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the stuff of comets

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Amsterdam Airport Schiphol. He has read somewhere that it is the world’s most relaxed airport, but the scene unfolding in front of him is anything but relaxing. He and his brother Mark, and his brother’s coach Daniel Lee, walk through the terminal, being cramped left and right by people of different nationalities, rushing to make it to their flight on time. Someone’s luggage runs on his foot, and Johnny limps through immigrations and sighs in relief when they find an empty seat in the food court.

“You okay?” Coach Lee asks him, though he looks like he had gone through worse airport crowds.

Johnny wriggles his toes inside his left shoes. “Yeah,” he says. “My foot is still intact.”

“Good.” Coach Lee turns to Mark, who had just taken off his coat. “How about you, Mark?”

Mark had fished out his phone and is frowning at it for whatever reason. “I’m hungry,” he says.

Coach Lee chuckles. He scans the food court until he spots something of interest in the distance; Johnny looks at the same direction and finds the familiar yellow “M” logo. “I’ll go buy us something to eat,” he declares. “Anything you want in particular?”

“Anything they’re not selling in Canada.”

“Whatever he’s getting,” Johnny says as he leans against his chair. “And coffee, as black as my soul.” He laughs when Coach Lee snorts at him before heading to the McDonald’s stall.

Johnny has barely settled in his seat when he hears Mark whining his name. His brother’s chin is propped on both of his hands, his elbows on the table. He’s making that face that tells Johnny he wants to ask for something, and he wants it now. “Can I borrow your power bank? I need to charge my phone.”

Johnny’s power bank is in the front pocket of his bag, and he remembers fully charging it before they left Marseilles. His hand reaches for it, but just as he’s about to hand it to his brother, his lips tug up and his eyebrows waggle as realization hits him. “Why do you need to charge your phone?” he asks. “Do you need to message Eunji that you already miss her?”

Mark makes a sound of protest that has Johnny almost falling off his seat for doubling in laughter. “I do not need to message her!” he says, his cheeks red. “I told myself I’m going to finish that game I just downloaded after JGPF, and now’s my chance.”

(Mark met Ko Eunji, a skater from South Korea, in one international competition when they were still advance novice skaters. Since then, they and another South Korean skater named Lee Donghyuck, have been inseparable. Mark insists that he and Eunji are just friends, although Johnny occasionally catches Mark giving Eunji looks that imply he sees her as more than that.

Of course, Mark is not going to admit that.)

Johnny manages to fish out his power bank while his body is racking in laughter. “Nothing wrong with guessing, right?” he says, handing the gadget to the younger one. “Here you go, kiddo.”

“I can’t believe we’re related,” Mark says, but he mumbles thanks anyway as he plugs the gadget’s cable in his phone, its screen lighting up with the familiar battery icon.

Johnny knows Mark’s comment is rhetorical, but he can’t help but remember anyway. He was seven years old when he moved from Chicago to Vancouver. His mother had introduced him to the four-year-old Mark as his younger brother. Back then, Johnny had a lot of questions—Why did his parents have to marry other people? Why did his father’s new wife want to send him away? How was it possible for Mark to be his brother when they don’t have the same last name or even the same father? But Johnny had always wanted a brother, and suddenly, the questions didn’t seem to matter.

That was fourteen years ago. Now, they’re in Amsterdam, nine hours away from home. Mark had just won the bronze medal in the Junior Grand Prix Final; no Canadian man had been on the JGPF podium since 2010, so this is a big thing.

Four months ago, his mother had asked him if he would like to be Mark’s manager, and Johnny had said yes. Despite some beginner’s pains, it became a breeze to make sure Mark juggles training in between school and promotions. But he wasn’t prepared for his phone beeping countless times, his in-box suddenly full of requests to interview Mark, both from home and abroad. The Skate Canada representative with them in Marseilles had already informed Mark to brace himself for the welcome party when he lands in Vancouver. Johnny is bracing himself for the many cameras and fans shoving their pens and notebooks and gifts in Mark’s direction.

Holy shit, this is going to be crazy.

But then again, Johnny should know and should be used to the crazy …

“Hey, Johnny?”

Johnny strays away from his thoughts and blinks at Mark, who had just paused his game and had put his phone down. His forehead is creased; he only does that when he has something in his mind that he can’t wrap his head around. “Yeah?”

“Is this gonna change my life or something? I didn’t expect to do so well and be on the podium. I just didn’t want to be last.”

No one had expected Mark to do so well either. The JGPF field had long been dominated by Americans, Japanese, and Russians. Mark didn’t want to be that random Canadian who was lucky enough to qualify for the JGPF. Johnny hasn’t read the comments in forums (and he should stop reading), but he knows some are passing off this bronze-medal finish as a fluke. Alexander Samarin had fallen on his quad toe and Dmitri Aliev popped a couple of jumps. Still, he knows otherwise. The moment Mark landed all his jumps and burst into his ending step sequence, Johnny knew that podium spot had his name on it.

Johnny’s expression softens. Mark is just seventeen; he’s ready to move into the senior ranks next season, but this is the season when he started winning big competitions—his two JGP medals, then the JGPF. He’s not prepared for the fame this will bring him. “Yeah, it will,” he says, when he finds the right words. “Podium finishes always do that to you, but you know what? You shouldn’t let that scare you. All you have to do is to keep doing your best.”

“You sound like Mom. But okay.” The crease on Mark’s forehead disappears, and he resumes his game. Johnny gives himself a mental pat on the back for his successful manager-like advice.

Coach Lee arrives with food—and chocolate for Mark, because he likes to spoil Mark whenever he does well in a competition—and all serious conversation is pushed aside. Mark starts complaining about the schoolwork waiting for him when he gets home, the Christmas party he wants to attend, yada, yada. Johnny almost forgets that even with a bronze medal in one of the biggest competitions in figure skating, Mark is still just a kid.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Canada finds new prodigy in JGPF bronze medalist Mark Lee

By PJ Kwong

“Prodigy” is a title Mark Lee didn’t expect to be attached to his name. The seventeen-year-old describes himself as an avid video game player who struggles with math, like every other teenage boy.

This average teenage boy, however, just won the bronze medal in the recently concluded Junior Grand Prix Final in Marseilles, France. He earned personal best scores in both the short and long programs, as well as the combined score. He impressed the audience with his huge jumps, especially his quad toe, and his dynamic step sequence.

“I couldn’t believe it at first!” Mark gushed, staring at his bronze medal as if the whole situation was still surreal to him. “I just didn’t want to be last—that was all I asked for!”

Mark joins Sota Yamamoto (JPN) and Vincent Zhou (USA), who won the gold and silver medal, respectively. He also becomes the first junior Canadian man to step on the JGPF podium since Andrei Rogozine won the bronze medal in 2010.

Mark remembers JGPF 2010 differently—it was the same year when his half-brother, Johnny Seo (USA), won the JGPF title. Johnny had retired in 2014 and has come onboard as Mark’s manager early this season.

He beamed at the mention of his brother. “Johnny has been supportive ever since he became my manager,” he said. “He’s been there before, so he knows what I should or shouldn’t do. His presence is comforting. I don’t know if I would have survived the Final without him.”

With a JGPF medal, Mark becomes one of the top men heading into Canadian Nationals. This will mark his senior debut in Nationals, in a field consisting of Patrick Chan, Kevin Reynolds, Nam Nguyen, and Nicolas Nadeau.

Mark, however, is managing his expectations. “I don’t expect to be on the podium in Nationals, but I’ll do my best!”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Johnny can feel the fatigue of sitting in a ten-hour flight and the jet lag that came with coming from another country, but training continues. He and Mark are up at six in the morning the next day for a trip to the gym, then to the Vancouver Skating Club. A banner congratulating Mark is hanging in the lobby, and the staff is extra cheery in greeting and congratulating them. Hansol, Taeyong, Yuta, Ten, and Jaehyun are all chatting in the locker room when they come in, and they waste no time yelling at them and tackling them in a hug.

“Mark, dude, you totally slayed!” Yuta yells, almost rendering him deaf. And to think he wasn’t the one Yuta and Hansol were crushing in a hug.

“Hyungs—” Mark chokes out, the color draining from his face. “You’re—killing—me—”

“Let him breathe, you two, or the Canadian fed’s gonna kill you for killing their new star,” Taeyong laughs. He ruffles Mark’s hair as soon as Yuta and Hansol release the younger one from their grips. “Congrats, kid. We’re all proud of you.”

Mark grins at Taeyong sheepishly. Taeyong had always been his favorite training mate, Johnny recalls. The moment Taeyong and Jaehyun arrived in the rink to be their new training mate five years ago, Mark had always gravitated toward Taeyong.

“How are you guys?” Ten asks. He’s holding an open box of Pocky, which he hands to Johnny.

Johnny understands no one can eat sweets during training, but what their coaches don’t know won’t hurt them. He takes a stick of Pocky and takes a bite before replying. “Jetlagged but great. How about you guys?”

Ten is about to open his mouth to reply, but suddenly Jaehyun has his arms around his shoulder and interrupts him. “Guess who landed a clean quad sal?”

“Huh?” Johnny blinks, then looks at Ten who’s glaring at Jaehyun, who gets the message. The Pocky box comes loose from his grip and falls to the ground. “Holy shit, Chittaphon, you landed a quad sal?!” he exclaims, ignoring Hansol and Yuta’s protests of Johnny wasting their snack as they scramble to salvage what’s left in the box. “That’s …”

“Amazing? Revolutionary? Something I can win Worlds with?” Ten beams. He looks like he’s trying to be modest about it, but he’s failing terribly.

Johnny can’t resist snorting. “Okay, amazing, yeah. Worlds, unless Fernandez, Chan, and Hanyu fall on everything, including their step sequence—”

“Wow, you have such little faith in me! I can’t believe your mom made you Mark’s manager—”

“Guys.” They’re interrupted when Mark clears his throat. He has already changed to his training clothes, and he’s trying his best to look as impatient as possible. “Can you take your lovers’ spat somewhere else? Some of us have to train.”

Johnny almost chokes on air, but heads out of the changing room, with everyone else. Lovers’ spat? Where did that come from?

Coach Lee nods at him in greeting when he steps out of the changing room. Ten and Mark greet their coach before heading to their warmup off-ice. Hansol and Yuta huddle on one side with their coach Joanne McLeod, while Taeyong and Jaehyun start going through crossovers with Bruno Marcotte.

It’s back to a typical day in the Vancouver Skating Club.

Johnny has just fished out his camera to take a video of Mark’s run-through when he catches sight of Ten speeding through the rink. He recognizes the takeoff—a forward outside three-turn on the left foot, a takeoff from the back inside edge, then four rotations in the air.

Johnny swears and almost drops his camera when Ten lands on the ice, free leg extended perfectly. Taeyong cheers, while Mark’s jaw drops, pausing from his on-ice warmup.

“He wasn’t kidding when he said he can land it,” Johnny says, as he stands next to Coach Lee, the boards the only thing separating them. Two weeks ago, Ten had confided in him that the quad sal he had been training in the off-season will be debuted next season instead of this season. These days, it would be crazy for a figure skater—at least, for the men—to not include a quad in their program layout when everyone else has at least two quads. Ten, however, has an exquisite triple axel and is consistent in his triple jumps that he can at least rely on skating cleanly to keep him relevant while the quad is in progress.

This is a man whose country had only recently been in the figure skating map. If Korea had Yuna Kim, Thailand had Ten. (Of course, no one can ever compare to the Yuna Kim, but Ten is the face of Thailand figure skating, as Yuna Kim is in South Korea.)

He feels a nudge on his arm, and he finds Coach Lee smiling at him. “You’re staring,” he says.

Johnny blinks, realizing he is staring. “He’s just … he’s improved so much. He has so much fire now, don’t you think?” Suddenly, Ten skates across him and makes a lunge that reminds Johnny of the one Yuzuru Hanyu did for his short program in the Olympics. He snorts at the sight.

“Of course, he does. It’s the Olympic qualifying season. At this point, everyone has fire in their bellies. You, of all people, should know that.”

He knows that, of course. Maybe he still had that fire in his belly. But he remembers the talk with his therapist after Nationals three years ago, and he knows that fire is burning for nothing.

Johnny suddenly feels nauseous—he attributes it to jet lag—so he takes a seat by the stands and watches everyone from a distance. He remembers that he used to be with the others in the rink, agonizing over skating skills when they could be practicing their jumps, celebrating when they land a fully rotated quad, watching performances from their favorite skaters and dreaming that one day, that could be them on the Olympic podium.

Johnny used to be a competitive skater, and he was amazing at it. He had been Coach Lee’s pride and joy, even more so when he won the Junior Grand Prix Final and the Junior World title in his breakthrough season. He made a stellar senior debut after that, winning a medal in international competitions, close-to-podium finishes in his Grand Prix assignments, a bronze medal in his first senior Nationals, a bronze medal in Four Continents, and eighth at his first senior Worlds.

Back in Worlds in Nice, people can debate all day if Patrick Chan deserved that World title, but all eyes were also on the new seniors—Yuzuru Hanyu, the bronze medalist, and Johnny Seo, the United States’ next male skater to possibly make it to the Olympic podium after Evan Lysacek. Those were big expectations to live up to, but Johnny had been willing to take on the challenge. If there was anything he wanted since he had stepped foot on the ice for the first time, it would be to stand on the Olympic podium.

And then the injury happened.

Johnny was used to injuries; it came with being an athlete, after all. He had sprained his ankle on a couple of occasions, and he eventually had to stop using the Biellmann spin when he started getting chronic back pain. When a foot injury forced him to skip the Grand Prix series in 2012, he took half of the season off then bounced back in Nationals. He and Max Aaron got the United States two spots for the Olympics in Sochi.

He thought he was back to normal when the Olympic season came. He skipped international competitions and won a medal in one of his Grand Prix assignments. His placements weren’t enough to qualify him for the Grand Prix Final, but he didn’t care. His focus was on Nationals. If he won either gold or silver, then he’ll make it to the Olympic team.

On the week of Nationals, pain flared up on his foot that every step he took shot fire all over his body. Warmup was torturous, and he had make uncharacteristic mistakes. He had managed to gather all his strength and willpower to skate two flawless programs, straight to a silver medal. Despite his struggle to walk atop the podium, he knew he had done it—he had made it to the Olympic team.

He had to skip the gala to head to the hospital. The staff in the Boston Medical Center had congratulated him for making it to the Olympic team while they conducted X-rays and other tests. He was chatting with Joshua Farris about Olympics preparations when the doctor finally met with him for the results.

“I’m sorry, Mr. Seo,” the doctor had said. “It seems that your previous injury had gotten worse.”

Johnny had opened his mouth, but no words had come out. It was his mother who had to ask the doctor to elaborate. There was something about nerve damage in his foot, about said damage affecting his whole foot. He could undergo therapy so that the pain could subside, but he should stop any strenuous physical activity to avoid permanent nerve damage.

“Which means I can’t skate in the Olympics?” Johnny had asked, when he managed to find his voice. The doctor had looked somber, so he took that as a yes. Johnny had never felt so hollow, but he tried to look at the brighter side of things. “It’s okay! Sure, it sucks right now, but I’m still young! I can always go to the next Olympics, right? I just have to undergo therapy, and I’ll probably skip the first half of next season, but I’ll be okay, right?” When the doctor didn’t reply, he had raised his voice. “Right, Doc?”

The doctor had shaken his head. “I’m sorry, Mr. Seo, but I’m afraid returning to skating is out of the option forever. Therapy will help the pain subside, but if you continue skating, especially if you continue jumping, the injury could worsen. You could risk not being able to walk.”

But giving up skating would be like giving up on life altogether …

Johnny had begrudgingly headed to the USFSA the next day to inform them he had to withdraw. He had posted a statement of his withdrawal five minutes later. He appreciated the tremendous outpour of support, but he would only feel better if someone proved the doctor wrong.

He can’t stop skating. He was just getting started.

He approached every doctor they could find—his therapist in Chicago, another doctor that the USFSA had recommended, then Mark’s therapist in Vancouver. Mark’s therapist was one of the best sports doctor, and Johnny was hopeful that the doctor would say he could come back strong after a few months of therapy.

But all exam results have given him the same answer—he shouldn’t be skating anymore.

And his career, and life as he knew it, had ended abruptly.

It was not easy adjusting to a life after skating. He would wake up at an ungodly hour then remember he didn’t have to wake up early for training anymore; then he couldn’t sleep afterwards. Sometimes he would take a detour to the rink, or he would grab for his skates hanging on the coat hanger of his room, then remember he’ll never skate again.

He had tried to live a normal life. He registered for full load in the University of British Columbia and studied his ass off. He soon made friends outside figure skating. He got his driver’s license. He dated, but never got into a serious relationship. It looked like he was getting his life together.

But he would be reminded whenever he would run into Mark with his full training gear, ready to go to the rink. He became Mark’s designated driver to the rink, and he would see Hansol, Taeyong, Ten, Yuta, and Jaehyun in the rink, practicing their jumps. Johnny would get the irresistible urge to join them, but he would stop himself as he remembered the doctor’s words.

Taeyong had told him he can still lace up his skates and step foot on the ice. But what good would skating be if he can’t jump? What good would skating be if he can’t chase his dream of being at the top?

Johnny snaps back to reality when Coach Lee calls him. It dawns on him that he was clutching his camera tightly that his knuckles start to hurt. Mark had just finished his run-through, and the Power button is not lit up.

He sighs and presses the camera’s power button, signaling for Mark to do one more run-through.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

More and more activities started piling on Mark’s schedule that even Johnny feels dizzy with it all. He has to appear on TV, on interviews, photo shoots, and endorsement signings, in between gym, rink, school, and off-ice training. Mark is still wide-eyed and nervous whenever the camera pans to him, stutters whenever he is asked a question, and stands awkwardly even when the photographer tries to coax him into relaxing.

“I suck at this,” Mark says dejectedly, following Johnny as they head to the parking lot after his interview with CBC. There’s no mistaking the sagging of his brother’s shoulders, the CBC interview being his last of the week.

“You’ll get better,” Johnny tells him as he opens the back door of his car and shoves his bag inside. “You’re still adjusting to the attention. You’ll get used to it as time goes by.”

“As long as you’re around with your years-long experience, I guess I’ll be fine.” Mark grins at him cheekily as he plops on the passenger’s seat.

“Why did that make me feel so old?” Johnny rolls his eyes.

“How did you prepare for your first major interview, Johnny?” Mark asks, fastening his seatbelt. He stares at Johnny with wide eyes, and Johnny forgets his brother implied he was old.

Johnny chuckles. “NBC. Scott Hamilton was the one who interviewed me, and I’ve admired Scott when I was a kid that I couldn’t speak. Luckily, Scott was all laughs about it, and I’ve learned to relax.” He remembers he and Scott have been on the same spotlight in some ice shows, and he appreciates the advice imparted to him, even if he’ll never get to use them now.

His thoughts are interrupted when his phone beeps. “Where are you?” Jaehyun texts. “We’re getting dinner ready.”

“Heading out of CBC. See you!” Johnny texts back. He then starts the engine. “Let’s go. Jaehyun’s looking for us.”

Weekends in the rink are optional, unless they have a competition the following week. They make the most of their free time catching up on schoolwork or relaxing, mostly the latter. For this week, Taeyong and the others decide to throw a party to celebrate Mark’s podium finish in JGPF. In true VSC fashion, said party involves crashing at someone’s place while they host a video game competition and eat junk food.

They enter their house to a flurry of activity and the smell of tomato and basil in the oven. Hansol and Yuta are preparing potato chips and dip, Jaehyun is preparing chicken wings, while they recognize Taeyong’s figure crouched on the oven. Meanwhile, Ten had just entered from the back door with five boxes of pizza.

“This is gonna be some party,” Johnny says with a whistle.

“Anything for this child,” Ten chuckles as he ruffles Mark’s hair, ignoring the younger one’s protests. “So, pizza?”

“No one is eating until this casserole is finished!” Taeyong yells from his side of the kitchen; his sternness reminds Johnny of his mother whenever he and Mark forget to clean up after dinner. “Johnny, didn’t Jaehyun tell you to get soda?”

“I texted him!” Jaehyun says quickly, to shield himself from Taeyong’s impending reprimand.

Johnny checks his phone. There was the text—three hours before Jaehyun’s “Where are you?” “Oops.” Luckily for him, there’s a 7-Eleven a couple of streets away. “I’ll go buy some right now—”

“I’ll come with!” Ten says, following Johnny past the door.

Johnny shoots him a questioning look. “You just came here, like, a minute ago,” he points out.

Ten merely shrugs. “I forgot my phone at home.”

Johnny smiles and shakes his head. Typical of Ten to forget things. Ten lives the farthest from the rink, and therefore Johnny’s house, but Johnny doesn’t mind the long walk. “Come on, phone first then soda.”

He doesn’t regret bringing his car because he and Ten can talk about everything under the sun; heck, they can walk in silence and that’s still okay. Johnny tells Ten about Mark’s awkwardness during the CBC interview, and Ten dishes the latest gossip he heard from Southeast Asian skaters when he last talked to them on Skype. He barely realizes how much time has passed until they walk inside the familiar lobby, up the familiar elevator, and reach the familiar black door.

They’ve been friends for fourteen years now. Johnny had just moved to Vancouver then; when his mother got custody of him, he had no choice but to leave his coach in Chicago and start over. Vancouver is a city in a country where figure skating is one of its most popular sports, and Johnny was overwhelmed at the many rinks to visit and the many coaches to talk to. Eventually, he and his mother decided to sign up in the Vancouver Skating Club, near his new school. He had signed up under Coach Lee, who had recently retired after a seventh-place finish in the Salt Lake City Olympics.

Johnny first met Ten when the younger one had fallen on an attempted toe jump. Johnny could already land all his jumps and had decided to help Ten while his mother was still talking to Coach Lee. The rest, as they say, was history. Soon, Mark started taking formal skating lessons. The Korean Skating Union sent Hansol and the Japan Skating Federation sent Yuta after the three of them stood atop the Junior World podium, then Taeyong and Jaehyun arrived a year later. They became the inseparable VSC Septet.

There may be seven of them, but Ten is the most special. While others flocked around him, begging him to relive his experience as a JGPF and a Junior World champion, Ten would drag him by the collar of his shirt and demand of souvenirs. When Johnny groaned over aching hips and sore muscles after a hard day of training, Ten would stop from his own training to get Johnny an ice pack. When Johnny had locked himself in his room after announcing his retirement, Ten had climbed the tree outside his room so he could be Johnny’s shoulder to cry on.

Ten scrambles all over his apartment to look for his phone upon their arrival. Johnny is content to look around the living room, his gaze settling on the many gold medals engraved with Thai letters framed on one side of the walls. (“From Nationals,” Ten had told him one time. “It’s nice to be called a five-time National Champion, even if you’re the only senior man competing and the judges didn’t have any other choice,” then to the small Christmas tree on the coffee table.

“Found it!” Ten is beaming as he pops out of his room, phone in hand. “It was somewhere under the bed.”

“What, your phone is gonna do all your social media stuff?” Johnny chuckles, evading Ten’s attempt of kicking him on the shin. “I didn’t know you’re a Christmas person.”

Ten blinks at him before making a sound of realization. “Oh, that. My parents are flying back to Thailand, so I’m in Vancouver the whole Christmas break. They told me I should focus on Worlds. I’ll just go home in Songkran.”

“That’s gonna be lonely …” Johnny remarks. Hansol, Taeyong, and Jaehyun will be flying to Korea to participate in a domestic ranking competition and will be staying there until their Nationals in January. Meanwhile, Yuta will be flying to Japan to participate in Nationals. (“On Christmas,” he would always remind them with a groan.) As much as Johnny would like to keep Ten company, he and his family will be heading to Toronto to visit his step-grandparents.

“Well …” Johnny watches as Ten’s neck turns red, hands hovering to the back of his head. “Actually … your mom asked my mom if I wanted to come with you guys to Toronto …”

“Really?” Johnny says. He shouldn’t be surprised. His mother likes Ten, and he can name a lot of occasions when Ten is dragged along to join their family outings. “You okay with that?”

“Yeah, totally.” Ten grins. “I just have to tell my mom so she can book me a ticket.”

“Awesome.” Johnny’s cheeks start to hurt as he thinks of the many things they can do in Toronto. “We’re staying over the grandparents’, but we can probably sneak in St. Lawrence’s Market—”

“Cool.”

“Hey, did you hear they’re selling Patrick’s ice wine in Distillery District? Maybe we can sneak in for a taste test—”

“Johnny—”

“Oh, by the way, Mark wants to pass by the Cricket Club. I already told him Yuzuru Hanyu’s in Japan, but he wants to breathe the same air as the Olympic champion, that kid—”

“Johnny!” Ten laughs as he grabs Johnny by the hand and tugs him to stop. “7-Eleven is that way!”

Johnny is very aware of how warm Ten’s hand is on his, but his gaze is quick to stop at where Ten is looking at—the establishment with the huge orange-and-red “7” signage.

He feels his face flame up, and all he can manage to say is, “… Oh. My bad.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The next Monday, Johnny finds himself crammed next to Ten on the four-hour flight to Toronto. Ten spends the first few hours babbling about his sister’s new boyfriend then the rest of the flight asleep, head rested on Johnny’s shoulder. Not that Johnny’s complaining.

His step-grandparents live in a two-story brick house in a subdivision ten minutes away from the central business district. He, Ten, and Mark end up sharing that one huge guest room, with Johnny pulling out a couple of spare mattresses after he and Ten lose to Mark on a game of rock-paper-scissors to decide who gets dibs on the bed. His step-grandparents fawn over Ten, his step-grandmother dragging his friend to the nearest flea market to buy him an early gift.

“Sometimes I wonder who the real grandson is,” Mark says with a chuckle when Ten comes back with an armful of shopping bags, all for him.

No one talks about figure skating when no one is headed to the rink—it’s a Seo-Lee family rule that has been respected ever since Johnny knew how to skate. Johnny has come to appreciate that rule when he retired, and it’s a welcome respite from Mark since he has shot up to figure skating stardom.

