San felt like he was going to be sick.
It had been three hours since Mingi had literally run away from him, and he still had no idea exactly what had happened except that something he said had hurt his boyfriend so badly that the mere sight of San would send him into another panic attack. Another, because Mingi had apparently been having panic attacks on and off for the past several days (if not even longer, but that was a thought so horrible San couldn’t even comprehend it at the moment) without any of them knowing.
Wooyoung had calmed down enough at one point to assure San that it wasn’t his fault, but the sentiment rang distinctly false and only served to show that Wooyoung didn’t blame him anymore.
The thing was, even if San was rational enough to not co-opt the issues Mingi was clearly suffering from, he couldn’t help feeling like this particular situation was his fault. Sure, he couldn’t have known that procrastination was a trigger for Mingi at the moment because it had always been one of the safest topics to tease him about in the past, but he had noticed Mingi’s reaction was a bit lackluster in the middle of his sentence and still kept going.
Even worse, as San sat on the couch in silence thinking back over the past few days, he slowly started to realize that he had flat out ignored each and every sign of Mingi struggling without once checking in on his boyfriend. He had noticed that Mingi was a bit quieter and on edge lately, but kept forgetting to check in on him about it. A part of him had thought it was just a phase, but if he had stopped to think for even just a minute he would have remembered that Mingi was rebellious when he was going through his phases, not withdrawn. There were a million little clues that were so clear now in hindsight, and San honestly couldn’t believe that he had missed them.
He had always prided himself on being a supportive, attentive friend, and had thought that strength carried over to his boyfriends. Even on the days he doubted his looks, talents, and charm, he had always been confident in the knowledge that he would quite literally drop everything for the people he loved — and that they knew that. Now, though, San wasn’t so sure.
The eight of them were literally constantly with one another, and yet he somehow had missed something so big and essential for ages. Mingi had always been San’s biggest supporter, the one who essentially taught him how to dance long before Wooyoung had even joined the company, and the knowledge that San had let Mingi down so badly right when he was needed was, quite literally, sickening.
His heart felt like it was breaking for Mingi, and he desperately wished there was something, anything that he could do to fix things so that his precious, angelic, sweetheart of a boyfriend would be okay again, but the cold truth of the matter was that Mingi’s panic attacks weren’t so black and white and San had already revoked his right to even hold his boyfriend as he cried.
On some level, San recognized that his thoughts were incredibly selfish — rather than thinking about how much he had messed up he should be thinking of Mingi — but that only sent him further down his spiral of self-recrimination until he felt like he was swimming underwater, unable to hear or see or breathe or-
San jerked, the world suddenly sharpening back into focus around him, and stared up into Wooyoung, Yunho, and Yeosang’s scared faces.
There was a wet tingling sensation on his cheek, he realized belatedly, where Wooyoung had apparently pressed his still-cold can of pepsi in an attempt to pull him out of wherever his mind had been.
“Sannie?” Yeosang asked, reaching up with one hand to wipe away the stray drops of condensation before tugging San’s torso into his lap and wrapping him in a protective embrace. “Are you…what happened?”
“I don’t know,” San answered faintly. The tension slowly leaked out of his body as he breathed in Yeosang’s familiar scent, his muscles as sore as if he had just finished a full-body workout at the gym. “I just- I was thinking about Mingi, and what I said, and I started to feel sick.”
“It wasn’t your fault, San-ah,” Yunho reiterated firmly, his own face as pale and wan as San felt. “I’ve been going over it in my head over and over, but…we really couldn’t have known this time.”
“But he’s been so off these past few days,” San pointed out. “I should have-”
“Do you blame me?” Yeosang interjected suddenly, cutting him off. San stared at him in horror, shaking his head immediately.
“Of course not, Sang-ah, never. You couldn’t have-”
“What makes you to blame any more than me, then?” Yeosang asked evenly. “Is it because you’re more thoughtful than me, or more observant, or-”
“Of course not!” San protested, offended on Yeosang’s behalf. “You’re the sweetest, loveliest, kindest person there ever was. Sang-ah, you must know I don’t-”
“I know,” Yeosang assured him patiently. “But can you now see a bit of why it’s ridiculous to blame yourself? It wasn’t our fault for not knowing; there was no reason for us to expect that and this entire year has been a mess so it’s understandable to attribute any strangeness to the pandemic and the sudden tour cancellation.”
