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Throughout the next few days, Chan noticed he was feeling much better, both mentally and physically. 

He had woken up after having fallen asleep in Mingyu’s hold, still feeling his warmth. He noticed he was no longer on the couch he had found solace from Mingyu and Seokmin in, but rather his own bed. Someone must’ve carried him there, he thought. 

Taking in his surroundings, he saw his phone lay on his bedside table plugged in. As he was too emotional earlier he couldn’t notice it, but lo and behold on the top right corner of his screen was a large crack in the glass. Nonetheless, his lips formed a small smile at the scene before him knowing his hyungs were aware of his tendency to check his phone the moment he woke up. He knew they would be questioning him about how he cracked his phone later though—he made a quick note to think of a believable excuse later. It seemed he was doing a lot more lying these days. 

Speaking of his hyungs, his ears perked up. Not hearing a single noise except his own breathing, he took his phone as he unplugged the charging cord. His eyes nearly popped out of their sockets when he turned the device on, seeing the time in big numbers: 10:47 a.m. Oh shit. He had slept in through the next day. Suddenly his brain was racing a million miles an hour, with dozens of questions going through his head. He quickly jumped out of his bed in a panic turning towards the small table for his glasses, before a flash of white caught his eye. He put on his glasses, and with his vision cleared up, saw that what else lay on the table was a note—he almost immediately recognized the handwriting to be that of Seungcheol.

The note read:

Maknae! I heard from Mingyu and Dokyeom that you were having a tough day yesterday. We also noticed you’ve been more tired than usual so we decided to be gracious and give you a free day off. I know you’re eager to practice all the time, but even the Future of K-pop needs his rest every now and then. Don’t worry, I already told Hyelim-noona about it so you’re safe. Spend your time well! 

-Your hyungs ♡

Reading the note, Chan instantaneously calmed down. There was something about his group members: they always had a way of making him level-headed, whether they were physically there with him or not.

However, a small thought arose in his head. How much had Mingyu and Seokmin told them? Were the members suspicious? Were they worried about him now? Chan wouldn’t be able to handle it if they all thought he needed help. He was tired, sure, but so was everyone else. His health didn’t matter on the greater scale of the group’s success. Hopefully, the members had given him an off day without an ulterior motive. Hopefully, they had given him a rest day just as they saw things and nothing more.

Putting the note aside, he climbed back into bed. He knew he should’ve been making plans to fill his free day, but he decided to laze around for the time being. 

He got on his phone to go web surfing, although he didn’t feel like checking the news. He ended up mindlessly scrolling around for half an hour, giggling to himself every now and then at the sight of a funny post. He eventually got to the sight of one of his fancams and with a sigh, opened it in order to monitor his performance. In the end, he can’t ignore his responsibilities. 

He clicked through a multitude of his videos, checking his dances, expressions, and most importantly, the comments. Chan scrolled through each and every comment mindlessly, reading them. He wasn’t sure what he was looking for, but seeing how he was already looking at the comments he decided to keep going. What he saw were all compliments—there was no negativity.

Having exhausted all the comments, Chan finally got up. He felt a lot better than earlier, he noticed, although he himself wasn’t sure as to why. He told himself it was because of the sea of compliments he got, but that wasn’t it. He always received nice words from others. He couldn’t wrap his mind around what was different from all the other times he saw the public’s opinion of him and now. 

Deciding to ignore the nagging in his head, he decided to move around a bit and spend his day more productively—and by productively, washing up and moving to the couch to watch TV. The rest of his day went without a hiccup, his previous bright mood from earlier having carried on throughout the day. 

Sometime in the early evening the other members arrive home, greeting Chan enthusiastically with Chan welcoming them in with just as much zest. Everyone was pleasantly surprised to see he had so much spunk and chalked it up to a well-spent day of rest. He was like a puppy seeing its owner after a long day of work (Mingyu pointed this out which resulted in a mock-annoyed Chan lightly swatting his shoulder with a grin he couldn’t hide).

Chan talked with everyone for a bit, recalling his events from the day and a giddy Seokmin telling him any funny episodes that had occurred during practice. After a few minutes of easy conversation, the members started going to their respective rooms to go wash up. However, it wasn’t before a few of them gave Chan a meaningful look of mild concern before leaving. Maybe they knew more than they were letting on, he thought worriedly.

He went to retire to his room as well before Jeonghan stopped him and pulled him aside.

The elder started with a kind smile, “Hey, not that I’m unhappy to see you so excited today, but did something good happen? You’re not exactly the most bright person to greet us when we come home.”

Chan thought this question over in his head. He knew he was in a good mood, although he wasn’t sure why. He had been wondering about it himself. Instead of telling Jeonghan the truth, he asked with a pout, “Can I not be happy to see you?” It wasn’t a complete lie (he did miss his hyungs although he didn’t want to admit it), but Chan knew damn well it wasn’t the truth either.

