For the next few days, Vernon attached himself by Chan’s side rather protectively, not letting any of the other members get too close to the maknae. At first, he was wary, as he thought Vernon would want to finish the conversation the two of them were having. Instead, the elder said nothing and Chan took it as a sign that he wouldn’t make him speak, which he was grateful for. So he let the elder follow him around for whatever reason, relieved that he wouldn't have to let him know what was really going on.
He couldn't have the other members know he was looking at the hate comments. Moreover, he couldn't bear them knowing he let the comments get to him. That would be humiliation he wasn't ready to face. He made it this far already—he wouldn't be able to even look at the others if crumbled under the words of faceless figures. (How pathetic would that be, he thought.)
There was also the fact that both Jeonghan and Soonyoung, along with a few others now, were watching him closely. With all those pairs of eyes on him, the only thing he could really do was channel all his pain and energy into dancing. Everyone else seemed to notice something was off with him (and Vernon and Mingyu), albeit why was unknown, and one day during their break in practice the unspoken question was asked.
"Dino, can I talk to you for a sec?" it was Jihoon.
Chan didn't expect Jihoon to confront him. If anything, he thought it would be Seungcheol or Jeonghan who would squeeze the truth out of him. Not that he didn't think Jihoon cared (he told himself that repeatedly in private, that all his members cared about him deeply), but rather that the elder was never much of a confrontational type. If there was a problem that needed to be solved, either the oldest three or Soonyoung would typically take action to solve it first.
"Uh, sure," Chan replied.
Jihoon moved the two of them in the corner of the room, where the rest of the group were on the other sides of the room breathing hard and playing around. Vernon and Soonyoung were the only ones who noticed the two of them moving. Vernon stayed a safe distance away from them watching closely, whereas Soonyoung stayed from afar talking to Jeonghan rather seriously glancing at them periodically.
"Did anything happen between you and Vernon?" Jihoon asked slowly.
Chan tilted his head in curiosity. "Why do you ask?"
"Well, for one, he's been tagging along by your side for days. Normally he'd hang around Seungkwan or Coups-hyung," he explained. Chan had noticed as much. He didn't expect it to go unnoticed by everyone else, although being confronted by it was just as abrupt. Jihoon went on, "But it's not just that. If that was all, I wouldn't have said anything. It's just that, yesterday I was talking to Mingyu and he was telling me something about how you and Vernon had a, uh, mix-up , in communication—for the lack of a better word, I guess.
"He wouldn't tell me any details and I don't know how bad things are seeing how you guys are still talking, but it seemed like I was the only person Mingyu told so I wanted to talk to you about it. Because, you know, if it affects the team then we'll have to resolve it as a group," Jihoon finished, seeming somewhat awkward by the end of it.
Chan was getting progressively fidgety as Jihoon kept talking, and by the end of it he seemed as uncomfortable as the producer, if not more. How would he come up with a feasible lie that he would believe? He couldn't allow his incident with Vernon to involve the whole group. That would be too much of an inconvenience for him and the rest of them to handle. They were already busy as is, he wouldn't let his shortcomings be a hurdle for the group. He promised that to himself a long time ago.
Trying to keep his voice calm, Chan replied, "Oh, sorry about worrying you. Vernon-hyung and I had a small misunderstanding regarding the stage with the hip hop unit that’s coming up. Mingyu-hyung was with us and he must’ve been concerned because he’s never seen us two really fighting before, but I promise we resolved it quickly. But just so that we wouldn’t have any more confusion, he’s been around me a lot more so we can discuss specifics about the stage.” He explained with as level of a voice as he could muster, quickly adding the last part so that Jihoon wouldn’t question why Vernon was constantly by his side.
Inwardly Chan thought his lie was very well thought out—it was true that he was preparing a stage with the hip hop unit, it was a special pre-release song they were preparing for their next album. Mingyu wouldn’t hear about the made-up story because Chan knew Jihoon wouldn’t bother cross-checking if the explanation was satisfactory enough, and if the former had told Jihoon out of all the members he’d have thought the situation as good as resolved.
Chan knew Vernon wouldn’t say a thing about the incident—he was tight-lipped like that. Chan, what the hell have things come to, for you to take advantage of Vernon-hyung’s ability to keep secrets like that, the maknae scolded himself. Day after day, his situation seemed to get worse with nothing to alleviate it.
True enough, although Chan was feeling too guilty to celebrate it, Jihoon fell for his lie.
“Alright, well I’m glad we got that cleared up. Sorry for cornering you like that, I just wanted to take care of things before it got out of hand. You know how things can be,” he said.
“Yeah, of course. Sorry for worrying you again.”
Just as the group was called back to practice again, Jihoon turned and waved off his apology.
As everyone gathered in the middle of the room, Seungkwan spoke up. He must’ve noticed somewhere along the end of their conversation that they were in the corner talking quietly.
“Yo, Dino! What were you and Woozi-hyung talking about?” he asked.
Quickly, Chan thought of a response. “We were talking about how cute I was,” he deadpanned. He quickly turned to Jihoon, his eyes silently pleading him to play along. Quirking his lips up into a wide smile and batting his lashes, he asked in an overexaggerated sweet voice, “Right, hyung?”
Jihoon seemed to get the message, as he quickly mimicked the expression of disgust. “Ugh, stop it.”
Seungkwan also caught onto the fact that Chan didn’t want to talk about the topic of discussion, and instead followed along with Jihoon’s mock revulsion. “My eyes! Who are you and what have you done with our maknae? The Dino I know isn’t cute at all! He would never say with his own mouth that he’s cute,” he exclaimed with a dramatized voice.
