Let me win. But if I cannot win, let me be brave in the attempt.
Special Olympics Motto
24 February 2018 – Gangneung Olympic Plaza
Jaemin exhales into his hands and looks up. The Gangneung air is icy and biting, but he can’t be bothered to put on gloves. His fingers shake regardless, but Jaemin knows that it’s not from the cold.
Next to him, the line for the gift shop grows longer by the minute, even though it’s six in the morning and the shop won’t be open for another four hours. Most of Gangneung Olympic Plaza is still half-asleep, drowsy with movement, won’t be fully alive until later in the morning. Around him, a sprinkling of spectators mill around the Suhorang and Bandabi exhibits, taking pictures and posing. Jaemin isn’t interested in things like that. His eyes fixate on the building in front of him, grand and looming.
“There you are,” Jeno says from behind him, appearing with a tray of steamed dumplings. Jeno had volunteered to go stand in line at the snack tent, and he’d been gone for almost half an hour. “They hadn’t unpacked the cup noodles yet—” he starts until he sees the look on Jaemin’s face.
“Hey,” Jeno says softly, standing close to Jaemin to let the steam from the dumplings warm their faces. “You all right?”
Jaemin bites his lip and inhales deep through his nose. “Yeah,” he says, and that’s mostly the truth. There’s still some disappointment that lingers, he knows. That kind of thing never goes away. But Jaemin has learned to turn that ice-cold letdown into a blazing fire, burning hot in his belly.
Jeno makes a quiet noise of understanding. “Are you thinking about last year?”
Jaemin exhales a laugh, shaky. “Is it that obvious?”
Jeno puts a hand on Jaemin’s shoulder, eyes soft. “If it helps, I didn’t—”
“—even rank to qualify, I know.” Jaemin kicks at the pavement with his sneakers and focuses on trying to stop his hands from trembling. “It’s just—”
Jeno squeezes, gloved hand reassuring and warm. “I know, Jaemin-ah. I know.”
Jaemin’s Olympic qualifiers last year had gone beautifully. He’d made the local news in Incheon for being one of the youngest speed skaters to qualify at sixteen, but the ISU had skipped over Jaemin in favor of the then-fifteen Chung Jaewon, despite Jaemin earning two hundredths of a second below the qualifying time. He still remembers the crushing hurt like it was yesterday, though it’s ebbed down now to a gentle throb in his chest.
Jaemin exhales a pearly cloud of breath and looks up at Gangneung Oval, the air around him electric and alive.
“You sure about this?” Jeno asks him one last time. “My parents are still back in the hotel, we can always go watch with them—”
“I’m sure,” Jaemin breathes, because he is. This is something that he knows he needs. Jaemin needs to see that Olympic ice for himself, even if his skates will never touch the rink.
Jeno gives him an easy smile and nudges his elbow. “Then let’s go in.”
“Yeah,” Jaemin says, and his heart is a gong in his chest. “Let’s go.”
Later that morning, they watch Lee Seunghoon become the hero of South Korea. The moment Seunghoon’s skates cross the finish line, the entire Oval explodes into life.
Jeno is hugging him and yelling something, but Jaemin isn’t paying attention anymore, can barely hear the cheering of the crowd over the roar of his heartbeat in his ears.
He turns to stare out at the ice rink, at Lee Seunghoon holding Chung Jaewon’s wrist and pumping their hands into the air, and the want is so strong he can taste it at the back of his throat.
Because, in that moment, the entire world has its eyes on Pyeongchang, but Jaemin is already dreaming of Beijing.
30 January 2022 – Beijing Daxing International Airport
Sun streams in from the ceiling, bathing everything in murky gray swaths of light. Even in the pull of the crowd, Jaemin finds himself faltering for a second to look up at the criss-cross stretch of windows honeycombing above him. He pushes his cap up, people jostling past him impatiently, but Jaemin ignores them for a moment, staring up at the swooping metal arches and sprawling floor plan. Someone clears their throat behind him.
"You're going to get left behind if you keep dawdling, Jaemin-ah." Yuta's voice breaks through Jaemin's train of thought, and Jaemin whirls around to see his coach smiling fondly at him.
Jaemin gives him a sheepish smile. "Sorry," he says. “It’s just—it’s beautiful—”
Yuta laughs. "It is,” he agrees, and hoists his duffel higher onto his shoulder. “You know I’m normally all for the scenic route, but we’re on a tight schedule right now."
Jaemin nods, dragging his luggage behind him as he follows Yuta through the crowd. More honeycomb windows shower him with streaks of sunlight, everything slowly growing brighter as they edge toward the center of the airport, taking escalator after escalator down to the ground floor. Jaemin’s lost count of how many floors they’ve descended when Yuta finally leads him outside, and—before Jaemin knows what’s happening—someone lets out a soft yell and then Jeno is hugging him, tight, tight, tight.
“Jeno-yah—” Jaemin gasps, but he’s grinning, dropping his luggage to put Jeno in a headlock. Even though it’s only been a little over twenty-four hours since Jaemin’s last seen him, Jeno’s silly smile is enough to diffuse some of the tension that’s been building in Jaemin’s chest.
"We've been waiting here for two hours," Doyoung says from behind them, holding Jeno's snowboard over his shoulder and shaking his head. "Jeno insisted that, and I quote, ‘I can’t leave until I’ve at least seen Jaeminnie—’” Doyoung snorts. “As if you two don’t already spend enough time with each other."
Jaemin's heart swells in his chest, and he pulls in Jeno for a proper hug, head spinning. The reality has just started to eke in, slow, but they’re here. They’re here, in Beijing. "We made it," Jaemin says into Jeno’s hair, and the words sound like they’re not his own, foreign, so he says it again. “We made it.”
“I—I need to see the venue—” Jeno says, pulling back and covering his eyes, as if the storm-gray city of Beijing around them is just a papershade in front of his vision. “I don’t think I’ll believe it until I see the venue.”
“There’ll be plenty of time for that,” Doyoung says, gentle, and loops an arm around Jeno’s neck, drawing him back and away. “But our bus will be leaving soon. It’s a long ride.”
Jeno’s face falls. “Oh yeah—”
Jaemin swallows, the icy feeling returning to his belly as Jeno steps back to be with his coach, wearing clearly on his face the same anxiety that Jaemin is trying to keep under wraps. He’d forgotten about this, that Jeno wouldn’t be coming with him to Beijing Olympic Village. Jeno is a snowboarder, and would be housed in Zhangjiakou Olympic Village three hours away in Chongli, near the mountains. He struggles to force a smile at his best friend, trying to reorient himself in an Olympics world without him.
"I’ll see you at the opening ceremony, Jaemin-ah,” Jeno says, putting on a brave face. It’s so incredibly Jeno-like that Jaemin can’t help but laugh. “It’s—it’s just for a few days, right?”
"Yeah," Jaemin says, even though that’s technically not true, and his mouth tastes like ash again. He breathes in deep and tries not to think about who he will lean on when his times aren’t fast enough, when his legs and back ache to the point of tears, when the silences between him and Yuta stretch long and awkward. Jaemin tries, instead, to focus on his best friend.
There’s a hand on his shoulder, and Yuta squeezes. “Say goodbye for now,” he says, and Jaemin licks his lips, tasting dry, flaking skin.
“I’ll see you soon, Jeno-yah,” Jaemin tells him, and Jeno grins back fiercely. Jaemin holds onto that image for now, because he knows one day he’ll need it.
“Your lips are dry,” Yuta remarks as they wait in line to check in. The check-in line for Beijing Olympic Village is long, but thankfully the volunteers are efficient, moving them from the chilly outdoors to the inside of the lobby in twenty minutes. “Have you been chewing them again?”
“Oh.” Jaemin rubs at his mouth with his hand, wincing. “I guess so. I hadn’t noticed.”
“Did you bring lip balm?” Yuta asks absently, rifling through his backpack for their official documents.
“Possibly,” Jaemin says, frowning. “Or I might’ve left it back in Seoul. I don’t remember.”
Yuta tsks and nudges him forward as the line moves. “Buy some if you need to. We can’t have your mouth cracking and bleeding all over the place.”
Jaemin nods, allowing Yuta to lead him by the elbow until they get to the front, and puts his ID lanyard around his neck. Jaemin had taken the picture on his ID badge a couple of months ago, his hair long and falling across his eyes. He’d cut it since then, but it’s strange to see his own face staring up at him, another reminder that this isn’t just a dream. And, underneath his name, SPEED SKATING – Men’s Mass Start. Jaemin whips out his phone to snap a photo to send to Jeno later.
“Let’s go,” Yuta’s telling him, gesturing to the elevators ahead. “We both need to get into our rooms.”
Yuta’s suite is down the hall from his, where he’ll be rooming with the other skating team coaches, so Jaemin enters his suite, looking around. There’s a small kitchen with a table and a smaller living space with a couch, but the windows are large and bright.
Jaemin pushes open the door to one of the rooms and peeks in. Also empty. He sets his duffel on top of his bed, licking his lips. The comforters on both of the beds make up most of the color in the room, all done in navy with bright splashes of gold.
“Wow,” says a voice behind him, and Jaemin turns around.
Hong Jisoo stands in the doorway, wearing his own bags around his body and looking around with an appropriately impressed expression. His eyes settle on Jaemin, then crinkle up into a warm smile. “Hi.”
“Hi hyung.” Jaemin remembers racing against him six years ago in the Junior Cup, when Jisoo had beaten him by a whole second. “Long time no see.”
“I saw your qualifiers last year,” Jisoo tells him, dumping his things on the floor and beginning to unpack. “I'm impressed with how fast you’ve gotten. Are you doing mass start now?”
“Yeah.” Jaemin can’t help but smile at the praise. Jisoo has always been an excellent sport, acknowledging talent and skill where he sees it. Jaemin has come to deeply respect people like him, especially when so many other athletes let the competitive spirit drive up walls between them. And while he had certainly been surprised at Jisoo's decision to compete for South Korea instead of the United States, Jaemin is also secretly very glad. “Still taking on the 1000 meters?”
“Naturally,” Jisoo says, dignifying his response with a shrug. “It’s what I’m good at, so why change?”
Jaemin can’t quite attest to this. Up until four years ago, Jaemin had been doing the exact same distance event as Jisoo, men’s 1000 meter. He’s fast, had been fast, but it had taken Jaemin some time to figure out that he’s much more suited for the stamina and excitement of mass start, for the burst of speed at the end that had earned him his spot here.
He especially likes the thrill of so many bodies on the ice, weaving in and out of the lanes like a minnow in the water, of biding his time until the last few laps.
There’s some noise outside, and they both look up to see the other two occupants of their suite, Choi Seungcheol and Yoon Jeonghan of men’s team pursuit. Jaemin used to see them regularly in Incheon before they transferred to a different training facility.
Jeonghan spots them coming out of their room and gives Jaemin a surveying look. "You're the one with the coach thing," he says, careful.
Jaemin stares at him. He always forgets that the speed skating world is much smaller than he thinks it is. In South Korea, it's even smaller. For all that news travels fast, rumors practically fly. This is just another thing he hates—that his past would always precede him.
"Yes," Jaemin says, just as carefully, feeling his brows knit together. "That was a couple of years ago."
Jisoo crosses his arms, also frowning. "Not a big deal. Athletes change coaches all the time."
Seungcheol glances at Jisoo before going back to Jaemin. "Ah. But isn't your coach foreign?"
Jaemin tenses, his hands fisting in his jacket pockets, but before he can respond Jisoo jumps in.
"Again, nothing new," Jisoo says pointedly. "Loads of athletes have foreign coaches. Like how Brian Orser trains Cha Junhwan and Xu Minghao."
"Yeah, but…" Seungcheol clears his throat, the moment loaded and uncomfortable. "That's different, isn't it?"
Jisoo tilts his head in polite puzzlement. "I'm not quite sure I follow."
Seungcheol makes a low noise in his throat, shrugging. "Well, Orser is Canadian."
Jaemin's face flushes with heat, the weight of Seungcheol's comment hitting home.
He has an answer for this. He's practiced it, thousands of times over. But the question never gets old, it never quite stops stinging. During his qualifiers last year, Jaemin had found himself reciting the same litany over and over to the press reports who'd come in for the kill—Jaemin-ssi, could you comment on having a Japanese coach take you to the Olympics next year?
"Forget it," Seungcheol says into the silence, scratching the back of his head. "It's just—good to meet you, I guess. And good luck with training."
Jaemin exhales deeply, unclenching his fists in his pockets, the tension leaving his shoulders and rising up right in between his eyes.
Jisoo gives him a discerning look. "Why don't you go unpack, Jaemin-ah?" he says gently, and even though his face is neutral, Jaemin knows that Jisoo is much sharper than that. He nods mutely, ducking back into their room and flopping onto his bed.
He's pulling his phone out without thinking, and it's only after he's opened KakaoTalk and his thumb is hovering over his contacts list that Jaemin realizes what he's about to do. He hesitates, the lump in his throat painful, and then presses call.
Jaemin curls up over his sheets, listening to the dial tone pulsate once, twice, three times, then—just when Jaemin's about to end the call—it connects.
“Jaemin-ah,” Hansol’s voice comes from over hundreds of miles of distance, and Jaemin’s heart leaps up into his mouth. If he closes his eyes, he can picture the last time he’d seen Hansol, still laughing, still happy, clapping his hands and nodding vigorously from the side of Jaemin’s training rink in Incheon, a bright, pleased flush high in his cheeks. That had been over a year ago.
Jaemin swallows, staring up at the ceiling. “Hi, hyung.”
“Are you in Beijing?”
Even though Jaemin can’t see him, he can still hear the smile in Hansol’s voice, shy and prideful. Jaemin’s heart aches—dull, but still tender.
“I got in this morning,” Jaemin says quietly. “Are you—”
“I’m sorry I missed your qualifiers,” Hansol cuts him off wearily. “I’m so, so proud of you, Jaemin-ah. I knew you’d make it.”
The backs of Jaemin’s eyes burn as he glares up at the ceiling. “I wish you were here.”
Hansol sighs heavily. “Jaemin-ah—”
“Yuta-hyung is—” Jaemin blurts out. “It’s not the same—he’s—”
“He’s exponentially more qualified to coach you than I am,” Hansol interrupts, and the smile is gone from his voice now. Jaemin furiously blinks back tears. “That’s why I left you in his care.”
“That’s why you left, you mean.” Jaemin doesn’t mean for the words to come out so bitter, but they do. The silence on the other end is telling enough.
“I’m sorry,” Hansol says again, and he sounds like he means it. It still doesn’t make it hurt any less, it still doesn’t convince Jaemin that the heartache in his chest is any less real. “Jaemin-ah, I wish you’d just understand—”
“I’m going to win,” Jaemin says, and he knows he sounds stubborn, childish. “I’m going to win, and you won’t be here to see it.”
Hansol is silent for a few long moments. “Okay,” he says, and, even though he doesn’t acknowledge that last part, they both know the implication of what remains unspoken. “Okay, I'm cheering you on.”
Jaemin digs the heel of his palm into his eyes, the heartbeat in his ears a steady and resolute pulse. “I miss you, hyung,” he whispers, barely audible, barely more than a hushed breath in the silence. “I—I’m scared.”
“It’s okay to be scared,” Hansol tells him, and it’s the gentle reassurance belying all the exhaustion that gets to him, makes Jaemin curl up on his bed and cry silently into the bright colors of the Beijing 2022 games. And Hansol lets him, patiently—the deep, even sound of his breathing both steadying and confusing.
"Jaemin-ah," Hansol says, after Jaemin's cries have died down. "Just because I didn't get you there doesn't mean your Olympic experiences are worth any less."
Jaemin remembers being nineteen, crouched down at the side of the rink with his jacket pulled up over his face, shoulders shaking. He remembers clutching his phone in his hands, remembers the way his lungs burned like fire. Yuta, kneeling down in front of him, trying to tell Jaemin through his shock that Hansol would never be coaching him again, Yuta reaching his hands out and Jaemin flinching away.
“It was supposed to be you, hyung,” Jaemin mumbles, swiping at his cheeks. “We were supposed to do this together.”
Hansol doesn’t say anything for a couple more seconds, and then his next words are uncertain and slow to come. “Good luck, Jaemin-ah.”
Jaemin hangs up without saying another word.
Jaemin hunches at the foot of the treadmill, curled over with his hands on his knees. Sweat beads up at his hairline, runs into his eyes, makes them sting. It’s his third mile that evening—nothing exemplary by any means, but at least it's standard, it's routine. He’d gone out earlier to try the Village Rec Center to log in his cardio, but ended up running until nearly seven in the evening. A familiar, tender ache pulls at his back, and Jaemin straightens up, wincing at the stretch.
His accident was nearly four years ago—long enough for the memory of it to feel scarred over and distant, but Jaemin can still recall it down to the last detail. Most of all, Jaemin remembers the sound of his blades screeching against the ice, a turn that was too sharp, too quick. His body had twisted uselessly underneath him, and then—not much else. He'd woken up in an ambulance with his lower back and legs flooded with pain, and Hansol's scared, white face hovering above him.
"Hyung," Jaemin had bit out, over the white-hot throb of hurt. "Hyung—"
"It's okay," Hansol said, eyes wide and panicked, even as his hand found Jaemin's and squeezed, hard. "It's—you're going to be okay."
Hansol had been right, of course. Anti-inflammatory medications and physical therapy with lots of rest, Jaemin's OT had told him. Then maybe he could start skating again in about a year, if he was lucky. Even then, don't take chances.
But Jaemin hadn't made it to Pyeongchang by taking chances. He certainly hadn't made it to Beijing on a chance either. Hansol leaving had made damn well sure of that.
Yuta had been the one to break the news to him, right there in the middle of Jaemin's training rink in Incheon. Jaemin doesn't remember much, just the anger, the fury, the ice-cold betrayal. That had been just another scar. It's still raw beneath the scab, still tender to the touch.
Hansol had blamed himself for Jaemin's accident, Yuta told him. He'd let Jaemin go too fast, try too much, push too hard. It's not right for me to be coaching you, Hansol had told him once, many months later, after Jaemin had been convinced he would never hear from Hansol again. At least , he'd said, not like this.
7:36PM. Jaemin settles down on the bouncy gym floor to do his cooldown stretches, knowing Yuta would be on his ass later if he didn't wrap up his exercises properly. It's these little things that made the differences between his coach and ex-coach seem so gaping wide and chasm-like.
Like Hansol, Yuta had skated professionally, but unlike Hansol, Yuta didn't have the years of familiarity acquired from watching Jaemin grow up. From a scrawny thirteen-year-old to who he is now, significantly wider-shouldered and deeper-voiced. Aged and scratched up and healed.
The thing is, Yuta is good. Excellent, actually. Jaemin would've walked out on him if he wasn't. And, after Hansol quit, Yuta had wordlessly taken up the reins and overseen Jaemin's training himself, so there's a lot to be thankful for. Especially when Yuta is so careful, so diligent and precise. He has none of Hansol's candid brazenness, the glint in his eye that Jaemin had come to love and admire. When Jaemin wanted to switch from 1000 meter to mass start, Hansol had been the only one to nod and say, Okay, let's do it.
But Yuta is all he has now. Jaemin's not one for taking chances, but he'll take whatever he can get. Because Jaemin has never wanted to do anything in his life other than skate—the trophies, the cameras, the eyes are all just a prepackaged part of it.
Maybe, when he was younger, Jaemin had dreamt of a life where he could fall down without the eyes of millions watching him, had dreamt of a victory that he could cherish alone—but if there's a life to be made out of chasing dreams that are beautiful and intangible, Jaemin has yet to find it.
The opening ceremony creeps up on him like old back pain, slowly and deeply through his body and putting him just as on guard. Jaemin pulls on the uniform they'd all been given to wear—white and red and blue, the pride of Korea plastered all across their backs—and steps out into the living room of his suite. Jeonghan and Seungcheol are sharing a quick beer in the kitchen, and Jaemin exchanges uneasy smiles with them before heading out into the hallway to look for his coach.
The entire Olympic Village is alive, thrumming with excitement—Jaemin can feel it with every step as he heads down with the rest of the South Korean skaters in the early evening, as they pass other athletes in the hallway.
Outside the towers, lines of volunteers flank the buses that will take them to and from the Village to the Bird’s Nest, their official uniforms dark and striking amid those of the athletes milling around them, the air a cacophony of different languages.
