Chapter 1: I
It’s odd, Zitao thinks, standing in the middle of the living room of this rented beach house on the Californian coast, feeling so free and yet so suffocated all at once.
It’s odd, smelling scents he hasn’t in years, enveloping him in a feeling that’s so warm and comfortable, and yet all so unsettling, that it makes him want to cry. Luhan’s peppery cologne, a gift from his parents when he officially debuted with EXO, wafts through the air, mixes with the sweetness of that instant coffee that Minseok would always buy at the convenience store in the early hours of the morning before schedules.
He sees Yixing’s headphones lying on the table, the same ones that he’s had since Zitao left. Jongdae’s bright yellow sweater has been thrown haphazardly next to it, the sleeve covering one of Yifan’s many sunglasses, their belongings all mixed together just like they always used to be in the dorms.
“Taozi, can you help us pack some of the food into the fridge?” Yixing says, breaking Zitao out of his reverie.
“Yes, right,” Zitao responds a beat later. He turns around and heads into the kitchen.
Minseok and Jongdae are there too, lugging in the rest of the van’s contents and setting the bags down onto the floor. They’re chattering back and forth in Korean, something about plane tickets and their passports. Zitao’s a little disappointed when he realizes he doesn’t pick up on everything that they’re saying, missing phrases and words here and there having not listened to an actual conversation in the language for a while.
Has it really been that long?
“Did you bring the chips that I like?” Zitao interjects. Korean feels awkward and untrained on his tongue, and for a moment he worries that the two didn’t even understand him.
Minseok stops and looks up at him, a fond smile on his lips. “We packed five bags just for you,” he says. “Jongdae was the one who remembered about them actually.”
“How could I forget when he was the one who would always complain if we came back from the store without them?” Jongdae teases. There’s no bite in his words, though there never really has been to begin with.
Zitao smiles too, the tenseness in his shoulders letting up a little. He starts helping Yixing put things away into the fridge, working around Minseok and Jongdae who tidy up the area and throw out trash.
It had been Luhan who suggested this, unsurprisingly so. Luhan had been the only member who kept up with everyone, messaging Minseok, Yixing, and Zitao through text and social media even following his departure from the group. He didn’t speak to Jongdae as much, having less in common with him but he still managed to keep tabs on him. He even got Yifan’s new phone number after practically hunting him down and cornering him at an awards show they both happened to be attending that day.
The text came along with the creeping heat of the summer, a message that made Zitao's heart skip a beat and his stomach drop.
To: Zhang Yixing, Kim Minseok, +1 other
I know everyone’s schedules are busy, but I was thinking we could all find time and put everything aside to get together for old time’s sake. Whoever has Chenchen’s number, add him in. He changed his number again and didn’t bother to tell me the new one.
Zitao had stared at the text for some minutes, nearly bumping into the people standing in front of him at the airport security line. He didn’t have the unknown number in the group saved into his phone, but he already knew who it was, a lingering reminder of the blunders of his youth.
A reply came not too long after.
From: Zhang Yixing
To: Luhan, Kim Minseok, +2 others
I might have a week free in the next two months. How does that work for you? I added Chenchen’s number here by the way.
Zitao is next in line, so he shuts his phone close and starts loading his bags onto the conveyor belt.
He doesn’t check his phone again until he’s back at home and in the comforts of his own bed. A few more texts had come in, Minseok and Jongdae sending over a few of the weeks that work best for the both of them. It’s silent for a few hours, and with the image of the messages burned into his eyes, Zitao starts to type up a text.
I’m free those dates.
He stares at the words, cursor blinking at him as if counting the minutes it’s taken him to draft up such a simple message. Before he can think too much about it, he taps the button, immediately sets his phone on silent, and turns over onto his side so he can’t see it light up with anymore notifications.
He wakes up the next morning and finds that there’s only one new reply to the thread.
From: Unknown Number
To: Luhan, Zhang Yixing, Kim Minseok, Kim Jongdae
I’ll be there too.
Everytime Zitao hears their voices, no longer carried electronically through speakers or headphones, but now occupying the same air as his, so close in proximity he can hear the occasional break in their tones, the steadying tempo of their breaths, he thinks that he must be in a dream—crafted by the nostalgia of earlier times that were so much more complicated than they needed to be.
He’s not sure if he had had any strong desire to revisit those times, but he would be lying if he said that the idea of a reunion never crossed his mind. How could it not when he spent the majority of his youth with these five men?
Besides, there are traces of that life everywhere no matter where he turns: comments on his social media with some variation of “I miss you! Come back to EXO!”, usernames, profile pictures, tags to the other members’ accounts. Even as he tried to leave that life behind, reinvent himself, remake himself into the artist that he always envisioned he would be, it would always come back to haunt him.
