[千春] Chiharu (chiharu) wrote in pisudori_play,
[千春] Chiharu

[EXO] Stranger in a Strange Land (1/1)

Title: Stranger in a Strange Land
Fandom: EXO
Author: chiharu
Characters/pairing: Chen centric
Rating: G
wordcount: ~ 4000
Summary: Jongdae thinks his bandmates have gotten even odder in China. Jongdae + EXO-M fic

Minseok is scrolling through his phone when Jongdae slips into the stairwell, the door behind him closing with a small thud. “Did you bring the goods?” Minseok asks, making Jongdae laugh as he drops a Hershey bar on Minseok’s lap. They sit on the same level of the stairs, Minseok’s legs stretched out as he rips through the wrapper and breaks off half of the bar for Jongdae.

It starts after they move into the temporary apartment in Beijing. Jongdae finds Minseok calling his mother on the second day and sits silently through the conversation as Minseok paces around the staircase, smooth Korean rolling off his tongue. “I miss everyone,” Jongdae says after the call ends, and Minseok just pats Jongdae’s hair, flattening the top of his bangs.

They sustain off chocolates for the first few days, trading precious sleep for a chance to speak Korean. At night, they discuss Lu Han’s popularity while sipping yakult, Minseok laughing as they dissect second-handed jokes that eluded them during the day.

Jongdae thinks his bandmates have gotten even odder in China. Wu Fan seems perpetually offended by everything that moves, so much so that Jongdae is convinced that he scared away the KFC delivery boy. Sometimes their manager brings back takeout along with a collection of fan gifts from their P.O. box. Company regulations forbid them from accepting food, but more than once Jongdae has caught sight of Zitao wandering towards the pile of snacks, popping chocolate-filled koala-shaped cookies into his mouth. If possible, Yixing seems to have become lazier, stretched out over the couch with his guitar. The last time Jongdae asked Yixing for help with his Chinese workbook, Yixing had plopped Jongdae on the couch next to him and subjected Jongdae to an hour of some odd Chinese wu shu drama. As for Lu Han, sometimes Jongdae just doesn’t ask questions.

Minseok is unimpressed when Jongdae shares this info, busy wiping melted chocolate on the back of his jeans. “When in China, do as the Chinese do.”

“What do the Chinese do?” Jongdae asks.

“Fuck if I know,” Minseok grins, causing Jongdae to laugh.

Jongdae has always been good at everything – grades, first impressions, and an inexplicable skill at finding the shortest line at the grocery store. His high school friends called him their lucky charm, bringing him on group dates and to random sports events. Jongdae always managed to catch the last bus home in time from his nightly prep class, always managed to study the right content on exams, and always managed to unintentionally get on teachers’ good sides. More importantly, Jongdae has always, without fail, managed to make friends and family laugh with a sense of humor unexpected from his model student persona.

In China, no one laughs at him, and Jongdae finds himself tripping over syllables and words he should know. But the fans are kind and the producers are lenient. “It’s okay,” Yixing whispers from two people away. “Take your time and remember the right tones.”

“You can do it,” Zitao adds from Jongdae’s right.

When the cameras finish rolling, Jongdae realizes Yixing and Zitao had been speaking in Chinese all along.

Lu Han finds their hiding spot fairly quickly, a mischievous grin on his face as he looks at their candy stash. “Is this a private party? A club? Can I join?”

Minseok eyes him wearily. “Only if you promise to speak in Korean.”

Lu Han pays his membership fee in White Rabbit candy and snowy rice crackers. He even borrows a laptop from the hotel lobby, teaching them how to navigate through Weibo and installing a Chinese translator extension on Minseok’s phone. “Mmm, I know Yixing’s got at least three accounts on here,” Lu Han mumbles while scrolling through Baidu with Minseok.

“Hyung,” Jongdae asks suddenly. “How did you learn Korean so easily?”

Lu Han looks up – a rare moment in which he actually looks older, wiser. “Jongdae-ah. I learned Korean because I wanted to.”

Two weeks into their cohabitation in Korea, Jongdae nearly has a heart attack when he walks in on Wu Fan’s beauty regimen. “What,” Wu Fan says. Jongdae has heard of bad first impressions that eventually dissolve and good first impressions that later turn sour. Wu Fan, however, is still as unreadable as the first time Jongdae met him. The only difference is that Wu Fan now acknowledges him in the corridors of the SM building while Jongdae tries to distinguish Wu Fan’s friendliness from intimidation.