“I guess,” San admitted, reaching out so he could hold Wooyoung and Yunho’s hands as well while he snuggled in Yeosang’s lap. “But…I’m really worried about if it happens again.”
“I don’t think we can control if it happens,” Wooyoung said slowly, “and I do think we should try to learn from this whole situation so that we’re more aware of potential signs earlier on, you know?”
“And maybe be a bit more careful about the teasing,” Yunho added quietly. “Just until we figure out new boundaries and thing.”
San nodded, still raw and upset at the thought of Mingi feeling so utterly alone and sad, but a bit reassured at the knowledge that none of them would let a situation get so bad again. At the very Mingi wouldn’t have to be alone through any of it, ever again.
Mingi woke up to the sight of Wooyoung curled into a tight little ball on top of his chest and smiled fondly at the sight before both a pounding headache and the memories of the past few days came rushing back. He dropped his head back against the pillows with a sigh, closing his eyes and wishing he could hide in them. Seonghwa and Jongho were still asleep on either side of him, just barely fitting in the bed with their limbs haphazardly piled on top of one another, and Mingi took advantage of the quiet to reach for his phone.
Heart in his throat, he carefully ignored the flurry of notifications that popped up and quickly navigated to the note Jongho had sent him of the lyrics he had made the night before. They actually weren’t that bad, somehow, and Mingi carefully made a few minor tweaks here and there before sending it to Edenary in their group message. He left the phone on silent and half-placed, half-tossed out of sight on the ground next to his bed. He was feeling a lot better than yesterday, aside from the persistent headache that was presumably a result of crying too much, and it was hard for him to panic too much with three of his boyfriends all snuggled together and peacefully dreaming away.
So Mingi contented himself with drawing lazy patterns on Wooyoung’s back and toying with the pads of Jongho’s fingers as he waited for them to wake up. It didn’t take long for Seonghwa and Wooyoung — Seonghwa had always been a bit of an early riser and Wooyoung tended to wake up with whoever he was cuddling at any given time — but Jongho kept on sleeping peacefully as the other two stretched awake.
Mingi watched in concern as Wooyoung’s face fell slightly at the thought of something and he pushed aside his own leftover worries to focus on Wooyoung’s.
“What’s wrong?” he asked. Wooyoung hesitated, transparently worried about worrying Mingi, and Mingi sighed. “Please, Young-ah, don’t treat me like I’m breakable. I want to know, I want you to tell me like normal.”
Wooyoung waited a moment more but seemed to hear the note of desperation in Mingi’s voice because it didn’t take long for him to relent.
“I think hyung’s mad at me,” he confided in a whisper, his breath tickling Mingi’s ear.
“What?” Seonghwa blurted in surprise, staring at him. “No I’m not. Why would I be mad? Also I’m right here?”
“Not you, hyung,” Wooyoung rolled his eyes. “Hongjoong-hyung.”
“He texted me and told me to give you a lot of kisses for him,” Seonghwa said, clearly trying to be reassuring. “I don’t think he’d say that if he was angry at you.”
Wooyoung opened his mouth to reply and then closed it again, a flurry of different emotions flickering over his face.
“He said…to give me kisses for him?” he repeated incredulously. “Like, on his behalf?”
Seonghwa faltered and Mingi started to smile.
“I don’t - I don’t know?” Seonghwa said eventually, looking a little disturbed. “Why did he say that?”
“Why did who say what?” Jongho yawned, eyes widening slightly in surprise at the sight of Wooyoung before he wrapped his arms more firmly around Mingi and Seonghwa and closed them again.
“Hongjoong-hyung said to give kisses to Wooyoung on his behalf,” Seonghwa explained, pretty sure that Jongho was still awake. “Anyways, I think he was just a little worried about you, Young-ah. He’s still a bit twitchy about kisses even with me, except when they’re on the lips. I think he just really hates the sound so you have to distract him with…other things.”
“He and Jongho are going to be so funny together,” Wooyoung giggled, brightening slightly at the thought. “They’re such little - ow! I didn’t even finish what I was going to say!”