“Please follow this way—” Jaemin automatically turns to look at the sound of honey-like Korean, searching for the source of the voice, and his eyes land on one of the volunteers herding the skaters and their coaches toward one of the buses. Jaemin slows for a moment to stare at his face, the high cheekbones colored pink from the cold and a mouth that is soft and pretty around the Korean. But what catches Jaemin's eye the most is the bright yellow snapback he's wearing instead of the earmuffs or beanies donned by most of the other volunteers. Jaemin only gets a brief look of his face before Yuta’s grip on the back of his jacket pushes him forward and onto their bus.
The Beijing National Stadium is truly a sight to behold in person, stretching upward and arcing gracefully around itself. As Jaemin gets off his bus, he stops and stares for a moment at the sprawling stadium opening up to the sky, and wonders if the athletes at the 2008 Summer Olympics had felt like this too—like they could look up from the Bird's Nest and see heaven. Jaemin had only been eight then, sitting on his mother's lap and watching the opening ceremony on television. The images on screen had not prepared him for what looms ahead of him now, grandiose and beautiful.
Jaemin splits from Yuta when they get inside, as all the athletes enter the waiting room where they will all will be on standby before the Parade of Nations. Inside, Jaemin stands on his toes to scan the cluster of Korean athletes for Jeno's face until someone taps on his shoulder, and Jaemin whirls around.
"Hi," Jeno says, beaming broadly, his eyes bright with excitement. The South Korean uniform looks good on him. "Long time no see?"
It's a terrible joke, but Jaemin grins fiercely, wrapping himself around Jeno in a tight hug. “Okay, that was definitely harder than I expected it to be,” he says, reaching up to pat Jeno's cheek fondly. "Think I'll go crazy from how much I've been missing you."
Jeno makes a face and dodges Jaemin's swatting hands. “Don’t say that," he says, a small whine tugging at his words. "You’ll make this harder than it already is.”
Jaemin laughs and pulls back. “Fair enough. So how’s Zhangjiakou Olympic Village? ”
Jeno shrugs with a mildly resigned air. “Not terrible. The rooms are small. And my roommate—well.”
Jaemin cocks an eyebrow, tugging Jeno by the arm as he tries to find somewhere to sit down in the meantime. It's a struggle, but they manage to find room enough for them to rest their feet. “Who’s your roommate?”
“Kim Mingyu,” Jeno says, rubbing his hands together. “Remember my one tournament back in 2016?”
“Oh my god,” Jaemin starts, half-laughing, half-horrified. “He’s not the one you accidentally collided with, is he?”
“That’s the one.” Jeno winces handsomely. “He keeps going on about how there’s supposed to be a major Chinese celebrity tonight, but I wouldn’t know. Have your roommates said anything?”
Jaemin frowns. “Not really. We haven’t really… talked.”
Jeno gives him a sympathetic smile. “Beijing Olympic Village not to your liking?”
Jaemin shrugs. “It’s not that. They’re okay, I guess. Raced one of them before, back in 2017.”
“Yeah,” Jaemin says. “Though Yuta-hyung’s down the hall with some other coaches, and I think they’ve been drinking. He looked pretty hungover this morning.”
Jeno snickers. “You planning to get into all the festivities? I mean, the Olympics is kinda infamous for having all these crazy parties and, uh, you know—” Jeno goes a brilliant pink, and Jaemin promptly does the same.
“No, I do not plan on it,” Jaemin says testily, his face flushed with heat. “I’m here to skate, you know that.”
“Yeah, yeah,” Jeno says quickly, waving his hand. “Me neither. About the festivities, I mean.”
Jaemin looks down at his feet, the colors of Korea plastered all over his and Jeno’s national uniforms. “I just—this has been my dream since I was fourteen. I can’t imagine just going and getting distracted when I have to train as much as possible before my event. Not that I’m criticizing anyone who does, it’s just—”
“Jaemin-ah,” Jeno says gently, and puts a hand on his arm. “It’s okay, you don’t have to justify it. No one’s making you do anything you don’t want to.”
Jaemin takes a deep breath and exhales shakily, grinning at Jeno. “I probably seem like no fun, huh?”
Jeno returns the grin and squeezes his arm. “You can’t be more no fun than me, Jaemin-ah.”
Their laughter is short-lived and fleeting, because a hush falls over the milling crowds of athletes, followed by a slow and building momentum. It can only mean one thing—the Parade of Nations is about to begin.
The music starts to play and they both listen as Greece enters to tumultuous cheering. Jeno and Jaemin remain seated alongside most of their countrymen—they’ll be entering in the second half of the parade.
“Hey,” Jeno says suddenly, frowning. “You know—Mark-hyung—” He pauses. “You know he’s here, right?”
Jaemin tenses up for a second. “Yeah,” he says. He's known this for a while, and had been dutifully trying to put it out of his mind. But Jaemin follows Mark on Instagram, and he’d known that Mark would be coming since the moment his team won the Stanley Cup last year. So he’d known, but it hadn't made Jaemin any more prepared to deal with possibility of running into him. “Yeah, I know.”
Jeno makes a quiet humming noise in his throat. “He’d be at the Beijing Village, then.” He pauses. “With you.”
Jaemin swallows over a dry mouth. “The Canadian team must be nowhere in our building, or I would’ve seen him.”
“I know,” Jeno says. “He told me. Are you—are you going to be okay?” he asks him quietly, and Jaemin takes a deep breath.
Jaemin knows what Jeno is asking him, the implication of his question burrowing deep down into his chest, stroking old emotional sores that Jaemin had convinced himself would heal with time. The last time either of them had seen Mark was right before he graduated and moved to Canada. He and Mark had already grown apart by then, Jaemin remembers with some regret. He remembers promising himself that that would be the last time he would let his feelings get in the way of something he loved.
“Guess I’ll have to be,” Jaemin exhales. It doesn’t hurt much anymore, but Jaemin had mourned losing their friendship more than Mark not returning his feelings. Jaemin had never confessed explicitly, but his crush had grown increasingly apparent during Mark’s final year of high school, around the time that everything had started to become awkward.
Jaemin, in any case, is not surprised that Jeno still keeps in contact with Mark. He just wishes he could have done the same. It would have been nice to have a friend in the village, especially with Jeno leaving again for Zhangjiakou at the end of the evening.
Jeno nudges his arm. “It’ll be fine,” he says. “Mark-hyung was never mad at you, he was just awkward about it. I mean, god, we all were—we were sixteen, Jaemin-ah.”
Jaemin blows his bangs up out of his face, breath clouding up in the chill. “You’re right.”
Jeno’s eyes crescent. “I’m always right.” And Jaemin can’t really argue with that.
Forty minutes later, South Korea enters behind Portugal, and Jaemin’s heart almost jumps out of his chest as they enter the stadium. The lights are bright, and the music is loud, and the crowd is roaring even louder. Almost a hundred thousand people are in those stands, screaming and yelling as Jaemin and Jeno walk side by side, waving at the faceless spectators.
Two hundredths of a second. A hundred thousand people.
They don’t yet know who they’re cheering for, but they will, Jaemin thinks.
Soon, they will.
The opening ceremony is nothing short of spectacular—living up to all the hype of the 2008 Summer ceremony and following radiantly in its footsteps. Jaemin sits huddled next to Jeno in the stands, and together they watch, entranced, as the Legend of the Milu Deer plays out before their eyes. Two dancers—one male, one female—prance around the stage in intricate costumes, representing the revered milu deer, the official mascot of the 2022 games.
The much-rumored celebrity appearance turns out to be none other than Zhong Chenle, much beloved singer and nation’s sweetheart, who had produced a single, "Fly," exclusively for the Olympics. Chenle walks out to cheering and screaming, and Jaemin doesn’t need to understand the lyrics to get swept up in the beauty of the song, listening to Chenle’s bright, clear tenor fill up the Bird’s Nest and every crevice of his body.
Even long after the ceremony ends, Jaemin can still feel the song resonating deep in his bones as he follows Jeno out of the stands and into the chilled, night air.
Yuta lets Jaemin walk Jeno to his bus afterward, indulging the prolonged farewell hug that Jeno initiates and Jaemin refuses to end.
“It really starts here, huh,” Jaemin murmurs, gripping Jeno’s bicep and squeezing. “It’s all training from here on out.”
“We’ll be okay,” Jeno says, trying to manage a grin, but Jaemin can tell that Jeno is nervous. They both are. “I’ll come to your event, Jaemin-ah, I’ll be right there cheering for you, so keep training—”
Jaemin laughs, already taking backward steps toward where Yuta is waiting. “Same. Don’t let me down.”
And Jeno has nothing to say to that, so he just lifts his hand and waves before following Doyoung into the bus.
“You ready, Jaemin?” Yuta asks, slinging an arm around his shoulders. “This is when it begins.”
Jaemin looks up at the night sky, partially obscured by the Beijing haze, and takes a step onto his bus. “Yeah,” he says, like he hasn’t been ready for years. “I’m ready.”
While Jaemin was still recovering from his injury, Jeno often dropped by Jaemin's parents' house all pink-cheeked and bright-eyed, arms laden with snacks and sweets from Doyoung. Jaemin remembers sitting at his desk, listening to Jeno chatter away about the weekends he and Doyoung would spend in the mountains, going over jumps and aerials. It had been so hard to force his smiles, then, when conversation eventually turned to competitions. It had taken all his effort to not let his jealousy mar Jeno's excitement, not when his best friend was getting so close, doing so much.
Jisung also had made a point of video calling him every week from California, rambling about his teammates and his upcoming tournaments in Berkeley, or to show off his new gaming mice and keyboards from Asus. It became routine—Jaemin would coo about how much he missed him, and Jisung would scowl. But Jaemin hadn't grown up with Jisung for nothing, could still see the relief in his face whenever Jaemin picked up his calls. After all, he'd only been seventeen when he was signed to the San Francisco Shock, the Bay Area's Overwatch League team, and Jaemin knows more than anyone else just how scary and isolating it is to be good at something you loved.
When the San Francisco Shock had signed Jisung back in 2019, the team held a special livestream event on Twitch that Jaemin woke up at four in the morning to watch, dutifully rubbing sleep out of his eyes and booting up his computer.
Jisung had long since lost most of his baby fat, but sitting there next to his new teammates in a jersey that is slightly too big on him, Jisung had looked so very young and lost. Jaemin remembered watching the way Jisung's eyes kept flicking back and forth from the MC to his coach for translations, the way he clenched fistfuls of his jeans.
"So it seems like Rascal's really into scary movies," the MC said in English, and one of Jisung's teammates grinned cheekily. "What about our newest player, Jisung Park?"
Jaemin smiled, helplessly fond, watching Jisung glance desperately at his coach while he interpreted. "I'm scared really easily," he said finally in Korean, pausing for his coach to relay it back in English. "I don't do well with things like that."
The MC smiled. "So—haunted houses? Things like that? Is it safe to say that you're probably not the biggest fan?"
Jisung frowned then, and shook his head politely. "I think there are scarier things," he said, in a voice far beyond his years, and at that moment Jaemin had missed him so sorely and dearly. "It's not just houses that are haunted."
And maybe in the slight pause that followed, in which Jisung's coach rushed to explain to the confused MC, his words had gotten lost in translation.
But Jaemin—six thousand miles away, and his heart all swollen and tender—had known what Jisung had meant.
Not just houses. People too.
Training starts immediately after the opening ceremony, though Jaemin learns through Yuta that they have a specific schedule to follow. Capital Skating Oval can only hold so many skaters on the ice, so Jaemin spends most of the following morning waiting around in his room, doing nothing.
Finally, his stomach gets the better of him and Jaemin leaves his room, looking around. Jisoo is already gone, having scored one of the earlier training times, but Jeonghan is sitting at the kitchen table playing a game on his tablet and drinking canned coffee.
"Did you get stuck with the later training block too?" Jeonghan asks him without looking up.
"I guess so," Jaemin says, eyeing Jeonghan's can of coffee. "Can I ask where you got that?"
Jeonghan gestures vaguely outside toward the hall. "Athlete convenience store. I think it's the next building over?"
Jaemin takes a look out the windows, wincing at how cold it looks outside, and tugs on his coat.
They're on the sixth floor out of nine, the halls spanning left and right for about twenty or so rooms. The common area is open and spacious, curtain windows letting in gratuitous amounts of natural light. Jaemin only spares the furniture the most sweeping of glances before heading down the elevator and outside the tower.
The chill hits him full-blast, Jaemin tucking his hands into his pockets as he half walks, half jogs to the next tower over, replaying Jeonghan's uselessly vague directions in his head. Thankfully, his cheeks begin to thaw the moment Jaemin enters the next building, the ground floor bustling with activity as athletes and coaches move in and out.
Above him, the sign for the Tencent Media Lounge points to his right, but no sign of the athlete convenience store anywhere. Jaemin bites his lip, looking around him, but most of the people either look like they don't know how to speak Korean or are walking too quickly for Jaemin to bother.
After a second of floundering, Jaemin picks a random direction and decides to just go with it, easing himself in and out of the crowd and hoping that one of these athletes is on their way to either the cafeteria or the convenience store.
After about five or so minutes of following around strangers, Jaemin finds himself in the residence halls again, shoulders drooping despondently when he realizes that he has no idea where he is.
The sound of laughter echoes down the hall, and Jaemin rounds a corner to see a couple of volunteers chatting in the doorway of one of the rooms. One of them notices Jaemin (and probably how lost he looks), before asking something in Mandarin.
Jaemin stops in his place, face turning red. "Uh..."
One of the other volunteers must have noticed Jaemin's badge, because she says something into her headpiece and about ten seconds later another volunteer pokes his head out of the room.
Jaemin looks up and swallows, recognizing the volunteer as the one from yesterday, the one with the voice like honey and bright yellow snapback. Only now he doesn't look nearly as disinterested as he did the previous evening, frowning as he marches down the hall toward him.
"Are you lost?" he asks impatiently, in perfect, unaccented Korean. His volunteer badge reads HUANG, RENJUN in large Roman capitals.
"I—yes," Jaemin says, blinking down at him in surprise. "I'm looking for the Athlete's Convenience Store?"
Renjun makes a scoffing, disbelieving sound. "The convenience store? That's all the way in the East Sun tower. You're in the wrong place."
"Oh." Jaemin frowns. "I was just following my suite mate's directions."
"Well, clearly, your suitemate gave you the wrong directions," Renjun says, and he looks like he's struggling not to roll his eyes. "East Sun tower. Second floor."
"Ah," Jaemin says, hyperaware of the fact that he is, indeed, staring. Renjun's volunteer uniform nearly swallows him, the deep midnight blue and golden streaks playing nicely off the bright yellow of his hat.
"Well?" Renjun cocks an eyebrow at him, and makes a gesture for him to get going.
A slow, embarrassed smile spreads across Jaemin's face, completely of its own will. "I don't know where the East Sun tower is."
And this time Renjun really does roll his eyes, turning around to say one last thing to his fellow volunteers before brushing past him. "I only have about fifteen minutes before my break starts, so consider yourself lucky."
Jaemin grins to himself, following after Renjun with a surprising amount of difficulty. As short as Renjun is, he certainly walks fast. "I am very, very lucky."
And when Renjun glances over his shoulder, his nose bridge is tinged slightly pink. "And let me guess. You are… a snowboarder."
Jaemin laughs and falls into step next to Renjun. "That would be my best friend. So, no, I'm a speed skater."
"Ah,” is all Renjun says, sounding entirely unimpressed. “Are you fast?"
"Mmm, considerably," Jaemin says, because he's never been one to downplay his skill. He knows he's pretty damn good. Whether he’s good enough for a medal, however, is another question entirely.
Renjun makes a tutting noise, speeding up his pace. "We'll just have to see about that."
"Well, your Korean is amazing," Jaemin tells him, offering up a sincere smile. "Did you study it?"
Renjun scoffs again. "I suppose you could say that," he says, lips curling. "From the day I was born up until now."
Jaemin almost stops in his tracks, causing Renjun to huff impatiently. "Wait, you're Korean?"
"No, I'm Chinese," Renjun says, rolling his eyes. "My blood heritage may be Korean, but I was born and raised in Jilin. Red passport and everything."
"Wow," Jaemin says dumbly, because that's all he can think of to say, and another smile spreads across his face when Renjun shakes his head. Belatedly, he realizes that they've arrived at the convenience store.
"Do you need me to hold your hand while you look around too?" Renjun says, exasperated.
Jaemin flushes and laughs. "Are all the volunteers this mean? Or is it just you?"
Renjun purses his lips and crosses his arms. "Maybe just to incompetent speed skaters from Korea," he says primly.
Something clicks into place then, and Jaemin can recognize the feeling for what it is. Familiarity, warmth. A sense of belonging, akin to what he feels whenever he's with Jeno, but not quite the same. Jaemin gives him a genuine smile, feeling more relaxed than he has in days. "I'll be sure to continue being incompetent, then."
Renjun flushes red and opens his mouth to say something, but then a voice crackles over Renjun's headset. He glances up at Jaemin. "I have to go. Are you at least competent enough to find your way back?"
Jaemin beams at him, the weight on his shoulders gone. "At least that much," he says. "See you around—” Jaemin pauses, looking at his lanyard. “—Renjun-ssi?"
Renjun turns around for a moment, eyes lowering down to Jaemin's ID badge hanging around his neck before flicking back up to his face. "See you around… Jaemin-ssi."
A couple of hours later, Jaemin finally, finally gets to Capital Skating Oval. He exhales into his fingers, working his feet in his skating boots. After a week of not skating, it feels good to be back on the ice and stretching out all the kinks in his legs. There's a couple of other skaters that Jaemin vaguely recognizes from past competitions, but most of them are strangers to him. Jaemin has to remind himself that he is technically a stranger, too.
One of the training officials is calling for a set of practice laps, and Jaemin glances over to where Yuta is leaning over the side railing, watching him. Yuta gives him a nod and Jaemin goes to line up with the others, heart hammering. The electric gunshot goes off and Jaemin doesn't have time to think anymore, just lets his body fall into routine-hardened muscle memory, the clack of his skating blades the only thing ringing in his ears.
"Not bad," Yuta tells him when he gets off the ice, and Jaemin frowns, taking off his helmet and shaking his hair out.
"It wasn't my best," he says heavily, and Yuta laughs.
"No, it wasn't," he agrees. "But considering you haven't skated in what—six, seven days? Not too shabby. We'll take it easy at the onset, and slowly work you up to pushing your times as it gets closer to the event. Right now we just want to focus on your endurance and stamina."
Jaemin nods and accepts the water bottle Yuta hands him, drinking deeply.
"Ready to go again?" Yuta squeezes his shoulder with a smile.
Jaemin snorts and stands up, setting his water aside. "No rest for the wicked, huh?"
"Aye, nor heroes neither." Yuta winks at him before gently nudging him back onto the ice.
Jaemin gets in a solid two hours of training before all the skaters are called back at the end of their time slot, and he lets Yuta usher him back onto their bus.
As he boards, Jaemin does a double-take after passing by the first row, and promptly backs up a couple of steps (causing a mild aisle jam in the process).
“Jaemin-ah?” Yuta calls, turning over his shoulder with a concerned look. “Where are you going?”
“I’m just going to sit up here, don’t worry about me!” Jaemin calls, before plopping right down in the first row next to a disgruntled-looking Renjun. He beams. “Hi!”
Renjun pinches his nose bridge and sighs. “I was wondering if I would run into you sooner or later. I had figured sooner but was kind of hoping for later—”
Jaemin valiantly chooses to ignore that last bit and gets comfortable. Renjun makes a displeased noise, presumably realizing that Jaemin is, in fact, determined to sit next to him for the entire ride back. “Do you work with the skaters? Is that part of your volunteer duties?”
Renjun shakes his head in resignation. “I’m a little all over the place, but the volunteer committee has made the executive decision to put me with the Korean athletes for glaringly obvious reasons.”
Jaemin nods, appropriately impressed. “Do all the volunteers share the same residence or do you like—have another housing facility?”
“We get floors in the same buildings as you,” Renjun replies tersely, before stifling a yawn. Jaemin notices shadows under his eyes that hadn’t been there the night before.
“Tired?” he asks quietly. “Did you not get enough sleep?”
Renjun snorts and leans his forehead against the back of the driver’s seat. “It’s fine… all part and parcel of volunteering, I guess. Inadequate sleep, nosy speed skaters—”
Jaemin’s lips tug up into a sheepish smile at that. “Here,” he says, fishing around his the pockets of his parka, and pulls out one of the weird little energy gel packets that Yuta always insists on buying in bulk. “Try one of these—”
Renjun wrinkles his nose at it. “What’s that?”
