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02 September 2012 @ 02:19
Beside You  
Title: Beside you
Rating: G
Word count: 6700+
Characters/Pairings: Tao-centric with implied Taoris (loosly influenced by Paolo Nutini's Growing Up Beside You)
Summary: Life presents a challenge Zitao just isnt sure he's ready to deal with yet
Disclaimer: Sadly I don't own Exo. No copyright infringement is intended, and no money is being made.

A deep breath, suppressed to the point of absolute silence, passes through Zitao’s curved lips.  It’s this feeling he hates, the awareness of the vulnerability he’s exuding as he stares at the table with unseeing eyes. He’s so distracted by the voice in his head telling him to keep calm and just remember everything he’d practised that he doesn’t even notice his heartbeat steadily accelerating, and he certainly doesn’t notice the twinkling glance the shamelessly merry boy sat opposite him tosses his way.

Short, sharp Korean syllables are flung across the room by a native tongue, the intricate language falling mute on Zitao’s untrained ears. He ignores the incessant talking of the bespectacled man at the head of the table – he knows it’s important, so he feels he should at least try, until he realises that it would just add to his building levels of stress so he gives up and resumes his blank, meditation like state, though serenity and calm are the last things on his mind.

He’s not meant to get this nervous, that’s part of what’s so unsettling. Fortitude of mind and body are simple enough to master and apply to his strict martial arts training but there’s just something untamed about real life situations that makes all forms of discipline drain from his body. There’s no denying it – he is nervous beyond reason.

It’s only as the man in the chic, thick rimmed glasses clears his throat that Zitao finally looks up, eyes clouded for the swiftest of seconds by his own raven eyelashes. He glances around the table, but no eyes meet his, though his attention lingers a little longer than it should on the tall (perhaps even taller than he is) boy with a small, serious face sat beside him before he turns his focus once more on the head of the table.

Today is the day his roommate Shaozu had told him about. It was a test of language skills, to see how adept he was at speaking Korean, and the smiling boy he assumed to be a Korean trainee’s Chinese speaking skills. Alongside their pair was the very proper and stiff looking guy beside him, tall and with a pointed face and deep eyes, and the tanned individual sat across from him who appeared very bored with the situation. He doesn’t know their names, he didn’t have time when arrived in the conference room ten minutes late with his jacket half zipped and the remnants of his frothy toothpaste in the corners of his parted, panting mouth.

As the recent and painfully vivid memory resurfaces in his distracted head, he doesn’t even notice that the man, Moon someone or other, has stopped talking and that the smiling face across from him is waiting with patience… or maybe tolerance. He can’t tell.

Regardless, the first lesson passes remarkably less embarrassingly and before he knows it, Zitao is certain he likes Baekhyun, the boy across from him with whom he had partnered. There’s a certain energy that radiates from him, gentle and overly accommodating. His eyes are not particularly memorable in shape or size, but in sparkle - like he’s shining on the inside. He needs someone to liven him up though, Zitao thinks as he waits for the elevator to appear and take him down to the lobby. With a nonchalant ‘ping’ the doors to the mirrored shaft open and Zitao steps inside, just about to press a large button with a bold print “G”. That is, until he’s interrupted.

“Hey! Hold the elevator!”

Deftly, Zitao’s hand snaps from the button and into the ever narrowing gap between the automated doors. Thankfully they spring back, when their sensors detect a presence between them, to reveal a doubled over figure and a faintly familiar face grinning with relief.

“Th-Thanks.” The strong, albeit slightly out of breath, voice says as it straightens out to its full and impressive height. Zitao feels his neck craning slightly; it’s a new experience, but it’s not entirely displeasing. He’s just used to being the tallest is all.

“Don’t mention it.” Zitao replies and his hand drifts slowly back to its place hovering over the “G”. He looks to the taller for confirmation, but asks just to make sure. “Ground floor?”

“Yeah, please.”

It’s at this point that Zitao makes two realisations. One being that this young man is the one he had been sat beside in the conference room, with deep and seemingly all knowing eyes; the other is that he’s speaking Mandarin.

The elevator lurches to a clumsy start and Zitao stumbles slightly. The taller boy lets out a heavily suppressed snort but Zitao hears it anyway. He pretends he doesn’t.