“Don’t mind him,” Lu Han explains, looking up from his manhwa as he sprawls across the floor. Yixing is there as well, sitting in the corner with his laptop. “That’s his geisha mask. He’s only on step 2, so if you have something to ask, do it before he applies that clay stuff. He can’t talk or move his face with that thing o-”

Wu Fan says something in Chinese along the lines of I’m going to kick you in the face or so Jongdae deduces from the way Lu Han huffs in return, looking abused.

“Eh,” Jongdae says, waving his language book absently. “I need help with this assignment. Seonsangnim told me to work with Minseok-hyung, but I guess he’s not here.”

Yixing walks over and takes his workbook without a word, flipping through it idly while Wu Fan’s attention returns to his mirror. After a minute, Yixing asks, “Why are you learning about directions and addresses in Chinese?” He passes the book to Lu Han, who skims through it with interest.

“When we’re in China,” Lu Han begins to say “if you are approached by strange women asking about the location of our residence, do not tell them. And if men offer to sell you things in an alley, do not follow them.”

“Please stop,” Wu Fan cuts in, although it’s more a command than a request.

They’re on the way back from another confusing interview in Beijing when Lu Han suddenly asks their manager to pull over. He jumps out of the van onto a busy street lined with food vendors and returns with a whole bag of hawthorn candy on a stick, handing it wordlessly around the car.

“Suddenly feeling generous?” Wu Fan asks with the raise of an eyebrow when the bag finally gets to him, taking one out and passing the bag back to Zitao.

“I’m just feeling nostalgic,” Lu Han replies, turning around from the middle row to look at Minseok and Jongdae. “You know, there’s a tradition behind this street food. When the first western missionaries visited Beijing, the Emperor’s ambassador treated them to hawthorn candy as a gesture of their welcome. So, eating it with friends can indicate how fruitful your friendship will be. If you can eat the third hawthorn without removing the first two, then that means your friendship will prosper.” He looks at them expectantly.

Jongdae and Minseok both take a bite of their candy. Jongdae yelps when he nearly cracks a tooth on the caramelized cover, looking up at Lu Han with wide eyes. He glances over at Minseok, who seems to be equally unsuccessful. When Jongdae asks if there’s a trick to this, Zitao bursts out into soft laughter and hides behind his hands.

“That was the most wildly inaccurate and fictional story you’ve ever told,” Wu Fan says from the passenger seat.

Lu Han smiles lazily in return, busy chewing through half a hawthorn. “It was good, you have to admit.”

Jongdae stares, eyes wide. He tries to make a spiteful comment, but all that comes out is a content bubble of laughter as Yixing dusts caramelized chunks off Jongdae’s lap.

Sometimes Jongdae thinks he couldn’t be more different from Zitao. Jongdae’s sharp voice is coupled with mellow movements, whereas Zitao is nothing but carefully crafted muscles and frighteningly calculated back flips. Equally shocking is Zitao’s inability to contain intense feelings of happiness or sadness, huddled into a ball in the most unexpected of situations.

“Um,” Jongdae says lamely when Zitao looks at him with watery eyes after one too many bouts of turbulence from ICN to PEK. When Zitao continues to jump in his seat, Jongdae sets one hand on his arm and squeezes it, mouthing it’s okay in both Chinese and Korean. There’s very little common ground between them, but sometimes Zitao looks at him from across the rehearsal room in silent understanding, and they commiserate over equally painful language barriers.

Jongdae is still new to this whole skinship thing, unsure of exactly when to grab or let go of someone’s hand. Zitao’s presence, however, is comforting enough.

The problem with this arrangement is that Jongdae has missed too many personal anecdotes and inside jokes. There’s an air of preexisting camaraderi Jongdae has yet to settle into. Yixing and Lu Han, in particular, seem to share an innate ability to communicate with their eyes, constantly laughing over a private joke.

Yixing is an easy and straightforward roommate, although Jongdae never ventures into his personal life enough to know the contents of Yixing’s iPod or laptop—basic knowledge that friends should possess. That’s why Jongdae promptly drops Yixing’s book when Lu Han pops his head into their room one afternoon. “I wasn’t-” Jongdae starts to say, hands in the air, but stops.

