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What Does it Mean...

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There’s something going on, and it makes Taeyong worry.

Perhaps it shouldn’t, perhaps he should stop being so paranoid, but Taeyong’s got a trained eye. He sees what most people can’t, sees the subtle differences in people—their conflicting personalities when something isn’t right.

NCT 127 stays in a dorm separate from NCT Dream’s; Taeyong thinks it’s probably because upper management thinks they wouldn’t mix well, with the older members being much too ‘mature’ for the younger ones. If only they knew how childish his dorm could be, as well. Differences notwithstanding, the difference in dorms means Donghyuck and Mark need to keep shuffling between the two.

Taeyong feels sad every time he sees their youngest go, but there’s nothing he can do about it. The younger kids probably need them, anyway.

Today is one such night, where Taeyong is staying up in wait for Mark to come over. It’s late, way past their usual bedtimes—around 11:30 or so—and the rest of the members are in their rooms, catching up on some well needed sleep. Taeyong doesn’t know why Mark hasn’t come back yet, but he’s starting to get antsy, tapping his fingers against his knees in an attempt to distract himself.

“Taeyong hyung?” Apparently, not everyone’s asleep. Taeyong lets his head be tilted back, lets those deft fingers to slip between strands of hair to stroke soothingly at his scalp, “What’re you doing up so late?”

“I could say the same for you, Jaehyun-ah.” His voice is rough—maybe it’s the sleep? Taeyong isn’t sure how long he’s been awake, really.

“Well, someone needs to worry about you.” He doesn’t comment on the fact that Jaehyun chose to drop honorifics, hands settling at his hips to stare Taeyong down.

“Well,” Taeyong squirms uncomfortably under the blonde’s glare, “Mark hasn’t come home yet.”

“Yeah, I noticed.” Jaehyun smiles solemnly, “Yuta got tired of waiting and crashed. It’s been, what, two weeks?”

“Yeah.” Taeyong nods, still not entirely facing the angelic person in front of him, “He’s finally coming over.”

He squints, looking closer at Jaehyun. The man might not display his strife, but Taeyong can always pick it out; and it shows now, in the tightness at the corners of his smile, and the tension in his shoulders. And his eyes, usually exuding warmth, are almost lifeless with tire.

“Go to sleep.” He says without preamble, evidently surprising Jaehyun; the blonde’s eyes widen, and his mouth unconsciously parts in question, “You’re clearly tired, Jaehyun-ah, just head on to bed.”

“Well, you’re tired too!” Jaehyun protests, just like Taeyong expects, so he gets up to press a chaste kiss to the corner of his mouth.

“It’s okay.” He murmurs, lips still molded to Jaehyun’s, swallowing any protests he might have, “I’m the leader, so it’s my responsibility. Besides, the members’ sleep is just as important to me.”

Jaehyun holds his eyes for a beat longer, as though assessing him for any lies. But Taeyong knows he’ll find none, which is why he isn’t surprised when the taller man’s shoulders slump.

“Fine.” Jaehyun bites out half-heartedly, “I’ll know when Mark comes to my room anyway. But you go right to sleep after, okay?”

The meaning behind the words are clear: no confrontations today. Leave things alone, until all of us can talk tomorrow.

“Okay.” Taeyong nods assuredly, sighing when Jaehyun finally leaves the room.

Taeyong’s always been a good liar.

 

 

He spends the next half an hour playing games on his phone, worry growing stronger when he realizes it past 12 in the morning, and Mark still isn’t here.

Taeyong calls his phone, biting his lip as the line rings. In the darkness, even his phone’s light is dim, and the only thing he can hear is the dial tone, until Mark finally picks up.

Hello?” His voice sounds small, and quiet, as though he’s tired, “Ah, hyung.”

“Where are you, Mark?” Taeyong murmurs into the phone quietly, heart spiking in worry, “It’s nearly 12 in the morning!”

I’m…still in the dorms.” Mark hesitates to say, which sends alarms blaring through Taeyong’s head, “The other guys want me to stay, so is it okay if I come over tomorrow morning instead?

He hears voices screaming in the background, and rolls his eyes, before something occurs to him.

“It’s been two weeks but,” Taeyong comes to a firm resolution, “Alright.”

Okay, cool hyung. Sorry again!”

The phone beeps hauntingly in his ears, and Taeyong pockets it, thanking the stars for giving him the foresight not to wear light pajamas. If he were, he’d need to go and change, before heading out, but now he doesn’t have to,

He slips out easily enough, shutting the door behind him with the spare keys, and his phone, tucked safely into his pocket. The night air—or, more correctly, the morning air—is crisp and fresh as he walks towards the Dream dorms. They’re pretty close by, so Taeyong isn’t too worried.

He reaches there in five minutes, tops, and finds, much to his surprise, that the lights are out. Brow furrowing in worry, he rings the doorbell, multiple times, waiting an agonizing 4 minutes for someone to open the door.

“T-Taeyong hyung?” Jeno’s standing there, face swollen and puffy from being disturbed in his sleep, “What’re you doing here?”

Taeyong smiles fondly at him, hand coming to ruffle his hair lightly, much to his annoyance.

“I came here to see Mark.” He steps inside, letting Jeno shut the door behind him, “I guess he’s sleeping?”

“What?” Jeno’s looking at him, stumped, “Hyung, Mark isn’t here. I thought he was supposed to be at Hyungs’ dorm today.”

He yawns directly after that statement, rubbing at his eyes.

“B-But I just called.” Taeyong’s gut sinks, and he whirls around to stare at Jeno, “I called him! And I heard you kids screaming in the background, he told me he was here!”

“Hyung, everyone’s asleep.” Jeno says warily, though worried lines are beginning to show even in his face, “They’ve been that way since 10 o’clock.”

It’s probably miraculous timing on his part but, right after Jeno’s words, the door swings open, revealing the person Taeyong’s been going crazy to see.

“Lee Minhyung.” He says sternly, making Mark freeze up on the spot, hands limply holding his shrugged off coat, “You and I need to talk.”

Taeyong nods at Jeno with a kind smile, saying, “Head to bed. I just need to talk to him for a little bit.”

“O-okay.” Jeno’s eyes dart between Taeyong and Mark, before he nods slowly, sleepiness evaporating, “Okay.”

He leaves the room, and Taeyong turns on the smallest light he can find. When his eyes drift back to Mark, though, he can see something’s wrong; maybe in the way that he’s hunched over, biting his lip incessantly.

“You were supposed to come to our dorms.” Taeyong starts, willing his anger to abate, “You said you were here, so I said okay. But it turns out you weren’t here either.”

He shakes his head at the lack of response, stepping forward.

“Mark, this isn’t like you,” He urges, “What happened to you?”

Mark’s gaze is hooded, flitting around at everything but him, as he shrugs.

Moving closer, Taeyong can see rimmed purple around his eyes, bruised as though it’s been punched in. The dim light does nothing to help his concern, and the flinch Mark so violently gives when he puts his hand on his shoulder is enough to make Taeyong recoil.

“Mark?” He whispers again, this time in fear, “What. Happened?”

“Nothing, hyung.” Mark’s voice isn’t happy, bubbly like it usually is. No, it’s heavy, tired… not like it is when the boy’s homesick, or when he’s doubting his choices. It’s deeper, somehow, more striking; and strike Taeyong it does.

He doesn’t think, just acts on instinct, arm loping around the blonde’s neck to pull him into a hug. Granted, it’s mostly one-sided, but not for long because arms tentatively tighten around him, a head being buried into his shoulder. Taeyong’s not much taller than Mark, but just enough; he runs his hand through Mark’s straightening curls, lets their smooth texture sooth him too.

“Let’s sit down.” He says it like a suggestion, but the both know it’s not.

Mark steps away awkwardly, tension still thrumming in his body. He still doesn’t look at Taeyong, which makes his chest ache, but obligingly sits on one of the couches. Taeyong pretends he doesn’t, but he sees the way Mark stiffens when he sits across him. It hurts in ways it shouldn’t.

“Tell me what’s going on.” He figures that he might as well be direct. It’s not like Mark’s just going to spill his guts to him or something anyway.

“Nothing’s wrong, hyung.” Mark still doesn’t look up, fingers tapping absently against his knee, like Taeyong is prone to do, “I’m just tired, so whenever we’re done, I’ll just head to sleep.”

Staying calm is harder than he thought, Taeyong realizes, and he clenches his fists to get a hold of himself.

“Look,” He starts, “You lied to me. I don’t remember this ever happening before, but it happened now. And, as if that isn’t enough, you also look like death warmed over. Mark—”

His throat catches at the sight of Mark’s eyes, finally locked on his own. They look almost lifeless, with none of that optimism and charm that the younger’s known for. The bags under his eyes look so, so much more prominent now, when he’s closer to him, and Taeyong can’t help but reach out, cupping the cheek of the one who’s so much like a brother to him now.

“Mark, I’m really worried for you.” Is all he can manage to choke out, eyes beginning to sting, “You…you’re like the brother I’ve never had and—”

“Well, you’re not my brother.” Mark snaps out his proper first words of the night, and they sting; his eyes quickly widen, and a hot flush runs up his cheeks—whether in shame or surprise, Taeyong isn’t sure.

“Oh n-no, hyung, I didn’t mean to say that.” Mark’s face is beginning to scrunch up, expressive eyes glimmering in the dimness; Taeyong reaches out another hand, trying to comfort him, “I-I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to.”

His lip is bleeding, Taeyong realizes in muted horror, and he quickly shakes his head.

“Mark.” He breathes, before repeating himself, louder, “Mark. Minhyung. It’s okay, hyung understands. I just need you to tell me why you’re like this.”

Mark is silent for a moment, and they stay like that, folded in each other’s arms until he twitches slightly, shaking his head.

“I…nothing, hyung.” He says quickly, desperately, trying to keep the tremor out of his voice, but failing, “Please, just leave it alone. I’ll be fine—”

“Taeyong hyung?”

They both stiffen at the new voice, Mark springing back surprisingly quickly, leaving Taeyong embracing the chilly air instead. He looks in the direction of the sound, barely managing to make out the well-sculptured features of Na Jaemin scrunched at the two of them in worry.

“Jaemin, what’s going on?” Mark tries to sound casual, but he can’t keep his voice from trembling. Taeyong just watches as Jaemin shakes his head, as though resisting a tide he knows he can’t fight.

“I heard you two talking,” He says lowly, stepping forward, “I heard, Mark.”

“Jaemin, now’s not the time,” Mark’s eyes are alive again, Taeyong realizes, but not with life but fear, “Just go back to bed and—”

“No, Mark!” Jaemin raises his voice, before falling silent again, shaking his head again, “No. I didn’t like what was happening, and now that hyung’s here, he can help us.”

“Yes, I can.” Any semblance of worry Taeyong might have had is now doubled, as his gaze flits between the two fuming Dream members, “What’s going on?”

“Jaemin, don’t you dare—” There’s something akin to fury in Mark’s eyes, but that doesn’t make sense: why would he ever be so angry?

“Someone’s bullying him.” Jaemin interrupts, and Taeyong freezes at the unexpected confession. Mark is just glaring at his fellow bandmate, but isn’t saying anything, and the silence only confirms everything.

“We don’t know when it started.” Jaemin shrugs, expression still troubled, “We don’t even know who’s doing it. But every time Mark goes out, he comes back looking…”

“Well,” He gestures at the blonde, “Like this.”

Mark’s eyes are narrow and he’s about to retort when another voice interrupts him.

“I know why.” It comes off slightly mispronounced, but clear enough. It’s Renjun, of course it is. Taeyong low-key wants to cry; it’s almost 1 in the morning, and he’s sitting here with literal children, who’re awake way past their bedtimes. He isn’t even aware he’s doing it, but he lightly bites at his nails as he gazes at the orange-haired boy.

“Hyung, listen to me.” Renjun stresses, settling next to Taeyong on the couch. His gaze, too, is troubled, and Taeyong can’t help this overwhelming protectiveness that rushes through him. Why are these literal kids looking so tired and burdened?

“I’m listening.” Taeyong answers quickly, trying not to seem flaky or unreal—he can see, from the desperation in Renjun’s eyes, that he needs someone to listen.

Mark stiffens, opening his mouth for what is likely going to be a protest.

Renjun beats him to it, though.

“It all started because of Chenle,” Renjun blurts out, just as Mark yells, “Renjun, don’t blame him—”

Taeyong’s sleep must be getting to him, because he must be imagining that the two eldest are glaring daggers at each other. Considering he’s in the middle, it’s slightly uncomfortable to feel the heat, but he needs to brave through it. He’s the leader. It’s his job.

“Guys.” Taeyong interrupts, internally relieved when they stop short. Jaemin looks close to tears at this point.

“You know what,” He sighs, “Jaemin, go back to sleep. We’ll talk in the morning. You two.” He addresses Mark and Renjun, who stare at him defiantly, “Are going to stay right here, and explain this to me.”

Jaemin looks like he wants to complain but, after the briefest hesitation, nods.

“I’ll get to know about this tomorrow, right?” He confirms and, at Taeyong’s nod, finally heads back to his room.

Taeyong pats the spots on either side of himself in an obvious gesture, as he looks directly at the two remaining kids. Renjun quickly slides into his place, but Mark’s biting his lip, in obvious reluctance. At Taeyong’s glare, though, he quickly abandons his old seat and settles at his side instead, though at a distance.

“Mark,” Taeyong starts, pulling him closer, “Do you want to explain, or does Renjun have to do it?”

The orange-haired boy is, at the moment, engaged in a staring contest with the rapper, who delays his answer by a brief second, before letting out a small ‘I’ll do it’ which sounds so unlike Mark that it physically hurts.

“Renjun, if you think anything’s wrong, you can tell me.” Taeyong instructs gently, hesitating before carding his hair through the boy’s bright hair. He looks like he needs it, and seems to appreciate it, so Taeyong continues to do that.

“Okay, hyung.” Renjun looks exhausted—of course he does, it’s the middle of the fucking night—and that’s when Taeyong realizes something.

“Do you guys have any schedules for tomorrow?” He knows 127 has one, but that’s later into the evening.

“No.” Mark answers tiredly, “It’s a free day.”

“Okay.” He feels relieved, but tries not to show it too much, “Alright, start from the very beginning.”

“Well…” Mark looks unsure, and Taeyong really considers telling them to head to bed so he can deal with this in the morning, “It was just…”

“Should I cover the first part?” Renjun smiles helpfully, and Mark just stares at him pensively for a moment, before nodding, “Alright. When I said it started because of Chenle, I wasn’t blaming him. I was just trying to say that…it’s where everything started.”

“You don’t know that.” Mark interrupts lowly, stiffening under Taeyong’s arm, “You only know what Chenle told you. You weren’t even there, that day.”

“I know enough, and you said I should tell Hyung!” Renjun protests hotly, “Chenle and you were asked to stay back that day, and the dance instructor was trying to tell him something but he wasn’t getting it, and he started yelling at him!”

“He wasn’t yelling at him!” Mark jumps up, and doesn’t sit down even when Taeyong tugs at his loose-hanging shirt, “He just told Chenle to leave while I stayed back, of my own will!”

“You guys aren’t making sense.” Taeyong sighs, tugging harder at Mark’s shirt until he actually sits down, “Now, can one of you explain it to me properly? No fighting, you two: I mean it.”

In the end, what he manages to get is this:

They were practicing their choreo for Chewing Gum, but Chenle kept making mistakes, not fluent enough in Korean to follow their dance instructor’s quick verbal directions. This led to the man in question getting extremely frustrated; to the point that he asked Chenle to stay back, presumably to yell at him. Mark decided to stay back as well, since he was worried Chenle would actually break down, and the man ended up yelling at both him and the Chinese native.

This is enough for Taeyong’s vision to tint red, and he only manages to calm himself down by digging his fingers hard into his palms. Their story, however, still doesn’t answer the question…

“Okay,” Taeyong says calmly, hand soothingly stroking Mark’s back, “That doesn’t explain why you’re like this?”

He’s referring, of course, to Mark’s prevalent exhaustion.

At the question, the younger rapper looks uncomfortable, thin-pressed mouth showing just enough of his inner turmoil at the innocent question.

“…It’s because I’m just working out.” He says, and Taeyong knows it’s a lie, but can’t fault it; sweat is what’s dampening Mark’s hair, and pulling at his shirt.

“To this extent?” Taeyong tries, and when Mark gives him this flat look, knows he has to stop for today, “Alright, fine. But I’m getting to the bottom of this.”

“Okay, fine.” Mark snaps out in similar style, before he gets up and leaves, probably for his room. Renjun hovers uncertainly around Taeyong, not sure of whether he’s going to go, but relaxes slightly when Taeyong gets up.

“There’s something that isn’t right here.” Taeyong says amicably, though the stress of it is beginning to eat at his brain. “And I’m not wrong, am I?”

“I…I don’t know, hyung.” Renjun looks sadly at the ground, uncharacteristic of his normally cheerful exterior, “I can’t say for sure.”

“I’m going to have to ask you to keep an eye out for him.” Taeyong drops his tone, trying not to let Mark hear him, if he’s awake, “Just for the next couple of days, Renjun, until I figure this out.”

“Okay.” Renjun nods, biting his lip, “I guess I’ll ask Donghyuck to help out.”

“That might be for the best.” Taeyong tries his best to give him a tiny smile, and gets one in return, before the door is gently shut.

As he turns, to make his way back to 127’s dorms, he knows he’s got his work cut out for him. Today’s talk has just cemented the thought that something’s not right with Mark…and Taeyong isn’t going to rest until he finds out what.

Chapter Text

Mark can still hear the low murmur of voices, Taeyong’s and Renjun’s, as he slips into his room. He sees Donghyuck already nestled under the covers, seemingly fast asleep, but he knows otherwise.

“Mark?” The sheets rustle slightly, as Donghyuck’s messy brown bush appears, sleepy eyes taking him in, “You’re back, huh? What time is it now? 5 in the morning?”

“I don’t want to do this right now.” Mark doesn’t even think, as he climbs under the cover, sliding in beside Donghyuck’s nice, warm body, “Please.”

“Yuck, you’re sweaty.” Donghyuck wrinkles his nose in distaste, and Mark knows he understands, “You’re disgusting, ugh.”

Mark laughs a little, but can’t for too long; his chest aches, along with every other part of his body. Donghyuck seems to know too, because he slides an arm around Mark to tug him closer.

“How long?” Is all he asks, even as Mark is practically snuggled in his arms, “Ever since you left?”

“…Maybe.” Mark admits quietly, eyes drifting shut of their own volition. He doesn’t want to think about anything; not Donghyuck’s disappointment, not Taeyong’s overbearing concern, not his own imperfections—

“Gosh, you’re going to work yourself to death, idiot.” Donghyuck hisses, but that’s all he does. Mark smiles tiredly into his neck and yawns in agreement.

“…I heard you guys talking.” Donghyuck admits, and Mark stiffens, suddenly too uncomfortable, “Why didn’t you just tell them?”

“There’s nothing to say.” Mark bites out, because not him too, pushing himself out of bed despite Donghyuck’s protests, “Just go to sleep.”

He doesn’t say anything else, chest burning hot as he climbs to the top, into his own bed. He hears Donghyuck sigh, feels the slight curl of guilt make its presence known as always, before pushing it down. No one understands him, anyway. He needs to be perfect, he needs to be strong and supportive—because he’s the leader. NCT Dream might sound like a kids’ show, but it’s a lot of work, and Mark needs to stay on top, for that.

And if it means going through all of this, then so be it. Half of it’s his fault, anyway.

Mark presses his fingers hard into his palm, biting his lips to keep the stinging in his eyes away. The industry has no time for tears, and he needs to get that into his stupid head. He fails, again, and they drip down his cheeks, drop by salty drop, even as he drifts off to sleep.

 


 

 

When he wakes up in the morning, he’s assaulted by a heavenly smell. Which promptly disappears when he opens his mouth.

Mark can’t help his scrunched features, since he can practically smell his own morning breath; he dutifully rolls out of bed though, ignoring his protesting muscles, and brushes, before slowly padding over to the kitchen.

“What’s cooking?” He murmurs tiredly, chin coming to rest on Donghyuck’s stiffening shoulders. Is he doing something wrong?

He thinks he might have, when Donghyuck simply ignores him, still hunched over the stove. He frowns, trying to remember what on earth he could’ve done, when he stiffens, everything from last night coming back to him in one fell swoop.

He can’t help but grow slightly rigid, before he’s forced to relax, because ouch, his arms and legs are cramping. He’s really glad today’s a free day, even though he knows there won’t be much resting for him.

“Look.” He murmurs as he steps back, hands dropping to his sides, “I’m sorry about what happened in the night—”

“Morning.” Donghyuck interrupts, but doesn’t say much else, still attending to the omelet he’s making.

“Right.” Mark hasn’t felt this small in front of any of his bandmates in a long time, “I’m sorry, it was wrong of me to take it out on you.”

“You ran away from me.” Accusation is strong in Donghyuck’s tone, and Mark winces at the note of hurt it carries with it.

“I’m sorry.” He knows no number of apologies will be enough.

His and Donghyuck’s friendship has always been…questionable, for lack of better word. It’s always consisted of them treading on a thin line; one misstep can fracture their relationship for a long time. Every word has to be well-thought out, else things could turn out bad. And with the way Mark is right now…well, he’s surprised Donghyuck hasn’t pushed him away already.

Donghyuck sighs noisily, breaking Mark from his reverie. He isn’t looking at him, still, but he waves a hand towards the table.

“Sit down, I’ll get you your eggs.”

“I can try?” Mark offers weakly, and feels only slightly offended when Donghyuck balks.

“And get food poisoning?” Donghyuck exclaims, shaking his head, “No way.”

“I heard we’ll need to eat Mark hyung’s terrible cooking?” Mark needs to bite back a sharp retort when Jisung enters the room, the brown-haired boy smiling serenely.

Instead, his shoulders slump at the sound of musical laughter. Well, at least he made them smile, right?

 


 

 

“Where are you going, hyung?” He stops short on his way to the door, to see Chenle blinking at him innocently. Mark grimaces—not because it’s Chenle, of course not—but because someone had to notice. He’s just glad it’s not Donghyuck, or Jeno.

“I’m just going out for a walk.” He smiles as reassuringly as he can, but not enough, because Chenle frowns, reaching out to thread his hand through Mark’s hair. Mark stiffens in surprise, but relaxes at the kind gesture.

“Don't stress out.” Chenle tells him gravely, still stuttering over some words, “Hyung should relax!”

Mark’s eyes widen, before a small smile takes over his lips; he ruffles the Chinese member’s hair for an extra-long second, before stepping back, features soft.

“Don’t worry.” He says simply, opening the door, “Hyung will take care of himself, okay?”

He sees Chenle’s unsure nod, before he shuts the door, and is left with his own thoughts.

On his trek to the dance studio, he has the time to reflect on what’s been happening for nearly a month, now (or is it more?). Gosh, Mark has promised himself so many times not to think about it, to keep it out of his mind but, well, promises are meant to be broken. And he can’t keep this one to himself.

Yesterday, during their talk with Taeyong, Renjun was half right. And Mark is so, so glad Chenle doesn’t know the whole story, so he couldn’t tell Renjun. He really admires Taeyong, looks up to him; he doesn’t want him to know when Mark’s at his lowest, and he doesn’t want his pity. What’s happening right now is a problem with Mark, and Mark only. He doesn’t want Taeyong involved (even though he loves him so much for the concern, misguided it may be).

Everything always starts simple, doesn’t it?

He did tell Taeyong the truth yesterday. Maybe not the detailed version, but truth nonetheless.

Mark knows it’s not easy to be a leader. Hell, he’s awed every time Taeyong does something responsible, something caring, and manages to bounce back into his cute self in the blink of an eye. It’s something he can only aspire to do—Taeyong is only someone he can aspire to be—and Mark has accepted that. But he still wants to do his best.

So, when Chenle was asked to stay back that day, Mark did as well.

And, when he was getting yelled at, it made Mark so, so angry. Is it Chenle’s fault when he hasn’t gotten the hang of a foreign language? Of course not, but the man didn’t see it that way.

Mark exhales shakily, stopping mid-walk, to make a beeline for the restrooms. He knows he can’t stop his tears now, so he might as well try not to be in public when it happens. His fingers are shaking as he locks himself in a cubicle, and his vision swims dizzyingly, the floor spinning from under his feet as he trips back onto the closed lid of the toilet.

He drags his hands to his hair, tears spilling from his eyes, as the cruel words come back to bite at him.

You think you’re being chivalrous or something? You have no right.”

“Is that even how you dance? Shit, how did they even cast you?”

You didn’t deserve to debut.”

 


 

 

He sighs tiredly as he pushes open the door to their dance room. No one’s inside yet, probably because they don’t have any schedules—Mark checks wall clock for the time. It’s around 11. He needs to get back by around one, so he can eat and get ready. 127 has an interview or something lined up.

Mark doesn’t exactly like the idea of being in close proximity with Taeyong, especially after yesterday, but he knows he’s got no choice. If he kicks up a fuss, they’ll probably replace him.

He sets up his phone with the stereo after warming up, blasting Chewing Gum so he can practice that a bit. He barely wobbles as he gets on the hoverboard, and does a few practice circles. His eyes are on the mirror as he dances, maneuvering his body while imagining the positions of the other members. It can’t be exact, he knows, but he needs to make sure it’s close enough.

So, when the music cuts off, Mark breathing heavily, he feels an inkling of something in his chest. Pride, because this is the best he’s danced in a long, long time. He grins stupidly at the mirror, ignoring the plum shades under his eyes, and the way his muscles scream for relief. He grins, because it’s working and he’s getting—

“Not good enough.”

He just about has a heart attack as he whirls around, no longer on his hoverboard, to see a dark-haired man push himself off the wall, narrow eyes closed in irritation. Any semblance of happiness is now gone, and Mark bites his lip.

“Kim-ssi.” He says formally, body stiff with tension, “I didn’t see you there.”

“This wasn’t satisfactory.” The man doesn’t even bother to answer Mark’s statement, which makes him grit his teeth.

“I thought I did much better!” He argues, making the man’s eyes narrow, “In fact, this is probably the best I’ve ever done—”

“’Better’ isn’t going to cut it, kid.” The man spits out, advancing slowly, “Do you think people are going to care about you, when the rest of your little group advances past you? When you’re the one left standing in the dust?”

“I’m…I’m not that bad.” Mark insists, even as his voice wavers, “We’re all doing fine, a-and—”

“You’re the leader, aren’t you?” Mark has to bite his lip to keep himself from crying out when his arm is wrenched out in a bruising grip, “Take responsibility. You need to be the best, not just better. In this industry, you can’t be good, you need to be good enough.”

“Kim-ssi,” Mark says quietly, eyes hooded, “You’re hurting me.”

The man blinks in surprise, before stepping back, letting Mark’s arm go from his painful grip.

“Right, well.” His young features curl unpleasantly, “From the top, then.”

“W-What?”

“You heard me.” Mark shrinks back at the glare directed his way, “From the top.”

“B-But,” Mark protests feebly, even as the instructor makes his way to the stereo, “I have a schedule—”

“At five, right?” The man interrupts and, at Mark’s nod, “Then you can practice till four.”

He swallows the protest that’s aching to get out, only bowing his head as his ears, his mind, his entire body, are flooded with music.

His muscles ache, but his heart aches more.

 


 

By the time he’s done, his head is ringing.

Not good enough, not good enough, notgoodenoughnotgoodenoughnot—

He doesn’t know how he’s managed to make it to the other dorms, but when he does, it’s to the sight of everyone glaring at him.

“Where have you been?” Doyoung almost literally screeches, the second Mark gets inside, “We’re going to be late!”

Mark knows Doyoung doesn’t mean anything by it—that he’s just stressed—but can’t help but flinch back, head dropping.

“Sorry hyung.” He mumbles, lips trembling, but he holds on. He wants to say I’m tired, I’m done with everything, let me go home, please can I go home? But he knows he can’t, that he signed up for this and that he probably deserves everything coming his way.

“Well, hurry up and get ready then.” Johnny snaps, and that really surprises Mark, because when has the American ever been angry at him?

He doesn’t say anything, just digs his fingers into the inside of his wrist as he beelines for the bathroom to wash up really quick. It hurts a bit, but it grounds him, makes him snap out of his haze. He can’t afford to be drowsy now, even as his stomach screams with hunger.

He curls an arm around his midsection, head dropping onto the sink counter with a dull thud. He’s…locked the door, right? As he turns to look, he’s caught off guard when warm hands push him back by the shoulders, vision adjusting slowly as they shut the door behind them.

It’s Donghyuck, who’s gazing at him knowingly, eyebrow raised and arms open.

Mark doesn’t even think about it, just barrels into the warmth and lets his tears soak the soft wool of Donghyuck’s sweater, arms wrapping around his back. He can’t get the words out of his head, the angry snarls that came with them, and the bruising grip on his forearm.

He shakes slightly, pressing closer as Donghyuck gently strokes along his scalp—he hates that he’s being so weak, but he just can’t help it. Donghyuck is his only confidant, though even he doesn’t know the entire story.

“Why do you keep doing this?” Donghyuck murmurs, unusually quiet and Mark can’t help but think it’s his own fault, “Stop beating yourself up so much.”

“I’m not good enough.” Mark blurts out, but it’s more than he means to say. Donghyuck knows it too, because Mark can feel him grow rigid in his hold; he quickly steps back, swiping at his eyes, and the sweat.

“I need to wash my face, at least.” Mark murmurs feverishly, turning on the tap and splashing some cold water onto his face. It does clear out some of his exhaustion, and he quickly dabs at his face with a towel, before moving onto his neck.

The entire time, Donghyuck’s silent, but when Mark looks up, he’s frowning.

“I know you said not to pry, and I won’t do it right now since we’re already late,” Donghyuck gestures at the door, and Mark winces because it’s his fault, “But when we get back, you are going to tell me what that shithead said to you that day.”

Not just that day. Every day.

“Language.” Is all Mark says feebly, which makes Donghyuck roll his eyes in exasperation.

“Avoid it all you want, but I’ll get you.” Donghyuck crosses his arms, but not before shoving something into Mark’s, “I’m going now, but hurry up and come out before Taeyong has an aneurysm.”

“Yeah.” Mark winces as the door slams behind the boy, and looks down at the thing in his hands: clothes. He really doesn’t know what he’d do without Donghyuck.

 


 

By the time he gets back to the living room, Taeyong’s waiting, antsy, by the door, Jaehyun’s hand pressing comfortingly into his lower back. Yuta sees Mark, and pushes himself off the wall to fling his arms around him.

Oof! Hyung!” Mark complains, though he secretly enjoys the warmth of Yuta’s body against his own.

“Shush you, where were you?” Yuta worries, stepping back and letting his gaze travel over Mark’s form, “You look so tired.”

“I was at dance practice, but I lost a track of time.” Mark murmurs quietly, so Taeyong can’t hear, “Sorry hyung.”

“Well,” Yuta frowns, but nods his assent, “Don’t let it happen again, okay? Doyoung was pretty worried too.”

“Oh.” Mark mutters, even though he wants to say that it’s ridiculous, because wasn’t Doyoung the one who yelled at him? But it doesn’t matter, Mark doesn’t matter so he stays quiet, lest everyone find a fault in him.

“Is everyone ready?” Taeyong calls, opening the door; his eyes travel over every member, as he takes a head count, but his eyes land on Mark, who bravely stares back at him. Mark hasn’t realized, but Donghyuck’s already at his side, tugging him through the door way and towards the van.

“I got you a granola bar.” Donghyuck whispers, as they get into the van, “It’s not much, but it should help.”

Mark smiles at him gratefully, making the tanned boy look away with a huff, pink hue decorating his cheeks.

 


 

 

The car ride is stiflingly silent, and Mark can hardly breathe right, much less eat his granola bar. He tries anyway, when his stomach feels like it’s eating itself inside out, but gives up when the loud crackle of the wrapper makes Doyoung stiffen and glare at him. Mark flinches back, not expecting the elder to be that pissed off that he’s late, and he looks at the treat in his hands guiltily.

Donghyuck squeezes his thigh in what’s supposed to be a comforting motion but, to Mark, it seems pitying. And he hates it, so, so much.

He tucks the bar back into his pocket, deciding to eat it after the show or something. He can survive for a day, he decides, without needing to eat something. He had breakfast anyway, so it should be enough, right?

He doesn’t realize that he probably should’ve braved through it, despite Doyoung’s obvious irritation. Sure, his hyung would be pissed off for a bit, but he’d eventually get over it. But right now, Mark’s head isn’t straight. He’s tired and he’s famished but, above it all, he’s eager to please. He doesn’t want to get kicked out. So, he does what he thinks best.

 

 

Bad idea.

Chapter Text

Taeyong can feel the tension permeating the air, even from the front. He chances a glance at the back, where he sees Doyoung’s face scrunched up in displeasure, and Johnny’s resulting mood. Taeil looks vaguely uncomfortable, while Sicheng’s playing a game on his phone. Jaehyun meets his eyes, shrugging slightly as if to say, ‘I have no idea what’s happening’.

When he looks further back, though, at the rear seats, he sees Mark and Donghyuck looking particularly on edge. Yuta’s at the window, fast asleep, but Donghyuck seems to be murmuring something into Mark’s ear. Taeyong isn’t too worried about that knowing that, despite not wanting to show it, Donghyuck really does care about Mark.

No, what makes Taeyong worry is the frown marring Mark’s features. That, and the almost unreal paleness to his cheeks, that makes him look like death incarnate. Has he been eating right, or skipping meals? No, that can’t be right, he’s seen Mark eating rather heartily, before.

Taeyong still resolves to find out later, though.

 


 

 

“Alright guys, let’s go!” He calls, internally praying that everyone can actually hear him. They’re all dressed up now, makeup decorating their faces. It’s coated all over Taeyong’s cheeks and forehead, even neck. and it makes his features too stiff to move right. But it’ll ease off, he knows.

Luckily for him, some higher power out there must have heard his prayers, because they actually listen to him and obediently form into lines of two, like they’ve practiced so many times before. Taeyong, in particular, has no one to partner with, so to speak, but Jaehyun’s presence is comforting, from behind his back.

He peeks at the end of the line from the corner of his eye, gaze landing on Mark almost immediately. He feels a bit of a loss, considering that the younger has managed to avoid him so spectacularly so far, but vows to himself that it isn’t going to last through the day. He’s going to get to the bottom of things.

“Hyung?” He starts slightly when Sicheng first speaks, but relaxes quickly enough, turning to face one of his loveliest dongsaengs with a soft smile.

“Yeah, Win?” He addresses him affectionately, rewarded with a small, bashful smile, “What’s up?”

“Mark…looks sad.” Sicheng whispers, stuttering slightly over the pronunciation, “Hyung…will talk to him?”

“I plan to.” Taeyong assures, before something occurs to him, “Hey, do you know why Mark’s sad?”

Unfortunately, Sicheng shakes his head with a sad frown tugging at his full mouth.

“No.” He admits, biting his lip, “Hyung will find out?”

“Yeah.” Taeyong smiles at him with more confidence than he actually has, and claps him on the shoulder, “Hyung will find out what the problem is. Don’t worry.”

His heart is troubled, though, as he turns back to face the set. And, even as they’re called onto the set, his mind races, even as his lips pull up. Taeyong’s always been a good liar, and he’ll never forget that.

 


 

 

The interview is going well enough. Doyoung, luckily, has gotten over his terrible mood, and is smilingly exchanging jokes with one of the MCs in light-hearted jest. They’ve all got their scripts, sure, but they can ad-lib too, as long as it’s harmless; and, Doyoung’s always been particularly good at that.

Taeil is quiet, as usual, though he occasionally lets out a comment or two that has the rest of them choking on their laughter. Yet, Taeyong can see that neither of their maknaes have that same cheer. It’s rather off-putting, to be honest.

“Mark?” He’s cut off from his thoughts when one of the MCs calls out to the younger rapper, and he instinctively makes eye contact with the blonde; only for the boy to break it off, and smile cheerily at the interviewer, “I know this must be a question you’re asked often, but which of the hyungs would you like to be for a day, if you had the chance?”

She’s right, it’s a pretty common question, and Mark has a pretty standard answer to this, but with how things have been going recently, Taeyong isn’t sure—

“Of course, it’d be Taeyong hyung!” Mark laughs forcedly, and the words make Taeyong freeze, “He’s an amazing rapper, and an even better leader…I think that’s something incredible, really. He’s an inspiration.”

He even adds his usual ‘ball of fluff’’ smile towards the end of the sentence, making the interview coo, despite the pinched element to his features. Taeyong flashes a quick grin at him, not just for the cameras, but out of gratefulness; he didn’t think Mark would say something so meaningful, especially with how much he’s avoiding him now. To Taeyong, it means the world.

 


 

 

“I can’t wait to get home and crash.” Taeil’s telling him as they go towards the changing rooms together, to take off the suffocating makeup, “Jaehyun was telling me you stayed up pretty late too?”

“Ah, yeah.” Taeyong agrees quietly, “I was waiting for Mark, hyung.”

“He didn’t show up, did he?” Taeil frowns, looking disapproving for all of two seconds, before he sees Taeyong’s expression, and his indignation disappears, “There’s something more to this, isn’t there?”

“Yeah.” Taeyong confesses, “Honestly, hyung, something’s wrong with him—and everyone in Dream. I don’t know what it is, but—”

“Wait,” The both of them freeze at the unexpected voice behind them, turning around with guilty eyes to face Doyoung, who’s standing there with his arms crossed, “How do you even know that?”

“You didn’t see Mark yesterday, he was…” Taeyong searches for a word to describe the sight, but comes up blank, “It was really bad.”

“Right.” Doyoung still looks dubious, but his eyes soften.

“Haven’t any of them told you anything?” Taeil stresses, looking slightly concerned, “Maybe ask one of the younger kids?”

“Jaemin said Mark’s getting bullied,” Taeyong confessed, “And when I asked Renjun and Mark later, they just said—”

“You lied to me.” Taeyong pauses at the unexpected voice, dread filling his gut when he sees Jaehyun frowning at him, eyes alight with hurt, “How did you talk to them yesterday?”

“I, uh…” He fidgets on the spot as Taeil and Doyoung, as per some silent agreement, both turn to leave to the scene, “Jaehyun, I—”

The taller male steps forward, making Taeyong take a tiny one back.

“I said to sleep after Mark got home, didn’t I hyung?” His eyes don’t even show any anger, only the pain, and that makes Taeyong’s heart bleed from the guilt.

“He didn’t come home, though!” Taeyong insists, hands shaking as he hides them at his sides, “I called him and he said he was at the Dream dorms—”

“So, you should’ve slept!” Jaehyun spits out, and his touch feels like it’s burning through Taeyong’s thin shirt, “Like I asked you to!”

“You didn’t hear him yesterday, Jaehyun!” Taeyong finally snaps, shoving Jaehyun’s hands off him, “And you didn’t see him either! I’m…”

He drops his head, pulling back, “I’m scared for him, Jae.”

He sees Jaehyun’s eyes soften, and hears his sigh.

“You do things I ask you not to, hyung.” Jaehyun breathes out tiredly, and his arms are pulling Taeyong in, so that he’s breathing in his comforting scent, “I just say those things because I don’t want you to stress yourself.”

“I know.” Taeyong curls his fingers around the nape of Jaehyun’s neck to give him a tiny kiss to his jaw—a silent apology—before he steps back, “But I’m still worried about Mark.”

Jaehyun stares at him for a terrifyingly quiet moment, before nods, eyes steely.

“Right, then.” He decides, “We’ll ask Mark about it when we get back to the dorms. But hyung, you should probably stop stressing so much.”

“Okay.” Taeyong gives a half-hearted nod, not entirely convinced.

The both of them startle when loud footsteps echo around the corridors, Donghyuck appearing in a flushed mess of hair and sweat.

“It’s Mark!” He half-sobs out when Taeyong looks at him with alarm, “M-Mark, he f-fainted and—”

“Where is he?” Jaehyun asks urgently, because Taeyong’s frozen, hardly able to breathe because what happened to Mark, why’d it happen and why couldn’t Taeyong see this coming he’s a useless leader.

“Near the water coolers, by the other changing room, oh God.” Donghyuck’s eyes are watery, and Taeyong wants to point out that he’s never pegged him to be the emotional type, but it doesn’t befit the situation at hand and also, Taeyong can’t breathe.

“Right.” Jaehyun grabs Taeyong by the shoulders, forcing him to look him in the eye, “Hyung, go. I’ll take care of Donghyuck.”

“Huh?” Taeyong’s still a little out of it, but he understands at the squeeze of Jaehyun’s hands and jumps into action, racing away even before it occurs to him, “R-Right!”

He dashes through the corridors madly, retracing his steps, and nearly stumbles over himself when he sees Sicheng hovering worriedly around someone. He sees Yuta’s mop of silvery-grey hair, but it dims out of focus when he catches sight of Mark’s pale, pale face, cradled in Yuta’s lap.

