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Light My Way Back Home

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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.

From: Luhan
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.”

“Okay, ge.”

***

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.

“Jongdae—”

“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?”

“Yifan—!”

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.