“I cannot attest to the taste, unless you like orange-flavored medicine,” Jaemin says solemnly, holding it out toward him. “But it will do wonders for your energy levels, I promise.”
Renjun takes the gel packet with some uncertainty, glancing from it back up to Jaemin. “Not that this isn’t weirdly nice, but it’s kind of—weirdly nice? I mean—you don’t have to go out of your way for me. I’m just a volunteer.”
“I used to volunteer a lot in high school,” Jaemin says evenly. “It’s not easy work. I guess—what I’m trying to say is… thanks?”
Renjun rips open the packet and gives him a look. “Thanks for what?”
Jaemin gives him a sunny smile and shrugs. “Deciding to volunteer. For taking three weeks out of your life to come out here and help. It really makes a difference. And I appreciate it.”
“I—” Renjun stares at him for a second, turning gloriously red, before turning back to the window and promptly sucking all the contents of the energy gel into his mouth. Jaemin can’t tell if he’s impressed that Renjun didn’t even wince at the taste, but he’s glad anyway.
“Tsk, tsk,” Yuta tells him later when they’re walking back to Jaemin’s suite, Renjun staying behind to continue organizing the chaos. “I’m going to tell Jeno that you’ve replaced him.”
It's a bad stab at a joke, they both know, and Jaemin can only smile politely as it falls flat, the silence awkward in its wake.
But Yuta is right about one thing. While no one could ever possibly replace Jeno, Renjun's dry sarcasm and bright, clear eyes are certainly enough to make the three-hour distance between Beijing and Zhangjiakou feel a little less lonely. Renjun isn't Jeno, but Jaemin doesn't need him to be.
Just Renjun is more than good enough.
i got lost today ㅠㅠ
ㅋㅋ that doesn’t surprise me
remember that one time when we went to jeju and u ended up on the other side of the island
well at least i met a volunteer who speaks fluent korean ٩(๑˃́ꇴ˂̀๑)و
and he helped me find my way~
oh really? is there any way u can send him over here ㅠㅠㅠㅠ
i really want to go out to buy banana milk but no one will go with me TAT
really, banana milk in the middle of training?
you know how much sugar is in those things rite
ㅋ coming from the guy who ate sugarcubes for breakfast
ㅠㅠㅠㅠ that was one time…
Jaemin smiles wistfully at his phone, scrolling up mindlessly through his messages before putting his phone away.
It's hard. Both he and Jeno had known this for a long time, that making it to the Olympics would not be like what they'd imagined as kids. Ever since they'd learned of the split between the athletes amongst the three Olympic Villages, Jaemin had tried to prepare himself mentally for the loneliness. He doesn't have a lot of friends, but being in Beijing without Jeno is incredibly lonely. The only thing that helps is the knowledge that they are both living their dreams, and that Jaemin would see Jeno in Chongli at his event later this month. Yuta had almost been against it at first. You need to train, he'd told him.
But there was no way Jaemin was going to miss this. Not for the world, especially now that Jeno's name is in so many people's mouths. It makes Jaemin swell with pride.
It hadn't always been like that, though. Jeno had always kept a relatively low profile, even in his competitions. It wasn't until last year that he'd really started to shine, claiming first place at two different regional events and third place in nationals. Jaemin had always known, deep down inside him, that Jeno was Olympic material—with his good looks and gentle, quiet smile. That Korea would love him.
His own qualifiers had taken place a year prior. It hadn't been Jaemin's first brush with the Olympics—his failure to qualify for Pyeongchang still sticks with him, even to this day. But it would be his first time trying to qualify for with men's mass start instead of the 1000 meters, and his first real major event after recovering from his back injury. Yuta had been very strict about that, refusing to let Jaemin compete in any other kind of competition until he was sure he was ready, until the doctors gave their blessings.
They'd both been surprised, but secretly relieved, when news broke that Lee Seunghoon would not be competing at Beijing, due to the birth of his second child. Jaemin had said goodbye to any of his dreams of meeting his childhood hero, but knew that it would work in his favor in the end. With Lee Seunghoon off the Korean team, that would be one more spot open for him. And especially if he were to be competing against Chung Jaewon again, Jaemin knew that he'd need every opportunity he could get.
Seeing Jaewon there at the Gangneung Oval had been mildly surreal, stepping onto the ice he had only gotten to see from the stands just three years prior. The ice had felt good as he sliced into it with the toe of his blade.
Jaewon had been fumbling with his helmet, adjusting the strap under his chin, when Jaemin approached him.
"Hello," he'd said, bowing his head briefly and feeling, for a moment, a little awkward. Jaewon still looked every bit the nineteen-year-old he was, and for a second Jaemin couldn't help the fleeting flare-up of jealousy that erupted in his stomach. Jaewon was—after all—the one who had made it to Pyeongchang. "I'm Na Jaemin—I met you four years ago, but I'm not sure if you remember."
Jaewon looked up at him, rubbing the back of his neck, and recognition clicked in his eyes. "Oh, yeah—" he said, giving him a polite smile. "But weren't you doing 1000 meter back then?"
"Yeah, I switched," Jaemin said, licking his lips. "I–I saw you at Pyeongchang," he said, before he could stop himself. "You skated—you were terrific."
Jaewon had flushed at that considerably, and Jaemin felt his jealousy melt away. "Ah," Jaewon stammered. "Thank you—I'm still kind of unsatisfied, I guess, but I'm glad to have helped Seunghoon-ssi."
So that was another thing they had in common: a reverent respect for Lee Seunghoon. Jaemin grinned, offering up a fist. "Let's both make it and get medals this year," he said. And Jaewon, surprisingly grinned back.
"Okay, Jaemin-ssi," he said, bumping his fist into Jaemin's. "Hwaiting."
They'd both made it, of course, with exemplary times. Jaemin remembers Yuta coming up to ruffle his hair afterward and the accidental moment of tension when Jaemin had flinched away. Yuta's smile had faltered for just a second before he settled his hand on Jaemin's shoulder.
"Congratulations, Olympic Skater," Yuta had said gently, and Jaemin had never quite ridden himself of the guilt.
Jaemin looks up now from his phone at the sound of Jisoo coming back into their room, setting his things down on the bed. Jisoo smiles sweetly at him.
"How was training?"
"Fine," Jaemin says in a small voice. "I need to get my times down."
Jisoo's laugh is pleasant and melodious. "You will, Jaemin-ah," he says. "I'm certain of it."
And it's easy for Jisoo, Jaemin thinks, to talk of things like certainty. Jisoo who has only ever had a stable skating career, coaches who don't leave him, and dreams that have never wavered for an instant because of something stupid like an injury from being careless or reckless.
Jaemin wonders what that's like. To be so certain of something, to have faith in his own future.
Hansol had once told him to never believe in things like that. There is no certainty in certainty, Jaemin-ah. Nothing is certain until you make it happen yourself.
Jaemin is starting to wonder if he's right.
The Olympic cafeteria is crowded, though Jaemin had expected as much, shuffling up behind Seungcheol and the others in line.
“Probably should’ve come earlier, huh,” Seungcheol says, shaking his head and loading his plate up with all kinds of food. It all smells delicious, to be honest, and Jaemin puts his high school food-kitchen experience to good use, managing to balance three different plates on his arms and hands.
“Where d’you think we’ll sit?” Jisoo asks with uncertainty, looking around. Jaemin follows suit, scanning across the cafeteria for any sign of four free seats.
His eyes catch on a familiar yellow hat, and his legs move forward without thinking.
“Jaemin-ah?” Jeonghan calls from behind him. “Where are you going?”
“Eat without me!” Jaemin calls back over his shoulder, before making his way through the mass of tables and bodies over to where Renjun is sitting by himself.
Renjun’s eating something alarmingly spicy-looking and sipping on a juice box. Cute, Jaemin thinks, coming to a stop in front of Renjun and offering an apologetic grin. “Can I sit here?”
Renjun glances up from his phone and runs a disparaging eye over Jaemin’s three plates. “Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised, but I really was beginning to think that you were living solely off those orange energy gels and coffee.”
Jaemin only laughs, setting his plates down and plopping into the seat. “On most days, you’d be correct, but my coach is going to kill me if I don’t get proper food into my system.” He stabs at a rubbery yolk with his fork. “So here I am, forcing myself to swallow this overcooked egg in the name of health and nutrition, I guess?”
Renjun gives him a look. “Really? They bring in five world-class chefs to cater the cafeteria, and you have the gall to complain about the egg being overcooked.”
“Hey,” Jaemin begins defensively, waving his fork at him. “I can make a mean soy sauce egg and rice! Just ask my best friend.”
“Oh really,” Renjun snorts, taking another bite of whatever it is he’s eating. “Whatever credit I would’ve given your best friend is now promptly revoked.”
“Speaking of Jeno,” Jaemin says suddenly, affixing Renjun with a serious look. “Do you know where you can buy banana milk in Zhangjiakou? Gotta pass the message on.”
“Zhangjiakou,” Renjun corrects his pronunciation, smirking. “And really? Banana milk? He sounds just as bad as you.”
“That’s what I told him,” Jaemin says with an indulgent smile. “But he refuses to listen. I promise you, Jeno would starve without me.”
Renjun actually laughs at that, and it’s nice—his laugh. “So tell me more about this mysterious Jeno, because all I know is that he eats like a child and apparently snowboards.”
“Oh,” Jaemin says, wiping his mouth, his heart swelling at the thought of his best friend. “I’ve known him since we were kids. Jeno’s really—he’s amazing, you know?” Jaemin pauses and frowns a little, heat flooding his face. “He really should have competed at Pyeongchang. I’m really upset that he didn’t qualify, it was a total fluke, in my opinion—he has all these first-place medals and works really hard, but I guess it doesn’t matter anymore because he’s totally going to win this year now that Shaun White’s retired—”
Jaemin cuts himself off in the middle of his sentence because Renjun is staring at him with this weird expression on his face, mouth twisting up in the strangest of ways. Jaemin flushes. “What?”
Renjun just smiles then, almost as if to himself, and shakes his head. “Nothing.”
Another grin slides across his face, sheepish. “Sorry,” he says, rubbing the back of his neck. “I can get really intense when I talk about Jeno.”
“It’s fine,” Renjun says and looks away, cheeks tinged red. “It’s—” He takes a sip of his juice. “—kind of cute.”
The compliment takes him by surprise, and Jaemin knows to not ruin it with another corny comment, instead just offering up a soft, pleased smile.
Renjun only flushes deeper before glancing down at his phone. “Break’s over,” he mumbles, gathering up his plates and trash. “Gotta go.”
And so Jaemin watches Renjun leave in a fluster, smiling like an idiot and eating the rest of his rubbery, overcooked egg.
“Better,” Yuta tells him as Jaemin comes to a stop outside the barrier, pulling off his helmet and shaking out his hair. Yuta gives him a stiff smile, handing him a towel. "Much better."
"I can probably go faster," Jaemin says, wiping at the sides of his face, then sitting down to pull off his skating boots. "Maybe next time I should try for another tenth?"
Yuta shakes his head. "Not yet. We don't want you overexerting yourself too early on. Don't want to risk an injury."
Jaemin smiles politely at that, standing up to go find a restroom. Another injury, is what Jaemin knows Yuta had really meant to say. Don't want to risk it.
It's the exact opposite of what Hansol would have told him. Faster, Jaemin-ah? Okay, then, faster. Let's try it. Let me see.
Jaemin knows that Yuta is just trying to be careful. And it's worked, clearly—perhaps that's what hurts so much, the fact that it's worked. Jaemin knows that Yuta is trying to avoid what happened in 2018, Hansol letting Jaemin push himself too much, too far, the accident—
He walks right into someone, or—rather— something that whacks him right in the eye. Jaemin staggers back, blinking with one eye at a very bewildered-looking Donghyuck holding a camera.
Donghyuck, whose expression had frozen for a moment, suddenly grins with the full force of the sun, and aims his camera at him. "And here we have one of our best and brightest speed skaters from South Korea—even though he just walked into a camera—Jaemin-ssi, do you have any words for your fans?"
"Donghyuck-ah," Jaemin gasps out, and ducks under his outstretched arm. "What are you doing here?"
Donghyuck turns off his camera and purses his lips, the corners curling up into a self-satisfied smirk. "Don't act like you're so surprised to see me, Jaemin-ah, I told you I'd be coming."
Jaemin takes a step back, head still reeling. "Yeah, but—"
Of course he'd known that Donghyuck would be coming. Not only had Donghyuck swum his way to three medals a year and a half ago in Tokyo, but he'd also been also his and Jeno's best friend for most of their time in college. In 2020, Jaemin and Jeno had braved the sweltering humidity of Japan to cheer him on, waving their Yonsei hats and shirts from the stands. Naturally, Jaemin figured that Donghyuck would do the same for them, as an athlete showing support for his best friends, but certainly not as—
"You're press?" Jaemin asks, incredulous, taking a second to inspect Donghyuck's get-up. He's still wearing his Tokyo '20 jersey under a ridiculously puffy jacket, but it's the lanyard around his neck that's got his attention.
Donghyuck preens, holding out the shiny badge that reads MEDIA along the bottom. "You like it? Taeil-hyung pulled some strings for me."
Jaemin lets out a snort. "I guess I shouldn't be surprised. You just have to be flashy about everything, don't you—"
"So glad you've come around," Donghyuck sneers, raising his camera again. "Now stand still and let me film you for my vlog."
For as long as Jaemin can remember, there's always been Jeno. They'd been best friends since they were children, back when Jisung used to still follow them around in hero worship, before Jisung had decided he was too cool for Jaemin's cheek-pinching and promptly buried himself in his computer games. But that was fine with Jaemin. He'd never been one to have an expansive circle of friends. He had Jeno, and they'd both had Jisung, and that was enough.
Even after both of them had been admitted to Yonsei, Jaemin hadn't really expected much to change. There wasn't really a lot of time for socializing or all other regular college student activities anyway, not when training took up almost all of free time when he wasn't in classes or studying. But, still, that was okay.
Meeting Donghyuck, then, had been entirely a surprise, though perhaps not an unwelcome one. They'd met in English language class, where it had been painfully obvious from the get-go just how attentively one of his classmates would stare at him. And over the first few weeks of the course, Jaemin had tried hard to ignore how his classmate would gradually sit nearer and nearer to him.
"Hey," the guy had asked, now sitting in the seat directly next to Jaemin's, cupping his chin in his hand. "Why do you keep missing so many classes? You know participation's a big part of our grade."
Jaemin's never made a habit of covering up what he's doing. Speed skating had been his life up until that moment, and he wasn't about to lie to some stranger's face about it either. "I had to miss to train for my upcoming competition," Jaemin had said, glancing up to take notes down from the presentation slides. "I'm a speed skater."
That admission is usually what got the reaction—the disbelieving gasp or the wide eyes. The immediate affectation of friendship that Jaemin had quickly grown tired of, but the boy sitting next to him didn't do any of that.
"Oh, cool," is all he'd said, and then glanced over at Jaemin's notes, proceeding to copy down whatever Jaemin had written down. "Are you planning to try out for Beijing?"
Jaemin bit his lip and shrugged. "Yeah," he admitted, for the first time to anyone who wasn't Jeno, his coach, or his parents. "Yeah, I'm definitely going to try."
"Nice," said his classmate, and then sat up with a self-assured air. "Same. I mean, I'm a swimmer—so not Beijing, obviously—but you know what I mean—" He'd held out a hand and offered up a smile that's both mischievous and charming. "I'm Lee Donghyuck."
Jaemin hadn't been able to help himself from grinning back and shaking Donghyuck's hand. "Na Jaemin. Tokyo, then?"
Donghyuck's eyes glittered charmingly. "Naturally. So I guess I can't challenge you to a who-makes-it-to-the-Olympics-first competition because I'm not into winning by default, but you know—it's the thought that counts."
Jaemin laughed softly before hunching at the dirty look their professor threw them for being too noisy, and shook his head. "Well, good luck to both of us, then. Let's represent South Korea?"
Donghyuck scoffed and gave him a friendly shove. "Don't underestimate me, Na Jaemin. That's a given."
And, in the end, Donghyuck had been right. Jaemin had introduced Donghyuck to Jeno a short while after that, and the three of them had become fast friends. And when Donghyuck had qualified for the South Korean swimming team for Tokyo 2020 for the Men's one hundred meter freestyle, two hundred meter breaststroke, and one hundred meter backstroke, Jaemin and Jeno had unquestioningly followed him to Japan.
Donghyuck had walked out of there with two bronze medals and one silver—a historic first for South Korea in the Summer Games, and had become somewhat of a hero on the Yonsei campus. His fans started to call him Haechan for the towel he was using with a bright cartoon sun printed onto the terry cloth, and Jaemin and Jeno had learned to deal with Donghyuck occasionally having to bail on their hangouts to go film a CF or hold an interview.
But Donghyuck now as the one giving the interviews is hilariously full circle. Jaemin knows that it's not unheard of for non participating athletes and past Olympians to show up at Olympic events to schmooze and mingle—two things that Donghyuck is very good at, Jaemin would not hesitate to admit—but he had definitely not expected Donghyuck to show up as press.
"I'm making a vlog," Donghyuck told him point-blank, when Jaemin had called him a couple nights ago for an explanation. "Trying to cover as many practices and training sessions as possible. I'm trying to get you and Jeno, too. You'll be famous, Jaemin-ah—"
"Donghyuck-ah, I'm an Olympic athlete," Jaemin had snorted, exasperated. "I technically will already be famous after my event airs on worldwide television—"
"Already so curdled with arrogance, I see," Donghyuck tutted. "Just you wait, Jaemin-ah, I'm going to capture all your charmingly stupid points on camera and then you can get all the cute noonas you want."
"I don't want—"
"Oh, and film the men's hockey practices. I heard hockey players are really hot."
And, sure enough, Donghyuck's latest Instagram story a few days later reads, NEW VLOG UP!! Link in bio!!
It’s a rare day when Jaemin isn’t booked for the training oval. Both Jisoo and Seungcheol are out for team training, and Jeonghan had holed himself up in the other room to take a nap, so—with nothing better to do—Jaemin clicks on the link under Donghyuck’s exorbitant follower count.
Jaemin only has a second to glance at the video title (“EXCLUSIVE! Men’s hockey sneak peek~ ♡”) before he gets a screenful of Donghyuck’s chin.
“Okay,” Donghyuck is saying in what is probably supposed to be a whisper. Above his head, it’s clear they’re in one of the training venues, and echoing voices resound from somewhere off screen. “So I totally managed to get an exclusive look at the men’s ice hockey practice thanks to my shiny new media pass—” Donghyuck briefly flashes an ID badge and grins. “Let’s take a look?”
The camera shifts to an ice rink where a hockey team could be seen in the middle of practice. “Woooow,” Donghyuck whispers obnoxiously from off screen. “So I have, like, zero to negative seven understanding of how hockey works. I mean, one side just tries to hit the puck into the net, and the other side tries to stop them?”
Someone says something inaudible off screen, and then on-screen the players erupt into a frenzy of action that at a distance is too difficult to discern. “Oh shit! Who was that, number five?” The camera flips around again to reveal Donghyuck’s face, hand over his mouth in exaggerated shock. “I don’t know what just happened, but—number five Lee from Canada? Call me, you’re like, super hot—”
Jaemin closes out of YouTube, a wry smile tugging at the corners of his mouth. Donghyuck really has not changed. Neither—so it would seem—has Mark.
He rolls over onto his back, staring up at the ceiling. Even since Jeno had brought him up at the opening ceremony, Jaemin hasn't seen Mark at all. The hockey players use a different venue to train, so in theory the chances of Jaemin running into him are very slim, but still.
Jaemin lets out a heady exhale, feeling suddenly claustrophobic in his suite, and sits up. Yesterday evening, Yuta had recommended him to check out the Huawei Pop-Up Store in one of the other towers, now abuzz with their latest release of the Mate phone. Jaemin is quite happy with his iPhone, thank you very much, but maybe some window shopping couldn’t hurt. It would sure beat doing nothing.
Ten minutes later finds him in front of the sixth-floor elevator bank, hands shoved in his pockets, waiting until the car finally comes down from the upper floors. He makes to step inside, but as soon as the doors open, someone collides with Jaemin at almost running-force, and Jaemin staggers back to find himself with a chestful of Renjun.