Jongho shrugged and bit Wooyoung’s hipbone one more time for good measure before innocently snuggling back down as though nothing had happened.
“There weren’t any places that sentence was heading that didn’t deserve a bite,” he pointed out. “Anyways, hyung and I aren’t gonna date.”
“Really?” Seonghwa asked doubtfully. “You’re going to date every single person in this group except Joong? You practically live for his approval.”
“I do not!” Jongho protested hotly, squinting up at Seonghwa in annoyance. “I just…like it when he’s happy. He works too hard. Anyways, it’s not like I would say no if he wanted to date me, but he doesn’t like me like that. And I have a lot to fix in my other relationships before getting to that point.”
“Of course he likes you like that,” Wooyoung vowed loyally. “He just…doesn’t know it yet.”
Jongho hummed noncommittally and Mingi laced their fingers together in support.
“Young-ah, will you do something for me?” Mingi asked after a moment.
“Anything,” Wooyoung said immediately, perking up in readiness. “Do you want some of that fancy boutique ice cream you really liked the other day? I’ll totally get it for you, just, it might take an hour for me to bring it back. Is that okay? Or-”
“Not the ice cream!” Mingi interrupted, laughing a little. “Although…no, not the ice cream, I don’t need that. I want you to go talk to Hongjoong-hyung. So you’re not worried about him being angry anymore.”
“But then you’ll be alone,” Wooyoung tried, purposefully ignoring Seonghwa and Jongho’s offended looks. Mingi rolled his eyes, pulling Wooyoung in for a brief kiss before pushing him away.
“Go, Young-ah,” he said firmly. “I’ll be fine. I want to talk to Sangie for a bit, anyways.”
“I’ll go get him,” Jongho offered. “I was thinking I might talk with Sannie-hyung this morning, anyways.”
Mingi’s eyes lit up and he nodded eagerly, all but pushing Jongho out of the bed as well before pulling Seonghwa closer and snuggling in contentedly.
Wooyoung frowned slightly and laced his hand in Jongho’s for reassurance as they left the room, not quite sure how to vocalize what he was feeling.
“I’m glad he’s happier this morning, of course,” he started hesitantly, glancing sideways at Jongho, “but does it feel a bit…false? Or is that just me overthinking it?”
Jongho pulled him into a hug, resting his head on top of Wooyoung’s as he thought.
“I don’t think it’s false, exactly,” he said slowly. “I think he seems convinced that whatever it was is over and is trying not to dwell on how awful it was. I don’t- I don’t know, though. It seemed awfully serious for something that’s just a one-off, and he has been a bit on edge for months even if he won’t admit it. I don’t want to, like, presume to know better than him or anything, though, you know? Like if he says he feels good…”
“Yeah,” Wooyoung sighed glumly, squeezing Jongho tightly before pulling back to continue down the hall. “I guess at least we all know what to look for, when it does happen again.”
“In case,” Jongho corrected gently.
“In case,” Wooyoung agreed, hoping against hope that whatever rationalization Mingi was doing in his head would work out. For all that Ateez tended to baby Mingi and protect his sensitive side, he had always been something of a pillar for Wooyoung to lean on and it had truly shaken Wooyoung to the bone to see him fall apart so completely. He wanted to be there for Mingi during times like those, rather than the support system just go one way, but that didn’t change how much it sucked.
“Go to hyung,” Jongho said quietly, interrupting his train of thoughts. “He’ll make you feel better. And Mingi will appreciate the ice cream, I’m sure.”
Wooyoung nodded, sneaking a quick kiss from Jongho and wishing him luck with San before heading warily toward the hyungline room and knocking on the door.
There was no answer so Wooyoung knocked one more time and waited a moment before cautiously opening the door and peering in.
As he should have expected, Hongjoong was lying on Seonghwa’s bed with his headphones on, working. Wooyoung suppressed his fond smile at the sight and wavered, trying to decide whether or not to climb into bed with him. Usually he wouldn’t have hesitated — the potentiality of leader-cuddles were absolutely worth the admittedly-more-likely threat of getting pushed right back out again — but he still felt a bit uncomfortable about how he had acted with Hongjoong earlier. Their relationship had improved a lot over the past few months, with both of them taking the time to forge something deeper and sweeter than what it had been before, but there had been a lot of murky boundaries between Captain-Joong and Hyung-Hongjoong last night and he wasn’t sure if he had navigated him properly. He distinctly remembered practically yanking Hongjoong into the living room at one point and borderline-yelling at him, and that-
“Hi, treasure,” Hongjoong said, sliding his headphones off and reaching out with grabby hands towards Wooyoung. “Will you come sit on my tailbone for a second? I was in a kind of awkward position earlier this morning and the muscle is all tense.”