“Wasn’t what?” Lu Han looks amused, stepping into the room.

Jongdae has roomed with Yixing for more than a month but has yet to hold a conversation outside of the generic rehearsal room chatter, which consists mostly of the choreographer tsking at Jongdae’s lack of dancing experience. “I just want to know more about Yixing-hyung. Ge. Yixing-ge,” Jongdae says.

Lu Han’s eyes light up as he steps towards Jongdae. In retrospect, it’s Jongdae’s first indication of Lu Han’s mischievous streak. “Do you really want to know about him?”

“Eh, yes,” Jongdae says. “Of course I do.”

Jongdae is opening the fifth video on Tudou when Yixing walks in with a towel in his hair. Yixing pauses briefly, attention flickering from the open laptop screen to Lu Han lounging on Yixing’s bed. Jongdae opens his mouth to say something, but the video finishes buffering and the sound of preteen Yixing belting out Cyndi Wang fills the room.

“You didn’t,” Yixing intonates slowly. He walks over to Lu Han, slapping the lid on Jongdae’s laptop shut in the process.

“I did,” Lu Han replies, grinning pleasantly in return.

Jongdae watches the following events unfold in slow motion. First, Yixing says something quiet in Chinese, to which Lu Han waves dismissively. Then Yixing suddenly bursts out of the room, leaving a confused Jongdae and a wide-eyed Lu Han in his wake. Lu Han jumps off Yixing’s bed and rushes out too. Jongdae follows this haphazard game of tag until they reach Lu Han’s room.

Wu Fan, reading something at his desk, looks annoyed at the intrusion. He does, however, point to Lu Han’s bed at the other end of the room. Yixing is rolling under Lu Han’s covers, still clad in sweaty dance clothes. Lu Han yells something in Chinese and descends upon Yixing.

Minseok returns when Lu Han finally manages to tug Yixing off his bed. “Oh,” Minseok says when Yixing goes tumbling off, taking Lu Han’s sheets and bed cover with him. “It’s been awhile since I’ve witnessed this act of rebellion.”

Their manager chooses that moment to walk into the room, complaining about the noise as Zitao follows. He pauses to examine the struggle currently taking place and walks out without a word, rubbing his temples tiredly. Zitao just frowns. “I always miss all the fun.”

Naturally, Yixing is the second to discover their hiding spot. “What are you doing?” He asks in Chinese, taking a seat against the wall, next to Jongdae.

“Only Korean is to be spoken at this gathering,” Minseok says with a grin. “And please bring something edible as an offering.”

Yixing seems to seriously consider this offer. He disappears for a few minutes and returns with a box of cake.

“That was for my birthday!” Lu Han exclaims. “It’s not good enough. I say we vote him out of the club.”

“You’re meeting in a stairwell,” Yixing points out. He looks to Minseok for confirmation, but Minseok is already opening the box while Lu Han takes a swipe at the icing.

Yixing speaks Korean with surprising clarity some days yet forgets how to introduce himself on other days. There’s something methodical about his selective Korean comprehension, Jongdae learned when he overheard a few trainees in the locker room months ago. They stopped when Yixing emerged behind a row of lockers—people caught in the act of gossiping often do. Yet, Yixing had simply walked right past them, staring into space

Jongdae had tried to follow him, pausing in front of the other trainees to look at them.

Kiyoung’s embarrassment seemed to have evolved into indignation, because he suddenly growled at Jongdae, “Don’t think about defending him. There’s nothing special about you either.”

Jongdae tried to speak, but Yixing had chosen that moment to walk back. “We’re late for that briefing,” he said with alarming clarity, waiting until Jongdae shuffled past him quietly to add, “If there’s nothing special about Jongdae, then why aren’t you debuting?” to the trainees.

They never discuss the incidence afterwards, but Jongdae often revisits it at night, when he sees Yixing deep in concentration.

“He’s the scariest of us all,” Wu Fan comments, appearing by Jongdae’s side the night before they fly to Beijing. They stand in silence while watching Yixing lean over the balcony.

“Right,” Jongdae says in Chinese, to which Wu Fan just chuckles.

Three months after he enters the company, Jongdae finds himself sitting in a Project Director’s office, marveling at half-finished concept boards filled with fabric swatches and stacks of what he presumes to be demo CDs. “What is your dream, Kim Jongdae?” Yejin-noona asks, flipping through a file, comparatively thin, as Jongdae eyes the thicker folders laid out on the desk.