“Move,” Renjun snaps, and it’s only when Jaemin takes a step back that he can see the look on Renjun’s face, tight and tense.
“Woah,” Jaemin says, catching Renjun’s elbow before he can scurry off. Renjun whirls around to glare at him.
Jaemin bites his lip. “What’s going on?” He tries again, turning Renjun gently to face him, frowning. “You look stressed.”
“That’s because I am,” Renjun snaps again, and tries to shake Jaemin’s grip off, though unsuccessfully. “Now can you please let me go so I can ram my head into a wall?”
Jaemin’s frown deepens, and—against all better judgment—decides to tug Renjun closer to him instead. “Something's not right," he says quietly, holding Renjun's gaze. "What’s wrong?”
Renjun blinks up at him, unnerved, and inhales sharply through his nose. And, for a moment, he looks like he’s about to open his mouth and tell him off. But what comes out instead sounds something much more like a hysterical wail. “I—they decided to switch around all the training times for tomorrow last minute, so I had to go run around to about five different teams and let them know that their buses are leaving on a new schedule, and the Australians are all hungover, and I’m pretty sure none of them got a word of what I was saying through their vodka-logged brains, and their suite smells like vomit— vomit —and now I have to go find the Chinese coaches and—”
“Woah,” Jaemin breathes, mildly alarmed, hands flying up to Renjun’s shoulders and gripping tight, and he tries not to fixate on the way Renjun's muscles tense up under his fingers. “Okay, woah. Just—hold on a second, that sounds really stressful. I—wait, you can speak English too?” Jaemin immediately backpedals at the look that Renjun gives him and tries another tactic. “You need a break,” he says decisively. “Just sit down for a minute and relax.”
Renjun makes another suppressed noise, high in his throat. “No, I need to go inform the Chinese skating team that their bus leaves at nine in the morning tomorrow—”
“Hey,” Jaemin says again, a little gentler this time, and maybe it's this that makes Renjun stop fighting his grip and look up at him through his lashes, brows furrowed. Jaemin swallows thickly. “Just—listen to me, okay? You need to relax. Take a deep breath, like this—” Jaemin inhales deeply and holds it for two seconds, before exhaling and holding that for two seconds— square breathing, something he’d learned from Yuta to break up bouts of anxiety and stress.
Renjun stubbornly holds his gaze for a couple of moments before looking away and relenting. He breathes in deep, shoulders dropping, and lets it all out, and little by little Jaemin can see some of the tension bleeding out of his face.
“Good,” Jaemin says quietly, and squeezes Renjun’s shoulders one more time. “Now try it again—”
“This is really embarrassing,” Renjun mumbles..
“It’s not,” Jaemin assures him, and Renjun glances up at him once more before closing his eyes.
Under Jaemin's fingers, Renjun looks like he's melting. Mouth soft, breath coming even now, the lines in his forehead smoothing out. Maybe whatever animal was racing around in Renjun's rib cage had crawled its way into Jaemin's now, because the more Renjun relaxes, the more Jaemin's heart hammers against the insides of his chest. So Jaemin stands there, quietly transfixed, and watches Renjun drink in breath after steadying breath, hands cupping the bones of his shoulders, until Renjun opens his eyes and stares up at him, a sweet pink blush creeping over the top of his cheekbones.
“There,” Jaemin whispers, heartbeat thundering in his ears, the moment feeling so delicately strung together, like a spiderweb. His hands are still on Renjun’s shoulders. “Feel better?”
“Yeah,” Renjun says in a voice that is very small, mouth bowing and pressing into a flat line.
That careful, lace-like silence is split open by the sound of footsteps at other end of the hallway. Renjun steps back almost immediately as another volunteer appears, looking around desperately. After spotting Renjun, he immediately hurries over to ask him something in frantic Mandarin. He has a cell phone to his ear, looking very much like he’s trying to multitask and failing miserably. Jaemin steps back quietly, wondering if all the volunteers here are on the verge of simultaneous breakdowns.
Renjun answers back tersely, his face back to neutral, makes to walk off with the other volunteer, who immediately resumes his phone conversation in what sounds like rapid-fire German.
Jaemin hangs back, almost as if in a daze, and when they're almost out of earshot, Renjun turns over his shoulder to give him a small, faint smile.
Jaemin returns it with a shaky grin.
He takes to staying in the common area, bringing out his computer to valiantly attempt some semblance of studying. Even though he'd gotten an official leave of absence from Yonsei, Jaemin is still determined not to fall behind in his program.
He sees Renjun frequently, which of course had been the whole point, even if it's mostly for just seconds at a time, Jaemin angling a smile at him over the top of his computer screen and Renjun sometimes returning it when he's not rushing past on some official business.
"Why d'you spend so much time outside of our suite, Jaemin-ah?" Jisoo asks him one day as Jaemin comes out of their room with his arms full of textbooks and charging cables. "Is it fun out there?"
"He's waiting for that one volunteer," Seungcheol says through a mouthful of Chapagetti, raising his eyebrows. "You know, out by the elevators."
Jaemin flushes intensely as Jisoo frowns a little. "Is he the one who helps us with the buses?"
"One of them, yeah," Jeonghan adds. "I guess Jaeminnie likes him more than us."
"It's nothing like that," Jaemin says quickly, grabbing one of the many bottled coffees he'd bought from the convenience store and stockpiled in their fridge. "It's just—I can't really study in here."
Seungcheol scoffs. "You're probably like the only person who is studying right now, I hope you know."
"You can go study, Jaemin-ah," Jisoo tells him kindly, and Jaemin gives him a small, relieved smile.
In the end, he doesn't do that much studying, spending most of his time looking up the people he'd most likely have to face in the final.
Chung Jaewon, naturally, is one of them—but Jaemin had had the luxury of being able to keep an eye on him for the past year, to monitor his technique and skating style. Jaewon's style is similar to Jaemin's, in that they both like to save up their energy for the final moments rather than burst ahead in the earlier laps for the lead. They're both fairly evenly matched in their times as well, which is equally relieving as it is frustrating,
The two skaters that worry Jaemin the most, though, are the Zhu–Wen duo from China—both Winter Olympic first-timers who, in the span of about a year, had risen to the top ranks of Chinese speed skating from seemingly nowhere. Wen Junhui had actually competed in the Men's 4 × 100 meters track relay at Rio 2016, but apart from that, both he and his fellow athlete Zhu Zhengting had appeared on the winter sports scene practically from out of thin air.
Jaemin clicks on a video of one of Zhengting's competitions in China, frowning immensely when the link takes him to one of Zhengting's fan bases on Weibo. He scowls at the log-in page, entirely in Chinese.
Someone laughs, and Jaemin snaps his head up, flushing. Renjun is leaning against one of the other chairs in the common room, his earpiece dangling from his fingertips.
"You look like you've just been fed overly salty rice," Renjun comments mildly, the corners of his mouth curling up.
Jaemin exhales slowly and scoots his computer back, shoulders slumping in defeat. "Do you have a Weibo account?"
Renjun scoffs, going around to elbow his way into Jaemin's space. "That's an incredibly stupid question," he says, fingers already typing in his username and password before pushing Jaemin's computer back at him.
Jaemin grins a little at that. "You're not worried that I'm going to hack your account and post an embarrassing status?"
"If you could read and write in Chinese, maybe," Renjun says with a cloying insincerity. He watches over Jaemin's shoulder as the webpage Jaemin had been trying to view loads on his screen and frowns a little. "What were you doing trying to look up Zhu Zhengting?"
Jaemin shrugs. "Just trying to do do a little recon on my competition. It can't hurt."
Renjun frowns then, his face going unreadable for a moment. "I suppose not," he says slowly, hands coming up to cup his elbows. "Maybe I should just let you focus."
"No," Jaemin says, a little too quickly, and smiles sheepishly. "You can stay, if you want. I—I like having you around."
Renjun definitely goes red at that, but he still shakes his head. "I'm off break in five minutes anyway. I just thought—"
It's his tone of voice that catches Jaemin off guard—uncertain, hesitant.
Jaemin closes the lid of his laptop, smiling curiously at him. "What's up?"
Renjun crosses his arms and exhales through his nose. "Uh, some of the volunteers are going out tonight," he says, then looks away, flushing a little. "If you want, you could come. I don't know if you're into that scene or not, but—"
Jaemin grins, wide and pleased. He is not, to be truthful, really into that kind of scene, but if Renjun is asking—if Renjun wants him to come—
"You don't have to come if you don't want to," Renjun says quickly, and his cheeks glow even brighter, brows furrowing in embarrassment. "Just thought I would—"
"I'd love to," Jaemin cuts in, standing up from the table he'd been working at, and Renjun goes even redder. Jaemin thinks it's adorable. "Are there going to be other athletes?"
Renjun shakes his head furiously. "Just me and three other volunteers. Nothing crazy. Just—" He makes a dismissive wave of his hand. "God, go away, I hate when you make that face—"
Jaemin laughs, getting the hint. "Fine, fine," he says, raising his hands in mock resignation. He's about to start packing up, but then something occurs to him.
"I should probably get your contact info," Jaemin says, eyes creasing up into a smile.
Renjun looks like he's about to protest, but ultimately relents. "Fine," he mumbles, pulling out his phone and tapping some icons on his screen. "Here's my QR code," he says, holding his phone out.
Jaemin frowns at the screen, expecting to see KakaoTalk but instead seeing WeChat open. "I don't have that," he says. "You don't have KaTalk?"
Renjun raises an eyebrow, pursing his lips almost childishly. "Do you want my contact or not?"
Jaemin laughs at that. "Really making me work for it, huh," he says, quickly downloading WeChat and setting up his account. "All right," he says triumphantly, scanning Renjun's code and typing a short message.
Renjun peers at his request and crinkles his nose in disgust. "Nana? That's so—" He rolls his eyes. "I guess I'll message you later then."
"Great," Jaemin says, tucking his phone away with an inexplicable sense of accomplishment.
The message comes later that evening, Jaemin practically leaping for his phone when the alert goes off.
« 仁俊 »
meet outside tower at 8
if you're late we're leaving you behind lol
« 나나 »
Jaemin's not entirely what constitutes going-out attire. He doesn't frequent the nightlife scene at all in Seoul, preferring much more to drape himself over Jeno and force him to watch shitty American movies or going to his training rink by himself and skating until his legs feel like giving out.
But Jaemin goes down the elevators at exactly ten till, hands shoved in the jacket that Jisoo had graciously lent him, and clears his throat.
Renjun is already outside. Jaemin doesn't know why he had expected Renjun to still be in his volunteer uniform, but the sight of Renjun in skinny pants and a thick coat truly catches him off guard, the flush rushing up to his cheeks having very little to do with the night chill.
Renjun isn't alone, standing next to a volunteer Jaemin vaguely recognizes. Renjun glances up when he hears Jaemin's footsteps, and his mouth twists up. "Guess you weren't late, then."
"Of course not," Jaemin says, looking at the other person expectantly, and Renjun makes a disgruntled noise.
"This is Olympic athlete Na Jaemin," he says with exaggerated pomp. "And this is Yangyang."
"Hello, Olympic athlete Na Jaemin-ssi," Yangyang says cheerfully, offering up an unnervingly wide smile that makes Jaemin feel entirely too self-conscious, like Yangyang is surveying him with X-ray vision.
"Nice to meet you," he says, before turning back to Renjun. "Are we waiting for anyone else?"
Renjun opens his mouth, but then presumably the last of their party comes up behind Renjun, one of them kicking him playfully in the leg and peering at Jaemin curiously, the other looking bored and poker-faced.
"Is this the guy you're always going on about?" one of them asks in Korean, again surprising Jaemin. The Olympic volunteers are truly a force to be reckoned with.
Renjun goes a bright red. "Ge," he says in an honest-to-god whine. "I do not—"
The volunteer laughs and flings an arm around Renjun's shoulders. "I'm Kun. Good to finally meet you," Kun says, extending a hand, and Jaemin cannot stop grinning as he shakes it.
"Sicheng," the last volunteer says without even looking up from his phone. "We should be leaving."
Renjun rolls his eyes again. "Where are we going?"
Kun waves a hand. "I've been everywhere, so I'm leaving it up to Sicheng—"
Sicheng taps his phone screen. "Dianping says Regal Club is good. Let's just call a taxi—"
Renjun frowns. "There are five of us, though. We won't fit."
"You and Jaemin-ssi can share one then," Sicheng says, finally looking up with a wicked smirk, and Renjun promptly shuts up.
"Great," he mutters, and Jaemin momentarily feels bad.
"I can pay for the taxi, no problem—" he starts, but Renjun waves a hand dismissively.
Sicheng pulls out his phone and gives Jaemin a glance over. "Did Renjun make you download WeChat?" he asks, all too knowingly.
Jaemin snorts, nodding, and Sicheng gestures for his phone. Jaemin hands it over and lets Sicheng presumably add himself to Jaemin's WeChat contacts.
"You know," Sicheng says. "Just in case you get separated from any of us."
"Ah," Jaemin says. "Smart."
The group of them reach of the entrance of the Olympic Village and Sicheng sends Renjun the address before he, Kun, and Yangyang pile into the first taxi, leaving Renjun and Jaemin alone waiting for the next one.
Jaemin awkwardly shoves his hands into his pockets. "Are you sure this is okay? I mean—coming out with you all. I don't want to be a bother."
Renjun snorts through his nose, but doesn't look up from his phone. "You're already a bother," he says, but without any bite. Renjun finally looks up at him, brow raised. "Look, I said it's fine, right?"
Jaemin holds his gaze for a moment before breaking out into a grin. "So you talk about me a lot, huh?"
"Oh please," Renjun scoffs, but flushes pink anyway. "More like complain."
Jaemin doesn't bring it up again as they get into the next taxi, sliding in after Renjun, but every now and then he glances up to see Renjun meeting his gaze. Jaemin offers up a smile, and is surprised when Renjun returns it.
The Regal Club is a very posh, upscale-looking night lounge with an intimidatingly long line of people waiting outside, but Renjun, reading instructions from his phone, marches right up to the bouncer and says something magical that gets them directly in past the line. Jaemin can see the other three already waiting at the bar, waving them over.
As soon as they get to the bar, Sicheng immediately buys a round of shots. Everyone takes theirs promptly, Jaemin staring at the shot glass that had been thrust into his hands.
"Well?" Sicheng raises an eyebrow, and Jaemin flushes as all eyes turn to him.
"I'm so sorry, I should've mentioned that I'm not drinking tonight," he says slowly. "I still have to practice tomorrow."
Sicheng makes a scoff, looking like he's about to protest, but Kun interrupts. "It's fine, let Jaemin-ssi have a Coke or something."
Jaemin grins, sheepish, before turning to Renjun. "Unless, I mean—you're the one who invited me out, do you want me to drink with you?"
Renjun scowls and shrugs. "I'm not the Olympic athlete here. Do whatever you want."
"I think what he means to say—" Yangyang says delicately, plucking the shot glass out of Jaemin's hand and sliding it across the bar to Renjun. "—is that Renjun would love to take your shot for you."
Jaemin laughs weakly as Renjun promptly gives Yangyang the finger before downing the contents. "Yuck," he says, making a face.
"Did you all know each other prior to this?" Jaemin asks, letting Sicheng and Yangyang steer him toward a table while Kun leaves to go get more drinks.
"Yes," Sicheng and Yangyang say at the same time that Renjun says, "Unfortunately."
Yangyang laughs and slides in next to Sicheng, reaching across the table to poke at Renjun's arm. "We go to uni together," he tells Jaemin.
"But we all attended the same summer program at Yonsei last year," Kun says, arriving to set a large pitcher of beer, four glasses, and a can of soda on the table. "And we just decided to keep in touch."
"Wait, Yonsei?" Jaemin half laughs, sitting up straighter in his seat. "I'm a Yonsei student."
Renjun's eyebrows fly up into his hairline as Yangyang laughs out loud. "Wow, small world!" He pulls a pair of dice from his pocket and looks around. "Sevens, elevens, doubles?"
"Down," Sicheng says, pushing an empty glass into the center of the table. He leans forward, grinning, already red across his nose. "Did you know that once Renjun was so drunk that he threw up outside Bar Zen and we all had to carry him into the taxi?"
The others laugh as Renjun goes a dark scarlet, scowling furiously. "At least I didn't fall asleep in the subway station at two in the morning!"
Yangyang rolls a seven and points at Renjun, who rolls his eyes and picks up the glass to drink.
"In my defense, I was very warm," Yangyang says serenely, continuing to roll the dice. "How was I supposed to remember that the subway stops running after one?"
Kun laughs, clinking glasses with Sicheng. "Because your Korean sucked, Yangyang."
"It still sucks," Renjun says between sips, rolling his eyes.
Yangyang raises an eyebrow and promptly rolls a pair of threes. He flashes a smile at Renjun, sharp and knifelike. "Too bad!"
Jaemin smiles to himself, not really understanding the game, but instead preoccupying himself with how Renjun's cheeks slowly grow pinker and pinker the more he loses—a most regular occurrence, Yangyang assures him.
"Fuck you, Yangyang," Renjun says without much bite and leans across the table to steal some of his water.
"Are you okay?" Jaemin asks him sincerely, and Renjun stops mid-sip to peer up at Jaemin over the top of his glass. He really is cute like this, all flushed right under his eyes and skin slightly dewy from the alcohol.
"I'm fine," Renjun says, setting down his glass, and to his credit, he really does sound it. "I'm used to drinking with them."
Jaemin laughs again and pulls out his phone to play with, only to be surprised with a series of messages from Jeno.
i'm bored :(
are u too cool for me now
ㅋㅋㅋ sorry i'm out right now!
what i thought u said u weren't gonna party
u traitor ㅠㅠㅠ
nooo, i'm not drinking
i just tagged along with some of the volunteers
we're in chaoyang
"Who're you texting?" Yangyang reaches over to snatch Jaemin's phone out of his hands. "Girlfriend?"
"No!" Jaemin swipes for his phone but misses and accidentally knocks over Kun's glass of beer. He makes to hastily mop it up with a napkin. "It's my best friend."
Yangyang only spends a few seconds to briefly scroll through the conversation before handing his phone back. " Do you have a girlfriend though?"
Jaemin freezes as he feels eyes on him again, and swallows. "No," he says, looking up to see Renjun staring at him intently. "No, I don't."
"Oh," Yangyang says, sounding disappointed, while Kun hits Jaemin on the back.
"That's all right, you're still young!" he tells him, in what is probably supposed to be a reassuring voice.
"How old are you?" Sicheng asks pointedly, looking at him over the top of his glass, and Jaemin is about to answer when Renjun cuts in.
"Twenty-one," he says. "Same as me."
"Oh," Jaemin says, surprised, at the same time that Kun's face breaks out into a rakish grin.
Renjun immediately crosses his arms. "You all act like Olympic athlete information isn't publicly available online."
"You looked me up?" Jaemin asks, unable to help the smile spreading across his face. Renjun is cute when he's huffy.
"Had to see if you're as fast as you say you are," Renjun mumbles, sipping at his water. "Don't think too deeply into it."
Jaemin is vaguely aware of Yangyang standing up to brush past Sicheng and Kun on his way to the bathroom, but he can't take his eyes off Renjun's face, the soft glitter of his eyes in the dimness of the room. "And what were your findings?"
Renjun holds his gaze for a moment. "I'll have to see it in person to believe it."
"Then come watch me practice," Jaemin says quietly. "You're allowed to, right?"
"Yeah," Renjun says, after giving it a moment's consideration. "Yeah, I suppose I could. If you'd be okay with that."
"We're allowed to watch the athletes train," Sicheng says, before Jaemin can answer, and drains the rest of his glass. "Volunteers and press, I mean."
Kun smirks. "Of course you would know, wouldn't you? Spending all your time with that one sports reporter from Chosun Ilbo or whatever?"
"I've done no such thing," Sicheng says primly, but Jaemin can see how he flushes red right across his nose as he stands up from the table. "Gonna go check on Yangyang."
Jaemin chuckles a little bit as silence falls between the remaining three of them, only broken when Kun flags down a passing server with a tray of drinks.
"Maybe one last round?" Kun asks, raising his eyebrows at both of them.
"Sure," Renjun says, holding his hand out for a glass.
Kun passes him a drink and pauses for a moment before looking up at Jaemin. "Are you sure I can't interest you in one? This place has really good drinks."