Wooyoung firmly pushed away the dirty thoughts that flooded his brain at the thought of Hongjoong’s backside and sat down gingerly, carefully sinking more and more of his bodyweight down until Hongjoong sighed in relief and snuggled down with his head resting on his forearms.
“Mingi wanted us to go get ice cream for him,” Wooyoung said cautiously after a few moments, a little worried Hongjoong was about to fall asleep again. “Do you want to nap, or-”
Hongjoong twisted his head back to study Wooyoung’s face, brow knitting into a small frown.
“Why are you so nervous?” he asked bluntly, flipping over so he could look at Wooyoung’s face properly. Wooyoung gulped at the rapid change in position and quickly slid off Hongjoong onto the bed instead.
“I just-” he swallowed again, remembering Mingi’s encouragement, and threw caution to the winds. “Are you mad at me? For pulling you and yelling at you and-”
“Hey, hey, no, precious, no,” Hongjoong said immediately, sitting up and bundling Wooyoung into his arms. “I mean, you could have stopped me a bit more gently, but…it was kind of an insane situation and I wasn’t upset about that even for a minute. If anything, I’m grateful to you. I…I know I have a hard time telling when you guys need me to be your leader and when you need me to be your friend, and you’re the one I can always count on to keep me straight. I rely on you for that, Young-ah. Anyways, you know I always scold you idiots right away if possible, or as soon as we can grab a moment in private if not. I wouldn’t let it fester, right?”
“I guess,” Wooyoung said reluctantly, looking down and toying with the hem of Hongjoong’s shirt. He was relieved, vaguely, but…it felt like this had been happening a lot, recently. Him freaking out because he thought he had upset someone only for it to be a complete overreaction. He just still felt so vulnerable and unsure, still, ever since the whole Seonghwa debacle. He was at a better place with the second-guessing of himself than he had been, but it sometimes felt like it would never go away, at this rate.
“What is all this really about?” Hongjoong asked, taking Wooyoung aback all over again with his perceptiveness. Wooyoung hesitated and then, emboldened by the patient openness Hongjoong was watching him with, explained the entire story to him.
“Hm,” Hongjoong said thoughtfully, hands resting lightly at the base of Wooyoung’s hips. “Thank you for sharing all that with me, treasure. Do you mind if we have that conversation while we get ice cream? It'll take a while to get Mingi-yah the special type, so we can talk thoroughly about it. How does that sound?”
Wooyoung nodded, a little flushed and pleased at the thought that Hongjoong clearly wanted to spend the entire hour it would take for them to get ice cream just on helping him feel better about himself. That amount of time was a rarity for them, and it felt positively luxurious to have his hyung’s focus purely on reassuring and comforting him.
“Good,” Hongjoong said in satisfaction, squeezing Wooyoung’s hip bones lightly and sneakily biting the tip of Wooyoung’s nose before gently extricating himself from the bed and getting up to get dressed. “Let’s go, then, that ice cream won’t eat itself!”
Jongho slipped into Wooyoung and Yeosang’s room, knowing that San tended to sleep with Yeosang when he was particularly stressed, and let himself take a minute to appreciate the sight of San hugging Yeosang’s pillow to his chest as he slept. Yeosang had clearly risen early as usual, leaving San to sleep in as long as he was able. Jongho carefully climbed under the covers as well, heart melting when San immediately latched onto his thigh and clung to it in his sleep, and nervously clutched the slip of paper in his hand as he waited for his hyung to wake up.
“Makdoongie?” San mumbled half an hour later, nuzzling sleepily against Jongho’s hip as he struggled awake. “What are you doing here?”
“I wanted to see you,” Jongho answered simply, sliding down against the pillows a bit so they were on more of an equal level. San apparently took that as permission to clumsily flop into Jongho’s lap and Jongho decided to let him, feeling extra tolerant (and maybe a little clingy himself, even if he would never admit it) that morning. “Want some water, hyung?”
