep going."
"It wouldn't be so bad to have a different project." Kris raises an eyebrow. "It might even be good for our relationship." When Yixing blinks at him, he elaborates, "For how we interact with each other. As writer and editor."
"I don't want our relationship to change," Yixing says. Kris' eyes bore into him, from his forehead down to his heart, and Yixing looks away. "I like it the way it is."
With a laugh, Kris leans forward and places his hands on Yixing's shoulders. Yixing thinks about how he's wearing an outfit that Kris picked for him, eating food that Kris picked for him, surrounded by drafts of stories that Kris picked out of many for him, living a life that Kris is, in a way, picking for him. "Nothing's going to change," Kris promises. "Don't worry. Just finish your collection." He smiles, bright and reassuring, like a father with a fractious toddler. "Then we'll go visit your parents or something, as a vacation."
One of the things Yixing has added and removed from the pros list of having Kris as his editor is "tenderness". Sometimes he thinks this is the most important thing about Kris, that he's spent entire nights with Yixing feeding him congee and medicine during Yixing's annual winter cold, that he's the one answering phone calls from Yixing's mother when Yixing is up against a deadline and always saying in his most responsible, most mature voice, I promise I'm taking care of him, that he's the one slipping notes to Yixing telling him what to say during meetings with EXO when pitching an idea for his next novel.
Sometimes, though, it's the cruelest. Yixing's been with Kris since before he was Zhang Lay, when he was still Xing Xing and wrote poetry for the school bulletin board. It's a long time to hope and hold each mark of tenderness as a sign of something more. Sometimes Yixing thinks it'd been better if Kris never treated him like he was something special, something Kris needed to protect. Tenderness makes for good friends, but for Yixing and Kris, "friends" has never been a complete descriptor of their relationship.
This is a novel Yixing once wrote. This is a scenario he has rehashed many times: in short stories, in songs, in the slice-of-life essays they ask him to write for Valentine's Day. In every story, the ending is bittersweet. His first short story had been about a girl and the boy she grew up with, how she mistakes his coddling for love, how he promises her forever but meant, forever like family, like sisters and brothers share the same blood. His critics had said, Zhang captures perfectly the hesitancy, the sense of opportunity, and the unsettled pace of modern life.
But for Yixing, really, it's just that he still, after all these years, doesn't know where he stands with Kris.
Kris and Yixing started writing at the same time in high school. Yixing was the one with talent, a turn of phrase, a certain style. But Kris, with his large vocabulary, a wealth of historical and classical anecdotes to embellish his writing, and an oddly textbook-like voice, was the first out of the gate, the one who was noticed by teachers and given scholarship awards. It wasn't until their last year, during final exams, that Yixing was finally noticed.
They were signed to EXO together, both as authors. But Kris never wrote a single piece of work for EXO. Instead, shortly after Yixing started work on Every Day Look Up, Kris became his editor. It was unofficial at first, but as each of Yixing's assigned editors ceded their decision-making ability to Kris, it became a permanent position. Kris stopped writing, and Yixing, who has always been the kind of son mothers described as guai, began his career of writing both their fair shares.
Yixing is not Kris' only author; EXO would never stand for that exclusive of a relationship. But the other authors Kris has taken on are, to put it crudely, temp jobs that he does in between working with Yixing. Inspirational essay collections, study guides for classics, an occasional "collected works" or "best of" anthology that needs a second pair of eyes and a firmer, more decisive hand. Yixing is the only author Kris oversees from beginning to end.
For Yixing and Kris, the path to publishing is a methodical back and forth, swapping ideas and lines and language until, sometimes, Yixing is no longer sure if he's the author and Kris the editor, or the other way around. Four years of a working relationship with an additional three years of friendship have forged them together, so that one would pick up pace when the other ebbed. Together they set down a foundation for a house Yixing would build, and together they would choose the color for the walls, the furniture to stuff the rooms, Kris always teasing the last breath out of the words and sentences while Yixing hurried to put them down.