Jongdae thinks about the way Minjae and Yonghee had stared, mouth agape, the first time they went to karaoke. He thinks about all those summers spent visiting his grandmother in Busan, Jongdae singing to the radio as she cooked and cleaned. Jongdae had always wanted to be good at everything, so it had taken him by surprise that he already excelled at something. “I want to sing.”

“You know,” Yejin-noona says slowly, closing the file. “In life, there are so many places to go and so many people to meet. Maybe you’re interested in trying something new?”

“I don’t really understand what you are trying to say?” Jongdae asks, but Yeijin-noona just smiles, pushing the folder towards him without a word.

Jongdae never planned on being a singer; it just happened by itself. In the middle of cramming for exams, Minjae looks up from his textbook and says, “If I beat your score this time, I’m finally going to do it.” When Jongdae doesn’t reply, he leans over the table in secrecy, turning towards the group of girls huddled near the corner of the classroom. “If I score higher than you, I’ll finally ask Haeyeon out.”

“Just because you finally worked up the nerve doesn’t mean she’ll say yes,” Jinwoo says. “Heck, if I score higher than Jongdae, then I’m going to buy that bike.”

It’s not such a far cry from the normalcy of their school lives, Jongdae thinks. He’s spent a year walking to prep classes with Jinwoo, watching him eye the Yamaha in the motorcycle store, and perhaps even longer teasing Minjae over his ridiculous crush on Haeyeon. Jongdae thinks about the daydream he often revisits in the middle of boring lectures and maddening homework assignments—a thought so unrealistic that the fun lies in the hypothetical situation itself. “If either of you beat me, then I’ll audition for SM’s open call next month.”

“Look at this guy,” Minjae snorts. “You win a couple of karaoke nights, and suddenly you’re Jung Yunho.”

Minjae and Jinwoo miraculously score two points higher than Jongdae. Haeyeon rejects Minjae kindly and Jinwoo’s mother throws a fit, threatening disownership until he agrees to return the motorcycle. Jongdae, however, passes the first few rounds of auditions and places third in SM’s Everysing.

Zitao stumbles onto their little gathering two days before they fly back to Korea. “Why does everyone always have fun without me?” He asks in Korean, or so Jongdae presumes, because Zitao really says something about cabinets instead. It sounds close enough, because Lu Han just pats the spot on the stairs next to him in response.

“Where’s Duizhang?” Yixing asks, handing Zitao the bag of White Rabbit candy, which Zitao happily accepts.

“I don’t know,” Zitao says, ripping through his wrapper. “I followed you here.”

Lu Han hums, letting Zitao lean over his shoulder as his attention returns to his laptop. “He’s probably in the middle of a very rigorous beauty regimen and is unsightly at the moment.”

Tao replies softly in Chinese, causing Minseok to snatch the bag of candy out of Tao’s lap. “Speak Korean,” Minseok warns playfully in Chinese.

Zitao just smiles awkwardly in return before looking over Lu Han’s shoulder. “Ge, why are you on Baidu?”

“Wait,” Yixing gasps, looking at Lu Han. “You’re the one who’s been leaving suspicious comments on my bar, aren’t you?!”

Jongdae finds Minseok on the roof of the SM building one day in early February, when they’re filming the last of the teasers. The air in Seoul smells of burning leaves, the wind cutting through the thick layer of the scarf Jongdae had snatched before ascending to roof. January to March are the months in which Minseok all but ceased eating, exhaustion evident in the hollows of his cheeks. Lu Han seems to take personal offense to Minseok’s diet, huffing and looking away when Minseok politely refuses dinner. Minseok is surprisingly unreadable at times—perpetually pleasant about everything under the sun. Jongdae secretly wonders if that, too, is another defense mechanism, because everyone in this band seems to employ one.

Minseok smiles upon spotting Jongdae, rubbing his hands together when Jongdae joins him by the railing overlooking the city. “Done filming?”

“They don’t need that much footage of me,” Jongdae says before his brain catches up.

Minseok just laughs, making small puffs in the air. “We have something in common then.”

“We have a lot in common, hyung.” Minseok’s presence is more important than Jongdae is willing to admit, the meaning of hyung never holding so much weight until Jongdae found another boy in the same precarious situation as himself.

