Written by: one_if_by_land
A remix of "plasticine" by grisclair
Pairing: Variations of Kai/Lu Han
Warnings: Explicit sexual content
Summary: SME's idol androids are programmed to charm and captivate any audience. And isn't imitation the sincerest form of flattery? At least until Jongin gets ditched for the superior robotic version of himself.
Seven in the morning on any other day, and Jongin would already be covered with a layer of sweat in a basement practice room at K-Arts. Here, though his palms were still clammy, it came from forcing his legs still, keeping his hands controlled from where they're pressed down on his thighs. The gentle hum of a ventilation shaft above sent down a current of cool air, but Jongin's lungs felt like someone had them clenched in a fist, squeezing from the bottom up until the oxygen popped like a bubble in his throat. The room was stifling in its negative space. White walls, glass doors, exposed ceiling beams. No windows. His fingers curled over his knees, the blood rushing away from the tips when he dug his nails into the thin fabric of his pants.
"This isn't an interview, so relax." Lu Han slid a glass of sparkling water across the table at him. Condensation dotted the outer rim, puckering around the clear marks of Lu Han's fingerprints left on the glass, a startling reminder that he was, in fact, human.
Jongin dipped his head in respect at the man seated next to Lu Han. "I didn't know Jang-sonsaengnim worked for SME."
"Woo Hyuk-sshi is one of your dance teachers at K-Arts, right?" Lu Han glanced over, narrowing his eyes in displeasure. "Sunbae, you never once mentioned having such a promising student in your classes. Fortunately I happened to see Jongin-sshi in action at a Genie Dancing Contest, but what if I hadn't recruited him? Think of our loss." Jongin could practically hear the pout in Lu Han's complaint.
"Kids at K-Arts don't usually care about entertainment agencies or idol androids." Woo Hyuk shrugged, kicking his heels against the floor to balance on the back legs of his chair. "They're into academic performances, the kind for prestigious shows and competitions."
"And yet Jonginnie is here." Lu Han was back to beaming. "You don't mind if I call you Jonginnie, do you? We're so close in age."
"You're definitely older than me," Jongin rebuffed, suppressing an unexpected grin at Lu Han's affronted reaction, which only served to deepen the expressive creases around Lu Han's eyes.
Woo Hyuk cleared his throat, and Jongin immediately straightened in his seat again, his cheeks reddening as if he'd just been caught passing notes in class. "I can understand why Jongin caught your eye at the Genie contest," Woo Hyuk said, appraising. "His dancing style is very similar to Kai's."
"That's right, Kai." Lu Han pounced on the opening, the name escaping his lips like a triumphant accusation. He pushed down on a button embedded in the tabletop, and the wall behind him — which Jongin belatedly realized was actually a giant LED screen — lit up with a full-length picture of Kai onstage, mid-motion, with an arm clutching his shirt upward to show the barest strip of chrome skin, his mouth tugged to one side in a confident smirk.
Jongin inhaled sharply, guessing what would come next.
"The similarity is uncanny between the two of you." Lu Han circled around him, tapping his index finger against his chin as he leaned close to scrutinize Jongin's face. "Did you get any cosmetic work done to look like him? It happens often enough."
Jongin bristled at the implication. "No."
"Of course, you're not an exact replica," Lu Han continued, serenely glossing over Jongin's denial. "Your skin is in dire need of a laser treatment, your height could use a couple more centimeters, and that nose bridge..."
"That's because I'm human," Jongin shot back, still indignant from the surgery assumption. "Kai's a manufactured product, designed to be perfect."
"As Kai's chief program designer, I'm flattered by the compliment," Lu Han purred, obviously pleased with himself. The picture dissolved on the wall before materializing into another one, this time with all the members of EXO lined up on a red carpet. Jongin could recognize some of the more popular ones by face — Kris was easy for his height, D.O from his signature sloping shoulders — but his eyes were immediately drawn to Kai and the boy next to him in the center, the two of them contrasted against each other in matching black and silver shimmering shirts, one pale and effervescent, the other dark and impassive.
Not taking his eyes off them, Jongin pointed out, "Besides, don't you look just like Lu Han? The android Lu Han."