For Huang Zitao, as far as Yixing can tell, creation is a hectic process. When Kris comes to check on Yixing, his bags are always overflowing with drafts. Three weeks into the writing process, Kris shows up lugging a binder. Three of the pages are simply the sentence "To me, nothing in this world is impossible" repeated over and over again, followed by a blank space and the words, "slow change."
"Is this a novel or a Buddhist mantra?" Yixing jokes, as Kris takes out his red pen and circles yet another incorrectly-used homophone.
"That's Taozi's rough draft," Kris mumbles around the pen cap. Yixing tries not to start at the nickname. "It still needs some work." Kris underlines something, smiles briefly to himself, then adds, "As his senior, you have any suggestions?"
"Maybe you should suggest he introduce more variety," Yixing says, and Kris hushes him with an impatient wave of the hand, as if to say, I've already tried that.
For Yixing, Kris is as much a part of his writing process as his computer or a pen and paper. When he thinks of inspiration, Yixing thinks of all the classic comparisons: a breath, a mood, a snowstorm that takes over in the night and leaves the landscape outside your window covered in a perfect, ethereal white. But like all writers who do what they love for a living, Yixing knows that writing consists mostly of the day-to-day drudge work: hours spent writing artless sentences with butchered imagery, erasing whole paragraphs on a whim only to miss them later, staring at the cursor on a blank screen for minutes while you search for the perfect, unspoken, nonexistent word. In those moments, Yixing thinks of Kris.
But these days Kris spends most of his time working with Zitao, who's just moved from Qingdao to Shanghai and needs a lot of hand-holding. The management at EXO seem to think this adds to the mystery of Zitao and Yixing, and spend most of their time sending Yixing mixed signals about whether Kris is in his office. Yixing gets texts from Kris while he and Zitao are at the grocery store together, buying clothes together, and, once, looking together for a wushu teacher close to Zitao's apartment. Yixing types the same text message, are you his mother or his editor, into his phone dozens of times, but never sends it. He feels it's slightly hypocritical, when he'd been texting Kris in the first place to ask what store carries the brand of soy sauce Kris always stocks in his kitchen.
Lu Han sends Yixing updates from Tao Tao's blog every so often, which Yixing reads and then pretends not to remember. Tao Tao's entries are more infrequent these days, and meditative. One of them talks about growing up and finding security, about centering oneself. "There's someone I would like to be strong for," Tao Tao ends his latest. "I think strength is part of being young. You have to keep your strength pure, to stand up for something you really want. Otherwise, society—adults—they win. That’s what I've learned from this person."
"He sounds like he really admires Kris," Lu Han muses.
"He sounds like a lovesick teenager," Yixing gripes and slams his laptop screen down.
"Careful, Zhang Lay," Lu Han says through his chortles. "That's your target audience you're talking about." But after a minute, he stops smiling and, humming, combs his hand through the back of Yixing's hair, like an owner trying to soothe a growling dog. "When's the last time you spent time with Kris? Your apartment is a mess."
"It's been two weeks now," Yixing admits. "The longest we've gone since the thing with his grandmother." He looks around, at the dirty laundry, the old uncollated drafts of Tiny Airports covering his work table, the endless cups of cold green tea scattered across the kitchen counters. Even his refrigerator is empty; though Yixing had always been the one to cook, Kris was always the one popping into his apartment in the afternoon, carrying freshly-cleaned fish and saying, the qing cai is particularly good today.
"Maybe he's tired of my company," Yixing mutters.
"Maybe you're being paranoid," Lu Han tells him, patting his thigh. "And anyway, if he was going to get tired of you, he'd have done it years ago."
"Thanks, Xiao Lu," Yixing says sarcastically. "With that kind of advice, you should start up a dating column."
A week later, Lu Han does, and sends all his answers to Yixing for proofreading.