Rather than suffer a torturously awkward silence, he pointedly looks into the notably more shallow reflection of the deep black eyes and clears his throat.

“I’m Zitao, by the way.” He states confidently, though inside he’s quaking. He hasn’t made many friends outside of his roommates since he moved into the dorm in Seoul, and the few he had arrived through Shaozu.

“Yi-“ The eye contact breaks as the taller looks away, suddenly tense and awkward. “Wufan.” He says with conviction, long black hair forming a frame around his locked jaw. Before Zitao can question the hesitation, a hand, large and oddly inviting, is thrust at him. Naturally, he takes it with a firm and somewhat challenging shake. Their eyes lock and instantly Zitao is filled with the notion that isn’t the last conversation he’ll be having with Wufan. His first impressions were never wrong.

A gentle “ping” tears them apart and the doors open onto the bustling atrium filled with busy bodies in suits and pencil skirts.

“Nice to meet you.” His hand drops comfortably to his side and his voice is oddly cheery, considering the bad start the day had thrown at him. He notices this himself, but puts it down to staging two fifteen minute conversations with Baekhyun, one of the brightest and instantly likeable people he had ever met. Other people’s personalities are infectious, especially good ones.

“Likewise” Wufan smiles as the pair step out of the door together and proceed to stride, or at least the length of their legs gave the impression they were striding, through the well lit atrium. It’s a nice day, not that Zitao had noticed while racing through the streets in order to arrive on time. He hadn’t eaten either, he remembers, just as his stomach threatens to lurch in awareness of its emptiness.

As the pair reaches the sidewalk, they begin in different directions before turning back to each other, chuckling. Zitao awkwardly scratches the back of his head, scraping his feet as he smiles at the taller. They aren’t talking much, but there’s a mutual friendliness that’s appreciated by either side.

“Guess I’ll see you next week then.” As he says the words, the sun catches Zitao’s eyes, leaving him with an uncomfortable squint as he looks up at Wufan.

“Sure, hey listen, you don’t know a guy called Yixing do you?” Wufan asks but the name holds no recognition with Zitao so he shakes his head with a murmured apology. Wufan frowns, but nevertheless seems at least slightly happy. “No worries. He’s just someone I met a while ago, said he was getting involved with SM but I haven’t heard anything from him since. Thanks anyway.”

And with that, they bid each other farewell, smiling as they followed the same path but took different directions, Zitao’s leading to one place only – food.

*

A week later and they’re told to sit in the same seats as last time, although Zitao is curious about the fourth boy, he doesn’t complain. He’s grateful to be partnered again with Baekhyun because although neither of them are very adept at their counterpart’s language, they don’t really need to be because the conversation flows naturally if a little disjointedly. Unfortunately it isn’t plain sailing, he finds out when embarrassment drops in his stomach like a dead weight.

“BEEF!” Baekhyun screeches, his chair tilted at a more than dangerous angle as he rocks with laughter. The front legs of his seat land with a heavy metallic bang, body slumping forwards on the desk where he’s wracked with silent giggles. Zitao knows he’s slipped up and slipped up badly, or funnily or something, but he has no idea what he said that was wrong. Baekhyun asked him a question and when Zitao didn’t reply, he altered it to “I’m the second zodiac sign, which are you?” to which Zitao earnestly replied with what he assumed was the word for ‘taurus’. Evidently, he was wrong.

He turns a hopeless eye to Wufan who’s face is blanketed by a coy smile.

“I have no idea what I did, I swear.” Zitao blabbers like a criminal being pressed by the police.  He’s never been good at Korean, even though he’s lived in Seoul for the past three months he hasn’t improved a lot… It doesn’t really help that everyone in his dorm is Chinese and speaks mandarin so a knowledgeable practise partner is out of the question.

“Don’t worry, I heard.” Wufan’s tone of voice is gentle, almost like an elder brother’s, so Zitao doesn’t feel so awkward when he offers to sort out the uncomfortable situation for him. Instead he nods and leaps at the chance to cease Baekhyun’s wailing laughter that alerts everyone to what a mess he’s made of his Korean.