It’s mostly the three of them exploring, with Johnny’s mother and Mark’s father occasionally tagging along. They go to every touristy place they can find—the CN Tower, the Centre Island ferry, the CBC Building—and take touristy pictures and basically be normal people on vacation. Ten takes selfies and sends it to the VSC group chat, to make the others jealous. Hansol sends a “Wish we were there~”, and Johnny promises that maybe they can go in the off-season.

(Yuta retaliates by sending the group his selfie with Yuzuru Hanyu, and everyone yells at him in jealousy.)

Sometimes people stop them, asking Mark for an autograph and a photo. Johnny laughs at how his brother would get flustered but would comply nonetheless. He volunteers to be the resident photographer, though he’s caught off-guard when sometimes fans drag him in the photo op.

Ten has had a couple of people approach him, and he’s pleasantly surprised at the attention. Then there are a couple of people who ask just Johnny for a photo and autograph. Johnny had long thought he had been forgotten.

“We miss seeing you on the ice!” one girl tells him, holding out a journal that contains an Edea postcard of Johnny wearing his short program costume in his senior Worlds debut. (Beatles medley, he fondly recalls.)

“I miss being on ice, too.” Johnny’s signature has been honed to sign contracts that it comes off as small in the postcard, but the girl doesn’t seem to mind. He smiles and tilts his head to Mark’s direction. “But hey, the best thing to do right now is to move forward.”

The girl smiles back. “I wish you all the best, then!” She asks Johnny for a hug, and Johnny obliges, before going her merry way.

“You miss it, don’t you?” Ten asks him over Korean barbeque; Mark gets dragged by their parents to do some shopping, so the two of them have a whole day to themselves.

“The fame? Yeah,” Johnny admits, frowning when the pork belly he just grabbed with his chopsticks slips. “You know how much I loved the spotlight.”

Ten smiles fondly. “Remember Festa on Ice? It was raining plushies after your performance. I had to skate after you and I only got a couple of plushies.”

“The tides have turned now,” Johnny points out. He had watched how Ten had improved on technique and artistry, thus becoming a fan favorite on the ice. He has a feeling Ten’s breakthrough is just around the corner.

Ten shrugs, but the smile on his face lingers. “I miss being on the same ice with you,” he says. “Hansol and Yuta and crazy, but it’s different with you on the rink.”

“I miss it, too,” Johnny says. So much, he wants to admit.

He can go on and on about how much he wants to be back on ice, but at least he knows that even if he left years ago, he’s never forgotten.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Christmas Day rolls around, and Johnny and Ten are forced into kitchen duty by Johnny’s mother while Mark goes with his father for last-minute dinner shopping. Johnny has to constantly remind Ten to wash his hands before starting preparations, but both of them have come to enjoy making the apple pie over the Christmas turkey stuffing. Everyone in the family seems to enjoy the final output, so Johnny pats himself and Ten on the shoulder for a job well done.

He beams when Ten’s eyes widen after getting a gift from Johnny’s mother—a scarf that she had painstakingly knit. Ten seems to like it and promises to use it the first thing tomorrow morning, and he gets a hug from Johnny’s mother afterwards.

Johnny relishes Ten’s reaction the most when he opens his gift—a sketchpad and a pen he got from a store he snuck into while Mark was distracting Ten after their trip to CN Tower. “It’s been a while since I actually drew something,” Ten says as he flips through the sketch pad.

The last time Ten drew something was an ice show they attended in 2013. He became the center of attention in the closing banquet, where he volunteered to make caricatures of everyone. (The ice show organizers joked that they should hire Ten for the souvenirs next year.) Johnny still has Ten’s caricature of him, framed and displayed on his desk.

“You’re not the only one with a gift.” Ten grins as he holds out a box wrapped in green wrapping paper, although Johnny can already tell what it is with its shape and weight.

Johnny brightens up when his guess was confirmed, holding out David and Goliath. He had become a fan of Malcolm Gladwell ever since he started reading What the Dog Saw in class. “Thanks, Ten. Merry Christmas!” He pulls Ten for a hug.

“Merry Christmas, Johnny,” Ten says, returning the gesture. Johnny could have sworn Ten’s heart is beating rapidly, but he attributes it to the excitement in the room.

Mark suddenly shouts, “Get a room!”, which earns laughter from the adults. Johnny rolls his eyes and even pulls Ten closer, and makes a mental note to thank his mother for inviting Ten over for the holidays.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It’s Christmas morning when Yuta buzzes the VSC group chat, informing them in all caps that he had just become Japan’s bronze medalist, behind Yuzuru Hanyu and Shoma Uno, who won gold and silver, respectively.

He also says that JSF has assigned him to compete in Four Continents in Gangneung and the World Championships in Helsinki.

Johnny is suddenly reminded that the final half of the season is about to begin, and the road will be tougher than ever.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The VSC rink is quiet when they returned on the second day of the new year. Hansol, Taeyong, and Yuta are still in Korea, preparing for Nationals. Yuta had already returned, showing off his bronze medal, and he is very much willing to share stories about Japanese skaters. Johnny lets Mark take a longer break as the younger one sits next to Yuta, starry-eyed as Yuta relates some amusing moments he had with Yuzuru Hanyu in the closing banquet.

Canadian Nationals is three weeks away, and Johnny has an inkling that it will be insane. Most national competitions usually are, especially during the Olympic qualifying season and the Olympic season. It’s no longer a surprise if Patrick Chan snags his ninth Canadian title, but the question is who will take silver and bronze. Mark’s bronze-medal finish in JGPF makes him one of the contenders for the podium, and Johnny knows it’s possible, especially if Mark repeats his performance in Marseilles.

He’s glad that he and Coach Lee are on the same wavelength, when they sit Mark down. “We’ll focus on what we’ve always focused on since the beginning of the season,” he says, “and that is for you to skate cleanly.”

Mark nods, though Johnny can see the anxiety in his brother’s eyes.

Three weeks later, they fly to Ontario, the walls and wide ceiling of TD Place intimidating as they first walk in. Fortunately, Mark looks anything but intimidated; even if they had adjusted Mark’s program layout to accommodate the senior program content, his run-through was smooth sailing. Johnny documents everything on video so he and Coach Lee can pinpoint anything that can be improved on, including pointing a foot further after a jump, more arm extension during a part of the step sequence. Otherwise, Mark is ready.

Halfway through the second day of practice, Kurt Browning, commentating for CBS, approaches them. Johnny wants to laugh at how Mark looks like he wants to faint, but nudges his brother to compose himself when cameramen appear from behind Kurt. “Hi, Mark,” Kurt greets with a smile, holding out a hand. “I’m Kurt Browning.”

“I know!” Mark blurts out, and his face turns red when Kurt laughs in reply. He manages to shake Kurt’s hand after attempting to compose himself. “I mean—hi. I’m a huge fan.”

Kurt chuckles. “Thank you,” he says. “Mind if we chat with you for a bit? For CBC.”

Johnny nods at Mark when the younger one looks over his shoulder.

Mark’s shoulders are tense as Kurt asks him about Nationals—his senior Nationals debut, his expectations, his toughest opponent—but he answers them with the modesty expected of someone who is considered a rising star and is about to go on his first senior Nationals. (“I’m so nervous, but I’m also honored to be going against the best skaters in the country.”, “I’m aiming for a Top 10 finish.”, “My toughest opponent? Probably myself.”) Still, everyone can’t resist chuckling when Mark unabashedly asks Kurt to sign his phone case. Mark ends up leaving the rink in a good mood.

“That better be a good luck charm for the week,” Johnny says, chuckling as he holds out Mark’s phone as they walk out, Kurt Browning’s signature taking up most of the case.

“Hopefully.” Mark sounds distracted when he stares at his phone case after Johnny hands it back to him. “Hey, Johnny? Do you really think I can make it on the podium?” There are creases on his forehead. “Kurt and PJ think I can. Some fans think I can, too.”

Johnny is reminded of himself in the 2011 U.S. Nationals. He was considered one of the frontrunners for the podium. He had wanted to be on the podium—he had just won the Junior Grand Prix Final title, and he was going into his first senior Nationals with guns ablaze. There was a moment, however, when fans’ and critics’ expectations weighed heavily on his shoulders, and suddenly he wasn’t sure if he’ll live up to it. It had taken a half-an-hour talk with Coach Lee to get him back on the right mindset. Minutes after that talk, he stepped on the third-place podium, beside Jeremy Abbott and Adam Rippon.

“Do you want to be on the podium?” he asks.

“Um …” Mark’s cheeks turn pink, his gaze on the ground. “I do. I mean, it felt great to be on the JGPF podium, but Nationals is different. Being on the National podium means you’re one of the three best skaters in the country.”

Johnny gets the feeling; he’s happy to have experienced that feeling of prestige twice in his life. “People expect you to be on the podium for a reason—you have potential and you have the skills to become one of the best in the country. Don’t let it weigh you down.”

“I know, but …” Mark trails off. “Sometimes, I can’t help it.”

Johnny gets that, too. But he has seen Mark’s potential long before others did. He wishes his brother can believe in himself more. He racks his brain of the speeches Coach Lee had given him in the past before coming up with an idea. “I’ll tell you what we’re gonna do,” he announces.

“What?”

Johnny grins. “Let’s get In-N-Out!”

“In-N-Out?” Mark looks like Johnny like he had just been asked to train a quad axel for this week’s competition. “I thought you’re my manager. Aren’t you supposed to make sure I stick to my diet?”

“I’m speaking as a brother who wants to cheer you up and give you a pep talk and an early cheat day,” Johnny points out. “Now are you with me or not?”

A small smile crosses Mark’s face as he nods.

Johnny texts Coach Lee that he went to give Mark a pep talk, but did not specify where and how. Coach Lee replies with an “Okay. Good luck” and doesn’t ask for details. Five minutes later, they’re tucked away in a nearby In-N-Out, munching over burgers and fries. Johnny finds it endearing to see Mark finish his burger like there’s no tomorrow, taking a few gulps of Coke every now and then.

When Mark’s done, he pushes his plate away and leans against his chair, sighing in contentment. “Man, do you remember the last time we had In-N-Out?”

Johnny does. “Before the start of the season,” he says as he remembers. “After Stars on Ice, I think?”

“That long ago?” Mark’s eyes widen. “When was the last time we hung out like this? Don’t count last Christmas, because Ten was with us.”

“Osaka. Fantasy on Ice. Kanako and others wanted a group trip, but we decided to make our own itinerary.” He remembers how he and Mark argued over train stations and directions and where to find the best takoyaki until they eventually gave up and called Yuta for help. They returned to their hotel at nine in the evening, feet sore and muscles aching, but in agreement that it was the best trip they had ever taken.

A week later, upon return to Vancouver, Johnny’s mother had offered him to become Mark’s manager. Johnny had dropped a job offer to come onboard. Since then, their trips were always for competitions, interviews, and other figure skating events. There was rarely any time for relaxation, and Johnny knew, with Mark slowly rising to stardom, this will continue in the off-season.

“Let’s go explore Taiwan after Junior Worlds,” Johnny suggests. “Taeyong and Jaehyun said something about Jiufen. That’s where they went on a date after last year’s Four Continents.”

“Sounds like a plan.” Mark grins, but it’s quick to disappear. “That is, if the fed picks me for the Junior World team.”

Johnny is confident that Mark is already set to be on the Junior World team, even though nothing is set in stone until after Nationals. He would have told Mark that, but Mark hates sugarcoating and relying on false hopes. If he wants a straightforward pep talk, then he’s gonna get a straightforward pep talk. “You know, that’s precisely what’s holding you back.”

Mark blinks. “I don’t think anything is holding me back.”

“I think you have potential. Mom thinks so, too. Coach Lee thinks so, too. Everyone else—Kurt, PJ, your fans—think so, too. Everyone else, except you. We know you can make it to the podium, we know you can make it in the Junior World team. Heck, I won’t be surprised if you make it to the senior World team, but you always lower your expectations.”

His brother looks down at his now-empty plate. “This is all new to me,” he says in a low voice. “Before this season, I wasn’t always on top of the podium, especially in JGPs and Nationals. So, I thought, it’s fine if I place close enough to the Top 10. But now that people think I can make it to the podium, I’m not sure if I’ll live up to those expectations …”

Johnny reaches out to pat Mark’s hand. “You have too little faith in yourself,” he tells his brother in a soft voice. “I’ve seen how much you’ve improved this season, and you’re still improving. You’ve shown everyone what you’re capable of, and they know you can live up to, or even exceed expectations.”

“Do you … Do you really think I can win a medal in Nationals?”

Johnny knows the look Mark is giving him is familiar. He’s taken back to when he was seven years old, a four-year-old Mark holding onto him as he’s teaching the younger one how to skate. After several laps around the rink, Johnny had asked Mark if he can try letting go. Mark had cried and told him he was scared of falling. Johnny had considered the possibility, and had feared his mother’s wrath, but he knew Mark wouldn’t learn if he always held on to Johnny. “You’ll be fine,” Johnny had told him.

Mark had blinked at him rapidly. “Do you really think I can do it?” he had asked.

Johnny smiles, remembering his answer from back then. “I know you will,” he says.

Mark smiles back, his shoulders relaxing. “Thanks,” he says. “I’ve always looked up to you, so this means a lot.”

“What are brothers for, right?”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

At the end of the week, Mark joined Patrick Chan and Kevin Reynolds atop the senior men’s podium. He delivered two clean programs and scored three personal best scores.

Johnny was with Mark in the green room when the final standings were announced. Patrick had just won his ninth National title, but that didn’t matter to the two of them. Mark had skated two clean programs and had earned three personal best scores. Having been fourth to skate, he had placed second after Kevin Reynolds. The moment Nicolas Nadeau and Nam Nguyen had faltered into third and fourth, it had started to sink in that Mark was going to win his first National medal.

Warmth spreads all over Johnny’s chest as he watches the victory ceremony. Mark was the last to step on the podium, and he grins from ear to ear as Patrick shakes his hand. Soon, the Skate Canada president puts on the bronze medal around his neck, and Mark stares at it for too long, as if this was a dream, until the announcer says it’s time to pose for photos.

Johnny reaches out his hand as Mark is about to pass his side of the rink for the victory lap. Mark grins and high-fives him. The crowd goes wild, and Johnny feels like soaring.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Skate Canada releases the ISU championship assignments the next day. Mark almost falls off his bed as Johnny reads out loud the document that had become available online. Mark had been assigned to Four Continents in Gangneung and Junior Worlds in Taipei.

“Four Continents?!” Mark is still freaking out as they get ready to leave the hotel room that he almost wears his shirt inside out. Johnny manages to point it out before they head to the press conference. “That’s big, isn’t it, Johnny?”

“It is.” Johnny nods, in a daze himself. Despite the depth of the Four Continents field every year, it could not get the same amount of prestige as its European equivalent. Until now, anyway. Not only will this season’s Four Continents venue be in the same venue for figure skating in the Winter Olympics, but the biggest names will also be competing. Patrick Chan and Denis Ten will be defending their titles, and Yuzuru Hanyu will be returning since his silver-medal finish four years ago.

“I know you’ve told me I have potential to medal, but I don’t think I have a chance at the podium in Gangneung,” Mark says as they step inside the elevator.

Johnny shrugs. “Yuzuru Hanyu tends to peak at GPF then go downhill from there, so you might have a chance.”

“Don’t push it!” Mark laughs as he shoves Johnny playfully to the side.

Not only is Four Continents more prestigious than it has been in the past few years, but this will also be Mark’s first senior ISU championship. With the depth of the men’s field, one journalist asks, how is Mark going to handle the pressure?

Mark taps the microphone before speaking. “Um, given that Patrick, Yuzuru, and Denis will be there, I don’t think I stand a chance to be on the podium.” He smiles sheepishly when the people in the room laugh. “I’m excited because this is going to be my first senior competition. My goal is to skate cleanly and enjoy the journey.”

“Are you excited to be in the same place where the 2018 Olympics will be held?” another journalist asks.

“Yeah, of course. It’s my dream to be in the Olympics. Being in the same place where the Olympics will be held will be an inspiration for me to aim to be in the Olympic team next year.”

The journalists seem to be satisfied with Mark’s answer, and they now direct all questions to Patrick. Mark meets Johnny’s eye from across the room and gives him a thumbs-up. Johnny can detect a glint in his brother’s eyes. He recognizes that glint; he, too, had that when he was the rising young star of U.S. figure skating and he was being asked about his goals heading into Sochi.

Mark in the Olympics … Just when he thought his Olympic dreams were over, maybe it won’t hurt to dream again.

Johnny grins back and returns the thumbs-up.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

They return to the Vancouver Skating Club two days later, and they are greeted by another banner, congratulating Mark on his bronze-medal finish. They would have wanted to celebrate, but there’s little time to do so, especially with Four Continents in three weeks. Mark had to once more adjust to a senior program layout—senior short programs don’t have a required jump, and senior free skates have thirteen required elements instead of twelve. That, and Mark had to attend Team Canada promotions, from interviews to endorsements. Johnny does his best to arrange Mark’s schedule to make sure training and school are still a priority, and that Mark gets enough rest in between.

“How did you manage to handle all of this?” Mark asks one time, half-asleep, as he hops in Johnny’s car. It’s four in the morning, and he has a photo shoot to go to.

Johnny remembers being like this, half-asleep in the car as his mother drives him to the rink, or when they fly to the United States for competitions or an onslaught of promotions. He remembers being exhausted every single day, muscles raw and aching from training. He remembers wanting to be anyone but the prodigy that he was, just to be back to the familiar warmth of his bed at home.

Then he remembers forgetting about the exhaustion and the children coming up to him, holding out their notebooks and pens and sometimes their skating boots, telling him they started skating because of him. “I thought of the people looking up to me,” Johnny says when he finds the right words, his view on the car window.

With so much going on since Canadian Nationals, Johnny doesn’t even remember his own birthday until Mark plops on his bed and sings him a birthday song. Johnny is too sleepy to get up and be celebrated on until he hears Ten and Yuta threatening to take home his birthday cake and presents if he doesn’t get up.

He gets a tumbler from Yuta and another book from Ten, but he doesn’t expect Mark to plop a thick scrapbook on his lap. It contains messages and artworks from fans, some who he recognizes as his fans from his junior years and fans who he had gotten close to—from Wendy and Seulgi (who used to follow him around after dedicating a K-Pop-inspired fan site for him, but now they run Mark’s fan site), Doyoung (a famous fan commentator on YouTube), and Taeil (who runs a figure skating blog). “How did you even manage to work on this when you’re so busy?” Johnny marvels as he browses through the scrapbook for what feels like the third time.

“You underestimate me,” Mark says with a pout. “I got help from Wendy and Seulgi. They run my fan site now, but they never forget their first love.”

“Yes, I’ve been reminded many times.” Johnny chuckles as he hovers a hand over Seulgi’s artwork of him, beautifully drawn, as always.

Mark looks at him expectantly. “I hope you like it,” he says. “I didn’t know what else to get you, so this was kind of a last-minute thing—”

“I love it.” Johnny puts down the scrapbook and pulls Mark for a hug. “Thanks, kid. This is the best birthday gift ever.” He tries not to tear up when Mark returns the hug.

He browses through the scrapbook again that night, reading each message and making sure to take note of the names of who he can thank personally, or give a mention on Twitter. He stops at the message on the last page—he recognizes Mark’s handwriting anywhere—and he smiles fondly. That kid and his way with words.

“You’re the stuff of comets, Johnny. Don’t let them dim your fire. Your number one fan, Mark.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What’s remaining of Team VSC in Vancouver depart for South Korea on the early morning of Saturday. Somehow, Mark ends up sitting beside Yuta, and Johnny ends up sitting with Ten. Not that he’s complaining. It has been a while since they sat together in a plane on their way to a competition.

“It feels nostalgic, doesn’t it?” Ten asks.

Johnny doesn’t hear Ten the first time. He pauses the movie he was watching and Ten repeats his comment. “Yeah,” he says with a smile. “The last time we flew together for a competition was …?”

“Gangneung. Junior Worlds. Same place we’re going to now.”

“Huh. Yeah.” Johnny remembers it clearly, of course. After his victory in JGPF, he won the Junior World title in Gangneung. It was an epic culmination of his junior career, a message to the world that he was ready to go senior, and ready to go to the Olympic team. “Only this time I’m not competing.”

“Competing or not competing, we’re glad to have you here,” Ten says, his hand finding Johnny’s. Johnny relaxes at the familiar warmth of Ten’s grip. “Besides, the fans we befriended on Twitter are dying to meet you. They already met us in Taipei last year, but they’re more excited to see you.”

The thing with the figure skating community is that it’s so small compared to other sports; it’s easy to befriend and interact with fans. Wendy and Seulgi had chosen to keep their distance from him during the first year they started running his fan site, but now they’re good friends. (In fact, he and Wendy had classes together in UBC and hung out often.) Taeyong had introduced them to Doyoung and Taeil, who he had already apparently met during one All That Skate, and Sicheng and Kun, who often volunteer in the Chinese Skating Association. The fans have already met Taeyong, Jaehyun, Hansol, Yuta, and Ten, but this will be the first time Johnny and Mark will be interacting with some of them outside social media.

They meet Sicheng and Kun in their layover in Shanghai. Sicheng is star struck, and Kun can’t stop shaking Johnny and Mark’s hands as Ten does the introductions. Sicheng blabbers something about being there when Johnny won the JGPF title, and Johnny sort of remembers him.

Sicheng and Kun treat them to a restaurant in the airport which they claim has the best dim sum. (Half an hour later, Johnny understands why.) “Maybe if Mark goes to Cup of China next year, we can show you around,” Kun says.

That’s still one season away. Johnny still doesn’t understand how skaters are given Grand Prix assignments, but with Mark’s JGPF medal and a National medal, a GP assignment is not impossible.

They fly from Shanghai to Incheon for two hours, but the bus ride from Incheon to Gangneung takes four more hours. Johnny’s butt is sore from all the sitting, but the company in the bus isn’t so bad. Max Aaron and Jason Brown had dragged him to the back seat, yelling how much they had missed him. Familiar faces were there, too—Han Yan and Zijun Li from China, and Brooklee Han from Australia. They all end up catching up and reliving Junior Worlds in Gangneung. Johnny feels at home in an instant.

“I felt like I was sixteen again,” Yuta says with a grin, stretching his legs as far as he can as they descend the bus as soon as it parked in front of the hotel. “Only with a better triple axel.”

It’s four in the afternoon when they have settled into their respective hotel rooms and have registered for the competition. He, Mark, Yuta, and Ten descend to the hotel restaurant, where they meet Hansol, Taeyong, and Jaehyun. They end up crowding the entrance in a group hug until a staff interrupts them and ushers them to their seats.

“How was Nationals?” Ten asks as they crowd in one circular table, with Taeyong ordering for them.

The three Koreans smile and flash a peace sign at them. “Still the solid Team Korea Men’s Holy Trinity,” Hansol says. “Taeyong is the National Champion once again.”

Taeyong shrugs. “Jaehyun did so well in the free skate, I thought he was gonna beat me,” he says. “Hansol hyung didn’t do so bad either.”

“I didn’t make it to the World team either,” Hansol huffs, chugging the last of his corn tea and reaching for the bottle for a refill.

“Don’t worry, hyung!” Jaehyun says, patting Hansol on the back. “We’ll make sure we’ll get Korea three spots for Pyeongchang.”

“You better! KSU is gonna kill the both of you if we don’t get a spot for the Olympics.”

It’s difficult to be a Korean skater these past few years, especially with the Olympics coming up. Back then, it was already difficult enough as it is picking up from where the legendary Yuna Kim had left off. It was the most difficult before Yuna had catapulted into stardom. When Johnny met Hansol when they were still juniors, he had spotted Hansol’s mother looking like the weight of the world was on her shoulders as she paces back and forth the hotel lobby, pleading to someone about money she’ll use to pay for Hansol’s training the following week.

Things had started to change when Yuna won the Olympic title. Hansol, Taeyong, and Jaehyun don’t have to pay for majority of their training expenses, and the KSU sponsors their technique training in Toronto or California. With the Olympics less than a year away, endorsements are pouring in for Team Korea. Yet, South Korea is still waiting for their athletes to make a breakthrough—a Yuna Kim-like breakthrough, something that no one has ever emulated or surpassed. Hansol had come close when he won the Junior World bronze medal next to Johnny and Yuta, but Hansol had struggled after failing to give South Korea a spot in Sochi. He’s struggling to get back up these past seasons, but it’s Taeyong and Jaehyun who are making slow and steady steps towards a breakthrough. Yet, they still haven’t come close.

Johnny understands the pressure, only he came from a country with a deep men’s field. He has a rink to train on and doesn’t have to worry about training expenses, but with it comes the pressure to do well, to medal.

They all have different pressures to get through, but to be able to skate should be enough, right?

At least, Hansol continues to skate while he—

“Anyway!” Mark interrupts his trail of thought. Johnny blinks and sees his brother up from his seat, his gaze on his phone. He looks like he had just won the lottery. “Johnny, can I go ahead? Donghyuck and Eunji want to show me around and introduce me to some of their friends.” His face turns red when the rest of the table makes hooting noises. “Stop! Johnny, can I?”

Johnny chuckles, tossing the hotel room keys to Mark, who deftly catches it. “Make sure you’re back in the hotel room before nine.”

“Ah, to be young and in love.” Ten sighs as he watches Mark disappear with Donghyuck and Eunji, Mark stealing shy glances at Eunji before they disappear through the door. “I bet Mark’s gonna get a girlfriend before I do.”

“Ten, you’re not even interested in girls,” Yuta snorts. “And if you don’t say something to your dream boy, I’m pretty sure Mark’s going to beat you in the love life department.”

“Who’s this dream boy?” Johnny asks, an eyebrow raised. Ten looks like all the color had drained from his face. “What the fuck? I’ve known you for more than a decade, and this is the first time I’ve heard about this.”

“Oh, what is this?” Yuta purrs, leaning on the table, chin on hand. Johnny watches as Ten makes throat-cutting gestures at Yuta’s direction. “Ten, you should tell your best friend everything. Should I tell Johnny who the love of your life is?”