Tiny Airports is Yixing's fourth short story collection. The title story, when it was still called "Tears Airport 1.0" and consisted mostly of Yixing and Kris' scribbling back and forth over ten pages of double-spaced typed characters, is about a girl, Xiang Xiang, who moves to Shanghai from the surrounding countryside, in part for a job, and in part to chase after her childhood friend Zhang Fei. Zhang Fei and Xiang Xiang had been high school sweethearts before Zhang Fei moved to the big city for college. She discovers that he's changed and is no longer the sweet boy who used to walk his bike home so he could talk longer with her. He's now a man, and what's more, a Shanghai city man.
It's a common enough story. Zhang Fei and his friends are recurring characters in Yixing's other collections, and their appearances are vague enough that Zhang Fei's on-again, off-again girlfriend in No Unicorns in Never Time and, later, his wife in Four Doors, could very well be Xiang Xiang. So in the original ending, Yixing had Xiang Xiang realize she loved Zhang Fei for his changes. She meets him in a coffee shop and, when she confesses she loves him still, she cries. Each tear was like an airport, she thinks. They are my old emotions leaving me and, in a different form, coming back to me again.
He'd rewritten it in the month following Huang Zitao's introduction. Now, he takes two beers out of the refrigerator and watches out of the corner of his eye as Kris reads the new draft. The beer is so cold Yixing almost can't taste it. Or maybe, he thinks, that's just his nervousness.
"Okay," Kris says as he emerges from a halo of eraser dust and paper, "so when I said the previous version was too mushy, I didn't mean, now make it into one of your Cantonese love tragedies."
Kris frowns. He scratches the back of his leg with his pen, a gesture so familiar and impolite that Yixing almost laughs in relief. "It's not bad," he says slowly. "The language is still light and good like always. I just didn't expect it to end so badly for Xiang Xiang." He stacks the papers in front of him neatly, wrestles an over-sized paperclip onto the pages, and then, hesitant, asks, "Yixing, is something up?"
Yixing swallows more beer, the bitterness coming to the forefront as it warms in his mouth. With his back turned, he tries to imagine Kris' face. He sees it perfectly at eighteen, winning his first writing competition; at twenty, in the audience as EXO throws a party to celebrate Every Day Look Up book sales. But the Kris of twenty-four, with two important authors resting on his shoulders, one hand leading Zitao through Shanghai and the other managing Yixing's groceries—Yixing can't seem to form him in his mind.
He takes out a glass and goes into the living room, setting it down in front of Kris. "Why do you ask?" he says, trying to keep his voice neutral.
"You know I don't go much for writing as a form of psychoanalysis. But this story..." Kris picks it up again, flipping through the pages. "It's just so unlike you to write something so negative."
You're so quiet these days, Lu Han had observed earlier that afternoon. Heartbreak? Do you need to write to Xiao Lu jie jie's column?
Writing has never been therapeutic to Yixing, but he's always been his most honest with his pen on the page, his fingers on the keyboard. Interviews trip him up, and photoshoots always end with him looking arrogant. He tries to imagine a pen composing this scene now, with him and Kris. His next words, how Kris would act. With tenderness, he thinks wryly. As always.
"When I first finished writing 'Angel'," Yixing asks, watching the glass as he tips the beer into it, "and you asked me if I got my inspiration from my own life or other people's, and I said both, what did you think I meant?"
Kris hums. After a while, he says, "I don't know. I thought you meant you had a good imagination. You do have a good imagination. Your fantasy trilogy is still a bestseller. In some ways," Kris muses, "Taozi is like that too. A strong, independent imagination."
Yixing hands him the glass of beer. Their fingers touch against the cold glass, the contact almost fizzy, like carbonation leaving through their skin. This is such a cliché, Yixing thinks. Naive, Tao Tao had claimed, and storybook. That was his life and his stories both. He clears his throat. Their fingers break contact, and, still watching Yixing like a hawk, Kris takes a sip of the beer.