“Did you try making him wake up?” Taeyong asks quickly, body moving on autopilot at Sicheng’s helpless shake of the head.

His legs fold from under him as he kneels near Mark’s head, taking his thin, slim features—he never was this gaunt—before he taps the side of Mark’s cheek, trying to get him to stir. It takes a while, but in nearly half a minute, Mark’s eyes flutter, and his lips part, as he groans tiredly.

“Mark?” Taeyong calls softly, as he looks around for something, anything, and his gaze lands on a stack of papers sitting innocently on a table nearby, “Baby, can you open your eyes for me?”

“M-Mark.” Yuta chokes out, carding his hands through Mark’s blonde tresses, “Wake up, please.”

Taeyong starts to fan him with the stack, after folding it once, to get him some air.

“Stay back, Sicheng.” He barks out, feeling slightly guilty when the boy rushes to do so, making up his mind to apologize later, “Shit, where’s everyone else?”

True enough, the corridor is entirely deserted except for the three of them, and shit, no, Taeyong needs to focus.

“Should we take him somewhere else?” Yuta suggests, and Taeyong quickly shakes his head.

“No, let him stay like this for a little while.” He instructs, only to falter when Mark actually opens his eyes.

“Mark.” Sicheng breathes out in relief, still a respectable distance away.

“H-Hyung?” Mark croaks out, and then he’s struggling to push himself up, “W-What happened, I—”

“Shh, Hyung’s here.” Taeyong coos gently, slowly pushing him down, before turning to face Sicheng.

“Get me a bottle of water as fast as you can.” He orders, and poor Sicheng nearly trips over in his haste to find it.

Mark’s face, meanwhile, scrunches up in confusion, before a dawning realization; and, Taeyong can’t be imagining things when there’s a glimmer in his eyes.

“N-No.” He chokes out, eyes scrunching and no, not tears please, “I m-messed up, hyung, I’m s-sorry, I’m sorry—”

“Hey!” Taeyong interjects, vision beginning to blur with his own tears, “Mark, Minhyung, don’t say that, Hyung’s right here, you did fine baby.”

He doesn’t have any idea what Mark’s apologizing for, but it doesn’t matter, not when he’s a teary mess, and especially not when Yuta looks like he’s about to have an aneurysm right there.

“Here, let me.” Yuta obligingly allows him to take Mark from him, propping the teen against his shoulder, so that puffs of air hit his collar bone every time Mark breathes.

The worry doesn’t lessen, however, as he feels his shirt slowly dampening with every one of Mark’s stuttering breaths, and he soothingly rubs circles into his back. Before he knows it, Mark’s hiccupping into his neck, body almost entirely enveloping Taeyong’s lap, and when he meet’s Yuta’s confused eyes over his shoulder, he doesn’t know what to do.

“Hyung, what’s happening?” Yuta asks urgently, and Taeyong really wants to rip his hair out.

He doesn’t, though, just whispers an, “I don’t know” that has him feeling weaker than ever before. He tries asking Mark instead, murmuring his concern into his ear only for it to double, when Mark just shakes harder, clinging to him more tightly.

By then, Sicheng’s back, a frazzled Jaehyun and Taeil in tow. Taeyong wordlessly take the proffered water bottle, twisting open the cap and coaxing Mark into taking a couple of sips.

“Mark,” He murmurs gently, nudging Mark’s cheek with his shoulder, “You need to drink some water.”

Mark shakes his head, burrowing closer.

“D-Don’t deserve it.” He whimpers, mouth downturned, “O-Oh God—”

“None of that.” Taeyong gently admonishes, biting his lip to stop his own tears, pressing the head of the bottle against Mark’s trembling lips, “Drink this, okay?”

He successfully gets Mark to take a couple of tiny gulps, when he finally registers the low murmur of voices, the most prominent of those being their manager’s.

“Let go of him, Taeyong, we need to get him to the car.” His manager says, though not unkindly, but Taeyong shakes his head, pulling Mark closer to him, “Taeyong.”

He wordlessly lets them take Mark from him, arms decidedly feeling colder. The blonde’s still out of it, stumbling lightly as he’s helped to his feet, with the weak cry of ‘hyung’ coming out occasionally, but Taeyong is numb to it all. He lets Jaehyun pull him into his warmth, normally comforting but now suffocating.

“Hyung, why’re you crying?” Jaehyun asks, brows furrowed in concern.

Taeyong only then realizes his cheeks are damp.

 


 

 

It’s undernourishment.

Taeyong sits there, quietly, as his manager talks to him in slow, soothing tones. The man means well, Taeyong knows, but he can’t force himself to listen past the first two sentences.

“—which is why we’re thinking of admitting him to a hospital.” The man is saying, and that gets Taeyong’s attention, because he jumps to his feet, anger burning in his eyes.

“No.” He snaps out, making his manager balk in shock.

“But Taeyong, listen here—”

“No, you listen.” Taeyong snarls, evidently startling the man, “Mark is fine. There’s something else that’s bothering him, but I intend on figuring that out myself.”

“He could be suffering,” Their manager stresses, “From an eating disorder—”

“That’s not the problem!” Taeyong finally yells out, jumping to his feet, “That’s not the problem, and everyone knows it! You know it too, hyung!”

“Fine, fine!” The man holds his hands up in a placating gesture, eyes softening, “Fine, I’ll let you figure this out, but you haven’t got much time.”

“Thank you.” Taeyong’s dimly aware he’s shaking, as he settles back, voice growing smaller, “Thank you.”

 


 

 

“Donghyuck!” He calls urgently, as he steps into their silent dorms, “I need to speak to you!”

“Jeez, be a little quiet, hyung!” Donghyuck steps out from one of the rooms, “Mark’s sleeping.”

“Oh.” Taeyong is mute for a moment, before he nods, “That’s good.”

Donghyuck eyes him, looking older than his age for a mere second, before he sighs.

“You want to ask about what’s bothering him.” Donghyuck says flatly, and Taeyong nods, “Well, you might want to sit down for this.”

“How bad is it?” Taeyong inquires, as he settles across from Donghyuck on the couch, “It already looks kind of bad, but…”

“It’s…” Donghyuck hesitates, and Taeyong knows he isn’t going to like his answer, “It’s bad.”

“Look, I know the basics,” Taeyong says urgently, hands pressing into his knees, “Renjun told me that Mark essentially got yelled at, along with Chenle, but I don’t get how that’s related to anything.”

“As much as I hate to break Mark’s trust, he didn’t tell you the main thing.” Donghyuck bites his lip, “Look, Chenle actually left before Mark, so he had to hear a bunch of things that I don’t know the details of. But it’s made him really insecure and he always goes to practice his dancing now, for inhumane amount of times.”

“He’s overworking?” Taeyong says incredulously, despite being guilty of it himself, “Shit.”

His fists curl in rage, vision tinting an angry red, at the thought of the man who did this to his dongsaeng. To Mark.

Don’t go doing anything stupid, hyung, seriously.” Donghyuck warns, mouth thinning, “It’s not going to help.”

“Fine, I won’t.” Taeyong bites out with more venom than intended, making Donghyuck flinch back in surprise, and guilt eases its familiar weight into his bones, “Sorry.”

“Right.” Donghyuck eyes him warily, as he gets up to leave, “You should also probably sleep.”

“Yeah.” Taeyong nods.

 


 

Taeyong doesn’t sleep. Can’t.

He stumbles his way to the dance room, finding it empty and carelessly tossing his hat into a corner. He doesn’t turn on the lights, doesn’t try to turn on any music, just moves. Tries to dance his stress away, with every turn, every pivot, every movement defining the rage, and the pure, pure helplessness he’s feeling right now.

He wants to be able to help Mark, the sight of his red-rimmed eyes and guilt-bitten lips imprinted forever to Taeyong’s mind. It’s simply torturous, but he knows he has to keep it to himself, has to figure things out first. He can’t possibly bring the rest of his group in on this mess; he needs to brave through it himself.

Gosh, why does this have to happen to them?

 

 

As Taeyong drops to his knees, bead of sweat rolling down his sharp jaw, he finds no answer.

Chapter Text

Mark messed up.

Mark messed up so bad.

He messed up so, so bad.

 

He should’ve…he should’ve eaten that granola bar. If he did, he wouldn’t be here right now, staring pointedly at the wall, nestled comfortably in Donghyuck’s bed. A flood of shame rushes through him at the thought; he’s inconveniencing his only confidant by doing this. Donghyuck has his own problems, he doesn’t need this heaped him on top of him too.

Mark’s supposed to be the one who everyone can turn to, can confide in, and he used to manage it all so well and now it’s just slipping out of his fingers and—

Oh god.

He still remembers what happened on set today. Taeyong’s wild, desperate eyes locked on his own—his pleading gaze—and Mark just wouldn’t tell him and everything went to hell. And it’s not like he doesn’t want to, it’s just…he can’t, at this point. Mark did this to himself. He deserves to suffer for making a mistake like that.

Taeyong is…Taeyong is everything Mark wants to be. He’d thought, before, that he was at the lowest point he could reach, but Mark was wrong then. Mark’s always wrong, these days.

 

 

There’s nowhere to go, but up.

 

 

Once, this inspired him, but now it’s just like something’s weighing him down more and more, the harder he tries to resist. Like a current—tides carrying him away—only there’s no end to this. Mark’s drowning, but nothing ends. It’s only the deep dark, and him. He used to break out from under the depths, occasionally, for air, but now there’s nothing to pull him back up except for—

“Taeyong hyung was just here.” Donghyuck’s standing at the door, watching Mark with cautious eyes.

“Oh?” He rolls over onto his back, muscles protesting even for the slightest movement, “What…what did you say?”

He hopes it doesn’t sound as uncertain as he feels, because if Donghyuck were to tell him, Mark doesn’t know what he’d do. Taeyong can’t find out how insufficient he is. How inadequate.

“Told him you were asleep.” Donghyuck shrugs nonchalantly, but Mark can hear the disdain in his voice, “He’s worried about you, y’know.”

“I guess.” Mark can’t believe it himself, but every time he thinks about it, he remembers the dizzying rush of emotions in Taeyong’s eyes, from before, “But there’s nothing to be worried about.”

“Shut up.” Donghyuck bites out, bed dipping under his weight, “You looking like absolute shit, is entirely not okay. We call you the Golden Boy, but that doesn’t actually have to mean anything.”

 

Doesn’t have to mean anything. Just like you.

 

“Look, Hyuck, just drop it, okay?” Mark groans, shielding his eyes with his arm; he doesn’t want Donghyuck to see the glimmer of tears in his eyes.

“No, I won’t.” Donghyuck moves closer; Mark can feel his weight moving around, but startles when slender fingers are placed against his cheeks, “And I know you’re crying, Lee Minhyung, don’t you dare deny it.”

“I’m not c-crying.” Mark disagrees, even as they trail their way down to meet the tips of Donghyuck’s fingers, “I’m just—”

“Sweating?” The younger boy offers dryly, “From your eyes.”

Mark rolls over, smushing his face into the pillow. He feels like a baby again. He’s not a baby, though, so he shouldn’t cry like this. Like some weakling.

He hears Donghyuck sigh.

“Look, you aren’t doing yourself a favor by doing this.” The vocal says, and Mark wants to squeeze his ears shut too, because stop talking, just stop, “We want to help you!”

“I can solve this on my own, okay!” Mark finally snaps, sitting up, back straight. He isn’t thinking clearly, as he glares at Donghyuck, the brunette staring back in obvious surprise, “I don’t need your help, nor anyone else’s!”

“What the hell!” Donghyuck retorts, eyes glaring daggers back, “I’m worried about you, you idiot! You can’t keep overworking yourself like this, and—”

“Shut up!” Mark finally screams, eyes shut, fingers digging into his scalp, “Shut up, you’re wrong!”

There’s only silence, save for Mark’s heavy breathing, and it’s only then that he realizes what he’s done, what he’s done, what has he done.

He looks up, hesitantly, only to see that Donghyuck’s features seem eerily calm.

“I’m wrong.” He finally says after a while, and Mark flinches back, though he knows he deserves it, “I’m wrong.”

He shakes his head, then, backing away, and Mark reaches out an unsure hand, wanting to stop him but—

It’s too late.

The door clicks behind him, and shrouds the room in darkness. It shrouds Mark in darkness.

 

 

 

 

For the first time, Mark actually feels what it’s like to be alone. He hates it.

 


  

“Hey, Mark?” He looks up from his touchpad, the next day, to see Jaemin hovering at his side uncertainly. Mark feels a stab of guilt at seeing one of his friends acting so weird around him (and it’s all his fault), so he plasters on a convincing smile—as good as he can get, anyway—and raises an eyebrow.

Not convincing enough, it seems, from Jaemin’s hesitant features, but Mark ploughs on anyway.

“What’s up?” He asks as casually as he can, “Is something wrong?”

“Yeah, but I…” Jaemin pauses, eyes trailing over Mark’s features, biting his lip, “I don’t know, hyung, you look kind of busy. I’ll let you get back to your work!”

He scampers off, leaving Mark on his own, confused and, unsurprisingly, remorseful.

 


 

 

Mark lounges on the couch, that very same evening, flipping lazily through TV channels. Jisung’s at the other end of the couch—normally he’d be right at Mark’s side—and the space looming between them has never seemed so huge. He wants to say something, but Jisung beats him to it.

“Hyung,” He says slowly, “You’re not okay, are you?”

Mark’s breath catches in his throat, and before he can even think to deny it, he’s interrupted.

“Everyone can see it, y’know.” Jisung pokes absently at the loose strings of his blanket, “We’re not stupid, hyung.”

For a 15-year-old, Mark thinks, he’s pretty perceptive.

“I’m fine.” He brushes off Jisung’s concern, before leaning closer, “Is something up with Jaemin, though?”

He remembers the uncertainty in the younger boy’s face, his unwillingness to divulge to Mark. He’s being a bad leader, isn’t he?

Jisung hesitates.

“Yes?” He says it like a question, before shrugging, “I don’t know? Jaemin doesn’t usually tell me stuff, you know that.”

“Jeno, then?” Mark bites his lip.

“Probably.” Jisung shrugs yet again, and he’s frowning—did Mark annoy him again, he’s always annoying everyone—when he gets up to leave, “Don’t talk to us until you get yourself sorted out first, hyung.”

Mark is left gaping uselessly at the door, watching his retreating back. The internal chant of not good enough comes back at him, in the voice of the very same person who instilled that phrase into his mind; not knowing what to do, Mark’s body moves on autopilot, putting on some old shoes and grabbing a coat in case it would get chilly outside.

There’s no Donghyuck to hold him back.

He doesn’t even think of where he’s heading, feet moving all on their own; and, as he reaches the dance studio, he thinks to himself that this is a terrible idea—that he shouldn’t be doing this.

His hand reaches for the door anyway.

 


 

 

By the time he’s done, Mark’s panting heavily, on his knees. He manages to crawl his way to the mirror panels lining the wall, back slumping against it as he tilts his head back in exhaustion. A quick glance at his watch tells him the time: 10:45PM.

It hasn’t been long, right? Mark squints at his watch, trying to remember when he came. Well, it doesn’t matter. What matters is that he improves. That he does everything right. That he is the SM Golden Boy, or whatever they call him.

(even though he isn’t, he isn’t even close)

Mark has never liked to pretend, yet it looks like he’s going to have to anyway. He doesn’t want to get kicked out.

He contemplates going back home. And, as appealing as that sounds, his limbs feel too heavy to move. He pushes himself off the mirror wall, lying on the ground instead, letting its cool surface press against his heated cheeks. He blinks, mouth parting in surprise when he sees a familiar snapback tossed to the side: it’s Taeyong’s.

He must have practiced too, right? That’s why his hat’s here, thrown carelessly to the side. That means Taeyong puts in a lot of effort to be so perfect. Which means Mark should as well.

Mark tries to get up, but his legs buckle from under him, making his eyes widen. An involuntary yelp leaves his lips as he comes crashing down, the side of his hip bearing most of his weight.

 

Pain, pain, pain, hurts—

 

Mark gasps as he gingerly presses a hand to the jut of his hip, eyes clenching shut at the throbs of pain sent tingling down his spine. He’s going to have to walk strange, and no, how’s he going to dance, he’s already useless?

They have a practice scheduled for tomorrow, and he’s going to have to dance. Meaning he’s going to need to distribute his weight in an uneven way, and that’s going to put a ton of pressure on his bruised side.

He’s such a fuck up.

Mark presses a shaking hand to his mouth. He can’t cry, especially not now. Not when he’s got to think straight for one moment in your stupid life, Lee.

Their practice is first thing in the morning, at 8 or so. If Mark isn’t wrong, everyone in the Dream dorms should be asleep, now, so he doesn’t necessarily need to go back. No one’s going to notice, anyway. Eyeing the empty room, Mark gives himself a nod, eyes steeling in determination.

He can make do with this.

As he props himself against the wall again, Mark breathes heavily. This is taking a lot more out of him than he thought. He should’ve brought his phone or something, he could’ve called someone—

No. He’d just burden them.

He tries closing his eyes to go to sleep instead, but every time he does, he can only see Taeyong’s worried gaze staring into him, and the familiar weightlessness of the fall. It’s burned into the back of his eyelids, like a permanent mark. Isn’t that funny?

 

 

Mark doesn’t get much sleep, that night.

 


 

 

He’s awoken to the feel of hands roughly shaking his body, making a pained whine leave his lips out of reflex. His side throbs.

“Wake up, kid!” A familiar voice hisses in anger, “Did you come here to slack?”

It’s only then that Mark’s scattered ideas form a cohesive thought, and he balks, eyes flying open to come face to face with him.

Instructor Kim is staring down at him with those disappointed eyes, and he curls in on himself out of reflex. He feels small again, like he does with Taeyong sometimes, but this is different. He feels a pinprick of actual fear this time.

“Well?” The man demands, eyes narrowing, “Aren’t you going to get up?!”

Before Mark even gets the chance to explain himself, let the man know that he’s starting to get re-oriented with everything again, the instructor nudges Mark with his foot. Hard. In his thigh.

He can’t help the whimper of pain that leaves his lips, hand flying to cradle the injured area, body turned inward to shield himself. Everything hurts, and he can hardly focus now, brain only ringing with cries of pain, pain, painpainpain—

“Get the hell up!”

Mark gets to his knees, teeth grit together in effort. A bead of sweat rolls down his forehead at the effort, and he doesn’t bother to wipe it away. Instructor Kim’s right. Mark can’t be lazing around, especially when he’s got so much to catch up on.

He manages to stagger to his feet, and pants heavily when the movement sends jolts of more pain along his thigh.

“Could I…” He winces at the taste in his mouth, clearing his throat before continuing, “Could I go brush, sir?”

“No.” Kim frowns, “Practice starts in 10 minutes.”

“I’ll make it quick!” Mark tries, desperately; he can’t focus like this, “Please.”

“I said no.” Mark startles when his hands come down on Mark’s shoulders with bruising force, flinching back at the intensity in the man’s dark eyes, “You don’t need to do that. It’s okay to skip it for one day. You don’t want to get left behind, right?”

The tone makes it clear he wants an answer, and Mark drops his gaze, the familiar curl of shame flushing through him.

“No sir.” He says quietly, eyes glazing over.

“In that case.” Instructor Kim breathes heavily, “Dedicate yourself. Don’t slack off like you always do.”

“I won’t.” Mark whisper. His head’s numb.

“Good.”

He stumbles slightly when he’s pushed back from the loss of contact, but quickly regains his footing—and just in time, too, because the door flies open, and Donghyuck comes strutting in.

His eyes meet Mark’s glossy ones, before they snap away and he goes over to the other side of the room. The rest of his group marches in behind him, and Mark can see their unease as they glance between him and Donghyuck. The tension in the room is palpable, and he stiffens when Jeno trains his eyes on him, like a hawk.

He tries his best not to limp as he collects his hoverboard and steps on. It’s harder to contain, as the song progresses, and he keeps needing to shift his weight from one side to the other. He’s stupid though, because he ends up veering slightly off, and nearly misses his time, and even almost collides into the other members.

Not to mention that when they move on, practicing the moves for My First and Last, he actually knocks into the other members, and the near failures from the previous dance pale in comparison to the discord he creates again. And he feels terrible, but he can’t help, because there’s very little he can focus on to take his mind off the pain.

It garners him some dark looks too, mostly from their instructor—he swallows over the lump in his throat at that—and a few from Donghyuck. The latter’s stare, though, is less piercing, less harmful. Mark feels safer, somehow, when Donghyuck looks at him but that’s ridiculous, he shouldn’t burden anyone like that.

 


 

 

“Mark, stay back!” Their instructor calls, arms crossed disapprovingly, “Everyone else can leave.”

He sees Jaemin and Renjun hesitate, but at Mark’s subtle nod, they too turn to leave. It hurts, though, when Donghyuck doesn’t even look back before leaving, Jisung doing the same. As the door clicks softly shut behind them, Mark doesn’t look up, already anticipating what’s next.

Anticipating it, though, doesn’t help, and Mark cries out when his arm is wrenched up, pinned by the wrist against the wall. It matches the slow thump his hip makes.

“Are you fucking deaf?” Kim hisses, eyes flashing terribly, and Mark wants to disappear, “Did you not hear a word I said today?”

“I’m sorry.” Mark’s mouth is sandpaper dry, “But I hurt my hip yesterday, and it’s been throwing my balance off—”

“Again with the excuses!” Mark wrist bursts into pain when it’s squeezed even harder, “How many times do I have to tell you this: your pain. Doesn’t. Matter.”

Mark isn’t sure what to expect, now, but he certainly doesn’t expect the man’s hand to drop to Mark’s side and no

“No, no, it hurts!” Mark’s eyes tear up at the pain, as the man’s hand brutally digs into his injured hip; he’s breathing unevenly, and his vision blurs as his head drops into the man’s shoulder, chest heaving, “Stop, stop it, please!”

“You think this hurts?” He doesn’t even move his hand, leaving Mark writhing in agony, stabs of pain racing along his side, “This is nothing compared to the pain you’ll feel when you get kicked out.”

“I’m sorry,” Mark cries out, sobs finally breaking through his throat, “I’m sorry, please make it stop!”

He struggles to breath as the hand leaves his side, instead carding through his hair in a parental gesture—Mark feels sick.

“I’m sorry I had to do that.” Their instructor hums, even as Mark continues to shed his tears, hip numb from the pain “But you need to understand. I only want what’s best for you.”

“Y-Yes sir.” Mark hiccups out, cheeks damp, “I under…I understand.”

A non-committal pat, and a “Good.” Then, the man’s gone, door swinging shut behind him.

Mark remains behind, now slumped against the wall, on his butt, knees drawn protectively to his chest to hide his face as he cries. His hip stings, again, but more viciously, making his head pound from the pain.

Mark can’t do this anymore. He can’t, he can’t, he doesn’t care if he gets kicked out anymore, he wants this to end, please. He’s scared, he’s so scared, please take him away somewhere, please.

 

 

 

“This is nothing compared to the pain you’ll feel when you get kicked out.

 

 

 

But even that is nothing in the face of what he’s feeling right now. He can’t do this anymore.

He doesn’t know what he needs. He wants warmth, needs it. He wants to burrow himself someplace safe, wants to find that one ray of light. He needs someone, anyone to help him, he’s so desperate and god, he can’t move, everything hurts so much, why isn’t anyone here to help him?

His fists curl loosely as he pulls into himself, vision beginning to darken. His body can’t take any more of the stress, starting to shut down. And that’s when he starts to get an epiphany, with a startling sense of clarity, and it makes his eyes water some more, even with the black spots dotting his sight.

He doesn’t need something, he needs someone, he needs—

 

Hyung.” He claws weakly at his thigh to keep himself awake, but his eyes begin to slip shut even at his feeble resistance, “Taeyong hyung.”

 

His hands tremble as they try to grasp at someone who’s not there, and the world fades away.

Chapter Text

Taeyong knows he promised Donghyuck he wouldn’t do anything stupid. And that conviction lasted for precisely 24 hours before he couldn’t take any more of that itchiness in his bones and shot up straight. He remembers, vaguely, startling Jaehyun, who was trying to read a book.

Where are you going?” Jaehyun called, and Taeyong hadn’t even bothered to answer him, mind entirely set on one thing only.

Even now, as he hurriedly storms into the SM office, his mind is set to entirely one thing, and that’s finding answers. He just needs to…actually figure out where to go.

Taeyong’s only ever been here a couple of times, and that’s only to see the Big Bad himself: Lee Sooman. Unfortunately, that’s just a straight trip to the topmost floor, in the elevator, so Taeyong doesn’t actually know his way around that well. But, well, that’s what receptionists are for.

“Uh, hi?” He tries, leaning over the counter so that the person tapping away at the keyboard—a younger woman, around his age—can hear him, “I need your help finding someone?”

“Yes, of course!” Her pleasant smile is entirely wiped off her lips when she sees Taeyong, though, and they curl into an angry sneer, “What are you doing here?”

“E-Excuse me?” Taeyong actually starts back, staring at her with wide eyes; he doesn’t understand.

“Yeah, I know you’re an idol.” She says angrily, eyes furious, “But what you did is a terrible thing, and you shouldn’t even be on stage.”

He draws into himself and, with a startling bit of clarity, understands. But he wishes he doesn’t. He knows his past isn’t the best (it’s the worst, just like him) and there isn’t a day that goes by when he doesn’t regret it, but he shoves it to the back of his mind.

“I know I did a terrible thing.” He tries to placate her, even as his heart begins to bleed, “I’m truly sorry for it, and—”

“You don’t need to pretend: there are no cameras here.” She looks away haughtily, back to typing, “And you won’t be getting any assistance from me, so you can leave.”

Taeyong stands there for a moment, entirely at loss, before he grimaces and steps back.

“Okay.” His answer is quiet, small, and he quickly walks away. She doesn’t answer him anyway, and a part of him thinks that maybe he deserves it.

It takes a while, but he eventually manages to find a directory, with the name of certain staff members and their locations. His eyes flit down the large list, scanning it for the dance team and, when he finds it, he races away to the elevator. Even as his mind tries to stay fixed on the task at hand, glimpses of his mistakes shine through the cracks.

“What you did is a terrible thing.”

Taeyong knows, and he rues it.

 


 

 

When he finally reaches the fourth floor, he sighs in relief. There are signs designating which way to go, and Taeyong feels incredibly awkward as he walks through the carpeted halls. It’s eerily quiet, much like an office, or a private hospital—both places that Taeyong doesn’t prefer. He hates hospitals—especially the dentist’s.

He knows he’s just diverting his attention at this point, because he knows he doesn’t actually have anything to say. What’s he going to do: waltz up to the man and ask him about it? He can’t do that, he’s not entirely stupid.

All too fast, he’s outside the wooden door that’ll take him to the scumbag man. Dance Instructor Kim Yeongsu. Taeyong remembers.

He breathes out, and pushes the door open, stepping inside.

The second he does, though, he wishes he didn’t. There are quite a few people inside, of course there are, and Taeyong knows why—they’re the instructors for every SM group. He can see 127’s dance teacher staring at him curiously, so he ignores the other stares and inches his way towards the man.

“I’m here to see Kim Yeongsu-ssi?” Taeyong says hesitantly, as the man’s gaze pierces through him, “Is he, uh, here, Lee-ssi?”

“Yeongsu?” The man says in surprise, “What do you have to do with him, Taeyong?”

His gaze is softer than before, but Taeyong doesn’t want to divulge more than necessary.

“I just need to speak to him.”

“Is this about Dream?” Instructor Lee asks, puzzled, and at his nod, adds, “Why isn’t Mark here, then?”

“Please.” Taeyong breathes out, and the man must recognize the absolute need in his eyes, because he answers him relatively quickly after that.

“He’s not in, yet.” He explains hurriedly, “He said he had a practice with the Dream kids today, so he should be getting back right about now—”

The timing is laughable, but the door swings open, and a tall, dark haired man comes striding in.

“Oh, that’s him.” Instructor Lee says in astonishment, before grinning, only to falter when Taeyong takes purposeful steps towards the man who ruined his dongsaeng’s life, “Wait, Taeyong—!”

Taeyong blocks him out, as he approaches the man. He wants to punch him, more than anything in the world, but he holds himself back because he’s in public, and his wrists are too frail for something like that.

“Kim Yeongsu.” The man looks up in obvious surprise from his seat, no doubt at the lack of honorifics, “I need to speak to you.”

“Lee Taeyong.” He answers in the same fashion, leaning back with a lazy grin playing at his lips, “What a surprise. What can I do for you?”

“Not here.” Taeyong mutters, jerking his chin back in an obvious gesture, “Outside.”

The man obliges him, hands stuck firmly in his pockets as Taeyong leads him out. Taeyong’s mind, meanwhile, is racing, trying to figure out what so say. His pulse thumps heavily in his ears, because he cannot believe he’s actually doing this, and should he do this?

But then his mind drifts back to Mark. To the utter heartbreak in his eyes, and his sorrowful cries for him. For Taeyong. And his heart jumpstarts with determination once more.

“So?” The man asks, arms crossed, “What does the great Lee Taeyong need to come see me for, hm?”

And Taeyong already despises him, from that very one sentence, but he can’t let his guard down.

“I’m sure you have an idea.” He says stonily, and the man shrugs.

“Why don’t you enlighten me?” He suggests, lips curling into a smirk, and Taeyong can’t help but agree with his gut feeling: this guy is bad news.

“Well,” He spits out, arms crossed defensively, “It’s come to my attention that you’re mistreating certain NCT members, completely unnecessarily. They’re just kids—you’re being unreasonably harsh.”

“Me? Harsh?” Any calm façade is now gone, replaced with a terrible sneer, “I’m being realistic, Taeyong. Kids or not, they need to survive. And if they want to survive, they need to be the absolute best.”

“Look, I understand you’re…I don’t know, concerned or whatever.” Taeyong clenches his fists, breathing calmly in order to control his flaring temper, “You’re making them lose confidence in themselves and, as an instructor, that’s the exact opposite of what you’re supposed to be doing.”

He looks hard at the man, crossing his arms in what he hopes it’s defiance.

Too late, he realizes it’s defensive.

“Oh, Taeyong.” The man sighs, stopping him short; Taeyong’s eyes widen when Yeongsu takes a step forward, way too close, “Even the older kids don’t understand do they?”

“Understand what?” Taeyong doesn’t back down. He can’t, not with Mark at stake, and the anger burning through his veins.

“That nothing matters.” Taeyong shivers when those eyes meet his, “It doesn’t matter how much potential you have, how much determination, how…pretty you look…”

He flinches back when a thumb brushes across his cheek bone, before cupping his jaw tightly.

“What matters is that you stay on top.”

“Let go of me.” Taeyong’s voice doesn’t tremble, even as his hands do, “I’m asking politely.”

The man raises an amused eyebrow, before taking a step back, hand leaving Taeyong’s face. He feels relieved, at that, because it makes him uncomfortable when people stare at him like that, with a strange adoration—or obsession—in their eyes. His skin prickles uncomfortably, heating up.

“Don’t worry, I’m not interested in that.” Yeongsu smirks with absolute confidence, and Taeyong really, really wants to punch him—who does he think he is—but stiffens anyway, “You know, Mark really looks up to you.”

“…What has that got to do with anything?” Taeyong eyes him suspiciously, fully on guard; he knows Mark views him like a role model, but he doesn’t see why that’d be pointed out, of all things. Especially now.

“Everything he does now, is for you.” The words hit him like a brick to the face, “He tackles each day by the horns because he…what was it? Aspires to be you. Laughable, really, that he’s so weak and—”

What did you say?!” Taeyong’s fists curl, and he can’t hold it back anymore, fist swinging faster than he can even think, catching the man off guard. It doesn’t feel as satisfying as it sounds, because he’s winded after that—Taeyong’s never been very strong. His knuckles throb, even as the man catches his next punch, holding him back ashamedly easily.

“Why are you asking me about this, Taeyong?” He’s interrupted by a very pertinent question, but Taeyong doesn’t want to answer. Without thinking, his eyes drop to the carpeted floor, even as they smolder in anger, and the man chuckles with delight.

“Don’t tell me that Mark isn’t telling you?” He laughs mockingly, and Taeyong feels infinitely smaller, “I thought you were good, but apparently you’re not a very good leader, are you? People don’t even trust you enough to tell you things, these days.”

“That’s…that’s not true.” Taeyong feels so very powerless all of a sudden, the man bearing down on him, “You don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“The facts don’t line up, sweetie.” He coos—disgusting—and Taeyong reflexively rears back, “No one trusts you to do the right thing. No wonder too: your punch, by the way, was just a tickle.”

“Shut up.” Taeyong mutters, even though he knows it’s true in his heart; that doesn’t mean he wants to hear it, much less from a stranger, “Shut the hell up.”

“Gladly.” Yeongsu takes it in stride, before assessing him critically, “I’m sure if you look for Mark right now, he’ll spill the beans, though. It’s something you both could learn from.”

He pauses, then adds, flippantly, “He’s a crier, did you know that?”

And before Taeyong even has the time to comprehend what he just said, Kim Yeongsu is gone, leaving the brunette slant against the wall, breathing heavily in his rage. When the words sink in, though, Taeyong’s eyes widen, and all anger is erased. Instead, there is only mind-numbing fear.

What did he mean by…?

He’s…a…what...?

“Mark.” Taeyong breathes out, breaking free from the murky depths, “Mark!”

He spins around, not even sparing so much as a glance at the people he needs to push out of his way. There’s nothing on his mind, save for the steady chant of Mark, where’s Mark, what happened to him? And the dimmer, more muted string of they don’t trust you enough.

 


 

Sweat drips down his brow as he sprints towards the Dream dorms as fast as he can, breath whooshing out of his lungs and struggling to get back in. Taeyong can’t think right, as he pounds desperately on the door, and when Renjun opens it, Taeyong sees his eyes widen.

“Hyung—?” The boy starts to say, but Taeyong’s too frantic to hear him out, and cuts in.

“Mark,” He pants out, shivering, “Where’s Mark?”

“Mark?” Renjun balks, “He should still be with Instructor Kim, but—”

Fuck.” Taeyong swears, not even caring that he’s doing so in the presence of a child, and he doesn’t say anything else as he takes huge steps back unsteadily and runs for the dance studio.

A crier, a crier, crycrycry

Taeyong near breaks down the doors, when he slams them open, eyes searching around wildly for the blonde, only for his heart to jump into his throat, and his lungs to freeze.

“Mark.” He says, but it comes out like a strangled sob, and he tears towards the fallen boy, turning him onto his back, “Mark! Shit, wake up!”

Sweat dots his dongsaeng’s brow, and his breath comes out in troubled puffs. Taeyong doesn’t know what to do, because Mark’s not waking up, why isn’t he waking up?

His chest is slowly rising and falling, though, and that’s enough to temporarily soothe Taeyong, but he needs to make Mark wake up. Red hot anger burns in him at the thought of that scumbag, the one who did this. His hands are shaking but he doesn’t understand why.

Mark’s just a boy, why’s he being subjected to this?

“Wake up?” He tries again, patting Mark’s cheek softly, only to start in surprise when his hand comes back damp (with tears, no), “Oh my god, Mark!”

“Hyung.” Mark’s voice sounds weakly, and it’s laced with pain, but why, what happened?

“Can you open your eyes?” Taeyong inquires, and shit he doesn’t have a water bottle, what’s he going to do? His own throat’s parched, but he holds back his own tears.

“Hyung, I—” Mark rasps, coughing violently, voice thick, “I need your help, hyung, please.”

His eyes still don’t drift open, and Taeyong can’t help the spike of fear that rushes through him at his broken voice.

“And you’ll always get it.” He promises, “But open your eyes, please? For hyung?”

Mark groans in protest, but slowly flutters his eyelids open and Taeyong sees his red-rimmed, watery and bloodshot. Mark has been crying and Taeyong can’t, he just can’t, wait no, focus.

“Did he do this to you?” Taeyong asks seriously, as he helps Mark sit comfortably against the wall, “Just give me a yes or no, Mark.”

“…” Mark looks down, tears glossing over his eyes, and whispers, “Yes.”

Taeyong’s fists clench.

“I’m going to kill him.” He decides, eyes hard, but they soften when Mark squeezes his hand, “What’s wrong?”

“I’m sorry.” Mark sniffles, raking his free hand through his hair, “I should’ve told you from the beginning, I was…I was so stupid—”

“Did he…” Taeyong pauses, the words feeling odd in his mouth, “What did he do to you?”

“He just…” Mark shrugs, laughing brokenly, and Taeyong never wants to hear that sound again, never wants to hear it again, never, “Pointed out the truth. Poked at my insecurities. Hyung, I—”

And he’s starting to cry again, face burying into Taeyong’s neck, “Hyung, I don’t want to be an idol anymore.”

“Mark.” Taeyong breathes out in shock, “Tell me what he said to you, and I’ll tell you if I think that’s real or not.”

“It’s real, its—” Mark groans then, curling up, and Taeyong can only watch with growing horror, “It hurts.”

“Where does it hurt?” Taeyong struggles to keep his voice gentle, everything is out of control, “Hyung needs to know, Mark.”

Everywhere.” The answer comes out in a cracked whisper, before Mark’s shaking his head, glazed brown eyes meeting Taeyong’s, “My side, hyung.”

“Alright, well,” Don’t panic, don’t panic, don’t panic, “Can you stand?”

Mark shrugs pitifully.

“I don’t know.” His voice breaks, and a sob tears through his throat, “I h-haven’t tried y-yet.”

“Okay, well…” Taeyong exhales heavily, “Put your arms around me, let’s see if I can lift you up.”

He can’t. Mark’s remarkably light, but Taeyong’s not even close to being strong, hence why it’s not surprising when he nearly tumbles to the floor with Mark pressing into his back.

“You know what,” Taeyong gasps out, managing to support Mark’s weight by pulling him into his side, “I’m…I can’t do this alone, so I’ll have to call someone to help.”

I can’t do anything on my own, is really what he wants to say, I’m weak, just like everyone says.

“Okay.” Mark whispers, tilting his head so that it’s pressed to Taeyong’s chest, “Hyung, I’m…I’m really tired.”

“Go to sleep, then.” Taeyong encourages, pulling out his phone as he cards his hands through Mark’s wavy hair, “I’ll be right there when you wake up.”

It takes a bit of effort, but he finally manages to unlock his phone, even with Mark pinning down one of his arms. The younger rapper’s slack in his arms: a sign that he’s definitely asleep. Taeyong doesn’t know if it’s okay for Mark to sleep, now, but it’s better than having to sit and watch him go through so much pain.

Not that Taeyong’s helped.

The phone rings, tantalizingly, in his ears, and his head pounds from anxiety, breath escaping shakily. Taeyong doesn’t know what he’s going to do if Jaehyun doesn’t pick up now, because he knows he needs to get Mark out of here, and Jaehyun’s leagues stronger than he is.

Hello? Taeyong?

Taeyong nearly cries with relief when he hears Jaehyun’s voice filtering through the line.

“J-Jaehyun,” He says shakily and—well, he is actually crying now—bites his lip, “Y-You need to come to the dance studio now, please. I…I…”

He’s reminded of how helpless he is, right now; how worthless he is as a leader. Unable to care for any of his members on his own, and entirely weakweakweak.

Stay there.” Jaehyun’s voice takes on a steely edge, “I’ll be there yesterday.”

The dial tone beeps, and Taeyong drops his phone onto the ground rather carelessly. His hands shake as he gently strokes Mark’s hair, eyes watering as he tries to imagine what the younger kid must be going through. Mark doesn’t deserve any of this, he doesn’t.

 

 

You’re terrible, no one trusts you, a terrible leader why don’t you ever learn, idiot—

 

 

“Taeyong!” Jaehyun’s standing at the door, shoulders heaving up and down; he’s breathing hard, “Shit, what happened?”

“Mark, he…” Taeyong can hardly get the words out, so he gives up, “Can you pick him up? I... I can’t.”

“Right, yes.” Jaehyun’s at his side, gingerly sliding his hand around Mark’s waist, hand supporting his back, before carefully picking him up bridal style, “Did he faint again?”

“No.” Taeyong doesn’t meet his worried gaze—he doesn’t deserve it—as he picks himself up, and hurries to open the door for him. “Can we talk later?”

“Yeah, but…” Jaehyun looks at him in obvious worry, “Tae, you’re looking incredibly pale.”

“Later, Jaehyun.” Taeyong closes his eyes, the pounding in his head never ceasing.

He’s tired of running away.

  


 

 

They go to the 127 dorms, of course, since it’s closer. Taeyong’s not sure how he’s even walked the tiny distance; mind numb, and steps being forced forward by his body. His thoughts are scrambled, but he comes to a startling conclusion: he’s not good enough to do this on his own.