He flinches at the thought, taken aback by the harshness of it. No, haunt isn’t the right word, not exactly. He doesn’t regret or hate the path that he had chosen when he was a teenager, but…
He gets up from his spot on the couch and heads out to the front door. Maybe this was just too much, too soon. There’s still so much that he needs to process, all these memories that he thought were so far behind him. A small pit of regret churns inside his stomach as he absentmindedly slips on the sandals he left at the doormat.
“You heading out?” a voice asks from behind him.
Zitao tenses initially but, upon realizing it’s just Luhan’s voice, relaxes. “Yeah, just gonna go sit by the water for a little bit.”
“A long walk on the beach all by yourself?” he asks, a shit eating grin absolutely tugs on his lips.
It takes Zitao a second before he heaves a sigh and smiles in spite of himself. “I can’t believe you really won’t let me live that down. That was years ago,” he says.
Luhan cackles. “Well yeah, but what are friends for?” He gives his arm a squeeze, a warmth in his eyes that make him look younger than he is, before turning on his heel and heading back to the living room. “Don’t stay out for too long. Yixing said that dinner is almost ready.”
Zitao feels the thrum of tension in the room as he sits down with everyone at the dining table. For the most part, the conversation is civil; everyone shares the things that they’ve been doing: albums, dramas, movies, collaborations. Luhan, Yixing, and Minseok are especially cordial. They smile and laugh. They ask Yifan what it felt like to release an album that charted worldwide. They ask Zitao what it was like to collaborate with Jackie Chan in a movie, a goal of his he mentioned a while back. They tease Luhan about being a recluse with his cats before relenting that yes alright he also released a full length album and he deserves to be a recluse with his cats for a little while.
But it’s Yifan and Jongdae that are just too stiff in their smiles, too held back for their usual rambunctious selves, and it makes Zitao feel a little on edge.
He doesn’t quite catch when the argument starts, too engrossed in Yixing’s explanation of his upcoming comeback, but he does catch when Jongdae starts raising his voice. It carries and fills the room, the very same way that it does when he’s singing.
“—kind of shit with communication,” Jongdae says.
Yifan lets out an indignant scoff and sets down his phone with a loud clatter on the table. Yixing startles. Minseok and Luhan stop too.
“What, did you expect me to power through a fucking heart condition?” Yifan shoots back. “I was sick. I had to leave.”
Jongdae rolls his eyes, exasperated. “None of us thought you should stay when you were that sick, but you didn't tell us anything,” he snaps.
“Jongdae—” Minseok starts.
“No, Minseok hyung, don't. That asshole needs to speak for himself for once, ” Jongdae says. Jongdae’s anger isn’t even directed towards him, but Zitao feels how badly it stings. “ Do you even fucking know how much you hurt everyone? You couldn't even bother with a fucking phone call, let alone a text message.”
“I had no obligation to tell you. You already knew that I was sick and the company was overworking me. That spoke for itself,” Yifan argues. “I didn’t need to say anything.”
“Yes, you did, ” Jongdae says, bewildered and irate. “We were days away from the concert. We knew you were upset with the company, but we didn’t think you’d just leave without saying anything. We deserved at least a fucking heads up before you betrayed us and left us with bad PR when we had barely just made a name for ourselves. On top of that we had to redo everything to make the concert work with 11 people instead of 12 when that was our whole fucking concept to begin with.”
“I don’t get why you’re taking this so personally,” Yifan says. He shakes his head and laughs bitterly. “We were just shoved together in the same damn group because the company thought they’d make more money getting into the Chinese market. You were barely even here during our trainee days, so honestly what’s your problem?”
“Who the fuck do you think you are? ” Jongdae spits, all but screaming at this point as he gets to his feet. “ Don’t you dare try to run away from the responsibility. You fucked up and you need to own up to it.”
It’s the angriest, most explosive that Zitao has ever seen Jongdae. The veins at his neck are bulging and his face is uncharacteristically red. Yifan, in comparison, emanates a quiet fury, all glares and set jaws as he meets Jongdae’s gaze.
“Jongdae, Yifan, enough,” Luhan demands, his eyes steely as he glares at the both of them. “Both of you, shut up. I get that there’s some shit that we all need to work out but this isn’t the way that we’re going to fix any of it.”
Jongdae opens his mouth to protest, but a pointed stare from both Yixing and Minseok makes him stop in his tracks. Instead, he lets out an irritated growl, goes to grab the car keys he left on the kitchen counter, heads out towards the back door, and slams it shut behind him.
They all stay quiet for what feels like an hour but is probably closer to ten minutes. Zitao chances a glance at Yifan who ignores his gaze, keeping his eyes trained on his phone. It’s a few minutes longer before one of them decides to speak up.