"EXO's Lu Han looks like me because he was modeled after me. The better version of myself, anyway. What's your excuse?" Lu Han reached out to touch Jongin's cheek, as if to confirm that the skin was real, and Jongin flinched backward, jerking his head just out of range of the probing finger. Lu han retreated, unfazed. "Sorry, I have problems with keeping personal space," he said cheerfully.
A blush crept up Jongin's neck, and he turned back to Woo Hyuk, ignoring the spreading heat. "What does Jang-sonsaengnim do at SME?"
"They hire me for independent contract work," Woo Hyuk said. "I'm still full-time at K-Arts."
"We're lucky to have Woo Hyuk-sunbae for however long he wants to give us." Lu Han sat back down in his chair, propping up his elbows on the table in contemplation. "The company has a head choreographer to design the stage routines — Jaewon-sshi, you'll meet him later — but sunbae is in charge of making the entertainment androids appear alive on stage."
"Alive?" Jongin echoed.
"You'll see next week," Lu Han demurred. He switched off the screen, returning the room to its pristine condition of white walls and glass panels, an illusion of transparency.
But Jongin knew better than to trust appearances. That was a quick enough lesson to learn.
Woo Hyuk offered to walk Jongin outside after the meeting. The hallways leading to the lobby were the same pristine white, but the walls were edged with dust-pink banners promoting SM Entertainment and row after row of animated artist billboards. Jongin could name all the groups, from H.O.T., DBSK, SNSD, to the latest hot debut EXO; their faces winked and waved from the walls, programmed to charm. The only detail belying their metallic secret was their exceptional symmetry, from their synchronized movements to the matching costumes to everyone's discreetly similar heart-shaped faces and pronounced bone structure.
Girl groups and boybands were nothing new, but SME had been the first Korean company to popularize the use of idol androids. They could sing, dance, crack jokes, act. Nowadays, people saw more androids in commercials and variety shows than actual humans. Some netizens complained that idols were running the Korean entertainment industry to the ground; others claimed they made Korea unique. Regardless, SME's stock shares the past year had tripled in price with a revenue of over 150 trillion won; idol androids weren't going anywhere.
And yet, it wasn't blind elitism when Woo Hyuk had said that most students at K-Arts weren't interested in them. Idol music was seen as disposable culture, much like the androids themselves. The songs rarely stayed on the charts for longer than a few weeks, and the idol groups made comebacks every other month, barely allowing viewers to even think about straying.
Jongin came from the opposite end of the spectrum. He'd started jazz and classical ballet classes in third grade; since then, he'd picked up modern, contemporary, hip hop. Professional dance was his life, so no one was surprised when he auditioned for K-Arts, but Jongin also grew up with two older sisters. Chaerin liked to pretend to have finer taste than idol music, but Jimin had plastered her bedroom walls with Shinhwa posters, dutifully taping their performances on television and attending every available live showcase, often dragging Jongin along for company. If nothing else, the idol subculture was mesmerizing: the practiced fan chants, the emotional tears, the fanservice.
And to think, all of it was orchestrated by intricate programming. Jongin gripped the roll of papers in his fist a little tighter. Only a preliminary contract, Lu Han had told him before smoothing the official document in front of him. Think it over.. A six-month minimum training period as a Dance Specialist, with the potential for a full-time offer afterward; low pay in the beginning, but with the promise of royalties, benefits, a cut in future profits. Jongin stopped in front of a screen transmitting EXO's music video on loop, their on-camera smirks pinning him in place, beckoning. He faintly registered Woo Hyuk pausing behind him.
"I know you want to ask, so go ahead." Woo Hyuk's voice snapped Jongin out of his trance. "Why am I at SME, right?"
Jongin turned around, a little sheepish. "Most people don't associate distinguished K-Arts faculty with this place. Two different performance worlds."
Woo Hyuk carefully studied Jongin's face before speaking again. "I started my career here. I was part of H.O.T., the company's first group prototype. Before your time, obviously."
"But you're not an android," Jongin said, confused.
"You're funny, kid." Woo Hyuk laughed. "Where do you think all the voices and dances come from?"
Jongin frowned, turning sullen at the condescending tone. "There's the Voice Database, and I thought dances were just made from mixing moves and routines from the Dance Database. Isn't everything pre-programmed?"