“Spill, or I swear to god, Nakamoto Yuta, I’ll hit your knee so hard—”

“That’s enough, Tonya Harding,” Taeyong interrupts with a laugh. “Come on, let’s show you guys around. We’ve been here since Sunday.”

Johnny’s thoughts often drift to Ten and his mystery crush, but pays attention to Hansol, Taeyong, and Jaehyun as they play tour guide around Gangneung. He and Ten tell each other everything—why is this an exception? How come Yuta knew first and not him? Why is he entitled to know this? Ten doesn’t have to tell him everything, right?

“Are you mad?” Ten asks. His voice is soft, and he’s making that pout; Johnny’s sure Ten is already forgiven.

It’s just the two of them now, strolling aimlessly in the hotel. Taeyong and Jaehyun have gone off somewhere, as have Hansol and Yuta. Johnny doesn’t want to know what his friends are doing, probably a disadvantage if your friends are dating each other. He sighs and shuffles his feet on the carpet. “I’m not mad,” he says. “I was just used to us telling each other everything, that you not telling me something felt … weird.”

Ten sighs heavily. “I didn’t know how to tell anyone. It’s personal, way too personal for me,” he says. “The only way Yuta found out was because he watched too much anime and noticed.”

Johnny snorts. “That, and he likes sticking his nose in other people’s business,” he remarks. Ten laughs, and Johnny’s heart skips a beat. “Look, I’m dying of curiosity right now, but if you don’t want to tell me, that’s fine. If you tell me, that’s okay, too. Wherever you’re comfortable. Heck, you can come to me anytime for advice, even if I don’t know who this guy is.”

Ten pauses from his tracks and looks at him. Somehow, the eye contact feels different, his expression softer. His smile is small, lips slightly pursed. Johnny had seen Ten in his most vulnerable, and it’s times like these where he has the urge to pull Ten in his arms and tell them everything is going to be okay. “Stop being so kind, it’s unfair,” Ten says, trying to hide his grin while his gaze is on the carpeted floor.

“So …” Johnny tucks his hands in his pockets. “Just because I’m dying of curiosity, am I ever gonna know who this dream boy is?”

There’s a long pause, and Ten looks up at him, cheeks pink. “Should I tell you?” he singsongs. He walks ahead of him, his gait suddenly lighter. “Johnny, I think you already know.”

“Huh?” Johnny blinks. He racks his brain for every potential guy Ten could crush on, but his mind draws a blank. “What are you talking about? I have no idea.”

Ten sticks his tongue out at him cheekily. He freezes on his tracks, and Johnny only realized they have stopped in Ten’s room when the younger one fished out his keys. “Maybe you’ll find out soon. I’ll see you tomorrow?”

“Oh, um, yeah. See you tomorrow.”

Johnny doesn’t know how long he has been standing outside Ten’s room until Kevin Reynolds passes by and asks if he’s okay. He absentmindedly says yes and walks back to his own room, curiosity gnawing his insides.

Who could the lucky guy be?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Gangneung Ice Arena is a huge, white, modern construction that sends chills down Johnny’s spine as their bus arrives in the arena. It’s surreal to think that this is where the Olympics will be held. It’s also hard to believe that six years ago, Johnny had stood on the center of the rink, his fist up in the air as he had just skated his way to a Junior World title. Even Hansol, Taeyong, and Jaehyun, who had been in Gangneung for Korean Nationals, still have awed expressions on their faces upon the sight of the arena.

“Imagine what it would be like if today were the Olympics,” Mark says, looking everywhere as they arrive in the practice rink. It’s bigger and better equipped than the practice rink Johnny remembers. Then again, KSU and the International Olympic Committee are probably making sure everything is perfect before 2018.

“It’ll be a lot crazier,” Johnny says. A volunteer shows them the way to the locker rooms, where Mark suddenly yelps because apparently Shoma Uno is inside.

Johnny surely missed the atmosphere of being around skaters in a competition. But now, he’s a manager, so he has to attend to volunteers and ISU officials and media, not to mention make sure Mark has what he needs to train well. He barely has time to watch Mark and his friends during the official practice because he was busy talking to the competition organizers about the schedule for the week. By the time he was finished, Mark is signing the program books of some of the fans watching. He can’t resist snorting the moment Taeyong’s music cut of Parisienne Walkways start to reverberate all over the rink.

“How did practice go?” he asks when he catches up to Mark. He searches for Mark’s towel and bottle of water, only to realize Coach Lee had already handed it to his brother.

“Good,” Coach Lee says before his brother can speak up. “We’re still debating on whether he’ll jump a flip or a lutz in the short program.”

“Come on, Coach, I stopped flutzing at the beginning of the season!” Mark pleads, making a pout that will put Ten’s pouting to shame.

“We’ll see,” Coach Lee says firmly. “Now I have to go. I need to check up on Ten.”

“Let’s go watch the others!” Mark insists, trudging to an empty row of seats before Johnny can reply.

They have barely sat down when some fans approach them, holding out their program books to Mark. Johnny is torn between making sure his brother comes out of this alive and watching Ten’s practice. Fortunately, the fans scamper quickly when Vivaldi’s Four Seasons start to play, Ten focused as he skates his opening choreography.

One thing he likes about Ten’s skating is how committed he is to his programs. That’s why choreographer Shae-Lynn Bourne loves working with him—he makes sure every arm and leg movement, and his expression jives well to the music. Johnny gets chills every time he watches Ten skate. Apparently, everyone else does, too, because most of the people in the rink have stopped what they’re doing to watch.

Ten had told him last June that he chose Four Seasons’ Spring concerto after he was invited to take part in the April Stars on Ice in Tokyo. Several skaters have skated to Autumn and Winter concertos, but he would like to convey a sense of merriness to the audience. Suddenly, Johnny remembers that one photo on Ten’s Instagram on that same SOI week. His back was turned to the camera, but his head was tilted up as he looks at the cherry blossom petals falling down the trees. It looked like a poster for some cliché Japanese romance movie, but for some reason, that image remained the most in Johnny’s mind—

“Johnny? Johnny!”

Johnny turns to Mark, and he blinks in confusion when he sees his brother wagging his eyebrows. “Huh? What?”

Mark snickers. “You’re drooling.”

“I am not!” Johnny retorts, though his hand automatically makes his way to his mouth, just to be sure.

Ten comes up to them fifteen minutes later, now holding two bear plushies wearing his costumes for this season. He looks pleased with himself. “Coach Lee went to speak with the other coaches,” he announces. “Where to now?”

Johnny’s about to reply when they hear someone calling his name, just below where they’re sitting. He makes a sound of surprise when he recognizes Wendy and Seulgi waving at them. Beside them are Sicheng and Kun, and Johnny recognizes Taeil and Doyoung.

“There they are!” Ten says, grinning as he waves at the fans’ direction. “Come on, let’s go down.”

Wendy hugs him and Mark as soon as they approach their side of the rink. “Long time no see!” she says.

“Please, we met in Nationals,” Johnny says with a grin. “But it’s great to see you and Seulgi again.”

“But these two are more excited to see you and Mark,” Ten says, gesturing towards Taeil and Doyoung. “So, Johnny, Mark, meet Doyoung and Taeil. Again.”

“Hi again!” they greet as they shake hands. Doyoung is a nervous ball of energy while Taeil is cool as the winter in Vancouver. “It’s nice to meet you again, and to finally meet Mark.” It’s Taeil who speaks for him and Doyoung.

“As with you,” Johnny says. “I love your blog posts, and I’m amused whenever Doyoung posts his Warhorse Wednesday commentaries.”

“What Johnny means is he appreciates Doyoung calling him ‘God’s Gift to U.S.A.,’” Mark adds with a snicker.

“Oh, god …” Doyoung groans, and he looks like he wants the ground to open up and swallow him.

“Anyway,” Taeil says, smirking at his friend. “Let’s wait for Team Korea and Yuta before we head to the restaurant? Our treat, of course.”

It’s Team Korea and Team Japan’s turn on the rink, so they sit back and watch. He watches Wendy and Seulgi get their cameras ready, Wendy for photos and Seulgi for videos. Taeil and Doyoung animatedly discuss Jaehyun’s triple lutz that can go on for miles, Taeyong’s fierceness in his short program, and Yuta’s energy in his Footloose program, then groan when the music to Hansol’s Carmen free skate starts to play. It’s weird to hear these kinds of feedback from fans, especially fans he had just befriended in person.

They meet up with the rest of Team VSC outside the rink, Doyoung looking ecstatic when Jaehyun greets him. They follow Taeil’s lead as they walk into a small restaurant, the smell of grilled pork belly welcoming them. They are ushered in a private room and Johnny enjoys the taste of authentic Korean food, the spiciness a comfortable sensation in his tongue.

Sicheng and Kun have apparently snuck out while Taeyong is sharing a funny story of Hansol’s exhibition program in last year’s All That Skate because when they come back, they’re holding two cakes and everyone is suddenly singing “Happy birthday!” to Jaehyun and Ten. The two birthday celebrants yell in delight, then fall silent and close their eyes for a couple of seconds before blowing their candles.

“My birthday is next, next week, though,” Ten says, though he doesn’t complain when Seulgi hands him a box wrapped in dotted paper.

“We can celebrate the fact that you were born anytime, anywhere,” Taeil says with a smile. “Besides, it’s more convenient to hold a joint birthday celebration, with everyone here.”

“Yeah, and we don’t have to spend on shipping fees,” Doyoung says, sending everyone in fits of laughter.

They spend a couple more hours chatting until they decide to call it a day; there’s still more practice later before they meet in the press conference room for the draw. The lunch was a welcome respite from the competition that is to come. It feels great to have these people, whose connection is them skaters, to travel all the way here to show their support.

“It was great seeing them,” Yuta says as soon as they wave their goodbyes. (Or rather, “See you later”s, because they’ll be seeing them in practice and in competition.) “Though I think they just used us as an excuse to see each other again.”

Taeyong chuckles, and Johnny notices the way his arm snakes around Jaehyun’s waist, and the couple stop on their tracks. “Jaehyun and I are, uh, gonna go ahead. See you later for dinner!”

“If I knew any better, Jaehyun’s gonna have a very happy birthday.” Ten snickers as they watch Taeyong and Jaehyun’s retreating figures, their fingers intertwined.

“Do you know how hard it is to share an apartment with them in Seoul and to play third wheel to them every time we have a Team Korea thing?” Hansol groans. “They’re so lovey-dovey, and they can make out in front of me and not care.”

“Says someone who can’t keep his hands off me in the locker room!” Yuta scoffs, giving Hansol’s butt a gentle pat. “We gotta go ahead, too. Coach Joanne is looking for us.”

It’s just him, Ten, and Mark taking the familiar route back to their hotel. They’ve crossed the beach, and Johnny marvels how the view of the sea put him at peace. He then turns to Ten, whose gaze seems to be on the view as well. There’s a peaceful smile on his face, and Johnny is taken aback at how … beautiful? … Ten looks at the moment. It’s just like his photo back in Tokyo, and—

“Isn’t it weird?”

Johnny blinks, and he looks at Mark, whose hands are on the back of his head as he leads the way. “What’s weird?”

“You know.” Mark looks over his shoulder, and there’s a certain glint in his eyes. Johnny dreads he’s gonna have to chase his brother later for what he’s about to say. “Taeyong hyung and Jaehyun hyung are together, and so are Hansol hyung and Yuta. You and Ten have been friends for forever, and you guys have never been a thing?”

The question catches Johnny by surprise, and he freezes on his tracks. His reflexes are quick enough that he stops his jaw from dropping at that question. “What kind of an observation is that?!”

Mark chuckles and shakes his head. “Nothing worth answering.” He then looks back on the road ahead, resuming his pace.

Johnny looks at Ten, who looks amused at the conversation. “Where did that come from?” he asks in a low voice. The last thing he wants is for Mark to hear them discussing this, which might prompt teasing later. (Then again, looking back, Mark seems to tease the two of them for some reason …)

Ten chuckles. “I don’t know. Kids these days ask the darndest things.”

“Ugh, yeah,” Johnny says with a roll of his eyes.

Yet, Mark’s comment plays and plays at the back of his mind. Looking back, several people have asked him that question, especially Taeyong. He and Ten have been friends for a long time, yet they’ve never developed into something more. Johnny thinks they were too busy in their skating careers to consider a serious relationship, though he has gone on several dates; Ten had dated this guy one time, but nothing serious came out of it either.

Anyway, would he consider Ten as a potential boyfriend? It’s weird, too weird. He cares about Ten, sure, but to see him and Ten dating, doing disgustingly stupid PDA as Taeyong and Jaehyun—or even Hansol and Yuta—do … he’s not sure if he can do that.

He wonders if Ten has been asked about this, or has even given this some thought.

Why is he even thinking too much about this?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Fortunately, Johnny finds himself preoccupied once more—making sure Mark wakes up in time to catch the bus for practice, making sure Mark doesn’t cheat on his diet while he’s training, talking to ISU officials and Four Continents volunteers, and arranging Mark’s schedule for both training and interviews and free time.

The busyness was all worth it when Mark placed eighth overall with personal best scores in both programs and in his overall score. The rest of Team VSC had good showings as well—Taeyong placed sixth, Ten in seventh, and Jaehyun, Yuta, and Hansol in tenth to twelfth. Johnny is extremely proud of all his friends and what they have accomplished that week, though part of him longs to be back at the center of the rink, ready to skate his program.

Now that the competition is over, it’s time for the skaters to relax. Selected skaters have been invited to skate in the gala, Mark included. Johnny sits back in the front seat, cheering for every skater and laughing at Hansol’s exhibition program (with Yuta making a surprise appearance). He cheers louder when the skaters gather in the finale for a group photo, with Ten holding the selfie stick, of course.

Then, it’s the closing banquet, the most fun part of the competition. He and Mark are separated from the others due to the assigned tables—Team Canada has a table to themselves, and so do Japan and Korea. Meanwhile, Ten is sharing a table with the Southeast Asian skaters.

The first part of the banquet is mostly formalities—speeches from the ISU officials and the medalists. Yuna Kim came onstage to give her own speech, and the whole room has her undivided attention. After her speech, the host announces that it’s time to party, and everyone sighs in relief, standing up to socialize.

He and Mark approach Team Korea’s table, where Michael Christian Martinez of the Philippines had just finished taking a group selfie before skipping towards the Team China table. Johnny looks at everyone then blinks when he notices someone is missing. “Where did Ten go?” he asks.

“Oh, hi to you, too, Johnny,” Taeyong says, clutching his chest as he gives him a look that resembles a wounded puppy. “So considerate of you to remember us.”

Jaehyun had just returned to the conversation after taking a photo of Mark and Eunji in Mark’s phone, Johnny’s brother red in the face and all. (Eunji had taken Mark’s hand and had dragged him to where Yuzuru Hanyu is, and Johnny makes a mental note to tease his brother about this development later.) “I think he went to Denis’ table. It’ll take him a while before he goes here. Ten is a social butterfly in closing banquets.”

Johnny looks around the room and finds Ten making a goofy pose with Denis Ten of Kazakhstan and Alex Shibutani of the United States. It’s been four years since he has been in a closing banquet, probably five years since he has been in a closing banquet with Team VSC. In those banquets, he and Ten have been inseparable. Ten would cling to him while Johnny made small talk with this skater and that skater.

Now, Johnny barely has the courage to approach even the skaters that he knows. What is he going to say when they talk about days in the rink and competitions attended? Life for Johnny came to a stop the moment he found out he shouldn’t be skating anymore.

He snaps back to reality when he feels a hand on his arm, warm to the touch. Ten’s smile is brighter than the lights in the room, and his heart skips a beat. “Everything okay?” he asks.

Johnny wishes he was, but he smiles. “Yeah,” he says.

Ten, and everyone else, doesn’t have to know how much he aches and wishes he can turn back time just to be back in the rink with them.

Sadly, time machines don’t exist.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hansol was the only one who remained in South Korea, while the rest of Team VSC fly back to Vancouver. “One of the perks of not making it to the World team is an early vacation,” he tells Johnny, though there’s no denying the bitterness in the older one’s smile. “Then again, I’m just trying to make myself feel better because I’m not in the World team.”

They barely have the time to take a break because two days later, they are back in the rink, training for Worlds. The atmosphere in the rink becomes quieter than usual. They’re all focused on their own training, on nailing every jump and on making sure they get level 4s on their spins and step sequences. They arrive at exactly six in the morning and go home at seven in the evening, barely exchanging light banter.

As much as Johnny wants to lighten up the mood, he’s aware of how serious the last two ISU championships will be. Mark may bear the pressure of winning a medal in Junior Worlds, but the senior Worlds is a different situation. This is the Olympic qualifiers—every placement counts to make sure the skater’s country has someone to send to the Olympics. The Japanese Skating Federation makes sure that their skaters know that they need three spots for the Olympics, and the Korean Skating Union wastes no time reminding Taeyong and Jaehyun that they’re the host country and they need to be represented.

Johnny is recording Mark’s run-through of his free skate when he sees Ten fall on his quad salchow. He lands but slips on his right foot, colliding in the boards in the process. He can see Ten’s face scrunching in pain as he gets up, a hand on his hip. As if he had been doused by ice-cold water, Johnny stops recording and rushes to call the rink’s medical team.

Fortunately, the fall wasn’t serious. The doctor gives Ten an ice pack, and Coach Lee calls off his practice so he can rest the whole day. Ten doesn’t look pleased by this recommendation. “Worlds is at the end of the month,” he points out. “I can’t afford to lose practice time.”

“I know, you want to train, but your health is important,” Johnny says, patting Ten’s knee. “You have to be in Helsinki in your 100 percent, and if that means cutting down on training time so you can rest from injury, then you should rest.” He catches Ten huffing, and Johnny can’t believe he has to pull this card. “Take it from someone who knows. Just because you think the injury isn’t serious doesn’t mean it will affect you later on.”

It’s effective. Ten sighs and accepts the prescription the doctor gave him before hopping out of the examination table. “I guess I’ll head home now,” he announces.

“Coach Lee asked me to look after you,” Johnny says as he hands Ten his bag. “Let me drive you home.”

“You’re not my manager, or my boyfriend for that matter.” Ten rolls his eyes, but there’s no mistaking the smile that crosses his lips.

“Even if I say you’re getting Tim Hortons coffee on the way, my treat?”

As expected, Ten perks up on the promise of free coffee. “… Fine. Honorary manager.

“And/or your honorary boyfriend, for that matter?” Johnny quips. He freezes on his steps when he realizes what he had just said. Shit, Johnny. What the fuck was that all about? “I-I mean!” he sputters quickly when he sees Ten’s jaw drop. “I didn’t mean anything out of it, uh—just adding to what you said, so—”

“Right, right, don’t worry about it,” Ten says, clearing his throat. “So … um … coffee?”

The drive to the café is silent, but it’s not unusual. He and Ten can talk about everything under the sun, but Johnny also loves these comfortable periods of silence. Ten has probably dismissed whatever stupid thing he said, though he wishes he can say the same thing for himself.

He watches Ten lift the edge of the coffee mug to his lips, his stomach doing funny things as Ten smiles before putting the mug down. Ten makes a hum of approval before leaning comfortably against the couch, his gaze on the people strolling down the street. “I got the letter from the fed yesterday,” the younger one says, finally breaking the silence.

“Really?” Johnny blinks. Ten rarely speaks about Thailand’s skating federation. In fact, Thailand barely paid any attention to any sport that isn’t badminton, boxing, golf, soccer, or volleyball. Ten had always told him he’s lucky to have been born in a well-off family who supports him in a ridiculously expensive sport. Even when Ten had started winning some international competitions, the federation still hasn’t done enough to support him, financially or otherwise. “What did they want from you?”

“They’re offering me to become their Olympic ambassador. Not that I have a choice.” Ten shrugs. “I’m used to it. They only remember I exist during Nationals and when they need me to skate one program to remind them Thailand actually has a big-time skater.”

“At least they actually remember you,” Johnny says to poke fun at the situation. Yet, he’s aware that Ten had worked so hard to get to where he is right now, to fight for recognition in the sport despite the lack of support.

“True,” Ten sighs, taking another sip of his coffee. “The other Thai skaters aren’t so lucky. That’s why I need to qualify for the Olympics. The fed needs to see that Thai skaters are as good as any other skater in the world, and we need all the support we can get.”

“You will qualify, Ten,” Johnny says. “Did you see how much you’ve improved?”

“I know, but this is the World Championships. Anything can happen. I only have one quad, but I like what I do. But passion can only do so much, and passion doesn’t exactly convert to positive GOEs.”

“The audience loves you, and the judges will see how good you are. If they don’t, I’m going to march straight to the judges’ table and beat them up until they’ve come to their senses.”

“I don’t think you should resort to violence, but thanks anyway,” Ten says, but there’s no denying the grin on his face. “I wish you can be with us in Helsinki.”

“Me, too.” Johnny clutches his mug tightly, barely wincing at the heat spreading to his palms. But this is Ten, who knows what he’s feeling even before he can voice it out. “I’d give anything to be back in the rink again.”

“Remember when we were all in Junior Worlds?” Ten smiles, this time nostalgically. “I mean, Team VSC before we were Team VSC? In The Hague.”

“Of course, I do.” Johnny smiles at the memory. It was his first Junior Worlds, and the only skater he was close to aside from Ten was Hansol. Yuta was under Coach Yamato Tamura, and Taeyong and Jaehyun were under Coach Heasook Shin. (Jaehyun was an advance novice skater that season who tagged along to cheer for Team Korea.) Johnny can’t remember how the friendships started—maybe it’s the common country of origin with Taeyong and Jaehyun, and maybe because Yuta couldn’t keep his hands off Hansol—but he’ll never forget that time they strolled the Plein and ate everything beyond their prescribed diet.

Johnny misses those junior years the most. As much as he throve under the pressure of winning a medal, he missed those days when he wasn’t pressured to win anything. He missed the thrill of showing the audience what he had learned, what he had improved on, and what he can prove. The medals and the prestige came second.

“Hey,” Johnny says as a thought comes to his mind. “Do you know what you’re going to do after the Olympics?” The Olympics always bring questions of what’s going to happen next when the Olympic cycle is over. Johnny had planned to continue after the Olympics if he had made it to the Olympic team, but …

“Me?” Johnny was expecting Ten to shrug and say he doesn’t know yet, so he’s surprised at the younger one’s quick response. “Shae-Lynn told me I’d make a great choreographer. I choreograph my own exhibition programs, so I’m inclined on that career path. I’ll probably still go to college and take up dance.”

“You’ve thought about this,” Johnny says slowly. Ten had never expressed the desire to retire before, and post-competitive life was not exactly brought up in casual conversation, so Johnny never asked. Until now, anyway.

“It’s inevitable, isn’t it? We can’t compete forever.” He pauses as he looks at Johnny carefully. “No offense.”

Johnny shakes his head, even if his heart twinges a little. “None taken.”

“Have you ever thought of being a coach? I imagine you more as a coach, the way you tower over Mark. And we can be a tag team. Coach Johnny and choreographer Ten—making miracles happen since Season 2018-2019.” Ten makes this wild, excited hand gesture as he says this, making other customers stare.

“Well …” Johnny had never thought of post-competitive life, even when he suddenly retired. Back then, Johnny had set his eyes on the Olympics, and he had thought his career would go on for one more Olympic cycle, maybe two. When he retired, he prioritized school up until he became Mark’s manager.

The thought of him being a coach sounded interesting, but … “What kind of coach doesn’t set foot on the ice?” he says. “How am I supposed to motivate a kid if I can’t set foot on the ice anymore?”

Ten’s expression turns somber. “It’s been three years, Johnny,” he says. He seems to want to reach out his hand for Johnny’s, but stops himself. “I know healing doesn’t come quickly, but I know how much you miss skating. Just step foot on the ice. You don’t have to jump or spin. Just skate.”

“Easier said than done.” Johnny pushes his coffee mug away. He does get the urge to grab his skating boots and lace them up, then step on the ice, but suddenly he’s reminded of what could have been. And it would consume him until the thought is pushed to the back of his mind once more.

Ten seems to have understood his silence. “Give it some thought, will you?” he says. “You can miss skating all you want, but pining for it when you can always lace up your boots won’t help you either.”

Johnny takes deep breaths, pushing away the nostalgia, the ache, once more to the back of his mind. He forces a smile at Ten. “I’ll think about it.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Two weeks later, Johnny and Mark take a sixteen-hour-flight to Taiwan for the World Junior Figure Skating Championships. Johnny feels déjà vu the moment he walks in Taipei Arena for the first day of official practice. It may not be the same arena where he won the Junior World title, but the atmosphere is just as tense.

It was one heck of a Junior Worlds. Mark had placed fifth in the short program, then gone on to place second in the free skate. When the announcer’s voice boomed out Donghyuck’s (the final skater) scores, the official ISU cameras panned to Mark’s shell-shocked expression in the green room.

By the time the results were released, it showed that Mark had placed second after new Junior World champion Vincent Zhou.

Mark Lee is the new Junior World silver medalist.

Johnny does his best not to tear up as he watches the victory ceremony. Mark is shaking that he almost stumbles on top of his side of the podium after shaking hands with Vincent. (Bronze-medalist Donghyuck laughs at Mark’s blunder later before giving his friend a hug.) His eyes widen as the ISU official slips the silver medal around his neck, and he holds the medal on his hand, blinking rapidly as if trying to process if this is all real.

Johnny has pinched himself for the past ten minutes. This is not a dream.

He meets Mark back in the boards, just a few feet away where cameras and the audience above don’t see them. “Kiddo!” he exclaims, his arms reaching out so he can pull his brother for a hug. “Congratulations! I’m so proud of you!”

“This is real, isn’t it?” Mark says, his voice muffled on Johnny’s coat. “Did I really do it? Is this actually a World silver medal around my neck?”

“Of course, it is! And you deserved it!”

“Johnny, this is big! Really big!” Mark pulls away from him, eyes still wide. There’s no mistaking the tears brimming in his brother’s eyes. “I-I don’t know how I’m going to deal with this!”