“Hey, Tae, where’d you go—” Johnny’s the one who opens the door for them, but his eyes fly wide just as quick, “Holy shit!”

“Move aside.” Taeyong mutters, and he does, wasting no time to lead them to Mark’s room, and open the door.

It’s just as Mark left it, a few weeks ago. Taeyong feels much better when Jaehyun puts the boy down, resting his head carefully on his pillow.

“What happened?” Johnny asks, gaze serious, as he stands over the bed, “Did he faint again?”

“That’s exactly what I thought.” Jaehyun mutters, before his line of sight drifts toward Taeyong, “Tae, are you okay?”

Cold hands clasp his shoulders, and they’re a little tight, but Taeyong doesn’t have the strength to push them off. His gaze is fixed on Mark’s visage; he sees the stark contrast of his dark lashes against his pale, bony cheekbones, and the blots of purple layered under his eyes. He also sees the way Mark curls protectively into himself, looking so, so small, and Taeyong just wants to die.

He let this happen. He let this happen. He let this happen.

 

 

“Taeyong.” He slowly finds Jaehyun’s eyes, makes his eyes water as he sees the concern, the softness—he doesn’t deserve it—and, above all, the love, “Do you need to sit down?”

“I…I think so.” Taeyong doesn’t protest as he’s pushed down onto the mattress adjacent—that’s Donghyuck’s, usually—and his eyes don’t drift from Mark, “Jaehyun, I fucked up so bad.”

He pretends not to see the glance that Jaehyun and Johnny exchange, nor the silent muttering in English that gets Johnny to leave the room.

The bed dips under Jaehyun’s weight, and Taeyong reflexively curls into the body at his side, burrowing himself into Jaehyun’s warmth as he all but straddles his lap.

A sharp intake of breath, “Taeyong, you’re really hot.”

“Now’s not the time.” Taeyong turns his head, brushing his sweaty hair against the jut of Jaehyun’s collarbone, “Please.”

“No, I mean—” Jaehyun cuts himself off, before trying again, softer, “You’re burning up.”

“Oh.”

That would explain a lot. The headache, the tiredness, the shaking, and the coolness of Jaehyun’s normally warm fingers against his temple. But Taeyong can’t afford to think about it.

“It doesn’t matter right now.” He insists, “I…I need to watch out for Mark, I need to…need to take care of him.”

I haven’t done so already, I’m a terrible hyung I shouldn’t have become leader and it’s all my fault Mark’s like this, allmyfault—

Jaehyun’s chin comes to rest on the crown of Taeyong’s head, and he hums something unintelligible.

He starts whispering something into Taeyong’s ears, but his mind can’t grasp what exactly; instead, he focuses on the slow drag of Jaehyun’s cold fingers down his overheated back, rubbing soothing circles into his skin. He’s such a fuck up, Taeyong’s such a mess

It’s then, that he hears what Jaehyun’s been saying.

“You’re okay.” The whisper comforts Taeyong more than it should, “You’re fine, babe, no more tears from you.”

 

 

 

Tears?

 

 

 

Taeyong doesn’t even realize it, but when he does, the sobs come out harder, even as his head explodes with pain.

 

 

 

 

He should’ve tried harder.

Chapter Text

Mark wakes up, vision swimming, to an unfamiliar face. Understandably, his first reaction is to freak out—ergo, grab his pillow and try to whack the figure with it.

That is, until his vision adjusts and he sees Johnny staring crossly at him, hair ruffled and messy.

“Oh, hyung.” He drops the pillow, flushing in shame, “I’m s-sorry, I didn’t see you there—”

 

Idiot. Idiot. Idiot.

 

“Y’know,” Johnny interrupts his thoughts, and Mark watches in confusion as his mouth quirks into a half-smile, “I was gonna apologize to you for totally being a dick the other day, but now we’re even.”

“What?” Mark’s confused because what’s Johnny even talking about? “You weren’t mean to me, hyung.”

“Yes, I was.” Johnny interrupts, tone firm, and Mark swallows back his protest, “I didn’t see that you were struggling and was… mean to you for no reason, Mark. It’s not excusable, so don’t you even try.”

“…Okay.” He agrees quietly, even as his mind cries its dissent, and Johnny nods with a pleased hum, “N-Not that I’m not happy to see you or anything but…why am I here, hyung?”

He looks around confusedly, seeing Donghyuck’s well-made, uninhabited bed next to his.

“Oh.” Johnny’s mouth does this strange thing, and Mark doesn’t know what expression he’s going for, “To be honest…I don’t know.”

“What?”

“Well,” Johnny looks awkwardly at the bedspread, picking absently at it, “Taeyong found you. In the dance room, all knocked out, apparently.”

“Hyung…found me?” The words taste strange in Mark’s mouth, even as Johnny nods, and he shakes his head, “In the dance—”

It all hits him at once and he gasps at the sudden tumble of emotions riding through him, the pain, fear, desperation, pain-tears-pain and Taeyong hyung, where is he?

“Taeyong hyung.” Mark chokes out, tears already dribbling down his face already. His hip stings, in a painful reminder, “Johnny hyung, where is he, please?”

“Whoa!” Johnny holds Mark back as he struggles to get out of bed—he needs to see hyung now, needs him—hands warm, but not enough, “You’re not nearly rested enough! Besides, he can’t really see you right now either.”

“What?” The last sentence gets Mark’s attention, and he shakes in his spot, “What happened to him?”

 

Is hyung hurt is he okay is he is he is he

 

“Nothing serious.” Johnny assures, pushing Mark down to lie in bed again, even though the blonde’s muscles are taut, wanting to jump up again, “Just a mild fever, he’ll be alright.”

“Fever?” Mark whispers out, words dripping off his tongue like acid, burning him through.

Taeyong hyung’s sick. He’s sick. Sick because of Mark, because Mark keeps asking him for more and more, and there’s nothing more to give, but he still asks.

“Mark.” Johnny lays a hand on Mark’s thigh, the uninjured side, “Is something wrong? Why did you pass out?”

“I…” Mark doesn’t want to tell him, but Mark’s weak, so he blurts it out, “My hip was hurting a lot yesterday.”

“Which one?” Johnny’s frowning and look what you’ve done, stressing him out too, like one hyung isn’t enough, “This one?”

At Mark’s shake of the head, he points to the throbbing side, the one to the wall, “That one?”

“Yeah.” Mark rasps out, voice shaking. Johnny pays it no mind, gently reaching around Mark to turn him over and he hates that he can’t help, can only watch, “Hyung, please, be careful.”

“I got it.” Mark winces as Johnny gently takes his left leg and props it on his lap, before gently pulling up the loose cloth of his pants, “Just tell me if—”

His hands freeze, just as his voice breaks off, and Mark’s too afraid to look, but he does anyway because he’s so dumb, dumb idiotic Mark.

Johnny’s eyes are wide, shock filtering through them unabashed, as he gapes at Mark’s side. When Mark follows his gaze, he understands as well, nausea rocketing through him at the sight of the mottled purple spreading over the jut of his hip, blue tinting the edges, like his skin is a canvas for pain.

“Who…” Johnny looks furious now, eyes burning, “Who did this to you?”

Mark doesn’t trust his voice, just shakes his head. When Johnny repeats the question, he shakes his head again. And flinches, when fingers gently take his chin to tilt his head so that he can meet Johnny’s soft, understanding eyes.

“Tell me who it was.” Johnny asks kindly, voice still carrying that determined steel to it, and because Mark’s stupid, he tells him.

And Johnny’s gone, leaving cold air behind him and a half-opened door.

 


 

Eventually, Mark pulls down the leg of his pant, and tries hobbling to his feet. His legs immediately buckle at the pain, so he gives up the venture, collapsing onto his bed again. His eyes, once again, stray to Donghyuck’s bed, and he can’t help the tiny sound that escapes from his throat.

He wants Donghyuck. Needs Donghyuck. But since he was stupid, Donghyuck finally left.

“Mark?” He sees Yuta and Doyoung’s anxious faces peering through his door, “Can we come in?”

Mark feels an unnecessary spike of fear at the sight of Doyoung—eyes narrowed into a glare, voice sharp—but shakes it off, trying for a smile, and nodding.

“Is Taeyong hyung feeling better?” He asks worriedly, trying to relieve some of the pressure crushing his chest.

“A bit.” Doyoung answers hesitantly, looking like he wants to say something but is inadvertently interrupted by his companion.

“Forget Taeyong, right now!” Yuta rushes to sit by Mark’s side, hand combing through his hair, “Focus on yourself first! Are you feeling a bit better? Should I try to make something: soup, maybe?”

“No thanks, hyung.” Mark says frankly, but half-heartedly returns his embrace, “I just…”

Want Taeyong first.

“How long have you been feeling like this?” Doyoung asks softly, and Mark stiffens as the bed dips under the extra weight. He knows what it means, but he doesn’t want to hear it.

“Not very long.” Mark looks away, and he knows Yuta and Doyoung are exchanging concerned glances from above his head right now.

“Look, Mark,” Doyoung says, and Mark tenses, “I’m sorry.”

 

 

What?

 

 

He blinks, not expecting that. He’s gotten two apologies today…and for no reason, as well? It doesn’t make—makes no sense, why should the hyungs need to apologize when they’ve done nothing wrong?

“For what, hyung?” He inquires, and he truly doesn’t understand, “You were just upset, it’s understandable.”

“No!” Doyoung violently protests, even as Yuta gets up to go make something for Mark, “I was stressed about that interview, sure, but there was no excuse for me to take it out on you.”

The same thing Johnny said. How strange.

Mark stiffens when Doyoung pulls him close—his second hug for the day—and rubs his back comfortingly.

“Hyung is sorry.” He pulls back, eyeing Mark critically, “I should’ve taken care of you better, and I’m sorry for not living up to that.”

“It’s not your fault—”

“It is.” His tone brokers no argument. Mark nods, conceding defeat, even though he doesn’t understand why everyone’s being so nice to him all of a sudden. He doesn’t deserve any of their kindness if he’s only pulling them down.

He startles when Doyoung plants a wet smooch against his cheek, before freezing entirely, cheeks slowly turning cherry red.

“H-Hyung.” He buries his face in his hands as Doyoung laughs manically, “Why?”

He doesn’t want to admit it, but it brings a warmth to his chest that he’s been missing for a really long time now.

By then, Yuta’s come back, holding a tray of piping hot stew.

“Sustenance for you!” He jokes, before glaring at Doyoung, “And don’t harass my baby.”

“He’s not your baby.” Doyoung sticks his tongue out, and even though Mark knows he’s only doing it for fun, his cheeks warm, “He’s Taeyong and Jaehyun’s love child!”

He’s ashamed to say it, but Mark actually chokes.

“Hyung,” He wheezes, smiling for the first time in a long time, “That’s a terrible joke.”

Besides,” Doyoung continues, ignoring Mark’s protests, “He’s also my lovely dongsaeng, so I can dote as much as I want!”

He litters Mark’s face with little pecks after that, and Mark grows warm when Yuta abandons the soup, laying them on him too. It’s the safest he’s felt in a while, surrounded by his hyungs’ warmth, and he wishes he could just live in this moment forever.

 

 

 

“…So, who’d you think bottoms?”

Hyung!

Doyoung!

 


 

Once he finally manages to finish the soup, Mark eyes Doyoung carefully. No matter how much he’s laughed in the past hour or so, he still can’t get Taeyong off his mind. He just…he needs to make sure that Taeyong’s okay, that Mark hasn’t done too much damage.

Before he can actually open his mouth to ask, Doyoung speaks.

“I…have to go right now.” He says carefully, “I’ve got a schedule. But Yuta’s here, and Taeil hyung and Win should be back from the store, so they’ll keep you company.”

His warm gaze solidifies into a glare.

“Do not get out of bed, you hear?” He raises an eyebrow, and Mark can actually see the undercurrent of worry in his eyes.

“B-but,” Mark blurts out before he can stop himself—he never could control his stupid mouth, “T-Taeyong hyung. I need to see him!”

“Oh my god.” Doyoung sighs in frustration, before snapping, “Okay fine, go see him! But straight to bed right after.”

“Okay, hyung.” Mark nods eagerly relieved, and doesn’t even complain when Doyoung hugs him and heads out of the room. His hands are starting to get clammy, and he knows why.

Since Yuta isn’t back—and Mark physically cannot hold himself back any longer—he manages to swing his legs over the bed, wincing as the action shoots a spike of pain up his left side. He bites his lip unsurely, setting his uninjured foot on the ground first, before gingerly setting his left down as well. When there’s isn’t any pain, he takes it as a sign and stands up.

Only, that’s a mistake, because he comes toppling over, a blistering pain burning into his side, and Mark squeezes his eyes shut, waiting for impact. He’s so stupid, he should’ve figured his body’s too weak and—

He doesn’t hit the ground.

Instead, he feels strong arms encasing him, and picking him up rather easily.

“Hyung?” Mark squints, knowing it’s one of them but not entirely sure; that is, until he sees Sicheng’s full lips turned down, “Oh, uh, thanks.”

“Mark.” Sicheng says seriously, as he opens the door again, “Doyoung didn’t tell you to wait?”

“I mean, he did but.” Mark shifts uncomfortably under Sicheng’s unnaturally strict gaze, “I, uh…”

“Mark.” Sicheng sighs, “The other hyungs are… worried. I am too.”

“Thank you.” Mark hesitantly lays a hand on Sicheng’s arm, before promptly flushing, “I can try to walk?”

“No.” Sicheng shakes his head resolutely, akin to a child, “You’re hurt. I won’t let you.”

“Okay then.” Mark can’t stop the redness in his cheeks anymore, and buries his head into Sicheng’s neck, “This is so embarrassing, I’m not a baby.”

“But Mark’s hurt.” Sicheng counters smoothly and Mark gives up. It feels nice to be doted on again, after being in charge of things back in the Dream dorm—

Mark’s eyes widen, and he swears in his head. He totally forgot about them, and a hot curl of shame passes through him when he realizes he’s worse at being a leader than he thought. A leader wouldn’t ever forget about any members. Taeyong, for example, always makes it a point to message Mark and Donghyuck with encouraging messages whenever they’re promoting Dream.

There’s so much Mark needs to live up to and he… he really can’t do this anymore. He wasn’t lying to Taeyong when he said he didn’t want to be an idol; he’s not good enough to continue doing that. But… Mark just doesn’t know. What does he want that he’s good enough for?

“We’re here!” Sicheng’s bubbly voice reaches Mark again and, as he pushes open the door, Mark stiffens.

“Can you put me down?” He asks Sicheng quietly, and the man obliges this time, setting him gently down on a soft mattress: Jaehyun’s maybe? Mark can’t remember well enough.

Speaking of Jaehyun, the man’s looking more tired than he ever has before, as he approaches Mark. He feels a quick flush of guilt, seeing the haggard man’s normally vibrant eyes look so dulled.

“Mark.” He automatically pushes against the palm that’s set against his head, a sigh releasing into the stillness of the room, “How are you, my soulmate?”

Mark can’t help the tiny giggle that escapes him, even as his muscles protest at just that, so he just forces a smile to his lips.

“I’m okay.” He lies, “How about Taeyong hyung?”

Jaehyun stares at him unwaveringly, before he relents and looks to the other side of the room, where a bed is pushed up against the wall. Mark can’t see well enough, because of the dim light, but he guesses that the shape is his hyung.

“Taeyong hyung.” Jaehyun’s features scrunch up, “He’s got a pretty high fever—”

“Johnny hyung said it was mild!” Mark blurts, panic beginning to build up, “Didn’t you guys call Manager-nim yet—?”

“Hold your horses.” Jaehyun squeezes Mark’s shoulders tightly, though he looks like he needs that more, “Johnny hyung probably didn’t tell you because he knew you’d react like this,”

Guiltily, Mark looks away. He’s feeling that particular emotion a lot these days, and it makes sense considering how much he’s messed up.

God, he doesn’t even know how to start trying to fix everything.

“Secondly,” Jaehyun continues, pulling Mark from his thoughts, “I…Taeyong hyung isn’t letting me contact anyone. He says he can deal with it himself.”

“No, he can’t.” Mark wants to jump out of bed and hug Taeyong to death, even though he’s the reason this happened in the first place, “Jae hyung, please.”

“I promised.” Jaehyun whispers guiltily, “But if we can’t bring it down by tonight, I’ll have to break it.”

“Can I…” Mark chokes back the bile threatening to climb up his throat, “Could I possibly see him?”

“I’m surprised you haven’t already, to be honest.” Jaehyun says, but there’s a tightness to his eyes, “There wouldn’t be something keeping you from that? Linked to why Win had to carry you here?”

“I, yeah…” Mark’s throat closes up, and he feels uncomfortable with his hyung for the first time, “I hurt my hip, s’all, but it’ll be better by tomorrow, no doubt.”

“If you can’t walk because of it, then we should probably get to the hospital.”

“No!” Mark blurts out hastily, no hospitals he hates them, “I don’t want to go, please!”

“Mark.” Jaehyun presses, “You clearly have a serious injury. An injury which, I’m ashamed to say, I haven’t even seen yet.”

He holds up a hand, and Mark’s protest dies in his throat. Why can’t Jaehyun understand that Mark doesn’t want to hurt people anymore?

“Since you and Taeyong are obviously in over your heads, you are going to have to rest for as long as we think you need to.” He’s obviously referring to the rest of Mark’s hyungs, “And if, only ‘if’, we decide you can move around again, you can do what you want. Until then,”

Jaehyun catches Mark’s eyes, more serious than Mark’s ever seen him, “Rest.”

Mark doesn’t know how, or why, but something in Jaehyun’s words triggers his tears, as they trickle out slowly.

“Hyung,” Mark can’t help the low sob that escapes him, hands pressing to his mouth; why won’t they stop? “Hyung, I… I’m…”

“Shush.” Jaehyun pulls him close, Mark’s head fitting perfectly into his taller body, “It’s alright, Mark, it’s okay to cry.”

“I’m so tired.” He chokes out, everything rushing to him at once, like a huge tide crashing over his head, “I don’t want to do this anymore h-hyung, I’m s-so t-tired.”

“I know.” Jaehyun sounds close to tears—Mark’s fault, all Mark’s fault—and runs a soothing hand down Mark’s back (but he doesn’t deserve that), “I know.”

They stay like that for a while—Mark doesn’t want to talk, while Jaehyun is soft, but there, unwilling to pry—when a low groan interrupts them.

Jaehyun.”

Mark’s beating heart nearly stops in his chest at Taeyong’s recognizable voice, even through the sickness. It’s rougher than Mark remembers, more coarse and tired and why couldn’t Mark keep his problems to himself, why did he need to pull Taeyong into everything?

“I’m here, babe!” Jaehyun calls, gently shifting Mark to the side so he can go over to Taeyong’s bed. Mark watches dazedly as Jaehyun bends down to gently whisper something to the cloth-swaddled bundle, sees Taeyong undoubtedly struggle to sit up even through Jaehyun’s protests.

“No, I can take care of myself.” Mark can finally hear Taeyong’s hoarse voice, but still can’t see him as he leans against the headboard of his bed, “…Why’s it so dark in here?”

“I’m turning the lights on, wait.” Jaehyun sounds cross, and Mark instinctively wants to curl into himself, because maybe it’s his fault; he hears Jaehyun muttering to himself about stupid, overworking idiots, even as the light switch is flipped on.

And, as he blinks away the harshness of the light, Mark can finally see Taeyong. He’s completely cocooned in a blanket, but Mark can still see his flushed cheeks and watery eyes, and still hear his labored breaths. His skin is deathly pale, though, and sweat is beginning to bead along his brow: a sign that the fever might gradually be dissipating.

“Taeyong hyung.” Mark whispers, and he wants to reach out, take his hyung close and apologize over and over again (even though it’s never going to be enough), “Hyung, I’m—”

“Why…?” Mark’s throat closes up as he watches Taeyong struggle to get the words out, “Why…aren’t you in the hospital?”

“Because he’s just like you.” Jaehyun makes his presence known, and Mark startles, having completely forgotten about him, “Self-sacrificing, and entirely oblivious to everyone else’s feelings.”

Mark experiences a foreign feeling when Taeyong flinches back at the words, maybe an anger? Protectiveness? He isn’t exactly sure, but it’s quelled when Jaehyun notices, and his eyes soften.

“I’m sorry.” The blonde rakes his hand through his hair, flopping down next to Taeyong and that’s when Mark realizes he’s just as tired as the two of them, “I wasn’t thinking when I said that, I didn’t mean it.”

“No,” Taeyong’s voice cracks as he whispers, “It’s alright, I…”

He breaks off helplessly, the most vulnerable Mark’s ever seen him, eyes shining and bright with sickness.

“Can you help me up please?” He sounds pained, and it hurts Mark even more than his hip does, because Taeyong’s always been sostrong for Mark that seeing him like this is just unbelievable. Taeyong looks small, so tiny, and he can’t believe he’s never noticed, he’s a terrible dongsaeng—

Mark manages to hobble to his feet before Jaehyun can, and all but throws himself at Taeyong’s unprepared figure, arms wrapping around his hyung before anyone can even blink. His leg screams with pain, but it’s irrelevant, now.

He feels, rather than hears, Taeyong’s sharp intake of breath, but doesn’t care how disgusted his hyung’s got to be with him because he needs this, needs to show Taeyong how much Mark loves him and how much Mark owes him. How apologetic he is because he’s ruined Taeyong life.

Taeyong’s hand trails over his back, startling him when it brushes against the nape of Mark’s neck to pull him closer, so the younger rapper can feel the heat burning through his clothes. Taeyong seems thinner than before, Mark realizes as he tilts his head to the side—

Only to freeze, at the sight of red coating Taeyong’s knuckles.

“Hyung.” He whispers, horrified, hands shakily taking Taeyong’s, “W-What is this?”

Taeyong’s eyes widen, and he shakes his head, refusing to meet Mark’s eyes, and this only makes Mark all the more concerned, heart rate spiking in fear. For some reason, he’s got a feeling that Taeyong’s done something that he thinks is wrong, but that doesn’t make sense, Taeyong’s never been wrong about anything.

“What?” Jaehyun’s distorted voice sounds from behind them, and Mark momentarily tenses, having forgotten about his hyung’s presence entirely (a terrible dongsaeng, that’s all he is), “Tae, is that…”

A low gasp.

“Is that blood?”

“No!” Taeyong gasps hurriedly, before his entire body tenses up and a cough wracks his thin form, rocking Mark with it as well. Mark feels so helpless like this, watching his hyung suffer and being able to do nothing to help.

“No, it’s just a bruise.” He whispers wearily, before his eyes drift shut, “Jaehyun, I’m…I’m really tired.”

His fingers, pulsing hot and scorching Mark’s skin, claw gently at Taeyong’s cheeks, as though trying to keep himself awake.

“Go to sleep, hyung.” Mark encourages, even though a tiny part of him thinks maybe hyung’s trying to avoid me because it makes sense, Mark hasn’t done anything but burden him, “I’ll…see you later?”

“Hm, yes.” Taeyong’s is already lolling into Mark’s shoulder as he speaks, hot breath ghosting across his skin, “Hyung loves you, just… just remember that.”

“Okay.” Mark squeezes Taeyong the tiniest bit, blinking back tears because does hyung really mean that? Does he actually love me, even though I’ve only ever hurt him, only ever pushed him away and hurt? “I…I love you too, hyung.”

Taeyong’s already fast asleep, though, breath rattling in his throat and features scrunched up tight in pain. Jaehyun’s hands are already at work, separating Mark from his hyung gently and helping him lie down. Mark just watches them, something bitter in his mouth—no, not jealousy, that would be ridiculous. Just…he just wishes he has someone like Taeyong does, his own source of comfort. But, Mark’s not worth it, so he should probably just give up.

“Mark,” Jaehyun helps him stand, and Mark lets him numbly, “D’you wanna go sit outside and watch some TV with me?”

“You’re not staying with hyung?” Mark blurts out, and freezes, but Jaehyun doesn’t seem to mind, smiling sweetly at him.

“Hyung’s going to be okay.” He says firmly, as he helps Mark into the armchair, across where Yuta’s settled on the sofa, “Don’t worry.”

“Taeyong?” Yuta asks, and at Jaehyun’s nod, laughs reassuringly, “He’ll be in tip top shape, soon!”

“I hope so.” Mark whispers, attention turning to the bright lights on the TV, letting it play patterns across his face. It doesn’t even register, what he’s watching, but it’s silent, peaceful, just like he prefers.

The peace, of course, only lasts a minute, before the door is slammed open, and a blur of brown races in, headed straight for Mark.

His breath catches, upon impact, stopping in his lungs because Donghyuck’s pressed close to him, tears soaking into his shirt.

“Fuck.” He chokes out, and Mark is too surprised to react as the wet spot on his shoulder grows, “Hyung, I’m so sorry.”

Yuta looks concerned, while Jaehyun just smiles reassuringly—but Mark isn’t looking at them, no. His hands wrapped tightly around Donghyuck's waist, he’s looking at the doorway, where the members of NCT Dream stand, similar looks of horror painting their faces.

 

 

 

His heart drops.

Chapter Text

Taeyong wakes up to the loud clamor of voices.

Well, to be honest, Taeyong can’t even tell if he’s actually awake or not, because everything’s swimming around, tracing dizzy shapes into the ceiling. His arms feel like lead, and so does his head, as he tries to push himself up and falls back against the bed, pillow cushioning his head. He curls into himself just a bit, shivering as the goosebumps prickle across his skin.

It’s really cold.

For some reason, Taeyong feels…kind of lost. As he manages to finally sit up, head slumped against the wall, he recalls going to meet Dream’s dance instructor. Remembers the scathing words, the burning touch and—

He squeezes his eyes shut.

 

 

I don’t want to be an idol anymore.”

 

 

His body throbs, as he forces himself up, knees nearly buckling under his weight as he makes his way to the door. It’s getting harder to breathe, he realizes faintly, hand grappling feebly for the doorknob. It feels cool against his fingers, and Taeyong wonders if he could just stand there, relish the cold against the heat of his skin, but he knows he can’t do that. His legs wouldn’t last that long anyway.

Leaning heavily into the wall, Taeyong manages to pull open the door, though his arm aches after that, and staggers out, blinking at the sudden light spilling into the hall. Now that he’s not in the darkness of his room any longer, he can actually coherently make out the shouting, and it leaves a sick taste in his mouth.

 

 

“It’s not his fault!” Taeyong’s heart jumps when he hears Mark shout, Marks’ here, he’s okay, he’s alright, “He didn’t know, Donghyuck!”

“It doesn’t matter!” That Donghyuck’s nasally voice, screaming into the air, Taeyong dimly acknowledges, as he forces another step forward, “He’s our hyung, he should’ve taken care of you in the first place and—”

“Very honestly,” That’s Jeno—Taeyong stops, and furrows his eyebrows—and what are the Dream kids doing here? He figures they might’ve come to see Mark, since they’re likely concerned, “We should’ve helped from the start because it wouldn’t have come this far.”

“What’re you saying?” Donghyuck sounds furious, and Taeyong winces, “That it’s my fault? I tried okay, it’s not my fault Mark wouldn’t listen to me.”

“Donghyuck.” That’s Taeil speaking, voice sharp, “Look, we all made mistakes—even us, I acknowledge that. But there’s nothing we can do about it now, except try and fix things.”

“Hyung, it’s not.” Taeyong just about loses it when he hears Mark sob, and he’s almost there, just a couple of steps, come on, “I should’ve done something, it’s my fault, but please don’t blame—”

“If you’re going to say Taeyong hyung, you should stop right there.” Donghyuck presses, “He should’ve helped you, and he didn’t.”

“Because I didn’t let him!” Mark corrects hastily, voice still teary, but Taeyong’s frozen, shocked still.

That…was his name, right? Taeyong knows he hasn’t done enough for Mark but for someone else to point it out…it hurts. More than the waves of heat crashing over him, more than the drums in his skull, more than everything; there’s an ache in his chest, a silent poison that takes its own sweet time to close up on him.

 

 

He should’ve tried harder, should’ve taken care of Mark better, he’s terrible, terrible, terrible and why would anyone want to defend him? He’s the one who’s messed up.

 

 

 

Taeyong’s mouth tastes sour now and he pushes forward those few steps, thin frame shivering from the blast of cold he gets from the movement. His hands find an armchair nearby, as he wobbles his way into the living room, where people are crowded to each other, tension palpable.

No one’s seen him yet, entirely focused on Donghyuck’s fuming, narrowed eyes, directed at Mark; the Dream members, especially, look particularly terrified, with Jaemin looking half as though he wants to butt in, but is too afraid to actually try. Jeno has his hand on Donghyuck’s shoulder and, as Taeyong slowly trudges his way in from behind them, is saying something to the brunette in hushed tones.

Taeyong looks up and locks gazes with Yuta, who’s pressed against the counter of the neighboring kitchen, arms crossed; the Japanese man’s eyes quickly widen, though, and without a word, he pushes forward, ploughing between Donghyuck and Mark to support him, arm hooking around Taeyong’s waist.

“Thanks.” Taeyong says tiredly, words mushing together, as Jaehyun notices, soft eyes narrowing into crescents.

Taeyong.” He says sternly, hands on his hips, and that’s when everyone else notices he’s there.

“Hyung?” Mark’s pale face swims tantalizingly in front of him, pinched in worry and fear, maybe, “You should…should be resting, right?”

Taeyong shakes his head groggily, fingers pressing into Jaehyun’s arm when Yuta passes him over.

“No.” He rasps, dizzily, clinging to his partner, “Just…I just need to sit down.”

Donghyuck’s staring at him with wide eyes, even as Jeno pulls him back; though, to be frank, even he’s staring at Taeyong like he’s some kind of zoo animal.

 

Exhibit A: The Failed Leader.

 

Taeyong smiles to himself bitterly, even as Jaehyun sets him down on the couch which Taeil was previously occupying. Taeyong looks around confusedly for the brunette, finding him smiling reassuringly at him from Mark’s side. His gaze is clear, focused—everything Taeyong isn’t feeling up to being, at the moment.

“What’s happening?” He asks, head pressed back into the inviting coolness of the couch. It’s strange, he finds, that his head feels warm, while the rest of him trembles from the cold.

Jisung takes that as a sign to step forward, face significantly paler than the last time Taeyong remembers seeing him.

“Renjun hyung told us you came to the dorms.” Jisung says quickly, “He was pretty freaked out. Apparently, he said you looked like you came from a fight and were looking for Mark so we came here.”

“Hyung.” Jaemin interrupts, taking a hesitant step towards Taeyong, “Are you… are you sick?”

“No shit he is.” Donghyuck mutters petulantly, but something in his eyes is softer, before he turns back to Mark, “Look, I’m sorry I said all that, but…”

He cuts himself off, blinking quickly, and Mark seems to understand, hesitantly holding his arms open. Donghyuck wastes no time, folding into them and pressing his head onto Mark’s shoulder.

“I know I messed up.” He cracks out, and Taeyong hurts, just at the sound of his voice, “I’m sorry.”

“It’s not…” Mark looks lost, eyes wide, and Taeyong wants to step in, but before he can do that, Renjun’s already moving forward.

“Donghyuck, it’ll be fine.” The orange-haired boy says, though even he looks weary, and Taeyong has a strong sense of sadness because these are kids, they shouldn’t have to deal with these problems, “But no one knows what’s really going on?”

“Is it the bullying thing?” Jaemin interrupts quietly, and that’s when Yuta reacts.

Bullying?” He demands angrily, before turning his piercing gaze on Taeyong, who can only curl up some more, “Hyung, you never told me that—”

“I found out for sure just…” Taeyong scrunches his features, unsure of the timeline, “Y-Yesterday?”

“Today.” Jaehyun corrects gently, eyes shadowed, “Look, this is becoming messier as we speak. I think we should just…have some alone time first, and then talk about everything again.”

Donghyuck looks like he wants to argue but, at Mark’s pleading gaze, snaps his mouth shut, looking positively murderous.

“Actually, hyung.” Taeyong looks up blearily at the sound of Mark’s voice, “I’ll…I’ll talk to them first.”

Taeyong absently waits, before he realizes that everyone’s looking at him for permission (isn’t that strange) and nods.

“Just…” Taeyong coughs, throat burning, “Just remember your limits, okay? D-Don’t go overboard.”

Mark nods, looking worried, before his expression clears, turning into bashful realization.

“Well, I can’t walk, so…” He looks at each of the hyungs, gaze trailing from Taeil to Yuta to Sicheng (Taeyong didn’t even realize, he’s so out of it) to Jaehyun to Taeyong again and, wait, they’re missing people. Worry strikes Taeyong: shouldn’t Mark be seen by a doctor? Then, he remembers his own refusal to do so, and wallows in his hypocrisy.

“We’ll clear out.” Taeil nods, before hesitatingly putting his hand on the blonde’s shoulder, “Look, I hope you’ll be alright. But you’ll need to talk about things with us too.”

“Okay.” Mark smiles weakly, though Taeyong can still see the indecision dancing in his eyes, “Thanks, hyung.”

“Wait, guys.” Taeyong interrupts, wincing as a wave of pain rocks his skull at the loud tone he’s tried to use, “Where’s Doyoung? And Johnny?”

“Doyoung had a schedule,” Yuta answers quickly—Taeyong should’ve remembered, why is he like this, how did he even become leader—before his eyes dim in muted confusion, “But I don’t know about Johnny…”

Oh my god.” Taeyong’s attention is drawn immediately back to Mark, who meets his glossy eyes with horror, “Hyung, hyung, I told him, I told him, oh God—”

“Hey, hey!” Donghyuck tries to calm the blonde down, but Mark’s shaking only gets worse and Sicheng moves forward, cupping Mark’s cheeks with his hands.

“Shh, breathe.” He says soothingly, and Taeyong’s too petrified to even move, because he understands exactly what Mark’s talking about and if Johnny knows

“Hyung,” Jaehyun’s gripping his shoulders, bringing him back as always, “Relax. Let me take you back to the room and—”

“Jaehyun,” Taeyong says shakily, “Johnny knows, Jaehyun—”

“Well I don’t.” Jaehyun snaps, and Taeyong flinches at the sudden harshness in his tone; the blonde realizes that and exhales heavily, shaking his head, “Can we just…let’s just go back inside, please?”

“Okay.” Taeyong lowers his gaze, even as Jaehyun gets up. His breath is permanently stuck in his throat, and he feels kind of sick as Jaehyun helps him make his way back to the room, grip tight. Something’s wrong with the man and Taeyong isn’t sure what, but he’s probably justified in his anger.

Anger is all Taeyong deserves.

“J-Jaehyun?” He asks hesitantly, once he’s pushed onto the bed, and Jaehyun’s slammed the door shut behind them, “What’s…what’s wrong?”

Jaehyun chuckles, but it’s all wrong, it’s not supposed to sound like this, so distorted and jaded. Taeyong’s heart is fixed in his throat.

“What’s wrong?” He chokes out and, in the next second, he just flops over on his own bed, pressing his face into his hands, “You can’t seriously be asking me that.”

Taeyong can’t speak, at loss for words. His headache is growing worse, but he doesn’t know what to say.

“Look, even Johnny knows!” Jaehyun brings his hands back from his face and no, his eyes are rimmed red and Taeyong doesn’t know what to do, “I’m your…I’m your boyfriend, and you always leave me out of the loop and I thought…I thought I could do this, but I can’t.”

“I mean,” He adds, eyes scrunching up in pain, and no, Taeyong can’t handle that, “I didn’t even know about this until Mark pointed it out.”

He takes Taeyong’s hand, running his fingers lightly over the reddish bruise spread over Taeyong’s knuckles, and the dried blood that he hasn’t washed off yet, “I didn’t know even know about the blood, I…”

He breaks off, and Taeyong doesn’t hold himself back anymore, hands wrapping around the taller man tightly, holding him close.

“It’s not mine.” He says quickly, though it doesn’t do much to improve Jaehyun’s mood, he can tell.

“You mean the world to me.” Jaehyun cuts through, voice muffled under Taeyong’s sweater, “And I don’t know, I feel like you don’t think I’m trustworthy enough—”

No.” The words resonate heavily in Taeyong’s mind, the stream of they don’t trust you coming back to haunt him, “Jaehyun, you mean…you mean everything to me, I just…”

He drops his head onto Jaehyun’s adjacent shoulder, arms winding further around the blonde, as he scrambles for words.

“I just…thought it would be a burden.” He admits it quietly, the one thing that’s been bugging him since the beginning, “I thought I could take care of everything on my own but…”

He closes his eyes, letting the tears trace their familiar path down his cheeks, “I’m not good enough for that.”

He feels Jaehyun tense and inwardly winces. Has he made everything worse? He’s so dumb sometimes, he doesn’t even realize what he’s saying and why is he supposed to be the responsible one when he doesn’t even know how?

“Who told you that?” Jaehyun demands, and Taeyong shakes his head, pressing his trembling body into Jaehyun’s cool embrace. His skin feels like it’s on fire again, “Hyung, who told you that?”

“No one had to.” Taeyong shakes his head, and bites his lip because maybe it’s time Jaehyun sees how messed up he is, how out of control and crazy. The tears don’t stop, the tears never stop.

Jaehyun opens his mouth to say something, but the door is slammed open then, with Taeil walking inside purposefully, only to balk in poorly constrained shock. Taeyong’s cheeks flush when he realizes what it might look like to them, and he sneakily wipes away his tears.

“Hyung, what’s wrong?” That’s Yuta’s voice, and he screams in horror at the sight, flailing dramatically into Sicheng’s arms.

The Chinese native, for his part, looks entirely unamused.

“Taeyong is hurt?” He asks Jaehyun seriously, even as the other two remain frozen in shock.

“Something like that.” Jaehyun nods, smiling weakly, though he rubs Taeyong’s back—they’ll be talking more later, “What’s up?”

“We just wanted to talk about everything that’s been going on—” Taeil starts, only for Yuta to interrupt.

“We can come back later if you’re busy though, bye—”

“No, it’s okay.” Taeyong slurs—huh, when did his head get so heavy—and rolls out of Jaehyun’s hold, propping against the wall and reveling in its chilly surface, “Come in.”

“If you’re sure…” Taeil looks unconvinced.

“Is there something happening?” Sicheng asks, even as he makes himself at home on the other bed, “Between you two?”

“No, we’re fine now.” The squeeze of the hand Jaehyun delivers him is loaded, and Taeyong gives a tiny one back, even through the haze, “But you’re right, we need to talk about things.”

“I’m sorry to ask you this while you’re still sick, Tae.” Taeil says seriously, as Yuta closes the door, “But do you know what Mark’s talking about, exactly?”

“Yeah.” Taeyong nods, looking down and picking at the bedsheets, “But I don’t think it’s my place to tell, Taeil hyung.”

“Okay, fair enough.” Yuta crosses his arms, looking unnaturally serious, “But how about we talk about what’s going on with you?”

“You have been acting strange.” Taeil concedes, “Ever since Mark—” He breaks off, eyes alight. “Is it connected?”

“No!” Taeyong answers quickly, throat still raspy, because there’s really no connection, Taeyong’s always known, “I just… I’ve been thinking.”

“Thinking.” Sicheng repeats flatly, and since when has the cheerful boy been this worn-out? Another mistake on Taeyong’s part.

“Look, we can tell something’s up.” Yuta glances at Jaehyun, who’s being strangely silent, “And it’s getting kind of annoying, because we can see that, but you don’t clue us in. Ever.”

Taeyong can’t speak, because Yuta has a point. But he can’t possibly tell them the reason why, can’t just say I don’t want to tell you because I know you’ll leave me and I’ll be all alone.

“Look.” Jaehyun finally speaks, “I kind of feel the same as you guys, but Taeyong hyung isn’t very good at confiding in people.”

“He…” The blonde hesitates, catching Taeyong’s eyes and as much as Taeyong wants to shout no, don’t do this, he knows it’ll have to happen eventually. So, he nods.

“He thinks he’s a burden.” Jaehyun blurts out and, not expecting that, Taeyong turns to face him with wide eyes bright with fever, “He doesn’t understand that we all love him, and that we’re a team and we’re supposed to work together.”

“Is that true?” Taeil asks, face paler. Yuta’s freckles are stark against his cheeks and that’s funny, Taeyong has never noticed those before.

But Taeyong doesn’t know what to say, how to refute it. He drops his eyes to the bedspread.

“Hey.” Taeil says, voice soft, “Taeyong. TY. Taebreeze.”

Taeyong can’t help but crack a smile at the familiar nickname, even as the tears continue to course out of his eyes, and Taeil’s answering grin makes him feel warmer.

“We love you, okay?” Yuta’s voice cracks as he bites back his own tears (why? Not for Taeyong, surely), while Sicheng doesn’t bother with words, just barreling right into Taeyong and squeezing him to near death. Even still, it feels nice, and Taeyong drops his head onto the boy’s shoulder, trying to get closer. His eyelids feel heavier than usual, so maybe he’s tired?