"I'm talking about personality, kid. You don't get personality from a goddamn computer program." Woo Hyuk shook his head for emphasis. "I provided the Movement Signature for the androids in H.O.T. for five years. Effort, weight, flow, subtlety. Part of an idol's package is making a personal and lasting connection with fans, with humans. You think androids could do that if they all moved the same, reminded everyone they're nothing but scraps of metal?"
"Movement... Signature?" Jongin tested out the term, rolling the words over his tongue. "Is that what SME wants from me, for EXO?"
"You were never good at blending in with other dancers for group choreography," Woo Hyuk said bluntly. Jongin flushed at the criticism before Woo Hyuk continued, "A good dancer isn't enough for Movement Signatures. You need someone memorable."
The burn diffused across Jongin's ears when he finally understood the meaning. Woo Hyuk rarely gave out compliments, even in class. Allowing himself a moment to soak in the praise, Jongin exhaled a deep breath that he'd been harboring for the last hour and, for the first time that day, gave SME's offer a serious consideration.
That night, Jongin went home and combed through every video and fancam of EXO on the Internet. For a new debut, there were a lot: 23 teasers, two showcases, hours of material. He wound and re-wound the clips of Kai's dance solos, following the outline of Kai's shoulders as they swayed in harmony to the smooth background melodies.
Jongin hadn't been completely honest during his meeting with Lu Han and Woo Hyuk. He'd known about EXO from the day Kai's first teaser dropped, from the moment Jongin saw his face and felt the air being suctioned out of his chest like a vacuum. The initial reaction had been disbelief at their physical similarities, then repulsion at comparing himself to an idol android, then grudging jealousy at the thousands of comments fawning over Kai's dancing ability. And, if Jongin was ready to come clean to himself, there was also a simmering attraction, a magnetic pull that refused to let Jongin look away.
Now that he knew about Movement Signatures, he watched the performances with a new critical perspective. What Woo Hyuk said was true; Kai was skilled, his lines and isolations a level sharper than Jongin's, but the movements came off restrained, like Kai's body had more power than he knew how to display. Each time, right before a song crested into the climax, Kai looked as though he would burst through the screen, his energy almost palpable even when constrained in a cage of digital pixels. He demanded attention on stage. Trying to study the other members was useless; Jongin inevitably found his way back to Kai, arrested by the bold arrogance of his style and eyes that challenged, You want me? Come and get it.
Jongin's breathing grew shallow, and he slid a shaking hand over his stomach, pressing down on his growing erection in a futile attempt to reverse the coiling heat pooling between his thighs. He curled his fingers over the head, muffling a moan when his hips bucked up at the friction. The music in the video ended with an extended trailing note, only to be replaced with high-pitched screams and applause; as if on command, a chant rose up from the audience, loud and frenzied and desperate. Jongin squeezed his eyes shut, even as his hips started involuntarily rocking to the rhythm of the chants, his ears filled with the roar of Kai's name. Images flooded the back of his eyelids — a hooded stare, a smirk, the flash of skin. Jongin gulped for air, his palm now slick with precome, before he lurched forward with a gasp and finally let himself go.
As promised, Jongin's next introduction at SME was to its famed choreographer, Shim Jaewon, who had a reputation even at K-Arts for his iconic routines that spawned dozens of viral dance trends. Jongin had pictured the training studio at SME to be filled with high-tech, futuristic contraptions that beeped unintelligible languages as they monitored the androids, but the room he entered looked startlingly normal, with a mirror lining an entire wall and shiny hardwood floors. The only machine in sight was a laptop propped on top of a tripod in the corner, connected by a few bundle of wires to a flat screen that was mounted on the adjacent wall.
"Bet you've never had a performance recorded like this before," Jaewon told him as Lu Han checked Jongin's pulse through the sensor pads that dotted across Jongin's skin like body art. The monitor on the wall displayed a zig-zag of numbers measuring the height and width of Jongin's steps, angles, turns.
An sudden concern occurred to Jongin. "If I'm responsible for all the members' Movement Signatures, won't they end up looking the same anyway?" he asked.
"Don't worry about that. We'll have you dance every routine in the database and then section off your deviated movements before deciding who gets what," Jaewon assured him. "We're just comparing your style today with Kai's, since they're already similar."
"You must be Jongin-sshi," a voice called out behind him, and Jongin spun around to a face that made him do a double take, despite the countless different ways he'd imagined their meeting playing out. Kai's voice sounded deeper than he'd expected. Up close, with the mirror as an impartial judge, he guessed that Kai was probably two or three solid centimeters taller.