Johnny understands this moment is too much for Mark. He was just like Mark back then, staring at the Junior World gold medal in his hands, wondering how his life is going to change.

He smiles and puts his hands on Mark’s shoulders. “You’ll be fine,” he says softly. “It’s going to be crazy, and more eyes will be on you. It’s going to be overwhelming. But you won’t be alone on this. You have Mom, your dad, Coach Lee, Team VSC.” He pauses and clears his throat. “Of course, you have me.”

Mark finally smiles and blinks, raising his sleeve to rub his eyes. “Great, now I’m crying,” he chokes out, but he doesn’t complain when Johnny pulls him for another hug.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mark gets a hero’s welcome when they arrive in Vancouver. As expected, it was crazy—the mayor of Vancouver gave him the key to the city, and he received a letter of congratulations from the Prime Minister, which sent their mother shrieking with glee. Mark gets stopped by too many people on the streets, asking for autographs and photo ops. His schedule is piled with interviews, endorsements, and courtesy calls with important skating and non-skating people.

Mark seems to handle the crazy schedule better after Nationals. He sits up straighter in interviews and finds the right words to say without glancing at Johnny. He can even talk to Kurt Browning now without looking like he’s about to break down, though the breakdown does come when they head back to the dressing room.

“You’re so calm and collected the whole week. I’m impressed,” Johnny tells Mark one time when Mark has taken a break for his photo shoot for a teen magazine. (He had just become one of the sought-after “cutie” athletes for the year, and Johnny makes a mental note to make fun of Mark about it every day.)

“Yeah?” Mark beams. “I learned from the best.”

Fortunately, the jam-packed schedule is short-lived. Although Mark became an instant sensation after winning the Junior World silver medal, all eyes turn to the senior skaters. Right now, all eyes are on Team Canada as they aim for three spots for the Olympics in all disciplines.

Johnny and Mark end up watching the World Championships at home, television screen set up so that they’re watching in the official CBC stream. Hansol is on Google Hangouts, cursing as to why ISU isn’t officially streaming the event that he had to resort to watching the Russian stream and bemoaning the commentary from Tatiana Tarasova. The men’s short program starts at two in the morning, and they had to rely on soda to keep themselves awake.

It’s six in the evening in Hansol’s side of the world, and he grins as he holds up his bowl of bibimbap so that it’s visible on the screen. “Dinner?”

“Midnight snack.” Johnny gestures to the box of pizza and the one-half-liter bottle of soda. “And Mark may have gobbled a couple of chocolate bars.”

“Huh. Good luck containing the hyperactive child later.” Hansol snickers, shoving a spoonful of bibimbap in his mouth. “Seriously, though, how do you think everyone will do?”

Johnny has his own predictions for the men’s podium, but he ends up shrugging. “It’s the World Championships. Anything can happen.”

“Yeah, you right. You never know, Ten might get in the Top 10 or something.”

“I bet twenty bucks he gets fifth place!” Mark says before taking a bite of his pizza slice.

“You’re on, kid.”

Ten is fifth to skate in the first group. Johnny watches as Ten takes to the ice after the previous skater’s score was announced, the cheers loud as his name is called. In the stream, he can see small banners with Ten’s name in Thai letters, then a larger banner with a photo of Ten in his Riverdance free skate costume.

“Go get ‘em, Chittaphon.”

Ten breaks into a small smile, arms up as he acknowledges the crowd before stopping at the center of the rink. When the cheers have died down, he puts his arms down and crosses his legs, his gaze to the ice. The opening notes of Four Seasons’ spring concerto start to play, and Johnny watches Ten move with more determination than ever.

Ten sets up for a quad sal—four rotations, but the jump is tilted that he isn’t able to regain his bearings on time. They gasp as he falls and almost collides by the boards. Johnny sighs in relief when Ten gets back up and proceeds with the rest of the choreography as if nothing has happened. He then sets up for a triple axel, but steps out on the landing. He manages to land his triple lutz-triple toe combo, although the disappointment in Ten’s face is obvious after his closing pose.

“It’s okay,” he hears Coach Lee tell Ten as he skates back to the boards, numbly accepting the proffered skate guards. “It’s not the end.”

Ten doesn’t say anything, but Johnny recognizes how his friend his petrified, the way his hands wring the towel as he and Coach Lee head to the kiss and cry. He’s scared that he wouldn’t make it to the free skate, just like last season. It’s always easy to say that there’ll be another Olympic qualifying competition next season, but Ten wants to qualify in the most important Olympic qualifying competition, and he needs to make it to the free skate and place high for a spot.

“It’s not a complete disaster, right?” Mark says as he points to the TES box, though he looks as worried. “I mean, that’s 38 TES.”

“His PCS should save him,” Johnny says, just as it’s announced that Ten has earned a total of 74.13 points for the short program. Getting a 74 in the short programs is good enough to make it to the free skate, but with the depth of the men’s field and with twenty-five more men left to skate, no one can be too sure.

He and Mark heave a sigh of relief four hours later when the short program ends and that all their friends make it to the free skate. Taeyong is in fourth, Yuta in eighth, Jaehyun in twelfth, and Ten in sixteenth. It’s now a matter of how many spots each country will get.

It’s six in the morning now, and Johnny is tempted to head back to his room and get some sleep, but his Google Hangouts app beeps, and suddenly, he sees Taeyong, Yuta, and Jaehyun trying to fit their faces in the screen. “We made it!” they exclaim.

Johnny would have wanted to celebrate, but … “Where’s Ten?” he asks.

“Well, hello to you, too, Johnny,” Yuta says in mock hurt. “So nice of you to congratulate us.”

“Yuta, shut up.” Jaehyun elbows Yuta before looking apologetically at Johnny. “Ten’s in his room. He refused to speak to anyone after the short program.”

“Right, I’ll call him.” Johnny reaches for his phone and presses Call on Skype. He heads to his room and leaves Mark to talk to the others. Ten picks up the call after a couple of rings, and Johnny bursts out, “Hey, you okay?”

“Fantastic.” Ten sounds hoarse, and Johnny hears muffled sniffs on the other line.

“Are you … crying?”

“I’m not crying,” Ten retorts, louder sniffing in the background. “I screwed up in my short program and I almost didn’t make it to the free skate. What do you think I’m feeling right now?”

“I know you’re scared,” Johnny says, sitting on the edge of the bed. “But it isn’t the end of the world, either. You made it to the free skate, and you still have a chance for a spot in the Olympics.”

“Yeah, but what if I screw up again?” Ten chokes on his words, and Johnny feels his chest aching. “I was so confident I was going to land my quad, and all season long I landed all my triple axels perfectly. And I had to fuck up in the most important competition of the season. What if it happens again?”

“It won’t,” Johnny says, his grip on his phone tight. “Listen, Chittaphon.” He pauses when he hears Ten huff, but he hears shifting on the other line, and he takes it as a sign that the younger one is listening intently. “You’re going to make it to the Olympics. I’ve seen how much you’ve worked your ass off to get to where you are right now. The short program? Forget about it. If you want to prove you deserve to be in the Olympics, prove it in the free skate. Skate with all that you’ve got.”

Ten cries a little louder as Johnny speaks, and all he wants is to take the first plane to Helsinki to hold Ten’s hand and tell him he’ll be fine. Ten has always been there when Johnny needed him; he wants to return the favor.

“You make longer pep talks than Coach Lee,” Ten says, his voice cracking. A chuckle follows, so Johnny relaxes.

“Did it work, though?” Johnny asks.

“Yeah … thanks, Johnny. It had just been so overwhelming.”

“I know.” Johnny’s lips tug up. “Good luck in the free skate. Mark and I are rooting for you.”

“I’ll do my best. Now go to sleep. It’s early morning in there.”

Johnny yawns, as if on cue. “Okay. Good night, Ten.” He vaguely hears Ten reply with a “Good morning, Johnny~” before he ends the call and sinks into his mattress, drifting off to sleep.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Two days later, Ten delivers a light’s out free skate, sending the audience in Hartwell Arena to their feet before he can strike his ending pose. He landed his quad sal, his triple axel, and the rest of his jumps, and the step sequence brought chills to Johnny’s spine. Johnny jumps to his seat just as Ten pumps his fist in the air before falling down hands first on the ice, pure jubilation on his face.

It’s too early in the morning for him and Mark to be cheering so loudly when Ten’s scores were announced, but they can’t care less. Ten had earned a personal best in his free skate score, and his overall score, seven points higher than his total competition score in Four Continents.

With the conclusion of the men’s event, Taeyong placed fifth, and Ten, Jaehyun, and Yuta placed in seventh, eighth, and ninth. Taeyong and Jaehyun’s placements earn South Korea three spots for the Olympics; despite Yuta’s ninth-place finish, Yuzuru Hanyu and Shoma Uno’s first- and second-place finishes were enough to help Japan retain their three spots. And, of course, Ten managed to earn not just one, but two spots for Thailand.

There is so much to celebrate. Johnny wishes he can be there in Helsinki right now, to be with his friends.

But, he’s miles away, and he can only wait and celebrate with them when they reunite in Vancouver.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Unfortunately, the Team VSC reunion will have to wait until May. Ten flew back to Thailand for the holidays and to defend his National title, an easy feat, given that Ten continues to be the only senior man in Thailand. Taeyong and Jaehyun flew home to Korea to promote the Olympics, to attend KSU’s annual training camp, and to get their new programs choreographed. Yuta is part of the cast of Fantasy on Ice and will also stay in Japan until May to get choreography for his programs for next season.

A month of rest is enough for Mark, and he is back on the rink on the first week of April, making the most of having the rink to himself. After two weeks of training basic skating skills, he, Johnny, and Coach Lee sit down to start planning for next season. It’s the Olympic season, and the goal is for Mark to make it to the Olympic team.

“This season is going to be big,” Coach Lee says, putting his hands together. “It will mark your first full year as a senior, and in Olympic season nonetheless.”

He hears Mark draw in a sharp breath. He knows Mark has been waiting for this season all his life, just as Johnny used to.

“Canadian men only have two spots for the Olympics, and your goal is to get that one spot,” Coach Lee continues. “But on the way, you have to leave an impression and make people see that you’re the one to watch out for in the next few years.”

Mark nods, wide-eyed. Johnny remembers being just like that when Coach Lee gave him the same talk.

“Everyone is raising the difficulty of their program layouts, and I know you’re ready to do the same. Your quad toe is consistent, and we’ve trained on a quad sal last season, but you still have problem with rotations. I’m in talks with the Toronto Cricket Club if you guys can stay in the rink for two weeks for technique training. Johnny, can you arrange that?”

Johnny nods, making a note in his planner to contact Brian Orser. He had worked with Brian on jumps before, and he doesn’t know how else his triple axel and quads could be consistent without Brian’s help.

“Thank you.” Coach Lee nods. “You need to start thinking of your program music, too.”

“I …” Mark pauses and looks at Johnny before continuing. “I kind of have a free skate music in mind already.”

“Really?” Johnny blinks. He and Mark have always consulted on their program music, so this is the first time he’s left in the dark. “What music do you have in mind?”

“Well …” Mark avoids his gaze this time, looking at the ground as if there’s something interesting in there. “I’ve been thinking … Coldplay’s Viva La Vida?”

Johnny’s not sure if he heard his brother right. “I’m sorry … what? I thought you said Coldplay’s Viva La Vida?”

“I did …” Mark says as he fumbles with his hands. “I want that to be my free skate music.”

Suddenly, Johnny feels like he’s nineteen again and at the center of the rink in TD Garden. The pain in his foot feels like fire consuming his entire being. He had made mistakes in the warmup—popping and falling on his jumps—and he wasn’t so sure if he was going to make it out of his routine alive. But Viva La Vida had started to play, and all his fears had melted away.

Fans have called Viva La Vida the best free skate of his career, and Johnny thought so, too. While he’s not opposed to skating to classics like Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 or maybe a song from Cirque du Soleil, something about Viva La Vida made him feel free and powerful. The moment he first heard the song, he knew it was going to be his song in his first Olympic season. And as expected, every time he skated to the music, he felt like he was powerful, like he couldn’t be touched.

That moment when he skated to Viva La Vida in U.S. Nationals was the best—and the last—skate of his career.

Johnny had found it ironic months later that the song was about a king who had lost his kingdom. The moment he retired, he had felt just like that.

Coach Lee must have felt the shift in Johnny’s mood. “Mark, you do know that this is the same free skate Johnny had used in 2014? You know that song means a lot to Johnny.”

“I know.” Mark finally meets him in the eye. “I like the story of the song, and I think I can interpret it well. I know I won’t interpret is as well as Johnny did, but I want to give it a try.”

Coach Lee looks at him cautiously. “What do you think, Johnny?”

It’s his song, Johnny thinks. It’s the best program of his career. How is Mark going to skate to that or even top that? “It’s not that I don’t trust in your interpretation skills,” Johnny says when he finally found his voice, “but you’re turning senior next season, and I don’t think music with ostentatious composition would be a great start.”

He catches Mark’s expression deflate for a couple of seconds. “But isn’t that a good thing?” he asks. “I plan to show people that I can handle music that’s usually too big for someone who had just come from the junior circuit. I’m willing to take the risk! This is the Olympic season we’re talking about!” He looks at Coach Lee, as if to ask for help. “Come on, Coach. What do you think?”

Coach Lee doesn’t usually join in on discussions on program music choices. He lets the skater and/or the management team decide, and his job is to make sure the skater sells the program. Even when Johnny had made a huge mistake of skating to Romeo and Juliet when five other men were skating to it in one Junior Grand Prix competition (Hansol included), Coach Lee had guided him on how to be the best Romeo in the field.

Which is why he’s surprised when his coach speaks up. “Johnny, are you sure you’re only opposed to Mark’s music choice because of the risk it entails?”

No one has to know the real reason why he’s opposed to this. “Yeah, I’m sure,” he says quickly. “Also, I mean, it’s still the off-season. We can still consider other options, right?”

Mark shoulders sag, managing a low “Yeah.”

He ignores how his insides twist in what he doesn’t hope feels like guilt.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The talk about Viva La Vida gets pushed to the background when Johnny and Mark start discussing music choices for the short program. It is, after all, the first program. While the free skate is the deciding factor of the competition, a strong short program will leave good impressions on the judges, and what Mark wants is to stay on the judges’ good sides.

Johnny and Mark finally decide on Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata for the short program music. Mark looks ecstatic as he discusses the image he wants to portray, and Johnny is glad that they are in agreement. It’s a step towards maturity, a message to everyone that Mark is officially a senior skater, and he has the artistry to boot.

They fly to Toronto a week later after they have decided on the short program music. They comfortably settle in their Airbnb, and then head to the Toronto Cricket and Skating Club after a good day’s rest. (Mark is disappointed that Yuzuru Hanyu is in Japan, Javier Fernandez is in Spain, and Donghyuck is in Korea.)

David Wilson is waiting for Mark with open arms when they arrive. “I’m so excited for your short program music!” he tells Mark on their first day in the rink. “We’re going for maturity, right? I’ve got just the choreography for you!”

David Wilson is one of Mark’s long-time choreographers, and with good reason. He has known Mark since he was a junior, and David knows him well enough to figure out how to make the choreography just right for Mark’s preference and personality. For two weeks, Johnny listens to the first movement of Moonlight Sonata echo throughout the rink, David teaching Mark the movements, telling him the meaning behind each movement, each nuance. Mark nods and takes all the information in. By their second week in Toronto, he skates to Moonlight Sonata like he had been skating to it all his life.

Coach Lee joins them on the last week for him and David to tweak to accommodate the elements. As Mark is now a senior and can add a quad in the short program, they settle for a quad toe-triple toe, a triple axel, and a triple lutz for the jumps. The change from the triple axel-triple toe, triple lutz, triple loop jumping passes will take some adjustment—but if Mark wants to stay competitive yet not rush into things, the change seems reasonable.

Mark runs through his new short program on his last day in the Cricket Club, choreography and jumps and all. Johnny watches with bated breath as he watches Mark move in the eyes, transfixed at his brother’s movements. Gone is the wide-eyed junior Johnny had come to manage; Mark Lee from Canada is now a full-fledged senior and is ready to join the big names of figure skating.

“He’s amazing,” David tells Johnny as Mark lands his triple lutz and moves to the step sequence. “This season is going to be great for him, I can tell.”

Johnny thinks so, too.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mark receives an e-mail invitation from All That Skate upon their return to Vancouver. It’s a two-day show in Seoul, with their training mates in VSC, as well as several big-name skaters, attending. Johnny laughs as he watches Mark barely containing his excitement as he reads the invitation and guidelines. “Oh my god, I’ve never been invited to All That Skate before!”

Mark had been in several ice shows in the past, usually as the opening act for Stars on Ice in Canada. Last year, he was invited to a few stops in Fantasy on Ice in Japan, the ideal country for ice shows because the shows are always sold out. All That Skate was the longest-standing ice show in South Korea, under the management of Yuna Kim’s mother, and being part of the cast bears more meaning than ever. After all, South Korea is the host country for the Olympics, and the audience will have the first glimpse of the future Olympians. And Mark aims to be a future Olympian.

“This is great!” Johnny tells him. “Your first ice show in Korea. You can debut your new short program there.”

“I’ve never tagged along whenever you were invited to All that Skate,” Mark tells him. “How is the crowd there?”

Johnny had been part of All That Skate four times, in the spring and summer of both 2011 and 2012. He can never forget the light sticks and the cheers whenever he would come out of the rink, whether it’s for his program or for a group number. Neither can he ever forget being showered with gifts and flowers the moment he walked out of the arena, having fans congratulate him and wish him luck for next season.

“The crowd is unforgettable,” he says when he finds the right words. “The experience is going to be one of the best memories you’ll have off-season. Besides”—he checks the tentative cast list and grins—“looks like everyone in Team VSC is going to be there. So is Donghyuck. And looks like Yuna’s going to make a speech.”

“Right.” Mark’s eyes sparkle at the mention of Yuna. “Too bad I won’t be able to skate with Yuna.”

One of the memories Johnny cherishes when he was still skating was being in the same vicinity with one of the best skaters of his generation. He’s very grateful for the opportunity to have shared the ice with Yuna, both competitive and otherwise. He returns to reality to glance at the cast list once more, and he smirks when he spots a name. “Hey, Mark. Do you know what will compensate for not being able to skate with Yuna?”

Mark blinks. “What?”

Johnny shoves his phone too close to Mark’s face. “Eunji’s part of the cast.” And he laughs as he watches the color rise in Mark’s face.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

They meet Ten two weeks later in their layover in Bangkok, the younger one looking more refreshed than ever. Ten complains about not being able to breathe when Johnny crushes him in a hug, his face red as he hands them packs of coconut candy from home. “I have more souvenirs here,” he says, gesturing towards his luggage, “but I know you guys love coconut candy, so …”

“Love them? I can eat them all day!” Mark exclaims as he pops two pieces of candy in his mouth as if to prove his point. “How was home?”

“The usual—won another National title, the federation worked my ass off in promotions, bonded with my family. But it’s great to see you guys again.” Ten grins, glancing at Johnny.

“Same here,” Johnny says, warmth spreading to his chest as he loops an arm around Ten’s shoulders. They’ve communicated through video calls and private messages, but it feels like it’s been ages since he last saw Ten, or anyone in VSC, in general. But he missed Ten the most. “So … layover time. What are we gonna do?”

They have three hours until their flight to Korea. They have dinner, Mark complains about being sleepy, and the youngest one ends up lying down a row of chairs while Johnny and Ten watch over him. Ten leans his head against Johnny’s shoulder as he fishes out his phone to check his messages. He frowns at his phone before announcing, “Looks like Yuta’s not coming.”

Johnny blinks. “Why not?” He fishes out his phone to read the same message Yuta had sent in their group chat, the message surrounded by sad-face emojis. “Oh, right. JSF.”

“Team Japan solidarity, huh,” Ten sighs. “It makes sense, but I thought Team VSC would be complete this week.”

“Yeah, I get that.”

It’s close to midnight when they arrive in Incheon, and Johnny feels like a zombie as they stroll out of the arrival area, ignoring the camera flashes that greet them. An event volunteer ushers them inside a gray van, where they are suddenly stifled with hugs, which came from who he recognizes as Taeyong and Jaehyun. Hansol manages a nod but looks out of the van’s windows, looking spaced out.

“I’m guessing, Yuta?” Johnny asks, failing to control his yawn.

Taeyong nods. “He was so looking forward to this week. He hasn’t gotten laid since after Worlds,” he says with a deadpan expression, deftly avoiding the hand about to smack his head.

“So, Ten!” Jaehyun speaks up, to divert Hansol’s murderous intent towards Taeyong. “How was Songkran Festival?”

Sleep avoids Johnny as the conversation becomes animated, Jaehyun sharing updates since Worlds. Beside him, Mark has lied down on his lap, his breathing steady, oblivious to the ruckus everyone else is making. Johnny tries to stay awake, his view on what he can make out of the moving scenery as he tries to stay within the conversation. It fails, though, because the next thing he knows, Jaehyun is shaking him awake, his eyes squinting at the burst of light from the hotel. He’s only too thankful to flop on his bed as soon as he swipes the key card on the lock, letting sleep take over.

The rest of Team Korea is already warming up when they arrive in Mokdong Ice Rink the next day. Mark suddenly bursts out “Donghyuck! Eunji!” before speeding to the rink, his boots barely tied up. Ten leans beside him as they both chuckle and watch Mark not-so-subtly hold Eunji’s hands. “Ah, young love,” he remarks.

He catches Mark looking over his shoulder, glaring at them as if saying, “Stop looking! You’re embarrassing me!” Johnny chuckles and directs Ten to look away.

The rest of the cast is set to arrive on Thursday, so they can’t rehearse the group numbers yet. This is fine by Ten, one of the show’s choreographers, because he’s yet to come up with something for the opening and the finale. Johnny sits beside him by the front row of the rink as they watch the skaters run through their exhibition programs, according to the lineup per act. Ten’s forehead is creased as he has his sketchpad out (the same sketchpad Johnny had given him for Christmas), a page neatly divided into quarters as he sketches the group layouts per minute of the song. He has his earphones on, but Johnny can clearly hear the beats of the latest K-Pop hit song from Ten’s cell phone, which he occasionally unlocks to rewind the music before focusing on his sketchpad again.

“How is it?” Johnny asks when Ten closes the sketchpad, the sighs before leaning against the chair.

“I think it’s okay,” Ten says, handing Johnny the sketchpad and the earphones. “I haven’t choreographed for a group before, so this is going to be something else.”

The strong beats to the K-Pop song start to play, and Johnny nods along as he skims through the layout. He can already imagine what the program will be like, and if he’s basing the choreography on his imagination, it’s a solid one. “I love it,” he says. “The audience is gonna love it, too.”

“You think?” A smile spreads across Ten’s face, and Johnny just wants to bask in the glow of Ten’s smile.

Johnny returns the smile. “I know.”

The lights in the rink dim once more, and the first notes of Moonlight Sonata start to play. Johnny looks at the rink just in time to see Mark glide across the ice, just as how David had choreographed it. There are no jumps yet, but Johnny can feel the somberness and grace from the way Mark skates. It’s amazing how, back then, Johnny couldn’t imagine Mark skating to such a somber program. A lot has changed in a span of a season.

“His new short program?” Ten asks, eyes bright in awe as his gaze follows Mark’s figure. When Johnny nods, he adds, “I like it. It’s a different Mark, but it’s a good different.”

“I know. Choosing the free skate music is difficult, though.” Johnny wonders if he should tell Ten about Mark wanting to skate to Viva La Vida for the free skate, but decides against it in the end. It’s better for some things to be left unsaid. “How about you? Have you decided for your program music already?”

“Just for the free skate.” Ten beams as he answers. “I’ve thought about it the whole time when I was at home. Why not pay homage to my country for the Olympic season?”

“Homage to Thai music?” Johnny feels stupid for pointing out the obvious, but now that he thought about it, it felt right now that Thailand has a spot in the Olympics for the first time in history. Ten has the license to show the world that Thailand has something to prove in figure skating. It’s going to be his personal brand, perhaps the program he’ll be remembered the most for.

Ten nods, his smile widening. “I called Shae-Lynn as soon as I had the idea,” he continues. “She’s probably more excited than I am.” He chuckles. “It’s going to be amazing, I can tell.”

Of course, it will. Johnny has a good feeling about it, too.

The music stops, and they break into applause as Mark strikes his ending pose. Mark looks at their row in the rink and waggles his eyebrows. Johnny rolls his eyes and chooses to ignore it, though he hopes the rink is dim enough so that Ten doesn’t notice the warmth spreading to his face, for some reason.

Ten is about to say something when Hansol skates to the rink, and suddenly, Michael Buble’s voice reverberates throughout the rink, singing “Birds flyin’ high …” Johnny notices how his and Ten’s eyebrows rise simultaneously as they share concerned looks, with only one reaction in their minds.

“Oh god.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

“Seriously, Hansol, Feelin’ Good?”

Hansol blinks at him and pauses from wiping his face with his towel. He then shrugs and takes a seat next to Ten. Ten’s expression is not helping because it’s as judgmental as what Johnny feels right now. “I don’t know,” Hansol says. “When I was choosing new program music for next season, it just … felt good?” He’s the only one who laughs at his own joke.

Johnny shouldn’t even be surprised at this point. Hansol is known to figure skating fans as Mr. Warhorse for his inclination to skate to overused music for his competitive programs. Not that Feelin’ Good is a classic warhorse, but Johnny has heard the song play too many times in the past few seasons that it’s enough to send several fans groaning.

“Jackie Wong is going to hate you again,” Johnny remarks with a shake of his head. He clearly remembers the analyst’s Twitter rants during Worlds in Boston, with Doyoung and Taeil subsequently teasing him for it.

“Do I even dare ask what your free skate music is …” Ten asks in a low voice, as if unsure if he wants to hear the answer.

Hansol gulps visibly. “Um … Bolero?”

“Oh my god.” Now, Johnny is sure Ten regrets asking. “You’re going to be in Doyoung’s hit list, too. Too bad he already finished is Warhorse Wednesday for Bolero, so you’re spared from his sassy comments.”