“Kris, even if you do just see us as coworkers, Jongdae thought a lot of you. He took it really hard when you left,” Minseok says quietly. “I’m not saying that you need to see him the same way, and he shouldn’t have been so harsh earlier, but I think there needs to be some closure between the both of you for everything that happened back then.”
“He’s not a bad kid,” Yixing adds, looking out towards the back door, gaze troubled. “He’s just… protective. And sometimes pretty stupid. He gets too hot headed when he feels like the people he cares for have gotten hurt.”
When Yifan still doesn’t respond, Yixing gets up and walks over to him, placing a gentle hand on his shoulder. “We know why you had to leave, and we don’t blame you,” he says. “None of us did. You did what you had to for yourself, but just remember that the company wasn’t the only thing affected when you left. Your brothers were hurt in the process too.”
Yifan doesn’t meet their gaze, taking to finishing a text message on his phone instead. Zitao exchanges glances with the other three, Yixing encouraging him with a gentle smile and nod to continue eating. They finish the rest of their dinner in silence.
It’s getting dark and Jongdae still hasn’t returned. Yifan retired to his room shortly after dinner while Minseok and Yixing took to the living room. They don’t say it, they don’t need to, but Zitao knows that they’re waiting for Jongdae.
Zitao, feeling awkward and tense, heads out the front door to sit on the porch. It might not be the same shores in Qingdao but at least seeing the ocean will bring him some sense of peace.
He finds Luhan sitting at the steps already, resting on his extended arms behind him as he bathes in the faint light of the crescent moon. His lips are marred by a frown, eyebrows furrowed together as he looks out to the distance.
“Hey,” Zitao says.
Luhan looks up at him, features immediately smoothing out into a small smile. “Hey,” he says. “Wanna sit?”
Zitao nods and Luhan scoots over to make room for him.
“Any sign of Chen?” Zitao asks hesitantly as he settles down.
“Nah, not yet,” Luhan says, waving him off. “I’m sure he’ll be back soon. He probably got lost driving around Beverly Hills or something.” He laughs at this but there’s a feeling in Zitao’s gut that tells him Luhan’s probably just as worried as Minseok and Yixing.
And that feeling grows as they sit next to each other in silence. A wave of doubts, regrets, worry that washes over Zitao and forces him to speak up again.
“Do you think Chen ge is mad at me too?”
Luhan turns to look at him. “No,” he says definitively. “He wouldn’t be mad at you.”
“I don’t know. I made things more difficult for everyone,” Zitao explains. It’s frustrating how little meaning those words carry. They don’t carry the very weight of the stress, the pressure, the rumors that threatened to crush them during that time. “I left in the middle of the concerts too. Everyone started talking about how Yixing ge would be the next one to leave and just…”
“Were you mad at me when I left?” Luhan cuts him off.
“No, of course not.”
“See, that’s the thing: Chenchen isn’t mad at Yifan for leaving. He’s mad because of the way he did it. I mean, you told them that you were going to leave before you did right?”
“Yeah, I did.”
Luhan heaves a sigh and lets his head rest against his shoulder. “Like Yixing said earlier, Chen’s protective. The only reason he’s that pissed is because we were hurt in the process. It’s not even really about the other shit he mentioned earlier. If that was the case, he’d be mad at me too but I know for a fact that he’s not. All we needed was for Yifan to say something.”
Zitao nods, falling silent for a while as they both stare out to the ocean. The sound of a car driving by makes them both look behind them out towards the back door leading to the street, but when nothing happens, they return to their original position.
“I remember Chen ge came to sleep in mine and Kris’s room a few days after he left. I was having trouble sleeping so we just talked a lot,” Zitao says.
“So you talked a lot and he listened.” Luhan grins.
“No—well, yes but you know Chenchen,” Zitao splutters. “When you talk to him it feels like he’s really listening, like he’s really interested in what you have to say so you just want to talk more.”
“Hm, can’t relate,” Luhan says. “He’s always just trying to argue with me.”
Zitao rolls his eyes but can’t help but laugh. “You two are like an old married couple.”
Luhan jolts up at that, balking. “Okay, first of all, gross,” he says. “Second of all, how dare you? He’s not even as cool as me.”
“He sings better than you though.” Zitao lets out a loud cackle at the way Luhan’s expression absolutely drops with offense.
He rolls his eyes, admitting defeat. “You’re right though—about the listening thing, not the singing thing—Jongdae has always been good at that when he wants to be at least. He babied you a lot especially, you know.”
“I know.” He grins at Luhan who rolls his eyes again. “It was really sweet of him. I never admitted it out loud to him, but I think he knew that the reason I had trouble sleeping was because it felt so lonely without another person in the room.” He shakes his head at the thought. “Which was weird, considering I had slept in a room by myself all my life up until then.”