What he expects is for Wufan to tap Baekhyun on the shoulder and ask him to quieten down a little, maybe even tell him that he’s being distracting. What he doesn’t expect is exactly what happens – Wufan’s Korean is strong and, seeing as he didn’t know better, Zitao think’s he sounds local if not fluent. So fluent, in fact, that Tao has no idea what is said in the exchange, but instead trusts Wufan’s words and smiles weakly at Baekhyun when a look of comprehension dawns on his face. He wipes a few tears from his eyes before making to speak again but he’s interrupted.

It’s the end of the class, and they’re told to go home and practise. Baekhyun waves farewell with a cheery call of “Beef’ll see you next week! Later, Zitao!” and the tanned boy who’s name, Zitao learnt, was Jongin disappeared with a fleeting nod. It was just him and Wufan left now.

“Thanks for that.” Zitao murmurs and although he tries to sound airy and light, his voice is riddled with stiffness. “I’m never going to live that down am I?” He couldn’t decide whether it was a rhetorical question or not, but decided it probably should be when he received no answer.

Wufan smiles at him as they head out of the door and into the corridor. There’s a silence but its neither awkward nor uncomfortable. “You know,” the taller begins, laughing slightly. “I think I’m going to catch the elevator instead of running for my life today.”

Zitao chuckles, pushing the button to summon an elevator shaft with his thumb. “Probably for the best.” He muses, nodding wisely. He’s not sure whether it’s just because he speaks Mandarin or because the manner he uses to speak in, but Zitao finds talking to Wufan is a refreshing pastime, as opposed to the task, albeit the enjoyable one, of conversing with Baekhyun.

The already familiar “ping” chimes overhead and the pair enter the opening doors and descend to the bottom floor, chatting casually about the comings and goings of their dorm lives, Zitao enthusing over how similar the structures are, despite being made of different people.

Before he knows it however, he’s watching Wufan head up the sunkissed street, casual wave tossed from his long arms. He doesn’t turn to see if Zitao has acknowledged it, but the more muscular of the two senses that Wufan knew anyway. Wufan knew a lot, it turned out, that Zitao didn’t, though of course Zitao doesn’t know that either.

*

Three weeks later and Baekhyun was still referring to himself as ‘beef’. The monitored conversations they were told hold with each other had stopped two weeks ago and instead they were tutoring each other to proficiency, if not fluency. Of course, Zitao can’t help but bitterly notice, Wufan doesn’t really need extra help from Jongin and so focuses on teaching him Mandarin and a little English instead.

Again Zitao wonders if there’s anything the elder, by three years it turned out, doesn’t know.

The lesson’s momentarily held up as Baekhyun and Jongin excuse themselves to use the bathroom, and the Chinese pair are left alone to stretch and look over their notes. The silence is light and comfortable, but Zitao still feels the need to break it.

“How did you get so good at Korean then?” He’s light and conversational, but the room is filled a sudden tension and uncomfortable air of interrogation. Wufan mulls it over a little, expression deep in thought as he runs his tongue over his front teeth.

“I just have the knack for languages I guess.” He shrugs like its nothing, not flushed but perhaps a little uncomfortable with the compliment. Zitao sits back heavily in his seat, unimpressed with the answer, but unsurprised by the modesty. “I could ask you why you’re so bad.” The elder muses as an afterthought.

Zitao smirks, replying “I just don’t have the knack for languages I guess.” with twinkling eyes. Wufan snorts in amusement, appraising Zitao with a grin. It makes him a little unnerved, because the elder’s gaze is a bewildering mixture of casual and intense. Slowly, though, he recognises the look that falls just short of fatherly – instead, it’s a more brotherly sort of affection that he’s more than ready to reciprocate.

He feels bad for thinking it, but Zitao rather regards Wufan as his best friend these days, even though he hasn’t told Shaozu this yet.

*

Half a season passes in the blink of an eye. The air is crisper, days shorter, weather crueller and yet Zitao can’t help but notice that in the ever changing world, he himself has changed little. The largest difference is his home – he no longer lived in the small dorm shared with Shaozu, instead he and fellow dorm mate Luhan had moved into a larger one with Wufan, the mysterious Yixing and two Koreans, Jongdae and Minseok. He struggled with his Korean still, but the two were both understanding and more than accommodating.

All in all they lived a harmonious, if slightly exhausting, life dedicated to training, dancing and singing. Nerves were constantly on edge and the seemingly endless days pulled people to the end of their tethers… It was inevitable that the peace would end and today was the stick that broke the donkey’s back.