“Doyoung will probably be all …” Johnny puts on his best voice impersonation of Doyoung. “Hansol, how could you betray me like this? It’s going to be harder defending you and your music choices.”

“Taeil, too, and to think Taeil’s the nicer one out of the two of them.”

Suddenly, they hear someone calling their names. Johnny cranes his neck to see Mark approaching them. “Hansol hyung looks miserable,” he remarks. “What happened?”

“We were discussing his program music, and therefore, his life choices,” Ten replies, batting his eyelashes.

“Oh, that.” Mark grins cheekily. “I heard from Donghyuck that Hansol hyung was actually supposed to skate to Carmina Burana, but Shin Yeaji put her foot down.”

“Shut up. All of you. Please,” Hansol finally says, wearily.

It just so happens that Team Korea will be debuting their new competitive programs in All That Skate, at least for their short programs. KSU had arranged for them to be choreographed as soon as they returned from Helsinki. After All That Skate, they’re set to fly back to their training rinks, before they have their free skate music choreographed.

Everyone is taking their music choices to the next level—this is the Olympic season, after all.

Fortunately, Taeyong and Jaehyun’s short program music choices are not overused program music. Jaehyun will be skating to A Whole New World from Aladdin, and it’s guaranteed to make his female fans (and Doyoung) swoon. Taeyong, meanwhile, is skating to idol group TVXQ’s Mirotic. It’s a risky choice, Johnny thinks, but as he watches Taeyong run through his program, he knows it’s going to be worth the risk.

He wishes he can be there with his friends. He misses brainstorming program music with his friends, misses making initial (sometimes violent) reactions whenever someone announces their music of choices, misses being choreographed by Ten for his exhibition program. Not that he’s not part of the process now, but he misses brainstorming for himself.

Johnny snaps back to reality when he feels a hand on his shoulder. When he looks, Ten has gotten up and has his forehead scrunched in concern. “Hansol says he’s taking us to Korean barbeque. You okay?”

“Yeah, it’s the jet lag taking its toll.” Johnny automatically gets up and manages a smile. “So, Korean barbeque?”

What he likes about being in ice shows is that they can explore the city without worrying about heading back to the rink for training. The ice show isn’t until Saturday and Sunday, so the skaters can rehearse and still afford to go sightseeing. Hansol, Taeyong, and Jaehyun are very willing tour guides, taking them to the most touristy spots in Seoul. They shop in Myeongdong, explore the Hanok Village, and try all the food from the street stalls in Insadong. Ten documents the entire sightseeing through his phone, photos and videos all posted on his social media accounts minutes later.

Their last stop before group rehearsals on Thursday is on Namsan Tower, and they go way up to the roof deck. Hansol, Taeyong, Jaehyun, and Donghyuck have a cable car to themselves, while Johnny and Ten share a cable car with Mark and Eunji. Johnny wants to laugh at how Mark suddenly becomes a bumbling ball of awkwardness, looking at anywhere and anyone but Eunji, who looks oblivious to what is happening. Ten tries to make the atmosphere lighter by talking about everything under the sun.

Donghyuck looks disappointed when Johnny relates to them what happened, or rather, what did not happen. “He has been agonizing over how to make a move on Eunji, and when the opportunity finally comes, he’s too chicken to do something,” he complains.

“Well, when one door closes, another one opens,” Hansol singsongs, pointing to somewhere from afar. “What do you say, Donghyuck? The fight isn’t over yet.”

“Of course, it isn’t!” Donghyuck waggles his eyebrows as the love locks area finally come into view. He then looks at Mark, who’s walking next to Eunji, though a couple of feet away. “Well, wish me luck!” he says before running towards the direction of the couple.

“Ah, love locks,” Hansol sighs dreamily as his pace slows to match Johnny and Ten’s pace. “I wish Yuta was here. We could get one. Meanwhile those two”—he points to Taeyong and Jaehyun, who are already crouched and squished in the corner of the roof deck—“probably have too many locks to count.”

Johnny snorts. “Of course, they have.”

“How about you two?” Hansol asks, a smirk forming on his lips. “Aren’t you two going to get your own lock?”

Johnny almost chokes on air. “Why?” he asks when he can finally breathe properly. “We’re not a couple.”

“Who says you have to be a couple to get locks?” Hansol says, batting his eyelashes. “Friends do it, too!” As if to prove his point, he points to a group of high school girls sitting by the bench, one of them delicately writing on the lock with her Sharpie. Someone in their group is yelling about making sure no name is left behind. “Besides,” Hansol adds, “you don’t have to give it any meaning unless …” He glances at Ten and winks.

Johnny glances at Ten, who suddenly laughs despite the flush in his cheeks. “I’m okay with buying a lock,” he says. “You know, a friendship lock. How about you?”

Johnny shrugs. “Yeah, I’m okay.” It’s no problem with him, now that Hansol has pointed it out. He and Ten are practically family now, and they’ve been with each other through thick and thin. There’s nothing wrong with a small gesture of friendship, right?

Mark raises an eyebrow at Johnny when he and Ten approach the edge, railings covered with thousands of locks. Johnny raises an eyebrow back as he glances at Eunji, who is busy writing something on their lock. When he smirks, the color of Mark’s face turns into something that resembles a tomato, and he whips his head back to Eunji, who had just handed him the lock.

Ten had just finished writing on their lock, and Johnny chuckles at what’s written on it. “Coach Johnny and Choreographer Ten, to season 2018-2019 and beyond!” he reads. “You are never going to let this go, are you?”

“Of course not.” Ten’s smile unsettles something from inside Johnny, but in a good way. “Come on, let’s hang this thing.”

Maybe Johnny’s a little self-conscious when he hangs the lock on the railing. His stomach flutters when Ten’s arm rests next to him as soon as he takes a step back to get a good view of the lock from afar. Somehow, at the back of his mind, he wonders what it would be like if that lock bore meaning that’s more than friendship.

He realizes, right then and there, that he won’t mind at all.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The rest of the cast arrive on Thursday, and it was back to rehearsals, in longer hours. They start rehearsing the group numbers, especially the opening number and the finale. Johnny makes himself comfortable by the seats, warmth spreading to his chest as he watches Ten’s vision come to life.

On the night before the show, the All that Skate team throws a huge dinner for the cast in the hotel, though socializing was more prioritized over eating. Johnny barely gets to finish his dessert when Ten pulls him up and drags him to a nearby table, where he’s introduced to the Russian pairs team in the cast. Some of the younger cast members rush to get a photo with him, and Johnny has a hard time keeping up with introductions and making small talk that he doesn’t realize Ten has suddenly disappeared.

It’s Mark who pulls them back to their table, saving Johnny from an awkward conversation with the French ice dancers. (It was really hard to think of something to talk about when Johnny’s distracted at how attractive the team is.) “You okay?” Mark asks, a frown on his face.

“Yeah, just …” Johnny runs a hand through his hair, suddenly feeling exhausted. “Where’s Ten?”

“Oh, I think he’s hanging out with the Shibs again.” Mark looks around, and his gaze stops at a certain area in the room. “There he is!”

When he looks, he finds Ten being lifted by Alex Shibutani, as if on an ice-dance lift. Several skaters surround them, all bursting into laughter, as Alex’s sister Maia records the entire thing. Johnny would be laughing as well, if it weren’t for an ugly, nauseous feeling in his stomach.

“Johnny,” Mark speaks up, still frowning, “are you okay?”

“I’m fine,” Johnny mumbles, not meeting Mark’s gaze as he asks the approaching waiter for a refill of his iced tea. His head still feels light, and it didn’t help when he glances to Ten’s direction again and finds Alex all tall, broad shoulders wrapping around Ten’s as they pose for a photo.

An event organizer announces that it’s curfew time for the minors. Jaehyun approaches his table just as Johnny gets up. “Chicken and beer for the adults after you tuck Mark to bed?” he offers with a grin.

Mark groans, and Johnny ruffles his hair and ignores his brother’s protests. He can never say no to chicken and beer, but Ten is still with Alex, and there goes that nauseous feeling again. “I’ll pass,” he says. “I’m kinda tired. Maybe tomorrow, after the show?”

“Oh.” Jaehyun blinks. “Tomorrow’s kind of a stretch, but let’s see if we can go on Sunday night instead. I want everyone in Team VSC to be present.” He glances at Mark and sticks his tongue out. “Minus the babies, of course.”

“Sunday night sounds great. See you tomorrow. Tell Ten I already left.” He gives Jaehyun a quick hug before he and Mark make their way out.

Mark calls dibs on the bathroom, leaving Johnny with no choice but to lie on his bed and wait. He fishes out his phone, only to find it lit up with a notification—a message from Ten. “Get some rest. We’re not leaving Korea until we get an authentic chicken and beer experience.”

Johnny would have felt touched that Ten is concerned, but suddenly the image of Ten and Alex flashes in his mind. He chucks his phone on the end desk and pulls his pillow close to his face, muffling the frustrated groans that come out of his mouth.

What is wrong with him?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There’s something about the Korean crowd that excites Johnny, even if he watches the ice show from backstage. Of course, no other audience beats the Japanese figure skating fans, but the light sticks, the loud cheers and squeals is a different experience altogether. At least Johnny knows that Korea’s love for figure skating will never die, even without Yuna Kim around.

The two nights of All That Skate 2017 are a success, the response to the skaters’ new competitive programs positive. He can only catch a glimpse of the audience from the other side of the rink, but he can make out nods of approval when Mark skated to Moonlight Sonata. Taeyong’s Mirotic, though, brought the house down, with some fans screaming in the opening notes, then chanting along to the lyrics. Jaehyun managed to make everyone swoon in his Aladdin program. And if there were any violent reactions to Hansol’s new short program, the audience didn’t show it, though the response was warmer to his Hide and Freak exhibition program.

(Johnny checks his Twitter and finds Doyoung’s tweets, which seem to sum up the fans’ thoughts—if the number of likes and retweets are anything to go by: “Ji Hansol, why can’t you just skate to Hide and Freak in competition? Anything else sounds better than Feelin’ Good.” Johnny prays for Doyoung’s blood pressure once he finds out about Hansol’s free skate.

(How Doyoung can tweet his feelings during the show is a mystery to Johnny. His timeline is full of “SHIT. Is Taeyong not wearing illusion mesh with his deep vee neck? #BLESS” and “JUNG JAEHYUN SKATING TO ALADDIN. HE’S LITERALLY A PRINCE” and “+50000 GOE FOR THAT COSTUME OMG JAEHYUN” and “I HAVE A NEW BANNER IDEA #AWHOLENEWWORLDWITHJAEHYUN” that it’s a miracle Doyoung’s alive to tweet at all.)

Johnny watches as Mark joins the other men in a “quad off” in the finale. Hansol, Taeyong, Ten, Jaehyun, Mark, and Donghyuck disperse to different ends of the rink, while the rest of the cast remain in the center, cheering for them. The audience counts to three, and the six of them set up and jump. The rink is torn between laughter and cheers as Mark and Ten fall on their butts, Hansol slides to his side, and Taeyong, Jaehyun, and Donghyuck land their jumps.

Johnny is itching to join in on the fun, before the realization hits him—he can’t, and he never will—despite the itch to take off from the back inside edge of his right foot and let gravity do the work.

The cast all head back to the hotel afterwards, each going on their own way. Johnny is quick to convince Mark to slip to bed, then head to the lobby to meet Hansol, Taeyong, Ten, and Jaehyun for their chicken and beer dinner. “What, no Alex Shibutani with us today?” Johnny can’t resist mentioning when he glances at Ten.

Ten glances at him in confusion. “What are you talking about?” he says.

Johnny wants to point out how Ten and Alex were blatantly flirting during dinner two nights ago, but settles with a shrug and a “You two seemed awfully close over dinner.”

Ten remains confused. “We were vlogging,” he points out. “Alex is hot, but Denis is going to kill me the moment I flirt with him.”

Johnny blinks. “Denis?” he repeats. “As in, Denis Ten?”

“Yeah, they’ve been dating for the past two years.” Ten throws his head back in laughter.

“Oh …” Johnny says, and the nauseous feeling he got from two nights ago … was replaced with heat on his face as he realized how stupid he was for feeling … jealous? Is that even the right word? Why should he be jealous of Alex, anyway?

“Anyway,” Hansol interrupts his thoughts by clearing his throat. “Chicken and beer? Let’s go.”

Five minutes later, they’re tucked in a booth of a hole-in-the-wall restaurant, munching on chicken and drinking beer. Ten was right—he’s going to miss out big time if he had passed on this experience.

Fortunately, the talk about Ten and Alex is forgotten, the conversation shifting to life after the Olympics. Ten had mentioned his desire to be a choreographer. To his surprise, Taeyong and Jaehyun have it all planned, too.

“We’re probably just going to take a quick break and skip some Challenger competitions,” Jaehyun says. “We’ll be back in the GPs, then maybe see what happens.”

“I might start taking up coaching lessons,” Taeyong says. “But I’ll still compete. I just want to be sure that by the time I give up competitive skating for good, I know where I’ll be going next.”

Johnny wishes they had this conversation three years ago. Maybe if he had a concrete plan after his career …

“How about you, Hansol?” Ten asks, beaming when he gets the last piece of chicken before Taeyong does. “Any post-Olympics plans?”

Johnny realizes Hansol has been unusually quiet throughout the conversation. He has known Hansol long enough to guess why, but he’s not going to voice it out until Hansol says something himself. He watches as the older one finishes the rest of his beer then calls the waiter to ask for another bucket before speaking up.

“Actually … I talked to KSU last week. I’ll be announcing my retirement after next season.”

Silence envelops the table, and Johnny takes a deep breath as he leans against his seat. He isn’t so surprised by the announcement—after all, ever since Hansol lost Korea a chance to qualify for the Olympics in Sochi, his performance has been overshadowed by Taeyong and Jaehyun, and recently Donghyuck, and Hansol isn’t getting the scores he deserves after he won the Junior World bronze medal six years ago. Still, sadness overwhelms him.

It feels like an eternity before someone speaks up. “Why?” Taeyong asks.

Hansol straightens up in his seat. “It’s something I’ve considered for the past two years, and I feel like it’s the right thing to do next season,” he says. “I mean, after the Olympics, there will be younger, better kids out there who dream of being in the next Olympics, and I don’t think I’ll be able to keep up. I mean, Donghyuck will be going to the senior ranks next season, and he lands his quads better than I do. At this rate, he might get the third spot for the Olympics.”

“Nonsense.” Jaehyun shakes his head. “We love Donghyuck, but it’s the Korea Men’s Holy Trinity who should go to Pyeongchang.”

Hansol smiles at that. “I know. I want to go to the Olympics, and I’ll do my best to get that spot. But I’m managing my expectations. In case the worst happens, I’m ready.”

“You’re sure about this, right?” Johnny asks. “Life after retirement isn’t easy.” But then again, Hansol is already coming to terms with the end of his career. Johnny was still ready to do some more when his career ended unexpectedly.

“I’m sure.” Hansol nods. There’s no hint of uncertainty in Hansol’s expression, and Johnny takes it as a sincere answer. “Besides, at least now you’ll have another member in the VSC Uncle Club.”

“I am not an uncle, excuse you—” Johnny retorts, reaching forward so he can pinch Hansol in the cheek. Everyone else laughs, and Hansol relaxes.

Ten waits for the laughter to die down before asking, “Does Yuta know?”

Hansol’s expression softens. “Of course, he does. He’s one of the first ones to know. Surprisingly, he took it quite well.”

“Were you expecting him to fall down on his knees, tear-stricken, begging for you to change your mind?” Johnny asks with a smirk.

“Well, he did fall down on his knees, but not because—”

“Okay, we don’t need to know that, thank you very much!” Johnny interrupts, immediately regretting asking that. He ignores the other customers and staff suddenly staring at his direction.

Hansol rolls his eyes before continuing. “He was very calm about it. I actually wanted to retire after this season, but he helped encourage me to stay until the Olympic season. Then he asked what I want to do after the Olympics.”

“Which is …?”

“Go back to school and finally graduate. Then I’ll sign up for the military. When I’m done with military duties, I’ll probably study to become a technical specialist.”

Silence envelops the table once more. Johnny watches as Taeyong, Ten, and Jaehyun stare at each other while Hansol looks on with concern, probably weighing their reactions. He catches Ten glancing at him questioningly, as if silently asking what he’s going to say, and his gaze drops to his empty bottle of beer. Of course, he was the one who had been down that road; he should know what to say, of all people …

The thing is, retirement announcements still continue to leave Johnny speechless.

It’s Taeyong who speaks up first. “Look, hyung, it’s your decision in the end,” he says. “Sure, it’s gonna suck for us because we’ll miss you when you retire, but if this is what you really want, then we’ll support you.”

Hansol’s shoulders relax.

“If next season will be your last, then we’ll support you in making it count,” Jaehyun chimes in with a smile.

“We’ll definitely cheer you on,” Ten adds, mirroring Jaehyun’s smile.

Johnny can feel Hansol’s eyes on him; he’s the last to speak, and Hansol is probably anticipating his reaction the most. Hansol needs their support, but he especially needs Johnny’s support. He looks up at his friend and smiles. “Look, I’ve been there,” he says. “At least you’ve got it all planned now, compared to my situation …” He chuckles. “I’m totally cool about it. I’ll help you out.

If there’s anything Johnny wishes he would have done, it was to have a concrete post-career plan. Back when he had just moved up to seniors after a breakthrough junior season, life after the Olympics was a faraway thought. How could he stop when he had just started?

Big mistake.

But that’s a thing of the past. If there’s anything he can do right now, it’s to help Hansol make his final season count.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

They leave the restaurant at one in the morning, by which time Hansol had gone ahead with Taeyong and Jaehyun. Johnny and Ten stay behind, the latter claiming he wants to buy banana milk and spicy ramen. Johnny can only laugh and shake his head. “We just ate a lot of chicken and drank lots of beer, and you’re still looking for banana milk and spicy ramen?”

Ten shrugs, batting his eyelashes. “I can never say no to banana milk and spicy ramen. You don’t have to tag along if you wanna go to bed already.”

“No, it’s fine. I’ll come with you.”

They end up in a GS25 a couple of minutes away from their hotel. Ten buys banana milk for the both of them, then changes his mind about the spicy ramen when he finds samgak gimbap. They sit on the bench outside the convenience store, watching the very few people pass by. Sometimes, Johnny can feel Ten’s arm brushing against his, and for some reason, he shifts closer.

“What a night, huh,” Ten says after a few minutes of silence.

“Yeah.” Johnny sips on his banana milk, the sweetness a welcome sensation in his tongue. “It’s that time where people we know are retiring left and right.”

“It’s not that I didn’t expect it.” Ten takes a bite of his gimbap and shrugs. “It’s just that when it happens, it’s still hard to believe.”

“I get that.” Johnny sighs. Back then, the six of them were the unstoppable Team VSC, the best in their club. They were untouchable and inseparable, but life had to get in the way. Johnny was the first to retire, and Hansol will be retiring at the end of next season. Soon, the rest of the team will retire one by one until VSC, and the skating community in general, will be full of young skaters who dream to be where they are now, perhaps with better technique and in better physical condition.

“I don’t think I ever told you,” Ten continues, “but it was difficult skating after you retired. The day after you announced your retirement, the rink felt so empty. It was like there was a gaping hole that no one wanted to acknowledge yet.”

“But the hole disappeared eventually, right?”

“It never did.” Ten shakes his head. “I just got better at pretending it wasn’t there. Every day, I’d see you come in, and I always wished you’ll announce that the doctors discovered this miraculous cure for your injury, and you’ll make a comeback soon.”

“I wish.” Johnny can’t resist chuckling. Still, he was touched at the thought that his friends still miss skating with him.

Ten sips the last of his banana milk before placing it on the tray across him. “Have I ever told you I almost planned on retiring before the start of last season?”

Johnny almost spits out his gimbap at the question. “You did?!” he exclaims, a little too loudly for someone who is out on the streets at one in the morning. “You never told me! How come you never told me? And why the hell did retirement come to your mind?”

Ten chuckles, and it irritates Johnny how the younger one could stay calm after that revelation. “You were probably aware, but 2015-2016 was the crappiest season of my career,” he says. “I got injured, I was always in the bottom half of the rankings, and I didn’t make it to the free skate in Boston.”

Johnny is aware of that season. It was heartbreaking to watch Ten fall, then get up, then fall again. Ten had looked ready to break down in the kiss and cry, but had put on a smile when his gaze had met the camera. When Ten didn’t make the free skate in Boston, Johnny had almost elbowed everyone in sight just to make sure that Ten is okay. Once again, Ten had put on a smile and had told him there was always next year.

“When I didn’t make it to the free skate, I thought it was all over. My career has been a series of failures, and I thought why push it? I thought it was going to be hard coming back, especially when the judges saw me as someone who’s a headcase.” Ten chuckles bitterly, his grip on the gimbap packaging too tight.

“What made you change your mind, then?” Johnny asks, his voice softer. Now the guilt of being mad at Ten for not telling him this has disappeared. If he were in Ten’s shoes, he would have thought of the same thing.

“I went home after Boston. I stayed with my family for Songkran, and I skated at Nationals. We only have one rink in Bangkok, and it was the very same rink where I started skating. It brought back a lot of memories.” Ten blinks rapidly. “I was interviewed by reporters, and they showed me my first competition. I fell a lot, but I was smiling.”

“I bet you were so adorable back then,” Johnny comments with a chuckle.

“Shut up.” Ten shoves his arm, his cheeks pink. “I remembered what it was like to skate like that. I didn’t win, but I wasn’t so bummed about it either. Call it cheesy, but after that, I decided to skate because I love skating, not because I wanted to become the top skater in the world.”

“And you’re one of the best skaters in the world now. I’m so proud of you.” Johnny reaches for Ten’s hand, giving it a gentle squeeze.

His heart skips a beat when Ten returns the gesture. “I’m sorry I never told you,” he says. “I told myself I’ll never tell anyone until I’ve made up my mind. That, and I know talking about retirement is the last thing you wanted to hear.”

“Are you crazy?” Johnny says. “I hate retirement talk, but you’re my best friend. If you’re ever down, you know I’m always here.” He remembers the urgent rapping on his window after he announced his retirement. Now, the memory of Ten perched on the tree by his bedroom window, asking to be let in is something they laugh about now, but now that he thought about it, he’d do the same thing for Ten—he’ll pull Ten to his arms and have Ten stay there for as long as he needed him, maybe Johnny will cup Ten’s face in his hands and lean forward and—

Wait.

“Johnny, you okay?”

Johnny blinks. Ten is looking at him with concern, and Johnny realizes Ten has withdrawn his hand. Johnny aches for the warmth of Ten’s hand.

Wait.

“Johnny?” Ten repeats.

“Y-Yeah, I’m fine. I’m just tired, that’s all.”

“Poor baby.” Ten chuckles as he reaches for the back of Johnny’s neck, his touch fire that spreads all over Johnny’s body in an instant. “We should get going. We have an early flight to catch.”

Johnny didn’t expect the realization to come in an ordinary setting, just two friends hanging out in a convenience store. It wasn’t like being struck by lightning or anything that resembled a life revelation. No, it just pieces of a puzzle just starting to make sense—he realized that he had felt this way even before, but he’s more aware of the fact now.

His friends are right. Mark is right. Johnny is in love with Ten, and there’s no doubt about that.

The only question is if Ten sees him as someone he can be with beyond friendship.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Johnny, Ten, and Mark fly back to Vancouver the next day, with Hansol, Taeyong, and Yuta following a couple of days later. Yuta arrives two weeks later after several ice shows in Japan, looking more relaxed than he has ever been. “Has Hansol told you?” is the first thing Yuta asks upon his arrival in VSC. When everyone nods, he shrugs and makes his way towards his locker.

“How can you be so calm about the whole thing?” Mark asks. Hansol had told Mark about his retirement the next morning, and Mark had been upset the whole flight back to Vancouver.

Johnny remembers Mark crying when he announced his retirement. He had been teary-eyed himself, but he hated seeing his brother cry, and Johnny had hated himself all the more for retiring. It was all the more heartbreaking to remember.

“It’s not like we broke up,” Yuta chuckles, ruffling Mark’s hair. “Let’s just help make sure he ends his career with a bang.”

Johnny realizes the following season has more weight than ever—the Olympic season, Mark’s senior debut, Hansol’s final season. Every move they do is going to be crucial to make sure the next season will be a memorable one. Johnny vows to do his best to help.

And because it’s the Olympic season, their coaches are on agreement to train their skaters to become as holistic as possible. That meant they have to train on everything—skating skills, jumps, interpretation. There’s no time to take it easy, if they want to make it to Pyeongchang.

It’s back to their usual training routine in the off-season—the coaches would make them work on strokes and crossovers on the first two weeks before they do their jumps off-ice. In the afternoon, they would head to a nearby dance studio to work on their musicality and interpretation. Usually, they still have time to hang out after, but relaxation was reduced to Saturdays and Sundays. The free time at the end of the day are spent with therapists or for rest to get ready for training the next day.

By the third week, they’re allowed to jump on ice. They all fly to Toronto, the Cricket Club a full house as almost all the coaches decided to have their skaters work under Brian Orser, who has produced two Olympic champions and three World champions in his career. Mark is star struck to be finally training with Yuzuru Hanyu, and is relieved to be training with Donghyuck. Brian lets them do their jumps in singles, then doubles, then triples. Brian comments on their takeoff, edge techniques, and landings, before asking them to do jumps again, back to singles. Triple axels and quads are done on harnesses for a week, depending on how the coaches are satisfied by the end result.

Coach Lee and Brian nod in approval by the fifth week, when Mark lands his thirteenth quad sal of the training session.

Mark gives a clean run-through of his short program with his new program layout the next day, and Johnny’s chest is swelling with pride. Slowly, he’s starting to understand legends of the sport who look on proudly when the skater under their wing accomplishes something they couldn’t when they were still competing. Johnny may not be out there on the rink, but he knows his pulling the strings and his management of Mark’s schedule contributed to Mark’s improvement.

Johnny may not have gone, and will not be going, to the Olympics, but maybe he can still achieve his dreams through Mark.