He internally kicked himself as he could see Jeonghan could also tell it was a fib. No matter how well Chan knew his members, his members knew him just as well, if not more. The fact that everyone could read each other like a book was a double-edged sword.

(Chan thought to himself, why did he lie to Jeonghan in the first place? What harm would telling the truth have done? All he seemed to do nowadays was tell half-truths to his members. He made a mental note to himself that he would have to fix that.)

Jeonghan just let out a noncommittal hum with a glint in his eyes like he was saying I know you’re lying to me but I won’t ask , and responded instead, “Hm, alright. Well, if you’re happy then we’re all happy, Just know that.” With that, he pat Chan on the shoulder a couple of times before leaving. 

… 

It had been a week since that day, and Chan was going to practice more often than ever. He had also found himself thinking about the reasons why he was practicing more than usual, which in the end resulted in him having to slap his face with his hands and tell himself, “I’m doing this for myself. No one else.” before every session. It was something akin to a ritual as if he needed to remind himself he wasn’t trying to please anyone (certainly not the general public) and that it was only for himself and the team. Eventually, he started to believe in his own words, albeit reluctantly.

He had finally made it home after a long day of practice, and opened the door to see the lights brightly lit. The clock on one of the walls ticked one of its hands just shy of 2 a.m. He shouldn’t have been surprised—he found himself sleeping past what would be considered a healthy time to knock out, more likely that he would’ve liked to admit.

On the couch sat Vernon using his phone, sprawled across the span of the piece of furniture with his legs dangling around. The sound of the stove made Chan’s ears perk up, and he didn’t even need to move from where he was at the entrance to know Mingyu was in the kitchen. He must’ve been making something for Vernon and himself.

Hearing the sound of the door opening, Vernon got up from his position and greeted him. Chan made his way to the kitchen, where Mingyu also welcomed him home. 

“Do you want some ramen? I was just gonna make it for Vernon and me but I can add another pack if you’d like,” he asked.

Chan tiptoed and looked over Mingyu’s shoulder to see a pot filled with water and replied, “Sure. I’m exhausted from practice so ramen sounds really nice. Where are the other hyungs?”

“They’re all sleeping. Vernon and I woke up ‘cause we were hungry so I offered to make us food.”

“Ah, alright. Well, I’ll just be waiting with Vernon-hyung then. Call me if you need any help,” Chan offered, although both of them knew Mingyu wouldn’t be needing assistance. He could make fried rice with his eyes closed, ramen was hardly a challenge. Still, he let out a short thanks, and Chan made his way to the living room where Vernon had resumed his position like that of a log.

Chan made a motion for him to move, and without tearing his eyes away from his phone Vernon got up so that the younger of the two could sit.

Silence went on for a couple of minutes, with only various sounds of pots and chopsticks as well as Vernon’s phone audio filling up the air.

Chan was zoning out trying to keep his fatigue at bay when he heard Vernon laughing out loud. He looked over curiously as Vernon nudged his side lightly, and a phone was shoved in his face. A video was playing, and Chan soon recognized it to be a tweet of a clip from the recent Going Seventeen episode that was released. The video showed both him and Vernon acting cute, with the camera panning to Jihoon to show his reaction. It was as if he was on The Office, with his eyes looking straight at the camera donning a disgusted expression and mock-dismay. Both his face and the editing was extremely on point, Chan couldn’t help but to laugh along with Vernon. 

He tapped his arm and said without thinking, “Let’s look at the replies.”

Vernon scrolled down as he asked, and the thread was full of people calling them cute and adorable. Chan quickly skimmed through all the replies, before his eyes caught on two in particular.

“ahahaha vernon’s so cute!! he could probs replace dino as maknae and everyone would be fine w it loll”

“lmfaooo what was dino’s lousy attempt at aegyo. smh if he’s gonna be the maknae at least be cute or smth. if you’ve got no talent or good looks you’ve gotta have some kind of charm. shame he has none of them”

He had thought about it before. When they first debuted he actually had it on his mind a lot, although now he found it shameful to even think about it. But now that an outsider had pointed it out, he couldn’t help but reflect upon it again: what if Vernon was the youngest? Surely, people would like him a lot, if not more. Vernon was nothing short of talented, charismatic, and extremely handsome. Chan hated to admit it, but he thought he only had the talented and charismatic portion checked off, although now he was reluctant to even acknowledge the former. There was only so much practice he could do to not fall behind the others. 

The second comment also struck a chord that Chan had worried about a lot before. He didn’t think of himself as someone who naturally had a lot of cuteness, so of course he had thought about whether he could properly fit the mold that the K-pop industry had set for a maknae. He had long since accepted that he was different from others, and that was okay. But apparently, his insecurities had never been rid of in the first place.

Chan had read the replies much quicker than Vernon. By the time Vernon’s eyes went wide at the sight of those words and turned off his phone, Chan had already processed them and his worries were back at full speed.

Vernon immediately looked at him in alarm.