“Look, I’m sorry okay?” Wufan yells at the disgusted face across the room from him. Zitao watches in silence, lips parted and wholeheartedly trying not to cry. It had been a week since they’d been moved into the new dorm – Zitao and Wufan (although they were supposed to called each other Kris and Tao now) and the four other trainees that had been selected for “Exo-M” – but this was their first real fight.

“Good! You should be.” Luhan snarls in reply, petit hands balled into fists. His face, Zitao thinks, isn’t designed for being angry. It doesn’t suit him, but the animosity in his eyes is so strong that he doesn’t understand how Wufan hasn’t been knocked over by it. Minseok’s gaze is firmly rooted to the floor, and though Zitao still struggles to understand him, he can tell from the way he accosted Luhan that this wasn’t what he wanted, even if the younger is trying to defend him.

Wufan had gathered all the members in the lounge of the dorm after a hard day’s dance training to give them news – he had been asked to be the leader of the group. Of course, he had accepted and Zitao couldn’t have been happier because he couldn’t think of anyone better to take care of him, or the other members for that matter. Unfortunately, his reaction was not unanimous and Luhan quickly made his feelings evident. Minseok should be the leader, or at best, he should have been the asked first. He’s the eldest so it was his right, he insisted. The fight escalated quickly.

“You’re so goddamn selfish.” Luhan adds in a low but provocatively audible murmur as he turns away, grabbing Minseok’s wrist. The elder doesn’t move because he knows what’s coming and so does Zitao.

“That’s out of order!” Wufan’s on his feet now, whole body seething with resentment. Yixing twitches, eyes trained on the tallest of the group. Zitao thinks he might drown in the tension if this carries on for much longer.

“How is it?! They threw you a bone and you grabbed it. You didn’t even ask us!” Luhan drops the wide eyed Korean’s wrist and advances towards Wufan, pushed past the intimidation of his stature by the blind anger in his head.

“I didn’t think I had to! They wouldn’t pick Minseok anyway because he’s-“ His eyes widen as the words catch in his throat and Luhan leaps at the chance to interrupt.

“Because he’s what?! Korean?” His eyebrows are high and his voice booming uncharacteristically deep and aggressive. It looks almost comical but Zitao cannot laugh because this isn’t funny and he’s scared. Yixing silently moves so he’s stood beside two, eyes slowly swapping from one to the other. Jongdae on the other hand, looks heartbroken; his face is sagging and his breath slow and steady as he looks out of the window, trying to ignore the words he can’t understand.

Wufan’s eyes drop to the floor and his shoulders droop in defeat. All he can muster is a feeble whisper of “I didn’t mean…” but the words fizzle out because he can’t think of anything that can justify his choices.

“Nice leadership.” Luhan spits, venom coating his voice and seeping from his gaze, before he disappears into the room he, Wufan Xiumin shared, slamming the door behind him. Stillness holds Zitao in a firm grip, crushing his lungs as Wufan crashes into the other room with a bang. Yixing is the first to move, patting Minseok lightly on the shoulder before proceeding to the kitchen to cook dinner because the fight had gone on too long and everyone forgot that they were hungry. It’s a different emptiness, however, that hangs over the remaining four when their stomachs are full and the house is oddly silent.

*

The next day, Wufan doesn’t leave the room, Yixing having offered to sleep in the other room rather than his own, so Zitao takes it upon himself to see how he is and take him a bowl of food.

As he knocks on the door, he holds his breath and suddenly regrets his decision because if Wufan wants to be alone, then there’s bound to be a reason for it. Sheepishness clouds his mind but it’s too late now so he just waits a second before pushing the door open.

“Hey.” He calls softly into the dark room and pads in, socks slipping against the cool laminate floor. Wufan’s laid on his back, figure straight and narrow on top of the bed, and he doesn’t stir even though Zitao knows for a fact he isn’t sleeping. He smiles slightly, placing the bowl on the small bedside table before heading back to close the door.

“I brought you some food, you could at least say thank you.” He says quietly, sitting on Jongdae’s bed. He stares at Wufan who looks back with narrowed eyes.

“Thanks… Sorry.” The elder murmurs, pushing himself up on his elbows so that he sat comfortably against his pillow. He smiles weakly, the poor effort barely stretching his cheeks.