Next to him, Jaemin can feel Renjun's expectant gaze on him. He shakes his head apologetically at Kun. "Thank you, really, but I shouldn't."
Kun offers back an understanding smile. "Of course, you still have to train."
Renjun frowns almost imperceptibly for a moment, but then takes a long sip from his glass. "Right," he says quietly.
Jaemin swallows, turning to look at him. "I'm sorry, I'm not that much fun, huh?"
Renjun shrugs, finishing off the rest of his glass with a definitively affected nonchalance. "I told you it's fine. Skating is your top priority, right, Jaemin-ssi?"
Jaemin freezes for a second, trying to parse the hint of resentment he could've sworn he heard in Renjun's voice, and licks his lips.
"I—" he starts, taking in the way Renjun is looking up at him so carefully composed, even like this. "Just—Jaemin-ah is fine, if you want—" he blurts out. "We're the same age, right?"
A strange mix of expressions crosses Renjun's face before he purses his lips and breaks eye contact. "Okay, Jaemin-ah."
Jaemin exhales slowly, accidentally catching Kun's eye. Kun just shakes his head and takes another sip of his drink.
The awkward silence is broken by Yangyang flopping back down into his seat, snuggling immediately up to Kun.
"He's pretty gone," Sicheng says, sitting down after him. "He threw up in the bathroom."
Kun sighs, reaching up to ruffle Yangyang's hair. Yangyang makes a pleased noise and buries his face into Kun's shoulder. "Maybe we should call it a night?"
"Oh," Jaemin says, glancing over at Renjun, who's leaning over the table with his chin cupped in his hands. "Is that all right with you?"
Renjun closes his eyes, his lashes dark and pretty against his cheeks. "Yeah, whatever."
Sicheng clears his throat pointedly. "You two go on," he tells Jaemin, nodding at the door. "We just need to take care of this—"
Jaemin is already standing up, taking out his wallet. "Please, let me pay—"
Both Renjun and Sicheng snort, and Kun grins. "Jaemin-ssi," Kun says, amused. He's full on petting Yangyang's hair now. "This is my uncle's place. We got it."
Jaemin closes his mouth dumbly, and then a small hand closes around his elbow. Jaemin turns to see Renjun gazing up at him, eyes quietly pleading.
"Come on, Jaemin-ah," Renjun is saying in a soft, low voice, and Jaemin's heart does one too many flips in his ribcage. "Let's wait outside."
Jaemin licks his lips, staring down at Renjun's fingers wrapped around his arm, and lets Renjun tug him through the front doors.
Outside in the chill, Renjun is flushed even pinker, his eyes half-lidded and glimmering in the downtown lights. Jaemin chews at his lips slowly, stepping closer to him.
"Are you feeling okay?" he asks quietly.
Renjun looks up at him, brows knitting together. "Yeah," he says. "Just needed the air."
In the invigorating chill of the evening, Jaemin thinks that maybe he understands. He smiles, shoving his hands into his pockets. "Renjun-ah," he tries out, feeling his smile grow bigger at the way Renjun colors at that. "I—thank you for inviting me out tonight. I know I didn't drink, but—it was fun."
For a moment, Renjun doesn't say anything and stares out into the passing headlights of the cars in the street. "Well, I'm glad you could spare some time in your busy training schedule for us."
Jaemin swallows. "I like spending time with you," he says slowly. "It's nice."
Renjun glances back up at him, the color high in his cheeks, and then finally his face breaks into a soft, pretty smile. "Good to know," he says. He casts a look over his shoulder at the bar entrance and steps in closer, leaning up against Jaemin's side.
Jaemin's breath catches in his chest as Renjun leans his weight on him, just the barest bit unsteady. "I thought you said you weren't drunk," he says, almost to himself.
"I'm not," Renjun mumbles back, just as quietly, and then turns to press his cheek into Jaemin's shoulder. "I'm just cold. And you're warm."
For a moment, Renjun's words hang in the silence between them, expectant. Jaemin hesitates, and then decidedly loops an arm around Renjun's shoulders, pulling him in closer. "Is that better?"
Renjun makes a soft, surprised noise into Jaemin's padded jacket but doesn't move away, pushing his nose into Jaemin's collarbone. Jaemin only holds him tighter, right there in the middle of that sidewalk in downtown Beijing, and wonders if Renjun can feel how fast his heart is hammering against his ribs. If Renjun can feel the heat from Jaemin's body and know that it's not because of the cold, or Jaemin's many layers of clothing.
"Wah, me too, me too—" A whiny voice breaks the silence, and then all at once Jaemin feels a third body collide with them clumsily.
"Yangyang," Renjun says, stepping back almost immediately, sounding slightly flustered. "You're heavy—"
Jaemin tries to ignore the way his chest aches at the loss of contact from Renjun and loops an arm around Yangyang instead, his face burning. "Huddle for warmth, I guess?"
"Isn't this cute," Kun's voice comes from behind him as he exits the bar, Sicheng following him.
Sicheng smirks. "Think Jaemin-ssi can get them both back to Olympic Village in one piece?"
Kun smiles indulgently, looking for all the world like he hadn't even drunk a single cocktail. "I'm sure they'll be fine. Renjun is surprisingly sharp when he's like this."
Renjun protests with a huff, and Jaemin's heart skips a little, tightening his grip on Renjun's arm.
As it turns out, Kun is right. When Renjun slides into the passenger seat of the taxi and barks directions at the driver, he sounds perfectly fine, even if his words are slurring just a little.
Jaemin looks over to his right and snorts at the sight of Yangyang already passed out in his seat, and in front Renjun on his phone and frowning down at his screen. Almost as if he can sense eyes on him, Renjun glances behind him at Jaemin.
"I'm fine," he insists, waving his phone at him. "See, look, I'm texting you—"
Jaemin looks down at his phone curiously, seeing his screen light up with a WeChat message from Renjun.
« 仁俊 »
Jaemin looks up, lips curling up in a grin. "What'd you send me?"
Renjun makes an embarrassed noise, turning back around stubbornly.
Jaemin laughs. "What? What is it?"
"It's Nana," Renjun mumbles, and a gentle heat suffuses through Jaemin's body before another grin splits across his face.
"Cute," he murmurs under his breath, and changes his display name.
As soon as they arrive, Renjun impresses him further by being able to accurately count the change for their driver, before taking off in great long strides.
"Renjun-ah," Jaemin calls, still holding the door open for Yangyang. "Wait—"
"Don't worry about him," Yangyang says, standing up much straighter than he was half an hour ago. "He knows what he's doing."
Jaemin raises a brow before turning back to where Renjun is already speed walking off in the direction of their building.
Yangyang hums something indistinct under his breath. "You know," he says, and now Jaemin turns to stare at him because he really does not sound anywhere near as drunk as he did earlier. "You're all right. I was skeptical, but you're pretty okay, Olympic athlete Na Jaemin-ssi."
Jaemin gives him a somewhat tight smile. "I thought you were drunk," he says, unsure if he's amused or not.
Yangyang winks at him. "Of course I am," he says, before speeding up to catch up to Renjun.
Jaemin lets out a wheezy half-laugh before jogging to catch up with both of them.
The next morning, Jaemin wakes up to several messages from a WeChat contact he doesn't recognize, but he has a strong feeling who they're from.
« 捣蛋鬼☆杨杨 »
Jaemin taps on the photo and almost sinks into his bed in mortification. It's a picture of Renjun passed out in the bathroom, head resting on the toilet seat. Clearly, he'd had one hell of night after getting back to his and Yangyang's room.
« 娜娜 »
is he doing okay?
« 捣蛋鬼☆杨杨 »
well, i tried to wake him up this morning
and he just pushed me away and said go away xD
so you tell me
A laugh bubbles up in his throat, and Jaemin grins despite himself.
When Jaemin goes downstairs with Yuta the next morning, he's not expecting to see Yangyang in Renjun's place directing the skaters to their respective busses.
Jaemin isn't aware of how intensely he's frowning until Yangyang cackles in his face.
"Okay, I get it, you're disappointed to see me."
"That's not it," Jaemin says hastily. "I just—is Renjun okay?"
"Still in bed," Yangyang tells him serenely. "We switched shifts so he could sleep off his headache. He is not a happy camper right now."
Jaemin frowns even more, but lets Yuta steer him onto the bus.
"Na Jaemin-ssi!" Yangyang calls, and Jaemin turns around curiously.
"Renjun really likes those shitty sesame-flavored cup noodles." Yangyang gives him a pointed look. "You know, the kind you can buy in the convenience store. Just FYI."
Jaemin's face breaks into a sheepish grin. "Duly noted," he tells him, before Yuta tugs him down into his seat.
True to Yangyang's word, Jaemin's first glimpse of Renjun is toward the evening. Jaemin sticks his head out of their suite for the fifth time that day, and his heart nearly leaps into his mouth when he sees Renjun's familiar yellow hat.
His back is to him, so Jaemin can't see what he's sure would be a very disgruntled, tired, and irritated face, but Jaemin ducks back into their suite before Renjun can see him, turning on the hot water kettle, before tearing open the plastic cling wrap on the cup noodles he'd procured earlier at the athlete convenience store.
As he's pouring water into the cup, the door to the other room in the suite opens and Seungcheol steps into the kitchen, sniffing. "You making cup ramyun?"
Jaemin turns around, flushing. "Oh, it's, uh. For my friend."
Seungcheol makes a face. "That volunteer again?" He rolls his eyes. "Well, we're going out tonight," he says, pointing at both rooms. "And I know you went out with those volunteer guys last night, so don't say you don't party. You gonna come with us this time or what?"
"I did, but I didn't drink," Jaemin says patiently, stirring the cup's contents.
"Okaaay," Seungcheol says, giving him a very pointed look. "So come and just don't drink? We're roommates at the Olympics, Jaemin-ah, are you really not gonna go out with us just once?"
Jaemin gives him an apologetic smile. "Sorry, not tonight."
Seungcheol grunts in response and heads back into his room while Jaemin tends to the noodles. A minute later, all three of his suitemates come out dressed very dapper.
"We'll miss you, Jaemin-ah," Jisoo tells him sincerely, and Jaemin gives him a warm smile.
"Go have fun, hyung!" he says, following them all to the door and checking outside again. Renjun is still out there discussing something with another volunteer, and Jaemin waves his suitemates goodbye. As soon as they disappear, Jaemin makes his way down the hall toward Renjun.
Renjun turns around before Jaemin can say anything. "No, no, go away," he snaps. "I feel terrible and I don't feel like dealing with you right now."
Jaemin is nothing if not a patient guy. He smiles sunnily at him and gives him a once-over. "How do you feel?"
"Like shit," Renjun mutters, and truthfully he does look it, his eyes ringed with shadows and complexion sallow, like he'd barely slept.
Jaemin gestures over his shoulder at his suite. "Want to come in for a sec?"
"What do you think volunteers do, Jaemin-ah?" Renjun says, exasperated. "I'm on shift. I have to be working."
"I have Chamkke noodles," Jaemin tells him, grinning broader when Renjun pauses. "You haven't eaten anything all day, have you?"
Renjun gives him the biggest, most displeased scowl, and that's how Jaemin knows that he's won. "Of course not, I was puking my guts up all this morning."
Jaemin doesn't even have to say anything, just gestures over to his room one more time, and Renjun groans, grabbing him by the arm and marching over to Jaemin's suite.
The Chamkke noodle cup is on the table where Jaemin had left it, and Renjun immediately sits down to tuck in. Jaemin laughs, pulling up a chair next to him.
Renjun stops eating, glaring at him suspiciously, and swallows. "How'd you know I like these?"
Jaemin only smiles, shrugging. "Maybe it was just a lucky guess."
"Lucky guess my ass," Renjun shoots back, wiping his mouth on the back of his hand. "More like a little bird told you."
"The only little bird here is you," Jaemin says, before he can stop himself, and grins widely at the flush across Renjun's nose bridge.
Renjun rolls his eyes at that, and makes to take another bite, before frowning, and setting his chopsticks down carefully.
"Wait," he says slowly, looking first from the cup noodles to Jaemin. "Are you not going to eat any?"
Jaemin shrugs again. "I only bought one. It's fine."
Renjun flushes red at that and takes a noisy sip of the soup. "Thanks for this," he says, in a quiet voice. "I really didn't think I'd be able to eat until later."
Jaemin cups his chin in his palm, giving him an easy smile. "You didn't look too hot last night. I kind of figured."
"Do you do this for all volunteers?" Renjun asks in between bites.
Jaemin has to reign in his smile. "Just the volunteers who ask me out for drinks and go to work the next day hungover."
Renjun huffs at that, an indignant flush creeping up the back of his neck. "I've gone to work with worse hangovers than this," he admits.
"Oh?" Jaemin prompts, leaning forward on his elbows. "Party animal, are we?"
"Absolutely not," Renjun scoffs, pushing his empty cup away from him. "It's just—I get competitive very easily."
"Sounds like you'd make a good athlete," Jaemin says.
Renjun winces. "I highly doubt they're going to make competitive shotgunning an Olympic sport any time soon," he says dryly, and Jaemin lets out a laugh.
"Shotgunning beer?" He repeats, incredulous.
"Why do you sound so shocked?" Renjun scowls.
Jaemin's lips quirk up at that. "I guess I thought you didn't seem like the type."
Renjun snorts, shaking his head. "You'd be surprised what I'd do for attention."
It's here that Renjun hesitates a little, staring at Jaemin from over his crossed arms. Jaemin holds his gaze, expectant, until Renjun releases a long exhale.
"I—" he starts uncertainly. "When I was in high school, I bleached my hair and dyed it pink to make my crush notice me."
The laugh that bubbles up out of Jaemin is entirely unexpected. "Pink?" he repeats. "That's really—"
"I know," Renjun laughs himself, and Jaemin feels a little bit of relief. "Our principal lost it—I was at the top of my class and I still got suspended for three days."
"Well, did it work?" Jaemin scoots closer to his bed. "Did your crush notice you?"
Renjun holds his gaze for a prolonged moment before looking away. "No," he says, flushing prettily across his nose. "No, he didn't."
Jaemin's eyes widen, the weight of Renjun's words sinking in slowly, and he too feels the heat of a blush spread across his face. "Oh," he says, perhaps a little bit in awe, and licks his lips. "I—my high school crush—he didn't return my feelings either."
"Oh," Renjun echoes, and the silence that follows is threaded with something, and Jaemin is sure he isn't imagining it when Renjun's eyes drop down to his mouth.
"Your lips—" Renjun starts, brows threading together. "They're bleeding."
Jaemin flushes, bringing his fingers up to his mouth. When they come away, he can see red smears. "They're just dry. I chew at them sometimes. It's a bad habit."
Renjun frowns at that. Jaemin stands up, embarrassed, in the awkward pause that follows. "Do you want tea?"
Renjun's still frowning, but there's something quiet and discerning in his gaze, something that weighs down heavy over Jaemin as he goes through the cabinets for the hot water kettle. "That would be nice," he says, softly.
Jaemin smiles briefly before busying himself with the tea. He puts a mug down in front of Renjun, watching him wrap bony fingers around the handle.
"What are you staring at?" Renjun asks, hushed. A strange, but not uncomfortable silence falls between them.
"Your fingers," Jaemin says before he can stop himself. Heat floods his face as he looks up to see Renjun's reaction. Renjun is blushing, brows furrowed as he looks right back at him.
"What about them?"
Jaemin swallows. He doesn't know how to tell Renjun that his fingers look like piano keys, slim and elegant like the Kawai back at his parents' house. "Can I see?" he asks instead, and holds out his hand, almost certain that Renjun wouldn't oblige him.
Renjun fixes his gaze on Jaemin for another moment, as if searching his face for something. But, surprisingly, he obliges, and Jaemin reaches out to grasp his hand before his thoughts can catch up with the rest of him.
The silence tenses and sharpens to a point as Jaemin slowly shifts to lace their fingers together, staring at the tips of Renjun's fingers slotted between Jaemin's own.
Renjun stares for a hard moment at their hands before snapping his eyes onto Jaemin. "Jaemin-ah—"
"You have—" Jaemin says, almost a whisper. "—really small hands."
"Oh," Renjun says, just as hushed. Almost imperceptibly, Jaemin swears he can feel Renjun squeeze before pulling his hand back. "I—is that a bad thing?"
Jaemin licks his lips, skin peeling and dry. "No."
Renjun isn't looking at him anymore, fixating instead on the Olympic decals emblazoned on the walls of his suite, before stifling a yawn.
"Are you tired?" Jaemin blurts out, frowning. "Do you want to rest?"
Renjun shakes his head, almost apologetically. "No, I—" Another yawn escapes him, and he flushes again. "Actually, I might just put my head down for a second."
Jaemin nods wordlessly, as Renjun does just that. For a second, he watches Renjun's shoulders rise and fall with his breathing, but then he gets up in a hurry, feeling like watching Renjun sleep is oddly intrusive.
His phone is blinking at him from his bed, and Jaemin unlocks it to see a message waiting from Yangyang.
« 捣蛋鬼☆杨杨 »
so did you find him? kkk
« 娜娜 »
yeah, thanks for the tip
he's resting right now
« 捣蛋鬼☆杨杨 »
Jaemin blinks down at his phone screen, unsure of what to make of that last message. He gets up to peek back into the kitchen, and to his surprise he finds Renjun full asleep at his kitchen table. Jaemin feels a smile tug at his lips as he sits back down, feeling incredibly self-conscious watching Renjun sleep.
He's not sure when his own eyes fall closed, or when he drifts off to sleep after him.
And when Jaemin wakes up, about an hour later, Renjun is gone. His empty noodle cup is still on the table, but there's something else next to it as well. Jaemin picks it up.
It's a tube of Innisfree lip balm, bright yellow like Renjun's hat. Jaemin opens it carefully and smells it, before gliding the lip balm onto his lips.
He licks them, tentatively. It tastes like honey.
"You're drifting too far into the inner lane," Yuta comments as Jaemin slows to a stop on the track, panting heavily.
"I know," Jaemin says, a little childishly, then winces. "Sorry."
Yuta tsks and crosses his arms. "Take a break, Jaemin-ah. You're gonna pull something in your waist if you keep it up for too long. And plus—" Yuta's voice turns amused, and Jaemin whips around to see Renjun coming down from the stands to lean against the side of the rink.
Renjun is wearing an amusing mix of awe and begrudging acceptance on his face as Jaemin glides over to the ice entrance.
“So I guess you are fast,” Renjun concedes, and Jaemin grins as he gets off the ice, broad and pleased. He knows a Huang Renjun compliment when he hears one.
“Did you think I was lying?” he asks, pulling off his helmet and raking his fingers back through his sweaty hair.
Renjun scoffs. “An athlete makes it to the Olympics once, and suddenly they think they’re hot stuff. I don’t know, you tell me.”
Jaemin laughs, pulling on his blade guards and plopping down onto the bench to grin up at him. “I see. So I’ll just have to win here in Beijing, then again in Calgary, and then again in wherever it is next—and then you’ll believe me?”
For some reason, Renjun frown at that, as if it wasn't the answer he'd been expecting. “So—you’re really planning to keep going after this. What if you win gold?”
Jaemin shrugs, stretching out his legs. “What if I do? I’ll still try for Calgary. Even if I don’t win anything, I’ll go.”
His own stark honesty surprises him, and Jaemin realizes that this is the first time he's ever voiced aloud the possibility of not medaling. He glances up at Renjun to see him staring at him.
“You really have your heart in this, don’t you,” Renjun says quietly, sounding a little wistful. “This is your number one priority, isn’t it?”
Jaemin swallows, choosing his words. “Speed skating is my life,” he says honestly. “This has been my dream since I was little. I would love to win gold, of course, but I’ll keep coming back to the Olympics for as long as they’ll let me. Even if I never win anything, ever.”
Renjun crosses his arms and looks away for a moment. “You’ll win something. I’m sure of it.”
And that makes Jaemin smile, even as his heart clenches with something inexplicable. “Will you—will you come to my event?’
Renjun turns to him once more and offers back a smile that may or may not be strained. “Of course.”
It's drawing closer to his event, and Jaemin is getting increasingly more on edge as his trainings become harder and harder. For the past few days, Yuta had not let up on his critique, and Jaemin more often than not stumbled back into his room at night too tired to even speak.
Today, though, is one that he's been looking forward to.
On his phone flashes a Kakaotalk notification from Jisung.
