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—”
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.