“Yeah, I guess we do.” Minseok returns to rubbing his hands together, and Jongdae almost asks why he’s not wearing a jacket. Jongdae would like to think he knows the answer, but some days Jongdae has to admit that he knows almost nothing about Minseok.

“Hyung, why did you agree?” Jongdae asks. It’s a question that’s been bugging him for months. Minjae and Jinwoo are starting university, and Jongdae has been thinking a lot lately. Thinking about what it feels like to have a dream, when that dream leads him on a path that his friends can’t follow.

Minseok just smiles. “Why did you?”

While Jongdae’s last minute placement is somewhat understandable, he has a hard time grasping Minseok’s role in all this. Joonmyun once told Jongdae that Minseok had a delightful voice, and ever since then Jongdae had yearned to confirm this, to prove something to himself. Perhaps, Jongdae had been waiting for Minseok to put Jongdae’s own feelings into words. It feels like an admission of sort.

“You’re good,” the audition judge, the project director, and his vocal coach had all said. The past year felt like a series of echoes to Jongdae, when all he wanted was for someone to state the opposite. All he wanted was the truth— an acceptance of what he is and where he’s going.

“Is the staircase more comfortable than your beds?” Wu Fan asks, in the elevator.

Jongdae stops fiddling with his passport case, looking up just in time for Lu Han’s head to roll lightly to Jongdae’s shoulder. Lu Han always becomes sleepier after the fan photos are taken, when the stretch of the airport between the entrance and the terminal is no longer their own catwalk.

Wu Fan's expression gives nothing away as he continues to stare intently at the customs line. He stands firmly behind their manager, who is busy talking to their tireless translator. Despite Wu Fan’s careful evasion of any and all “leader-like” comments, Jongdae thinks he really does his job perfectly.

Smooth Korean rolls off Wu Fan’s tongue. “Chenchen, did you miss home? You really shouldn’t, though.”

Lu Han hits Wu Fan on the shoulder with his passport. “This is not the time for a motivational speech. Please.”

“Precious Lulu,” Wu Fan makes a half snorting, half amused noise as he waves Lu Han’s hand aside. “So afraid of displaying your mean streak in public. Are you going to push me out from behind a pillar like you did to Yixing?”

Ge,” Yixing says, secondhand embarrassment evident in his voice, although it’s unclear whom he’s addressing.

“We’re here,” Zitao announces when security finishes checking Manager-hyung’s identification, effectively halting their conversation.

Jongdae simply misses the idea of home—a warm bowl of jjigae for dinner and the familiar sounds of his mother tongue. It takes a while, but Jongdae is slowly grasping the fact that he could have everything he wanted. Even if the jjigae is cooked by Yixing, and even if the Korean is filled with a slight tint of zhong wen.

Early May consists of a series of flights blending into one, with fans that occlude Jongdae’s vision at airports and an odd sense of jetlag that follows him from country to country.

In California, they are greeted by a sea of multicolored fan lights. The variability is what intrigues Jongdae, the flashing lights of the Honda center bouncing off everyone’s glowsticks. The fans scream through their performance, their excitement deafening over the loud background track. He nearly trips up during their introduction, unsure whether he belongs to EXO or just EXO-M. Jongdae is trading the best years of his life to lip-sync to songs he doesn’t understand. Yet, there’s something addicting about the blinding lights and the colorful spots left in his vision, even after he closes his eyes.

During the finale, they line up in a row to walk down the T-stage. Jongdae watches as their sunbaenims march down the catwalk, the lyrics of the song escaping his own lips as someone shoves a microphone into his hands. Suddenly, Yixing is whispering “Go Jongdae, go.”

It’s the same thing Minjae had hissed before pushing Jongdae into that audition room almost a year ago. “Lucky charm, Kim Jongdae,” Jinwoo had added behind him. “Today, go make your own luck!”

There are so many places to go and so many people to meet, Jongdae remembers as his feet carry him down the T-stage after Baekhyun, to a sea of green and blue and red welcoming him home. Even if their paths cross for only one night, under a storm of paper confetti and balloons, this is the path Jongdae has chosen to walk.

Jongdae knows, for a fact, that he is slowly getting there.


a/n: Thank you black_silver for beta-ing!


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