I’m here hyung~
Jaemin snorts, having already known when Jisung was flying out four hours ago. Jisung’s team had made a big fuss on Twitter, posting pictures of Jisung looking embarrassed in front of his terminal (@GGsung_OW is heading out to Beijing to watch the Olympics!! Say hi if you see him~ #ShockFam #Beijing2022), the bright orange of his San Francisco Shock windbreaker clashing terribly with his bleached hair.
Jaemin grins to himself and promptly calls him, patiently listening to the dial out tone.
Jisung picks up after a couple of rings, sounding flustered. “Hyung, this city is really too big—”
Jaemin laughs. “Where are you staying?”
“Some hotel?” Though Jaemin can’t see him, he most certainly can imagine the face Jisung is making now, nose scrunch and everything. “I don’t know, one of my coaches booked it for me—”
“You should come visit me,” Jaemin hums.
Jisung makes a soft snuffling noise. "Am I even allowed to?"
"Of course, Jisung-ah," Jaemin simpers. "You're basically family to me."
Jaemin can practically hear Jisung roll his eyes. "On second thought," Jisung says, sounding utterly disgusted. "Maybe I'll just fly back to America—"
Jaemin lets out a laugh. "Ah, Jisung-ah, it's so funny how you act like you hate me when you've just gotten off a thirteen-hour flight to watch me compete!"
Jisung makes a wounded noise. "How do you know I'm not here to cheer on Jeno-hyung?"
"A mother's intuition never lies," Jaemin coos, singsong. "Now do you need me to pick you up from the airport?"
"No," Jisung says immediately. "Hyung, I'm not five. And you'd probably get lost on the way there, so no thanks."
"Always so cold to me," Jaemin whines, but hangs up soon after to text Jisung directions to the Village.
Forty-five minutes later finds Jaemin downstairs in the lobby of his building, waiting for Jisung's text that he's outside the Village border. Not too long after that, he jogs outside to greet him.
Jaemin wastes no time in pinching Jisung's cheeks, immediately fussing over how he thinks Jisung's lost weight and insisting on taking Jisung's bag despite his protests.
"Jeez, hyung," Jisung groans. "Do you seriously have to act like this every time I see you?"
"I only get to see you once a year at the most," Jaemin says indulgently, flashing his lanyard at the security guards outside the entrance to the Village. "Let me enjoy being able to dote on someone for a bit."
Jisung sighs heavily at that, but Jaemin knows better than to think that Jisung hates it. And sure enough, Jisung knocks playfully into his side after a moment. "So, how's it feel, hyung?"
Jisung gestures around them. "Y'know, being a cool Olympic athlete and all that?"
Jaemin's hand flutters up to his chest. "I'm going to hold it over your head for forever that you think I'm cool," he says as they get into the elevator. He punches the button for the sixth floor. "But it's not all glamour, Jisung-ah. I have to train, you know."
Jisung snorts, inspecting his reflection in the mirrors that line the elevator car. "Yeah, training, okay. Is that why Jeno-hyung keeps telling me you've been ignoring him?"
Jisung's wry tone catches him off guard. Jaemin frowns. "What? I haven't—"
His words are cut off by the elevator doors opening at his floor to reveal Renjun standing in front of them with a couple of other volunteers.
"Oh," Jaemin says dumbly, and tries to smile. "Hi—"
Renjun's face goes from his brief expression of surprise to something wholly unreadable. "Excuse me," he says abruptly and slips past them into the elevator without so much as a glance at Jaemin or Jisung.
Jaemin frowns again, trying to catch his eyes. "Renjun-ah—" he starts, but the doors close and Jaemin is left looking at his own gold-tinted image. An icy feeling erupts in his stomach.
Jisung snorts again. "Hyung, stop harassing the volunteers. They have jobs to do."
"No, but—" Jaemin swallows, finally turning back to Jisung's grinning face. "I know him."
"Sure doesn't look like it," Jisung snickers. "Is this what you do instead of responding to Jeno-hyung on KaTalk?"
"I'm not ignoring Jeno," Jaemin insists as he lets Jisung into his suite.
Jisung raises his eyebrows at him pointedly. "I'm just saying—Jeno-hyung's been complaining to me that you never seem to have time to talk to him anymore."
Jaemin watches Jisung dump his things on the floor and go through the kitchen in search of snacks. He tries not to think about the fact that Jeno has been messaging Jisung to complain about him, and the cold feeling in his stomach spreads up to his chest. "There's—there's chips in the cupboard," he says faintly.
Jisung pounces on them almost immediately, and Jaemin absently scrolls through his recent chat history with Jeno as Jisung tucks into the chips. He realizes guiltily that he hasn't responded to Jeno's last four messages.
Jisung crunches loudly on a mouthful of chips. "You okay, hyung?"
Jaemin looks up and gives him a weak smile. "Yeah," he says, lying straight through his teeth. "I'm fine."
Jaemin's steps fall heavily on the treadmill, even though his earbuds block out all the noises in the rec center. There's only a couple other athletes in the gym with him at the moment, but Jaemin can't afford to be distracted, not even for a second. His breaths come even and deep in perfect time with his footsteps—he knows he can't run away from the turbulent, tumultuous thoughts storming in his head, but he most certainly can run off all his nervous, pent up energy. Yuta's critiques from his training sessions, Jisung's comments about Jeno, Renjun ignoring him and practically treating him like a stranger—
The song he's listening to ends and all of a sudden, sweet, dulcet Mandarin fills his ears. It startles Jaemin so much that he almost loses his footing on the treadmill. He hurriedly dials down the speed, letting his pace slow a little.
It's Zhong Chenle's song, "Fly." Jaemin had forgotten he'd downloaded it sometime after the opening ceremony. He'd gone back to his suite later that night after saying goodbye to Jeno and immediately looked up the Korean translations of the lyrics. It's the same words playing in his ears right now, the ones that had so inspired him even through the language barrier.
You wonder why you keep on looking down
Searching for the shape of your shadow on the ground
But all this time it was your heart on wings
Soaring, while you've dreamt of incredible things
Fly, fly home
Fly, fly home to me
Jaemin doesn't realize he's tearing up until his hand comes up to wipe at his face and it comes away far too wet to be only sweat. Jaemin steps off the treadmill to bury his face in his towel and lets himself cry for a moment, shoulders shaking, and wipes his face when he's done, drinking in long and shuddering breaths until he's calmed down.
That night, Jaemin washes away everything in the shower, trying to bring himself to a laser-like focus.
It may be a futile effort, but he tries anyway.
Jaemin's phone lights up with an incoming call, and his mood lifts when he sees Jisung's name flashing on the screen.
"Jisung-ah," Jaemin coos into the phone when he picks up his call, rolling over onto his stomach.
"Hyung—" Jisung's voice is somewhat distorted, and there's a lot of noise in the background.
Jaemin frowns. "Jisung-ah? What's going on? Where are you?"
He hears the sound of a door closing and some of the background noise goes away. "Hyung, oh my god—do you know that Chinese singer who performed at the opening ceremony?"
"What?" Jaemin sits up, frowning deeper now. "What are you talking about? Are you at your hotel?"
"No," Jisung whines. "Hyung, I—I freaking bumped into him, and—I think he asked me out?"
"Woah," Jaemin says. "Hang on, you bumped into Zhong Chenle, the Chinese singer?"
"Hyung,” Jisung whines. “I need to get out of here but I don't know where I am or how to get back to my hotel."
"Where are you right now?"
"Some bar?" Jisung sounds desperate now.
Jaemin sighs. "You're in the bathroom, aren't you."
Jisung makes another whining noise. "Can you come get me, hyung?"
Jaemin takes a deep breath and closes his eyes. He already knows what he'll have to do. "Send me a photo of the bar name, okay? Don't go anywhere."
After Jisung hangs up, Jaemin stares down at his phone, his thumb hovering over the WeChat icon. It takes every last bit of him to swallow his pride and make a voice call.
Jaemin bites his lip, listening to the dialing tone with his heart in his throat. He's about to give up, thinking that Renjun won't pick up after all, when Renjun answers, his voice croaky with sleep.
"Do you know what time it is?" Renjun sounds tired, and Jaemin's heart skips guiltily.
"I know," he says heavily. "I'm super sorry, it's kind of an emergency."
Renjun makes a small noise in his throat. "What?"
"One of my childhood friends is lost in the city. He got caught up in something and he doesn't know where he is or how to get back to his hotel."
"What do you want me to do, Jaemin-ah?"
And Jaemin winces at that, because the edge in Renjun's voice is all too apparent. But still, he swallows around a dry mouth. "He asked me to come get him, but I wouldn't know where he was, even if he told me."
A moment of silence. "You want me to go with you to get your friend," Renjun says, sounding exhausted in the quietude, and Jaemin's heart aches with guilt.
"I didn't know who else to ask," he says quietly, and holds onto his phone, listening to the pound of blood in his ears, to the deafening silence at the other end, to the sound of Renjun's breathing—
"Do you at least know the name of the place he's at?"
"He sent me a picture," Jaemin says, licking at his lips.
"Send it to me," Renjun cuts him off. "And meet me downstairs in ten minutes."
Jaemin releases a heady exhale. "Thank you, Renjun-ah, really, thank you—"
But Renjun's already hung up.
Jaemin finds himself hurrying out of the elevators ten minutes later, bundled in his thickest jacket and beanie. Renjun is already outside in the lobby in his sweatpants and puffy jacket. He doesn't look up from his phone screen when Jaemin walks up to him, biting his lip.
"He's in Chaoyang," Renjun says before Jaemin can say anything.
"Oh," Jaemin says, frowning. "Isn't that where we went with—"
"It's popular for nightlife," Renjun says testily. "Let's just get going."
The edge in his voice has Jaemin tense as he follows Renjun outside to the sidewalk. And when the taxi arrives, he doesn't even dare say anything as he slides into the backseat after him. His only saving grace is that Renjun had opted to sit with him in the back instead of in front next to the driver. Jaemin swallows, looking down at his hands while the lights pass over them through the car windows.
"Thanks," he says quietly. "I know this is a lot… to ask of you."
Renjun makes a quiet sound in his throat. "That certainly didn't stop you from asking."
Jaemin swallows again. "I haven't really seen you around much lately. I kind of just—also wanted to see you."
"You have to practice," Renjun says, voice sounding oddly strained. "Wouldn't want you to get distracted."
"It's not a distraction," Jaemin says quietly, chancing a look over at Renjun, swallowing when he finds Renjun staring back at him. "If it's you."
Renjun doesn't say anything to that, but when he looks away, Jaemin swears he can see the barest hint of a smile.
They pull up next to a curb and Jaemin recognizes the bright sign overhead from the photo Jisung had sent him and gets out of the taxi, Renjun right behind him.
Renjun crosses his arms and shivers a little. “Well, now what—” But no sooner do the words leave his mouth that the entrance to the bar opens and spills forth a group of tall men in black. And—in the middle of the gaggle—Jisung, flanked by another young man in an expensive-looking blazer.
“—you know WeChat?” Jaemin can hear the young man saying excitedly in mostly accentless English.
Jisung, all together out of place, is nodding furiously, and the young man—whom Jaemin now recognizes to be Zhong Chenle—smiles, displaying an impressive array of dazzling teeth.
“Good, good,” Chenle says, patting Jisung on the arm. “Bye! Nice to meet you!”
“Y-you too,” Jisung splutters back in English, then all too suddenly Chenle and his entourage disappear back into the bar, leaving a flustered and confused Jisung standing in front of them.
“Uh,” Jaemin begins, unable to help the smile that quirks up the corners of his mouth. “Do I even want to know how you got involved in all of this?”
Jisung flushes and then scowls. “No,” he says stubbornly, before his eyes flick back over to Renjun.
“Oh,” Jaemin says, casting a sidelong glance at Renjun, who pointedly does not meet his gaze. “This is Huang Renjun—he’s a volunteer,” he blurts out, tongue catching on the words. If Renjun had any reaction to this, he most certainly isn’t showing it. “He helped me figure out how to find you.”
“I’m really sorry,” Jisung mumbles, breaking into a low bow, the back of his neck a dark red.
Renjun sighs, some of the fight going out of his posture, and shakes his head. “It’s fine, let’s just get you back to your hotel.”
Jaemin and Jisung pile into the backseat of the taxi while Renjun takes the passenger seat, busy with his phone. Jaemin swallows and nudges Jisung with his elbow.
“So… Chenle seems pretty nice, you know, for a celebrity.”
Jisung lets out a groan, his head thunking back into the headrest. “He kept talking to me in English, hyung,” he whines. “My English is shit—”
A laugh bubbles up out of Jaemin. “Jisung-ah, you’ve spent the last two years of your life in San Francisco—how are you bad at English?”
“Coach Jae-hyung talks to me in Korean,” Jisung retorts stubbornly. “And so do half my teammates.”
Jaemin snorts and glances up again, this time catching Renjun’s reflection in the rearview mirror staring back at him. Jaemin tries to muster up a smile, one that says Thank you for coming with me, and he isn’t sure if he imagines Renjun returning it with a weary smile of his own.
Jisung insists he’s fine once they reach his hotel, but Jaemin determinedly follows Jisung all the way back up to his room, nagging and fussing over him with Renjun trailing behind, an unreadable expression twisting up his mouth.
Eventually, Jisung shakes himself free of Jaemin’s nagging and they bid him goodnight.
“You seem—close,” Renjun says quietly as they head outside to call another taxi back to Olympic Village.
Jaemin smiles faintly at that, maybe even in a little bit of relief, because this is the first thing Renjun’s said to him in the last twenty minutes. “He’s like a little brother to me. I can get protective of him.’
Renjun shoves his hands into his pockets. “I can see that.”
Silence falls between them, and they stop at the sidewalk curb outside of Jisung’s hotel, Renjun standing in front of him facing the street.
Around them, the night pushes on, and Jaemin can feel himself getting caught up in its current, drawing closer and closer to Renjun—Renjun, who did not have to come with him tonight, who could’ve left them behind at any point but didn’t.
Jaemin swallows hard around the block in his throat, taking a small step closer. “Renjun-ah,” he says, and Renjun turns around to face him.
And, like that, it becomes apparent to Jaemin just how close they are, all of his words somehow getting lost on the way to his mouth as he stares down at Renjun, at the shadows under his eyes, at the scattering of breakouts along his hairline, and for a moment, Jaemin freezes. For a moment, it seems to him that Renjun freezes too, their eyes locking over that insurmountable six inches between them—that inconsequential distance that is, at once, far too little and yet nowhere near enough.
But then Renjun blinks, slow and deliberate, and Jaemin realizes that he is very, very wrong. Renjun is not frozen in place—he is holding himself in place. So perfectly and intentionally still, with all of the control that Jaemin never had. Renjun is holding himself in place, like he’s waiting for Jaemin to make a move—to say something, do something, do anything at all. But Jaemin is not Renjun and he cannot bring himself to budge, feet glued in their spots, eyes locked to his, unable to do anything except keep looking, and looking, and looking—
In the distance, Chaoyang surges around them—the rumble of the cars in the street, the murmurs of the passerby, out and about even so late at night—and Jaemin is frozen and Renjun is so carefully still. Yet, even in that tinnitus, Jaemin is struggling to hear what Renjun’s guarded silence is telling him.
Behind them, headlights illuminate Renjun’s face as their taxi pulls up to the curb, and something in Renjun’s eyes shutters as he looks away. Jaemin stands there as Renjun wordlessly gets into the taxi, feeling like eleven other skaters have lapped him, like his blades have fused to the ice, like he’s forgotten how to use the tongue in his mouth.
He doesn’t quite remember following Renjun into the backseat, but Jaemin slides in next to him, swallowing thickly over the lump in his throat. And for the entire ride back, Jaemin doesn’t dare look over at Renjun, not even once, still feeling like he’d been left standing there on that sidewalk curb ten miles behind them, wondering what he’d missed, what he’d failed to hear.
They get out of their cab just as quietly as they had gotten in, Renjun’s murmured thank you to the taxi driver just barely audible, and Jaemin glances over at him. This time, Renjun meets his gaze, and then—Renjun's eyes flick down to his mouth just for the briefest of moments—Jaemin, devastatingly, understands.
"Renjun-ah," Jaemin starts, but Renjun is already turning away.
"It's late," he says, averting his eyes. Jaemin can't read his expression.
Renjun doesn’t look at him again as they get into the elevator of their building, and Jaemin balls his hands into fists to stop them from shaking.
The elevator car slowly comes to a stop at Renjun's floor, and Jaemin silently watches Renjun put his phone away. He has about five seconds before Renjun walks out of the elevator to prove him wrong, because something had happened back there. There was something in Renjun's eyes that Jaemin had failed to parse, and in about five seconds Jaemin was going to pay for it.
But this—this isn't how he wanted it to go.
Not like this, in an elevator at one in the morning, under lights that are too harsh and yellow. Not with Jaemin barely grasping at straws, and Renjun's disappointment so palpable and tender, not when they're both flushed from the cold and Jaemin is so, so scared of being wrong. This isn’t how he wanted it to go, but it’s the only chance he’s got now, and Jaemin has always taken whatever he can get. And before Renjun can leave, Jaemin lunges for the close door button, watching the way Renjun shies back in confusion.
Renjun's opening his mouth, brows furrowing. "What are you—" But Renjun never gets to finish his question, because Jaemin pulls him in by the elbow and kisses him.
The kiss is barely even moments long, but it's enough to have Jaemin wanting when Renjun pushes him back with a hand on his chest. Jaemin lets him, ribcage feeling three sizes too small.
"Jaemin-ah—" Renjun whispers, staring up at him with eyes that are dark and liquid. His hand is still on Jaemin's chest, and Jaemin covers it with his, feels the baseline pounding of his own heart through Renjun's fingertips. Renjun must be able to feel it too, because he doesn't move away this time, not even when Jaemin leans in just a bit closer. And when Renjun looks up at him through his lashes, lips parting, Jaemin ducks down to kiss him again, properly.
As if he'd been expecting it, Renjun tilts his chin up into the kiss, digs his fingers into the fabric of Jaemin's jacket. Renjun's mouth is warm and yielding, and he's tugging, pulling him forward, and Jaemin doesn't fight it, not even as Renjun backs himself up into the wall of the elevator and Jaemin's arm comes up to cage him in.
Jaemin can almost taste something familiarly sweet on Renjun's lips. Honey, he thinks, as Renjun curls a hand around the nape of his neck and opens his mouth for Jaemin's tongue. Jaemin had only ever used the lip balm Renjun gave him once or twice, but none of that matters now because he’s got Renjun backed up against the wall and licking it from the corners of his mouth, tasting it all over his lips, and Jaemin can’t, he can’t—
Then, almost as quickly and suddenly, Renjun stops, shoving Jaemin away and slamming the door open button. Jaemin staggers back as Renjun slips past him through the opening, leaving Jaemin reeling and spinning through his daze.
And the last thing he sees before the doors close is Renjun standing there on the landing, shoulders shaking, hunching, and drawing in a deep breath.
Jaemin finds Kun standing outside of their tower the next morning, directing athletes and coaches onto their buses in Renjun’s place. Jaemin’s heart drops as he hurries over, ignoring Yuta’s confused calls after him.
Kun’s face brightens up as he sees Jaemin rush over, offering a sunny smile. “Jaemin-ssi, good to see you—”
“Where’s Renjun?” Jaemin demands, breathless. “I haven’t seen him at all—”
“You mean—” Kun’s brows furrow with confusion, and Jaemin’s heart drops down into his stomach. “Renjun didn’t tell you?”
Jaemin’s grip tightens over the strap of his bag, feeling like ice is starting to flood his lungs. “Tell me what?”
For a moment, it looks like Kun isn't going to say anything, but then he heaves a great sigh. “Renjun’s not here anymore,” Kun says softly, a little sadly. “He transferred Villages."
Jaemin stares at Kun, brows furrowed in confusion. "What do you mean transferred?"
"Our volunteer term is technically only two weeks," Kun says, sounding apologetic. "After that, we can choose to stay where we are or we can put in a request to transfer somewhere else."
"And that's—" Jaemin's breath catches in his chest. He sucks in a deep breath. And another one. And another one. His lungs are burning. "That's what Renjun did?"
Kun reaches out to grip his shoulder, squeezing gently. "He put in the request a couple of days ago and left this morning by bus. He's in Zhangjiakou Olympic VIllage. Up in—"
"Chongli, I know," Jaemin says, every syllable feeling like ash in his mouth. "I have a—my best friend is there. For snowboarding."