“I don’t know about the others,” Taeyong looks tiredly at Jaehyun, chest warming when his slender fingers entwine with his own, “But I’m going to remind you of that every single day until you start to believe it.”

“Hey, what do you mean by that?!” Yuta affronts jokingly, before grinning a bright, teary smile that looks so familiar it hurts, “You’re the pillar of NCT, right? You’re the one who’s always supporting us, hyung.”

“Exactly.” Taeil nods, before smirking, “And Lord knows my job would be much harder if you weren’t.”

“I…” Taeyong chokes out, but words fail him, because this is something he only could’ve ever dreamed of, one of those dreams that reaches for the stars but never comes to being.

“Uh,” Sicheng hesitantly interrupts the quiet, which is beginning to get awkward, “Group hug?”

He scrunches his nose rather adorably then, “Did I say that right?”

“Yeah.” Taeil acknowledges with a soft smile.

“I’m on board!” Yuta bounds over happily, throwing his arms around Taeyong, and then Jaehyun and Taeil exchange a glance, joining in on the huddle as well, “Expect this from the rest of us every day!”

Taeyong’s never felt this warm before, head smushed awkwardly at Taeil’s collar bone, and arm pressed at an odd angle between Sicheng and Jaehyun’s torsos, Yuta breathing uncomfortably into his neck. It’s…it’s nice.

And Taeyong allows himself a bit of hope.

 

 

But even that hope is dashed when the door is slammed open, and Johnny stands there, looking like the world has just crumbled from under his feet.

Chapter Text

“Okay, they’re gone.” Jisung lets out, turning to face Mark.

“Yeah.” Mark knows what he wants to hear—what the rest of them also want to hear—and nervously picks at the non-existent lint on his pants.

“Taeyong hyung looked…” Jaemin breathes out instead, providing a short relief, eyes scrunching up worriedly.

“Like death warmed over.” Donghyuck deadpans, still wrapped tightly around Mark, making a warmth flutter in him. It’s fleeting, though, since Mark’s chest grows cold at the words, and the truth they hold. He thought Taeyong looked bad in the dark of the bedroom but, in the light, he looked just as Donghyuck’s described.

Death warmed over.

Mark feels a niggling doubt beginning to eat at his mind. He knows it’s his fault Taeyong’s worked himself to the point of near exhaustion, but how did his hyung manage to get reddened knuckles like that? He can’t help but remember the mottled red-pink of the bruise and Taeyong’s panicked eyes at their discovery. He remembers thinking that Taeyong thought he did something wrong…but what could that possibly be? Unless…

When he closes his eyes, Mark can see the look of stricken horror Taeyong sends his way at the mention of what Johnny’s done. He recalls the shadow of the all too familiar look of panic and self-disgust, mixed in together.

Mark has a feeling he knows what Taeyong’s done. But he tries to convince himself otherwise, telling himself he’s being ridiculous. Why would Taeyong go through all that effort for just him, Mark? The awkward, gangly boy from Canada who can’t dance well, who isn’t entertaining, who doesn’t know how to do anything but be a burden? Who just… who isn’t good enough.

 

 

“You need to be the best, not just better. In this industry, you can’t be good, you need to be good enough.”

 

 

Mark needs to bite his lip to hold back his tears, which burn tauntingly against his eyelids. It’s funny, how their Instructor actually was speaking the truth and Mark…Mark can’t believe he hasn’t given him the credit he deserves, for that. His hip stings in reminder of Instructor Kim’s good intentions, and he swallows back the nausea that threatens to overwhelm him.

 

“Mark?” Warm hands press against his cheeks—Donghyuck’s warm hands, he dimly realizes, and soft, worried brown eyes stare into his own, “Are you okay?”

“Yeah.” Mark chokes out, “Just thinking.”

He doesn’t deserve all this love. Doesn’t deserve the soft eyes of his members gazing at him with so much affection, and concern. The caring brushes of Donghyuck’s fingers against his skin. Doesn’t deserve any of it, at least not until he becomes good enough. If that’s ever possible.

“Thinking?” Renjun asks suspiciously from Taeil’s armchair, eyes narrowed, “About what?”

“Maybe about what you want to tell us?” Jeno smoothens gently, eyes creasing worriedly, “You know we only want what’s best for you.”

“I…there’s nothing to say.” Mark says belatedly, “I’m just being overdramatic as usual, nothing to worry about—”

“Hyung.” Chenle speaks for the first time, cheery features stern and focused; the sight of it makes Mark’s throat dry up, because when has his dongsaeng ever been so serious? “We know there’s not nothing. There is something and you’re not telling us and I know it’s somehow my fault!”

Mark doesn’t realize he’s getting visibly more upset until he sees Jisung take Chenle’s hand to calm him down. His cheeks warm involuntarily when Donghyuck does the same with him, but his mind is affixed on what Chenle’s just said.

 

 

I know it’s somehow my fault.

 

 

“It’s not!” Mark blurts out, once the sentence registers in his head and, in his panic, shifts around a bit. Donghyuck needs to move his weight a bit to adjust and that’s when it happens, the blistering pain that rockets up Mark’s leg, making him drop his head with a quiet cry.

Not quiet enough, apparently, because Donghyuck’s leaping out of his lap, lustrous tan skin looking unnaturally pale as he backs away, eyes wide and terrified.

“Mark?” Jeno rushes forward in alarm, even as Mark tries to muffle the sob that threatens to erupt out of him, the real, physical sting dancing with the phantom pangs, like a deadly medley of pain. “Mark, you’re hurt?”

“Is that why he said he can’t walk?” Jaemin demands even as he obligingly drops to his knees, hand searching along Mark’s leg to locate his bruise.

Mark feels slightly bad at the stricken expression decorating the younger boy’s face when he smacks his hand away, but the pain overshadows everything, save for the steady chants of ‘they can’t see, don’t let them see’.

“Hold him down.” Alarm bells blare through his mind at Renjun’s startlingly cold voice, and Mark can hardly sound out a protest when Jaemin and Jeno jump up to hold back his arms, and Jisung and Chenle tackle his legs.

“No!” He tries to yell, but all that comes out is a hoarse sob, and he shakes his head, trying to wriggle out of their grasp, “Stop! Renjun, please!”

Donghyuck’s just standing there, staring at Mark with an alien look of fear. And that hits him hard. In all the time Mark’s known Donghyuck, he’s seen a lot of different expressions, but never this one. Anger, sadness, vengeance, jealousy…but never abject terror. Never the emotion flitting across his demure features now.

And he grows numb, unable to believe it’s because of him—because of Mark—that Donghyuck’s grown so silent, so still and unlike himself, so that it becomes all too easy for Renjun to slide his pant leg up. The wrong side, though, and that prompts Mark to renew his struggled with double his initial vigor. He doesn’t kick his legs, afraid that his feet with accidentally catch the maknaes’ faces, in which case he’d actually feel like dying.

Like hurting his members emotionally isn’t enough; hurting them physically would just take it to the next level. And Mark could never stomach that.

There’s also the fact that his side is going to hurt so much more if he does that, but it’s more muted, shoved to the corner of his mind.

Mark.” Renjun huffs out disparagingly, hand steadying Mark’s jerking knee with a steady hand, “Make this easier for yourself, okay?”

“No, I don’t—” Mark chokes out, vision blurring with tears, “Stop, I can’t do this—”

 

 

Can’t do this to you guys. To myself.

 

 

This seems to snap Donghyuck out of his haze, because he’s hurriedly wiping at Mark’s cheeks and the rapper belatedly notices the familiar patches of wetness decorating his face. He’s been doing this a lot lately; crying, being annoying and whining about everything. He can’t help it but, God, he hates himself.

“Hey.” Donghyuck’s nasally voice sounds stuffy to Mark’s ears and, exhausted, Mark slumps over, letting his friend’s deft fingers comb through his hair, “Relax, okay? We’re all here for you, hyung, don’t worry.”

It’s rare for Donghyuck to call him hyung. It’s nice, and makes Mark smile the tiniest bit to himself, even as the guilt eats away at his heart.

“Finally.” Jisung mutters, as Renjun finally hoists Marks leg up and pushes back his pant all the way, “My arms actually hurt now—”

He breaks off, just as Renjun balks and Chenle gives a little screech in horror. All of them are staring at Mark’s bruise and he feels so exposed now, so excruciatingly vulnerable. Donghyuck doesn’t look down, keeping his eyes set on Mark’s face.

“What’s going on?” Jeno demands, as Jaemin attempts to peer down over Mark’s shoulder, “What happened?”

The two of them let go of Mark’s arms, to crowd at his side and gasp in the same tone of horror that the others used. Now that his arms are free, Mark pulls down the leg of his pant, even as Donghyuck’s tightening hands on his shoulders alerts him of the fact that everyone’s seen.

“What is that?” Jeno pales dramatically, clutching onto Jaemin for support. His eyes stare painfully at Mark, who looks away.

“Did you do this to yourself?” Jisung chokes out, just as Chenle’s eyes glimmer with tears. Mark’s stomach plummets as he realizes that it’s him who’s done this, him who’s made Chenle cry and isn’t he such a good leader now? Making everyone worry and shed precious tears over him?

“Yeah.” It comes out as a cracked whisper, and Mark closes his eyes at the lie. Or maybe it’s a half lie. Maybe not a lie at all. After all, it is because Mark was clumsy that day that this happened at all. And sure, Instructor Kim made it slightly worse but Mark…Mark deserved that. Deserves that. There’s nothing to refute there.

He needs to be good enough, not good. Needs to make sure he stays, that he doesn’t get left in the dust.

 

 

“You don’t want to get left behind, right?”

 

 

Mark’s shaking, and he only realizes when Donghyuck takes his trembling hands into his own, smiling painfully even as the light in his eyes slowly dies out. And, when Mark sees that, he feels himself die inside too.

“Don’t lie.” He pleads lowly, so unlike himself that it physically hurts to listen to him, “Please. Hyung, I think you and I both know the real reason here.”

Again with the hyung. Mark can recall a time where he jokingly said he wished Donghyuck would refer to him with a more respectful tone. Now, though, it leaves him cold inside.

“He only meant to help.” Mark mutters lowly, but not enough because Jaemin sharply asks, “He?”

Mark freezes up, realizing he’s let out too much, and Donghyuck squeezes his shoulders again, tighter this time.

“The dance instructor.” He says, mouth pressed into a firm line, “Instructor Kim.”

The door bangs open, and Johnny races in, slamming the door behind him.

“Hyung!” Mark can hardly stop himself from blurting out because dumb, stupid Mark and his dumb, stupid mouth, “Wait!”

Johnny obeys for a mere second, before his eyes pass over him sadly, and he sees the turmoil lining the Dream members’ faces. The anguish of not seeing everything, not being able to help their mathyung like they should’ve. And so, Johnny shakes his head.

“I’ll talk to you later.” He promises Mark, before a low fury—mixed with something else—ignites in his deep-set features, and he storms towards the rooms, “I need to speak to Taeyong first.”

Mark is immediately stricken with worry, because is he mad at Taeyong, he can’t be mad at him, not him, the only one who cares: the same string of words that Mark heard earlier when Donghyuck did the same. He knows, realistically, that no one’s really mad at his hyung, but his fears eat away at him, with the constant what if, what if, whatifwhatif?

“What?” Jeno is whispering slowly, as he turns teary eyes towards Mark, and the blonde’s focus immediately shifts back to the younger boys huddled around him, “N-No, this can’t be right, I…”

Renjun swears quietly in Chinese, and Mark’s not good enough at the language to understand the words, but when Chenle flinches back, tears dripping down his cheeks, he guesses it’s nothing good. And that kickstarts the gears in his brain, that tell him to fix this, look what you’ve done, F I X I T.

But Mark can’t, doesn’t know how. Never knows how, never can.

“Hyung.” Jaemin wobbles towards him, “Hyung, I’m so sorry.”

Jisung’s just staring emptily at him, eyes turning glossy, before he throws his arms around Mark’s neck, acting like the child he is. Acting like he’s never had the leisure to, before.

“Hyung, why?” He chokes out, squeezing out tears into the skin of Mark’s neck, “Why didn’t you tell us?”

“It’s fine really,” Mark rubs his back gently, though his eyes sting too, fixed on Donghyuck’s glimmering ones, “It’s okay.”

“It’s not!” Donghyuck vehemently protests, hands on his hips. His lip trembles, raw and bitten, “What on earth could make you think it’s okay?”

 

 

Because I deserve it. I’m not good enough.

 

 

Mark forces himself not to sink into those comforting, familiar thoughts; looks up, preparing himself to answer. But his mouth turns dry at the sight of their horrified expressions, the sheer despair in them. Why…why would they look like that, what did Mark do now, oh God

“What do you mean by that?” Jisung clings tighter to him, even as Jeno drops to his knees, looking up at Mark, “What do you…how are you not good enough?”

Oh. They heard.

Mark shakes his head confusedly, not understanding why they’re all making such a big deal out of nothing. It’s not like he isn’t speaking the truth anyway, so why kick up such a fuss? Are they… are they testing him or something? Trying to figure out if he’s lying?

“Stop joking around.” He mutters, light-headed, as he casts a furtive glance at his shaking fingers, “You guys already know, why would you…?”

“Just…humor us.” Renjun sounds strange as he gets closer, “Please.”

“W-Well…” Mark looks nervously at their alien expressions, breath stuttering out of him, ‘I…”

He chokes up when Chenle hooks his arms around him, arms tangling with Jisung’s in pressing uncomfortably into his neck. The warmth of their bodies against his is nearly enough to set off the waterworks again, but Mark’s so done with it, knows he needs to stop crying all the damn time. He isn’t a baby. He doesn’t need to be babied.

“Please.” Donghyuck echoes, his voice sounding entirely far off, though his gaze still looks so heartbreaking, and that sends Mark flying off the edge, tears slipping freely from his eyes.

“I’m…” He swallows thickly, past the lump in his throat. Saying it out loud is much more difficult than keeping it inside: maybe this is the test he needs to pass, “I’m not… n-not really g-good at anything? And I always—I always m-mess up with e-everything and—”

He can’t get the words out anymore, voice tapering off into noiseless crying. He feels Jisung and Chenle shaking against him, can make out the tears trailing down Jeno’s face and Jaemin’s sniffling. Can see the anguish in Renjun’s eyes. The sheer devastation in Donghyuck’s.

He’s the hyung. He’s the leader. He’s the one who’s supposed to be comforting everyone, but what’s he doing? Sitting here, bawling his eyes out like a schoolboy. An immature, helpless, useless kid.

“Oh, Mark.” Jaemin wipes off the tears dribbling down Mark’s cheeks, even though he looks like he needs it more, “H-How could you ever say that about… about y-yourself?”

“You’re the most amazing person I know.” Jeno adds, exchanging a troubled glance with Renjun, even as the two of them struggle to keep their composures, but why, it isn’t like Mark is anything special.

“Mark, look at me.” Donghyuck’s fingers manage to pry Jisung’s arm off Mark’s face, even as the boy clings to him like a koala threatened to leave home. Mark is left with no choice but to stare into the brown eyes. Those warm eyes which can either make or break him.

“Jeno’s right. You’re amazing, perfect even. Someone who almost all of us aspire to be like.” His gaze is firm, even as his mouth trembles, and Mark briefly wonders how Donghyuck got so good at lying, “You’re…you’re you. Someone who I…someone who we’ve always treasured, and always plan to. We… we love you, hyung, even if we don’t say it.”

He breaks off and Mark watches dimly, even as Jaemin slings an arm around the brunette, trying to provide him some semblance of comfort.

“Okay, we…” Renjun breathes out, looking upwards with shaky fingers pressed together, “We need to figure things out, I…”

He trails off then, head hanging.

“I don’t know what to do.” He admits in a cracked whisper.

“Chenle,” Jeno calls, hand wrapped around Renjun’s arm, in a show of support, “Come here, please? You too, Jisung? I think you’re crowding Mark hyung.”

“No!” Chenle vehemently refuses, though Jisung just shakes his head frantically.

Honestly, Mark is just surprised that they haven’t tried to kick him away, or get rid of him, much less cling to him like they…like he means something.

His eyes burn, again.

Wouldn’t that be a nice thought? To wake up in a different body, a different person’s life and not have to be a burden. To be a great leader, to inspire happiness and tranquility in people? But, oh, who’s he kidding, Mark always messes up, always. That dream’s a long shot in the dark.

“Chenle, please!” That’s Renjun, in Chinese now, and Mark feels so, so helpless as Jaemin and Donghyuck shake in each other’s arms, and Jeno and Renjun look just seconds away from crumbling.

He’s done this. He’s made them like this, so fractured and broken and sad, so sad. Despondent and scared and everything that isn’t nice. Has he…has Mark failed the test? No, he can’t have, that isn’t possible, he answered so perfectly, didn’t he? Biting words dig into his mind, tearing down his feeble resistance as the steady chant rises up once more, venomous and sharp.

 

 

 

Not good enough. Never good enough.

Chapter Text

“Johnny?” Taeyong forces the name from his mouth, “What happened?”

“Mark told me.” Taeyong remembers that, the terror in Mark’s eyes, the fear coursing through his own veins, “You punched him?”

“Punched who?” Yuta squeaks, breaking away, eyes flitting worriedly between the two, “Correction: you punched someone?”

 “I’d like to add to that.” Jaehyun eyes Taeyong, mouth pressed into a thin line, “You punched someone? Taeyong, what’s happening?”

“I…” Taeyong glances at Johnny, helpless; his voice is stuck in his throat, and he doesn’t know what to say, because how’s he supposed to deflect it?

“I want to tell you.” Johnny says honestly, coming to his rescue, rocking on his heels and shutting the door, “But that would probably compromise Mark’s integrity or something, so I can’t.”

Jaehyun gives a derisive snort, as Taeil sighs.

“This is turning out to be a huge mess.” Yuta comments honestly, all traces of a smile gone, “What’s going on, how’re we supposed to deal with it? There are, like, zero answers and so many questions.”

“Tell me about it.” Jaehyun says sourly, and Taeyong wants to curl up into a ball and never reemerge because he’s sorry, but he doesn’t want to be another weight on Jaehyun’s shoulders, “We know next to nothing.”

“Can’t we just ask Mark?” Sicheng asks timidly into the stifling silence, and Taeyong tries to smile warmly at him in encouragement. It’s a little difficult with his head being stuffy, but he gives it his best shot, “We ask if Tae hyung or… or Johnny hyung can tell.”

“I…guess?” Taeil shrugs, eyes meeting Johnny’s, “Will you go ask?”

“Yeah, sure.” Johnny acquiesces, unnaturally grim, “But after a couple of minutes. I think the kids are still working things out.”

Working things out. Well, Taeyong’s glad something seems to be going right. Mark honestly deserves all the love he can get, especially after Taeyong screwed him up so much. Perhaps he’s being overdramatic, but it’s a cold, hard fact, that Taeyong not paying enough attention to his members led to this huge mess.

“What’re you thinking about?” Yuta snaps him out of his reverie, eyes soft and understanding, letting Taeyong’s hair tickle his fingers, “Remember: you can tell us things now.”

“Yeah, he’s right.” Taeil admits, features lax, “You look like something’s bothering you.”

“Agreed, but,” Johnny interrupts, breaking the solemn mood by pouting, “Why aren’t I in the doggy-pile huh?”

Taeyong can’t help the tiny laugh that leaves his throat, even as bile threatens to climb its way out, and just shakes his head. The nausea’s getting worse, for some reason.

“You can join, if you want.” Jaehyun offers amusedly, and Sicheng smiles innocently, lifting an arm in an obvious gesture.

“No thanks.” Johnny wrinkles his nose in distaste which, for some reason, makes a strange ache form in Taeyong which, coupled with the nausea, isn’t too good of a feeling, “But eh, what the heck!”

And before Taeyong can process it, Johnny has decided to join the cuddle pile, thereby squishing Taeyong as well. And that would be fine, but right now, his stomach hurts, his mind hurts, and his body trembles with phantom pangs of pain.

He holds a shaking hand up to his mouth.

“Taeyong?” Jaehyun notices immediately, and Taeyong doesn’t know what he’s done to meet this amazing, wonderful human being, “Are you okay? Is something wrong?”

“Jae, I…” He gasps out, prompting everyone to immediately back away. His stomach lurches, both with the nausea and hurt, “Feel sick.”

He hates that he can’t even get out a coherent sentence, but it’s hard to breathe when he knows it’s coming and by god, Taeyong can hardly quell it, push it back to where it belongs and he hates it. Hates his total loss of control, hates his dependency and, above all, hates his failure.

“Feel like throwing up?” Yuta clarifies and at Taeyong’s shaky nod, breathes out a simple, “Fuck.”

“Language.” Taeil reprimands faintly on behalf of the rapper, which Taeyong can’t bring himself to appreciate, “Do you think it’d be alright if we move you?”

Belatedly, Taeyong realizes that Taeil was addressing him, like his opinion’s worth something, but quickly nods, hand pressing hard against his mouth. He can feel it, it’s coming, it’s coming and he can’t stop it.

“Okay hyung.” Sicheng comes closer daringly, hooking an arm around Taeyong’s free shoulder and arm draping naturally across his waist and Taeyong hates feeling this weak, “I’ll move you.”

“Maybe I should help.” Johnny interrupts, arm joining Sicheng’s to support Taeyong by the waist, “You alright, buddy?”

Taeyong can’t speak, but just shakes his head, tears beginning to sting at his eyes. He’s not sure how much longer he can hold on for and he looks up, locking his helpless eyes onto Jaehyun’s and—

The world spins under his feet as his body snaps forward, a roar sounding in his ears and. Oh.

There’s a puddle of sick on the floor that’s just barely avoided Sicheng’s feet and Taeyong feels so sorry for that, but he can’t hold back the next wave of nausea either, the sight on the floor making it so much worse, and it happens again. And again.

He’s not sure when, but he’s dropped to his knees, and someone’s rubbing his back but he can’t stop and he’s so scared because what’s happening to him?

“Oh god,” He hears someone murmur, and an alarmed voice, “Hyung, stop! Stop it, look up, look at me.”

And Taeyong tries, he really does, searching and finally finding Jaehyun’s warm, understanding eyes. And even though they’re not the same, even though they’re still fractured by distrust, Taeyong finds that even this is enough, and he gasps for air, head tilted upwards to try and stop the stink from making his stomach lurch once again.

“You’re fine.” Yuta whispers consolingly, though he looks so, so pale and so very terrified, “C’mon, let’s get you to the bathroom so you can wash up.”

“I’m coming with you guys.” Taeil says, voice unnaturally stern, “Can the rest of you help clean this up?”

And Taeyong remembers what he’s done, the puddle forming near him, and regrets it so, so much he’s sorry for bothering everyone all the time.

“I’m sorry.” He chokes out, unable to hold back his tears as he stumbles to the bathroom in the hall with their help, head spinning and mind whirling, “I’m s-sorry, I didn’t mean to—”

“Shh,” Taeil shushes him gently, as Yuta adds, “It’s alright hyung, you’re sick, it’s to be expected.”

Something about his tone doesn’t sit right with Taeyong and his stomach feels heavy again…though not with nausea, this time.

Yuta pushes open the door, as Taeil sits Taeyong down on the closed lid of the toilet.

“D’you want to wash your mouth?” Taeil asks concernedly as Taeyong struggles for breath—and why would he be? Taeyong’s just messed everything up.

“No.” Taeyong says, shaking his head, before his eyes widen, “I-I mean, yes.”

The taste grows more noticeable, and he swallows, trying to wash it out of his mouth. It doesn’t work, and Taeyong should obviously have known that, but he’s dumb and he doesn’t know what he’s doing half the time. It’s no big deal. He’s okay.

“Did you eat anything?” Yuta inquires, as Taeyong bends over the sink to wash out his mouth.

He can’t answer, since his mouth is full of water, so he just shakes his head.

“I just slept.” He says hastily, seeing the dark look beginning to dawn on the Japanese man’s face, “I was t-tired?”

“Oh.” Yuta says, and he doesn’t wait a second longer, making for the door and slamming it shut on his way out.

Taeyong flinches back instinctively, because he’s gone and done it, he’s pissed Yuta off. It’s just another mistake he’s made, and why hasn’t he stopped? People are supposed to learn from their mistakes. And here, Taeyong is, making the same ones. On repeat.

Not for the first time since he’s gotten back, Taeyong thinks to himself that he shouldn’t have been so impulsive, should’ve waited like Jaehyun said, so they wouldn’t be in this mess. After all, if Taeyong hadn’t pushed so much, Mark never would’ve had such a terrible reaction to things, wouldn’t have thrown himself further into his mess. Taeyong stirred all that up because he needed to know.

But, now that he knows, he can do nothing. And that hurts.

“Yuta’s so hot-headed sometimes.” Taeil sighs tiredly—Taeyong wishes he could stop bothering him—before looking over at the rapper, small smile curving on his lips, “Are you alright?”

“I’m a bit better now.” Taeyong pushes his damp, sweaty bangs from his eyes, taking Taeil’s proffered hand after a moment of respite, “Did I…did I make him angry?”

It slips out, before he can catch it, but it’s out in the open now and there’s nothing he can do to take it back.

Taeil’s grip tightens for a mere moment, and that basically alerts Taeyong to how true his statement probably is. It’s…not a great feeling, but he’ll make it up to Yuta somehow.

“He’s not mad at you.” How come Taeil sounds so sincere, though? Taeil is always so sincere, “He ran to the kitchen to make you something to eat.”

“Really?” Taeyong is reasonably dubious, because Yuta shouldn’t have to put in so much effort for him, “He doesn’t have to, I can make something for myself.”

“Are you insane?” Johnny blurts, as they reach the door, and Taeyong is momentarily thrown off; he had no idea Johnny could hear them, “You can hardly stand dude, how’re you going to cook?”

“Johnny’s right.” Taeil agrees with the other man, unsurprisingly, “You look dead on your feet, maybe you should rest some more.”

Instinctively, hot, simmering anger flares up, and Taeyong clenches his free hand into a fist.

“I’m not baby!” He spits out, and even he doesn’t know where this sudden energy has come from, “I’m not defenseless, and I’m not weak!”

The last part is a lie, but he bites his cheek anyway.

“Whoa.” Johnny and Taeil wear twin looks of shock, eyes wide and mouths agape, “We didn’t mean that Tae, we just—”

What?” He snaps, before he realizes how obtuse he sounds, how bothersome, and sags slightly, “I’m sorry, I’m just…going a little crazy.”

“It’s alright.” Taeil exchanges this look with Johnny that Taeyong’s always been privy to. It’s never been used on him, and it’s never been so frustrating either, “Look, why don’t you go crash in the living room? It looks like the kids are done.”

“They are.” Johnny confirms, “I was going to ask Mark about whether we could talk about it without him, but he’s asleep now.”

“It must have really tired him out.” Taeil agrees gently.

It occurs to Taeyong then, that there was probably no reason at all for them to have asked in the first place. Should he make his point known?

He glances stealthily at Taeil and Johnny’s pensive faces, uncertainty surging through him at the thought of speaking up. He’s supposed to do this, he’s the leader but… recently, he’s been doubting it. Maybe he shouldn’t be leader at all. Maybe someone else would be better suited for it. Someone who isn’t Taeyong.

“What’s up?” Johnny seems to notice the somber look painting his features, “What is it?”

“Just…” Taeyong licks his lips hesitantly, “Do you…do you know what happened with Mark fully? Because even I don’t know and…I guess it just s-seems unfair? Y’know, to try and tell the story without his point of view? B-Because it’s the m-most important?”

By the end of it, his hands are rubbing against each other; he’s sure he’s messed up somehow. The two of them are entirely silent, and it’s starting to minorly freak Taeyong out. Are they… are they going to yell at him?

“That’s actually a pretty valid point, hyung!” A familiar voice enters the conversation, and Taeyong looks up to see Doyoung’s warm eyes sparkling brilliantly at him, “I bet these two didn’t think of that.”

“Hey!” Johnny protests, as Taeil sighs and shakes his head, “’These two’ are actually your hyungs too y’know—?”

“Yeah, yeah.” Doyoung waves it away cheekily, before stepping forward to press his hand against Taeyong’s forehead. Taeyong nearly flinches back at the sudden coolness pushed against his face, but bites his cheek again to stay put. He doesn’t need to make things any harder for anyone, “Yep, you’ve still got a pretty bad fever.”

“When did you get home?” Taeyong finally gets out. He can sense the tiredness underlying Doyoung’s cheery words, can feel the bone-sagging exhaustion, “Maybe you should go eat something?”

“I could say the same for you.” Doyoung waves off Taeil and Johnny, the latter protesting about his rights as he’s dragged away, before taking Taeyong’s arm to help him to the living room. True to Johnny’s word, Mark’s dozing off in his armchair, tucked in comfortably with a blanket, and distressed features at peace, for once.

“I don’t want to bother you.” Taeyong says in a muffled whisper, head beginning to grow stuffy again, “I can walk on my own.”

“Sure you can.” Doyoung says, entirely unperturbed, “But I want to help you, so I will.”

“Thanks.”

As they approach, Taeyong can see the rest of Dream sitting around, feet kicked up in the pinnacle of comfort. Donghyuck is practically glued to Mark’s armchair; unfortunately, Taeyong suppresses a wry grin, the two are separated by two armrests of distance, so it must be physically painful for the younger brunette. They're both wearing twin expressions of tranquility though, and that's a nice sight to behold.

The curve of his lips quickly dissolves though, as he realizes how much shit he’s piled up for everyone else. The discord and the pain and the hurt.

“Oh, hyung.” Jeno says in surprise, immediately scooting over and forcing Jaemin and Jisung to as well, “What’re you doing here?”

“These are their dorms, hyung.” Jisung mutters absently, reading the comics section of the newspaper, “I think hyung can do what he wants.”

“R-Right!” Jeno looks so adorably flustered that Taeyong can’t help but pinch one of his reddened cheeks.

“It’s alright.” Affection bleeds into his voice, as he smiles a little more honestly, “I’m just tired of being cooped up in that room.”

“I’m gonna go help Yuta out.” Doyoung cuts in abruptly, reminding them of his presence and Taeyong feels guilty, briefly, “You need some food in you. All of you do.”

“Take care of yourself too, Doyoungie.” Taeyong murmurs back, cracking a yawn, “You’ve had a long day.”

“That’s what I should be telling you.” The man scoffs, before waving and bounding over to the kitchen.

“Do hyung is pretty cool.” Jaemin observes with wide eyes, and Taeyong gives him a nod. Looking closer, he sees the three kids have similar expressions; pale and shaken, like the world’s been snatched from under their feet. Taeyong is understandably worried. But first, he needs to know something—

“Where are Renjun and Chenle?”

“Ah.” Jaemin looks uncomfortable, as Jisung tenses up beside him, “Well, they needed some time alone to absorb things.”

“Chenle was pretty shaken.” Jeno confides quietly, so that he doesn’t wake up Mark and Donghyuck, most likely—he’s always been a considerate boy, “So was Renjun.”

Taeyong frowns. It would’ve been foolish to expect that the kids would take the news very well, but it still gnaws at his mind, the fact that everyone’s suffering due to his lack of foresight.

“Did you guys hear everything he had to say?” It comes out sounding more accusatory than Taeyong intends, so he flushes, stuttering, “S-Sorry, I just wanted to know whether he told you guys everything.”

“He did, hyung.” Jisung says lowly, dropping the newspaper and, with it, any semblance of aloofness, “He told us everything.”

“After a major cuddle pile, of course.” Jeno adds with a sad smile, “And Donghyuck fell asleep from the stress, I think.”

“I’m worried.” Jaemin admits in a small voice, and Taeyong’s heart hurts, “I don’t know if everything’s going to be okay.”

“That’s alright.” Doyoung hands over a bowl of hot soup, and Taeyong nearly burns his hands on it, before placing it carefully in his lap, “These things are gonna take time.”

“When did you get so wise?” Yuta teases, giving similar bowls to the kids, “I’m shocked.”

“And I’m hurt.” Doyoung cries in mock affront, making Jeno give a half-hearted chuckle.

“Mom, Dad, please stop fighting.” Jisung adds dryly, and the next part makes Doyoung choke, “Save it for the bedroom.”

“First of all, you’re too young for this.” He points out, “Second of all… good one.”

You’re one to talk.” Yuta rolls his eyes, “Weren’t you the one who asked Mark whether it was Jaehyun or Taeyong who—”

Whether Taeyong or Jaehyun did what is something Taeyong never gets to find out, because the words are muffled by a hand slap over Yuta’s mouth, courtesy of a frantic Doyoung who all but pulls him away.

“Enjoy your food!” He cries out half-heartedly, before tugging a struggling Yuta along, and the slam of the bedroom door is a sign that they’re gone. Taeyong just shakes his head: some things, it seems, will never get old.

He tries to resist, but the soup is calling to him, by this point, and his stomach grumbles its agreement. It’s not loud enough to alert the kids, thankfully, but Taeyong can still feel it, and it’s uncomfortable. The first sip is heaven, and he can’t stop himself from finishing the entire bowl and craving more still. He doesn’t ask, though, because that would be inconveniencing, and everyone’s busy.

The three on the couch are still taking slow, measured sips of their soups, so Taeyong tries to stand up, succeeding after a tiny wobble. Jaemin looks wary though, biting his lip.

“D’you need help, hyung?” He asks, and Taeyong is quick to shake his head no, even though it nearly sends him spinning off his feet.

“It’s fine.”

He manages to get to the kitchen, even though it really feels like he’s walking on clouds; Taeyong supposes it’s probably because he hasn’t stretched in a while. He should probably do something about that, he decides as he returns, hands devoid of a bowl. It would do him some good to get fresh air in him anyway.

“I’m going for a walk.” Taeyong calls out, and Jeno and Jisung look on edge now too; it’s a sweet gesture, but Taeyong’s tired of being treated like glass, even by the younger ones, and smiles as reassuringly as he can instead, “Don’t worry, I’ll be gone for hardly ten minutes. And I’m even taking my phone with me!”

“Okay.” Jeno says, eyes flitting around, but Mark and Donghyuck aren’t of much use to him, asleep, “Just… be safe hyung? You’re sick and stuff.”

“I realized.” Taeyong says warmly, a little flutter in his chest bouncing about at the concern, “I’ll be back soon.”

And he steps out, door shutting behind him, to embrace the chilly night air.

 


 

 

It occurs to him, as he drags his feet along the corridors, that he probably should’ve brought his jacket along. It’s really cold outside, and he’s shivering, though he isn’t sure if it’s because his fever’s come back, or because he’s just weak. His forehead is all sweaty though, so he supposes it might be because of the former. He still wants to keep going though, not wanting to see those tired, upset faces, so he trudges his way to the dance room, the place that holds so many memories for him, and so much pain.

He still remembers the last time he’s been there, the image of Mark gasping and sobbing on the floor, head thrown back, permanently ingrained to the back of his eyelids. He can’t ever go in there without seeing that, it seems, and Taeyong can’t help but think that he deserves it, maybe. For not being good enough to help, like he’s supposed to.

He stops outside the dance room, noting in his exhaustion, that someone’s left the light on inside. Technically, no one’s allowed to be there past 8, yet here Taeyong is at 8:30, wondering if he should just go inside. Normally, no one should be using this room, but he supposes it must be a rookie or someone.

Tired, he leans his head heavily against the cool wood of the doors. It gives him a little focus, lets him put his weight on something, and it feels nice. His eyelids droop automatically, and he quickly pinches himself to keep them open; he can’t fall asleep against the door, no matter what he thinks about himself.

He doesn’t expect, of course, that the doors fly open, making him topple inwards, arms nowhere near ready to brace himself for the fall. There’s a familiar feeling of weightlessness, as his body gives in to gravity, but his eyes just drift shut in acceptance. Hopefully, he won’t hit his head too hard.

Instead of feeling his cheek impacting against the cold, hard ground, his breath whooshes out of him instead, as he feels strong, warm arms wrapping around him, breaking his fall. His feet twist, as he attempts to maintain his balance, but he still doesn’t fall over, because those arms are still there, along with a firm chest that cradles his cheek.

“Taeyong.” He stiffens at the familiar, unwelcome voice, “What are you doing here at this hour?”

“Nothing that matters to you.” Taeyong hisses, pushing himself away, and regretting it for one dizzy moment, before the world refocuses again, “I’m leaving anyway.”

“Did you get a chance to reflect on what I told you?” Kim Yeongsu smirks at him, arms crossed, “I hope you did.”

“I don’t care about what you told me.” Taeyong corrects, even as the lie lays heavy on his tongue. Looking closer, he sees a purpling mass on the side of the man’s face, and he knows that he didn’t do that; but, he also knows who did, “Nice bruise, though.”

Yeongsu’s eyes flash in distaste and, yes, Taeyong should probably leave now, so he steps back with a curt nod, trying to signal that their conversation is over, but he can’t because something’s grabbed onto his wrist.

“Leaving so soon?” The tone is mocking, but the voice softens to something akin to… concern? No, Taeyong must be hearing wrong, “You’ve got a fever.”

“So what if I do?” He snaps, trying to tug his hand free, to no avail; he’s just too exhausted to deal with this, especially right now, “I don’t need you around to tell me that.”

“Why’re you here, then?” The man asks, still not letting go; an uncomfortable burn spreads along the inside of Taeyong’s wrist, and he doesn’t know how to stop it, “Shouldn’t you be back at home, having your bandmates around you?”

Taeyong tenses up involuntarily, trying harder to free his hand, but Yeongsu has got a strong grip on it, and ouch, it hurts.

“Unless they rejected you.” The man deduces, and Taeyong hotly refutes, before he even realizes, “They haven’t, shut up!”

“They haven’t?” Taeyong knows he made a mistake when the smirk spreads wider still, “So you’re waiting for it, I suppose? The inevitable end?”

“I don’t want you or your advice.” He shakes, fury bursting through him, “You need to take a hint a-and—”

“It’s okay.” Deft fingers brush back Taeyong’s bangs—but that feels so, so wrong—as Yeongsu hums and steps closer, wiping away the sweat, “I understand you must be feeling tired, but there are some things you need to know.”

Some things you need to know.

“Like how Mark needed to know he was worthless?” Taeyong shakes his head, “Look, I don’t know how you managed to delude y-yourself into thinking you’re helping any…anyone, but.”

“But?” The warmth of his hand is now pressed against Taeyong’s forehead, and it’s getting really hard not to droop over, let his knees buckle and just give in. But Taeyong needs to hold strong, for once in his life.

He steps back, away from the warmth, glaring at the man with as much venom as he can muster up. His skin still tingles, but he decides to worry about that later.

“I’m leaving.” He hisses out, hand wobblily finding the doorknob and pushing it open.

Yeongsu does nothing to stop him, only giving him a knowing smile.

“There’s only so long you can run away from the truth.” He says, “Don’t ever forget that.”

Then he’s gone, enclosed back in the room after Taeyong shut’s the door. The brunette doesn’t stick around any longer, hands rubbing at his arms as he rushes back to the dorms, uncaring of whether the chances that he’ll trip rise or not. He just wants to get home, bury himself in blankets, preferably make sure Mark is okay and…

And what?

 

 

Running away from the truth?

 

 

Taeyong can’t help but think, as he stumbles into the warmth of the house, Jaehyun immediately fussing about him, that running away is the one thing he can’t ever stop doing.

Chapter Text

When Mark wakes up, it’s to the sight of Jaehyun pacing anxiously in front of him, biting his lip in obvious worry.

“Hyung?” He asks drowsily, starting to get up, only to stop short when he realizes there’s a heavy weight on his shoulder. Looking down, he sees Donghyuck snoozing comfortably on his arm, and Mark can’t help the light flush in his cheeks, and the brief stutter of his heart at the sight; but he carefully detaches himself from the younger boy, turning back to his hyung.

“Oh, Mark.” Jaehyun pauses, lip looking bright red and raw from how much he’s probably bitten it, “You’re awake.”

“Yeah.” Mark agrees, managing to get out of his chair, only to balk when he nearly falls over. Luckily, he was holding onto the armrest the entire time, else…well, he’d probably have a concussion, “What happened?”

“Taeyong hyung.” Mark startles at the sound of Jisung’s voice, stomach doing a guilty flip flop when he realizes he didn’t notice three of his members sprawled on the couch, in wait, Waiting for Mark, “He went out for a walk.”

“Yeah, so…?” It takes a little while for Mark’s brain to connect and, when it does, he only doesn’t make for the door because he’d actually bowl over. He still lets go of the armrest though, and he yelps as his leg crumples beneath him; it’s only thanks to Jeno’s warm grip that he manages to avoid a nasty fall.

“Oh my god!” He gasps, though he remembers to squeeze Jeno’s shoulder in thanks, “Hyung!”