"If there's one thing Tao Tao is right about," Yixing says, "it's that all my characters are me. The ones who worry about their lives, their careers. Even the ones in love."
Kris puts the glass down carefully and wipes at the condensation. With his shoulders hunched forward, he looks like a man waiting for a physical blow. Kris' first winning essay, Yixing remembers, had also been about youth and strength. As a young man, your weakness is a kind of a strength, he had written. Once you cover up your vulnerabilities, you start to lose that strength.
He looks up now, straight into Kris' gaze. "You know what I mean, right?" he says, very softly.
"I don't need you to—to say anything. It's not really a question. I just—I guess I just wanted you to know how I really felt, for once. That I need you."
In the silence, Yixing considers drowning himself in the kitchen sink. His words are clumsy and the explanations stiff. He is wasting seven years of friendship for a B-rated soap opera script, a badly-made manhua adaptation. Beside him, Kris folds the wet napkin and places it by the draft, careful not to get the paper damp. The glass has started to gather condensation again, the water sliding in droplets down the surface. Tear airports, Yixing thinks, as Kris takes Yixing's hands into his own.
"You know that we can't just be in a cocoon forever," Kris says. His thumbs are firm and uncalloused as he presses down. He too has a little bump on his middle finger where he holds his pen against his skin. Yixing has a matching one. He realizes, suddenly, that he is taking note of his thoughts, like an observer transcribing a scene. Later this will be a story, he thinks. One that Zitao—Tao Tao might read. The bitterness of the beer comes back to him, the fizz like words trying to escape, but Kris presses down, presses the words back into him.
"You need to grow as a writer," Kris continues. "And I can't help you grow unless I grow as an editor too."
"I know," Yixing whispers. He smiles despite himself, sad and very small. "I guess I’m just afraid that in the end, you'll grow out of me."
To his readers and the wider public, Zhang Lay is a literary force of his own. But to everyone in EXO, it's obvious that Kris Wu is what makes Yixing whole. Where was the magic? Was it in the combination? Was it in Kris? Was it purified through him, or was everything Yixing touched an overnight success? Yixing knows the chatter, knows that's part of the reason they approached Kris with Zitao's work first. It's the mystique, a little bit of hype. It's the machine of the industry, what Tao Tao rages about, making cogs and games of their lives. Yixing doesn't blame anyone, but he feels wrenched of something all the same. Like there was some childhood innocence in his and Kris' relationship before Zitao, which was now forever ruined.
A week later, EXO holds their annual fundraising banquet. Yixing doesn't ask Kris to come with him as his date; Kris doesn't offer, though it's their little custom. Yixing has to dig through his old receipts to find where Kris usually dry-cleans Yixing's suits, and Lu Han is the one to help him with his shoes and hair. "You're impossible," Lu Han says as he lends Yixing a nice watch. "I'm glad I'm not your boyfriend." After a pause, he adds, "Or Kris."
Lu Han leaves early to meet his date for the evening, a Korean exchange student they all pretend is Lu Han's cousin when introducing him at formal events. Yixing shows up to the banquet late, right before the director's speech but after Zitao's. It's not on purpose, but when he sneaks into the room and catches Kris' eye, it feels loaded with unintended meaning. Kris turns conspicuously away, to whisper in Zitao's ear, and something very dull and heavy erupts in Yixing's chest, like an explosion deep underwater.
Lu Han has a seat saved for Yixing at their table and alternates between translating the speech for Minseok and catching Yixing up on the night. "Zitao was nerve-wracking," he whispers during a pause. "I think he forgot the words and Kris had to cue him." Yixing tries not to feel pleased.
"Did he say anything about his novel?"
"I think it's some terribly boring bildungsroman," Lu Han says, snagging a piece of chicken off the Lazy Susan and depositing it sweetly onto Minseok's plate. "To be frank," he continues, with a wicked twinkle in his eye, "it sort of sounds like something Lay would write. Sort of a more rebellious Lay 2.0."