Kun gives him another look, this time his eyes sorrowful and soft. He squeezes his shoulder again, a little more firmly this time, but reassuring nevertheless. "I'm sorry, Jaemin-ssi. I really am."
Jaemin hears Yuta clear his throat behind him, and swallows over a painful lump in his throat. "It's fine," he mutters. "Thanks."
The look in Yuta's eyes is questioning as Jaemin catches up to him, handing over Jaemin's duffel bag with his things. "What was that about?"
Jaemin shakes his head and forces it to the back of his mind. "It was nothing."
Ice flakes fly out from under his feet and Jaemin glides to a stop, catching his breath before glancing up to check his time. His stomach tightens and twists into knots. It's not good.
"What's with you today?"
Jaemin tenses and glances back behind him. Yuta is standing there at the gate to the rink with his arms crossed, his expression dark.
Jaemin can feel his mouth twist downward, swallowing thickly. "What?"
Yuta frowns, the disapproval apparent. "What's gotten into you this morning? All your times are off and you're ignoring half the things we've been trying to fix."
Jaemin doesn't answer right away, bending down to check the tightness of his boots before straightening up. "Sorry," he says, and knows that he must sound frustrated, even to his own ears.
"Jaemin-ah," Yuta starts, and Jaemin closes his eyes, trying to calm down. He doesn't like Yuta's tone, the one that always seems to precede a lecture. "Can you come here for a second?"
It takes all of his effort to steel his face as Jaemin skates over to the edge of the rink, squaring his shoulders and trying not to let on his frustration. "What?"
Yuta gives him an up and down glance, putting a hand on his hip. "I don't know what's going on with you, if you're nervous or what, but this attitude has got to stop. It's affecting your performance."
"I don't have attitude," Jaemin says, barely stopping himself from snapping. "It's just—like what you said. I'm stressed and nervous."
"Then you need to communicate that to me," Yuta says, crossing his arms again. "If you're stressed about the event, you have to tell me so we can work on whatever it is you're stressing about."
"It's not even about skating," Jaemin says, and then immediately regrets it. "It has nothing to do with this."
"Then what is it?" Yuta asks, crossing his arms again.
Jaemin looks away stubbornly. "None of your business."
"Jaemin-ah—you should still be telling me these things," Yuta insists. "I'm your coach."
"For now, you are," Jaemin says, entirely without thinking, and then winces. It's too late to take the words back, and Jaemin swallows, glancing up at his coach. Yuta's face has gone blank and unreadable, but Jaemin can see it in his eyes—the momentary flash of hurt, the brief struggle that must have raged in Yuta's head between lashing out at him and maintaining his cool.
Jaemin starts to wish he hadn't even opened his mouth. But the remark hangs in the air between them, stinging like an open wound.
"Okay," Yuta says, and his voice is calm, level. Jaemin ducks his head numbly. "If this is about Hansol, I get it, okay? Hansol was always your favorite, and it hurt when he left you. If you want to resent me because I'm the one here and not him, fine. But I'm not going to let you fuck around and do whatever you want just because that's what Hansol did. So if you fuck up your back again, it's not gonna be because of me. And if you don't medal next week, that's not gonna be because of me either."
"I'm—" Sorry, is what Jaemin means to say, but the apology gets stuck in his throat, too mixed up and jumbled with everything brewing in his body. The hurt, the anger, the embarrassment—all boiling hot in his stomach and turning every single one of his nerves numb with it. "Done," Jaemin says, and this time he does snap. "I'm done for today."
Yuta doesn't say anything for a moment as he watches Jaemin pull off his skates, his face inscrutable. "Fine," he says. "When you're ready to do this properly, let me know. Otherwise, good luck next week."
Jaemin is seething by the time he gets out of the practice rink, so caught up in his anger that he doesn't even look where he's going until he collides with someone bodily.
"You have seriously got to stop running into me like this," Donghyuck says, rubbing his shoulder, but takes one look at Jaemin's face and clears his throat. "Okay, Jaemin-ah," he says, looping his arm through Jaemin's. "We're going."
"I'm really not in the mood right now, Donghyuck," Jaemin mutters, still feeling his face burn even as Donghyuck pulls him outside toward the buses that are waiting. With a guilty pang, Jaemin remembers that all of his stuff is still with Yuta, but part of him is still so mad and embarrassed that he can't bring himself to care.
"That's exactly why you have to come with me," Donghyuck says briskly. "Don't worry, I'm not going to play shrink and make you spill all your secret worries and anxieties to me. I think my mere presence should be blessing enough, so you're welcome."
Jaemin can't even fight him. It's so incredibly Donghyuck-like that he can't even argue, sighing heavily as Donghyuck pulls him into one of the media vans bound for the Olympic Village. "Fine, whatever," he says, letting Donghyuck all but buckle him into his seat.
Donghyuck angles a grin at him, and the thing is, it works. Donghyuck doesn't press, and that in itself is a relief, sitting there in the quiet of the media van as he watches the buildings pass by.
"You been to the gift shop yet?" Donghyuck asks him a little while later, as they draw closer to the Village and the Olympic plaza.
"No," Jaemin admits. "I've been—" Too busy training, is what he wants to say, before he realizes that isn't even true, guiltily remembering all the times he'd spent with Renjun instead of with Yuta.
Donghyuck hums. "Then we'll go," he says. "You'll like it, I promise."
And Donghyuck, as it turns out, is right. The official gift store is a wide colossus of a building, easily the size of the Hyundai department store in Sinchon. The first three floors are devoted to official Beijing 2022 merchandise—scarves, gloves, hats, anything and everything that could bear the five Olympic rings or the cute round face of Xiao Lu, the milu deer mascot. The fourth floor is another Huawei mini store, and then a mini cafeteria on the fifth.
"What do you think?" Donghyuck declares, holding up a fleece pullover with a giant Xiao Lu emblazoned on the front. Jaemin snorts.
"Looks like something you would wear," Jaemin says, and Donghyuck makes a face.
"Okay then," he says, pouting, and shoves the sweater at Jaemin. "Then you buy it for me, Mister Olympic Skater."
Jaemin sighs, holding onto the sweater as Donghyuck drags him throughout the gift store, piling more and more things into Jaemin's arms.
"Why do you need three different hats?" Jaemin asks, exasperated as Donghyuck tries on another beanie. "Don't you get comped merch anyway? Aren't you media?"
"Jaemin-ah," Donghyuck tuts, throwing an oversized scarf around his neck. "There is something inherently satisfying about buying it for yourself."
"But you're not even buying these for yourself? You're making me buy them?"
Donghyuck sniffs and waves his hand airily. "Small technicalities."
Jaemin shakes his head as Donghyuck wanders off again, and shifts all of Donghyuck's things to his other arm so he can pick up a small figurine of Xiao Lu from one of the shelves. The mascot is decked out in skating gear—technically figure skating—but it's still close enough to hit home.
A warm wave of guilt rushes over Jaemin's body and up his neck, thinking about the things he'd said to Yuta, all the things he'd blown off Jisoo and his roommates when they asked him to hang out, all the messages from Jeno he'd been ignoring. About Renjun, and that kiss. Heat blooms in his cheeks, unfurls hot fingers in his gut.
"Gonna buy that for someone?" Donghyuck's voice asks him softly, and Jaemin turns to see Donghyuck standing there with his hands in his pockets, eyes surprisingly soft.
Jaemin is about to put Xiao Lu back on the shelf when he hesitates. "I'm not sure," he says quietly. "I don't think this would quite be enough."
Donghyuck doesn't press him for details, just smiles and loops an arm through his again. "Come on, Jaemin-ah. You have stuff to buy me."
And Jaemin is grateful, at least, for the lack of questions as Donghyuck walks him back to Jaemin's building in the Village.
"You're going to see Jeno's event, right?" Jaemin asks him, handing over Donghyuck's bag of goodies that he'd managed to wheedle out of Jaemin (Jaemin had made Donghyuck put some stuff back).
"'Course," Donghyuck says, grinning. "I'll be heading up early so I can cover all the other events. But I'll be there."
When he gets back to his suite, Jisoo's in their room sitting cross-legged on his bed video calling his girlfriend. Jisoo looks up and smiles at him. "What's that?" he asks, nodding at the small bag Jaemin's holding.
Jaemin reaches in and pulls out the Xiao Lu figurine, setting it carefully on his bedside table. "Just a small reminder," he says, almost mumbling it to himself.
Jisoo hums. "A reminder of what?"
Jaemin sits down on his bed, smoothing out the covers with his palm. Deep midnight blue and yellow. Burning bright like fire, like his dreams. He smiles down at his lap, before reaching for his phone to answer Jeno's last message, long left on read.
"What I came here for."
Jeno’s event is on a Thursday. It’ll be cold, Jeno had told him excitedly over KakaoTalk, so bring gloves.
Jaemin does, tucking them into his pocket as he steps onto the bus that would take him from Beijing proper to the snowcapped mountains of Chongli. The distance between Beijing and Zhangjiakou had never seemed so great until this moment, Jaemin with one foot in this bus and his heart heavy and aching. He needs to see Jeno—his best friend’s smile and laugh will help.
He’s staring out the window, worrying his sleeves with his fingers.
“Is this seat taken?”
Jaemin stiffens, the voice familiar and haunting. He turns, already knowing who he’ll find, looking up to see Mark standing in the aisle.
Mark smiles, somewhat awkwardly, and rubs the back of his neck. Jaemin remembers how he used to find it adorable, how it used to make him flush hot all over. But Jaemin looks up at Mark and swallows, feeling nothing.
“Oh,” he says faintly. “Mark-hyung—you’re—”
“Jeno asked me to come watch him,” Mark says, dropping down into the seat next to him. “I guess I should have expected you’d be coming too.”
It’s odd, sitting there next to Mark after Jaemin had spent over a year believing that he had driven away one of his closest friends. The agony of Mark’s departure had never quite left him unscathed, and even up until now Jaemin had been so sure that this would be a weight he would carry forever in his bones.
“High school really—” Mark hesitates. “It really seems so long ago, huh? I remember when you used to—” He falls silent then, clears his throat, and Jaemin swallows thickly.
“Used to idolize you,” Jaemin finishes for him, voice barely audible.
Mark makes a quiet noise in his throat. “I could never figure out why,” he says uncertainly. “I was just—I was just some guy who liked hockey—”
“It’s fine,” Jaemin says. “It’s—I got over it.”
Mark shifts next to him, the silence prominent but not entirely uncomfortable. “I hope—I hope I didn’t hurt you, Jaemin-ah—” Mark swallows, glancing up at him. “You were one of my best friends, honest to god—”
Jaemin smiles weakly at that, some of the heaviness leaving his chest. “It’s good to talk to you again, hyung.”
Mark’s laugh is shaky. “Can’t believe we all made it to the Olympics in the same year—you, me, Jeno—must be fate.”
“Can’t believe we’re about to watch Jeno win gold,” Jaemin says through a smile that is surprisingly genuine, and Mark gives him an incredulous look.
“Not that I don’t believe in him,” he begins, dubious. “But wouldn’t you not wanna jinx it?”
Jaemin shakes his head, turning to stare out the window again. “It’ll be fine,” he says, almost more to himself than anything else. “It’ll be fine.”
These are words he repeats to himself over and over again like a mantra, even three hours later when they're both stepping off the bus and into the snow-white wonderland of Genting Snow Park. The landscape is stark and blinding, and the chill numbs their faces. But something about slushing through the snow with Mark is gratifyingly warm, and Jaemin can feel some frozen part inside of him melting slowly as they make their way to the stands.
Together, Mark and Jaemin watch Jeno complete the best program of jumps and aerials he’s ever done in his life. And they’re the first to run down the slopes to throw their arms around him when it's over.
Jeno cries into his shoulder, the outline of the gold medal pressing into Jaemin’s chest, and this is another weight off Jaemin’s shoulders, another ghost that will no longer haunt him. So Jaemin grins into Jeno’s hair and thumps him hard on the back and forces himself to forget, for a little while, about Renjun.
“Thank you, by the way,” Jeno tells him sometime later after he’s stopped crying. He grins, his eyes puffy and red, white teeth all on display. “For the banana milk.”
Jaemin frowns at him, shoving his hands deep into his pockets. “Banana milk?”
“Don’t be like that,” Jeno says, laughing and knocking into his side with his shoulder, but Jaemin’s confusion only multiplies, staring at him. “You know, the banana milk that you somehow had delivered to my room? After all the crap you gave me about drinking it—”
Jaemin doesn't know when the realization clicks into place, but then Jeno is hugging him and it's all he can do to not cry into his shoulder. Because Renjun has been gone, and he's taken Jaemin's heart somewhere out here to the snowy slopes of Chongli and left him with a gaping hole in his chest between the bones of his ribs. Because Renjun's still so far away, but even from a distance Renjun had taken the most trivial and insignificant of details about Jeno and did something for him he didn't have to do at all.
And so Jaemin holds Jeno tight, listens to his best friend go on about banana milk that he doesn't know was given to him by a stranger, and Jaemin hopes, and he hopes.
Later that evening, when he's back on the bus to Beijing and Mark is slumped against him sound asleep, Jaemin pulls out his phone and types out a message.
« 娜娜 »
can i ask you a favor?
« WIN△WIN »
what kind of favor?
Jaemin looks down at his phone screen and swallows.
"I don't know what you're trying to prove," Sicheng says, handing him a small plastic shopping bag. "But whatever it is, I hope it works."
Jaemin looks down into the contents of the bag and feels his stomach lurch when he sees all of the items that he'd asked Sicheng to buy for him. "Thanks. For doing this for me, I mean. I know this isn't really part of your volunteer duties."
Sicheng laughs. "No, it's not, but—" He clears his throat. "Good luck at your event. And—" Sicheng nods at the bag.
Jaemin tries to manage a smile. "Thanks."
"What are you doing, Jaemin-ah?" Jisoo asks him a little while later, leaning in the doorway of their bathroom suite, watching him.
Jaemin had cleared off the edge of the sink earlier and now stands in front of the mirror wearing a t-shirt he doesn't care about, holding the shopping bag Sicheng had gotten him. Jaemin sucks in a deep breath. "To be honest, I don't know," he says, and for some reason Jisoo only smiles.
Jaemin's event is only one week away, and this could be the stupidest thing he's ever thought of doing.
But somehow, Jaemin wants to believe it'll work.
19 February 2022 – Beijing National Speed Skating Oval
The backs of Jaemin's calves burn as he stretches, legs spread wide on the floor of the warm-up room. The silence in the room is tense and heavy, tempered only by the muffled sounds of the spectators sitting outside in the stands.
Yuta is sitting on the other side of the room, going over his notes with a furrow in his brow. They're back on tepid speaking terms, edging around the sore spot that Jaemin knows is entirely his fault. He swallows, straightening up and taking care to keep his back rigid.
The men's mass start semifinal starts in a little less than an hour, and Jaemin has spent the better part of his childhood wondering what this moment would feel like. He'd always imagined it differently, somehow—namely, with Hansol sitting in the chair five feet away instead of Yuta, and Jaemin filled with a sort of dauntless, shimmering invincibility, a sense that he could go out there and do anything.
Jaemin exhales, trying to harness all the nervous, restless energy thrumming in his body and attempting to bring it to a razor-like edge. He leans against the mirrors, staring at the wallpaper of the room. It's a bright sky blue, swirled with white clouds—how very appropriate, Jaemin thinks, to look around and see the sky. To close his eyes and see the same thing behind his eyelids. To remember that Hansol had always told him that he could fly. Because his entire life, Jaemin has been trying to do just that—putting one foot in front of the other, pushing relentlessly forward. He's fallen down more times than he can count, but maybe falling is a kind of flying too. Jaemin opens his eyes to see Yuta watching him, a strange and unreadable expression twisting up his mouth.
"It's time," Yuta says, his voice so loud in that small, small room, his silhouette hazy and dream-like against that bright blue sky.
Jaemin nods and gets to his feet slowly and carefully, pushing out of his mind everything except what lies in front of him: thirty-one other skaters, the ice, and a finish line. All around him are the wisps of his dreams, and Jaemin's heart is a burning sun in his chest. He takes a step toward Yuta, toward that finish.
Jaemin is going to go out there and skate. He has no other choice but to get to that finish line.
And he will get there. Flying or falling, he'll get there.
He adjusts his sports glasses, watching the crowds and ice in front of him filter in and out of a dark blue, and tries to ignore the way his palms itch with prickly sweat.
"Jaemin-ah, are you listening to me?" Yuta's voice filters into his brain, startling him out of his reverie.
Jaemin snaps his head up, bottom lip caught between his teeth. "Sorry, what?"
The smile that Yuta gives him is tight, strained. He looks like he wants to reach out to grip his shoulder, and, for a moment, Jaemin almost wishes he would. "Focus," Yuta says, and nudges Jaemin's skate with his toe. "Focus here."
Jaemin nods mutely, his tongue feeling thick and clumsy in his mouth, and tries to ignore the many pairs of eyes glued to him as people pass by, media and coaches and other skaters. He know he's attracting attention, and so Jaemin swallows and puts on his helmet, looking up to meet his coach's gaze. Luckily, Yuta hadn't asked any questions, and for this, Jaemin is wryly glad.
"Na Jaemin-ssi—" A reporter comes up to him with her recorder. "This is your first Olympics, isn't it? How do you feel about South Korea's chance of winning after Lee Seunghoon's victory at Pyeongchang?"
Jaemin takes a step back, blinking at the press reporter. From the corner of his eye, he can see Yuta watching him warily, so he frowns a little and clears his throat. "I—I never thought I would make it, to be honest," Jaemin says. "I'm just glad to be here."
The reporter nods earnestly and holds her recorder closer. "Chung Jaewon-ssi had mentioned that he's more worried about the Zhu–Wen duo from China. Can you give us your insight?"
Jaemin glances up past the reporter, looking a little ways down to where the two in question are standing, surrounded by coaches and media from their own country.
"I think he has a point," Jaemin says. "But I don't want to base my skating on who I have to beat. I'm just skating for myself."
There's a brief moment after the reporter leaves in which Jaemin exchanges a tense glance with Yuta, but then Yuta exhales steadily. "Sounds like something Hansol would've have had you say." His voice is decidedly neutral, but Jaemin can still feel the stab to his gut, guilt pooling in his stomach.
"Hansol-hyung always told me to be honest," Jaemin says, fighting back the frown that threatens to turn his mouth downward.
Yuta gives him a wry smile. "No surprises there."
In the last half hour leading up to the beginning of the semifinal, Jaemin warms up on the track, gliding easily and smoothly past the rows of spectators. In front of him, Chung Jaewon bends low and puts on an experimental burst of speed. Behind him, Jaemin can feel the twofold presence of Zhengting and Junhui trailing after him, watching his back with careful hawk eyes. It's disconcerting.
When Jaemin comes back, he finds a message from Jeno on his home screen.
i'm sitting with donghyuck and jisungie!
we're rooting for you!!
Jaemin closes his eyes and tries to imagine the three of them huddled together in the stands—his childhood friend, his best friend from high school, and their best friend from university—all there to cheer him on.
But—Jaemin scans the crowd, eyes landing on every volunteer pushing past the throng of athletes and their coaches—no Renjun.
And it's not as if Renjun had made him a promise on his life, but Jaemin still feels like a part of him had been carved out and hollowed like a rotting tree. Unfortunately, he doesn't have time to dwell on it anymore, because the warning bell sounds, and Jaemin licks his lips, swallowing.
With the noise of the Oval muffled and coming in filtered and distorted, Jaemin almost feels like he's underwater, like his lungs are burning with the need to breathe something other than the oxygen he's desperately trying to swallow. He stares down at his skates, at the ice beneath his blades. Jaemin doesn't remember Yuta pushing him out onto the ice, nor does he remember getting into place at the start of the track, but the noise from the spectators swells like a bubble around him, deafening and immersive.
All around him, the first twelve skaters prepare for the first heat, because out of them, only eight will advance to the final. Next to him, Wen Junhui slices into the ice with his blade and grins at him, fierce and knifelike.
"Good luck, Luo Zaimin!" Junhui tells him in cheerful Mandarin, and Jaemin gives him back a hesitant smile. His Mandarin is shitty, but he tries to say it back to him as best as he can. His effort must have been satisfactory, because Junhui laughs good-naturedly and resumes his warm-up routine.