"You'd be his height with some shoe inserts," Lu Han teased, as if he was on a direct frequency with Jongin's thoughts.
"I don't like the way inserts feel when I dance," he replied, then bit down on his lip when he realized the inadvertent slip confirming that he'd been comparing himself against Kai.
The rest of EXO-K spilled into the studio, surprising Jongin with their immediate friendliness. Suho bowed in greeting; Chanyeol bypassed the courtesy and pulled Jongin into a chest bump. Even Kai felt unguarded, open, without his stage styling and makeup. Any of them could've passed as a classmate at K-Arts. The idea was disturbing, the awareness of how natural the androids looked and moved around the room. The culminated work of SME's patented Culture Technology, Jongin reminded himself. Designed as a fantasy, then programmed to make people believe it.
Lu Han crouched on the floor, guiding one of Kai's legs toward him to start applying sensor pads in a mirrored arrangement of the ones already on Jongin.
"That tickles!" Kai complained.
"You're not ticklish," Lu Han informed him, slapping a sensor on Kai's ass with a playful smack.
Kai jolted at the touch and then grinned down at him. "How do you know?"
Lu Han sat back, a wry smile on his lips. "Did you forget who designed you? Trust me, you're not ticklish." He gestured for Jongin to join them, and Jongin hesitantly walked over, rolling his shoulders awkwardly and feeling as though he was interrupting a private moment between friends. "Let's run through 'MAMA' with just the two of you."
The other members moved back to give them ample room as Lu Han confirmed on the monitor that the sensors were connected and live. They stepped into position facing each other. Kai suddenly stuck out a hand before the music started, and Jongin stared at it for a split second before returning the handshake, his heart rate doubling at the contact.
And then opening note sounded, and Jongin let his instincts take control.
Lu Han took Jongin out for celebratory drinks at a nearby pojangmacha in Apgujeong after the training session, ordering them a round of soju and two plates of grilled chicken and fish balls. Jongin tipped up his bottle to take a casual gulp, only to choke at the harsh taste that burned his tongue, earning an amused glance from Lu Han across from him.
"Have you drank alcohol before? Are you even legal drinking age?" Lu Han peered at him over the top of his bottle.
"Yes, I am!"
Lu Han picked up a skewer of meat, plucking off the top piece with practiced ease. "I'm in South Korea on a work visa, so I don't want to unwittingly break any laws," he explained, his smile impish.
"You're from Beijing, right?" Jongin popped a warm fish ball into his mouth. "Did you come here just for SME?"
Lu Han nodded. "Idol androids are popular in China, too, but I always knew I wanted to work for SME, ever since I discovered DBSK in high school. Still the best group they ever produced — well, before the malfunction lawsuit, at least."
"So I assume you were a fan?" Jongin asked, taking another sip of soju, properly this time.
"Yunho is still untouchable to me," Lu Han asserted, pounding his bottle on the table for emphasis, before amending, "but Kai's like my baby. He's the first android I designed from scratch. Took six long years of development and testing, but the hard work finally paid off."
A faint haze started to cloud Jongin's head, compounded by the soju and a day of dance practice that was now settling into his muscles. The crowded tent around them overstimulated the senses with smells, noise, bright flares from passing cars, and Jongin focused his attention on Lu Han, trying to block out the cacophony surrounding them. With some strategic hairspray and eyeliner, he thought vaguely, Lu Han could probably pass as an idol himself. Then, he remembered. "What about the android Lu Han? Isn't he modeled after you?"
Lu Han waved his half-eaten skewer dismissively. "That Lu Han is just me, but better. Kai was always the planned star of EXO. He has that classic SME quality, you know? The performance level, the visuals, the presence...." He trailed off, eyes narrowing in the lamplight, and drew closer to Jongin.
Jongin shifted backward, immediately self-conscious. "What?"
Lu Han shook his head, as if to clear it, but didn't back away. He was close enough for Jongin to count each of the creases around his eyes, enough to see the thin but imperfect scar that ran below Lu Han's bottom lip. "The resemblance keeps tripping me up," he murmured. "You look so much like Kai."