The speech ends and meet-and-greets begin, with clothing companies, movie producers, book distributors and fast food vendors. EXO is a large company representing a lot of different talent, and in some ways, Zhang Lay is just one of the folds. But when Yixing had first joined, he was their first star writer. He and Kris had roved these tables like celebrities, Kris' hand on his back, steadying him as he took pictures, made small talk, drank alcohol he was too young to buy at a bar. Now he watches Zitao—over-tall, slightly gloomy, as if constantly brooding on how best to skewer his audience in his next blog post—at Kris' side. It's a weird feeling. Yixing wonders if twenty-three is too young to start feeling old.
Lu Han reappears, two small cups of baijiu in his hand. As a syndicated columnist who doesn't show his face, he treats these banquets more as parties than business events. Slightly drunk, he balances his head on Minseok's shoulder briefly, before hooking his pinkie around Yixing's and forcing one of the cups into Yixing's hand. "You know," he says, smiling fondly at Zitao across the room, "you used to look like that too."
"Like what?" Yixing asks, following his gaze.
"Like you weren't afraid. Like you could bend to whatever the world threw at you and come out victorious." Lu Han knocks back his drink, waits for Yixing to do the same, then shakes his finger coquettishly in Yixing's face. It's charming in an awkward and flirtatious manner, and Yixing shares a smile with Minseok over Lu Han's shoulder. "Now it's like you're afraid of something," Lu Han continues, slightly slurring. "Which is stupid. Kris has suffered you for seven years. His girlfriend, the one he almost married? She was cute. Cuter than Zitao, even."
"Zitao's not exactly—"
"Shut up," Lu Han tells him airily, trying to get him to drink from the empty cup. "My point is, you really think he'd leave you hanging just because some two-meter tall giant can backflip him over a table?"
"Okay," Yixing laughs, fondly nudging Lu Han off him and back onto Minseok's shoulder, "you should stop drinking now."
The dinner drags on, more alcohol, more strangers. Yixing finally has to get up and make his round, and he shakes enough hands to break a wrist. Lu Han disappears with Minseok, and as they slip through the banquet room doors, Kris catches Yixing's eye from across the room, and winks. It's the only thing they communicate to each other, and Yixing has to take a few deep breaths to slow his heart afterwards. He blames it on the alcohol, and on Lu Han.
Yixing doesn't make it home until eleven. With all the lights off, he sits at his kitchen table, his laptop screen glowing in the dark. Staring at him is the draft for "Tiny Airports 1.0". The cursor blinks once, twice, then seems to time itself to his breathing. After a while he closes his eyes and, in the utter dark, starts typing.
He doesn't send the story to Kris before forwarding it to Harvest for publication.
In the pros column, Yixing used to have, Kris' adherence to routine. In the cons column, never surprising. So it's not a shock when Kris opens the door to Yixing's apartment the day after Harvest releases their September issue, but it is a shock that Huang Zitao is the one who enters first, a copy of the magazine rolled up in one hand.
"I made him come with me," Zitao says in lieu of a greeting, "because I wasn't sure if you'd open the door for me."
"Come in," Yixing says, shocked into politeness. "Of course you're welcome."
Zitao doesn't come in. Instead, he stands, in his shoes in Yixing's doorway, folding a corner of the magazine in his hand while he stares stonily at Yixing. After a while, uncomfortable, Yixing takes a few steps back and offers, "Or if you want, we could go somewhere else for a talk?"
"Look," Zitao says stiffly. "I think we got our relationship off on the wrong foot."
It takes all of Yixing's limited willpower to keep himself from snapping, you're the one who made fun of me on a blog with over 600 million total hits. He counts to ten, trying to get Kris to meet his eyes. When that fails, he grabs Zitao's hand and leads him to the kitchen table, pointing at the spare chairs.
"I'm listening," Yixing says. "I'm just going to make some tea."