“Don’t mention it.” Zitao smiles friendlily because he thinks that’s what Wufan needs most right now, he’s probably feeling isolated and judged by everyone in the dorm. He wouldn’t be surprised if he was still mad though, Zitao thinks, watching him eat quietly, so he’s got to be careful with him.

“You know,” He starts, light and conversational. “Joonmyun is the other leader. Baekhyun and Chanyeol called to tell me.” He recalls the conversation, and even though his tone suggested it was two separate calls, it was just one rather noisy and difficult to understand exchange in which the two Korean boys had screamed incessantly down the phone. He didn’t really get it, but he’d forced Luhan to translate for him, though obviously he wouldn’t tell Wufan that. “Chanyeol says hi by the way.”

“Mmm. That’s good.” Wufan says quietly between mouthfuls of rice. Zitao watches him a little longer, before bringing up the topic of the night before.

“Look,” He says and the elder turns his gaze to him, expectant look in place. “I know you probably feel guilty about yesterday and all but-“

“I don’t feel guilty.” Wufan interjects, frowning. “I know it’s awful but what I sai- well, what I nearly said, was true.” Zitao nods slowly because he and Yixing had discussed this briefly already and they came to the conclusion that though it was true, it was stupid for Wufan to use that fact for his defence.

“Fine. Angry then, whatever.” Zitao corrects himself but Wufan is still frowning. He questioningly raises his eyebrows, gesturing for the elder to say whatever was on his mind.

“I’m not angry either. I just… I don’t know. You probably wouldn’t get it. Sad. I guess.”  His voice trails away, and Zitao is hit with the realisation that the elder is right – he has no idea what it is Wufan is feeling. They had shared so much since they had met, that he had almost forgotten how different they really were.

“Well you shouldn’t be sad, not with Yixing’s food in your stomach.” He jokes, getting up off Jongdae’s bed and heading for the door. He’s done enough, he thinks, for now. It was wrong to think that Wufan felt ostracised, he decides, because it seems more like he wanted the time alone just to think.

Zitao leaves him in peace, vaguely aware of the small smile following his back, and shuts the door the bedroom behind him. Yawning, he sits beside Minseok on the sofa and sinks into the old and slightly worn cushions, deep in thought.

There had been a few situations where he hadn’t understood what Wufan was feeling since they’d gotten to know each other. He remembers them all well, of course, because half of them had involved bickering and in one case, Zitao crying because he thought Wufan hated him. Mostly though, it was the shaken up feeling that followed the incidents. As if the foundation of the friendship, of himself even, wasn’t as solid as he thought.

All he could think of now though, was the distinct lack of that feeling. In fact he was quite happy because suddenly he was swept by the notion that everything that was happening; being selected for Exo, meeting all of these wonderful people, loving them… It was real. It wasn’t perfect, but it was entirely real and nothing could change that.

He laughs a little, because this is the first time he’s felt so aware of his own maturity. If he wasn’t mistaken, he was changing.

*

“Oh my god. Oh my... Oh my GOD.” Chanyeol screams and gasps as sweat drips from his brow, clinging to the curves of his face.  Zitao just pants, desperate to catch his breath, choking out a smile when Jongin pats him on the shoulder. Their first showcase had just ended.

There’s a flurry of movement and energy as the twelve boys collapse into sweaty exhausted hugs, share high fives and, in a few cases, animatedly yell and talk about what just happened. Zitao catches Kyungsoo’s eye and waves, laughing deliriously when the younger grins, eyes visibly twinkling with pure exhilaration.

In the midst of the euphoria he finds Wufan, though he’s not hard to spot, not with his now bright orange hair.

“We did it!” He exclaims as he approaches the elder who’s grinning just as widely as he is. It looks a little awkward and out of place on the small and handsome face but Zitao likes it.

He doesn’t think, he can’t think, and grabs the elder in a tight embrace. Half a moment where Zitao expects to be pushed away with a laugh passes before arms are enveloping him and the vibrations of a deep laugh can be heard through Wufan’s chest.

“I’m proud of you.” The elder mumbles before a huge body collides with Zitao’s and then another and then a smaller one followed by a cry of “Group hug!” by someone that sounds like Sehun although he can’t be sure because his face is too busy being crushed into Wufan’s shoulder. He grins regardless, the material of the jacket uncomfortably sticky, with his own sweat probably.