He’s fine with that. At least, that’s what he likes to believe.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

In between technique training, they brainstorm for their program music. They all have different ways of brainstorming—Taeyong and Jaehyun usually consult each other before presenting their preferences to their coach. Yuta usually compiles all songs that pop in his mind then spends the next few days listening to the songs and narrowing down all his choices. Hansol, well … (Mark has this theory that Hansol has a spreadsheet of all the warhorse music in existence.)

And then there’s Mark. Mark still hasn’t suggested a free skate music since he suggested to skate to Viva La Vida. Johnny has seen his brother go through his own list of songs, but he always pushes it away before putting his hands on his face and sighing heavily. Johnny would feel a strong punch to the gut. He’s the one who rejected the idea—he should be coming up with his own ideas, too.

Ten is the first to complete his program music. Fresh from a two-week session with Shae-Lynn, he drops his short program first, the music from the musical Hamilton. He hears a couple of delighted squeals from the other skaters in the rink as the music plays, and Johnny gazes at Ten as he glides across the ice, his own heart racing. There’s a revolutionary hip-hop flair in the song, and Ten oozes confidence in the ice. He instantly takes a liking to the choreography—there’s no choreography from Shae-Lynn he has yet to dislike, at least, her choreography for Ten.

(And no, he’s not being biased. Just because he had realized he’s in love with Ten doesn’t mean he can’t be constructive with Ten’s music choices or choreography or skating, in general.)

“Well?” Ten asks expectantly as he skates back to the boards after his run-through, to loud cheers.

“I love it.” Johnny beams, hoping he doesn’t look like an idiot for doing so. “You should grow a ponytail to get into character.”

Ten chuckles. “I’m actually considering it.”

“He’s a hit,” Yuta announces, holding out his phone, the Twitter app open. “I uploaded a preview on Twitter, and my notifications are exploding. It’s mostly of Doyoung, Seulgi, and Wendy screaming. Taeil hasn’t reacted yet; it’s either he’s still at work or already died.”

“Wait ‘till Jaehyun shows his free skate,” Johnny laughs, glancing at the rink to see Jaehyun skating around the area. “Speaking of which, he’s getting ready. Let’s all pray for Doyoung.”

The music isn’t what Johnny was expecting, if Jaehyun’s usual program music choices are anything to go by. He glances at Ten, who already has a frown on his face. “Romeo and Juliet?” he asks, just to be sure he identified the music right.

Ten nods, still frowning. “Tchaikovsky version,” he replies.

“Oh.” He can already imagine Doyoung screaming; whether it’s because of delight or frustration, he doesn’t know yet.

“So how did Romeo and Juliet get through you, Taeyong? It’s the warhorse of all warhorse music,” Yuta asks in amusement. Beside him, Hansol is trying not to look victorious, probably because he’s no longer alone in having his music choices judged on.

Taeyong clears his throat. “He can be very persuasive …”

“Whatever that means, I don’t even wanna know …”

To be fair to Jaehyun, his strength lies in the portrayal of characters. Johnny can definitely feel Romeo’s anguish as he watches Jaehyun skate; the only problem is that there’s a high chance a lot of skaters will skate to the same music, so Jaehyun has to work hard to make the music his own. Knowing Jaehyun, he’s probably aware of that challenge.

Yuta and Taeyong have equally surprising music choices. After Mirotic, Taeyong chooses Danse Macabre as his free skate music, and Yuta chooses Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 for his short program music. “You do know that people associate that music with Yuna and Mao, right?” Johnny tells them. “Those are pretty big legacies to live up to.”

“We know,” Taeyong and Yuta reply at the same time.

“I’m ready for the challenge,” Taeyong says. “And I’m going to make this program distinctly my own, and not a tribute to Yuna noona.”

“Me, too,” Yuta chimes in. “I wanted to skate to Rach 2 for the Olympics, and I made up my mind after Worlds. I have Mao-senpai’s approval. Besides”—suddenly, there’s a twinkle in his eyes—“I’m making it up in the free skate.”

“And what is your free skate music going to be?” Johnny asks, bracing himself for the worst. Yuta usually has spot-on music choices, but based on Jaehyun’s recent music choice, anything can happen.

There’s a twinkle in Yuta’s eyes. “Rurouni Kenshin.”

“Dude!” everyone yells at him at the same time, startling the other skaters in the rink.

“How about you, Mark?” Taeyong asks once everyone has calmed down. “Got something for your free skate already?”

Mark glances nervously at Johnny. “Um …” he says. “Still working on it.”

There’s another punch to Johnny’s gut.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As Johnny is pondering on how to help Mark pick his free skate music, Mark barges in his room, looking contemplative. “I think I got it,” he announces, looking surprised at himself. “My free skate music, I mean.”

“You do?” Johnny sits up his bed, trying not to sigh in relief. Showing relief will give Mark a reason to fight for Viva La Vida, and Johnny doesn’t want that.

“Yeah.” Mark sits on the edge of his bed, handing Johnny his list of program music choices. The words Rhapsody in Blue are encircled in red ink. “I mean, it doesn’t have the same Eureka moment as Viva La Vida, but if I’m gonna have a second choice, it’s this one.”

Rhapsody in Blue. Johnny agrees that it doesn’t have the same power as Viva La Vida, but … “It’s charming,” he remarks with a nod. “It will work, I promise.”

“You think so?”

“Yeah!” Johnny grins, ruffling Mark’s hair. “You’re charming. You charmed all our aunts into giving you money in our last family reunion, so you’ll wing this!” He laughs when his brother groans. “Come on, let’s go call David.”

They return to Toronto a week later, where David is waiting for them. As usual, David already has a choreography in mind, and he wastes no time teaching it to Mark.

“The thing about Rhapsody in Blue,” David begins, raising Mark’s arms to demonstrate another move, “is that it’s about personality. It’s jazz, and jazz is supposed to be fun, improvisational. Figure skating leaves little room for improvisation, but we’ll play by your charms.”

Three weeks later, Mark does a run-through of his new free skate in the club, without the jumps. Wendy and Seulgi arrive just as the opening clarinet glissandro plays, and Mark starts to move. Johnny watches and nods in approval for every movement and gesture. The program is charming and plays by Mark’s strengths in terms of showmanship, but something is missing. He’s not exactly sure what it is …

He glances at Wendy, who stands between him and Ten by the boards. There’s no camera on her hands, so Johnny presumes she just went here for a quick visit. Seulgi, meanwhile, has her phone out, recording the run-through. Johnny knows it’s going to be uploaded in Mark’s fan site page any moment now. He wonders how the fans will react.

They all clap when the music ends, and Mark strikes his ending pose. He brightens up and waves at Wendy and Seulgi, who wave back. He’s about to approach them, but Coach Lee calls him, leaving him no choice but to skate to his coach.

Johnny, meanwhile, turns to Wendy. “Well?” he asks. “What do you think?”

Much to his dismay, Wendy’s lips are turned down, and so are Ten’s. “Of all music, Rhapsody in Blue?”

Johnny feels his mouth dry up. He’s not as satisfied with Mark’s run-through either, but then again, that’s his first full run-through of the program, and the program can still be polished. He looks at Ten to ask for help, but his friend doesn’t look that enthusiastic either. “Okay,” he says, his voice low so that Mark or Coach Lee can’t hear him, “it’s not the most unique music choice, but at least it isn’t a warhorse yet.”

“That’s not the problem,” Ten says. “Mark has always been skating to charming programs, and I thought you guys will be going for more versatility. I know it’s just the first run-through, but I know Mark to know he isn’t feeling what he’s skating.”

“I’m his brother, and I think he’s doing fine,” Johnny insists. Deep inside, he knows Ten is right. Mark is comfortable in skating to programs that play by his charms, but he can tell his brother wants something more. “He actually wanted to skate to Viva La Vida.” He watches as Wendy and Ten’s eyes widen before looking at each other. “Yeah, I know. My favorite program music, and the music I was supposed to skate in Sochi.”

“Let me guess,” Wendy says. “You didn’t want him to skate to it because it’s too painful for you.”

“Because it’s too ostentatious for him,” Johnny corrects. “And Rhapsody in Blue plays to his performance strengths.”

Wendy raises an eyebrow. “Are you sure that’s the only reason?”

Coach Lee had asked him the same thing, but this time Johnny sighs instead of repeating his answer. “If he skates to Viva La Vida, I’m scared it will open a lot of wounds for me,” he says, blinking rapidly. There it goes again—the fire in his foot, the thrill of performing the best skate of his life, only to have his world end. “I’m scared that it will remind me of how close I was to my dream, only to have it slip away.”

“Did you tell that to Mark?” Ten asks, voice soft as his fingers wrap around Johnny’s wrist.

Johnny shakes his head. He glances at the rink, fearing that Mark may be listening in. Fortunately, his brother is preoccupied with talking to Coach Lee. How could Johnny tell him, when the memory of his Nationals free skate would come to haunt him, reminding him of what could have happened?

“I’m not under any position to make decisions for Mark and his program music choices,” Wendy says, “but you have to tell him what you really feel about him skating to Viva La Vida. Knowing Mark, he’ll understand.”

Or will he? He and Mark have their fair share of arguments, but in the end, they stick together. Mark always goes to him whenever he’s at a loss with what to do in his skating career, and Johnny clings to Mark for any semblance of love for the sport he used to be in. What if Mark sees him differently for denying him to skate to a song that could have catapulted Johnny to superstar status in Sochi?

Mark doesn’t have to know. What he doesn’t know won’t hurt him.

His focus should only be on one thing—the Olympics.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Johnny doesn’t say anything to Mark. Ten and Wendy don’t ask him about it, and he doesn’t say anything about it. Rhapsody in Blue get polished as time goes by, and while it still lacks something, Mark is able to pull off his charms time and again.

It’s still the off-season, anyway.

Soon, the federation e-mails Mark about the senior Grand Prix, asking about his preferred competition locations. Johnny and Mark spend a good week discussing where to compete. Canada, no doubt, is the first choice. Skate America would be a good second choice, but it’s going to take a toll on Mark, as Skate America and Skate Canada dates are close to each other. They eventually settle with Cup of China as a second choice, NHK Trophy in third, and Rostelecom Cup and Trophee de France as the last two choices.

They’re informed of the final Grand Prix assignments on the first week of July. Mark gets assigned to Skate America and Cup of China. Their friends get Grand Prix assignments, too—Jaehyun in Skate America and Trophee de France, Ten gets his first Grand Prix assignments in Canada and Japan, Hansol gets a competition in Canada, Taeyong in Cup of China and Rostelecom Cup, and Yuta in Trophee de France and NHK Trophy.

Johnny sits Mark down the moment assignments are out. “I know you already know this,” he begins, “but the senior Grand Prix is going to be tougher. Especially since it’s during the Olympic season.”

Mark nods. “I have to give it my 100 percent.”

“More like 150 percent,” Johnny replies. “It’s not a good idea to start the season in the Grand Prix, so let’s go for some Challenger competitions first, even if it’s just a couple.”

“Let’s max it to three competitions.” Mark winces when Johnny gives him a look. “Come on, Johnny. I have to get used to skating my new programs for the GP, right?”

“ … Fine. But if you get the tiniest bit of injury, I’m pulling you out.”

Creating a schedule is easier said than done. Especially with the Olympics coming up, most of the organizers want to hold the competitions as early as possible, and sometimes some competitions happen on the same week, others too close to Mark’s Grand Prix schedules. Eventually, they settle on a schedule with three more competitions in between Mark’s Grand Prix assignments, with a break on the last week of November so he can focus on Nationals.

Johnny can feel Mark’s anxiety when he tapes the season’s calendar on his room, the training schedule and competition schedules all listed and appropriately color-coded. It’s just for a flicker of a second, though, because he sees his brother’s fists clench, and he knows the fire in his belly is starting to grow.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Johnny is so concentrated in Mark’s training schedule that he barely realized that the season had started. The Junior Grand Prix series had ended, and sometimes he catches Mark Skype-ing with Donghyuck, who is now the top-seeded skater to head to the Junior Grand Prix Final. The media is already calling him as the next big thing in South Korea, predicting him as the third Korean men’s skater for the Olympics. Johnny thinks of Hansol and promptly closes the articles.

Mark’s first competition in the season is the Autumn Classic in Vancouver. Taeyong and Jaehyun are in the same competition, too. Ten had an early start to the season by winning the Asian Open title in his home country, then making a fourth-place finish in the U.S. Classic last week. (His Hamilton short program was a hit, and his free skate to Thai traditional music earned rave reviews.) Meanwhile, Hansol and Yuta aren’t competing until next week, in Italy.

Mark ends up in fourth place in that competition, behind Yuzuru Hanyu, Jaehyun, and Taeyong. From the sidelines, Johnny can hear the comments of the audience, the coaches, and fellow skaters on Mark’s skating. Very impressive. Such maturity for a young age. Moonlight Sonata has so much emotion in it, but his Rhapsody in Blue feels … like we’ve seen it before.

He clenches his fists and bites his tongue. It’s the beginning of the season, he tells himself. Mark is still adjusting to a first full year of being a senior skater. It will get better from now on.

To his relief, Mark looks anything but satisfied with the results. “I’m happy for Taeyong hyung and Jaehyun hyung, but I could have won a medal if my program component scores were higher,” he tells Canadian journalists when they were stopped on the way out the rink. “I think this is a challenge for me to work harder in my artistry.”

“It’s your first competition of the season,” Johnny assures them on the ride home. “It’s all right if you don’t win anything at first. It’s the perfect opportunity to improve on what went wrong so that you’ll be ready for bigger competitions.”

“I know,” Mark says absentmindedly, his view on the moving scenery. “Hey, Johnny.”

“Yeah?”

“Um …” Johnny’s eyes are focused on the road, but he can see from his peripheral vision how Mark opens his mouth then closes it again, forehead creased as if contemplating on whether he should say what’s on his mind. Eventually, he replies, “It’s nothing important. Never mind.”

Johnny doesn’t push the question.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

He, Mark, and Jaehyun board a plane to Ontario, California on the last week of October. Johnny feels a wave of nostalgia overcome him as they step inside the hotel, where the Skate America volunteers assist them in registration and the taking of photos for their event IDs. This is the exact same hotel and the exact same rink where he competed in the senior Grand Prix circuit for the first time.

Jaehyun agrees to take care of Mark when Johnny is suddenly ambushed by Max Aaron and Jason Brown, who drag him outside for some catching up. Somehow, they manage to drag Anastasia Cannuscio and Colin McManus over to lunch, where they enjoy a Skate America 2011 Team USA reunion.

It feels strange to talk to his former teammates like old times, then suddenly feel like an outsider when they start talking about how much they’ve improved these past years. Meanwhile, he sits there, with nothing to be proud of for himself.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mark ends up in the first group for the short program, in fourth to skate. “It’s no big deal,” Johnny says when they walk out of the meeting room after the draw. “It puts less pressure on you. Skating in the last group with Max and Jason will make you nervous.”

“I feel really good about this week,” Mark tells him. True to his statement, his brother looks relaxed. “I don’t know, I just have this good feeling.”

Johnny smiles. “I hope that feeling translates to good results in competition.”

Mark ends up in fifth after the short program. He lands all his jumps and sends the crowd to their feet after he strikes his ending pose. Johnny is there by the boards to greet Mark with open arms before they head to the kiss and cry. Mark doesn’t get a personal best score in the short program, but it was good enough considering it was his first Grand Prix competition of the season.

“Skate better than that, and you’re a shoo-in for your first senior GP medal,” Johnny tells him when they get back to the hotel. Both their arms are full of gifts fans have thrown to the rink; Johnny makes a mental note to contact the nearby orphanage to donate some of the gifts. “The free skate is tough, but I know you can do it.”

“Right …”

Johnny frowns at Mark’s answer. Whatever good mood Mark has two days ago seems to have disappeared. “You okay?”

Mark doesn’t answer until a couple of seconds later. “Yeah … just tired, I guess.”

It had been an exhausting day, so Johnny nods and lets Mark head to the bathroom first, to change and rest, ready for another day of practice.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

To Johnny’s surprise, Mark seems to be out of it during free skate practice. Whatever consistency he had in the past few days seems to have disappeared. He made uncharacteristic falls on his quad and triple axel, and suddenly the edge issues in his lutz are back. Mark looks frustrated, scratching the back of his head as he skates back to the boards.

“What is wrong with you?” Johnny blurts out. He immediately regrets his words when Mark winces. “Sorry,” he’s quick to add as he hands Mark his water bottle. “I’m just surprised with the mistakes, that’s all.”

“I don’t know.” Mark shakes his head. He takes a few gulps from his water bottle before putting on his skate guards, a frown on his face. “I guess I’m nervous. I didn’t do so well in the free skate in Autumn Classic …”

“It’s fine. It was your first competition. Don’t let your past mistakes get to you. What’s important is how you’ll skate tomorrow.”

Whether Mark was convinced by his pep talk, it didn’t show. He merely lets out a heavy sigh and brushes past him towards the exit.

“He’ll be fine,” Coach Lee says, appearing from behind him. “You used to be like that, too. You were nervous for your first GP. Give him a break.”

“Yeah,” Johnny says, rubbing his temples. It’s the Olympic season, and everyone can feel the pressure, including himself. He had forgotten that Mark is the one feeling the weight on his shoulders more than he should.

Mark is out of his sight after the official practice, thought Jaehyun had said something about Mark announcing he’ll be in his room. Sure enough, he finds Mark sprawled on his bed, gaze on the ceiling, listening to something on his cell phone. He sits on the edge of the bed, and Mark turns his gaze at him before taking off his earphones. “Hey,” he says.

“Do you want to talk?” Johnny asks, the guilt of impulsively yelling at Mark during practice hitting him once more.

Mark falls silent for a moment, then shakes his head. “Nah, it’s just the nerves,” he says. “Don’t worry about me, Johnny.”

Johnny is torn between forcing and dropping the issue. He settles for the latter, because Mark needs all the rest—and the focus—he can get for tomorrow.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The early rest did not help Mark the next day. He made uncharacteristic mistakes in the free skate, with a fall on the quad toe and a flutz. Fortunately, those were his only mistakes in the free skate, and his short program score saved him from finishing lower than fifth place. Despite the Top 5 finish, he and Johnny are anything but satisfied.

“Nerves got the better of me,” Mark says sheepishly when a reporter from Icenetwork approaches him after the victory ceremony. (Jaehyun won the bronze medal.) “I’ll take this as a lesson learned. I will do better in Cup of China.”

Johnny can feel the disappointment in the atmosphere once the bright lights have dimmed as they walk out of the arena. Mark has this faraway look in his eyes, and he doesn’t reply to whatever topic of conversation Johnny comes up with just to get his mind off things.

They take a detour when Johnny spots an ice cream parlor. He orders two cups of cookies and cream ice cream, Mark’s favorite. “You don’t have to do this,” Mark says feebly when Johnny sets the cups on their table, but he digs in anyway.

“You’re my brother. I have the right to spoil you, so make the most of it before I claim the ice cream as mine.” Johnny smirks as he digs in his own cup. “Besides, they say ice cream helps cheer you up.”

Mark doesn’t reply, but Johnny catches a small upward tug of his lips.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Coach Lee and Johnny sit Mark down a day after they have returned to Vancouver. “It’s not the end of the world,” Coach Lee begins. “It’s one competition. I’ve told you time and again that one competition doesn’t define you. We all want you to do well, but bad performances and mistakes come with the journey. We’ll focus on the future, okay?”

Mark nods, mood looking better than his mood in Skate America. Johnny can tell that something is still bothering the younger one, but Mark shrugs off any questions of concern.

Practice goes on without much event, with Coach Lee letting Mark prioritize practice on the free skate. Mark nails all his jumps, and Johnny wonders why a good practice can’t translate to a good performance in competition. Something is bothering Mark, he can tell, but Mark doesn’t want to tell him anything.

“I haven’t seen Mark this stressed since … ever,” Ten tells him once on one practice session.

Johnny steals a glance at Mark. He’s on the other side of the rink, nodding to whatever Coach Lee is telling him. Now that Ten had pointed it out, Mark no longer looks enthusiastic. Every time he sees Mark skate, Johnny can feel the joy from his brother, even if he was skating to a dramatic piece. But now, Mark’s skating has become more mechanic, compared to his usual fluid movements.

In the end, the reason he settles with is, “Aren’t we all stressed?”

Whatever worries Johnny had for Mark disappear in Warsaw Cup, where Mark won the silver medal. The free skate wasn’t perfect, but the only mistakes were a step-out on the quad and the edge call on the lutz. Mark has more personality in the program, and he looks more satisfied when Johnny meets him in the kiss and cry.

Johnny hopes this is a good sign for Cup of China.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

But Cup of China was, to put it bluntly, a disaster.

Mark ended up in eighth place. The short program was solid, and he received a season’s best score. The free skate, once more, was full of mistakes—a fall on an under-rotated quad toe, a flutz, and uncharacteristic pops on some of the jumps. Johnny feels his blood boiling, and he avoids Mark’s gaze when they sit beside each other in the kiss and cry.

Fans rush to Mark as soon as he emerges from the changing room. Kun and Sicheng are there, though they prefer to hover beside Johnny while the younger fans hand Mark several gifts, including a scrapbook containing a compilation of messages. He can see Mark forcing a smile as he talks to some of the fans, saying something about bouncing back next competition. How this is going to happen, Johnny isn’t sure anymore.

“Is Mark dealing with anything right now?” Kun asks, concerned. “He does so well in the short program then loses steam in the free skate.”

Johnny wants to answer, then realizes he doesn’t know what issues Mark is dealing with right now. It’s frustrating because he should know, of all people. Instead, he grits his teeth and clenches his fists. Kun doesn’t press the question.

The atmosphere is quiet and heavy on the ride back to the hotel. Johnny has his gaze on the crowded streets of Beijing, though he’s barely paying any attention. Mark is as quiet as he is, and Johnny doesn’t bother checking whether his brother is asleep or is as focused on the view outside. Coach Lee and Taeyong do their best to make small talk, bringing up conversations about street food and the places they want Sicheng and Kun to take them to, though eventually they settle in silence.

Mark speaks up when they have reached their room, and it’s just the two of them. “Say something.” Johnny freezes on his tracks on the entranceway and looks at Mark, whose gaze is on the floor. “I know you’re mad at me.”

The blood that has been boiling inside Johnny finally causes him to react. “I had high expectations for you,” he says, his tone low. “I thought you were going to give it your 150 percent? Have you seen your performances for the past four competitions? Where’s the 150 percent in that?”

He can see the color in Mark’s face starting to drain, but he doesn’t reply.

“We have a goal, Mark,” Johnny continues. He knows his voice is getting louder, and he’s usually conscious of volume, but today is an exception. “We’re two months away from Nationals. How do you think you’re gonna get into the Olympic team with …” He gestures to Mark with both of his hands. “… that?”

“I’m sorry,” Mark says, and there’s a punch in Johnny’s gut when he sees his brother’s lower lip trembling. “I’m doing my best, I really am …”

He feels bad for getting mad like this, but Mark needs a reality check. “I don’t see you doing your best. Are you getting too complacent? Did you think that just because you won a Junior World silver medal you’ll get that spot in the National team handed to you?”

He sees Mark shaking, teeth pressing hard onto his bottom lip, eyes blinking rapidly.

“Do you want to go to the Olympics or not?”

“Of course, I do.”

“Then how come I don’t feel like you want to? Where’s the consistency and focus we’ve worked on last season?” Johnny feels his heart pounding furiously against his chest that it’s getting difficult to breathe. He tosses his things on his bed, a little too harshly, and sits on its edge, hands on his face. “You have my full support, you have Coach Lee’s, and you have everyone in VSC. Why aren’t you stepping up?”

Mark doesn’t reply, and it irritates Johnny because he wants some answers. How can he help Mark if Mark doesn’t tell him what’s bothering him? Is he that incompetent of a manager now?

He doesn’t know how long he had been like that, hands on his face, but he does hear Mark’s faint voice saying, “I forgot something from Taeyong hyung” and the soft noises of the door opening and closing. When Johnny looks up, he’s all by himself in the room, the silence loud against his ears and the taste of frustration bitter in his tongue.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Johnny had woken up the next day a little calmer than the day before. He even manages a cheery greeting to Coach Lee and Taeyong when they hop on the bus on the way to the airport. It’s a little different with Mark, though. Johnny acts like he hadn’t blown up the day before, and Mark merely responds with curt nods and few words.

“You shouldn’t have blown up at him like that,” Taeyong tells him during the layover, when Coach Lee had dragged Mark to the food court. “He was already bummed about his performance, and you had to get mad at him.”

“Who wouldn’t get mad? It’s always the same mistake. We did all we can to make sure he doesn’t screw up in the free skate, and I don’t see any improvement,” Johnny sighs. He should have asked Coach Lee to get extra strong coffee. He doesn’t see why Taeyong would be on Mark’s side now.

“Have you even asked him what was wrong in the first place?” Taeyong asks, with a raised eyebrow. When Johnny opens his mouth yet no words come out, the younger one huffs. “Yeah, I didn’t think so. And I’m not telling you. You’re his manager. It’s for me to know, and for you to find out.”

It’s not like Johnny didn’t want to ask Mark. They’re brothers, after all. Mark would always go to him whenever he wants to confide something—his fears about trying a new jump, his crush on Eunji, his irritation on certain skaters. He already had an inkling that something was bothering Mark, but he trusted that Mark would come to him and confide to him about it one day …

Maybe he should have prodded, when he would ask Mark what was bothering him, and he would say “Never mind.”

He gives Mark space when they arrive home. Johnny is too exhausted, and he figures Mark needs some time to recover from his performance in Beijing. He does hope that recovery comes soon—Golden Spin is in three weeks, and this is Mark’s only chance to bounce back from whatever he’s going through. They return to the rink in two days.

He’s contemplating on how to approach Mark and ask him about whatever’s bothering him when—speak of the devil—his younger brother knocks on his bedroom door. Mark has his hands in his pockets, his gaze on the ground. Johnny’s not sure if he’s prepared to talk about this yet, but it’s better now than later. “Hey,” he starts. “You okay?”