Finally, Jaemin gets into place, all the muscles in his body alive and thrumming, ready to launch him forward, and he waits. The sound of the crowd is coming in waves now, but Jaemin isn't paying attention to that, he's only listening for one thing—
The electric gunshot goes off, and Jaemin's mind goes blank, letting muscle memory take over as his skates push him forward. He's in the middle of the pack—not the worst position to be in, but still enough to put him on edge—and Jaemin can feel Junhui tuck himself right behind him as they lap the first bend. This first lap is always easy—it's just to set the pace. They're not yet allowed to pass or accelerate, but every skater is still fraught with tension.
The second gunshot goes off to signal the beginning of the passing and accelerating lap, and Jaemin doesn't have time to think. He just goes.
Junhui stays close behind him as Jaemin maintains his speed, keeping a steady pace just behind the leading pack, but as they pass the next lap Jaemin can feel himself stiffen as Junhui decides to make a dash and boldly passes him, grinning broadly. Jaemin clenches his teeth and tries to regain his lead but ends up skating too close to the inner lane and almost loses his balance. He swears—his skates aren't shaped for the innermost lane, having only rounded them to use for the middle lane. Two more skaters lap him, and Jaemin clamps down on his panic.
All too soon, the final bell sounds and Jaemin glides to a stop, hands on his knees, shoulders heaving. He looks up at the score results, heart in his throat, and sees that he placed seventh out of twelve. He'll advance to the final—but just barely.
Yuta's face is stony as Jaemin approaches the edge of the oval, though Jaemin can hardly see him as he clambers off the ice.
"It doesn't matter, you still made it to the next round—" Yuta is telling him, his voice tight, but Jaemin shrugs off the hand that tries to settle on his shoulder. "Jaemin-ah—"
Jaemin can hardly breathe. He pushes past the other skaters, the staff, the coaches, finding a spot near the wall to crouch down with his head in his hands. All at once, the tightness in his shoulders spreads out through the rest of his body, centering right in between his eyebrows, and the sounds are too loud, the colors too bright, the world far too big to fit into the little he can take in.
Almost as if from a distance, Jaemin can faintly hear a familiar voice and the commotion of people arguing and complaining, and then frantic footsteps, and then—
"Jaemin-ah," Jeno's voice says quietly, urgently, and then his hands are wrapping around his shoulders and squeezing tight. Jaemin squeezes his eyes shut and draws in a deep, shuddering breath, trying to will away the spinning of the world. "Jaemin-ah, pull yourself together."
"He's not—" Jaemin stammers out, pulling his head out of his hands and staring up into the face of his best friend. Jeno's face is pale, a gaudy MEDIA lanyard around his neck. The ID has Donghyuck's face on it—he suspects that this is how Jeno managed to get past security. Jaemin swallows again, trying to find his voice. "He's really just not gonna show—"
Jeno frowns and lets go of Jaemin's shoulders to cup his face in his hands. "I don't know what you're talking about, but—you've got to snap out of it, Jaemin-ah—this is your dream. This is everything you've ever wanted."
Everything you've ever wanted. Jaemin takes a deep breath as the bottleneck opening of sensation slowly widens and lets more of the world slowly filter in—the cheering of the crowd, the rapid-fire beat of his pulse in his ears, Jeno's hands on either side of his face.
Jeno frowns, one hand slides down to smooth over his bicep. "Remember when we were fourteen and we promised each other that we'd make it to the Olympics after watching Sochi on TV?"
Even in spite of it all, Jaemin laughs and the tightness in his body unravels just a little bit. "You just wanted to walk next to Kim Yuna in the Parade of Nations."
Jeno lets out a small laugh, the smile in his eyes real and genuine. "How was I supposed to know that she was gonna retire after Sochi?" Jeno pulls Jaemin to his feet. "But you—do you remember what you said to me?"
Jaemin smiles weakly and drags his hand over his eyes. "'That's gonna be us someday.' Yeah, I remember."
"And here we are," Jeno tells him. "We made it together. You made it. This is everything you've ever dreamed of."
"Everything…" Jaemin repeats to himself, looking first up at the spectators—still unchanged from the last time he checked—to the skating oval. And then Jaemin swallows, wondering if he'd been squandering his very reason for being at the Olympics this entire time. The bell sounds, calling all the qualifying skaters back for the final.
Yuta comes back to them then, arms crossed. "It's time to get ready," he says. His voice doesn't waver. It never has, but Jaemin has known Yuta for long enough to be able to tell when he's nervous.
"Sorry," he tells him under his breath, and Yuta shakes his head, giving him a terse smile.
"Just skate," Yuta says. "That's what you were born to do."
Jaemin nods and takes a deep breath. He takes off his helmet for a moment to rake his fingers back through his hair, and behind him Jeno sucks in a gasp. Jaemin turns arounds and smiles sheepishly. "Yes?"
Jeno gives him a bewildered grin. "I—Jaemin-ah—" he says with a small, flustered laugh. "You—you really know how to make a statement, huh?"
Jaemin snorts and puts his helmet back on. "Let me make the statements after the race."
Jeno waves at him before heading back to the statements. "We're all cheering for you, okay Jaemin-ah?"
Jaemin nods and heads out to the ice. Already at their starting places are Chung Jaewon, who had placed second in his semifinal heat, and both Zhu Zhengting and Wen Junhui, who affix Jaemin with careful, calculated gazes. The tightness in his shoulders returns for a brief moment, but he takes another deep breath and makes his way over to where Chung Jaewon is standing on the ice doing stretches.
Jaewon looks up when Jaemin skates over and gives him a practiced, polite smile. This is the demeanor of someone who has been here before, someone who has put so much on the line and then lost. Jaemin knows. He was there, when Lee Seunghoon won—all because Jaewon had put his life, heart, and soul out on the ice. Ultimately, it hadn't been enough to get him the medal Jaemin's sure he'd wanted. But it had been enough to get South Korea to their victory.
"Are you nervous, Jaemin-ssi?" Jaewon asks. It sounds like Jaewon is only asking because he knows he has to. But Jaemin smiles back anyway.
"Definitely," he says, reaching up to adjust his eyewear. "Do you have any tips for me, since you've done this before?"
Jaewon shrugs and tightens the strap on his helmet. "Just skate, I guess. Nothing's different. Just skate."
Just skate. Jaemin leans down to stretch, feeling the burn along his hamstrings. The murmur of Mandarin causes him to look up at Junhui and Zhengting whispering to themselves as they help each other stretch. Junhui catches Jaemin's eye and gives him a short nod, the smile on his face genuine and impish.
But Jaemin isn't looking at Junhui. Because past the outline of Junhui's helmet, in the audience, Jaemin's eyes lock onto a flash of yellow. Renjun standing at the edge of the rink, midnight blue jacket swallowing him, gripping the edge of the railing. An inexplicable energy rush bubbles up inside of Jaemin the moment they make eye contact. Of course, Renjun's face is inscrutable, but Jaemin stares at him in disbelief anyway, all of the tightness in his shoulders melting away.
The warning bell sounds again, and Jaemin has to wrench his eyes away from Renjun to get into starting position next to Jaewon, taking his place in the final sixteen. His mind feels blissfully empty. Empty, but not void. Clear, like the ice after being polished. Jaemin swallows again. There are a hundred thousand people in these stands. A hundred thousand pairs of eyes.
Renjun's are just one out of the many. But, somehow, it makes all the difference.
Jaewon is right—the final is a blur. There's really not much else to it. You just dig your heels in, trust your body. You let go. Jaemin stays close behind Jaewon for the first couple of laps, even after they're allowed to pass. Zhengting and Junhui go on ahead to pass them, but Jaemin stays calm. Jaewon in front of him is all oiled and precise machinery—putting one seamless blade in front of the other, and Jaemin takes every opportunity he can to use it to his advantage.
His breath is even and systematic. He inhales at the turn, exhales on the straight. His hands go numb as he clenches them behind him, and he only looks up long enough to see Yuta as he passes him, monitoring his pacing. Fifth lap, Jaemin in eighth place. Ninth lap, Jaemin in sixth, Jaewon right in front of him in fifth.
It's the tenth lap, and the Zhu–Wen duo are leading in first and second. Jaemin feels a tremor in his chest that travels down his his heart, and he pushes a little. Digs in just a bit more. He passes Yuta again. fifth place. Renjun is a yellow blur in the stands. Jaemin can't see his face clearly, but he knows Renjun must be wearing the same look he always does—that is, unreadable, even until the end.
Thirteenth lap. Jaemin puts on a burst of speed and leaves Jaewon behind. He's third place now, his arms swinging out like a pendulum behind him. He's catching up to Junhui—gets down low and gets to the outside of the middle lane—his skates are made specifically for this—and laps him. It's just Zhengting in front of him now.
Final lap. Zhengting is grinning. Jaemin can see it even from behind him, when Zhengting rounds his corners, and he pushes. Jaemin pushes harder and harder. The skating track opens up to the final straight in front of him, and Jaemin can hear a burst of cheering coming from the Korean section of the stands, and then Jaewon is on his heels, appearing suddenly in a shower of ice flakes from the pack where Jaemin had left him. They are approaching the finish line, and even though Jaemin's muscles are burning with fatigue, he's still pushing, but Zhengting pushes just a little bit harder. The finish line approaches faster and faster—Zhengting is only centimeters ahead of him, and Jaewon is closing in on him—
And then, all at once, it's over. Jaemin's breath catches in his chest as the Oval explodes with sound, light, and color, and it takes him a few seconds to realize that it's not for him. Jaemin looks up ahead and sees Zhengting with his arms outstretched over his head, and then Junhui is zooming up from behind them to collide with Zhengting in a fierce hug. So, Zhengting had won, if only—Jaemin takes a look at the official times on the LED monitor up above them—by a few milliseconds. For a couple of moments, Jaemin lets this realization parse through the icy-numbness of the adrenaline, takes a deep breath. It doesn't hurt as much as he'd expected it to. Jaemin looks up again to see his name blazing bright right next to the number 2. Silver. And, right beneath his name, Jaewon, who had picked up bronze.
Swallowing thickly, he glances behind him in time to see Jaewon glide off to the sidelines and crumple down to the ice right in front of his coach. Jaemin skates over to Jaewon and helps him to his feet, wiping tears from his face.
"Jaewon-ah," Jaemin says, his teeth chattering. "Let's go stand on the podium together."
Jaewon grips his arm and nods furiously, letting Jaemin skate him over to where Zhengting is already standing on the podium, looking down at them from first place.
"Hey," Zhengting says in English, reaching a hand down as Jaemin climbs onto second. A broad smile spreads across his face. "Good race."
Jaemin feels himself grin, and he reaches up to take Zhengting's hand, gripping it tightly. "Thanks," he says. "You too. Congratulations."
Jaemin shivers, adrenaline mostly out of his system now and his cheeks going numb from the cold and from smiling so much. He looks up at the stands and sees Jeno and Donghyuck hanging off each other, screaming for him, and Jisung jumping up and down with the South Korean flag draped around his shoulders, the colors clashing hilariously with the bright orange of his SF Shock jersey. Then at Yuta by the sidelines, clapping fiercely, the smile on his face wide and beaming bright, beanie all askew because of how hard he'd been cheering.
And then, at Renjun. Renjun gripping the side wall railing in front of him, cheeks flushed prettily from the cold of the arena, eyes wide like he'd just seen a ghost. Jaemin's eyes meet his, and Renjun visibly sucks in a breath. And Jaemin beams, feeling bright and light and glittering, reaching down to grab Jaewon's wrist and pump both of their hands into the air. Jaewon sobs next to him and Jaemin holds tight to his hand.
They have one hundred thousand pairs of eyes on them right now, he knows, and millions more worldwide. Maybe Jaemin hadn't won the gold, but somehow this doesn't feel like a loss. He smiles and takes it in, loses himself to the roar of the crowd. Four years ago, he's dreamed of this very moment. So for now, he'll just close his eyes and live in it.
"I'm sorry," Jaemin says the moment he steps off the ice, and heads straight over to his coach. "I'm sorry," he says again.
For a moment, Yuta stares at him in disbelief, and Jaemin is terrified that Yuta might cry, but then Yuta just pulls him in for a stiff hug. Jaemin hugs him back fiercely, trying to ignore the clicking and flashing of camera lights around them as the media and press reporters trying to push in toward the athletes fresh off the ice.
"You did well," Yuta tells him softly, pulling back to grip his shoulders. "Hansol would be proud of you."
Jaemin shakes his head emphatically. "Are you proud of me?" he asks, gripping his medal tight in his gloved hands.
Something flashes in Yuta's face before he swallows. "I—of course. But it's you who got yourself here, Jaemin-ah. Your own hard work."
Jaemin takes off his medal and puts it over Yuta's neck. "Not without you, hyung. Not without my coach."
And this time, when Yuta laughs, Jaemin knows that everything's going to be okay. "Stop kissing my ass, Jaemin-ah," he says, not quite able to hide the tremor in his voice. "And talk to this nice gentleman who's been waiting for you so patiently."
Jaemin turns around questioningly and nods politely at the reporter standing at the edge of his periphery. "Hi," he says, rubbing the back of his neck.
"Jung Jaehyun, Chosun Ilbo," the reporter says with a flash of perfect white teeth, and Jaemin raises an eyebrow, something jarring in his memory. "Could I ask you a few questions for your Korean fans?"
"I don't mind," Jaemin says, pulling off his helmet. Near him, he hears some spectators and other staff whisper and point, and he flushes despite himself.
Jaehyun smiles again, holding up his recorder. "Congratulations on your silver medal, again. It must be a very exciting first time at the Olympics, is that right?"
Jaemin licks his lips. Tastes nectar and honeysuckle. "Most definitely. I'm really grateful for this win. Six years ago, I would never have even imagined being here."
"You tried out for Pyeongchang, is that correct?" Jaehyun asks him, referencing something on his iPad.
It's been a long time since anyone's bought up his Pyeongchang qualifiers, and Jaemin covers up his surprised with a shaky laugh. "Yeah, but I didn't make it past the trials. I guess it wasn't my time."
Jaehyun nods carefully. "Maybe so, but it seems that the extra four years truly paid off," he says graciously, beaming. "Tonight, you and Jaewon-ssi have made Korea very proud."
Jaemin smiles broadly, heat rising in his face. "Thank you, really. I'm proud to be representing Korea."
"Any comments for Zhu Zhengting?"
Jaemin smiles and looks down at his skates. "He skated brilliantly tonight. But I'll be coming for him in Calgary."
"Spoken like a true Olympian," Jaehyun says with a charming laugh. "By the way, Jaemin-ssi, I hope you don't mind me asking, but I can tell the media is all going to jump on this." He gestures at Jaemin's hair. "Could you give us some insight on your… interesting choice of hair color?"
And, for the first time that evening, Jaemin really laughs, reaching up to run fingers through his bangs, now bleached and dyed a bright peachy-pink. "Oh this? I thought maybe I'd switch it up a little bit before my event, you know."
Jaehyun gives him a curious look. "Why pink?"
And Jaemin looks past Jaehyun to where Renjun had been standing just a few minutes ago. He doesn't see Renjun there anymore, but somehow Jaemin feels that it's going to be okay.
"Maybe," Jaemin says, giving Jaehyun his best smile. "I just wanted someone to pay attention to me."
Jaehyun's eyes crescent pleasantly. "Well, the world definitely paid attention to you tonight, Jaemin-ssi. Make no mistake about that."
"Someone's waiting for you," Yuta says, tugging Jaemin away from the prying eyes of the media and press as soon as Jaemin's gotten out of his skates.
Jaemin frowns, hoisting his duffle bag up higher on his shoulder. "Who? Jeno? Jisungie?"
Yuta only smiles and leads Jaemin through to the outside wings of the arena, where Jaemin had spent a couple of hours stretching and getting warmed up before the semifinal. He stops in front of one of the rooms and knocks softly on the door. "You'll see," he tells Jaemin with a secretive smile, before letting go of his arm and leaving Jaemin standing there bewildered and alone in front of the door.
Whoever's inside doesn't answer, so Jaemin swallows and reaches out himself, pushing the door open.
"Hello?" he says, taking a step inside. For a second, it looks like the room is empty—the warm-up mats rolled up and propped up in the corner next to the chairs and drink cooler—but then Jaemin hears someone stifle a laugh.
Jaemin turns—his heart swooping—and sees Renjun, standing there all swathed in midnight blue and gold, cutting a stark outline against that sky wallpaper.
"Renjun-ah," Jaemin breathes, starting to take a step closer. "You came—"
"Hi," Renjun says, lips curling up. He crosses his arms and nods at his medal. "I see you won something. Guess you're pretty fast after all."
"I—yeah—" Jaemin's words are all stumbling over each other, filled with so many things that he wants to say. Things he wants to tell him, questions he wants to ask. "When did you get here?" Why did you leave? And, more importantly, why did you come back?
Renjun shoves his hands into the pockets of his jacket. "This morning," he says quietly. "Came on the bus." In the back of his mind, Jaemin wonders if all the volunteer jackets are this big, or if everything Renjun wears is just fated to look exceptionally large on him.
Jaemin swallows again. "Renjun," he says again, and this time takes a step closer to him. "I—"
But the rest of his thought never makes it out of his mouth, because Renjun is just one step ahead of him—reaching up to loop his arms around Jaemin's neck, pulling him down into a kiss. And it's a victory all over again, all other thoughts emptying out of Jaemin's head as he palms the space between Renjun's shoulder blades, the other hand curling around his jaw, as Jaemin kisses him there in that quiet, in that small, sky-bright room surrounded by clouds.
Renjun pulls back finally, eyes half-lidded and bright, breathlessly flushed. Jaemin wants to kiss him again. "The pink," Renjun says, slowly carding fingers through his bangs.
Jaemin leans their foreheads together. "You'd be surprised what I'd do for attention," he says, eyes creasing up in a smile. "When I want someone to look at me."
"I'm looking," Renjun whispers against his mouth, soft and sugar-sweet. "I saw you. You were incredible. You were incredible."
And then Jaemin's heart is gone. All of his victories and losses had never truly been his own to savor—always broadcast to hundreds, thousands, millions of people watching his every step, his every blunder. Even tonight, this win—the silver medal pressing definitive and certain in between their chests—is just another he's lost to the world.
But this—Jaemin cups Renjun's face in his palms once more and kisses him slowly, tenderly—this one is just for him.
This one, Jaemin thinks, he'll keep for himself.
21 February 2022 – Beijing Daxing International Airport
Jaemin's phone buzzes with a notification as he falls into line at the check-in counter for Asiana behind Yuta, and he swipes it open, feeling his breath catch on all the hooks of his ribs.
« 仁俊 »
are you leaving today?
Jaemin stares down at the message, licking his lips. They taste like honeyed sugar.
« 娜娜 »
are you home?
« 仁俊 »
yes, i got in last night
when you said we'd see each other again, did you mean it?
« 娜娜 »
i meant it
we'll see each other again
Jaemin hadn't gotten a chance to say goodbye to Renjun properly before Renjun had left for Jilin right after the closing ceremony. They hadn't truly talked about it, but—Jaemin hasn't quite given up hope yet.
Jaemin looks up from his phone into the eyes of his coach, crinkled with pride. Jeno, ahead of him in line, whips his head around at Yuta's question.
The line moves up, and Jaemin pockets his phone before picking up his bag. "What?"
Yuta gestures for Jaemin's passport, and Jaemin gives it to him. Yuta tucks it in sleekly under his own, cocking a playful eyebrow. "What next?"
Jeno snorts from in front of them. "Well, Calgary, right?" He's eating a snack cake, and his mouth is full, but Jaemin knows that Jeno is far from playing around. Jaemin grins.
"Yeah, Calgary, of course."
Doyoung sighs, snatching the other half of Jeno's snack cake and tossing it in the trash. "And let me guess," he says, exasperated and fond. "You want to win gold."
Jeno's eyes find Jaemin's. "Well?" Jeno asks him, his eyes crescenting pleasantly, glinting with a fire that Jaemin knows well, one that burns close to his heart. "Want to win gold?"
Jaemin looks at his best friend, his hand closing over his phone in his pocket, and then grins at him. Then at Doyoung, then at Yuta.
"Yes," he says, and grins wider. "Oh, most definitely, yes."
You never know. This is the Olympics. Unexpected things happen.
Emily Hughes, Olympian
The world may be tiny, but the heart’s enormous.