They clean themselves up and change in a stupor, speechless and fatigued, their movements almost in slow motion. They’re on the painful comedown from their high. At first they protest to the offer of a celebratory meal but the staff talk them round because, really, in their emotionally drained states they don’t have the will to battle it out. They’re ecstatic, blissful even, but the dull ache creeping into their bones screams for sleep. Food, however, is the next best thing.

Before Zitao even realises it, all twelve boys are crowded around a long table in a well lit restaurant, managers and various staff sat nearby. The gentle atmosphere immediately lifts spirits and Zitao is filled with the notion that the couple staring at their table with narrowed eyes disapprove of the noise the twelve of them are making as they recall the night’s events.

He fills Chanyeol’s glass before taking a drink from his own, enjoying the bubbling sensation in the pit of his stomach. It’s only cola but tonight it subdues him as if it were alcohol. Watching with amusement as hands feed mouths that don’t belong to their bodies, Zitao accepts food from Joonmyun’s chopsticks, thanking him with a smile. Just like a family.

It’s the first time it’s really struck him, that ‘Exo’ are a family now. When he looks at Baekhyun and Jongin, the two unassuming boys from his old language class, Luhan is old roommate, even Sehun the youngest of the group, he’s hit by just how much they’ve all grown and changed in both appearance and nature.

Shoulders had broadened, cheek bones pushed to dominate faces, height doubled practically overnight. He’s amazed by it all but the prospect of the same having happened to him is somewhat terrifying. It’s all happening too fast, he thinks, looking at his hands though they look no different… do they? Were Tao and Zitao really that different?

“Here eat this and stop looking so morbid.” A voice drags him out his lull as its owner’s eyes roll and a pair of chopsticks is thrust in his face. Zitao has to force himself not to laugh as he happily takes the mouthful of rice and meat.

“Thanks beef.” He nods with a wink and Baekhyun beams at him, apparently overjoyed that he hadn’t forgotten their old joke. Zitao returns the smile, laughing softly as the memory fades into the present and his worries are washed away with roaring conversation, good food and, eventually, a wonderful night’s sleep.

*

There’s a muffled bang from the kitchen that brings Zitao round to consciousness. He’s thankful when he looks across the room to see Minseok’s bed is empty and the covers are straightened out because he wants a minute or two on his own before he faces the rest of the group.

Pulling himself out of the warmth of his covers, he blearily wanders over to the door, locking it silently. He doesn’t want to be disturbed as he stares into the floor length mirror.

The first thing that strikes him is his own face. Of course he’d seen it a few hours ago as he prepared to sleep, but it was just in passing. Now he’s drinking in the detail and is shocked by the sudden definition of his cheek bones and jawline. They used to be so rounded… And his eyes used to sit on plump skin, not the new sagging lines of chronic exhaustion. There’s a slight shadow around his lips that crawls to his chin that makes him smile because for once it doesn’t look entirely out of place.

His eyes travel lower, tracing the new thickness of his neck and the stark shadow cast by his protruding Adam’s apple. He trails lightly over his shoulders because they don’t look any different really; they’ve always been muscular – as had his arms and torso. That being said, he never remembered the breadth of his chest being so vast. Or his ribs being so prominent…

He’s pleased though, when he sees that his body forms a perfect triangular shape, the point disappearing into the underwear he had slept in, before broadening once more at his thighs. He tenses his leg, watching the smooth, defined curve of muscle stand out. The beneath falls into shadow, held still as his thigh bolsters itself into a full and rounded shape. It’s almost horse-like, he thinks, flexing the muscle and watching as his leg changes shape.

It changes shape instantly… but he had changed shape over the course of years. It was a thought that had kept him awake the previous night as he clenched and unclenched his fist repeatedly before his face. The reflection in the mirror doesn’t lie, nor does the date – May 2nd – his nineteenth birthday.

He is a man now, in every sense of the word.

Not entirely happy with how different his reflection is to the person he remembers himself to be, he throws on a t-shirt and a pair of sweatpants before, as silently as before, sliding the lock open. A deep breath passes and he’s smiling as he slowly opens his bedroom door.