“Um …” Mark begins, looking like he wanted to be anywhere but in Johnny’s room. “I want to talk to you …”

“Great!” Johnny sighs in relief. “I want to talk to you, too!”

Mark looks up, blinking. “Really?”

“Yeah!” Johnny grabs Mark by the wrist and sits him down the chair by his desk. “I mean, something obviously isn’t working in the past competitions, and I want us to address that before you compete in Golden Spin …”

Mark doesn’t reply, but Johnny does notice the faint lump in his brother’s throat. “Um … Johnny? About Golden Spin …”

“What about it?”

Mark grips the sides of Johnny’s chair and takes a deep breath. “I want to withdraw. From Golden Spin.”

Johnny isn’t sure he heard right. “I’m sorry, I think I didn’t hear it right,” he says. “You said you want to withdraw from Golden Spin?”

Mark gulps. “Yeah, I did.”

“Why? Are you injured?” When Mark shakes his head, blood begins to boil inside him once more, and he takes deep breaths to compose himself. “Why, then? Whatever happened to ‘Let’s max it to three competitions, Johnny’?”

“I-I know I said that!” Mark stutters. “I just … I haven’t been doing so well, and I wanted to work things out and focus on Nationals—”

“But you committed, Mark. This is your chance to bounce back after Cup of China.”

“Golden Spin is too soon. I’d rather I withdraw to focus on Nationals, because that’s more crucial than some Challenger competition—”

“You are not backing out, or I swear to god—”

“Or what? Why can’t I? Can’t you listen to me first because I’m the skater here and I know my limits the most!”

Johnny winces, his eyes widening. They have argued before, but they are usually calm and collected whenever they have their disagreements. This is the first time Mark has raised his voice. He stumbles on his words as he replies, “I never thought you’d be a quitter.”

“What?” Mark’s eyes widen and he’s now up on his feet, fists clenched and knuckles white. “I never said I was a quitter!”

“You want to quit because three bad competitions got you down. You probably don’t want to go to the Olympics as much as I thought you did—”

“It’s always about what you think, isn’t it?” Mark retorts, his hands up in frustration. “It’s always about you, isn’t it? You’re managing me, but you’re always making it about you!”

“No, it’s not—” Johnny is up on his feet, too, his own fists clenched. How dare Mark say it’s all about him? He had been supportive of Mark even when he retired. He had poured in all his years of experience into motivating Mark, making sure he’s in his best form. What part of that has been about Johnny. “I wanted to help you! Mom made me your manager because she thinks I’m the best help you’ll ever get, and you think this is about me?”

“Have you ever thought about how hard it is for me?” Mark further raises his voice. “Every single day of my life, I’m always Johnny Seo’s little brother. Even after you retired, everyone keeps asking if I’ll ever be half the skater you were. The JGPF bronze medal? Who cares, Johnny won the title! Junior World silver medal? No big deal, Johnny got the gold! Every day, I’m always in your shadow, and now you think I can do everything and do more than what you did when you were still competing—“

“That’s not fair!” Johnny retorts. “I’ve set expectations for you because I know you can do it. I know what’s best for you. I’ve been there.”

Mark shakes his head. “Have you ever asked me what I felt whenever you set those expectations for me?”

Johnny knows he hadn’t, and it sends a painful punch to his gut. He had always assumed, since they were apparently working so well together, that he and Mark are on the same page all the time. But wait … “You know what? Fine. I’m just trying to help you reach your dreams. But if you don’t want my help, get yourself another manager. I quit.”

“You don’t have to quit! You’re fired!” With a slam of a hand on the table, Mark stomps out and slams the door behind him.

Johnny dives on his bed and buries his face in his pillow, to muffle his angry screams.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Johnny wakes up to his alarm clock at the crack of dawn the next day, face first in his pillow and his teeth gritted. He sits up on his bed and is about to get up and head to the bathroom when he realizes he doesn’t need to wake Mark up and nudge him to get breakfast and start his workout. That’s right. Mark’s mad at me, and I don’t have a job anymore. He sighs as he sinks back to his bed and closes his eyes.

He wakes up again at noon, feeling anything but refreshed. His mother is nowhere to seen, as does his stepfather, though he finds coffee in hot thermos on the kitchen table, along with a note from his mother.

Brought Mark to the rink. Lunch is in the fridge, in case you’re here the whole day.

You and Mark better have a talk soon, or I’m grounding you both.

Love, Mom

Johnny snorts and takes a drink from his thermos. He thinks of his plans for the day, and his mind draws a blank. Now that he’s no longer Mark’s manager, he basically has all the time to himself. For how long he’s going to be that way, he doesn’t know.

At least I have lots of free time now, he tells himself.

There are so many things to do at home, some Johnny wasn’t able to take care of since he became Mark’s manager. He cleans his room, dumping clothes and items in boxes that are for keeping, selling, and discarding. He changes his bed sheets and organizes his desk and bookshelf. He picks up the book he hasn’t started on since Ten had given it to him for Christmas. He falls asleep while he is reading, and the next thing he knows, night had fallen.

His mother calls him to dinner, and he and Mark barely exchange glances over the dinner table.

One week has passed since the fight, and Johnny has finished cleaning his room and his car. His mother is temporarily managing Mark, though she makes no mention if she’s looking for a new one. She delegates all her errands to Johnny. But soon, he is running out of things to do, so he does the next thing he can think of—find a job.

Johnny updates his resume, opens several job Web sites, and applies for anything that looks interesting to him. He buys a new suit, and attends interviews.

“What do you see yourself doing in three to five years?” the interviewers would ask him.

If Johnny is being honest with himself, he wants to be nowhere else but in the rink. All he wants is the feeling of his blades on the ice, because he knows that’s where he belongs. But reality is quick to knock him back to his senses, so he just bullshits an answer, something about being in a managerial position.

When the job offers arrive, Johnny turns them all down. He knows this isn’t what he wants.

“Who am I even kidding?” Johnny groans, banging his head on his desk.

Avoiding everyone is easier said than done. Johnny knows Mark’s training schedule well enough to avoid him, but the fact that they live in the same house means they have to run into each other at some point. Mark would look at him and go his own way, and Johnny would do the same. (Every day, he can feel his mother’s frustration over the dinner table.)

It’s harder to avoid his friends. Jaehyun leaves him tons of messages, asking how he was. Taeyong’s message are more reprimands, like “Stop acting like a baby and patch things up with Mark already.” Hansol and Yuta are more discreet, only sending updates about their training, occasionally sending updates about Mark. “He seems gloomy,” Yuta messages one day. Johnny feels his insides squirm, but he doesn’t reply to their messages.

Ten has only sent him one message. “Idiot.”

By the second week of November, Johnny feels like he’s on the edge. No job offer seems appealing, and he’s running out of things to do. He longs to be back in the rink, to see his friends again, to be part of the planning for the big competitions next year.

He wants him and Mark to be okay again.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Johnny receives a call from Coach Lee on the third week of November. “Mark refuses to tell me what happened, but since he’s out of focus and you haven’t showed up in the rink, I’m guessing it’s that bad.”

“He fired me,” Johnny says. He says nothing about the fight, nor about being stuck in his room for the past few days after reading and re-reading every book he has on his shelf. “Don’t worry, Coach. We’ll work it out, but I’m looking for a job.”

“The fact that you’ve promised to work things out with Mark yet you’re job-hunting doesn’t make any sense,” Coach Lee says with a sigh. “But okay. Any luck?”

Johnny remembers the many job offers he got, all of which he had turned down. “Well …” he says carefully. “I have some options …”

There’s another sigh from the other line. “Okay,” he says. “If this is what you want, I have a friend from the Ministry of Community, Sport, and Cultural Development. I’ll ask if they still have an opening.”

“Great!” Johnny grabs a pen and a notebook and scribbles the contact details Coach Lee dictates him ten minutes later. He smiles as he looks at the details in the notebook. It’s not skating, but it’s still sports-related.

He’s able to contact Coach Lee’s friend, who promptly schedules him for an interview the next day. The interview is casual, in a café, yet smooth sailing. They talk about a variety of topics, sports included, obviously. Johnny has a good feeling he’s going to get the job, and sure enough, Coach Lee’s friend starts talking about the job’s roles and responsibilities, of which Johnny’s sure he can handle just fine.

There’s a catch to the job, though. “The office is in Victoria,” Coach Lee’s friend says. “That’s three hours away from here, and I know commuting back and forth is not an option.”

Three hours away from home. That meant he has to rent an apartment near the office. The longest Johnny had been away from home was two months, when he had to fly to California so he could fix his quad and triple axel. He was on his own back then; he had insisted that his mother stay with Mark so she didn’t have to fly back and forth between Vancouver and California. Back then, he hated coming home to a quiet apartment, longing for the taste of his mother’s cooking, Mark’s jokes over family dinner, and the comfort of Ten’s smile when he arrives in the rink.

But maybe a fresh start is just what he needs. He smiles and nods. “I’ll take the job,” he says.

Night has fallen when he leaves the café. There’s a little spring on his step as he strolls down the street. The thought of starting over sounds thrilling, though he’s not going to lie that he’s nervous about the adjustments he’ll have to make. That, and how he’ll break the news to his family …

He’s too focused on coming up with what to say to his family that he runs into someone who had just rounded the corner. “Ow! Sorry, I—” Johnny takes a step back to get a good look at who he had collided with, and then blinks when he recognizes the person. “… Ten?”

Sure enough, Ten is standing in front of him, wearing a black shirt and jeans, the handle of his wheeled duffel gripped tightly on his right hand. The younger one’s eyes widen when he recognizes Johnny, then his eyes are quick to narrow before giving him a “Yo” and brushing past him.

“Wait, Ten!” Johnny rushes to catch up to Ten, whose strides are strangely fast. He’s successful, but Ten is barely looking at him. “Hey, Ten, come on! I don’t see you in a long time, and I only get a ‘Yo’ for a greeting?”

Ten stops on his tracks at those words, his glare ice cold that Johnny wants to make a run for it. “Oh, so it’s my fault?” he says, his voice feeling like daggers hurling straight at Johnny. “Suddenly you stopped showing up at the rink, you’re not replying to any of our messages, and now you expect me to make small talk with you?”

Johnny blanches as he remembers Ten’s only message since his fight with Mark. “It’s—it’s not like I didn’t want to respond—”

“Then why didn’t you?” Ten shakes his head and trudges on. “Honestly, Johnny, I know you can be an idiot sometimes, but you’re better than this.”

“Ten, wait—”

He catches up with Ten all the way to his apartment, the younger one almost closing the door on his fingers as he grips the doorway. There’s a flash of concern in Ten’s eyes before he opens the door, and he unwillingly lets Johnny in. “I can explain,” Johnny says as he steps inside. He’s about to start when his eyes drift to the open luggage on the living room floor, bigger than the one Ten has on the way home.

“NHK Trophy,” Ten explains, his voice low. He drops his wheeled duffel by the kitchen counter before leaning against it, keeping a distance from Johnny as if he has some infectious disease. “My flight’s tomorrow.”

“Oh.” Johnny had been so busy that he had forgotten about that Ten’s competing in the last Grand Prix competition before the Final. “Well, um. Good luck. You won the bronze medal in Skate Canada, right? I’m sure you’ll do well there, too.”

“Hope so. Yuzuru Hanyu’s probably gonna fall five times and still win gold, so I’m managing expectations.” Ten has one side of his lip tugged up. Johnny’s about to relax, but Ten straightens his posture. “You said you can explain,” he says, arms crossed. “I’m all ears.”

Johnny tells him his frustration over Mark since Skate America, his frustration over himself for not knowing how he can turn the situation around, their argument. He thinks of telling Ten about the job offer and moving to Victoria. He doesn’t know how Ten will react—he’ll either be happy for him or shove his blade on his face.

He decides to end his explanation with the announcement. Ten is going to find out at some point, anyway. “I … got a new job. Coach Lee’s friend works in the Ministry in Victoria, and I can start as soon as I’m ready.”

Ten’s eyes widen. “Does your family know?” he asks.

“Not yet. I only had my interview today, but I think this is what I need.” Looking at Ten’s expression, though, Johnny suddenly starts having second thoughts. “I want to try something new, you know? Have a fresh start.”

“A fresh start?” Ten shakes his head. “Johnny, are you sure? You’re not taking this job because you want to run away after a huge fight with your brother?”

“What if I am?” Johnny retorts, taking a step closer to Ten. “Clearly, I’m the reason Mark isn’t doing well, so guess what? He won’t be seeing much of me anymore. Isn’t that a good thing for him?”

“Johnny …” Ten bites his bottom lip. “Mark needs you even more now. You two can fix this. You’ve always been inseparable. And maybe”—He moves forward so that his hands are on Johnny’s arms, his grip tight but warm that Johnny finds himself leaning closer—“this is just me, but maybe you acted that way because Mark is working hard towards the dream you never got to achieve, and you want him to do his best because that dream never died down.”

Ten knows him best, and maybe he’s right. (He usually is.) Mark is his only way to go to the Olympics. Even if he himself can’t skate in front of the crowd in Pyeongchang, he knows that the fact that he helped Mark get to where he is, is a compromise with what he had dreamt of since he was a kid.

He must have been thinking about it too much because he almost doesn’t notice the smile now playing on Ten’s lips. It’s strangely shy, and his gaze is on the ground. “Besides …” he continues. “Isn’t there any other reason you should stay?”

“I …” Johnny feels his throat dry up at the realization of how close they are. He knows the answer—it’s as clear as day—and if there’s one thing that’s making him doubt the job offer now, it’s this …

He doesn’t know who leaned in first, but the moment their lips meet, something clicks in Johnny’s mind. They’re back in the hotel hallway in Gangneung, Ten’s gait light and his smile bright.

“Should I tell you?” Ten had singsonged. “Johnny, I think you already know.”

Johnny thinks that yeah, maybe he did already know. He wishes he had realized it sooner.

Ten takes a step backward and Johnny stumbles to follow him without breaking the kiss. His hands soon grip the edges of the counter, his body flush against Ten’s. Johnny brings a hand to Ten’s face to deepen the kiss, and he feels Ten tremble at his touch. His heart pounds furiously against his chest, erratic with Ten’s own heartbeat. He tilts his head to deepen the kiss, and Ten’s mouth is compliant, opening as Johnny slips his tongue in.

Johnny’s hands had just snaked around Ten’s waist when the younger one pulls away, his breaths shallow. His cheeks are flushed and his lips are swollen. All Johnny wants is to lean in again, but Ten pushes him away gently.

“I’m sorry—” Ten begins. “This shouldn’t have happened.”

“Huh?” Johnny says, his mind fuzzy. He puts a hand to his lips, the ghost of Ten’s lips still there. “Come again?”

“I mean …” Ten bites his bottom lip again. “There’s you and Mark, and there’s my competition, and …”

“This is bad timing?” Johnny guesses.

“Sorry.” Ten gives him that look, and Johnny knows he’s forgiven. “If I’m gonna tell you I’m in love with you, I’d like to say it without anything else on my mind, and on yours. Especially yours.”

“Huh.” But Johnny understands. “I should … go? Then maybe … we can talk about this when you get back?”

“Yeah.” Ten nods. “You need to fix your shit with Mark and I still have to finish packing. You’re family. Family shouldn’t be fighting.”

“Right …” Johnny doesn’t know how to fix things between him and Mark—and if it will be fixed at all—but Ten does have a competition, and he needs all the focus he can get. “I guess I’ll go now.”

“Good luck.” Ten moves forward so he can open the door.

“Wait.” Johnny barely has a foot out of the door when he leans forward to give Ten a quick kiss on the lips. “My good luck charm for you,” he adds with a chuckle.

He relishes Ten’s flushed face as he yells a “Get out, fatass!” before shoving him out and slamming the door behind him.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

As usual, Ten is right. He needs to patch things up with Mark, and not because he wants to go to the Olympics.

Mark is family, and family shouldn’t be fighting.

But patching things up is easier said than done. He could have had the chance to tell Mark over dinner, or through knocking on Mark’s bedroom door, that they should talk, but he couldn’t say it. It’s the fear that’s holding him back. Even if he and Mark make up, what if things wouldn’t be the same anymore?

He wants to ask Ten for help, but he’s in Japan for NHK Trophy. The rest of Team VSC come to mind, but why should he involve others in the problem he has caused?

Sleep evades him on the next few days as he ponders on his situation. Johnny finds himself getting out of bed at five in the morning, overwhelmed by the many thoughts and questions in his mind. There’s only one place that helps clear his mind whenever the world, or his own thoughts, gets too crushing.

Without thinking, he grabs his skates that have been hanging on the hook behind his bedroom door. Since his retirement, his skates remained there, sometimes buried amongst coats. Johnny doesn’t want to be reminded of a career cut short, but today, it’s what he needs. His frustrations towards Mark are all because of this.

Fifteen minutes later, he’s in the Vancouver Skating Club. The staff are nowhere in sight—probably having breakfast in the pantry—giving Johnny the opportunity to sneak in without getting unnecessary questions. He walks until he reaches the boards, and the cold air from the ice sends chills down his spine. It’s a normal, comforting sensation.

In the end, when the world gets too overwhelming, his feet bring him to the rink.

He’s no stranger to the rink since his retirement, but it’s been a while since he last stepped on the ice. The fact that he brought his skates brings back memories, most of it he has repressed because nostalgia isn’t going to magically cure him of his injury. Johnny doesn’t even know why he grabbed his skates in the first place—he had promised himself he’ll never step foot on the ice ever again.

That promise is soon forgotten as Johnny takes a seat by the benches and takes of his shoes, lacing his skates. He stands up and almost stumbles—it’s been a while. Not that Johnny expects to put on his skates after three years and manage to balance himself on them just like before.

He takes a deep breath and takes a step on the ice, and he’s overcome with emotion. He had wanted this, to be on the ice for so long, even if he told himself otherwise. Another step, and he tries to quash down the lump on his throat, but to no avail.

When someone would ask why he chose figure skating of all sports, Johnny couldn’t give a direct answer. Words will never suffice to describe how it feels to jump like he’s flying, to take on a different personality for two- to four-and-a-half minutes, or to see the crowd on their feet after the best performance of his career.

He remembers being three again, holding on to his previous coach as he does his exercises. He stumbles once or twice, but a few more rounds around the rink, and he seems to have found the speed he’s used to.

If only he can jump … Johnny has the urge to, hoping one jump won’t hurt him, but he remembers his doctor’s words. He may never walk again, and right now, he doesn’t want to take the risk. If he can’t walk, there’s nothing he can do. At this point, even if he isn’t skating anymore, he has done so much, especially being Mark’s manager—

Mark.

He remembers being seven, and Mark four, and they were in VSC. Johnny was practicing his skating skills when a teary-eyed Mark insisted that he wanted to take skating lessons too because Johnny looked cool doing it. Coach Lee wasn’t there at that time, and no other coach was available, so Johnny became Mark’s coach.

Johnny had been reluctant but nervous, mostly scared. It wasn’t easy to demonstrate how to properly balance himself on ice, or to explain to a four-year-old how to defy gravity. He was scared that Mark would fall, and even more scared to earn his mother’s ire. But Mark had given that look, a look that said, “You’re my brother, and I trust you,” and Johnny took the chance.

Fourteen years later, a week after they have arrived from Fantasy on Ice’s Osaka leg, Johnny’s mother had sat him down after dinner. “Mark said he wants you to be his manager,” she had told him with an amused smile. “But he doesn’t want me to tell you he asked.”

Johnny had accepted the offer because he had yearned to be back on the ice. Only, he accepted the offer but made Mark believe that it was their mother who offered the job. But he’ll never forget how his brother’s face brightened up the moment their mother made the announcement.

A few hours later, he was in Mark’s bedroom, studying the younger one’s schedule and saving all important contacts in his cell phone. Johnny wondered what he had gotten himself into. Managing an athlete is no easy feat—sure, he has an undergraduate degree now, but this is his first job, and anything could go horribly wrong. He could get schedules mixed up, he could get a rift with someone from the federation …

“Hey, Mark,” he had said before the younger one went to bed. “Do you think I can pull off being your manager?”

Mark had blinked and had given him that same look fourteen years ago. “Yeah, of course,” he had said. “You’re my brother. I trust you.”

He’s too focused on his thoughts, that he slips, his butt landing on the ice. He feels sharp pain on his tailbone, a pain he isn’t used to anymore. He sighs, and lies on the ice, coldness spreading all over his body, the glare of the rink lights harsh against his eyes, but it feels like being with an old friend again.

Looking back, the real reason why he took on the job was not because Mark was the key to his Olympic dream.

It’s because of Mark. Mark, who’s awkward and shy but shines as he skates to his program music. Mark, who always complains about waking up every morning but is willing to extend practice so he can land a few more of his quads. Mark, who used to be under Johnny’s shadow but is now making a name for himself, bit by bit.

Mark, who trusted him with all his heart.

His vision is starting to blur. He can hear the faint voice of someone calling his name, then the sound of shuffling across the ice. He doesn’t budge—it’s probably just his imagination—merely rubs his sleeve on his eyes.

When his vision clears somewhat, his eyes widen when suddenly, Mark is hovering over him, forehead scrunched. “M-Mark?” he says, voice cracking.

“Are you okay?” Mark asks, his voice trembling. “I just came in and I saw you slip and you weren’t getting up so—”

“I’m fine …” Johnny sits up, wiping his eyes with his sleeves again.

“Are you sure?” Mark’s gaze suddenly stops at Johnny’s boots, and his eyes widen. “Holy shit, you … you put them on again.”

Johnny sniffs. “Yeah, I had too much on my mind. Being on the ice is the only thing that made sense.”

“And you decided being by yourself after not being on the ice for three years makes sense? What were you thinking, Johnny?” Mark shakes his head, though there’s no hint of irritation in his voice. “Come on, let’s get you off ice.”

Johnny lets Mark pull him up and help him off ice. He fears slipping once more, but Mark’s grip on him is tight, yet calming. “I’m sorry,” he says. “For a lot of things.”

There’s no denying the lump on Mark’s throat. “Later,” he says. “I’ll have to call Coach Lee first.”

Johnny is reluctant to take off his skates, but he does. While he does, he glances at Mark, who paces back and forth as he talks to Coach Lee on the phone. He can’t make out what Mark is saying, so his gaze drops to his boots. He runs a hand against it, gently, as if careful that it will turn to dust at his touch.

How did he manage to stay away from the ice for so long? Just like the first time he had stepped on the ice, he wants to come back.

Mark ends the call after five minutes and approaches Johnny. “Coach Lee says I can have the day off,” he says. “You owe me breakfast.”

“Oh … okay.” Johnny reaches inside his pocket to check if his wallet is inside. He sighs in relief when it is.

The only open breakfast place nearby is the diner next to the rink. That’s their usual go-to place after training, whenever they’re allowed to eat whatever they want. Johnny slides by the benches, and he’s expecting Mark to sit across him.

Mark ends up sitting beside him, and whatever fears Johnny has for the past few days has disappeared.

They’re going to be okay.

“Mark,” Johnny begins, “why did you ask me to become your manager?”

Mark’s eyes widen, and his cheeks turn into a deep shade of red. “Mom told you, didn’t she?” he says. “I told her not to tell you, oh my god!” He says this just as the waiter lays down their orders, and he angrily stabs his waffle with a fork.

Johnny would have laughed at this. “Yeah, but why me? I know Mom’s starting to get busy, and Coach Lee would have recommended other people who have done this job longer than I did.

He watches as Mark tightens his grip on his mug. “You know I’ve told you I look up to you, right?” he says. When Johnny nods, he continues. “Even if people kept comparing me with you, I’ve always wanted to be just like you. I hate to say this, maybe even better than you.” His face turns redder. “But who can I learn from, if not the best?”

Johnny can’t resist chuckling now, his cheeks turning pink as well.

“I hate it when you try to avoid the rink,” Mark continues. “I know retiring was painful for you, but it was harder to see you stay away from a place you love. When Mom started getting busier in her job, I thought it would be a perfect opportunity for you to come back. It’s not close to coming back in competition, but …” His younger brother blinks rapidly.

“It isn’t,” Johnny says, blinking rapidly himself. “But it’s more than enough. I’m grateful for it, kiddo.” If he hadn’t taken on the job, he would probably be still wallowing in misery, looking back at a career that could have been.

Admittedly, he was still stuck on his past when he became Mark’s manager. Maybe now, if Mark takes him back as his manager, he can start moving forward.

“I’m sorry I was a jerk,” Johnny says. “When I became your manager, I started to miss competing. I wanted to be in the Olympics so bad that I had to pressure you to do your best. Because if I can’t make it, then at least you can.”

“I had a feeling you felt that way,” Mark says. He pauses, blinks again, before looking at Johnny. “Do you know the real reason why I wanted to skate to Viva La Vida?”

“Because you like the story of the song, and you think you can interpret it well?”

“Aside from that,” Mark says. “I know Viva La Vida means so much to you, and I know you wanted to go to the Olympics skating that. Now that you’re managing me, I want to skate to Viva La Vida for us. I want to go to the Olympics and share it with you, Johnny, and I want us to go there skating that music.”

Johnny blinks rapidly; his vision is starting to blur again. He reaches for his coffee mug and takes a sip. He regrets drinking it immediately because of the scalding sensation on his tongue.

“I didn’t like skating to Rhapsody in Blue at all,” Mark continues. “I tried to, because deep down, I had this feeling you didn’t want me to skate to Viva La Vida. But it’s hard to skate to music you don’t feel like skating.”

“I was scared, when you told me you wanted to skate to it,” Johnny says, and he feels the most vulnerable now. The last time he had felt this way was when he had resigned himself to the fact that he can never skate again, and since then, he had always tried to put a strong front. “I’m scared that it will remind me of the dream I could have achieved. I’m scared that when I see you skate to it, I’ll think that could have been me out on the rink, living the Olympic dream. I’m sorry I didn’t tell you this.”

“I guess it’s both our faults this happened,” Mark says with a chuckle. “If we were more open about this, we could have avoided this.”

“I know.” Johnny chuckles back. “So … does this mean you’re re-hiring me?”