“Don’t look at me!” Jaehyun protests, “I wasn’t the one who told him to go! I was busy…uh…”

He trails off there, eyeing the threadbare carpet with an indistinctive shrug, before shaking his head.

“Anyway, I was busy.” Is all he eventually says, and Mark confusedly looks at Jeno, then Jaemin and Jisung, but all three of them give him the same blank look, “I just… I wish he’d stop being so incredibly frustrating all the time, and just let me take care of him!”

“Right.” Mark says, wanting the earth to come up and swallow him now. He really loves Taeyong and Jaehyun, but that doesn’t mean he wants to take part in their lovers’ spat or anything. A faint sense of something wells up at the thought, and he decides he doesn’t want to think about it anymore, “Well, did you try calling him?”

“…No, actually.” Jaehyun blinks innocently, and Mark groans.

“Seriously, hyung?” Jisung deadpans, and Mark’s glad he’s not being the obtuse one, for once, “You’ve got to be kidding me.”

Jaemin quirks a tiny smile from the sofa, and Mark hesitantly shoots one back at him. He isn’t sure…he still remembers their talk, the broken looks on their faces as he basically ruined their lives. Mark isn’t sure if it’s okay for him to do things like this, especially when he can still see the expressions haunting him in their eyes. Renjun and Chenle’s absence makes everything feel a lot worse, and Mark wonders if he’ll ever act like a normal person again. If he ever can.

“Okay, I’ve been a little pre-occupied.” Jaehyun defends himself, already taking out his phone, when Johnny comes out of the room to join the blonde.

“What’s up?” He asks, undoubtedly seeing the strain on Jaehyun’s face, and Mark discreetly asks Jeno to let him sit down again. He doesn’t like that he keeps making the boy exert himself.

“Taeyong went out in the middle of the night, without any of us.” Jaehyun stresses, phone laying unopened in his palm, “And I don’t even know where he is! What if he passes out or something, what if someone kidnaps him, he’s a famous idol! And…and—!”

“Whoa, whoa!” Johnny takes Jaehyun by the shoulders, “Calm down!”

“And, uh…it’s technically only 20 minutes to 9?” Jaemin tries meekly, before wilting at the withering glare Jaehyun shoots him.

“Jaehyun.” Johnny says warningly, and the man quells his gaze, looking entirely apologetic now.

“Sorry.” Jaehyun looks like he’s aged ten years, honestly, and the sight of his normally cheerful hyung looking so…so grim is so unsettling that Mark can’t even take his eyes off him, “I’m just… really, really worried.”

He takes a deep breath, ruffling his blond hair, and Johnny gives him an awkward shoulder pat. Mark sees Jeno and Jaemin exchange a look, one signaling something that they probably think is going to be a bad idea, and can’t help the worry welling up in him.

“D’you want some of us to go looking for him?” Jeno offers hesitatingly, “We could split up and search.”

No.” Yuta snaps, and Mark starts, heart nearly beating out of his chest at the suddenness of the man’s entry, “We don’t need any more kids wandering off today. Especially not now.”

“Then what?!” Jaehyun whirls around, yelling at Yuta, and when has that ever happened? “How are we supposed to—”

With ironic timing, the door slams open, and Mark stares as Taeyong stands there, pale and shivering and shaking and looking like he’s seen a ghost. Nothing like how he’s supposed to look, the furthest thing from okay.

“Taeyong.” Jaehyun says stonily, but that resolve quickly dies when they meet each other’s eyes, and Mark guesses Jaehyun must be seeing something they can’t, because his features soften in concern, and he immediately pulls in the shorter man for a hug. It’s supposed to be comforting.

What really throws Mark off is that Taeyong doesn’t hug back, instead hugging himself around the middle. He’s shuddering, though, Mark realizes in muted horror; and none of them have any idea why.

“Hey, what’s wrong?” Jaehyun isn’t looking at any of them, carding his hands through Taeyong’s hair almost protectively, “Come on, hyung, tell me?”

Taeyong stays silent for a brief moment—the most harrowing moment of Mark’s life—before he speaks, so quietly no one can hear.

“What’s that?” Johnny asks worriedly, stooping closer to the two, “You’re gonna have to be louder than that, Tae.”

“H-He was there.” Leaves his mouth in a cracked whisper, and why’s hyung rubbing the inside of his wrist so much? Mark’s heart leaps into his throat at the implication of that sentence, though he isn’t sure who Taeyong’s talking about, “I-In the d-dance room, he was…”

Taeyong shakes his head, pushing away slightly, wide eyes darting around the room, before settling on Mark. Mark just…feels slightly sick, but somehow is prepared for the hug Taeyong launches on him, wrapping his hands around his hyung’s thin, wiry figure and squeezing just slightly even through the exhaustion.

“You’re okay?” Taeyong sounds close to tears, and Mark is slowly getting there, hands fisting into Taeyong’s shirt, “You’re…you’re alright? Nothing happened… nothing happened to you?”

“I’m fine.” Mark rasps out, swallowing to wet his throat just a bit, “Hyung, what’s wrong?”

What’s wrong? Why are you like this? What happened to you, who touched you, who hurt you, who—?

Mark has so many questions, and he is so, so scared. But Mark’s also really bad at helping people, so he doesn’t say anything beyond that, keeping his voice to himself. He doesn’t need to make things any worse than they already are.

Taeyong’s eyes drift shut, and he sags pitifully against Mark’s shoulder.

“Nothing.” He murmurs, and Mark knows it’s a lie, feels a sting in his chest at the thought that Taeyong hyung is lying to him, he said he never would, “I’m fine, I just…”

He bites his lip, as he stands up shakily, crossing the room to hold Jaehyun’s hand, “I need to talk to you.”

“I’ve only been waiting for a couple of years now.” Jaehyun snarks quietly, though it doesn’t have much heat behind it. Mark’s chest is tight with worry, and he finds Donghyuck’s hand to squeeze it lightly, even though he’s asleep. He needs something to hold him down right now, some sense of stability.

The room is entirely too silent for a second, before Yuta shakes his head resolutely.

“No.” He says, stopping the two in their tracks, “We said we’d do everything as a team. You two going off and doing whatever does not help anyone or anything.”

“Well, he’s obviously kind of freaked out!” Jaehyun points out openly, and Mark wonders when everything started to go wrong, “I don’t know Yuta hyung, this just seems like a bad idea.”

“No, it’s fine.” Taeyong folds into himself slightly, eyes shut, “I can…I’ll talk about it.”

“Even in front of the kids?” Johnny presses, and Mark wants to protest, no, because he needs to know what’s happening, needs Taeyong with him to make sure he’s okay because he owes him at least that much, “Are you sure?”

“I think Jeno, Jaemin and Jisung should probably head home?” Yuta offers, wincing slightly at the glare Jisung levels at him, “Don’t get me wrong! I think you guys already have a lot to process and stuff, that’s all.”

And that’s when Mark understands what he means, and dread pools into his gut. Just because he’s managed to say it once doesn’t make it any easier. And it’s not like Mark even said half of it in the first place.

Donghyuck shifts, hand tightening around Mark’s, before his eyes flutter open.

“What—?” He starts to mumble, but Mark gives him a warning squeeze.

“Not now.” He mutters under his breath, and Donghyuck seems to understand, because his sharp eyes flit over to the main spectacle of the room. The warmth of his hand, though, never leaves and that makes Mark feel a bit better.

“Hyung has a point.” Jaemin admits, looking specifically at Jeno, “Admit it, you need a break.”

“Maybe.” The boy breathes out, before saying more resolutely, “Yeah. As long as Jisung’s…?”

“Fine, whatever.” Jisung says sarcastically, already standing up, “And I suppose one-way sharing isn’t a big deal?”

“We’ll talk to you again after!” Taeyong blurts, even though he looks like he’s going to crumble on the spot, “Just for now, please?”

Jisung looks like he’s going to retort, but one glance at Taeyong’s desperate eyes makes him look away, shrugging his shoulders.

“Fine, let’s go.” He says, and Jeno looks up at them before scrambling to his feet, Jaemin following them through the open door. There’s no good bye, nothing, only the soft click of the door behind them.

Mark exhales shakily, gripping Donghyuck’s hand tighter. They’ll need to sit down and talk, all of them, but they’ll only be able to after this.

“Well.” Jaehyun says, tucking his hands into his pockets, “We should probably gather everyone up and sit down.”

Mark curls into himself, slightly, in a terrible habit, but Donghyuck just wraps an arm around him, holding him closer. Mark wonders, not for the first time, how he’s managed to find people who care about him so much, even when he doesn’t deserve it.

“Hey,” Donghyuck whispers, voice laden heavily with sleep, as the others start to run around, “You’ll be alright. I’m here for you.”

Mark knows, and he’s so, so grateful for everything.

 


 

Eventually, everyone congregates in the living room, and it’s only a matter of minutes before all eyes are expectantly on Mark. He shifts uncomfortably, throat closing up at the thought of having to actually talk this time.

“Come on.” Donghyuck reassures him, though it does hardly anything to help, “You’ve got this.”

The two of them are in their original spots. Taeyong, Jaehyun and Yuta have hogged up the couch for a brief two seconds, before scooting a bit to accommodate Sicheng. Doyoung, Johnny and Taeil are on the smaller couch, and look just as unsettled as Mark feels. And, maybe that’s supposed to make him feel better, but it only serves to worsen his mood.

“Okay, we’re going to need to get through a lot today.” Taeil starts, since no one else seems inclined to, “So we should probably, y’know, start talking?”

Taeyong looks uncomfortably stiff next to Jaehyun, even as the blonde keeps rubbing soothing circles onto his hand, and Mark can’t help but wonder why. Not for long, though, because he quickly realizes that everyone’s staring at him, again. Waiting for him to speak. Right.

“Well.” He says hesitantly, not exactly sure how to explain how much he’s screwed up for the past couple of months, “Uh, it wasn’t bullying or anything that anyone might have told you. Honestly, um, no one really knows the entire story? Like, not even Taeyong hyung or Johnny hyung and, uh, that’s mainly my fault—”

“Mark.” Donghyuck addresses him informally once again, and Mark feels a tiny bit better, “Relax.”

“Right.” He sees Yuta trying to smile at him encouragingly, Sicheng giving him an awkward thumbs up, “Well, uh, I guess it started when Chenle started to mess up during our dance practice? And, well, our instructor was pretty mad obviously, and Chenle didn’t really get what he was saying since, y’know, language barriers and all. And then Renjun was... trying to stand up for him? But that just made him angrier.”

Incomprehension fills most of their faces, but no one interrupts him, which Mark takes as a sign to plow ahead.

“Well, anyway, he was asked to stay back that day, and Renjun managed to avoid it, luckily. And I figured that I should too, since I’m the leader of Dream and all. So I did, and…” Mark shrugs, feeling increasingly more self-conscious, “He got yelled at. A lot. And then he left and I still stayed back and—”

He closes his eyes.

 


 

 

You think you’re being chivalrous or something? You have no right.” The man bears down on Mark, and he flinches back. He doesn’t know why, he’s always been pretty cool to be around, but right now there’s something so stifling about his posture that Mark can’t… Mark can’t help but be afraid.

“It’s not about that.” Mark protests anyway, even though he knows it’s probably a bad idea, “He’s new to the language and everything, he just doesn’t understand what you’re saying! It’s not fair to him at all!”

“Do I look like I have the time for sympathy?” Instructor Kim hisses, “That doesn’t matter to me, the results do! Speaking of which, you’re doing abominably as well!”

“What?” Mark flounders; he doesn’t understand, “But I’ve been doing everything right and—”

“Is that even how you dance?” He laughs mockingly, and Mark feels like he can’t breathe, “Shit, how did they even cast you?”

“I…” Mark says, but he doesn’t know what more he can add, what he could possibly say to something like that, “You’ve never said anything before…”

“Well, I thought you had the potential, that you had a chance but, I guess,” The man shakes his head, before saying those damning words, the words that haunt Mark forever, “You didn’t deserve to debut.”

 


 

 

Didn’t deserve.

 

Mark opens his eyes, and shakes his head.

“Well, he yelled at me a lot too.” He confesses wearily, trying to shove that scene to the back of his mind, trying to push it away and never let it come back, “Apparently, I wasn’t as good at dancing as I thought, or something. He… basically told me I was a waste of space a-and—”

He can’t hold back the tears anymore, and they cloud his eyes, slipping over his cheeks and dropping off his chin. He can feel Donghyuck next to him, a calm presence, but the stiffness in the boy’s muscles doesn’t escape Mark’s notice either. Well, he keeps messing up, doesn’t he?

“Hey.” Johnny says as comfortingly as he can from the opposite side of the room, as Mark tries to wipe his cheeks, “You’ve got this.”

Huh. Everyone keeps saying that to him, but Mark can’t really sympathize.

“B-Basically, he s-said a lot of things.” Mark sniffles, not answering Johnny’s silent question, “And it… it didn’t stop after that, every time we had practice, he’d just yell at me all the time, and I…”

He fists his hands into his pants, entirely aware of Donghyuck’s wide gaze on him, “I guess I got used to it.”

“Wait.” Donghyuck breathes out shakily, “No, don’t tell me…”

His hand leaves Mark’s and Mark feels so cold without it, but more importantly is Donghyuck disgusted with him? Disappointed?

“Every time?” He clarifies, meeting Mark’s eyes, “He said these kinds of things to you all the time?”

“Yeah.” Mark confesses, breath pulled from his lungs forcefully, and he sees Donghyuck’s eyes burn, “B-But, it’s alright—”

“I will go find that bastard and tear him apart.” Yuta snarls uncharacteristically, and it’s only really his grip on Sicheng that seems to be stopping him from doing just that.

“I’m inclined to agree.” Doyoung says seriously, but his eyes dart over to Mark anyway, “But there’s something else, isn’t there?”

“Is it your leg?” Jaehyun blurts out, and Mark shakily nods, because they’re all really smart and of course he can’t keep anything a secret from them.

Shit.” Doyoung swears, and Taeyong doesn’t even bother to correct him, which should send alarms blaring through Mark’s head. The thing is, though, that Mark’s already got multiple noises in his head so one more doesn’t make a huge difference or anything.

“Could you... possibly show us?” Taeil ventures quietly, and he sounds so gentle and caring that Mark can’t help but prop his leg up and nod.

“I, uh…” He clears his throat, as he rolls up his pant, “I kind of caused it in the first place and he just made it a little worse? But it’s mostly my fault so—”

He breaks off at the sound of the stifling silence, feels his chest compress into a tiny box at the sight of their pale, withdrawn faces. Tears are already trailing down Taeyong’s cheek and Mark is honestly so worried, he wants to wipe them away but he can’t exactly get up.

“No matter how many times I see it, it doesn’t get any less horrifying.” Johnny says honestly, drawing in a shaky breath, “That man honestly deserves death.”

“There’s nothing we can do, though.” Taeyong’s the one who says that, and Mark turns to face him with wide eyes. He’s shaking, glassy eyes fixed on his hands, “There’s nothing we can do about it, because who’s going to believe us?”

“Are you kidding me?” Donghyuck snaps out, and Mark quickly finds his hand again, trying to calm him down, “Look at what he’s done to Mark! How could you say that?!”

“It’s the truth though.” Taeyong sounds pained, and Mark’s heart sounds suspiciously in his ears. He sounds as though… “He’s made that perfectly clear.”

He’s rubbing at his arms again, expression going increasingly vacant, and Mark has a startling moment of clarity.

“You went to him.” He doesn’t realize the voice speaking dimly into the room, “You… you talked to him.”

He should feel happy, shouldn’t he? That his hyung cares enough about him, enough about Mark, to go to such lengths for him. But then, why does he feel so… unsure? Weird? Like… like something’s not right. Like something’s inherently wrong.

“Yeah.” Taeyong admits quietly, drawing into himself. Jaehyun just watches, which feels so, so wrong, “Tried to punch him and everything, but…”

He chuckles lowly, “He has interesting ways of distracting people.”

His fingers are digging into his arms and Mark’s mouth dries because what does that mean?

“What did he say to you?” Johnny demands, obviously having the same idea, “Taeyong.”

“N-Nothing particularly important.” He’s tapping his fingers against his knee, now, an honest quirk if Mark’s ever seen one, “J-Just, uh… I don’t really know how we can help Mark.”

“Taeyong.” Taeil speaks, “We need to know these things, please.”

“Whatever.” Jaehyun says shortly, and oh, Mark’s gut feeling isn’t wrong, “He’s never going to tell us, is he?”

“Jaehyun…” Taeyong’s voice sounds pitifully small, even in the silence. Donghyuck’s watching the exchange with wide incredulous eyes, while the rest of them watch in knowing solemnity.

“No.” Jaehyun stands up, “I want to help you. We want to help you. Why is that so hard to get, why can’t you ever tell me anything?”

“I…” Taeyong swallows, gaze growing increasingly distant, just like his voice.

“Exactly.” Jaehyun sighs, raking his hand through his hair exasperatedly, “You don’t even have a reason for not talking to us! It just sounds like you don’t trust me and, frankly, I’m tired of it—”

“I’m s-scared.” Taeyong’s shaking now, head in his hands, and Mark feels sick, “I’m scared, okay?! Everything’s just going out of control and I… I can’t help anyone!”

Jaehyun stares dumbly, as Taeyong looks up, eyes glittering with tears, knees coming up to his chest in the most defensive position Mark’s ever seen.

“I’m the leader, Jaehyun.” He continues and, for some reason, the words sound really familiar to Mark, “I’m supposed to be able to take care of everyone but I can’t and I don’t know how.”

Mark realizes, grimly, that he finally understands why it sounds so familiar.

“Just because you’re the leader, it doesn’t mean you can compromise on yourself!” Jaehyun argues, though his voice has lost its heat.

“Well, maybe I do need to do that.” Taeyong says shortly, eyes slipping shut, “Because there are some things that I’ve caused that I need to fix and I know it better than anyone else.”

 

Those are the words Mark hears in his head, every time he looks in the mirror. Those are the words Mark hears, in a horrific mime of himself, everywhere he goes.

 

 

Inescapable, and haunting.

Chapter Text

Taeyong didn’t mean to blurt all of that out. He was just tired and afraid, just wanted Jaehyun to stay, please don’t leave, and everything came out, just like that.

And now, Jaehyun’s staring at him with a mixture of fear and aching heartbreak. Two things Taeyong never wants to see. The tension in the room is at the maximum, and Jaehyun’s silence is just making everything worse.

“I’m sorry.” He closes his eyes, trying to quell the nausea struggling to rise up once again, “I just… s-sorry.”

“Will you please just tell me what he said to you?” Jaehyun asks finally, struggling to keep his emotions in check. Taeyong knows it’s a test, his last chance, so he nods.

“I’ll do whatever you want.” He says earnestly, even though the fear sends pangs through his chest.

 

 

I’ll do anything, just don’t leave me please.

 

 

“Okay…” Jaehyun looks thrown off, but he settles back down next to Taeyong and, oh, he’s been missing that warmth, “Alright.”

It’s not the same, though, and Taeyong can tell. Shit, he’s managed to fuck things up beyond comprehension. Well, Taeyong is a bit of a screw-up himself, isn’t he? It makes sense.

“I…actually went to see him before the thing with Mark’s hip happened.” He says honestly, though one glance at the rest of the occupants of the room makes him falter. Mark, especially, looks pale, mouth parted like he wants to say something, but can’t. Taeyong hasn’t hurt him, has he? God, he hopes not, he wouldn’t be able to live with himself, but who’s he kidding, it’s probably on him.

“Wait, so you knew?” Doyoung asks sharply, and Taeyong quickly shakes his head because no, he doesn’t want them to hate him any more.

“No, it was just a… just a hunch.” He wets his lips eyeing Jaehyun’s hand. He really, really wants to take, it, let it remind him that he’s there, he’s okay, everything’s alright. But that would be a lie, and Taeyong curls his fingers, digging them into his thigh. Nothing is okay.

“I thought he might know something.” He murmurs, drawing his knees closer to himself, “M-Maybe about something that might have been bothering Mark. I had no idea… I had no idea it was actually him.”

He can’t help the involuntary shiver that courses down his spine at the memory of that man, his dark eyes and sneering words.

“He’s… he’s terrifying in ways he shouldn’t be.” Is all Taeyong says, and he really wants Jaehyun to touch him now, stop his trembling hands, but he doesn’t deserve it, “He can twist anything up and make you believe it.”

Except in cases where it’s true.

“He said something to you.” Yuta deduces, correctly, “That’s why you’re like this now.”

“No!” Taeyong rushes to blurt out, especially at the sight of Mark holding Donghyuck’s hand in a death grip, “I’m just… just saying.”

“Did he touch you?” Jaehyun asks, deceptively soft, “Or hurt you in any way? Like he hurt Mark?”

“No!” Taeyong’s eyes widen, and his breath quickens, “Trust me, nothing happened. He just said some really stupid things about Mark, that’s all!”

He still remembers the deceptively gentle caress of his jaw, the feel of fingers burning into his cheek. But he doesn’t bring that up, because it’s stupid.

“Are you sure?” Jaehyun’s looking at him like he knows, and Taeyong can see the fragile string of trust in his eyes, knows one blow could probably break it forever.

“Yes.” He says, but tries to convey that it’s something they can talk about later. He doesn’t know if Jaehyun understands, but the blonde abruptly leans back, leaving Taeyong feeling significantly colder than before.

“Well, that’s a relief.” Taeil says.

“So… what do we do?” Sicheng speaks up for the first time, grim and serious.

Everyone’s looking at Taeyong… again.

“I don’t know.” He settles his eyes on the carpeted floor, feeling entirely inadequate, useless, “I don’t know… what can we do?”

“Bring it up with management?” Taeil offers, “I mean, it sounds like one of the only things we can do.”

“We can’t beat him up, can we?” Doyoung sighs heavily, “That would be so much easier.”

“And if he decides to, I dunno, go out and blab about us being abusive?” Yuta argues, “I don’t know, we can’t handle any scandals.”

Scandals. Like Taeyong’s. But he says nothing, just keeps quiet. Keeps everything to himself, because he doesn’t need to bother everyone with his stupid thoughts.

“Hey, that wasn’t hyung’s fault!” Mark protests hotly, out of the blue, and Taeyong can’t help the tiny bubble of happiness that wells up because Mark’s actually defending him, after everything that’s happened. After everything Taeyong’s done.

“Of course it wasn’t!” Yuta is quick to agree, eyes wide as he glances at Taeyong, “Hyung, I wasn’t talking about you, I swear—!”

“It’s okay.” Taeyong says, rubbing at his head tiredly, the burning need to talk to Jaehyun now suffocating and he can’t take it anymore, “I’m just… could I head to bed? I’m sorry, my head is kind of fuzzy.”

“Yeah, of course.” Taeil nods knowingly, shooting a strange glance at Jaehyun, “Hey, Jaehyun, why don’t you help him there? You look dead on your feet too.”

“What?” Jaehyun looks legitimately puzzled, before his expression clears and he nods, standing up, “Alright. G’night guys.”

Taeyong does the same, managing to walk just fine behind Jaehyun, albeit slower. The blonde doesn’t touch him the entire time, and it makes his chest feel tight, and Taeyong knows he deserves it but he just needs to talk to him. Needs to feel like he’s overthinking things and that everything’s actually okay.

 

 

(he knows it’s not though)

 

 

“You wanted to talk?” Jaehyun crosses his arms as Taeyong shuts the door behind him, “So. Talk.”

And that makes Taeyong’s shoulder slump in relief, because Jaehyun still understands him, Jaehyun still pays attention to him, he can still see right through him.

“Right.” He says instead of bursting into joyful tears, “Well, um.”

He carefully sits on his bed, watching with sad eyes as Jaehyun takes a seat at the other end. Has it really come to this?

“You… you know when you asked if he hurt me or anything?” Taeyong asks, watching Jaehyun nod. It’s getting harder to breathe, “W-Well, he just… he just touched me a bit? But he, uh, let me go and I don’t know, I’m being stupid—”

“Where did he touch you?” Jaehyun’s eyes grow stony.

“Just… my face.” Taeyong shrugs, painfully breathing out, “And he…”

Tears start to trail from his eyes, and he hates that he’s making such a big deal out of nothing, but he can still feel the man’s burning grip on his wrist, his arms around Taeyong’s frame.

“He c-called me p-pretty.” He stutters out, eyes stinging, “And t-today—”

“Today?” Jaehyun interrupts, and he looks murderous and it kind of scares Taeyong, because he’s never seen him look like that, not ever. Realization dawns on his face, “You saw him today. In the dance room.”

Taeyong nods, throat choked up. He can’t do this, he’s being stupid and overly-sensitive and he needs to stop.

“Hey,” Jaehyun says, and he’s closer now, within hugging distance, but Taeyong hesitates, because Jaehyun probably doesn’t want him to touch him, “Look at me. It’s alright, I’m with you. Did he… did he force you to do something?”

“No way!” Taeyong blurts out, horrified at the thought, “When I asked he said he wasn’t… wasn’t interested in ‘that’ but I… he kept touching my face and hair and it was really sc-scary, I—”

Taeyong abandons his resolve and throws himself into Jaehyun’s form, arms shaking as they circle around the blonde’s back, as he cries into his shoulder.

“I can’t do this anymore.” He sobs tiredly, “I’m tired of this, Jaehyun, I just want this to end—”

“I’m glad you told me this.” Jaehyun hugs him back, hugs Taeyong back, “I know you’re tired—we’re all tired—but you’ve been really strong through this, haven’t you?”

“No.” Taeyong hiccups, unwilling to let go of the only person who can ground him, “I keep… keep on crying all the time, and getting sick, and never know w-what to d-do!”

“Babe, hey, relax.” Jaehyun pulls him closer, tugs his hand through Taeyong’s hair in that familiar, comforting way, not like Kim Yeongsu did, not weird and unpleasant, “I’m right here. Okay? You’ve been so strong for all of us, there’s no reason for you to beat yourself up about this.”

“I let him push me around.” Taeyong’s voice thins as he burrows his head into Jaehyun’s neck, “I let him… let Mark down and—”

“Okay, while I never approved of you going off on your own to confront him,” Jaehyun interrupts, “I know for a fact that you didn’t let Mark down. Didn’t let any of us down, alright?”

“No.” Taeyong voice shakes as he tries to shake it off, “I let him—”

“No more of that.” Jaehyun interrupts, pulling back, and Taeyong watches with wide eyes, arms still held out, “You’ve done the best you can.”

And then he’s swooping in, lips pressing sweetly against Taeyong’s and oh, how long has it been since they’ve done this? And Taeyong just curls his arms around Jaehyun’s neck instead, trying to forget, forget, forget.

“You’re mine, and I’m yours, right?” Jaehyun whispers, breath hot against the lobe of Taeyong’s ear, “That means he won’t… no, can’t touch you. And if he even tries, I will end him.”

“Y-You can’t promise that.” Taeyong says, and he hates how weak he’s being, how dependent, “W-What could you possibly d-do?”

“There are some things better left unknown.” Jaehyun says, eyes warm, but still tired, “Besides, I’d much rather kiss you right now.”

“That isn’t going to erase anything, though.” Taeyong says desperately, unwilling to believe this is real, that Jaehyun doesn’t hate him, “I still… I still betrayed your trust and made Mark feel like he couldn’t confide in me and—”

“You did nothing like that. You might have kept me out of the loop for a frustratingly long time, but you never betrayed anyone.” Jaehyun says firmly, pecking Taeyong’s cheek a couple of times, “You did whatever you could, whatever was within your power.”

“But it wasn’t enough.” Taeyong says quietly.

“It was enough from you,” Jaehyun vows, eyes dark, “But now? Now, you have us: all of us. And we’ll figure things out, I promise. We’ll fix everything.”

 

And Taeyong knows, he knows, that the world isn’t so simple, that life isn’t so benevolent, but he gives in under Jaehyun’s touch, letting his walls crumble down. Letting himself believe that maybe, just maybe, everything’s going to be okay.

 

Another kiss seals the deal.

 


 

Taeyong wakes up, the next morning, tangled in a familiar warmth, feeling the best he has in possibly days. A quick glance to his left confirms the identity of his human pillow, and Taeyong can’t help the tiny smile that etches its way onto his lips at the sight of Jaehyun’s tranquil features.

All of yesterday just seems so impossible to him, because he’s been wanting for so long. And now that Jaehyun… now that Jaehyun finds him worthwhile again, a strange spark of happiness keeps flitting about in his chest. He knows, of course, that everything hasn’t been fixed. That Jaehyun won’t be able to fully trust Taeyong for a while.

 

 

(but it’s a start because maybe he has hope yet)

 

 

His head still aches, but it feels much better than before, and for that, Taeyong’s immensely grateful. Jaehyun stirs almost immediately after Taeyong fully sits up, features scrunching up sleepily.

“Go back to sleep.” Taeyong reassures as gently as he can, “You need some rest.”

“Huh?” Jaehyun turns over, stuffing his head into the pillow, “You should too.”

“I need to talk to the others.” Taeyong thinks, before offering, “I’ll come right back afterwards.”

“Fine.” Jaehyun huffs poutily, and Taeyong can’t help the soft giggle that escapes him, as he leans down to peck his lips lightly, “O-kay, now go. And come back quickly.”

“Alright.” Taeyong strokes his hair gently, before detangling himself from Jaehyun and the blankets, “Good night.”

“Hm, yeah.” Jaehyun agrees tiredly, before he’s back to sleep, breaths escaping him in short puffs. Taeyong smiles at that, even as he stumbles out of bed, out of the warmth and into the cold. He thinks, again, that he missed this, missed Jaehyun. And, he decides, once more, staring at his hands for the briefest moment, it’s mostly because of him that their relationship took such a huge blow anyway.

He manages his way to the bathroom just fine, brushing his teeth in record time and, after a brief hesitation, showering quickly as well. His skin feels really gritty, especially after yesterday, and he does need to take care of his appearance. Even though it apparently doesn’t matter.

 

 

“It doesn’t matter how pretty you are

 

 

Taeyong freezes, hand on the doorknob, before he pushes the door open anyway. He needs to focus, get his head in the game. There’s no use wondering about things that don’t matter. Things that he shouldn’t overthink.

No one’s in the kitchen when he enters, so he supposes everyone’s asleep. Well, it wouldn’t make much of a difference, but he really does want to know what they’ve decided. He just… he just wants to get things over with. Doesn’t want to keep doing everything with that man’s shadow looming over him. More importantly, he wants Mark to be able to breathe easy, smile like he used to.

“Oh, you’re up hyung!” Taeyong nearly drops his cup at Doyoung’s sudden presence, but calms himself down just enough to place it down on the sink with trembling fingers.

“Yeah.” Taeyong says quietly, hip slant against the counter-top so that he can properly watch as Doyoung shuffles around the kitchen for his own cup of tea. Or coffee. Doyoung usually prefers coffee anyway, “Good morning.”

Doyoung just hums in agreement, leaning against the counter as the coffee machine whirs to life.

“So, did you enjoy last night?” He says it deceptively calmly, and it makes Taeyong flush from his roots to the tip of his ears.

“Doyoung!” He definitely does not squeak, hands covering his face as though it might shield him from the blasphemous things being spewed out by his friend, “What that really necessary?”

“I think so.” Doyoung grins, before it softens, grows smaller, “I knew you’d probably ask about yesterday, so I wanted to keep our conversation pleasant for as long as I could.”

“Doyoung…” Taeyong bites his lip, unable to refute.

“You were going to, weren’t you?” Doyoung sighs, collecting his cup from a cupboard and pouring the contents of the machine into it, “I knew it.”

Taeyong shrugs uncomfortably, gut sinking at the thought that even his friends think he has a disappointing attitude. He doesn’t want to be this way, but he can’t stop, and the thought that he can’t be better than this physically pains him. He’s never good enough, these days.

“I’m just… worried.” He decides to say, not wanting to draw too much attention to himself, “He hurt Mark so much and I… I can’t sit back and do nothing, but I don’t exactly see a way out.”

“Play a prank so horrible he decides to quit on his own?” Doyoung offers, but his joking smile dims under Taeyong’s stare, “Okay, I’ll be serious. We’re thinking of going to management to lodge a complaint. I mean, it’s the most practical thing to do.”

“Yeah, that’s true.” Taeyong nods, lips pressed tight together, “I don’t know if they’ll accept it though.”

“They’ll have to.” Doyoung sports a dark expression, which sends involuntary shivers down Taeyong’s spine.

Before he can actually tell Doyoung to tone it down, Johnny pads into the kitchen tiredly, making a beeline for the coffee machine.

“Rough night, hyung?” Doyoung asks sympathetically, and Johnny just shakes his head at him.

“Shut up.” He jokes, before his smile evaporates, gaze landing on Taeyong, “Bro, you’re going to have to contact our manager. Probably tell Mark to do the same for his. Did Doyoung tell you about that?”

“Yeah.” Taeyong nods, a bit self-conscious; he doesn’t like that all of them lose their peppy moods at the mere sight of him, but it’s becoming a regular occurrence around the dorm, “And I was also thinking that Mark should probably head back to the Dream dorms.”

He did think about it, actually. All of last night, even as Jaehyun carded his hands through Taeyong’s hair, cupping his cheek and nuzzling into him like it’d been years (mainly because that’s how it felt, all Taeyong’s fault). Mark is like the pillar of Dream, and everyone can see that. It wouldn’t be the same without him, and Taeyong doesn’t want to keep him here just for his own selfish purposes.

“What?” Doyoung clearly doesn’t follow, “Why?”

“Agreed.” Johnny takes a quick sip from Doyoung’s cup, “He just got here: why do we need to move him again?”

“The kids need him.” Taeyong says. He wants to add, just like I need you guys, but that would be stupid and probably unappreciated, so it’s best Taeyong keeps that to himself, “You saw them yesterday. They looked like death incarnate, and it’s not healthy for them.”

“You’re one to talk.” Doyoung counters, eyes narrowed, but at Taeyong’s instinctive flinch, softens his glare, “But yeah, I kind of get it. I think Renjun and Chenle basically broke down, and Jeno was well on his way.”

“Jisung and Jaemin too.” Taeyong reminds them, picking at the loose strings of his pajamas, “Jisung’s the youngest and Renjun... he’s always been pretty sensitive. They’re all kids.”

“I see your point.” Johnny says finally, only to balk. Taeyong follows his line of sight to Mark, who’s limped into the kitchen, rubbing at his eyes sleepily.

“You’re walking?!” He nearly screeches, previous conversation forgotten, because Mark is hurt, he shouldn’t be standing like this, “How are you walking?”

“I dunno, it feels a little better, dude.” Mark yawns informally, before he realizes exactly who he’s talking to, and his cheeks color, “A-Ah, hyung, I’m sorry, I didn’t realize.”

“It’s okay.” Taeyong shrugs nonchalantly. It feels wrong to expect Mark to actually respect him, after everything that’s happened. He’s like the brother Taeyong’s never had, and he’s told him that so many times before, but this is how he takes care of him? It’s despicable, honestly, and Taeyong can’t fault him in any way.

 

 

“You’re waiting for it, I suppose? The inevitable end?”

 

 

“Uh, hyung?” Mark is saying, and Doyoung and Johnny are eyeing him worriedly.

“Yeah?” Taeyong decides to act as casual about it as he can, be strong (for once), “What’s up?”

“Could I talk to you?” Mark’s features shift almost imperceptibly, “Alone, preferably? Sorry hyungs!”

Taeyong can’t help the tiny quirk of his mouth at that, even as his heart hurts at the thought of what Mark might say. It makes sense that Mark still manages to be really polite and respectful to his hyungs, even at a time like this. Not like Taeyong, who constantly forgets where he is, and where his thoughts are going.

“Sure.” He agrees, instead of delving into a panic attack on the spot, and waves at Doyoung—waves, he could hit himself—and Johnny before following Mark into the room that he and Donghyuck share. The brunette’s already awake, and he side-eyes Taeyong, before sighing noisily through his nose.

“Fine, I’m leaving.” He grumbles, huffing away to the door, “But you owe me for this, Lee Minhyung.”

“Thanks, Donghyuck.” Mark smiles cutely at the younger boy, but Taeyong’s heart doesn’t warm like it should. Because Mark’s smile is wavering, and is that hurt in his eyes? Taeyong just feels confused, and slightly worried.

“You two… aren’t fighting, right?” He asks, just to make sure. He remembers Jaehyun’s tense mouth, tight shoulders, and dissolves the thought. It’s not the time.

“What?” Mark looks honestly baffled, and it’s really adorable, “No, I—”

He catches himself, mouth parting in a soft oh, as his eyes scrunch up in pain.

“I n-need to sit down.” He gasps out, collapsing onto the bed, “Shit, I should’ve known I wouldn’t be able to walk so long.”

“You should’ve.” Taeyong agrees, because he wants to see his dongsaeng take better care of himself, doesn’t want to see him hurt anymore. He wants to put a hand on Mark’s shoulder, maybe take a closer look at the bruise, convince him to see a doctor about it, but he holds his concern back. Mark doesn’t need him.

“So, what did you want to talk about?” He decides to ask instead.

At that, Mark’s pleasant features abruptly twist into a frown, like he knows the older man won't like it, and Taeyong has a really, really bad feeling about this.

 

 

What could it be?

Chapter Text

Taeyong’s staring at him, all pale and worried. Mark can actually see the anxiety lining the bags under Taeyong’s eyes, though he concedes that the older man looks much better than before.

Mark himself, at the moment, is trying to force the bile back down his throat, because he didn’t think he’d ever have to be the one to set things in motion yet, here he is. Sitting across Taeyong, and pulling his leg closer to himself.

Speaking of which, his leg seems to be doing a little better. It was hurting yesterday, but today it’s almost completely healed, save for the fact that, well, Mark can’t actually walk for long. It sends a little reminder sting at that, and Mark can’t help but idly rub at the area—softly, of course—as he looks at Taeyong.

He’s had a lot of time to think about what happened yesterday. Even when Donghyuck was being clingy and loving and everything Mark didn’t—doesn’t—deserve, Mark couldn’t stop thinking about Taeyong’s ashen cheeks, his trembling form; even now, as he stares at his hyung, he can’t help but see it. There’s something monumentally wrong about that picture that it’s become hard to forget.

There’s still a tiny part of him, though, that wonders why isn’t hyung asking me how I feel, doesn’t he care? And it wars with the stronger voice in his head which sneers on about how Mark shouldn’t expect any love, especially not after burdening everyone so much and how Taeyong hyung’s like this because of you.

The thought hurts just as much as it should.

“Uh, Mark?” He’s broken out of his thoughts by his hyung, who’s rocking forward slightly, clearly troubled, “Are you alright?”

“Y-Yeah.” He winces as his voice cracks, shoving those useless (true) thoughts to the back of his mind, “I was just… thinking about stuff.”

Great, he’s so convincing. Mark could hit himself, really.

“Anyway,” He hurries to cover up his stupidity, mouth drying up again, “I, uh… wanted to talk to you about yesterday.”

“Oh.” Something akin to regret flashes in Taeyong’s eyes, and Mark can’t help but wonder if he’s regretting standing up for him, “Yeah, what about it?”

“I just… wanted to say thanks, I guess.” Mark looks awkwardly at his lap, feeling his hyung’s intense gaze almost unbearable to soldier through, “For… for defending me.”

“Oh, Mark,” Taeyong sighs, and Mark tenses up, “Minhyung.”

And oh, he wouldn’t call Mark by his actual name if he were mad, right?

Mark still doesn’t look up, though. Just in case. But he can’t help the shaky exhale of breath when Taeyong surges forward to wrap his arms around him, and doesn’t hesitate to hug him back. It feels nice to hold someone like this, to live in a medium where someone else knows what he’s feeling, what he’s thinking.

“You don’t need to thank me for something like that.” Taeyong murmurs quietly into his ear, still holding him close, “It’s the least I could do for you.”

“No, it’s more than I could’ve asked for.” Mark shuts his eyes, lets the warmth of his hyung engulf him for just this moment, “And with you being sick too, I… I’m just happy you thought of me, I guess.”

His cheeks burn at the embarrassing words, but he needs to get them out, needs his hyung to know how much Mark appreciates him (how much he needs him, even through the pain).

Taeyong stills for the briefest, most heart-stopping moment, before he relaxes, melting back against Mark’s smaller frame.

“I’m always worried about you.” Taeyong says honestly, “But I also know that this isn’t all you wanted to tell me.”

Damn it. Taeyong’s always been good at reading through Mark, just like Mark can see the tiniest nuances in his hyung’s behavior. Maybe it’s because they’ve spent so much time together before this, or maybe it’s because they’re both leaders, or maybe, maybe, maybe. There are so many ‘ifs’ in this that Mark has stopped trying to understand.

“I wanted to know what he actually said to you.” Mark spits out and there, he’s done it, potentially ruined everything, “I—I know you said nothing happened, but I know he must’ve… must’ve said something.”