“Hey look, it’s the birthday boy!” Luhan yells, looking up from his conversation with Wufan and Jongdae. Yixing and Minseok look over from the kitchen, with slightly shifty expressions but Zitao doesn’t notice because in the space of a blink, the five young men are all over him, dragging him to the dining table where immediately bowls and plates are laid out before him.

“G-Guys…” He chokes out, feeling his own eyes widen as his heart swells a little inside. Their faces are expectant as he turns from one to the other. He’s aware of the way Wufan’s are boring into him more intensely than any of the other four and it makes him uncomfortable in a contradictively comforting way.

“Go ahead, eat up.” Yixing laughs, pushing a bowl of soup at him. Zitao has no idea what’s in it but he knows it smells delicious so obliges and takes the spoon Luhan passes him.

“Just-“ Minseok interrupts when he’s about to put the spoonful of liquid to his mouth. Zitao looks at him curiously, head tilted slightly. “I thought – Jongdae too – that it’d be nice. We eat this on our birthdays in Korea. Sorry, if you don’t like it I can just-“

He’s silenced as Zitao thoughtfully swallows the salty broth and leaves of seaweed. It’s unusual, but it’s nice and it warms him, practically from head to toe.

“It’s lovely and so thoughtful.” Minseok beams at these words, grin threatening to split his face in two. “Thank you. Truly.”  Zitao twists to show his appreciation to Jongdae and blinks happily at the two as if he was a content cat. There’s an awkward silence as Zitao eats before has to stop.

“I can’t eat all of this myself. Come on, sit down!” He laughs, gesturing widely. His friends laugh and sit with him grinning and sharing and celebrating. Suddenly stories about Zitao are flying around the room and everyone is revelling in the shared high.

More than happiness however, it’s an all encompassing feeling of peace that blankets the small apartment, gracefully guiding the time from morning to evening…

Someone puts some relaxing music on, though it was the last thing Zitao is paying attention to as he unwraps his presents. He spends a good deal laughing at the first present he’s unwrapped, the tag of which simply reads “Guess who”. It contains six beef steaks.

The next is a huge parcel full of medicines and tonics from all the boys in Exo-K combined, since they aren’t there to look after him anymore. The reason is cheesy, but Zitao’s touched all the same. Then comes Minseok’s gift of two ornate silver photo frames, which leads to Luhan to sulk a little because he thinks it totally steals the thunder from his idea of giving a leather bound photo album. Zitao profusely insists it’s fine and that both are lovely presents in their own rights.

Jongdae bought him some new sneakers, since his one of favourite pairs is worn through and Yixing, Zitao can tell, had struggled to wrap up the backpack stuffed awkwardly inside the crumpled package of wrapping paper.

He’s so touched by all the lovely gestures that he’s practically in tears by the time it gets to Wufan’s gift.

“Hey, don’t look like that.” Luhan jokes, coddling him and giving his shoulder an encouraging squeeze. “Or at least save the tears till Wufan’s done? You know how he gets when he’s not the centre of attention.” Wufan pouts and rolls his eyes but chuckles at the elder’s stage whisper nevertheless.  

“Happy birthday buddy.” The words are mumbled and there’s an awkward sort of flush on the elder’s face that Zitao can’t understand. They make eye contact for the briefest of seconds before the youngest is consumed by curiosity and finds himself tearing at the surprisingly neat wrapping paper.

It’s a white box, without any form of label. He looks questioningly at everyone but Wufan’s turned away and everyone else is as confused as he is.

“Just open it!” Jongdae whines impatiently. Zitao nods and carefully opens it, pulling out a black cloth that’s loosely folded around something cool and hard and heavy. He feels the weight of it in his hand and savours the feeling of the silk like material against his skin before slowly peeling it open.

He can’t believe his eyes when into his hand rolls a golden watch, masculine and bulky without being obnoxious. Its face shines in the dim light of the sitting room, reflecting the wide eyed stares of each of the members in its face. Zitao sees his own and suddenly his thoughts from that morning come rushing back but different somehow.

He can’t help but cry at the object, pure beauty, in his hands and everything it means and signifies.

“Turn it over.” Wufan adds, almost embarrassed and definitely awkward. Zitao complies as his eyes are dabbed dry by a fussing Yixing.