“You know you shouldn’t care about what they say, right?” Vernon went to comfort him. In an attempt to joke around and lighten the mood, he added, “You’re adorable just as you are.”

In the back of his mind, Chan knew Vernon was trying to console him, assuring him that he didn’t need to worry about what other people thought. Everyone around him wanted him to know that. But at that moment, Chan was hungry and extremely tired which was the perfect recipe for disaster.

Chan simply pouted at him, trying to convey his distaste. 

Seemingly not getting the message, Vernon continued cooing at him, “See? You’re being cute right now!”

A tiny part of Chan screamed at him to not do anything stupid. Vernon was just messing around with him, wanting to make him feel better. But the irrational side of him won out, and something in him snapped.

“So you’re saying I’m only cute when I’m upset.”

As soon as those words came out tension in the room thickened out of nowhere as if it was waiting for a sign for it to appear. Barely anything could be heard—it seemed even Mingyu stopped using his utensils as if it would help him hear the conversation better. 

Vernon had an extremely confused expression on his face, rightfully so. He sputtered out, “...what? No, I’m-”

“And you’re saying that if I want to be a good maknae for the team I have to be adorable,” the younger cut him off. Chan knew he was being extremely absurd then and there, but he couldn’t stop. 

Vernon looked like a deer caught in headlights. He didn’t know how to respond to the maknae’s sudden outburst. “Chan, you know that’s not what I’m saying.”

“Then what are you saying, hyung? I know I don’t fit the ‘standard’ for a typical maknae, whatever the hell that means,” Chan went on, using air quotations with a look of mockery. “Believe me, I know that. I’m not adorable, I don’t like being constantly babied by you guys, I’m not big on fanservice or skinship either. I want to show off my skills and passion but to the public, I have nothing going for me just because I don’t have a cute face or well-built body,” he ran his hands through his hair which made it a mess and buried his face in his palms. “Fuck, I don’t know where I’m going with this,” his mumbled voice was muffled. 

There was a completed, unadulterated silence. No one said anything for a few moments. Mingyu had even turned the stove off at some moment during Chan’s rant.

After a few moments of unbearable stillness, Chan finally said quietly, “Maybe they’re right. You would make a better maknae.”

This seemed to be the last straw for Vernon, as the normally quiet member who was listening to the youngest’s abrupt speech in rapt silence suddenly looked mad.

He grabbed Chan’s hands and yanked them out of his face rather forcefully, fuming quietly. Placing his hands on Chan’s cheeks, he lifted his face to look at him. Chan averted his eyes elsewhere.

“Lee Joong Chan, don’t you dare start on that shit right now. You know that asshole is wrong, I know it, Mingyu-hyung knows it, the whole team knows it. You’re irreplaceable. I’ll say it again and again until it gets drilled into your brain and you believe it with all your heart. We all have our own roles in the group and yours happens to be being the youngest. I don’t know what spurred you on to say all that but know that none of it is true at all. You know that, don’t you? Please tell me you know that,” he lightly stroked his cheek with his thumb, his gaze softening. He could never stay mad at Chan for long.

By this point Mingyu had made his way to the living room, leaving the ramen that was long forgotten. He was listening to Vernon’s speech by the sidelines rather fervently, nodding a little too hard at some points he made.

Chan was at a loss for words. He didn’t know what to say, with Vernon looking at him dead in the eyes with such softness and Mingyu standing over him like a protective pillar. What would he respond with? Lie and say that, yes, he knew he wasn't a liability to the group? He couldn't do that to himself, or Vernon and Mingyu.

In a moment of panic, he shoved Vernon’s hands out of his face and got up abruptly. Two pairs of eyes were on him, watching his every move.

“Uh, um. Um, sorry. I’m really sorry, I can’t do this. I’m so sorry,” he said. The only words that seemed to tumble out of his mouth were clumsy apologies. He looked around awkwardly, wiping his sweaty palms on his pants. When had his hands become sweaty?

His two hyungs didn’t say anything, just waited for what he would do next. This intense attention on him caused another apology to spill out. 

“Sorry. Again. I can’t do this, Vernon-hyung. I’m really sorry.” He didn’t specify what he was apologizing for, but all three of them knew it. He made his way out of the living room, his stomach no longer empty and instead filled with dread. He knew he should never walk away from a conflict, especially if it concerned the group Seventeen. But he couldn’t have that conversation, not now. Vernon was asking him to confirm something he was no longer sure of anymore. Had it been just one month ago Chan would have replied yes with complete confidence, but now he faltered. He couldn’t lie to Vernon, he was the one hyung he found himself not being able to lie to. So for now, he opted for not telling him the truth at all. 

Vernon looked down in resignation. Although he was tempted to stop Chan and make him finish the conversation, he knew nothing would be different. He wouldn’t be satisfied with the answers if he forced them out of him. Mingyu shook his head, casting his gaze downward as well.

“...Goodnight, Chan,” Vernon said at last.