Taeyong hesitates, and Mark predicts the lie even before he hears it, “There’s nothing, he said nothing to me, so don’t worry—”

“Hyung.” Mark pulls back, even though his body begs him to get back the warmth, so that he can stare Taeyong in the eyes, see the emotions flitting across his hyung’s open face, “You… you were the one who said it: you’re like a brother to me.”

He looks up, again, sees Taeyong’s glimmering eyes, thinks to himself that this isn’t your fault, you’re not making him cry, except maybe you are, maybe you should shut up.

“And we don’t lie to each other.” His voice grows smaller, despite his struggle to come off as strong, and he bitterly wonders why he can’t do even the simplest of things, the basics that any idol should be able to do, “R-Right?”

“Mark, I…” Taeyong’s curling his fists loosely in his lap, expression wavering, before his voice trails off into an unknowing whisper, “I… I can’t, I… I’ve always been a really good liar. Haven’t I?”

The last part is said mostly to himself, ended with a bitter chuckle.

“What?” Mark says, and he really doesn’t understand, I’m sorry, but Taeyong’s already shaking his head and getting up, hand carelessly swiping at his eyes.

Holding back tears. Because of Mark.

“Nothing.” His voice is thick, and Mark feels small, so small, sitting on his bed, “It doesn’t matter. I already said nothing happened, so let’s just… let’s just leave it at that, okay?”

He doesn’t give Mark any time to answer, because he steps out of the room and shuts the door behind him all too quickly, in a matter of moments. And Mark does nothing, just sits there, feeling… feeling nothing. Is his chest supposed to be this empty?

He doesn’t even notice Donghyuck slipping back in, not until the brunette takes his hands in his cooler ones.

“Hey, hyung.” Donghyuck’s sweet voice is softer than usual, and Mark forces a smile to his lips, “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing.” Mark takes a leaf out of Taeyong’s book, lying through his teeth, “I just thought of something unimportant. What do you want to do?”

“Right.” Donghyuck gives him an entirely knowing look, and it nearly makes Mark flush from the guilt, “I don’t know, maybe ask the hyungs if we can go back to our dorms?”

“This is our dorm too.” Mark remind him, but he sees Donghyuck’s point. He doesn’t think he could ever forget his friends’ ashen faces, dull eyes and broken breaths. All his responsibility.

“You know what I mean.” Donghyuck pokes his cheek, always the mature one, and Mark—who’d normally react sensitively—doesn’t even bat an eye, shoulders slumping, “Okay, what’s wrong?”

“What Taeyong hyung said the other day… it’s really bothering me.” Mark admits—he’s always been a terrible liar—looking unsurely at Donghyuck, and bolstering on when he only sees his understanding, “I don’t know how to say it, really, but… it’s like something’s up with him. I think Kim-ssi might’ve said something, but—”

“You don’t know what, or even why.” Donghyuck concludes, small smile etching onto his lips at the sight of Mark’s eager nod before it quickly dissolves, “Let’s get one thing right though: you don’t address that pile of shit respectfully. He isn’t ‘Kim-ssi’ or whatever to you, oh no.”

“Donghyuck…” Mark draws out, uncertainty crawling up from an icy pool.

Donghyuck’s eyes flash, “He is trash to you.”

“Donghyuck!”

“It’s true!” The brunette insists, taking Mark’s cheeks in his hands, so that Mark has to look him in the eye, see the sincerity and warmth and love, “He’s trash.”

“O-Okay?” Mark’s cheeks flush—he can’t help himself—and he gives a tiny, jerky nod.

“Say it.” The younger boy’s eyes flash, and something in Mark’s stomach coils, “He’s trash.”

“I…” Mark wants to refute, wants to stop, but something in Donghyuck’s eyes makes him want to stay, “H-He’s tr-trash?”

“More conviction.” Donghyuck presses, hands taking Mark’s instead.

“He’s trash.” Mark snaps out finally, before shaking his head, “What’s the point of this?”

“I want you to say it until you believe it.” Donghyuck says, “Because it’s the truth. Say it again.”

“I—he’s trash.”

“He shouldn’t have touched me.”

“What?” Mark is confused—did he hurt Donghyuck? Did he… did he...?

“Repeat it.” Donghyuck has the patience of a saint, “He shouldn’t have touched me.”

“He… He shouldn’t have t-touched me?”

“He shouldn’t have hurt me.”

“He…” Mark’s eyes are starting to sting, clouding over with familiar tears as he recalls everything; every snide remark, every hurtful order, every stinging touch. The doubt creeps in, again, and Mark wonders why the man’s so obviously in the wrong, for Donghyuck: if Mark messes up, shouldn’t he… shouldn’t he take the blame?

“Mark?” Donghyuck asks softly, and Mark can’t help the tiny sob that escapes him, “Talk to me?”

“I k-kept messing up.” He chokes out, vision blurring as the tears push their way forward. “He was… he was only trying to h-help me.”

“Is that what he said?” Something’s off about Donghyuck’s voice, Mark can tell; but, he keeps his head down because he’s a coward, shameful, embarrassing, “Mark hyung? Is that what he said?”

Is it funny that every time Donghyuck remembers to use honorifics, it hurts? Mark should be grateful, but all he can feel is the distance wedging itself between them, digging the knife in his gut deeper and deeper and deeper

“D-Don’t do that.” Mark bites out, “Don’t call me hyung, please.”

There’s a beat of silence, where Mark contemplates removing his hands from the tanned boy’s more slender ones; but he doesn’t have the chance, because his grip tightens.

“Alright.” Donghyuck’s voice sounds stuffy—well, stuffier than usual—and Mark worries, “Okay, Mark. Is that what that pile of trash told you?”

Something about the venom in Donghyuck’s tone loosens up Mark’s stomach. It tightens again, though, upon remembering the soft, parental brush of a hand through his hair, the tiny, whispered words:

“I only want what’s best for you.”

“Yes.” Mark sighs shakily, fingers twitching against Donghyuck’s, “I-I mean he had a point, I k-kept messing up that day…”

“That day?” Donghyuck’s eyes widen, “You mean… when your hip was busted?”

“I, uh, yeah?” Mark cringes at how much he failed at being casual about it.

“Mark!” The shrill tone makes him flinch back, too many bad memories of the same kind of loud, overpowering voice filling his memories, “Mark, you were hurt. He should’ve pardoned you in the first place.”

“In fact,” Donghyuck adds, “He should’ve shown you to a doctor.”

Mark’s hip throbs again, in reminder.

“It was my fault.” Mark asserts, still not looking up, “You don’t know how much I’ve screwed up, Hyuck, it’s just been one mistake after the next for me. And he was right: how am I supposed to survive this place if I… if I’m not good enough?”

There. He’s said it. It’s out there, he’s left himself bare and open.

“Oh god.” Donghyuck breathes out shakily, sounding close to tears himself, and Mark’s pulse quickens, sweat beading at his forehead because is it because of him? Donghyuck, please don’t cry, “No, that’s not how it should be! You’re the most talented person I know: I mean, you debuted in three units! Who else has done that?!”

“It’s just… they probably had high hopes for me and I failed?” Mark doesn’t feel as sure about this as he did before.

“Are you kidding me?” Donghyuck’s lips quirk up into a sad smile, and Mark looks up fully now, “If that were the case, I’d have been kicked out a long time ago.”

What?” Mark protests hotly, unstoppable current rising up, “No, you’ve got a beautiful voice and it’s so unique! They’d never do that—”

“So, why’re you any different?” Donghyuck asks quietly and, for a moment, Mark is struck dumb, “You’re the best rapper SM has had in ages, and you can’t deny it. Not to mention…”

Mark must be seeing things, because his friend’s cheeks definitely couldn’t have turned pink, “Your…uh, aesthetic is very nice too. But, anyway—”

“You think I look nice?” His voice comes out a lot more unsure than he wants for it too, and Mark wants to hit himself. He shouldn’t be this needy; hell, he’s never even known that he’s needed so much validation, and it makes him hate himself all the more.

“Y-Yeah.” Donghyuck answers, instead of refuting it like he thought he would, and Mark flushes, “Anyway, he could’ve asked you to improve on stuff in a better way! Like… like positive reinforcement?”

Mark doesn’t really understand, so Donghyuck clarifies.

“Like, praising you when you get something right!” He explains, and the idea seems so foreign to Mark that it’s actually kind of scary, “And when you don’t, he could just tell you what you did wrong, nicely. Maybe help you out a bit.

“Think of it this way,” He says, and Mark feels bad for being so dumb about everything, “When you were a kid, and didn’t understand a particular math problem… did your parents smack you around? Call you names?”

“No.” Mark answers dutifully, still confused, but he waits patiently for Donghyuck to explain.

“Exactly.” He concludes, “If they didn’t, then what gives this man the right to do that?”

Oh. Oh.

Donghyuck sees the slow light of understanding dawn in Mark’s eyes, because he gives him a watery smile.

“Do you get it now?”

“I…” Mark’s voice is dry, and he wets his lips, “I think I do, I’m just… confused.”

His voice trails off, a broken whisper. It’s like the world’s been pulled from under his feet, a carpet he’s gotten too comfortable staying on. It’s like someone’s just hit him with a brick, information making his mind hurt, throb, with confusion but also understanding and pain, so much pain.

“Can you say it now?”

Mark knows what Donghyuck means now and, lips pressing into a thin line, he gives in, saying the words he never thought he would.

“He… he shouldn’t have hurt me.”

His voice cracks and his face shines wetly with tears, but he doesn’t care, as his shoulders shake and he all but breaks down in Donghyuck’s arms.

“He shouldn’t have hurt me.” He repeats again, words sounding unfamiliar to his ears, but so sweet. He feels Donghyuck tremble too, in his hold, and can’t help but burrow into his shoulder, tears tracing shapes into the soft fabric of the brunette’s sweater, “Y-You were right, he shouldn’t have hurt me. He shouldn’t have, I…”

He hiccups, sobs mingling with Donghyuck’s. He doesn’t need to say any more, because he knows the brunette understands, knows he gets it.

Mark’s been drowning for so long, but with these words, it’s enough to pull him back up, just for those few gulps of precious air.

 

 

 

He shouldn’t have hurt me.

  


 

 

“Can you believe they kicked us out of our own dorms?” Donghyuck jokes weakly, as he helps Mark limp his way through the corridors, “I mean: rude.”

“You wanted to go back, anyway.” Mark points out with a sigh, head thumping, “Besides, they had a point. I think… I think we need to all have a talk.”

His voice is still hoarse from all the crying, and the shaking and the sobbing from before. His chest feels inexplicably lighter, like a huge burden has been lifted off him, no more expectations weighing him down. His mistakes still cling to him, though, little wisps hanging on, and Mark can’t help but feel ashamed, still, for how naïve he was. How heartbreakingly dumb and weak. If he hadn’t been so embarrassingly easy, this wouldn’t have happened. Nothing like this would’ve happened.

“Well, it’s different when they force us out.” Donghyuck clucks his tongue, cheeks still flushing under Mark’s inquisitive gaze. He finds it kind of cute, actually.

“They didn’t force us.” Mark laughs, though it doesn’t feel right, “They asked us as politely as they could.”

He remembers a tiny detail, sticking out like a sore thumb. Mark wants to tell himself he’s overthinking it, but he can’t help but feel it must be somewhat true.

Jaehyun was there, Johnny and Doyoung too; they were the ones who told them to head back in the first place. Yuta came by to check up on them, making sure they had the bare essentials with them, and Taeil came by to give them a warm pat on the shoulder. Even Sicheng—awkward, clumsy, lovable Sicheng—came over to wish them luck but Taeyong… Taeyong didn’t come. Taeyong…. His hyung wasn’t there.

“Why’ve you got that weird face on?” Donghyuck cuts into his thoughts, and Mark quickly rearranges his expression into something that he hopes is far more pleasant, “Nope. Not working, it’s too late. Is it ‘coz Taeyong hyung wasn’t there?”

Sometimes, it’s scary how well Donghyuck knows him. Mark remembers a time where he’d look at Jaehyun and Taeyong, wish for an easy dynamic like them; he remembers wanting. A friend, a confidant, someone who’d be able to ground him. But Mark has Donghyuck. It’s all okay.

Donghyuck’s eyes narrow, then, and Mark feels like he’s going to say something dumb.

“Want me to beat him up?”

“Donghyuck!” Mark yelps, making the brunette chuckle and adjust his grip, since Mark’s flail disrupted their balance, “Why would you say that?”

“If anyone hurts you, I’d rip them to shreds.” The boy says honestly, looking forward the entire time. Mark doesn’t miss the blush filling his cheeks, but doesn’t comment on it because he’s too busy holding back his own happy flush from creeping up his neck.

“I, uh. I’d do the same for you,” Mark says, and it’s true. Donghyuck nods like he understands, giving Mark a muted smile as they reach their hall.

“We’re best bros, right?” There’s something about the way that Donghyuck’s smile sobers up that has Mark uneasy, but he brushes it off, squeezing Donghyuck’s arm, as he helps him limp his way forward.

“Yeah, of course—” And that’s where Mark cuts himself off, blood growing cold. Because there, in front of their door, stands Kim Yeongsu, restlessly pacing with tension underlying in the calm line of his mouth.

Mark swears quietly, catching Donghyuck’s attention. The younger boy looks, and it takes only mere seconds for the confusion to solidify into hate. The deliberate squeeze of his wrist is what holds him back from actually trying to physically rip him to pieces like he said he would.

“Go get one of the hyungs.” Mark says lowly, eyes shining in warning, and Donghyuck can only mutely nod, voice lost. He doesn’t protest, like he normally would; they both know this is out of their league. Everyone inside is emotionally vulnerable right now, and Mark knows that he has make sure they don’t get hurt. Still, the absence of Donghyuck’s warmth makes Mark shiver, but he bolsters on bravely, as the man’s eyes catch his.

Trash, he reminds himself, He’s just trash.

Besides, this is what he should do. As a leader.

 

 

 

Why, then, does his heart pound so quick?

Chapter Text

Taeyong feels empty.

It’s scary, when someone unexpectedly reads through you, sees through you. And it’s even more so, when it’s someone you wish to protect, hide, keep safe— especially from yourself.

Taeyong doesn’t understand how Mark could possibly have done that; everyone else seems to have accepted the short form of the events that transpired since… since that night except for Jaehyun and Mark. And it,, honest to god, terrifies Taeyong.

So, when he steps out of that room, his hands are shaking, breath’s shuddering; he doesn’t even look up, as he brushes past Donghyuck, who’s left staring at his back with a strange look in his eyes. He might hate Taeyong some more, then, since he’s probably upset Mark. But Taeyong can’t find it in him to care, right now, mind entirely preoccupied with thoughts of get away, get away loping around in circles, a constant chant he can’t seem to get rid of.

It’s like this that Taeil finds him, huddled up in bed. Taeyong isn’t sure how long he’s been there with everything, including the feel of his soft pillow against his cheek, on his mind. It’s peaceful, yes, but in a strangely stifling way that has Taeyong gasping for breath. His cheeks start to grow moist and, oh, he’s crying but strangely enough, can’t feel anything, mind filled with static.

“Whoa, whoa, look at me.” Taeil’s warm hands come to wrap around his shoulders, and Taeyong can’t help his instinctive flinch, wheezing for breath, “Taeyong! Taeyong, calm down, everything’s fine—”

“It’s… it’s not!” Taeyong manages to gasp out, words forced from his lips as his breath stutters out of his lungs, “K-keep mess…messing th-things u-up—”

He struggles to get more air into him, and it feels like his ribs are rattling against his chest, mind spinning dizzyingly and he can’t get his bearings, everything’s so out of control.

“You’re safe, you’re safe.” Taeil doesn’t touch him again, for which Taeyong is immensely grateful, “It’s just me Taeyong, you’re safe.”

It’s like someone’s dunked his head underwater, and he can’t hear anything safe for the slow, steady puffs of air from his lungs; his last few breaths, before his chest fills with water. And it hurts, he’s not safe, Taeil’s lying, and everyone hates him

“G-Go away.” He chokes out, doesn’t want Taeil to see this, tears still dribbling down his cheeks, his chest hurts, “S-Stay away!”

“I’m not going anywhere.” Taeil’s warm hand encompasses Taeyong’s own, and his gentle voice murmurs to him, “I’m staying right here with you, see? You’re completely safe, Tae, it’s just the two of us here. I’m thinking we should clean up, though, the sheets are a mess, aren’t they?”

Are they? Taeyong can’t see very well, thanks to his blurred sight, but he… he trusts Taeil, right? He trusts Taeil, but no, no nononono what if Taeil doesn’t like him anymore, what if he—

“I need you to breathe with me first.” Taeil’s always had the patience of a saint, and he’s carefully resting his hands on Taeyong’s shoulder—just a comforting touch, nothing more, “Put your hand here, see? Try to match my breathing, it’ll feel better. Taeyong, breathe.”

He tries, because he really trusts Taeil; Taeil wouldn’t hurt him, all gentle touches and warm smiles, Taeil cares, he wants Taeyong to just breathe, breathe; he can do that.

Taeyong gasps in a lungful of air, free hand coming to rub at his cheeks, as he tries to match the slow rise and fall of Taeil’s chest. His lungs feel like they’re burning, but the cold rush of air into them makes him feel unbelievably better. His head spins, but it’s an improvement; this is just in relief, he’s breathing, he can breathe, it’s okay.

“I’m s-sorry you had to see that, hyung.” He apologizes, albeit needlessly since Taeil waves it off. Ah, well, Taeil has always been one of the more forgiving members.

“What were you thinking about?” He asks eventually, when Taeyong regains enough of his wits about him, “D’you... d’you remember?”

“I don’t have amnesia, hyung.” Taeyong doesn’t mean for it to come out so rudely, it just happens; but when Taeil stiffens, he regrets it, biting his lip.

“Hyung,” He says anxiously, desperate to fix it, “I’m so, so sorry, I didn’t mean to snap at you!”

“It’s alright.” Is all Taeil offers quietly. It makes Taeyong feel all the more guilty, but he probably deserves that anyway.

“It’s just…” Something in Taeyong prompts him to speak; the words slip off his tongue quick as sand, but just as rough, “I’m… I’m at a loss as to what to do. I mean, I’m the leader but, right now, it feels like… like I can’t do anything about what’s happening.”

“What do you mean by that?” Taeil raises his eyebrow, soft and caring and nothing Taeyong deserves, “What do you think you’re supposed to be doing?”

“I don’t know.” Taeyong’s shoulders hunch in, a bitter chuckle leaving his throat, “Something. Anything. Certainly not nothing.”

Taeil stares at him for one harrowing moment, eyes almost seeing through him, alight with something akin to sadness, but that’s probably just Taeyong’s imagination running wild. Then again, he must seem pretty pitiable.

“Do you think,” The older brunette speaks slowly, as if testing the waters, “That everything is yours to take on?”

That takes Taeyong off guard, and he stares at Taeil quite openly, until the man raises an eyebrow; cheeks flushing, he looks away, abashed.

“I…” He pauses, thinking. He wants to say yes, since he’s the leader and, isn’t that what leaders are supposed to do? He’s seen other leaders, admirable and charismatic, or comforting and homely—and he’s always aspired to be like that. He’s never agreed with management’s decision to appoint him—Taeyong, who doesn’t know how to do anything, who has no skills—but he’s in the role now anyway.

And, honestly, this is the least he could do. As a leader, he’s not supposed to make mistakes; he’s not supposed to let things slip out of his grasp, isn’t supposed to neglect his members. Yet, he’s done that anyway. It’s only fair that Taeyong fixes his messes, right?

“Have you figured out your answer?” Taeil prompts good-naturedly. Taeyong thinks, in the corner of his mind, that Taeil would’ve made an outstanding leader. Not because he’s the oldest, but because he’s the most patient of them all, the kindest, most gentle member who can also be strict when he needs to be. He’s someone Taeyong’s always found himself going to for advice, to saddle him with his problems.

“I would… normally say no.” Taeyong lies, because no, he’d never want them to take on any more work, “But this time… this time, hyung, I can’t expect everyone to deal with it. It’s a… it’s a demon I’ve created, so it’s best for m-me to deal with it, right?”

“I never talked about anything happening right now.” The older man points out, and Taeyong winces because busted; he really feels like a kid again, “But alright, why’s it something you need to do by yourself?”

“You sound awfully like a therapist.” Taeyong tries to joke, to lighten the mood.

“Maybe.” Taeil agrees cheerfully, “But I like to think I’m helping my family out, you know?”

The words strike Taeyong hard, and he bites his lip. Family? Could he even really consider Taeyong, who’s such a screw-up, such an impossible person, to be family?

“Family?” The word comes out smaller than he wishes for it to, and he shakes his head, “I can’t… you can’t possibly expect—”

“Taeyong.” Taeil sighs, finally; has he reached the limit of his patience? Taeil, who has no limits to his compassion? Taeyong’s done it again, “You are family. Everyone here is a part of my family. You guys are people I love being around; people who, I feel, can lend me support and stability whenever I need it.”

“I’m probably the least stable person right now.” Taeyong admits, voice cracking embarrassedly at the thought of being someone so important—it seems impossible, “I think you’d be better off without me, honestly—”

“Don’t say that!” Taeyong’s hands are snatched up by Taeil’s slightly smaller ones, and his hyung glares at him with the heat of a thousand suns, “Look, I might not talk much, but I love listening to all of you guys. When you come to me for advice or just to hang out, it makes me… it makes me really, really happy.”

He frowns, then, and Taeyong is struck with an irrational fear, because that expression can’t be good, but it’s Taeil.

“And you haven’t been doing that, lately.” Taeil finally exhales heavily, “Now, every time I check, you say you’ve got everything under control; but honestly, you’re taking on more responsibility than you need to.”

“It’s my job.” Taeyong insists, mouth dry, “It’s my… I’m supposed to—”

“Guide us.” Taeil interrupts, unmoving, “You’re supposed to be our pillar, I agree. But you’re not supposed to be our mule. You don’t need to pick up after us, solve our problems… these are things we should be doing ourselves.”

Taeyong doesn’t know what to say to this, thrown out of his depth. Taeil’s eyes blaze for a moment longer, before they soften and he sighs.

“You need to figure it out for yourself.” Taeil’s eyes lock on Taeyong’s, “You know, what you’re supposed to do as a leader, and everything. But you need to take a break first. If not for yourself, then for… for us?”

“I… Taeil, I can’t.” Taeyong’s chest aches, phantom pangs shooting through it, as he looks desperately at the man he sees like an older brother, “If I stop now… everything will be off balance and out of control and—”

“Alright.” Taeil cuts him off, which makes the dread pooling in Taeyong’s gut twice as heavy—Taeil never interrupts, “I just want you to think about it, okay?”

Even though his tone is just soft, worried even, Taeyong can’t help but hate himself for being such a burden. So much of a problem that Taeil finds it necessary to come seek him out to talk.

“Right.” He says shortly, instead of complaining and being more cumbersome.

“Oh yeah,” Taeil remembers, eyes flying wide as he gets off the bed, “I wanted to call you because Mark and Donghyuck were leaving!”

Taeyong stiffens at the mention of Mark, before forcing himself to relax. He doesn’t need Taeil to get any more suspicious about things. He appreciates the older man’s concern, but Taeyong just… just wants to feel competent, for a change.

“Alright, I’m coming.” He makes to stand up, only to gasp in surprise when Taeil actually pushes him back onto the bed, “Whoa, hyung!”

“They must’ve left by now.” Taeil answers, though he bites his lip in guilt, “Sorry if I pushed too hard. I just want you to take some rest.”

“It’s fine.” Taeyong says—doesn’t mention how he probably deserves the hurt anyway—and exhales shakily, “I might as well come out anyway though, right?”

“I literally just said to rest.” Taeil says pointedly, only to visibly startle when the door swings open, Yuta’s head poking in, “Gosh, you scared me!”

“Sorry hyung!” Yuta says cheerfully, before his smile dims at the sight of Taeyong—oh no, not him too—and he adds, softer, “We were going to leave now: you coming?”

“Leave?” Taeyong feels totally off balance, now, as he eyes the two of them, “Leave to… where, exactly?”

“Uh, we were going to meet our manager so that we could discuss our next few steps.” Yuta exchanges a weird look with Taeil—Taeyong has never felt more disconnected—as he says this, “I mean, we figured it’d be unfair to pile everything onto you.”

“Oh.” Taeyong’s voice sounds distant, even to himself, “Alright. Thanks.”

They don’t even think he’s capable of doing that much? It shouldn’t hurt, but it does. He waves them away with a fake smile, even as they exchange hesitant glances and tell him Jaehyun’s going to stay with him. So, he needs a minder too? Fine. If that makes them feel better—if it relieves them of some of the burden—Taeyong will do it.

Jaehyun walks in, then, blonde hair tousled and shirt stretched unfairly over his shoulders. Taeyong wants to focus on that, the happy things, but the thoughts in his mind are too overbearing, pushing their way to the forefront. His fingers shake, as he struggles to bite back the words in his throat; they still tremble, as Jaehyun takes Taeyong’s hand in his own.

It’s entirely silent for a moment, before Taeyong speaks.

“I think I had a panic attack.”

The words come out more monotonously than he means for them to, but it’s too late to take them back. Jaehyun’s hand tightens marginally around his in surprise, maybe, before it relaxes, and is rubbing soothing circles into Taeyong’s palm.

“Did you talk to anyone about it?” Jaehyun takes it in stride to the best extent possible and, if anything, it makes Taeyong love him all the more. Makes him feel even more unworthy of him.

“Taeil hyung was there.” Taeyong acknowledges, before the question that he’s tried so hard to quell arises, “Jaehyun, I… how do I fix everything?”

“What do you mean?” The blonde looks at him quizzically, and it seems so easy to just face-plant into his chest and forget about the world. Taeyong has to hold himself back from doing just that, since he knows it’s his job to do this, he can’t keep slacking off.

“This entire mess with Mark started because of me.” He gives his surprised boyfriend a wry smile, even though it feels wrong on his lips, “Because I didn’t listen to you that night when you said to leave it for another day.”

“Hey…” Jaehyun looks considerably unsure, biting his lip, but he knows he can’t refute that, just like Taeyong does.

“If I’d waited, maybe things wouldn’t have escalated to this point.” He confesses, ducking his head as though it might stop the sting of tears, “Maybe Mark wouldn’t have gotten hurt this much. I don’t know… I ju-just regret everything so much Jaehyun, you have no idea.”

“I think I have a fair idea.” Jaehyun interrupts, voice deceivingly soft, “Even though you’ve avoided the hell out of me, I’ve never lost sight of you, hyung.”

Taeyong’s breath catches, and he manages to choke out a watery sob, fist curling against Jaehyun’s chest.

“Why do you always say things like that?” He sniffles out, “I don’t deserve you.”

“It’s an acquired skill.” Jaehyun acknowledges with a cheesy grin, before it settles into something more grim, serious, “And don’t ever say that, hyung; you and I… we’re meant to be.”

Something soft in his eyes, he leans forward, brushing his lips against Taeyong’s hair with a soft sigh.

“I don’t know what I’d do without you.” Jaehyun confesses, and Taeyong wants to snort, laugh, because there’s no way, no way, that Jaehyun needs him, not the way Taeyong does, “I don’t know who I’d be without you.”

And this stops Taeyong in his tracks; something swells up in him, a dense bubble of emotion that chokes his throat and makes him press a gentle hand to the younger male’s jaw.

“Don’t say things you’ll regret.” He manages to say, eyes downcast.

Jaehyun’s hand curls around his, grip warm and strong. Unflinching, like the steel in his eyes.

“I won’t.” He vows, and everything is perfect. Everything is perfect, till the door opens with a deafening slam, startling the both of them into nearly falling off the bed.

“Hyung!” It’s Donghyuck at the door, flushed and panting, and Taeyong’s heart instantly spikes in worry; if Donghyuck’s here, looking so terrified, then where’s Mark?

“What’s wrong?” Jaehyun asks instantly, getting off the bed. Taeyong rushes to do the same, nearly crumpling back onto the bed with how suddenly he moves, but shrugs it off quickly enough to focus on the more pressing issue.

“The Lowlife,” Taeyong sees Donghyuck’s mouth curl in distaste, “Is in front of our rooms, and Mark, the idiot, decided he’d go and talk to him on his own!”

It takes a couple of moments to actually decipher the sentence but once it sinks in, Taeyong and Jaehyun meet each other’s eyes.

Together? Jaehyun’s clearly read, and while Taeyong wants nothing more but to refute it, saying it’s his fight and not Jaehyun’s, he knows it’ll just tip them off into another argument. And Taeyong… Taeyong’s tired of the conflict. He’s tired of the confrontations. He just wants everything to end… so he nods.

“Can you walk back with us, or do you need time?” He asks, needing to feel in control again.

Donghyuck doesn’t answer for a pregnant pause, making Taeyong’s palms sweat uncomfortably, before he finally speaks.

“I’m coming with you guys.” He says firmly, tone brokering no argument. Taeyong doesn’t plan to even try, though, and nods.

“Let’s hurry.” Jaehyun says, eyes shining with anxiety as Taeyong remembers himself and quickly walks to the living room to grab the keys and his cell phone, “I can’t believe Mark, seriously.”

“He had no choice!” Donghyuck insists as he follows them outside, Jaehyun locking the door, “What would you have him do?”

“Guys, we need to be quick.” Taeyong reminds them, “As in, we need to run.”

“What?” Donghyuck gapes dramatically, eyes impossibly wide, “Again?”

His shoulders slump then, before he nods resignedly. Taeyong meets Jaehyun’s eyes, giving him a silent watch him, just in case Donghyuck gets tired quickly. Considering the boy’s probably run all the way here already, it’s forgivable. Taeyong himself isn’t very athletic, and has terrible stamina, but he’s got to get to Mark and—

He shakes his head, before springing off his toes and sprinting through the empty corridor. He hears Donghyuck’s loud exclamation of shock, and Jaehyun’s soft reassurance before the two of them take off after him; but, the rest of it is lost over the strong ropes of wind whipping through his hair, flicking past his freezing ears.

Mark’s doing something entirely stupid but also… also really admirable. Taeyong shivers just by thinking of speaking to Kim Yeongsu again, and then there’s Mark who’s… who’s suffered so much because of the man, who’s been pushed around like a rag doll. Mark’s not afraid. Or maybe he is, but he’s taking a huge leap forward; and it’s better than Taeyong could ever hope to do. More than he’s ever done.

Taeyong’s… proud of him. And maybe he doesn’t deserve to think like that, but the small rush of affection is hard to contain, keep to himself.

He comes to a halt in front of the Dream dorms, hunched over and gasping for breath; it serves to stop the two standing in front of the door, making them turn surprised eyes at Taeyong.

Mark’s eyes are wide, cheeks pale, as he stares at the older rapper, clenched fists loosening the tiniest fraction, making Taeyong’s breath escape easy.

“Hyung.” He mutters in undisguised shock… as though he’s surprised Taeyong’s here at all.

“I meant to come say bye to you!” Taeyong blurts out, steadily ignoring the other presence in the corner of his vision, “I didn’t realize it was too late by the time you guys left.”

He doesn’t talk about the panic attack. Mark doesn’t need any added pressure.

“Well,” He stiffens when Yeongsu finally speaks up, with an amused curl to his mouth, “The two of you finally in the same place, hm?”

“Why’re you here?” Taeyong cuts to the chase, refusing to think about anything, especially not the way the man’s fingers—that slid through his hair—twitch absently.

Yeongsu’s eyes abruptly narrow into slits, instinctively making Taeyong flinch back, before he realizes and, inwardly berating himself, straightens. Then, as sudden as it’s come, it evaporates, a tiny twitch of the lips taking its place instead.

Mark inhales sharply from behind him, and Taeyong startles lightly when cool, slender fingers wrap around his wrist, grounding and calming.

Yeongsu notices it too, evidently, from the way his eyebrow quirks mockingly.

“Little kids holding hands again?” He snorts derisively, before his eyes turn to steel, “Well, nothing distracts us away from the truth, does it now?”

“You heard Hyung.” Mark says thinly, a foreign undercurrent of anger impossible to ignore. It’s jarring, because he’s never heard that from his sweet, docile dongsaeng. But Taeyong tries not to focus on that, instead backing them up by repeating his question, holding back the waver in the words.

 

 

 

Why are you here?"

Chapter Text

Mark is honestly surprised when Taeyong barrels in front of him, panting heavily as he stares down at the instructor. He remembers the cold seeping through his chest at his Hyung’s absence earlier, and it makes it hard to see why he’s here now, trying to… trying to protect Mark, shield him from the world.

But when he sees Taeyong flinch back—his strong, unbreakable Hyung—something in him snaps, and Mark grabs at the older rapper’s wrist, finding comfort in its warmth and, more importantly, giving it back. Taeyong visibly relaxes at that, and Mark can’t help the tiny sliver of pride that slides through his heart at the thought that he’s actually being helpful, that Mark can do something too.

He hardly realizes he’s speaking, the cold ‘You heard Hyung’ coming out far more sharply than he’d ever have thought possible, but he doesn’t regret it, even at Taeyong’s obvious surprise. He meets Instructor Kim’s dark eyes from behind Taeyong, and they make him want to tense up.

They make him remember the hate; the raw, unfiltered cruelty of bruising fingers on his, the phantom ringing in his ears of notgoodenough, the biting stings of pain in his knees. And it makes Mark want to curl up, hide himself away so he doesn’t ever need to remember again, but he doesn’t give into that temptation. Donghyuck’s firm voice sounds in his head again.

He shouldn’t have hurt you. He’s trash.

Why’re you here?” Taeyong speaks sternly, knocking Mark out of his thoughts when his fingers tangle with his, warm and stable, “You’ve done enough, don’t you think?”

Instructor Kim settles his hands cockily on his hips, “Done enough? I think I haven’t done anything at all.”

“Don’t shit me right now.” Mark feels like he probably should feel surprised by the sudden harshness in Taeyong’s voice, but honestly… he isn’t. After all, there’s only so much anyone can take before…

Mark clenches his fists, hating that he’s leaving everything up to the older boy.

“What you did wasn’t okay.” Mark forces the words from his lips, hardly able to recognize his own voice as Taeyong turns around, surprise written so clearly, expressively onto his features that Mark can’t help but feel a little insulted. He chooses to push that aside in favor of staring down the man who took so much from him.

“It was for your own good.” Instructor Kim steps forward, hand outstretched, and Mark can’t help but flinch, and Taeyong tenses, arm shooting out against Mark’s chest.

“Don’t touch him.” He hisses defensively, and Mark warms at the unexpected move, though a small part of him whispers that there’s something strange underlying those words, almost as though—

“Trying to protect him?” Kim steps forward, something strange in his eyes, “You’re so misguided it’s painful to watch, Taeyong.”

“Shut up.” Taeyong then does something unexpected—he actually shoves the man back, stepping away from Mark as he does, until they’re eye to eye, “The only person who’s misguided here is you, you sick f—”

“You might want to think twice before finishing that sentence.” The man says darkly, leaning closer to Taeyong—scarily close—before his hand runs through his Hyung’s dark hair and Mark can only watch on in horror as something in the older rapper’s expression shutters, eyes glazing over.

“Don’t touch me.” His voice is small, and Mark can’t take it, stepping forward to do something, not just let his Hyung take the hurt and the blame and—

“You heard him.”

Mark nearly sobs in relief at the sound of Jaehyun’s voice, hard and cold and unfamiliar as it is. The blonde is staring at the pair with steely eyes, arms crossed.

“Jung Jaehyun.” Kim sounds pleasantly surprised, but makes no move to let go, get his hands off Taeyong hyung, “Fancy seeing you here.”

“Stop touching him.” Jaehyun snaps out, short and so unlike himself that Mark can’t help the tiny curl of fear at the sound of his tone, “Take your hands off.”

“Whoa.” Instructor Kim raises his hands, eyebrows lofted in carefully crafted surprise, “Why the hostility, I wonder?”

“It doesn’t matter.” Jaehyun shakes his head, stepping forward to place a hand on Taeyong’s shoulder, making the rapper look at him with tired, weary eyes. They exchange a quick glance, before Taeyong sighs and nods.

“Why are you here?” Mark decides to press, eyes narrowed involuntarily at the man’s amused curl of the lips.

“You should know, Mark.” He taunts, and Mark has to bite his lip to hold back a frustrated scream, “You’re the leader, aren’t you?”

“He asked you a question, and that’s not an answer.” Mark freezes up at the sound of Donghyuck’s voice, seeing the brunette approach from behind the man’s broad back. His hair is tousled, cheeks the tiniest bit flushed, but his features are the coldest Mark’s ever seen them. He looks beautiful.

“Donghyuck.” Instructor Kim shakes his head, lips twitching into a parody of a smile, “The entire party, huh?”

“The answer.” Mark stresses, hyper-aware of Jaehyun and Taeyong’s eyes on him—but he’s grateful they don’t try to step in. This is his fight.

“You’ve got dance practice today.” The man grudgingly admits, eyes narrowed in dark anger that’s so familiar, “Your other instructors may be letting you slack off, but I have no intention to do so.”

…slack off.

Mark’s chest compresses with an unfamiliar pressure, blood frothing and hissing, and his mind grows startlingly blank as his feet carry him forward of their own volition. His lips quirk into a strange shape—he isn’t sure what—ears buzzing crazily.

“I never slacked off.” His voice sounds foreign to his ears, “I never did. In fact, I did everything you asked me to do! I went… I went beyond what I needed to, for you. I… I believed in you, and that was probably the biggest mistake I ever made!”

“No, you didn’t.” The Instructor has the gall to deny, and Mark wants to… Mark wants to do something but he can’t the frustration’s just building up, “You did the bare minimum. And you complained the entire way, and why? Because you were ungrateful! No one waits for you, not ever, and all of you need to get that through your heads.”

“Get out of here.” Jaehyun shakes his head, “This isn’t going anywhere, and you know it. Don’t expect them for practice.”

“We’ll see about that.” Instructor Kim hisses, before his eyes slide to Taeyong, who’s uncomfortably nestled into Jaehyun, “Until next time, gorgeous.”

It’s odd, really, Mark realizes dimly, that Jaehyun’s managed to remain calm for this entire conversation, but goes unhinged at just that one word. That one, very frankly, worrisome word.

“You fucker.” He spits out, and Mark sees Donghyuck gape as their calm, sweet hyung launches himself at the instructor, knocking his head back with a firm fist.

“Jaehyun!” Taeyong’s already crying out, arms drawing around his waist to hold him back, “Jaehyun, think!”

“You don’t look at him, much less speak to him.” Jaehyun tells the man, who’s nursing his (hopefully aching, Mark thinks with vindication) jaw, eyes glaring daggers, “Now get out of here before I actually want to rearrange your face.”

A dark storm-cloud of anger passes over Kim’s features, but Mark doesn’t feel the same urge to flinch back, this time. Not when Donghyuck’s at his side, fingers pressed comfortingly into his wrist, warmth seeping through the shared contact. Not when Taeyong and Jaehyun watch the man leave with stormy eyes—though Mark sees Taeyong holding Jaehyun’s hand in a death grip. Apparently, he’s not as unaffected as Mark thought.

“What do we do now?” Donghyuck addresses the elephant in the room, and Mark gives in to his internal struggle, burying his face into the brunette’s shoulder, even though his neck hurts a bit. Donghyuck’s breath hitches, but he doesn’t say anything, for which Mark is grateful.

“You guys…” It’s not Jaehyun who speaks, but Taeyong. Mark’s surprised by how happy that minor detail makes him, “You guys get inside your dorms. The other guys are already meeting with management.”

“Charge your phone.” Taeyong adds quickly as an afterthought, and Mark can’t be imagining that Jaehyun’s staring at him proudly, with stars in his eyes, “Don’t forget it exists, in case we want to call. I hate to admit it, but we have been neglecting our schedules.”

Hyung!” Donghyuck protests.

“I’m not saying you have to go to all of them!” Taeyong quickly placates, “We just need to at least notify the people in charge that we’re not going to be there. It’s basic courtesy, Donghyuck, really.”

He’s nagging. Taeyong’s nagging.

 

 

A brilliant smile spreads across Mark’s lips and he can’t stop because Taeyong is finally acting like himself. Like the leader Mark remembers him to be. Maybe everything can go back to normal.

 

 

“Are you… okay? Mark?” Jaehyun asks tentatively, stepping forward to rest a hand on Mark’s shoulder, “Don’t worry, we’ll figure this out.”

Mark just shakes his head, moving towards Taeyong with purpose. The brunette in question stares at him with wide eyes, expression twitching like he’s holding himself back. Luckily for him, though, Mark is done with that, done repressing himself.

“Hyung.” He says instead, and wraps his arms around Taeyong’s frame, feeling the warmth seeping through their clothes.