Lu Han's apartment could've doubled as a Manchester United gift shop, which Jongin would've found deeply offensive as a loyal Chelsea fan if Lu Han didn't have him on his back with his pants stripped off the second they stumbled through the front door.
"Wait—," was all Jongin managed to squeeze out before Lu Han mouthed Jongin's cock in one fluid dip of his head, and the protest evaporated into the air, along with any other words and the rest of his mind. If Jongin still had the capability to form coherent thoughts, he might've felt embarrassed by how fast he hardened in Lu Han's mouth. Instead, he maneuvered his shirt over his head and hitched himself up to offer Lu Han more space, wincing when the fabric of the sofa scratched against the bare skin of his lower back.
Jongin made a few useless noises that solidified into a guttural hiss when Lu Han circled the base of his cock with his thumb and forefinger, pulling the foreskin taut while he tongued around the head. From this angle, all Jongin could see was the crown of Lu Han's hair; when he reached out to cup Lu Han's cheek, grazing a fingertip through soft eyelashes, his finger came away damp. "This isn't— company protocol—," he said, dazed.
"Welcome to the entertainment industry," Lu Han mumbled, his tongue still heavy with the weight of Jongin's cock, and the vibration from Lu Han's throat sent tremors straight up Jongin's spine like a bullet trajectory.
"Should've warned me," he gasped, his back arching off the sofa on reflex. "I'm not used to—"
Lu Han opened his jaw a little wider, letting the slit rub against the ridged roof of his mouth before pulling off with an satisfying pop. "It's okay, just relax. Act natural, whatever you want."
The last thing Jongin felt was natural, laid open under Lu Han, his thighs trembling and parted. He crumpled his hands and covered his eyes, his knuckles digging into the sockets until he saw stars behind his eyelids. He felt Lu Han drag a wet kiss from his hip to his belly button, and Jongin lowered his loose fists a fraction of a centimeter, watching Lu Han between his fingers.
Lu Han crouched backward on his calves, his erection straining against the band of his boxer briefs, and tilted his head up to meet Jongin's gaze; he slowly and deliberately licked a few drops of precome clinging to the corner of his mouth. "Is this what you do when you're flustered?" He tugged on Jongin's arm, grinning. "You look like you're forming a heart with your hands and elbows. An awkward heart."
Jongin batted him away, sheepishly lowering his arms to show his face again. "You're not helping," he accused.
Not one to miss a hint, Lu Han lifted one of Jongin's legs by the heel of his foot and leveraged his weight to push upward until Jongin's knee nearly touched his shoulder. His eyes, now predatory, no longer looked dewy.
"Enough talk," Lu Han said, voice rough with anticipation. "I want to see what your body has to say."
The following week was spent learning new choreography for EXO's upcoming promotions. At first Jongin worried about how their night together would affect their work at SME, but the days passed without a single call or any other acknowledgment from Lu Han. He wasn't sure how to take it.
In the training studio, Jaewon had taught him how to monitor his movements using the sensor feed, but Jongin preferred the old-school method of checking his body through the mirror as he danced, adjusting his footwork and lines with each step. The screen on the wall was broadcasting a muted replay of some event that EXO-K had booked the night before, a launch party for Calvin Klein that involved a lot of standing still for pictures and lounging on leather couches. Jongin paused after a song ended to catch his breath, using the time to watch the members pose on the red carpet.
Kai was the only one in all black, though most of them were dressed in shades of monochrome except for a splash of red on D.O and Chanyeol. They were styled for the event, but there was an unaffected air to their behavior, a middle ground between their stage performances and what Jongin had witnessed in the practice room.
The cameraman had a clear bias for Kai, closely following his facial expressions and zooming in until Suho's left half disappeared from the screen. Chanyeol made a comment into the microphone that caused polite laughter; Kai pressed a knuckle to his lips in silent amusement and bent down to whisper in D.O's ear.
Suddenly Jongin wished the broadcast had sound. He moved closer to the screen, bracing a hand against the wall as his eyebrows furrowed, perplexed. Chanyeol said something else, then nudged Kai with his elbow, and everyone laughed again. Kai crumpled his hands over his face, shyly digging his fingers around his eyes.