Chan swallowed the hurt that bubbled up in his chest and pushed on. He’s joking he’s joking he’s joking, he repeated to himself like a mantra.
He pushed up against Seungkwan’s side and yelled back, “Noooo, you love me! You love me because I’m an adorable maknae and I’m the cutest person you’ve ever known. I’m the most lovable person ever!” The two continued to play around until Seungcheol pushed the two of them apart. Chan silently thanked the leader for separating them before he was unable to keep the playful and confident facade going any longer.
Seungkwan resumed practice with a grin and laugh on the verge of spilling out.
Chan resumed practice with a mindset that if he didn’t have a proper niche to fit into, he’d hold the group back. Maybe he was already holding the group back this whole time and he didn’t realize it, he thought to himself.
The whole remainder of practice Chan refused to make eye contact with Vernon’s sad face that was laced with concern.
After practice was finished and everyone made it back to their rooms drained.
Chan decided to just wash up quickly and go on his phone in bed looking at the comments of his recent performances. (He had explained to his members as casually as he could that he cracked his phone screen after he ran home trying to avoid the paparazzi. Joshua had tut-tutted at his actions, although he stopped after Chan went on saying they had never spotted him so he was safe. Junhui had promised to buy him a new phone, which Chan was still half-anticipating and half-sorry for.) It was starting to become a habit, with him looking at videos every day no longer to monitor his performance but rather to see the response from his fans and the public. He justified his thoughts by telling himself, I’m a performer. If the public doesn’t like how I performed, then I’m doing my job wrong. I should be pleasing the public. It doesn’t matter how I thought how well I did, although a small part of himself was unsatisfied with the clarification.
And so each day, Chan’s mood was dictated by each and every comment he saw. If he saw only compliments across the board, he would be more content and if he saw hate then he would be down—although he came across these less often. That was maybe why he was more affected by hate.
A knock on Chan’s bedroom door broke him out of his trance. Placing his phone down next to him, he supported his body on his elbow with his upper body up and saw Seungkwan peeking in.
“Hey, Dino. Wanna go do a live together?” his hyung asked, holding a phone up and wiggling it around as if showing proof he got permission to do a live. Chan looked at his clock and saw that it was way past 12 a.m. Time had flown while he was sucked in by all the words people had uploaded about him. What was Seungkwan doing up this late?
As if he knew what Chan was thinking, Seungkwan said, “I couldn’t sleep, so instead of just tossing and turning I decided to go live. I was gonna ask Dokyeom-hyung to do it with me, but he’s asleep. Actually, I think all the members are asleep. But I saw your bedroom light on under the door, so I decided to ask if you’ve got nothing better to do.”
Pondering, Chan racked through if there really was nothing else for him to do. Deciding he should spend some time with Seungkwan instead of being cooped up in his room chasing sleep, he agreed. The two of them made themselves comfortable in Chan’s room and started the live.
Immediately Chan let himself be lost in the feeling of being able to communicate with their fans and just spend a good time chatting with Seungkwan and Carats.
For around 10 minutes the two of them talked and laughed together, reading off the various remarks fans made and answering questions. However, the screen froze. Chan noticed first, looking intently at the screen. He saw that the comments were frozen as well, with four of them filling up the screen. He felt a stab of paralysis.
“Omg seungkwan is so cute”
“Love you guys <333”
He wouldn’t let it show. It was one person. One single person who said that. They might’ve not even been serious, there were trolls everywhere. If he let it show that he was affected by that one comment, he didn’t have the right to be in the position he was in. How pitiful would it be, to be a member of a globally popular group and let people know he was hurt by one person’s words?
From the looks of it though, Seungkwan also saw the comment. Chan saw from the corner of his eye that his hyung straightened his back, although it was a minuscule action not many would’ve noticed. He did though. That’s what mattered.
The screen resumed to normal, with the comments also going by at full speed. Seungkwan gently placed his hand on Chan’s knee, as a gesture of comfort. They couldn’t say anything right now when the whole world was watching. Chan looked down and placed his hand on top of Seungkwan’s.
For the rest of the live, Seungkwan talked the most and led a majority of the conversations. He was trying his best to act normal, and the younger of the two appreciated him greatly for that. However, the fans seemed to have noticed Chan wasn’t speaking as much ( of course they did, they’re not stupid like you , he thought to himself) as more comments started to pour in.
“dino why aren’t you talking as much!!”
“why is dino even there? If he’s not gonna talk might as well not be there at all”
Seungkwan didn’t seem to see the last one, as he was still talking as naturally as he could. Chan curled into himself more after seeing that one and only talked in monosyllabic words for the rest of the live. Sensing his growing discomfort, Seungkwan segued into the end of the live and wrapped it up as quickly as possible without it being suspicious. Chan would have to properly thank him later, but at that moment all he thought about was going back to bed.
After the two of them said their goodbyes and closed off the app, Chan got up without a word. With his back facing Seungkwan, he said, “I’m gonna go to bed. Don’t worry about me hyung, I’ll be alright. Thanks for earlier.” With that, he went to go wash up in the restroom and waited in silence for the elder to leave. While he was straining his ears for any noise, a light and cautious knock came.
“Sweet dreams, Chan. Don’t stay up too late,” and with that, he heard the door to his room open and close.
Completely sure the coast was clear, Chan got out of the restroom and lay on his bed after turning off the lights. If he stared up at his ceiling for a full hour thinking hard before finally knocking out from extreme tiredness, Seungkwan was none the wiser.