“Nah, I mean we spent basically 24/7 with each other and you always were closest to Yifan back then. Of course it would be difficult.”
“Yeah, I was,” Zitao says. His smile falters, and he sighs. “Then I kind of burnt the bridge so that was that.”
Luhan is silent for a while before reaching out to tap Zitao’s arm with the knuckles of his fist. “You two need to talk too. That’s why I brought us all out here. I know things ended badly between the two of you but I have a feeling he misses you as much as you miss him.”
“I really don’t think he misses me.”
He snorts. “If he didn’t, then I don’t think he would have come out here even if I annoyed him to death. At the very least, he’s curious to see how this is all going to play out, but not even that. Yifan never really does anything unless he feels like 200% about it. So him being here? That definitely means something.”
Some commotion from inside the house catches both of their attention. Zitao and Luhan exchange glances with each other before heading inside, making their way to the living room where the noise is loudest.
“—had us worried sick,” Minseok says.
Jongdae is standing at the front door with Minseok and Yixing hovering over him. He looks almost comically sulky as they scold him, but Zitao catches the slightest tinge of red in his eyes that makes his stomach flip.
“I know, I’m sorry,” Jongdae relents. “Just—can you tell everyone to get in the car? Grab a mask or a hat or something. There’s somewhere that I want to go.”
“Oh God,” Luhan says as he steps further into the room, “this is the moment Jongdae’s going to murder all of us.”
“WOULD YOU SHUT —”
“Okay, okay.” Yixing soothes Jongdae with a gentle pat on the cheek before he can finish. “I’ll go get Yifan. Luhan, stop antagonizing him.”
Luhan raises both his hands in defeat. “Fine, but don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
They pile in the car. Minseok takes shotgun while Luhan and Zitao sit in the back. Jongdae is quiet as he sits in the driver’s seat, pulling up a navigation app on his phone and inputting an address.
“Where are we going?” Zitao asks quietly.
It takes Jongdae a moment to answer but he looks up from his phone and offers Zitao the faintest ghost of a smile. “It’s a surprise. You’ll see.”
Murder, Luhan mouths. Zitao promptly gives him a small shove.
It’s not long after that Yifan and Yixing show up. They take the remaining seats closer towards the front.
“We’re all here now, Chenchen,” Yixing says.
“Okay. It’s only a few miles away.” Jongdae starts up the car and mounts his phone onto the dashboard. “Just…”
He doesn’t finish his sentence and instead just starts pulling out of the driveway. They drive out of the opulent beachside neighborhood, winding out into the narrow streets of Los Angeles. Mansions turn into smaller houses, into mom-and-pop restaurants and shops. It’s a little while longer until they finally pull into a small plaza, the smell of five spice and barbecue filling the car. Jongdae parks, kills the engine, and pulls the key out of the ignition. He heaves a sigh, running a hand through his hair as he leans back into his seat.
“Do you remember before we debuted, how we all lived in Seoul together? On Kris hyung’s birthday…” Jongdae trails off again as if starting to get lost in the memory.
“We got sugar cane juice.” Everyone turns to look at Yifan, shocked that he had been the one to break the silence. He clears his throat and glances out the passenger window. “There was that juice bar next to our dorms. We only went on special occasions.”
“I almost forgot about that,” Minseok says. “The ahjumma who owned the store used to always give us size upgrades for free.”
“She made us all ramyun that one time after practice too,” Yixing mentions with an endeared laugh.
“Oh yeah!” Luhan pipes up. “Zitao practically cried and called her an angel sent from heaven.”
Zitao gives him another shove and a playful glare. “Hey, why do you always have to exaggerate like that?!”
“I’m not! You did call her an angel.”
“Anyways, ” Jongdae interrupts, “I passed by this place while I was out driving. Thought maybe we’d all want to go together, for old times’ sake. My treat.” His voice is stiff and stilted—nervous even, as if expecting them all to say no at this point.
“We’d love to,” Yixing says. He reaches over to give Jongdae’s arm a reassuring squeeze before glancing at everyone else. “Right?”
“Yes,” Zitao answers immediately. “Especially since hyung is paying.” He’s joking, of course. They’re not trainees anymore living off of the little money that their parents could afford to send them. He could very well buy the entire plaza if he so desired, but this is Jongdae’s way of trying to make things better, to show them how much he cares even though there’s still so much to sort through. For now, at least for the rest of the night, they could leave all of that behind them and just be young, wide eyed teenagers again—for old times’ sake.
Jongdae, to Zitao’s credit, manages to break out into a small chuckle. “You’re so spoiled, Tao,” he says, shaking his head.
Yifan unbuckles his seat belt and pulls open the passenger door. “Let’s go.”
They don’t see it, but they don’t need to see him to know—to hear—the broad grin on Yifan’s face.