“M-Minhyung?” Taeyong gasps his name quietly, though he returns the hug, pulling Mark closer, “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing, I’m just.” Mark blinks rapidly as his mind slowly begins to wrap itself around the fact that it’s almost over and that he’s just stood up to Instructor Kim, “I’m just really happy.”

They probably might’ve continued to hug for longer—Mark really doesn’t mind— but Donghyuck’s voice quickly breaks them apart.

“Yuck,” He says obnoxiously, “That’s gross.”

Mark can’t help the little giggle that escapes his lips—free, after so long—and steps closer to Donghyuck in the heat of the moment, pulling in his closest friend for an embrace.

“You get one too, Hyuck.” He murmurs quietly, smiling into Donghyuck’s heated neck, before stepping back and looking away from his flushed friend out of respect. Jaehyun just shakes his head amusedly, while Taeyong’s smiling softly.

“We’ll get inside then, hyungs.” Mark says, chest light for the first time in ages, “See you soon?”

“You know it.” Jaehyun promises, while Taeyong just gives them both a quiet nod.

Mark rings the doorbell, waving at Jaehyun and Taeyong’s retreating backs, as Donghyuck complains noisily under his breath about the other Dreamies taking too long.

“Donghyuck.” Mark sighs, though the smile doesn’t leave his lips. It doesn’t bother him much though, because it feels like it’s been too long, “Don’t antagonize them behind their backs. Try to actually say something to their face, yeah?”

“God, I hate you.” Donghyuck mutters and shoves lightly at him, making Mark laugh, “Why is it always the ones closest to you who betray you first?”

“Oh, I’m one of the closest?” Mark grins at him, liking the reddish hue staining his cheeks, “I had no idea, Hyuckie!”

“Just shut up.” Donghyuck gripes, and is saved by the door opening, revealing a mussy-haired Jeno, who stares at them with surprised eyes.

“Mark hyung!” He breathes out, “We didn’t think you’d be back so soon—”

“Wow, thanks for remembering I exist.” Donghyuck butts in, looking entirely done, “Really, I appreciate that.”

Jeno just gives him one of his best smiles, immediately rendering Donghyuck’s sass useless. Mark holds back a chuckle, instead focusing on the main problem. He still hasn’t gotten to speak with the rest of Dream and, well, he has to, eventually.

“How’s everyone holding up?” He asks Jeno, as they step inside; then, looking closer at his pale, splotchy cheeks, adds, “How’re you doing?”

“Me?” Jeno blinks confusedly, before smiling disarmingly, “I’m fine, hyung, really! But, uh, I don’t know, I think everyone’s doing better than before?”

“You think?” Mark’s focus narrows immediately onto that little fragment, and he looks up sharply, “What do you mean?”

Jeno shifts uncomfortably, and it’s only now that Mark realizes the room is entirely silent, devoid of life. The exact opposite of everything they stand for.

His chest burns.

“No one’s really talking to each other.” Jeno admits quietly, looking downcast, “I-I mean, no one’s mad or anything, they’re just… keeping to themselves? No one comes out of their rooms anymore, I’m just—”

His shoulders slump, and Mark can’t help but instinctively exchange a concerned glance with Donghyuck. No one’s been coping well: not even Jeno.

“Let’s gather everyone.” Mark suggests quietly, after a beat, “You sit down for now, Jeno.”

“Are you sure?” Mark hates that Jeno’s eyes drop to his hip, “I-I don’t mind, hyung, really—”

“Sit down.” Mark shoves him lightly in the direction of the couches, giving him a half-smile, “We’ll gather them up. I’m fine, Jeno-yah, I promise.”

Donghyuck makes an immediate beeline for Jisung and Chenle’s room, while Mark heads to get Jaemin first. He pokes his head in, seeing the normally expressive brunette staring impassively into his tablet.

“Jaemin?” Mark speaks quietly, but still manages to spook the boy, who stares up at him with wide eyes, “Is everything okay?”

“Y-Yeah.” Jaemin clears his throat, setting his laptop away, “I didn’t know you were back, hyung.”

“I just got here.” Mark smiles tightly, the euphoria from earlier being replaced with something tighter, heavier, “I think all of us need to talk, though. Couches?”

Jaemin, for his part, doesn’t protest, but spares Mark’s hip a glance as he leaves. It makes Mark bite his lip, hating that they’re all acting like he’s made of glass now, like he’ll shatter from one wayward glance.

He clenches his fists, and heads to Renjun’s room. He knocks, hesitantly, before trying the doorknob, breathing growing heavier when he realizes it’s locked. He knocks again.

“Renjun?” He tries, rapping against the door, before trying again, “Renjun?”

It takes a couple of tries, but the door finally swings open; and, Mark should be feeling victorious, but all he can feel, at the moment, is pure, unfiltered horror. Renjun, to put it lightly, looks well on the road to death, eyes baggy, hair knotted and gaunt cheeks ashen. His eyes are swollen and red, too, like he’s been crying and, knowing Renjun… he probably has.

Mark feels a very familiar guilt stirring in his belly, but quashes it quickly. He can’t go back down that road. He can’t.

“Mark.” Renjun says strangely, before his face crumples and his knees practically give out; Mark just manages to grab a hold of him as he grips desperately into his shirt.

“I’m right here.” He says as soothingly as he can, wondering if he’s doing it right or if he’s just messing everything up, “It’s okay.”

His shirt starts to grow steadily damp, Mark realizes mutely, and it’s because of Renjun’s face pressed into his neck, salty tears making their mark. He doesn’t mind, though, knows the boy needs this, more than anything else—he’s been there too.

“I’m sorry.” Renjun shakes in his arms, “I couldn’t help you and… and e-even now, I’m useless—”

“No, you helped.” Mark says truthfully, “You were holding everyone together in the beginning, Renjunnie, but it’s okay now. Everything’s going to be alright.”

 


 

 

The faces staring at him, right now, are not what he’s used to. They’re not bubbly and cheerful, sweet and vibrant… no, they’re tired and shaken, broken and jaded. And Mark knows it’s both his fault, and not.

“We didn’t get to talk properly.” He starts off, looking at all of them, realizing it’s been a long time since they’ve done this. Donghyuck’s hand is on his arm, squeezing it, grounding, “And I realize that it’s mostly my fault. But, I… I want to thank you guys for putting up with this. For putting up with… with all of this.”

Emotion chokes his throat, but he pushes it down.

“You guys are the best, more than I could ever ask for.” He says truthfully, meeting Jeno’s gaze, lingering on Chenle’s unsmiling eyes, “You’ve all been so strong and supportive, even though I never realized it. And… and I realized that we could’ve avoided all of this, if I were smarter in the first place, but… I wasn’t. And I hope I’m getting there, sooner or later.”

Jisung shakes his head, lips pressed thin, “It’s not just your fault, Hyung.”

Jaemin raises a shoulder nonchalantly, though Mark can see the faint tremor of his jaw, “Maknae’s got a point. We should’ve realized, but we didn’t. I guess… I guess we made things worse.”

“I’m sorry, Hyung.” Chenle stares at the carpet, and Mark’s breath catches in his throat, “I didn’t know that would happen, I should’ve worked harder—”

“Hey.” Mark interrupts, wondering how he’s supposed to tackle this; hesitantly, he holds out his arms, “C’mere.”

Chenle looks up shakily, before biting his lip and giving in, practically straddling Mark’s lap as he delves into the hug. It’s been a long time since Mark’s hugged any of them, save for Donghyuck, and he realizes this only when he looks around.

“Group hug?” He adds hopefully, looking at Donghyuck—seeking approval—and getting a brilliant smile in response, and 5 more bodies piled onto him. He’s glad his hip doesn’t hurt as much anymore, else this wouldn’t have been possible and… well, they need this.

“Nothing’s ever your faults.” He assures them, arms stretched wide, beyond imagination, “I tried doing everything on my own and I guess… I guess that was my fault. But I’m not alone anymore, right?”

“Of course not.” Donghyuck snorts from somewhere in the pile, and Mark can’t be imagining the thickness of his voice, “We’re here for you.”

As the others chorus in agreement, Mark’s eyes begin to tear up. They’re not okay yet—not by a long shot—but maybe… just maybe, they will be.

“I love you guys.” Escapes his lips before he can stop it, but the groans he gets in response are worth it.

“And… he’s back.” Jisung says dryly, though Mark can practically hear the smile in his voice, while Chenle giggles quietly.

 

They can do this. Together.

Chapter Text

Taeyong knows Jaehyun must be wracked with pain, considering how hard he’s clutching his hand. He can’t help it though, adrenaline still pumping through him, tinged with fear. He can’t believe they just did that. And he’s so incredibly proud of Mark that words can’t describe the feeling.

Taeyong is aware how he could have done more—the details stick out to him, glaringly obvious—but he’s doing his best not to think about that, not to let them get to his head. He knows his overthinking is what caused this entire mess to begin with, but… it’s easier said than done.

“Penny for your thoughts?” Jaehyun asks, deceptively soft, and Taeyong is reminded how his boyfriend nearly pummeled someone today (for him, out of love).

Taeyong shrugs, not wanting to talk about it, “What, are my thoughts only worth a penny now?”

Jaehyun laughs, but it’s kind of hollow, and Taeyong hates that. It’s obvious that the blonde knows he’s deflecting, so Taeyong’s pleasantly surprised when there’s no follow-up from there… though kind of disappointed as well. He’s being ridiculous.

“I’m proud of you.” Jaehyun says eventually, and the words actually bring Taeyong to a halt. He must not have heard right, there’s no way Jaehyun just said that—

“What, for not doing anything?” Taeyong snorts self-deprecatingly out of reflex, “For just standing there and letting him touch me?”

“You stood up for yourself, didn’t you?” Jaehyun asks, “You protected Mark.”

“Honestly, Mark managed just fine on his own.” Taeyong lifts a shoulder, biting his lip; to be honest, Taeyong doesn’t even know why he was there.

“You don’t realize it, but…” Jaehyun drawls out, before he’s grasping Taeyong’s other hand, so that they’re facing each other, “You took the brunt of his attention. If he’d been entirely focused on just Mark, things would’ve been very different.”

There’s a pause, as Taeyong struggles to wrap his head around that.

“You were very brave.” Jaehyun concludes softly, “You acted like a true leader right there, hyung, no matter how you look at it.”

“Really?” Taeyong hates how unsure he sounds, how feeble his voice is; but, this is the one question that’s been haunting him since debut, ever since he found out he was the leader of NCT.

“Definitely.” Assurance leaks into Jaehyun’s tone, and Taeyong is compelled to believe him. Jaehyun wouldn’t lie to him, right?

“Thank you, by the way.” Taeyong wants to wring his hands, but they’re a bit occupied at the moment, so he just worries his lip, “For punching him, even though you didn’t have to. Even though you… you probably shouldn’t have.”

“Hey,” Jaehyun interrupts, serious, “Of course I was going to do that. I made you a promise, hyung, and I fully intended to keep it.”

Emotion chokes Taeyong’s throat, and he shakes his head, pressing closer to Jaehyun, much to the blonde’s surprise. He knows he probably shouldn’t, since they’re not in the private confines of their dorm, but he just… he just needs.

“Hyung.” Jaehyun’s voice is soft, but he drops his chin to Taeyong’s head with a sigh.

“I know.” Taeyong bites out painfully, hating the secrecy, but understanding it all the same, “It’s just… I’m happy for Mark.”

“And yourself?” Jaehyun’s tone brokers no argument, so Taeyong reluctantly nods, “You’re alright, aren’t you?”

“Yeah, I think so.” Taeyong looks up at him—really looks at him, after so long, “Not like my skin’s going to peel off or something, but still a little uncomfortable.”

Jaehyun’s forehead immediately creases in worry, and it makes Taeyong feel terrible for ruining his good mood.

“Let’s just get back to the dorms.” He says, instead of continuing their discussion and probably bursting into tears out of guilt, “The others might have gotten back.”

“I doubt it.” Jaehyun laughs knowingly, though the hardness in his eyes doesn’t die, and Taeyong is struck by how brilliant his smile still is, “But yeah hyung, let’s get back.”

 


 

 

The others are not, in fact, back in the dorms, and Jaehyun takes great pleasure in informing Taeyong that he told you so.

Taeyong can’t find it in him to even feel the slightest bit offended, and instead takes the opportunity to push the blonde onto the couch and cuddle the life out of him. Mostly for his own sake, more than Jaehyun’s, if he’s being honest. He just… he doesn’t want to think about anything right now. He won’t avoid it anymore but… that doesn’t mean it can’t wait, right?

“Keep it PG.” He deadpans, though, when Jaehyun leers at him, making the vocalist pout, “You dirty-minded boy.”

Jaehyun flushes at that, and Taeyong’s so startled that even his laugh comes out strangled. He didn’t really think that’s what Jaehyun was thinking, but it’s kind of funny. And it’s… it’s nice, being able to joke around like this, after all this time.

“You’re so mean.” Jaehyun pouts up at him, shoving him off his lap, making Taeyong grin wider out of habit, “Ah, I can’t even stay mad at you!”

That sobers Taeyong up quickly, remembering the last time Jaehyun was angry at him—there goes delaying the inevitable—and he hesitates before speaking.

“I’m sorry for all of this.” He apologizes, ducking his head, and looks up to see Jaehyun staring at him in confusion, “Y’know… for keeping you in the dark all the time. It… it wasn’t the smartest choice I made, I know.”

“I’m not going to pretend to understand why you did it.” Jaehyun informs, before leaning forward and pecking his lips, “But I’m just glad you’ve realized it’s not a good idea.”

“I see that.” Taeyong wrings his hands anxiously, trying not to bite at his fingers.

“You know it’s not because you aren’t worth it or whatever, right?” Jaehyun sometimes has the ability to read minds and Taeyong can’t believe he’s forgot, “We’re always strong in numbers, remember that. No matter how strong you are, it doesn’t matter.”

“Aren’t you inspirational.” Taeyong mutters with a weak smile, but Jaehyun’s expression doesn’t give way, “Yeah, don’t worry. I’m… frankly, I’m trying to convince myself of the same thing, so.”

“A work in progress, then.”

“Yeah.” Taeyong sends him a nod, unable to stop the fond smile from spreading across his lips, “I guess you can say that.”

“THE CHILDREN ARE HOME!”

The two of them nearly fall off the sofa in shock at the sudden, booming voice that echoes in the room; it takes Taeyong a couple of seconds to identify Doyoung’s voice but, when he does, can’t help the angry red flush that spreads along his neck.

“Doyoung.” He grits, getting to his feet on autopilot to greet his wayward member, “What have we said about loud voices in the dorms after 6?”

The vocalist freezes, from where he’s standing in a dramatic pose, while the other members file in, smirks decorating each of their faces.

“Uh…” Doyoung looks baffled, though a little pale, “N-Not to use them?”

“And…” Taeyong needs to exhale deeply so that he doesn’t feel like yelling, “And what were you just doing?”

Hyung!”

Doyoung.

The man looks miserable as he ducks his head, “Yelling.”

“Exactly.” Taeyong can’t help the glare that manifests on his face, “So don’t.”

“Right.” Doyoung looks downcast, and now Taeyong feels the guilt begin to set into his stomach, “Sorry, I’m just gonna—”

“Wait.” Taeyong grasps his arm as he’s about to leave, “I’m sorry, I just… something must be wrong with me—”

“Did something happen?” Doyoung inquires, and Taeyong can’t help but tense, making his eyes widen, “Holy crow, something did?”

“Something did what?” Sicheng pokes his head around the corner, blinking inquisitively at the two and Taeyong wants to sink into the ground, “What’s it, hyung?”

Taeyong sighs, reminding himself that he promised Jaehyun to be less secretive about everything. This is the time for him to do it right.

“We… Mark and I talked to their dance instructor today.” He keeps his voice hushed, and quickly digs his nails into Doyoung’s arm to make sure he doesn’t yell, “He was waiting for Mark and Donghyuck at the dorms today.”

“Shit, that’s some A-grade stalking right there.” Doyoung breathes out and, at Taeyong’s glare, quickly backtracks, “I mean, it’s kind of strange? Why was he there? What happened? Are you guys okay?”

“Hyung, that’s too many questions.” Sicheng frowns, properly ambling out into the hall, “Aren’t you going to tell everyone anyway?”

Damn Sicheng for being a cunning angel. Taeyong shuts his eyes, and breathes in. It’s okay, he can talk about it because nothing happened. The others deserve to know because they’re all working so hard for the mess Taeyong made by rushing in himself—they don’t need a repeat of that. And he promised Jaehyun he wouldn’t run away anymore, right?

“Of course he is!” Doyoung rolls his eyes, like the answer’s obvious—and gosh, he has more faith in Taeyong than he does himself.

“Get freshened up.” Taeyong deflects, before sighing, “Besides, you guys need to tell Jaehyun and I about what happened at the meeting too.”

At that, a biting anger swims onto Sicheng’s face—it takes Taeyong by surprise, making his mouth dry—and Doyoung just nods with an unreadable expression. It makes Taeyong’s gut twist: there’s nothing wrong, right? Is management going to ignore them?

“Nothing’s wrong.” It’s like Doyoung can read his mind, Taeyong surmises in silent surprise, “Seriously hyung, sometimes you’re an open book.”

“Right.” He eyes him hesitantly, before giving a short, jerky nod, “Let’s just… uh, go, yeah.”

He turns around, mind swimming in confusion, because how do they know him so well sometimes? He can’t figure out the answer to that just yet, so just grabs Jaehyun by the arm from the couch, much to the blonde’s surprise.

“Eh, hyung?” He sputters as Taeyong begins to drag him away—well, not really, since Taeyong isn’t quite that strong—towards their rooms, “What’re you doing?”

“All of us need to talk, right?” Taeyong mutters, “We should shower first.”

“Together?” Jaehyun grins cheekily, though it quickly dies under Taeyong’s withering glare, “Welp, never mind.”

Taeyong can’t stop the sudden drop in his stomach as he stops, and plays with his fingers nervously.

“Sorry.” He says lowly, and Jaehyun pauses, blinking in surprise, “I didn’t mean to—I mean, if you want—”

“Whoa, hyung, relax!” Jaehyun assures quickly, eyes wide, “It’s okay, I was just kidding! Besides…”

His smile turns shy, and Taeyong can’t help the flush creeping into his cheeks, “You’re… you’re sounding more like yourself again. It’s nice.”

“Oh.” Taeyong says dumbly, and it’s Jaehyun’s turn to be red from neck-up.

“Uh, you can take a shower first hyung!” He yelps, before bolting away, and leaving a bemused rapper behind. Taeyong’s cheeks are still burning, but something much more pleasant flutters in his stomach. Maybe it’s happiness? Strange.

He quickly makes it to the bathroom after beating a sprinting Yuta and a desperate Johnny to it, and quickly strips out of his clothes. As he moves to get into the shower, though, he catches the sight of reflection and, biting his lip, assesses himself.

He looks average, honestly. Brown hair, brown eyes, and a thin, lean body. There isn’t much to see there and, honestly, sometimes he wonders why Jaehyun’s chosen him—Taeyong, the struggling human being. Not Taeyong, the charismatic rapper, not Taeyong, the floundering leader. Just… Taeyong. This isn’t the first time he’s felt so blessed, and he guesses he’ll never stop.

His hands creep up to his jaw automatically, and Taeyong’s mouth dries when he remembers the blistering heat of a palm against his skin, the burning trail along his cheekbone and the scorching pain along his waist. His hair. Everywhere.

Taeyong chokes back a sob, hyperaware of the silence. He can’t be doing this now, not when nothing’s happened. It’s just a few touches and, honestly, there are so many other idols who’ve probably gone through worse. Besides, the man did say he wasn’t… wasn’t interested. It’s okay. Taeyong’s okay.

Except he’s not—and his skin feels so dirty now, his hair feels disgusting—and he needs to… he needs to do something about it, but there’s nothing he can do except get into the shower and let the hot water course down his back, and rub, rub, rub at his skin until it begins to turn pink—before he realizes himself, realizes that tears are streaming down his cheeks, mixing with the shower water.

Muffled sobs obscured by the pattering of water against the tiles, Taeyong cries his heart out.

 


 

 

“We are gathered here today,” Johnny begins solemnly, Taeil rolling his eyes beside him, “To discuss, among ourselves, the results of the conclave which few of our numbers have witnessed, and—”

“Okay.” Taeil interrupts, clearly done with the younger man, and Taeyong is inclined to agree, “We’re just going to talk about the meeting we had, and anything else that might be noteworthy.”

“Aw man.” Yuta complains, a teasing grin on his lips, “I wanted Johnny hyung to finish!”

“Yeah!” Doyoung agrees easily, though there’s an underlying tension in the line of his shoulders that Taeyong just can’t ignore, “You’re so boring, Taeil hyung.”

“Sure.” Taeil rolls his eyes, as Johnny preens—and the gesture is so them that Taeyong can’t help the fond smile etching itself onto his lips, “Anyway, are there any volunteers, or should I just do it?”

“You can do it, hyung.” Sicheng yawns adorably, hair mussy, “I’m tired.”

“We’ll head to bed right after this, and dinner of course.” Taeyong assures him, worry seeping instinctively into his voice, “Just hold on till then, yeah?”

Sicheng just gives him a sad pout, before nodding and slumping over the arm of his couch. Yuta, who’s sitting next to him, coos and pinches his cheek.

“Alright, so.” Taeil starts off, tapping his fingers against his knees, “We went to meet with the management and, initially, they weren’t so keen on the idea.”

“Like it’s that hard to believe.” Johnny scoffs darkly, but quickly shuts his mouth under Taeil’s stare. Taeyong can feel Jaehyun chuckle quietly beside him, vibrations travelling up his arm.

“Anyway, they didn’t really believe us, but we made a strong case.” Taeil smiles serenely, though his eyes are hard and cold—Taeyong suppresses a shiver at the mere sight of them, “Suffice to say, they should not be doubting our words any time soon.”

There’s something that worries Taeyong, though, and he clears his throat meekly to catch Taeil’s attention, “Did they… did they say why they wouldn’t believe us?”

“Uh… no.” Taeil averts his eyes, and Taeyong’s gut sinks.

“It’s because of me, isn’t it.” It’s not even a question, as the words just slip from his lips, and he can’t help the slight hunch to his shoulders at that.

“No way!” Johnny sounds indignant at the very thought of it, which makes Taeyong grin wryly, “Dude, seriously?! That makes zero sense.”

“I’ve gotta agree.” Doyoung says honestly, shrugging, “You’re so adorable all the time that it’d be hard not to believe you.”

Taeyong’s mind blanks out for a moment there, mouth wide and gaping; he hears Doyoung meep! when Jaehyun looks at him, though, so Taeyong quickly squeezes the blonde’s arm to keep him from glaring their vocalist to death.

“I wouldn’t say that.” Is all he manages to say as response, Jaehyun still tense under his arm; he shuffles along the couch a little more, so that he’s almost pressed fully against Jaehyun’s warmth, as an assurance.

“Right.” Yuta looks amused, fingers carding to a droopy Sicheng’s hair, “Anywho, Taeil hyung?”

“Ah, right.” Taeil shakes his head, bashful smile attacking his lips, “So, they said they’ll fire him. We don’t know about blacklisting and stuff yet, but, uh… they said they wouldn’t sue.”

Johnny has a dark frown on his face, “Even though we pressed hard for that.”

“Honestly.” Doyoung agrees, cheery disposition eerily vanishing, “What’s so hard about it? SM’s a huge company, it can’t be that difficult to cover their tracks or whatever.”

“It’s okay.” Taeyong interrupts, making everyone stare at him in obvious surprise. He flushes when he sees Jaehyun looking at him with shock too, and quickly explains, “I… I can’t speak for Mark, of course, but I’m not interested in suing him. I just… I just don’t want to see him again, nor do I want anyone else to have to go through what Mark did.”

Just remembering it is enough to make nausea creep up his throat. Taeyong can’t help but remember and—

No.

He looks up, and everyone’s staring at him with varying degrees of concern flickering over their features. His mouth dries.

“I told myself I wouldn’t push.” Yuta says lowly, and Taeyong curls his fingers into his thigh to ground himself, “But could you please just tell us about what he did? I know you said, last time, that he talked crap about Mark but, really, hyung, we’re not… we’re not so far out of the loop.”

“I…” Taeyong can’t speak, breaths escaping almost forcefully from his lungs, “I just…”

He tenses up at the feel of fingers pressing into his palm, relaxing when he recognizes that it’s Jaehyun who’s tangling their fingers together, pressing closer. Jaehyun brushes a hand at the nape of Taeyong’s neck and, when he looks up at him, gives him an obvious look. And Taeyong knows it’s about time he talks to them, that he’s promised and he can’t go back on his word lest everyone distrust him again but—

“You’re alright.” Jaehyun whispers to him, and Taeyong shuts his eyes, willing the burning in the pit of his stomach to go away, “I’m here with you, hyung. No one’s leaving.”

It figures that Jaehyun has always managed to hit the mark.

“The first time I met with Kim Yeongsu,” Taeyong begins, apprehension washing over him because this is it, he’s actually going to tell them about all his shortcomings, “I was angry. I wanted to figure out what was going on, why Mark fainted that day we had an interview. At the time, I… really only knew that Yeongsu yelled at him and he started overworking because of it.”

“I thought that,” Taeyong swallows, palms beginning to sweat—but Jaehyun doesn’t pull away, and Taeyong doesn’t deserve him, “I thought maybe I could talk to him, reason it out. That maybe, he just didn’t realize what he was doing, that he didn’t mean to hurt Mark, but…”

His mouth curls downward against his will, and he has to take a deep breath.

“He didn’t care. In fact, he… he said he hadn’t done enough. Said it was… it was for the best. And then, he—” It’s stiflingly silent, now, and Taeyong has to break off his sentence, forcefully swallowing down the bile creeping up his throat, “He turned it on me. Said I didn’t know any better than the younger members and that—”

“Hey.” Doyoung speaks softly as Taeyong cuts himself off again, “You don’t have to tell us if you don’t want to.”

Taeyong can see the dark undercurrent of anger in his jaw, though; he knows it’s not directed at him, but he just needs to get this off his shoulders, dust away and never look back at it again.

“He said it didn’t matter how pretty I was.” Taeyong spits the words out—shivers as he remembers the first touch—and bites his lip as Jaehyun’s grip on his hand tightens, “He… he…”

“Did he touch you?” Johnny inquires, rage beginning to flicker across his expression, and Taeyong gives a hesitant nod that makes him swear and Taeil go white.

“He said he wasn’t interested in that when I told him not to.” He admits softly, and Taeil slumps forward in the tiniest bit of relief, “But every time I saw him after that, he… he just kept pushing and I—”

He gasps out, tears stinging his vision as he directs his eyes downward, “I w-was weak. I let him toy with me and agreed with everything he said and—”

“Hyung.” Arms are wrapping around him, and Sicheng’s murmuring gently into his ear, rubbing his back comfortingly, “It’s okay. You’re not weak.”

“Definitely.” Yuta’s voice chimes in, as he comes to settle on the floor by the couch, hands pressing onto Taeyong’s knees, “You’re the strongest person I know, really!”

“I have to ask, though…” Taeil seems hesitant, “What exactly did he say to you?”

“Does it matter?” Doyoung’s voice is sharp, and Taeyong flinches—immediately cursing himself for the automatic response, “He shouldn’t have even touched hyung in the first place!”

“Agreed.” Johnny adds in his own two cents, voice dripping with venom, “Fuck, I should’ve punched him harder.”

“It matters because Taeyong hyung’s well-being is more important than whatever vengeance you guys want!” Jaehyun snaps from beside him, frustration leaking through his tone.

Taeyong grows cold, and he holds tighter onto Sicheng with one arm, the other gripping Jaehyun’s hand. They’re arguing, and it’s all his fault. They’re angry, and it’s all his fault. Taeyong should’ve kept his mouth shut. He shouldn’t have brought it up, should’ve just shrugged it off when they asked. He shouldn’t have given in to the weaker part of him that just wanted to tell them, ease the burden.

He regre—

“Calm down, guys.” Taeil cuts through sharply, “This isn’t helping. We can’t beat up the rotten shitbag, since it’ll do us more harm than good, but we can help Taeyong hyung… so that’s what we’ll do. Leave it up to management to deal with him.”

“Huh.” Yuta says, after a moment of silence, “I’ve never heard you cuss before, Taeil hyung.”

Taeil sputters at that, and Taeyong can’t help the tiny sliver of relief that slithers through him at the tired chuckles that sound out through the room. Taeil’s always been good at fixing things.

Sicheng draws away from Taeyong, giving him a cute eye smile, before sprawling over the couch, much to Yuta’s chagrin.

“Move!” He whines, pouting as Sicheng giggles at him, “How could my own son betray me?!”

“He’s not your son.” Johnny rolls his eyes, a faint smile forming, “He’s Taeyong’s.”

“Huh?” Taeyong lets out quietly, though no one hears… save for an amused Jaehyun.

“Wait, so Taeyong has three kids now?” Doyoung says, confused, and Taeil looks exasperated, “Wait, Win, who’s the father?”

“What.” Taeyong mutters, a little louder, but everyone’s too wrapped up in their conversation.

“How could you ask him that?!” Yuta gasps dramatically, “Win’s my son—just mine! Taeyong and Jaehyun have Mark and Donghyuck anyway, they can’t get all the kids!”

WHAT.” This time, it’s Jaehyun who squawks, and Taeyong temporarily blanks out, “WHAT THE ACTUAL SHIT—”

“Okay, moving on!” Taeil says quickly, probably to save Yuta and Doyoung’s dramatically paling faces, “We’ve got to talk guys, please.”

“You’re right.” Johnny acquiesces, though he nods in Yuta’s direction, “But I want to hear more about this later.”

“Yas!” Yuta actually says, giving a thumbs-up that makes Taeyong equal parts annoyed and amused. But not for long, since he knows they want to hear everything. And he promised. He hates himself for that moment of weakness, really, but there’s nothing he can do.

“Can we let hyung speak?” Jaehyun says tiredly, and Taeyong only notices he’s draped his arm resignedly over the line of his shoulders, seeming to have gotten over his surprise.

“Right.”

“He…” Taeyong doesn’t want to tell them. He doesn’t want to tell them what’s been haunting his mind for so long, doesn’t want them to laugh at him or… or worse. He can’t live through them leaving him, not wanting to see him again, but Mark’s words from before come back.

 

 

We don’t lie to each other… right?

 

 

He clenches his fists.

“He did keep talking about Mark.” He says first, wanting them to understand, “I wasn’t lying, I swear. Just… he just said he didn’t trust me, that’s why I had to go to him for answers.”

It’s silent, as Taeyong uncurls his fists and stares at the flat of palm—remembering how useless he was in this—and gives a small, sad smile, “He… wasn’t wrong, I guess. I wasn’t really a… a trustworthy person, wasn’t a good leader so it made sense—”

“Did he say that?” Yuta demands, interrupting him, which makes Taeyong’s eyes widen. Jaehyun’s arm is significantly more tense around him, “Did that piece of filth tell you that?”

“I mean—” Taeyong cuts off, grinning wryly even as his vision begins to swim, “He didn’t have to, anyway.”

“Hyung—” Doyoung tries, but Taeyong can’t hold it back.

“I didn’t accept it at first.” He snaps, “It’s always been on my mind, Doyoung. I didn’t care that he said that—though it did… it did hurt that someone else noticed, but—

“I only really believed him when I found Mark that day in the practice room,” Taeyong grips his knees, trying to keep himself from actually crying, trying to keep the tears at bay, “I-I still remember what he said th-that day.”

“Hyung,” Jaehyun’s voice is soft, just like his embrace, “You don’t have to.”

“I do.” Taeyong’s voice cracks, even as he buries his head into the crook of Jaehyun’s arm, “I don’t want to be an idol anymore. That’s what he said.”

“No.” Taeil breathes out, and Sicheng looks visibly distraught, eyes wide and teary, “No, he couldn’t have…”

“He did. And what kind of… what kind of leader does that, huh?” Taeyong starts shaking, anger coursing through him, “It was my fault, alright?! I should’ve been there, I should’ve been able to protect him, he should’ve never felt that way!”

“Do any of you know how that feels?!” He finally yells out, ripping away from Jaehyun, clutching at himself as his vision blurs, breaths starting to gasp, “H-How i-it f-feels to j-just be a… a f-f-failure.”

“Taeyong, stop.” Taeil’s voice sounds distant, and it’s like Taeyong’s swimming and oh no, not again, “Taeyong!”

“Breathe.” Johnny’s voice sounds from somewhere else, and Taeyong tries, he tries so hard to focus, follow their breathing, counts, yes, anything to stop this, mind spinning, dizzy head, stuttering breaths—

“Taeyong hyung,” Sicheng speaks up after Taeyong starts to breathe normally again, lungs gratefully pulling in air, “Hyung, you’re not a failure.”

“He’s right.” Jaehyun runs a hand gently through Taeyong’s hair, and he holds back a wince, smothering it down because this is Jaehyun, he’s safe, everything’s alright and he’s done it again, “You’re wonderful.”

Taeyong doesn’t want to speak right now. He doesn’t want to look at anyone, doesn’t want to see the pity or the hate in their eyes. But he forces himself to look up anyway, and bites back a sob at what he does see.

Acceptance. Determination. Love.

“Why…” It doesn’t come out of his own volition, but Jaehyun hears it anyway, tightening his grip.

“Now I really wish I punched him harder.” Johnny frowns, coming over to lay a palm over Taeyong’s forehead, large and warm, “Damn it.”

“Why would he do that though?” Taeil questions anxiously, “Why Taeyong?”

“I’ve been asking myself that every day.” Jaehyun vibrates in place, as Taeyong presses his head into his shoulder, “It doesn’t make any sense. Did he do anything to you, hyung?”

“Ah, no.” Johnny sounds confused and, more importantly, like he isn’t lying, “He didn’t really say much of anything. That might have been because I just punched him, called him a piece of shit, and left.”

Taeyong snorts despite himself.

“Really.” Doyoung sounds judgmental.

“Shut it.” Johnny says half-heartedly, before he removes his hand and paces around for a bit instead.

“Taeyong.” He looks up when he hears Taeil’s voice, and sees the brunette staring at him with fire in his eyes, “Everyone loves you. You know that, right?”

Taeyong doesn’t want to say no, so he just gives a hesitant half-nod.

“No.” Yuta says firmly, “We do love you. There’s no doubt or anything about it. You’re the best leader we could ever ask for!”

Sicheng gives a nod, from where he’s playing with his hyung’s hair, while Johnny gives Taeyong a tight smile.

“All we want,” Jaehyun says softly, pressing his cheek against the crown of Taeyong’s head, “is for you to share with us. The happiness, the burdens, the tears… everything.”

“But—”

“We talked about this, didn’t we?” Taeil interrupts, and he’s right, “We’re a family, Tae. We don’t hide from each other, we share.”

“Huh.” Taeyong says. His throat’s too tight to say much else.

“We’ve got this.” Jaehyun adds, “That Instructor is going down, and we’re all going to see to that. Right?”

Taeyong looks around, sees everyone’s beaming, hopeful faces, and thinks that maybe there’s a ring of truth to this, maybe he doesn’t have to shoulder everything on his own. He… he doesn’t entirely get it, but he trusts them. He trusts them beyond belief, trusts them with more than his life. And if they say this is what he has to do, then…

Taeyong nods, and smiles, soft and unsure but, more importantly—hopeful.

Chapter Text

Mark realizes he probably needs to talk to some of the members alone. Of course, he wants for them to be able to share with each other, but he somehow doubts everyone will want to sit in a little circle and blurt out their feelings. Frankly… he’s not very comfortable with that idea either.

He knows he has to, and he will. That doesn’t make him any more comfortable, doesn’t make him feel any more secure. He’s supposed to be unaffected by this, supposed to have completely recovered, but there are times when he’s lost to those words threading through his mind, when his thoughts are completely overwhelmed by a tsunami of hate. Telling the others about it seems too…intimate, for lack of better word.

Mark’s still afraid to do that, even though he knows it’s necessary. He’s going to do it.

“—Hyung? Mark??” He’s snapped from his thoughts by Donghyuck’s persistent voice filtering in, tinged with worry, “Hey? Are you listening?”

“Sorry Hyuck.” He shakes his head, biting his lip, before poking his head out to look at the occupant of the lower bunk, “I was kind of… lost in thought? It won’t happen again, I promise.”

“Relax.” Donghyuck rolls his eyes, staring up at him, hair messy and falling all over the place, “Do you….”

He trails off here, cheeks pinking, as Mark tries to figure out what’s going on through his head. It’s nothing serious, is it? His pulse quickens at the thought that he might’ve done something wrong to annoy the younger boy, maybe even frustrate him.

“What?” He asks meekly, voice faltering as though it’s rising and falling back in fright, “What is it?”

“I…” Donghyuck looks at loss for words, which is worrying enough, until he says, “It’s kind of hard to sleep when it’s so cold.”

Mark’s eyes widen at that, a surprised smile working its tentative way onto his lips. He’s… not mistaken, right?

“You want me to come down?” He asks, heart lodged firmly in his throat, as he waits for Donghyuck’s answer. This isn’t the first time they’ve had this sort of interaction—but, it’s the first time in a long time.

“…Sure.”

It’s not a glaring ‘please come cuddle with me’ but Mark will take what he can get, and he practically leaps down the ladder in ways that Taeyong would disapprove of to clamber into Donghyuck’s bed.

“Oomf!” Donghyuck gives a pained wheeze as Mark accidentally elbows him in the gut as they try to get comfortable. Mark feels the slow flame of guilt start biting at him as he shifts so that his arms wrap loosely around the other boy’s waist.

“Sorry.” The word feels heavy in his mouth, like it’s all he’s been saying, “I d-didn’t see you there—”

“Don’t worry about it.” Donghyuck hums, practically rolling onto him, “You can just pay me back by buying lunch.”

Mark makes a garbled protest that has no heat to it, and Donghyuck giggles lightly, before pressing his chin to Mark’s head. Even though he’s shorter, Donghyuck usually insists on being the ‘big spoon’ and Mark doesn’t have the heart to refute it. It’s not like he’s against the idea either; he doesn’t really care one way or the other.

“You’re so weird.” Donghyuck sighs contentedly as Mark presses his nose into his sweater, “Ugh, are you sniffing me?”

“No.” Mark says staunchly, as he continues to nuzzle his best friend, “Your sweater’s just really soft and fuzzy.”

…that’s probably worse than admitting Donghyuck smells nice.

“Whatever.” Mark groans when Donghyuck starts cracking up, though a small smile pulls at his lips too, “Let’s just sleep.”

“Right, sleep, yeah.” Donghyuck smirks, closing his eyes as Mark lets his eyelids droop shut. This is perfect. It’s quiet, it’s warm, and it’s so familiar after all that they’ve been through and he doesn’t want it to ever end. He wouldn’t change anything about this.

A few moments later, a quiet snicker permeates the air, and Mark groans.

Okay, maybe he would.

 


 

He finds Renjun first thing in the morning.

The boy’s clearly distraught, Mark notices with slowly mounting guilt—guilt that he squashes down firmly—as he observes him. If his appearance—pale, cheeks splotchy, eyes puffy— doesn’t give it up, the way he’s trying to cook is certainly a dead giveaway. It’s…disturbingly similar to how Mark imagines he was. Deadened, drowned by guilt and pulled back down with every attempt to break the surface.

And see, Mark still is. He still feels that way sometimes, like a lingering ache in his chest. He sometimes wonders if he’s ever going to be alright, if the Not Okay will go away. He knows it won’t, though, and he’s starting to make his peace with it. Even if… even if it’s not what he wants.

Renjun’s drowning, clearly, but Mark doesn’t intend to let him.

“Hey,” He says quietly, watching as the younger boy stiffens. Mark’s thoughts instinctively take a nosedive—Renjun’s clearly disgusted to see him, doesn’t want him—before he regains his bearings, and takes a step forward. He’s glad the other members haven’t come out yet, “Are you making breakfast?”

Renjun doesn’t answer for a minute, and Mark feels concern sweep through him at the sight of the boy’s trembling shoulders.

“Yes.” He lets out finally, short and terse.

The disconnect becomes too much, for a brief moment. Mark doesn’t know what he could possibly say to bridge the gap, wishes he could just pull Renjun in for a hug and let it all out. He can’t do that, though, not when his friend is so fragile, guilty of a crime he didn’t commit.

So, Mark just brushes past him, reaching for a cup on the shelf and heading to the fridge to get out some milk. The way Renjun freezes up doesn’t go unnoticed, but Mark knows that paying it too much mind to every little detail is just going to hurt him.

Renjun doesn’t hate him. The words are a lie.

“Hyung.” Mark nearly drops the glass at how Renjun’s voice suddenly permeates the silence, heart hammering against his chest as he turns to look at him with wide eyes; he didn’t expect the Chinese boy to actually speak to him. Renjun isn’t facing him, head bowed as he stares intently at the skillet.