"I don't hate you," Tao says, very earnest as he pulls off his sneakers. "I just hate what you stand for."
"Taozi," Kris growls from the doorway.
"I just mean, I have nothing against Yixing-ge personally. He's a nice guy. He even looks like a nice guy. "
Yixing, annoyed, isn't above slamming Tao's cup of tea down on his copy of Harvest. The water doesn't slosh, though, and all Yixing gets for his trouble is a look from Kris, who seems to be praying for Yixing's hardwood floors to swallow him up. Yixing sits down across from Tao, protectively turns over his short story drafts, and crosses his arms.
"Did you come into my apartment to insult my profession or what?"
"Well, I read your short story," Zitao says, dismissively moving the cup of tea off the magazine, as if Yixing would be confused unless it was staring them both in the face. "Actually," he says, ducking his head, "I really liked it. When the main character realizes that just because she's her love interest's past doesn’t mean she can't also be his future. And that last line, when she talks about growing into a woman he can love."
Stunned, Yixing stares at him. With his head down and an embarrassed smile playing at his lips, Zitao finally looks nineteen, not quite sure of himself and bumbling along. It stirs some disconcertingly protective instinct in Yixing that, unfortunately, is broken by Zitao's next words. "And since every main character you write about is you," Zitao says, "I get what you're trying to say. Even if Kris can't seem to understand it."
"I understand," Kris says, finally taking his shoes off and approaching the kitchen table. "It wasn't the understanding that I had trouble with."
"So what are you saying, exactly?" Yixing asks. Kris throws him a warning look, which Yixing ignores.
"I think I'm saying, let's try it," Zitao says, gesturing expansively at the two of them. In the process, he almost hits Kris' nose, and Yixing has to suppress a sigh. "You're Kris' past. Maybe I'm Kris' future. But let's try growing into someone that Kris can love."
Yixing hastily puts down his tea. "I don't want Kris to love me—"
"I didn't mean it like that," Zitao snorts. "I meant, like family. Like brothers."
The tips of his ears turn red as soon as the words leave his mouth. It takes a few minutes for Yixing to process it, and when he does, he can't help breaking into a smile. "I can't believe you have my stories memorized," he says.
"Just because I write Tao Tao's stuff doesn't mean I am him." Zitao leans back on the two back legs of his chair, balancing as he talks. "We're two different people. He's like my stage persona. That's why I feel okay writing as Huang Zitao and blogging as Tao Tao." Yixing stares at him, unconvinced, and Zitao shrugs. "Anyway, that's not the point. Kris hasn't been the same since you guys fought. Stop sulking and forgive him already."
"You're nineteen," Kris hisses. "You shouldn't be ordering anyone around."
"I'm not!" Zitao says, suddenly crashing his chair back onto all four legs. He sneaks little looks at Kris' face, suddenly meek. "I'm just trying to put things right."
It would be ungracious of Yixing to point out that the reason why they've been on the outs is Zitao monopolizing Kris' time. But, he thinks, he's had seven years to monopolize Kris' time. He could spare a year or two, become a better writer, win Kris back. In the meantime, he might even learn to like Zitao. Lu Han's drunken speech pops into his head: Zhang Lay 2.0. They were both writers, after all, and brothers in a way, in the same company.
"I have missed you," Kris says suddenly. He reaches for Yixing's teacup, bypassing Zitao's, and takes a sip. It's a symbolic gesture, pompous and wholly Kris. Yixing smiles a little to himself, at Kris' stuffy, almost archaic ways of showing affection. "Taozi's right. I shouldn't have—I shouldn't have cut things off like that," he finishes.
Kris waits. Yixing, having nothing else to say, simply nods. Kris leans forward, his hands spread open, and for a minute Yixing wants to touch him, see if Kris' fingers are still cold and electric. But with Zitao there, he shrinks back, shy. Kris gives him a searching look, but, finding nothing, continues, "And I don't think we can grow out of each other. We grew up together. We grew into each other."