San nodded against Jongho’s chest, lazily opening his mouth like a baby bird. Jongho rolled his eyes but humored San, carefully tipping a stream of water into his mouth and wiping the stray drops away with the corner of his sleeve.
"I thought you were the ghost," San confessed nonsensically, smiling as he remembered those few moments in between dreams and full consciousness when he had thought he was cuddling with a ghost. Jongho went tense underneath him, as though he was startled, and San stared up at him, aghast.
"Makdoongie, do not tell me you were the ghost," he said sternly.
"I'm not the ghost?" Jongho said awkwardly, avoiding eye contact.
"You- I - but-" San sputtered, his brain still too fuzzy from sleep to properly rationalize this new knowledge with the careful spreadsheet he and the others had been using. "We ruled you out, though!"
"It wasn't that hard to get around you system, hyung," Jongho shrugged, looking a little too smug for San's comfort. "I just pretended I had lost my airpods a couple times and asked manager-nim or Hongjoong-hyung to check behind the furniture you were monitoring at a time I had a clear alibi. I knew they'd have to move the furniture to check, and they wouldn't put it back in exactly the right position, so..."
"You're evil," San decided, snuggling closer and remembering for the millionth time why he was glad Jongho was on his team. "Hey, baby, do you think we can keep the joke going?"
"We can try," Jongho said doubtfully. "You're not very good at secrets, though, hyung."
San wrinkled his nose, his eyelids growing a bit heavy all over again, somehow. He distantly heard Jongho huff in fake annoyance but he had already slipped too far back into his dreams to respond.
“Are you awake now?” Jongho asked after another half hour had passed, starting to feel a little impatient. And a lot nervous.
“I guess,” San said reluctantly. “You did need something, after all, didn’t you?”
“Ah, not exactly,” Jongho hedged. “Just- I have a note for you. Well, kind of, anyways.”
That got San’s attention and he looked up at Jongho hopefully. “Like…the song lyric notes I was giving you?”
Jongho nodded, taking a sip of water for himself and clearing his throat.
“It’s just- I have it as a note, but I thought I could sing it for you, too? And- it references that moonstone necklace your parents got you ages ago, so do you mind wearing that, too?”
San nodded silently, the effort not to coo at his maknae’s cuteness taking all of his strength and then some. Jongho handed him the note — wrinkled from being clenched in his hand for too long — and carefully fastened the necklace for him, waiting for San to unfold the piece of paper before opening his mouth to sing.
When you’ve had a bad day, you’re losing your way
I will be your lantern, shine for you all day
Like the promise of a rainbow
Feel the love that I yearn to give you
I’m the light within your moonstone
Just close your eyes now, feel the ray
Through this song I’ll keep your demons away
“Baby, did you- those lyrics-”
“I wrote them for you, hyung,” Jongho confirmed quietly, the tips of his ears burning bright red. “I didn’t write the melody, and I know it’s not very good, but it’s what I wanted to say to you and-”
“It’s the most beautiful song I’ve ever heard,” San said immediately, wrapping Jongho in a hug and wondering if it was possible to literally overflow with pure love for another person. Jongho so rarely put his thoughts plainly like that, even if he had been making a clear effort to be more vulnerable with them recently, and the fact that he had written that specifically for San was almost overwhelmingly touching.
“You don’t have to exaggerate, hyung,” Jongho chided gently. “We live with a whole Kim Hongjoong, I don’t have that much hubris. But anyways, I- honestly, I wrote some of that a while ago while thinking of you, but I’m singing it to you now because…you’ve waited for me patiently for a long time, hyung, even if you didn’t say so outright, and I’ll always be grateful for that. But I’m ready now, you don’t have to wait any more, and I wanted to sing you that so you know that even if I’m lacking I’ll-”
San flung his arms around Jongho and crushed him into a tight hug, abruptly cutting off the rest of whatever self-effacing nonsense Jongho had been about to say. The song had been perfect, Jongho was perfect and already everything he promised to be in the lyrics, and San couldn’t wait to spend every day of every year for the rest of their lives proving that to him. Starting immediately.