On the back is an inscription in an intricate script. It reads: “For my dear friend and brother, Huang Zitao”

At this, he loses his composure entirely, freely crying because he’s never been so touched in all of his life and all he can think about is how much he loves every one of his new brothers but none more than Wufan. Even with tears streaming down his face and all of the members fawning over him, he manages to smile gratefully at Wufan, who still looks a little sheepish.

Soon however, the moment is over and the presents are stacked up neatly where Zitao can still admire them for the rest of the night. His thoughts however, remain  a bit of a mess and he finds himself sat outside in the brisk even air, mulling over everything as cars and pass by streetlights flicker, unaware of his personal troubles.

He almost leaps out of his skin when Wufan suddenly comes up behind him, giving him the shock of his life.

“Hey!” Zitao whines, making to hit the elder lightly but he’s distracted by the glint of gold on his wrist. Wufan notices and goes quiet, smile slipping from his face.

“I’m glad you like it.” The elder hums, cutting through the awkwardness with his warm voice. Zitao nods and admires the way it seems to clean the dusty lamplight from the streetlights overhead. The silence settles over them once more, but this time the younger of the two dares to disturb it.

“Wufan… When you were my age were you, I don’t know, are you scared of it all?” He knows it makes no sense, and Wufan’s staring at him, worried. He sighs. “I can’t explain it. I feel like it’s… I don’t know. Today just… It was lovely but it made things worse. Kind of.”

He’s fully aware of the fact that everything he just said is extremely stupid and all together incoherent, but Wufan’s eyes are narrowed like he’s seriously thinking it over.

“I don’t want to be someone different.” This was the angle that made sense, at least in his head. Whether or not Wufan got it was a different matter but the dawning look of comprehension on his small face suggested he did. “I like me. Zitao.”

“You’re afraid of change.” It’s a statement, not a question. Zitao’s gaze drops to the floor, focussing on a piece of chewing gum that someone had lazily tossed on the sidewalk. He nods slowly.

“I don’t think you’ve changed. Not at all. You’ve just grown up is all.” Wufan looks at him, expression caught somewhere between concern and melancholy. Zitao is doubtful. “Come here.”

Zitao’s caught off guard when the elder grabs him by the shoulders, turning him around so that they’re face to face. He’s even less prepared for the intense, soul searching gaze that bores into him. There’s a second of confusion that’s blown away by the deep dark memory triggering eyes.

He’s suddenly thinking about the watch, the perfect gift, how Wufan always knows what to do and when to do it, what to say and when to say it. How he’s always there with him, watching over him. From the day they first met, Zitao holding the elevator while Wufan was redfaced and out of breath, to the day they got lost in Myeondong when they were shopping and had to ask for directions five times. When Zitao’s grandfather passed away, the only person who really seemed to understand him was Wufan. All of these scenarios fly through his head and he’s so caught up in the memory of that tight, brotherly embrace, after the showcase that he barely even takes notice of his sudden realisation: so much time has passed, and so much has happened yet Wufan is the same Wufan Zitao’s always loved.

He is there through thick and think, through moments pivotal and trivial and hasn’t changed… the more Zitao thinks about it, neither had he. Wufan was living proof that growing up doesn’t necessarily mean changing. It doesn’t, not in the slightest.

He’s pulled from his epiphany by a hand lovingly ruffling his hair and the familiar fragrance of Wufan’s cologne. It’s soapy and warm and all together comforting.

“You still look like the same crybaby Zitao to me. Just a grownup version.” He smiles warmly, and chuckles slightly when Zitao has to turn away to hide the tears threatening to spill over his eyelids. He wipes his eyes to no avail, a sniff carrying through his nose and into Wufan’s ears.

“Hey, don’t cry anymore. Today’s your birthday, there’s nothing to be sad about.” His tone is almost like that of a parent’s, so full of love and genuine tenderness. Zitao shakes his head and lets out a sob or laugh or something in between – neither party can tell.

“I’m not sad, not at all.” He confesses, his face blanketed by a watery smile that doesn’t quite reach his eyes. “I’m just glad I got to grow up beside someone like you.”


“Thank you, Wufan.”

A/N: Well. I absolutely butchered the idea I had for a cute squishy short fic but oh well. I actually wrote something, which is something of a breakthrough xD (I still don't like it *sigh*) 



 
 
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