"Lu Han told me much the same," Yixing murmurs.
"He's known me for the longest time," Kris agrees. "After you, of course."
"I've just been too used to having you around," Yixing jokes. "Time to find someone new, who will appreciate me. You'll come back when you realize I'm the best."
His hand trembles as he reaches for the teacup in Kris' hand. Their fingers brush, warm instead of cold. Too earnest, Yixing berates himself, but when he looks up, Kris is smiling, his eyes crinkled at the corners. He looks eighteen, seeing Yixing for the first time; twenty, as they sign their contracts together; twenty-three, telling Yixing to behave. "See," he says, voice soft, "I told you Taozi would be good for our relationship."
Zitao makes a little noise, reminding them both that he's still there. Amused, Yixing takes the magazine from him and opens it up to where his short story is printed. Tao has covered the margins with angry little notes in red pen and drawn black circles and ears on Yixing's headshot, as if trying to transform Yixing into a panda. "Maybe one day Zitao will grow out of his blog too," Yixing says, grinning as he puts the magazine back down.
"Don't start with me, hua hua gong zi," Tao hisses, narrowing his eyes. "I'm still a nationally ranked wushu practitioner."
"Only nationally ranked at the junior level," Yixing retorts.
With a deep sigh, Kris gets up and goes for the bottle of painkillers on Yixing's fridge.
Advance Praise for Tiny Airports
"I read it. It didn't horrify me. What more could I want from him?"
Advance Praise for I Am the Only One Looking at the Ocean
"Huang Zitao in his inventive and unusual debut tells a story about a lonly soul looking for love, understanding, and a place to belong. At times hard to digest, at other times intimate and real, it will ring true in young hearts everywhere. I'm sure I speak for everyone when I say we look forward to following his progress, both as a writer and a person."
I think you make typos just to spite me.
- originally a pinch hit for loudestoflove, as part of runandgun and posted here. This version is edited slightly. Some obvious grammar mistakes were fixed, Yixing's email address was changed from gmail to hotmail, Tao Tao's blog address is changed to one that doesn't actually exist instead of being someone's private blog, and Literary City was changed to Wenxuecity, as it looks like Wenxuecity doesn't actually have an "official" English translation.
- Yixing is supposed to be the Guo Jingming to Tao (Tao)'s Han Han. irl they are ~writing kismesis~ but they do not actually share a publisher. This is all background information that's not terribly important to the story, but the GJM/HH hateship is totally amazing and you should go on an Google odyssey if you found the Yixing/Tao dynamic in this fic even a little bit interesting.
- title cribbed from Italo Calvino, ofc
- "guai" (乖) is the Chinese word for obedient/well-mannered and I'm sorry for using random Chinese but it's one of those words that doesn't translate well. It's often used with "好听话" which means "listens well", and is sort of the epitome of what a Chinese child is supposed to be: quiet, listens to parents, doesn't act/speak out, does what is expected, and so on. actually at one point someone used the word in an interview to describe Lu Han u___u
- "hua hua gong zi" (花花公子) translates to "flowery prince", and it means, loosely, "playboy". If Zitao were a true Shanghainese man, he'd probably call Yixing 娘娘腔, which means sissy, but kind of has connotations of effeminate or "empress-like" and is legit something Han Han (himself raised outside of Shanghai) has said about GJM.
- It's not mentioned in the story but Tao Tao is written 逃!桃, as in "Escape! Peach". it is a really bad Chinese pun and I am doubly sorry.
- i want to do so many extentions in this AU, like how kris and lu han became friends in the first place, and what happens after this conclusion, and jongdae who in-verse is a translator that works with kris on some of EXO's overseas publications and is himself a total kris groupie as well, but gdi there are only so many hours in the day and so many words in me
- as always, thanks to fearless leader for the after-challenge beta.my total inability to use verbs correctly in the r&g version of this fic speaks to my love for you. u____u