The blood drained from Jongin's face, and he froze in place. Disbelief, repulsion and jealousy clawed their way up his throat, each familiar reaction fighting for air. Before he could even process it, his legs had snapped into motion, and he was speeding down the hallway in the general direction of the design department, the doors opening like yawning mouths, drawing him deeper into the labyrinth of SME. He rounded a corner and collided head-first into someone else, knocking them both to the ground.
"—Jongin? What are you—" Lu Han asked, breathless, before Jongin pulled him up and jerked him to the nearest wall screen, shaky fingers flicking through the programs until he landed on the Calvin Klein event. He rewound the broadcast, queuing to the red carpet, and slammed his hand next to Kai's projection.
"That movement, is that from me? From that night at your apartment," Jongin demanded, his voice cracking at the end despite his best efforts.
Lu Han looked apologetic but still defiant.
"Fanservice is half the game," he said coolly. "Kai needed a softer off-stage persona, something to make him appear more approachable."
"More approachable?" Jongin asked, incredulous. "Everything about him is manufactured."
Lu Han forced himself out of Jongin's grasp. "A new idol group debuts every week. Of course I want the androids I designed to stay ahead of the competition. Whatever it takes."
"Your androids," Jongin repeated. "You mean you want Kai to stay ahead." Lu han didn't deny the accusation. An ugly thought washed over Jongin like a bucket of ice water. "Did you program those new Movement Signatures into Kai or teach them to him personally?"
The muscles around Lu Han's mouth tightened, brittle with tension, the silence stretched out between them as good as an admission of guilt.
"You're sick," Jongin spat out. "Getting intimate with an idol?"
"What about you?" Lu Han challenged. 'I've seen the way you look at Kai. Think I didn't notice your change in pulse when you touched him at training?" Jongin reddened, and Lu Han shoved him aside, pushing past him down the hallway. "You have the chance right now to create something bigger and better than yourself. If you don't want it, then walk away. There are thousands of dancers waiting to take your place."
The sun was nothing but a fading burn behind Seoul's skyline by the time Jongin arrived at the main complex at K-Arts. The floors were empty except for the disjointed sounds of music rehearsal that floated up from the practice studios, and Jongin raced up the stairs two steps at a time, coming to an abrupt halt in front of a familiar office entrance. He rested his hands on his thighs, his chest heaving from the exertion.
"Jang-sonsaengnim?" He rapped a knuckle against the propped door.
Woo Hyuk looked up from his desk, surprised. "Jongin, what are you still doing here?"
"You said you provided the Movement Signatures for H.O.T. for five years," Jongin blurted out, still winded for breath. "Why did you do it?"
The expression changed on Woo Hyuk's face, turning into one of half-understanding, half-resignation. "It's addicting. You get to see yourself on millions of screens across the country, on stage performing for hundreds of thousands of people, all screaming to see more."
"But it's not really you, is it?" Jongin pressed. "The fame and glory, it goes to the androids."
Woo Hyuk shook his head. "You don't get it, kid. Idols are a reflection of all the designers, engineers, performers poured into them. They're the final masterpiece created by us, the artists."
Jongin leaned against the doorframe, his knees weak with questions and confusion. Idols were supposed to be disposable, he wanted to argue. An insignificant subculture. Then he thought of how Lu Han had used him as nothing but a database to cull resources for Kai, his natural instincts auctioned off like raw materials. Five more years, and Jongin wasn't sure what would be left. Already he felt himself subsumed by Kai's persona, the excitement that spiked in his body when he heard the fanchants for Kai, that magnetism hooking Jongin into an inescapable orbit.
"This industry's brutal," Woo Hyuk said, as close to sympathy as Jongin had ever heard from him. "It wants either all or nothing. So which one are you?"
Blood pounded through Jongin's head. He wanted to ask how Woo Hyuk survived it, how he managed to emerge intact. Or maybe he didn't, and Jongin would never know the Woo Hyuk before SME's transformation. Jongin's skin felt hot, and he clung to the heat like a lifeline signaling that he was alive, real, mortal. But what if it was a false illusion of safety? That inside Jongin was a limited pool of Signature Movements, idiosyncrasies that defined him as a person, and the more he depleted his supply, the more his essence dried up, until his body was drained of the blood and sweat and tears that made him human, replaced by a system of cold machinery, imitation, memorabilia.
Fear rose up inside Jongin like a coming tide. "I think it's too late for me to give only nothing."
Woo Hyuk's smile was grim. "Then prepare to give everything."