“W-What is it?” Mark licks his lips nervously, feeling sick to his gut in apprehension. Still, there’s one emotion that overrides it: hope.

“Why did you stand up for me?” It’s whooshed out in one breath, and Mark freezes up, unsure of how to respond. There are lots of things he expected Renjun to want to know but this… this wasn’t even on his mind.

“What?” Is all he can let out dumbly, and he wants to hit himself. Renjun’s trying to reach out, and Mark’s here, being obtuse.

Idiot.

“That…that day.” Renjun finally turns around, and Mark can see his face clearly for the first time. It tangles knots in his chest, the sight of him, and Mark has no one to blame but himself. And this is true, it’s not the… the break speaking, it’s concrete, with its proof standing right in front of him. “You were trying to stand up for me.”

“Of course I was going to do that!” Mark quickly sets down the carton of milk, wanting to tackle his friend in a giant hug, let reassurance replace that sadness. He refrains, though, knowing it’s not going to help, not just yet. “Renjunnie, you’re – you’re my friend.”

Seeing Renjun’s eyebrows furrow, he quickly adds, “No matter who it is, I’m always going to want to stand up for you guys. It’s not just because I’m your leader or something, but because…”

Mark flushes, biting his lip as he lets it out. “Because I love you guys.”

“Hyung,” Renjun’s eyes are watering, Mark notices with growing dread—of course he’s gone and messed things up—but he’s wholly unprepared for the younger boy to fling himself into his arms, “I-I’m s-sorry.”

“No.” Mark quickly winds his arms around Renjun’s thin form, finding comfort in the warmth of his skin, seeping through his clothes. “No, ‘Junnie, you don’t have to be sorry.”

When Renjun sniffles, Mark knows what he needs to do.

“I don’t regret it.” He says firmly, squeezing tighter, and pressing their cheeks together as Renjun makes a low noise of surprise. “I really don’t. I’d do it all over again if I had to, I swear.”

Why?” Renjun’s voice is small, and he finally sags against Mark, let’s his tears drip onto his shoulders. “Why would you—?”

“Because we’re…we’re family.” Mark stays strong, though he falters when he realizes that none of them have ever said that to each other and maybe he’s wrong. “We – we are, aren’t we?”

Yes.” Renjun chokes out, and Mark rubs the hiccupping boy’s back as soothingly as he can. “I’m s-sorry, I’m s-so sorry…”

Mark doesn’t interrupt him as he continues to shake in his arms. He knows Renjun needs this, much like Mark did—no, still does. It never really goes away, the guilt weighing heavily in your heart.

But it can get better, and that’s something Mark is willing to put faith in.

 


 

“Did the hyungs say anything about what—” Jeno cuts himself off, as all of them finally sit together again. There’s a certain heaviness in the air that wasn’t there before; and it continues to push at Mark’s chest, make him breathless.

Still, though, it’s progress, and Mark will take what he can get.

“No.” Donghyuck answers in his stead, and Mark wonders when he’s started giving the younger boy the reigns, when he’s stopped taking everything onto his shoulders and has started putting them all onto Donghyuck’s. “I mean, they said that the company’s doing some internal work, but nothing else.”

“Internal work?” Jisung wrinkles his nose, and it shouldn’t be as adorable as it is. Mark misses seeing Jisung being adorable, but hopefully he’ll get the chance to see it more, now.

Everything is going to be okay. He needs to relax.

“They’re going to fire him, and get him blacklisted, basically.” Mark explains, unable to help himself from twisting his fingers nervously. “Hopefully, they should be able to do that without anything being leaked to the press.”

“How’re they going to stop him from saying anything though?” Jaemin asks curiously, lip jutting out in thought. The him in that sentence doesn’t need to be explained, since everyone knows who he’s talking about.

Mark struggles not to let his eyes burn in reminder, though his chest feels like it’s compressing at the thought of it all.  He doesn’t want to recall this – this—

Jaemin shrieks faintly when Chenle pokes his bottom lip—essentially breaking Mark from his thoughts—and looks at the younger boy with an affronted expression. “Chenle!”

“You – you looked cute?” The Chinese boy offers hesitantly, and Mark can see the tension lining Renjun’s shoulders from where he’s sitting. He’s been overprotective ever since their talk and Mark can’t blame him, honestly. It’s how he copes.

“Fine.” Jaemin sighs poutily, and the tension breaks, everyone in the room exhaling in relief from a burden they aren’t aware of. “But seriously, how?”

“I’m not sure.” Mark tries not to think too much about it, tries not to remember the phantom grip encompassing his wrists, or the sting of pain running around his hip. “W-we’ve gotta assume they know what they’re doing.”

“Oh.”

Silence descends upon everyone once again, and Mark doesn’t want things to be like this, so weird and stilted and not them again. He throws Donghyuck a panicked look, and the brunette sighs in answer, rocking to his feet and clapping his hands together.

“Alright!” He shouts, evidently startling everyone. Renjun’s eyes are wide, and he’s clutching at his chest from the spontaneity of Donghyuck’s outburst. “We’re watching TV and I’m not taking no for an answer!”

“No.” Jisung offers dryly, in a quickfire response, and Jeno’s eyes crinkle as he struggles to hold back a snort at Donghyuck’s affronted expression. Mark’s pretty much the same; he presses a hand to his mouth as he watches Jaemin crack up, losing it completely, while Chenle giggles helplessly.

Renjun’s the only one who’s remotely on Donghyuck’s side, though a smile threatens to break through on his face as well.

“Let’s pick out a movie?” He suggests, getting up from the couch to get the remote. Almost immediately, Chenle drapes himself across the free space, claiming it’s his with a gleeful shriek.

“Oh my god.” Mark says quietly to himself, watching as Jaemin hip checks Donghyuck away from Renjun so that he can get the remote first. It’s like—

“How it used to be.” Jeno’s voice is soft, and Mark starts, not having realized the boy’s by his side. “It’s been a long time since we’ve gotten to do this, hasn’t it?”

“Yeah.” Mark agrees, trying not to let the guilt rise again, not now, not after everything. Jeno must notice his torn expression, because he sets a hand on Mark’s shoulder and squeezes it in what’s supposed to be a encouraging gesture.

“Ow.” Is what Mark lets out instead of the heartfelt thanks his mind had been preparing, and Jeno’s mouth drops open in horror.

“Hyung, I’m sorry!” He squeaks, eyes wide, and Mark quickly cuts him off. “I really didn’t mean to—”

“It’s okay!” He assures his friend quickly, hesitantly patting his back. “We’re all good!”

“Still, I’m sorry!”

“Don’t—” Mark’s breath catches in his throat, and he looks sadly at the younger boy, remembering times when even mild bruises wouldn’t deter them. “Don’t do that, please.”

Jeno’s eyebrows furrow as he, no doubt, tries to make sense of what Mark’s said. His expression quickly clears, though, and he smiles and nods, eyes crinkling into familiar crescents. A sight for sore eyes, really.

“Sorry – I mean; I won’t.” He promises, and Mark slings an arm around him in answer, letting his eyes roam across the room, drinking in the sight of his members acting, for the first time in a long time; their age.

“How long do you think this is going to last?” He asks Jeno softly, eyes catching Donghyuck’s inadvertently; the brunette in question just grins at him triumphantly, with the remote in his outstretched hand…

Only for Chenle to snatch it away with a high-pitched dolphin noise that’s probably meant to be a giggle.

“Maybe a while.” Jeno answers dutifully, and Mark feels overwhelmed at the warmth in his eyes. “But it’s okay, hyung. I think we’ll get there.”

And it’s not over. It’s far from over, and Mark knows that. Their hyungs may be telling them not to worry about things, but Mark knows there’s still work to be done. That he’s still a work in progress; and it’s okay, even if it doesn’t feel that way. That, even if his hands tremble, even if his movements falter, even if he’s not perfect, no one’s going to cast him aside, leave him to be forgotten. It’s not okay yet, but it might be, one day, and that’s something Mark is going to have to work towards and he knows that.

“I think,” Mark says slowly, a nervous smile pulling at his lips as he catches Jeno’s earnest gaze, “You might just be right.”

Chapter Text

Taeyong’s starting to regret promising Mark anything.

“Hey, it’s going to be alright.” Jaehyun’s voice is soft as Taeyong paces holes into their bedroom floor. The blonde’s slumped over on Taeyong’s bed, features almost serene. Taeyong wishes he were that calm. “We did whatever we could, so now we’ve just got to wait.”

“How can we?” Taeyong demands sharply, whirling around; he falters when he realizes Jaehyun’s looking at him with a mildly discomfited expression, and immediately regrets his cold tone. “I… I’m sorry, I’m just really worried.”

“Hey, all of us are.” Jaehyun holds out an arm, and Taeyong hesitates, before reluctantly stepping into the offered Hugging Space. “Look, we’ve done all we could.”

“You already said that.” Taeyong points out wryly, though he can’t help but sag a little when Jaehyun’s hands press into his hips.

“I know.” Jaehyun says with a soft squeeze, “But that’s all I can really say. You know that better than anyone else.”

Taeyong breathes in deeply, lets himself fall forward to rest his head on Jaehyun’s shoulder. He knows how tense he must be, with everything going on, and feels, not for the first time, the bitter sting of regret poke its way into his gut. If only he’d kept his mouth shut…

No. It’s a good thing. Else, Mark would’ve suffered for so much longer. And… maybe Taeyong, too.

“You’re right.” Taeyong admits with a sigh, letting his arms lope around Jaehyun’s waist as he shifts uncomfortably on his knees. He’s lucky the bed’s soft, else they’d be bruised. “It’s just – I promised Mark—”

“Mark knows it’s going to take time.” Jaehyun interrupts, making Taeyong’s lips press together. “And you know I’m right.”

“I did just say that, didn’t I?” Taeyong lets out reluctantly, though a tiny smile pulls at his lips when Jaehyun beams brilliantly at him. “I can’t help it though.”

“I know.” Jaehyun nuzzles into his neck, making Taeyong crane his head painfully to get away from the ticklish brush of his nose against his skin. “But let’s just forget it for a bit and cuddle, please?”

“How can I –alright, fine, just stop—YAH, JAEHYUN!” He smacks the blonde’s shoulder vigorously as his finger’s run teasingly up his sides, “You kn-know I’m t-ticklish—AGH, STOP!”

“Too late!” Jaehyun laughs delightedly, knocking him flat on his back to tickle him properly, and Taeyong can’t stop the helpless giggles escaping from him as he struggles to gasp in enough air. “Agree to forget about this, and I might stop!”

“Alright, alright!” Taeyong feels light-headed, unable to register anything save for Jaehyun’s fingers speedily working their magic into his sides, “I w-will so just—stop!”

Mercifully, he does, and Taeyong manages to push himself up by his elbows, huffing out a breath—not that he has much to spare, anyway.

“Okay, now cuddle.” Jaehyun raises an eyebrow at him, but it’s not a question. Taeyong smirks at him.

“Nope.”

“What? But you promised!” Jaehyun whines playfully, tugging at Taeyong’s shirt, making chuckle softly. “Hyung!”

“Hey, I said I’d stop worrying, not that I’d cuddle.” Taeyong points, lips still turned up. “Besides, I have to make dinner.”

Jaehyun’s eyes turn sad and oh no, Taeyong can’t ever stand the sight of that; especially not now that the blonde’s eyes are finally starting to clear up.

“Please?” Jaehyun asks softly, words almost fragile as they hang in the air. The giddiness from before starts to drain from Taeyong’s body at how uncertain his boyfriend looks. “We haven’t…it’s been so long, please.”

“Yeah.” Taeyong breathes out before he even fully registers the words, quickly drawing close to Jaehyun. The fact that he had to ask so – so carefully makes Taeyong feel a whole new level of jerkish and he hates it. “Yeah, of course Jae, you didn’t –I mean, I get it—”

Jaehyun cuts him off, by simply pulling him close, and Taeyong automatically winds his arms around his waist, making him breathe out heavily. And it occurs to him, then.

“It was hard on you, wasn’t it?” He asks with certainty, and Jaehyun almost stops breathing, air stuttering its way out of his chest; and that, in itself, is answer enough for Taeyong. “I’m sorry, I didn’t even think about how you’d feel about… all of this.”

“No.” Jaehyun rasps out, and Taeyong doesn’t even need to look to know that he’s probably wearing that fake, plastic smile that absolutely no one can stand. “No, of course not, I completely understand—”

“Jaehyun.” Taeyong interrupts, gut burning with the desire to make this right, never to shove aside anyone’s feelings, not when doing that to himself got them into this mess. “You always tell me to be honest and –and open with you so. Please. Tell me?”

“It’s not—”

Jaehyun.”

Then, Jaehyun inhales sharply, grip on Taeyong’s arms growing tighter, till he can feel the grooves of Jaehyun’s nails pressing into his skin.

“It’s just been so long since you’ve been yourself.” Jaehyun admits softly, voice beginning to grow thick and no, no Jaehyun, don’t, “I just… I just really missed that.”

Taeyong makes a soft noise, not wanting to say anything that would put Jaehyun off, not when there’s something on his chest that clearly needs to be let off.

“And I was… I was so scared.” Jaehyun’s voice wavers and shit, he’s definitely crying now, warm drops beginning to wet Taeyong’s shoulder. “Y-You wouldn’t ever tell me anything a-and I didn’t know how to help and—and—!”

“I’m sorry.” Taeyong chokes out, everything hitting him at once as he starts to realize how much Jaehyun must have been hiding from him, because the blonde’s normally easy to read and the fact that Taeyong didn’t see it tells him… a lot. And how could he lose sight of it, how could he…?

“Not your fault.” Trembling fingers come to wipe at Taeyong’s cheeks and oh, he’s crying; he can’t stop, though. “Don’t cry hyung.”

And, even when he’s in tears, Jaehyun puts him first. Jaehyun always puts him first and Taeyong can’t believe it, fists curling into Jaehyun’s shirt like it’ll anchor him back to the shore, let him keep his head afloat.

“You’re not supposed to be comforting me.” He laughs wetly, hand coming up to rest on Jaehyun’s cheek, wiping the moisture away with a gentle thumb. Looking closely at him, he sees his eyes are already puffy—Jaehyun’s always been a visible crier—and reddened. “I’m sorry I worried you so much, I promise—”

Here, he breaks off, breathing harshly through his nose. “I promise, I won’t ever let this happen again, okay? I’ll talk to you, I swear.”

Even if I don’t think I deserve it, Taeyong thinks, hands resting against his boyfriend’s wet cheeks, especially if it means never seeing you like this again. Because Jaehyun is the sun, and if the sun disappears, where would Taeyong be?

Jaehyun’s eyes begin to well up with the tears again, and he buries his face into Taeyong’s shoulder, letting out tears that should never have been there to begin with; tears of fear, of days and days and days of worry, tears that Taeyong could’ve stopped with a little foresight.

And Taeyong takes it all in with open arms and a heavy heart.

 


 

 

“So, update!” Johnny says cheerily, as they all gather in the living room again, a couple of days later.

They’re all huddled on the couches, skin pressing against skin—but no one seems to mind, in fact, pressing closer if they can—as they listen to Johnny with bated breath. Since he and Taeil were the ones to talk to the management in the first place, it was unanimously decided that they’d be the ones to correspond with them, moving into the future.

Both of them, despite the forced cheer in their voice, look tense, tired lines beginning to form on their faces from the stress, undoubtedly. Just the sight of them is enough to send Taeyong’s insides into tangles; guilt sits heavily upon his shoulders even though he knows, objectively, that the both of them want to do this, that they aren’t being forced or anything.

Working through this might be harder than he previously thought.

“Was the manager there with you guys today?” Taeyong asks seriously, voice soft. He doesn’t need for it to be loud anyway, the room deathly quiet in anticipation.

“Yeah.” Taeil sighs, running a hand down his face. “Not that it made a big difference, but…”

He shrugs.

Please tell me they agreed.” Yuta’s face is uncharacteristically serious as he sits forward, paying rapt attention. Sicheng is draped languidly across his back, but the Japanese boy doesn’t pay it much mind.

“Well…” Johnny hesitates, and Taeyong’s cheeks quickly drain of color as he holds his breath. How they feel about this depends entirely on what Johnny says now, and Taeyong’s so, so afraid.

Johnny’s features quickly lose their seriousness, then, and even Taeil cracks a smile.

“They did.” Johnny says, clearly pleased, and Taeyong’s breath leaves his lungs in stuttering disbelief. “They’ve actually blacklisted that piece of crap.”

“Oh my goodness.” Taeyong slumps over, not even realizing that he was tensed up. “Oh my god.”

“Thank god.” Doyoung sighs with a similar respite, and the room almost exhales with relief. “Someone should let the kids know about this.”

Jaehyun’s hand finds Taeyong’s, and he squeezes it tight in what he hopes is a comforting manner. To be honest, Taeyong might need that assurance too; and, Jaehyun seems to realize it too, because he squeezes back gently.

I’m right here.

“So everything’s going to be okay now?” Sicheng asks shakily, and Taeyong notices he’s actually letting Yuta hold onto him tightly. “We’re good?”

Taeyong looks around at the faces of all his members, seeing the liberation in the curves of their smiles, the slowly brightening room easing the weight on his chest.

“We’re getting there.” His own lips curve up, and he manages to look the Chinese member in the eye when he speaks. “Aren’t we?”

The rest of them chime in with affirming noises, some shouting a big ‘yes!’ as, for the first time in a long time, Taeyong can finally breathe.

Sicheng looks delighted, a grin forming on his face.

“I’m glad.” He says brilliantly, and Taeyong’s grin stretches wide on his face after so long.

“So am I, Win.” He reaches out a hand, gently, rubbing at the boy’s shoulder. “We’ll be alright.”

Jaehyun’s hand finds the small of his back, and Taeyong relaxes quickly, watching in amusement as Doyoung whines when Yuta nearly strangles him in a hug. Phone calls are quickly made to the Dreamies, Mark’s stuttering cries of relief easing the guilt in Taeyong’s chest just a little.

They… they might really be okay.

 

 

 

But, there’s still one thing bothering him.

 


 

 

What?!” Jaehyun very nearly screeches when Taeyong tells him about it. “Hyung, no, are you – are you out of your mind?”

“I need to know.” He pleads, hands shaking as he lets his arms rest on Jaehyun’s shoulders. They’re in the kitchen, the area silent since the rest of the members are mostly in their rooms. “Please.”

“The last time you spoke to him, you know what happened.” Jaehyun’s gaze is pained, and he bites his lip. “Please, just… just think about this!”

“I did.” Taeyong snaps and, seeing Jaehyun flinch back, deflates, sagging against Jaehyun’s weight as he rests his head along the man’s collarbone. “I just… I need to know.”

“You already said that.” He feels the reverberations of Jaehyun’s sigh along his cheek.

“Already said what?” A third voice suddenly enters the conversation, sending Taeyong reeling back and nearly tripping over his feet. “Ah, sorry, didn’t mean to interrupt your…  moment.”

Taeyong’s cheeks burn even as Jaehyun whines out a quiet ‘Johnny hyung!’ with similarly flushed features. Johnny just laughs at the two of them as he sets his cup back in its shelf.

“Anyway,” Jaehyun quickly diverts, making Taeyong narrow his eyes at him. “Taeyong want to talk to Kim Yeongsu again.”

What?!” Johnny’s reaction isn’t much unlike Jaehyun’s. And look, Taeyong knows it sounds crazy, stupid even, but… he needs closure. He needs to know why. “Why on earth would you ever want to talk to that jerk again?”

“Exactly my point.” Jaehyun huffs out, pleased, and Taeyong seethes.

“I want to understand why he did it.” He says instead of throwing a hissy fit; he’s not childish, and even though he hasn’t been that way for a while, he’s actually quite level-headed. “Why he… said the things he did.”

Taeyong doesn’t like remembering them, though they echo in his mind.

Johnny’s eyes are narrowed on him, and he seems more thoughtful than appalled, now. Jaehyun sees the change in expression, face quickly losing color.

“No.” He says softly, almost disbelievingly. “No, you can’t seriously be considering this—”

“Look,” Taeyong cuts in curtly, but not disrespectfully. Seeing the open concern in Jaehyun’s eyes, his tone softens, “I understand that you’re worried, but I’m an adult and I can make my own decisions… surprisingly.”

Jaehyun gives a tiny snort at that, and pats at Taeyong’s shoulder. Johnny’s still staring, so he takes the hint, and sighs.

“The both of you can come along, if it makes you feel any better.” He offers, and their expressions clear considerably. “Is that better?”

“Much.” Johnny agrees easily, and Jaehyun exhales heavily.

“I’d rather we not go at all…” He says sullenly. “But fine. I’ve always got your back.”

“I know.” Fondness wells in his chest, and Johnny makes a face when they smile at each other.

“Ugh, feelings.” He chucks a paper towel and Jaehyun. “Go away.”

“Stop!” Jaehyun giggles, and Taeyong shakes his head with familiar helpless amusement. “We’ll go tomorrow, then?”

Taeyong smiles, though it’s not cheerful.

“Yeah.” He says, and it’s decided.

 


 

 

They actually end up going to his house, and Taeyong’s breaking in his nails, chewing nervously on his cuticles as he paces outside the door.

“Hey, if you don’t want to do this, we can go back.” Johnny’s voice screams of concern, and Taeyong quickly shakes his head.

“Are you sure?” Jaehyun’s eyes are impossibly soft, and Taeyong wants to know what he’s done to deserve someone so perfect, really.

“I’m alright.” He says as reassuringly as he can, before stopping short and finally shaking his head. Be honest. “…No, I’m not. I’m… I’m scared.”

There, he’s said it. His lips taste bitter, but Taeyong’s being honest, that’s a good thing.

“We shouldn’t have come here, I knew it.” Jaehyun says, whirling around and running a hand through his hair, and Taeyong quickly speaks again before Johnny can agree with him.

“I still want to do this though!” He clarifies, and his hands are shaking, so he puts them back in his pockets. “I’m afraid that… what I’ll hear isn’t what I want. Or that it’ll be too much, or – or too little.”

“That’s normal.” Johnny assures him, placing a hand on his shoulder warmly. “It’s okay to feel that way.”

Taeyong smiles wryly at him, shrugging half-heartedly as Jaehyun lets out a breath.

“I’ll be with you.” Jaehyun promises, giving his hand a quick squeeze. “We’ve both got your back so… don’t worry too much, okay?”

“Okay.” Taeyong says the damning word and, with a trembling hand, rings the doorbell.

It takes four heart stopping moments for the lock of the door to click open, and it swings in, revealing the very man Taeyong’s been dreading seeing again.

“Lee Taeyong.” Kim Yeongsu says, a strange look on his face.

“And Jung Yoonoh, and Seo Youngho.” Johnny cuts in snarkily, making the man shift his gaze to him. Almost unconsciously, Yeongsu’s hand rises to cup his cheek, almost as though remembering the feel of Johnny’s fist against his skin.

Taeyong bites back a dark smile at that.

“Right.” He says stiffly, “What do you need? Taking my job away wasn’t enough for you?”

Johnny and Jaehyun look at Taeyong then, and he realizes it’s time for him to get his answers.

“Actually,” He says, stepping forward minutely, “I have questions.”

A long beat of silence passes, before something almost vicious passes over the man’s face, and he steps aside, mockingly waving his hand inwards. Taeyong feels like he might not be able to breathe, but Jaehyun luckily chooses that moment to grip his hand tightly.

“By all means, come in.” He offers bitingly, and with a quick glance shared between the three of them, they do.

Taeyong doesn’t pay attention to their surroundings, forcing his mind to focus on just one thing; the last thing he needs is for things to go south, not when they’re finally trying to fix everything.

“So, what brings you here?” Yeongsu spreads his arms, palms splayed upward, with a fake grin. Taeyong sees Johnny bristle and Jaehyun’s gaze grow flat from the corner of his eye, but he takes in a deep breath as he crosses his arms.

“It’s a simple question,” Taeyong warns him; though he’s trembling lightly, he downplays it, managing to meet his eyes, “And I want a simple answer, none of the… the extra bits.”

He doesn’t think about said extra bits from before, though Yeongsu’s widening grin tells him he remembers.

“Go ahead then, Your Majesty.” He says mockingly, and Jaehyun actually growls under his breath.

“Why?” Taeyong asks quickly, biting his lip as his eyebrows furrow, “Why did you keep… talking to me, and –and—”

The words quickly die in his throat, because he doesn’t know how to explain any of it without bursting into tears or something equally embarrassing.

“Why did you touch him?” Jaehyun finishes darkly, eyes cold. “You said you weren’t interested, and yet you continued to touch him even after he told you not to.”

“Ah, seriously.” Yeongsu rolls his eyes like this is nothing, like Taeyong’s just overreacting and—well, is he? He can’t be, not with Jaehyun and Johnny getting so worked up over it. “That’s it?”

“That’s not it.” Johnny bites out, making him stiffen. “You made both him and Mark feel like shit –why?”

“I wasn’t trying to do that!” Yeongsu quickly loses the cocky smile, features contorting into something bordering anger, and it makes Taeyong’s insides grow cold. “I just wanted them to see that they need to work hard for what they want.”

“They already do that!” Jaehyun bristles indignantly, a foreign anger seeping into his tone, and Taeyong lays a warning hand on his arm. “And Mark’s just a kid too!”

“Kid or not, it doesn’t matter!” Yeongu’s finally lost his cool, eyebrows furrowing darkly and Taeyong wants to back away, but the tight grip Jaehyun has on his other hand stops him. He’s here. It’s okay. “Once you fuck up, it’s all over, and there’s no getting that back!”

“What, did that happen to you?” Johnny sneers, eyes calculative.

Yes.” There’s silence after that and Yeongsu sighs resignedly. “I took my time as a trainee lightly. I was chucked out, and no one wanted to take me in again; which is exactly what I’ve been trying to prevent. Yet, all of you act like I’m the bad guy here.”

“And why did you do that to me?” Taeyong’s voice sounds out strangely, and he hasn’t even realized he’s spoken aloud.

“Oh.” Yeongu’s anger is all but shoved aside as he grins almost sadistically. “That was just amusing, really. You’re basically the prince of SM, but so, so weak… I wondered how you lasted as long as you did, really.”

This has Taeyong’s blood boiling, and he all but rips his hand from Jaehyun’s, curling it into a fist.

“So you played with my feelings, my self-esteem, my self-worth; all because it fascinated you?” Taeyong sees red, unable to wrap his head around the fact that there was nothing really wrong with me, he was just having fun, “You thought it was amusing?”

“Don’t tell me you took me seriously.” Yeongu’s still smiling, and Taeyong’s shaking hard now, with barely restrained fury. “I even told you I wasn’t interested in you, yet you still thought I’d want to fuck you? Well, you clearly don’t have the self-esteem issues you claim to.”

“You touched me.” Taeyong says disbelievingly, and Jaehyun’s turning to him, all worried and fretful at the brittleness of his voice. “Inappropriately, even after I told you not to. And you… you made me feel disgusting for – for— fuck it, I’m done, I'm not doing this.”

He breaks off, suddenly needing to leave, never look at his vile, revolting face again. He can't stomach the thought anymore.

“Let’s go.” He says to Jaehyun and Johnny instead, turning around and striding away. He can see them exchange dubious glances, but they follow him out anyway and his heart swells at the sheer trust they show in him even like this.

“It was nice seeing you again!” He hears the man shout, and Johnny mutters something quietly under his breath in a way that's telling; but, Taeyong’s too slow to stop him from whirling around and decking the man straight in the jaw.

He can't believe it.

“Keep going.” Johnny says quickly, and Taeyong is helpless to deny that, quickly walking out and sprinting down the stairs amidst Jaehyun’s maniacal laughter and Johnny’s whoops.

What’s even happening?

“Are you crazy?” He yells as they dive into their car, Johnny quickly fastening his seatbelt and peeling out of the parking lot.

He breathes heavily, winded from the short sprint as his mind struggles to wrap itself around what just happened. “Are you… are you…?”

“A genius?” Jaehyun’s grinning widely for the first time today, and Taeyong can’t. “Because that’s what I think.”

“Thank you.” Johnny huffs out, a similar, brilliant grin lighting up his face, “Bastard deserved it.”

“Why’d you do that?” Taeyong demands angrily, voice coming out warbled, because what if Johnny gets in trouble? What if he's put on probation, or worse? What if he can't perform anymore? He can’t just go around punching people for no reason. “Knowing all the risks, why—”

“Because he was talking shit about you and Mark.” Johnny cuts in matter-of-factly. Their eyes meet through the rear-view, “And there’s no way I’m ever letting that happen, not again.”

Taeyong's chest rises and falls rapidly, except he isn't sure if that's because of the running, anymore. And, it’s only when Jaehyun sets a hand on his shoulder, murmuring softly to him, that Taeyong realizes he’s crying. But - but these are good tears, they’re tears of… of relief, of freedom, of finally feeling safe and protected and trusted.

They’re the tears of happiness that he's almost forgotten, and Taeyong doesn’t hold them back.

Not anymore.

Chapter Text

It’s been a couple of months now. The bruises painted so lovingly onto Mark’s hip have disappeared, but the memories haven’t.

That’s not such a bad thing, though.

Sure, Mark sometimes feels a phantom throb along his hip, the odd sensation of tingling across the smooth expanse of skin. Sometimes, he swears he can see the bruises again, yellowed and dying, but one blink later and they’re gone. It makes him feel a little silly sometimes, a little stupid, even, but… he doesn’t mind so much anymore.

He’s just grateful it’s all over.

Mark remembers that fateful night like it was just yesterday. Everyone was huddled in their living room, warm bodies stockpiled around Mark almost protectively. The sensation was nice, comfortable—even made Mark feel a little floaty, after a while— so they faced no complaints but, eventually, that peace broke to give way for something far more permanent.

And all it took was one call.

Donghyuck was the one to answer it, and the gradual change in his expression was terrifying, at the time—now, Mark knows better, and he feels a little dumb for not being able to realize it sooner.

(He wouldn't ever tell Donghyuck, though. The brunette would probably just smack him.)

“Are you sure?” Donghyuck asked, and the minute stutter of his voice drew everyone's attention to him, like moths to a flame.

(Mark likes that comparison, though he prefers to tweak it just a little; Donghyuck isn’t just a flame, he’s fire at its height, roaring flames emblazoned with fiery orange. Donghyuck isn’t quiet or subdued, no; he’s powerful and, yet, so beautiful.

But Mark’s getting ahead of himself.)

“It’s over.” Donghyuck finally said, phone tucked away as he sagged back into the couch. Breaths hitched and hands trembled as they waited. "He's gone, he's gone."

Mark doesn’t remember much after that, save for the warmth of his arm around his waist, the tears budding in Renjun’s eyes and Chenle’s wails of relief that still echo in his ears, to this day.

It was all very sudden, but Mark felt, at that moment, like he’d been waiting for it his entire life.

All of them were and, when it finally happened, it was nothing short of glorious.


 

“What’re you thinking about?” A low voice interrupts his train of thought, making Mark startle, memories slipping away.

“Oh, Jeno.” He breathes out slightly in relief, shoulders slumping minutely. “You scared me!”

“Sorry.” The boy apologizes, his silver strands gleaming still in the dim light. “It’s just… you had that Face on again. Renjun got kind of worried.”

“What face?” Mark purses his lips innocently. Jeno just looks at him, unamused. “Okay, fine. It’s just… hard to believe this is actually happening. That we're here now, you know?”

“Yeah, I get what you mean.” Jeno shifts slightly, body angled out, towards open air, “I’m just glad, honestly. Really, really glad.”

“That makes two of us!” Donghyuck’s nasal tone is a welcome addition to the conversation, and Mark shoots him a small smile that’s thankfully returned, for once. “What brought this on? Wait, was Mark making the Face again?”

“Why is this a thing, even?” Mark grumbles good-naturedly, crossing his arms. But then, a small, niggling doubt enters his mind, and the words fall easily off his lips. “If it’s really bothering everyone this much, then I’ll—”

“Shut up.” Donghyuck cuts in quickly, just as Jeno makes a weird noise in the back of his throat. Sometimes, the things they do to make each other shut up is just… unbelievable. Acting like a total child, apparently, isn’t off the cards either, so that's good to know, he supposes.

“You’re so rude to your hyung.” Mark teases, trying to recover from the dual attack. “Is that any way to talk to someone older than you, huh Hyuckie?”

“Let’s be real, you hate it when I call you hyung.” Donghyuck sasses him, and Jeno’s eyes go wide as he quickly backs out of the conversation—literally, by walking away. “But if you insist…”

“I don’t!” Mark squeaks quickly, recognizing the brewing darkness in Donghyuck’s glare; unfortunately, the admission goes unacknowledged.

“Alright, hyung, what did we all agree on about thinking about the Incident?” Donghyuck crosses his arms, the epitome of impatience.

Mark drops his eyes, feeling the guilt crawling over his skin, fighting to claw its way into his heart again. But Mark isn't going to let it win.

“…to talk to the others about it.” He murmurs petulantly, feeling like a child again, “But—!”

“And what were you doing? Hyung?” Donghyuck interrupts, saccharine smile never leaving his lips.

“I wasn’t talking about it.” Mark admits, wishing his pants had pockets. “But it wasn’t anything bad this time!”

He knows why they've established that system. Everyone’s been pretty on edge ever since the fight broke out with Instructor Kim (“that pile of trash”) and remembering it has only ever brought back less-than-stellar memories.

For Mark, especially, it’s not always good. There are just some days where he’ll lay curled up in bed, tremors running down his spine as he trembles, unmoving. There are times when he’ll be doing the most mundane thing—like pouring out a glass of milk—and someone will startle him and he’ll drop everything and flinch instinctively, waiting for a strike that’ll never come. There are days when Mark just doesn’t want to talk, just wants his mind to eat him alive, to let the memories consume him until there’s nothing left.

Those are rare, though. Incredibly rare. The majority of the time, though, it’s still okay—which is why Mark doesn’t mind it so much.

He knows it freaks the others out, though. He knows Renjun’s pleaded with him countless times to talk to someone, during those days, but usually Mark can’t find it in him to respond. The company isn’t providing him with a counselor or anything either, and Mark is too afraid to go out on his own to get that kind of help, not knowing who’ll leak what.

Learning to trust again is hard.

And that’s why they have this rule; to talk, to let those burdens roll off their shoulders and leave it up to everyone else to contribute to holding them up as well, to lend them a hand. It’s not just for Mark, even if he finds himself needing it the most; everyone is supporting everyone else. And sometimes he really hates himself for it, which is why he bites back the complaints, and forces on a smile instead.

Unfortunately, that's what makes Donghyuck distrustful now.

“I promise.” Mark repeats himself in the face of Donghyuck’s doubt. “It’s nothing bad Hyuck. You know I wouldn’t hide anything from you.”

Not unless it was really bad. But you’d still see right through me, wouldn’t you?

“Yeah?” Donghyuck raises a brow. “Then what about, exactly?”

Mark lifts a shoulder carelessly in a shrug, as he watches Chenle meander precariously close to the edges of the curtains before retreating.

“That phone call.” He answers honestly, and it goes to show how well Donghyuck knows him when his eyes widen immediately in understanding. “All we’d ever gotten was radio silence, and then it just hit us out of nowhere. Like, bam!”

He makes the sound effect to prompt a little smile from Donghyuck, who delivers rather predictably.

“Yeah.” Donghyuck agrees, voice turning pensive, “I guess so. I was just happy you didn’t have to deal with that anymore.”

“It wasn’t just me.” Mark shakes his head automatically.

And Taeyong hyung.” Donghyuck amends, rolling his eyes, but Mark doesn’t stop shaking his head.

No.” He emphasizes, before pausing. “Well, yes, but I wasn’t talking about that Hyuckie.”

And now it's time to say something incredibly sappy that’ll have Donghyuck chucking him off the stage.

“I was talking about all of us.” He lets out in one breath, Donghyuck blinking, “It wasn’t just me. It was hard on everyone, wasn’t it? Including you?”

“I…” Donghyuck blinks again, once, twice. “I guess? It just annoyed me that you were being hurt the entire time and I couldn't—”

His voice chokes up, and Mark’s eyes widen.

“I’m sorry!” He apologizes frantically as Donghyuck blinks his wet eyes rapidly, face tilted upwards to not ruin his makeup. “I didn’t mean to make you cry!”

“Shut up, idiot.” Donghyuck doesn’t say anything much beyond that, breathing deeply. “We can talk about this later.”

“Yeah.” Mark agrees easily, catching sight of their manager waving hysterically at them, “We need to huddle up first!”

“I’ll go get the babies.” Donghyuck grins reassuringly, though his eyes still shine glossily. “Wouldn’t want to miss our cue, right?”

“You're right.” Mark smiles back easily. “You always are, Hyuckie.”


 

He easily catches Jeno and Renjun, the latter frantically touching up his makeup as his friend snickers quietly behind a hand.

“Oh, is it time?” Renjun asks, hand playing with his blonde locks. His stylist is more than likely going to be annoyed, Mark figures.

“Yep!” He answers cheerfully, “Manager-nim’s calling for us. I think we’re up next.”

“It’ll be just a couple of hours, now.” Jeno gently teases Renjun, making the blonde scowl.

“Shut it.” He says, though with how thin his voice is, it doesn’t really sound so threatening. His eyes slide over to Mark, and they quickly widen in alarm. “Are you okay, hyung?”

“Uh, yeah?” Mark’s brows furrow at the sudden concern, though it’s not entirely unexpected; Renjun’s been on edge for the past couple of months, sometimes being overprotective to the point of suffocation. “Why?”

“You… look like you were crying.” Jeno answers for him, mouth pressed into a thin line as he surveys Mark's face carefully. “I mean, I can’t say for sure, but…”

“I wasn’t!” Mark quickly refutes, the surprise making his voice boom. Luckily though, he realizes and manages to tone it down. “Don’t worry, I’m alright. We’ve got to go now, though, alright?”

“Okay.” Renjun eyes him scrutinizingly, though he obligingly slides off the vanity table, “Let’s go then.”

“And the Babies?” Jeno asks as they migrate to where the manager’s waiting.

“Donghyuck.” Mark bites back a smile. He, Donghyuck and Jeno have taken to calling Jisung and Chenle the Babies, much to their annoyance. It’s true, though: and the past months have only further solidified this. He doesn't know where the rest of them would be without the maknae's sometimes silent, sometimes boisterous, support.

“Ah, gotcha.” Jeno nods. “Man, I wish Jaemin were here.”

“I know.” Mark sighs heavily, the thought of the younger boy’s back injury being thrust up to the forefront of his mind. And to think he didn't even realize... “Soon, though.”

“That’s right.” Renjun looks determined and, for that, Mark’s thankful. He used to hate the almost constant redness ringing his eyes, and the shakiness of his limbs, and he’s so incredibly relieved every time he sees Renjun act a bit more like himself. “We’ll set the stage on fire for him!”

“Yeah.” Jeno relents with a small smile. "Look at you, being all fired up!"

"Okay, no more fire puns." Mark says hurriedly, and the three of them chuckle.

They reach the stairs where the manager’s waiting, Donghyuck and the Babies in tow. Jisung looks disgruntled, the minor puffiness of his cheeks showing he’s been napping, while Chenle’s just brimming with energy, bouncing impatiently on his toes.

“You’ve got five.” Their manager says brusquely, and Mark nods in return.

They congregate as one, huddling close to each other as everyone falls silent, waiting for Mark to speak.

“We’ve got this.” He says, though a little grin plays up the corner of his lips. “Jaemin’s out there, you guys, and he’s waiting for us to blow his mind—and that’s what we’re going to do. The past few months have been…pretty tight, but we’ve held ourselves together for this long, and I’m proud.”

He looks around at the faces of his members, heart nearly bursting at the sight of them, the determined set of their mouths. Mark’s so grateful he gets to see this.

“We got through that, so what’s stopping us now?”

Nothing!” Chenle yells, and everyone laughs, a little more relaxed. Never let it be said that Zhong Chenle allows tension before a stage - utterly preposterous.

“Exactly.” A soft smile softens Mark’s features as he acknowledges his dongsaeng. “There’s nothing that’s going to stop us now, so let’s show everyone what we’ve got, yeah? I love you guys.”

“Oh my god, you just had to.” Donghyuck mutters, as Jisung rolls his eyes in accompaniment. Mark doesn’t mind though, not when the both of them are grinning wider than ever before, not when Jeno’s looking at him with bright eyes and Renjun’s shooting him an even brighter smile. “Couldn't stop yourself, could you? Well, get on with it, then.”

“Yeah, yeah.” Mark huffs out in amusement, “So impatient.”

He looks at all of them again, committing their expressions to memory. This is what he wants to remember, this is what he wants to fuel himself with, for years to come.

This is them.

He takes in a deep breath, heart singing.

.

.

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“YOOOOO DREAM!"