“Does this mean you’re changing your mind about Viva La Vida?” Mark counters, and there’s no mistaking the determination in his eyes when Johnny winces. “Please, Johnny? I’ve told you why I want to do this. I told you many times you’re my brother, and I trust you. Now I want to say is that I’m your brother, and I hope you can trust me on this.”

It’s in times like these when Johnny realizes that Mark is no longer a kid. No longer is he the boy Johnny has to comfort after a fall from a jump. Heck, Mark might be stronger than him now. Johnny rubs his eyes with his sleeve. “It’s not that I’m discouraging you or anything,” he says, “but you do know it’s hard to get choreography for a competitive program at this time of the season.”

Mark’s face lights up. “We’ll make it work.”

And Johnny trusts Mark on that.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Since Coach Lee had given Mark the day off, they spend the whole day in Johnny’s room to plan on the new free skate program. Their mother had raised an eyebrow at them, but mutters something about whipping something up for dinner to celebrate; there was no denying the smile on her face as she disappears in the kitchen. Mark calls Coach Lee to give him a head’s up on the program music change, and Johnny had a feeling the coach wasn’t keen on the plan, but wasn’t hostile about it either.

“How do you want this program to happen?” Johnny asks, his notepad and pen ready.

“Well …” Mark is lying on his stomach on Johnny’s bed, chin tucked on his hands. “I want to skate to it with lyrics. And since we’re in this together, I want to incorporate a little bit of your choreography in it. I mean, it’s our program now. Still, I want bits and pieces of choreography to be just mine.”

“In that case, we should contact Yunho hyung for the choreography,” Johnny says, reaching for his phone. The last time he had been in touch with his former choreographer was last Christmas, a bit of small talk, nothing more.

Yunho is surprised to be contacted out of the blue, especially to be contacted to request to re-choreograph Viva La Vida for his former charge’s younger brother. “That program is three years old now,” he remarks. “I’d love to, Johnny, but my schedule’s packed right now. There’s a ranking competition in two weeks, KSU wants me to choreograph a Christmas ice show, then Nationals, then …” There’s a sigh from the other line. “It comes with hosting the Olympics. I hope you understand.”

“No, yeah, it’s okay, hyung.” Johnny understands, of course, but he can’t help but be disappointed that his top choice for Mark’s choreography is unavailable.

“Maybe David?” Mark suggests, looking as deflated as he is. “Or Shae-Lynn? Or Jeffrey?”

“I’ll try, but it’s a long shot. David and Shae-Lynn are most likely working with Patrick and Yuzuru. If I remember correctly, Jeffrey is in Christmas on Ice, so he might be booked, too …”

“Or …” Mark trails off. Johnny looks over his shoulder and sees his brother’s hesitant expression. It’s a sign Mark wants to suggest something he probably thinks is crazy.

“I’m all ears,” Johnny says.

Mark gulps. “How about … you choreograph it?”

That’s definitely a crazy idea. “M-Me?” he says, to clarify.

“Yeah!” Mark looks tense now, eyes bright as he elaborates on his idea. “You know the program the most, next to Yunho hyung. Besides, if it’s going to be our program, it has to have a bit of you in it, right?”

“Yeah, but … I’ve only been back on the ice today after three years, and I fell on my butt doing so. I haven’t skated in a long time, and I’ve never choreographed anything in my life.”

“We can ask Ten to help!” Mark suggests. Johnny wishes the heat did not immediately rush to his face at the mention of Ten’s name, because Mark’s immediately notices his reaction. “What’s wrong? Ten’s a great choreographer!”

“It’s not that …” Johnny gulps, the memory of the kiss suddenly clear again. He remembers Mark asking him the dating question back in Gangneung, and he decides if he’s going to let someone know about … this, Mark should be the first to know. What are brothers for, right? “Ten and I … um … kind of made out a couple of days ago.”

He instantly regrets divulging this piece of information because Mark suddenly yelps, “HOLY SHIT, you what?!” and almost falls of the bed as he yells that. Their mother starts yelling downstairs about language, and Mark yells back, “Sorry, Mom!” before looking at Johnny again, eyes ready to bulge out of their sockets. “Holy shit,” he says in a lower voice. “You and Ten made out?!”

“Um … yeah??” Johnny proceeds to tell Mark about when he realized his feelings for Ten and how it led up to that moment in Ten’s apartment. (Not in complete detail, of course, because Mark started gagging at the first details.) “So, uh, we decided we’ll talk about things after all our issues have been resolved, which is …” He gulps, his heart skipping a beat. “Probably as soon as he returns.”

“And what do you think is gonna happen?” Mark asks, grinning from ear to ear.

Johnny feels his face flame up at the thought of seeing Ten again. He honestly doesn’t know what’s going to happen. Are they going to talk? Are they going to make out again? Whatever happens, Johnny can’t wait.

His expression must be answer enough, because Mark pats him on the back. “Dude, I’m so happy for you! Just …” He pauses, and scrunches his nose. “If Ten agrees to co-choreograph with you, please don’t make out in front of me. That will be weird. And gross.”

“I’ll make sure we’ll be as lovey-dovey as possible,” Johnny singsongs, earning a shove from Mark. Then, it hits him. “Wait, I haven’t agreed to choreograph you yet.”

“Thanks, Johnny!” Mark cackles as he fishes out his phone. “And now, I gotta tell everyone. Did you know everyone in the club and on Twitter made bets on when you and Ten are gonna get together? Looks like Coach Lee won.”

Johnny is about to remind Mark that he still has to think about choreographing Mark, but his jaw ends up dropping instead. “Wait … what?”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Apparently, JohnTen is a thing. Figure skating fans on the Internet enjoy their moments together—on-ice and off-ice—to the point that someone—Mark hints it’s Wendy—writes fictional scenarios about them. It’s weird. Very weird.

But enough about that. This scenario isn’t fictional at all. Ten had placed fifth in NHK Trophy and is due to come home any day now. They have to talk about this.

He takes a deep breath and presses the Call button on Skype, hoping Ten isn’t busy with gala practice or anything. “Hey,” he says, breathless when Ten picks up the call. “Are you busy?”

“Just finished with gala practice,” Ten says. He’s probably in the locker room, because he hears Yuta and Yuzuru’s voice in the background. “What’s up?”

“Congratulations.”

“Thanks.” Ten sounds relieved. “I stepped out of my quad, but otherwise, I’m satisfied with the results. How are you?”

“Mark and I made up.”

“Oh, thank god!” Ten’s voice then sounds a little fainter, as if he’s addressing someone else in his vicinity. “That wasn’t so bad, was it?”

“It definitely wasn’t easy,” Johnny says. “Listen … we’re ditching Rhapsody in Blue. We’re changing the free skate program to Viva La Vida, and I need your help to choreograph it.”

“What do you mean you need help in choreo—Oh my god, you’re choreographing?!” Johnny can imagine Ten shrieking in the locker room, and he prays to the gods that Yuta has left because the last thing he wants is for someone being nosy about it. “Are you sure? You haven’t stepped on the ice since … ever.”

“I kind of did … a couple of days ago.” Johnny grins when he hears Ten gasp. “Long story short, it was emotional, but I want to do this, Ten. Can you help me? Yunho hyung isn’t available, and the choreographers we know have packed schedules. Mark and I trust you on this.”

There’s a short pause on the other line before Johnny hears a sigh. “Well, I can never say no to you and Mark,” he says. “Sure. I’ll do it.”

“Great!” Johnny looks over his shoulder and gives Mark a thumbs-up. Behind him, Mark pumps his fist in the air. “Let’s talk about it some more when you get home.”

Another short pause. “Talk. Right. Sure.”

Of course, the talk. Johnny figures they should talk about their feelings first before they can talk about the choreography. His heartbeat suddenly goes into overdrive. “When are you arriving, by the way?” he asks. He catches Mark waggling his eyebrows, and he shoves his brother off the bed.

“Tomorrow evening. 9:52p.m. Why?”

“Just curious. See you.” Johnny says goodbye and ends the call, his heartbeat still on overdrive. He has an entire day to gather his thoughts.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Thirty minutes before 9:52p.m. the next day, Johnny is in the arrivals area of the airport, carrying a bouquet of flowers and a placard with Ten’s name on it. It’s an ordinary sight in the airport, but what Johnny is feeling is anything but ordinary. Ten would outwardly probably be embarrassed on his behalf, but would be touched by the gesture. Then, there will be the car ride to Ten’s apartment. After that, he doesn’t know …

It should be simple. Johnny was too oblivious of his feelings until their talk in the GS25 in Seoul. It had always been Ten. Ten grounds him, keeps him sane from all the pressures of his climb to become USA’s top male figure skater. Ten keeps him afloat when he’s ready to sink into sadness and regret when he unexpectedly retired.

The clock strikes 9:52, and Johnny stands up from his seat. He heads to the railings and leans against it, heart pounding furiously against his chest. He shouldn’t be scared. Saying he’s in love with Ten should be as easy and natural as the way he had fallen, right?

He grins when he spots Ten finally walk out. Ten takes off his sunglasses, and Johnny’s grin widens when Ten’s eyes widen. “You shouldn’t have!” Ten says, but he accepts the bouquet anyway.

“Welcome back.” Johnny feels stupid for grinning so widely. He takes Ten’s wheeled luggage before the younger one can protest. “Come on, let’s get you home.”

Ten is strangely awake for someone who had just landed from an hours-long flight. He animatedly talks about what happened in practice, in competition, and in the closing banquet. Johnny drives while replying and making small talk of his own, like he should. The elephant in the room (or in this case, the car) is already nagging him to talk about it, but Johnny waits until they arrive in Ten’s apartment.

Ten yawns when they arrive, and maybe they can talk about this in the morning. Johnny wheels in Ten’s luggage before putting his hands on the younger one’s shoulders, dragging him to his bedroom. “Get some rest,” he says. “I’ll see you tomorrow, alright?”

Johnny has barely taken a step when he feels a hand grip his wrist. He looks down at his wrist, then looks up at Ten, his gaze sending chills down Johnny’s spine. “We need to talk,” Ten says.

Talk. Right. “Now?” Johnny asks, his voice suddenly an embarrassingly high pitch. This is it. He takes a deep breath, and nods. “Okay.”

He waits for Ten to gesture him to the living room or have him sit on the chair by his desk, but they remain in their positions. Ten’s hand is warm around his wrist, and all Johnny wants is to intertwine their fingers. But they have to say something about it first. Somehow Johnny finds it in him to say something first. “We kissed,” he begins.

“Yeah,” Ten says with a nod. He lets go of Johnny’s wrist, and Johnny immediately misses the warmth. “Was it because of the heat of the moment or—”

“I meant it,” Johnny continues, and he loves how Ten’s eyes widen and how his lips part. He’s tempted to lean in, but he has to elaborate. “I was too slow in realizing it, but I’m very sure of my feelings now. I’m in love with you, Chittaphon.”

He hears Ten draw in a sharp breath, his cheeks slowly turning pink. Ten is all kinds of beautiful, and Johnny wants to lean in and kiss him senseless. But Ten has yet to answer.

Johnny’s heart races when Ten reaches for his hand, their fingers intertwining. His cheeks are starting to hurt, all the more when Ten smiles, shy yet sure. “I’ve known it for a long time, but, I’m in love with you, too, Johnny.”

As usual, they don’t know who starts the kiss first. They probably leaned in at the same time and met each other halfway. Johnny doesn’t care at this point because he’s kissing Ten, and Ten’s kissing back, and everything is a moment of clarity. This is Ten, who he wants to kiss some more and hold and never let go.

For the first time in a long time, Johnny feels like he’s up in the air, and he doesn’t want to come down.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Johnny wakes up to sunlight pouring out of the bedroom window, and suddenly he’s aware of arms around his waist. He opens his eyes and smiles when he sees Ten, eyes closed, expression peaceful, chest rising and falling in steady breaths. Johnny wishes he can reach for his phone and take a photo of this, but he’s too lazy to even move.

At least last night wasn’t a dream. His lips still tingle, and the memories of Ten pulling him down and grabbing onto him as his life depended on it are still fresh in his mind. He’s looking forward to more days like these—holding hands, kissing, showing the world that they’re for each other.

Johnny’s cheeks hurt once more when Ten’s flutters his eyes open. “Good morning, boyfriend,” he says, pressing a kiss to Ten’s forehead.

“Oh my god, it’s too early for this,” Ten groans, burying his face on the pillow, but he doesn’t complain when Johnny pulls him so that their faces are inches away from each other. “So it’s official? The boyfriend status?”

“Yeah, unless last night was just this weird dream …”

“Ha, it’s real, and you’re stuck with me, Johnny Seo,” Ten says with a roll of his eyes.

“And I wouldn’t have it any other way.” Johnny chuckles, closing the gap between them. His breath probably stinks right now, but he doesn’t give a damn at the moment. Ten’s hand makes its way to the nape of Johnny’s neck, so he guesses the younger one doesn’t care either. “So, breakfast?” he says, when he pulls away. “Do I whip something up or do you want to grab take-out before we head to the rink?”

“Take-out. I don’t have anything in my fridge,” Ten mumbles, shifting so that his chin is on the crook of Johnny’s neck. “Can we stay like this for a bit? I don’t wanna get up yet, and I don’t think Coach Lee needs me in the rink after my flight.”

“Hmm … okay.” Johnny doesn’t want to get up either, even if he remembers they should talk about Mark’s choreography. He wants to make up for time, for those stolen gazes and precious moments when he could have said something, but he didn’t because he was either scared or oblivious. Mark can wait a little bit more.

The moment is ruined when his phone rings and, speak of the devil, Mark’s caller ID pops up. “Hey,” his brother says. “Where are you?”

Johnny groans, sitting up, leaning against the headboard. “I’m with Ten,” he says.

“Hi, Mark!” Ten greets, pressing kisses on Johnny’s neck. It must have been audible in the other line, because Mark makes this gagging noise.

“Oh my god, please don’t tell me you guys did what I think you guys did—”

Johnny smirks. “Do you want me to give you the details?” This is payback for ruining the moment. His brother has to suffer.

“GROSS! JOHNNY, STOP.” He hears their mother’s voice on the other line, and Mark yells a faint apology. “Ugh … anyway. Coach Lee wants to talk to you about the … thing. So if you can get to the rink as soon as possible, that will be great.”

“Great. I’m on my way.” Johnny groans as he ends the call. He then looks at Ten, who’s clinging to him affectionately. “Babe, Coach Lee wants me in the rink.”

“You calling me ‘babe’ is gonna give me cavities.” Ten giggles, finally letting go of Johnny. “I guess I’ll come with. Coach Lee’s probably going to talk to you about choreography.”

“I’ll tell Mark to go ahead. We’ll drive to my place so I can get changed, then get breakfast in the diner, then head to the rink.”

“Sounds like a date.” Ten kisses him on the cheek before rolling to his side so he can get up and go to the bathroom.

Johnny has barely finished tying his shoelaces when Ten lets out a scream. He stumbles to the bathroom in a panic, flinging the door open. “What happened?”

“Johnny!” Ten’s eyes are wide when he points to a red spot on his neck. “You jerk!”

Johnny remembers that red spot; he kind of got carried away last night. He stares at it for a second before bursting into laughter.

“It’s not funny!” Ten shoves him, his face all red, but he doesn’t protest when Johnny pulls him closer. “People are gonna stare!”

“Then let them!” Johnny catches his breath, then kisses that spot on the neck, ignoring Ten’s sounds of protest. “You’re very lucky it’s turtleneck weather.” He chuckles when Ten sticks his tongue out at him, and Johnny pats the younger one’s butt in retaliation. “Hurry up and get dressed, princess. We have a program to choreograph.”

“I hate you!” Ten yells at him before shoving him out of the bathroom and slamming the door.

“Love you, too!” Johnny yells back, and he feels stupidly happy.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Johnny feels everyone’s eyes on him as he and Ten walk inside the locker room. Hansol, Taeyong, and Jaehyun’s gazes were ice-cold, and Johnny wants to shrink or make his way out. (Yuta is still in Japan for Nationals.) Mark is looking at him expectantly. Johnny knows it’s his fault all along, so he takes a deep breath and says, “Sorry I was a jerk.”

It’s Taeyong who moves forward and punches him on the arm. “I was supposed to punch you in the face when Mark told me what happened,” he says. “But now that you two have made up, that will do.”

“It’s okay,” Johnny says, rubbing his arm. “I deserve it, anyway.”

Jaehyun is nicer, with a “Welcome back!” and a hug. Hansol points out that Johnny and Ten were holding hands, and there was a simultaneous yell of jubilation from their three training mates. Hansol also mentioned something about “Coach Lee” and the “bet tracker”, and Johnny doesn’t want to even ask what that meant.

Coach Lee meets him by the boards, asking Mark to warm up and work on crossovers before he sits Johnny and Ten down. “I heard from Mark you two are okay now.”

Johnny nods. “Yeah,” he says with a smile. “I guess I won’t be taking your friend’s job offer, either.”

“His loss.” Coach Lee chuckles. “Anyway, back to the agenda. Are you sure you want Mark to skate to Viva La Vida, much more choreograph it.”

He’s sure of it now. “Yeah,” he says. “Mark wants me to do the choreography, and this is the least I can do. Besides, I know the choreography the most. I breathed it when I was running through it.”

“I volunteered to help choreograph,” Ten speaks up. “Johnny doesn’t have experience in choreography, so I can be there to help polish the program.”

Coach Lee sighs. “Okay, but if you prioritize the choreography over the training, I’m pulling you out of this project.”

“I’ll make sure he knows his priorities, too,” Johnny says, patting Ten on the knee. He gulps when he sees a small, knowing smile on Coach Lee’s lips.

“Another thing,” Coach Lee adds, with a seriousness Johnny has only seen whenever he isn’t pleased with something. “Since Mark withdrew from Golden Spin, his next competition is Nationals. He has to do his best or else, no Olympics for him. We’re running a deadline here, so you make sure Mark has a new program in two weeks, or else we’re sticking to Rhapsody in Blue. Am I making myself clear?”

“Crystal.”

“Oh, and by the way,” Coach Lee adds just as Johnny and Ten are about to leave. “Thank you, to the both of you.” There’s a playful smile on the coach’s lips. “I’m 5,000 dollars richer because of you guys.”

“Coach!”

Johnny and Ten sit in the rink cafeteria to start brainstorming for the choreography. He fishes out his phone, takes a deep breath, and searches for his free skate in 2014 Nationals. If Mark is going to include bits and pieces of the choreography in Johnny’s program, this video is the best place to start.

He feels Ten’s hand on his before he can even press the Play button. “Are you sure you can watch this?” he asks.

Johnny had never watched any of his programs since he retired, especially this one, but … “I have to,” Johnny says. He would probably close the video right now, but Ten’s hand is warm on his, assuring. “I can’t choreograph if I don’t watch the inspiration behind it, right?”

Ten squeezes his hand and nods. “If you think it’s too much, we can always pause the video,” he says in a soft voice.

Johnny nods, and he plays the video.

It’s just how he remembers it. He was grimacing in pain during warmup, and Coach Lee had already thrown in the suggestion that he should withdraw. But Johnny had refused. He had to skate. He was an arm’s reach away from his dream.

Viva La Vida started playing, and 2014 Johnny had skated. Johnny remembers being in a bubble in those four-and-a-half minutes, where all that mattered were him, the music, and his program. Johnny wishes he can go back to this moment, if only to experience skating competitively again.

He shakes his head as he pauses the video to the part after he had sat down the kiss and cry. Ten is looking at him in concern. “Johnny?” he asks.

“I can’t wish for the past anymore, can I?” Johnny says. When Ten doesn’t reply, he continues. “I have to move forward. Mark has to go to the Olympics.”

“He’ll be there with you.”

Johnny smiles at Ten. “I know,” he says before dragging his finger on the phone screen to replay the video.

God knows how many times he had replayed the video for the past few days. He and Ten fill Ten’s sketchpad with time stamps and sketches of the corresponding choreography. When they’ve gone through the video, they cross out certain choreography, then sketch gestures and movements that come to mind.

They show their sketches to Mark and Coach Lee a week later, brains fuzzy and bodies ready to plop down their beds. It’s all worth it, though, when Mark’s eyes brighten in excitement, and Coach Lee’s expression changes to something less cynical. They both heave a sigh of relief when Coach Lee tells them, “Mark’s run-through is next week. No more extensions, because we have to add the jumps.”

The Monday after their meeting with Coach Lee, Johnny steps on the ice once more. He stumbles a bit when he reaches the center of the rink, but Mark and Ten are quick on their feet to make sure he doesn’t fall on his butt. He laughs at his friends’ reactions as he approaches them—Taeyong’s jaw had dropped, Jaehyun had rubbed his eyes, and Hansol had looked like he saw a ghost.

He stops in front of them, smile sheepish. “Well?” he asks.

Hansol is the first to speak. “About damn time!” he exclaims, looping an arm around Johnny’s shoulders. “Welcome back, Johnny!”

Johnny is about to move when he feels arms around his waist. His back is suddenly damp; Ten is probably crying, but he can feel him beaming. “I’m so proud of you,” he says.

Johnny beams back, clinging to Ten until Taeyong yells, “Gross, you guys! Think about the children!”

Mark is wide-eyed and eager when Johnny and Ten demonstrate the movements. He’s quick to pick up on instructions and doesn’t hesitate to ask questions and make suggestions. Their work dynamics is like a well-oiled machine, and Mark makes his first full run-through of the new free skate two days before Coach Lee’s deadline.

Everyone steps out of the rink for Mark’s run-through, the rink silent that anyone can hear the drop of a pin. Johnny takes a deep breath as Mark strikes his opening pose, gaze towards the ceiling. It’s the same opening pose Johnny did three years ago, gaze towards the sky, eyes on his dream.

The familiar opening notes reverberate all over the rink, and Mark starts to move.

Johnny can’t find himself to breathe as he watches Mark go over the choreography. Chills run down his spine. This is it. This is the program. He wishes he should have listened to Mark sooner so that they could have worked on this earlier, to show people how magical this program is, biases aside. But it’s better late than never.

Mark finishes the program with arms spread out, one of the changes they have made from Johnny’s program. He pumps his fist in the air when the music ends, just as the entire club breaks into applause. Johnny’s cheeks hurt from beaming too widely. His gaze meets Mark’s, and they give each other thumbs-ups.

It’s going to be more challenging from now on. Coach Lee will add the jumps and the other elements, and Johnny and Ten will adjust the choreography with the program layout. Then it will be all up to Mark. He needs to run through the program over and over, and he has to be ready for Nationals in January.

But what Johnny has learned these past few days is to trust Mark even more. And right now, he trusts Mark will be ready for the next biggest competitions of his career.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Slowly, the program starts getting more polished. Mark starts becoming more confident with his new free skate, after some adjustments to the program layout and choreography. Johnny is more focused when he watches Mark work with Coach Lee, but sometimes, he’d be on the ice, too. Being back on the ice is an exhilarating feeling; Johnny wonders how he had survived three years of avoiding the surface he loves being on.

The rink becomes quieter on the second week of December. Hansol, Taeyong, and Jaehyun fly to Korea to compete for a domestic ranking competition, and to get ready for Nationals. Johnny, Ten, and Mark won’t be seeing them until February, assuming they all get to go to the Olympics. Johnny hopes all of them do.

Johnny sees Wendy and Seulgi arriving in the rink just as Mark had finished a run-through of his short program and had taken a water break. He catches their gaze, and he waves at them from his side of the rink. He tries not to laugh when Wendy almost drops her camera and Seulgi drops the boxes she was holding. (Christmas gifts, Johnny thinks. He remembers the girls will be treating him, Ten, and Mark to an early Christmas dinner.)

“Surprise!” he exclaims as he skates to their direction. He hops out of the rink and puts on his skate guards, then laughs when Wendy and Seulgi continue staring at him as if he had grown horns.

Wendy is the first to speak up. “Oh. My. God. Johnny Seo, what possessed you to finally step on the ice again?”

Johnny grins and shrugs. “It’s a long story.”

“I have to tell everyone!” Seulgi says as she fishes out her phone. It takes her several tries before she’s able to punch in her pin code; meanwhile, the boxes she had dropped remain on the ground. “The world has to know! Doyoung has to cry with me in the Hangouts later!”

“Anyway,” Wendy says. She runs a hand through her hair as if to calm herself down. “Is Mark okay? He withdrew from Golden Spin, and he hadn’t been updating us except for the …” She smirks as she glances at Ten, who is doing crossovers with Taeyong. “You know.”

Johnny rolls his eyes, though the grin on his face betrayed him.

“Mark’s not injured, is he?” Seulgi puts her phone down, her forehead creased.

“He’s fine,” Johnny says, still grinning. “In fact, I think he’s better than ever.” When Wendy looks at him questioningly, he continues. “We’re getting ready for Nationals. We scrapped Rhapsody in Blue, and we’re working on his new free skate program.”

“New free skate program?” Seulgi’s voice is a pitch higher. The last time she had spoken in that pitch was when Mark competed in JGP Yokohama with a sprain. “Isn’t that risky at this time of the season?”

“Yeah, but I think this free skate is better.” Johnny glances at Wendy, hoping she’ll get the hint.

Wendy’s jaw drops. “Oh my god, is the music what I think it is or—”

Before Wendy can even finish her sentence, the familiar opening notes of Viva La Vida start to play. He looks over his shoulder to see Mark gliding through the ice for another run-through. He laughs when he hears Wendy and Seulgi screaming god knows how many “Oh my god”s, and he feels good about the reaction to the new program.

He and Mark are aware of the risk of changing programs in the middle of the season, but it’s a risk they are willing to take. Based on Wendy and Seulgi’s reactions, he feels the risk is going to be worth it.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Johnny didn’t even realize the year had ended until their family party on New Year’s Eve. Ten had once again stayed behind in Vancouver and had joined Johnny’s family for Christmas, and now the New Year. Johnny’s stepfather raises a toast to the three of them, that they may wrap up the Olympic season successfully. Ten beams at him when the clock strikes midnight, and Johnny is brave enough to pull him to a kiss in front of the adults, while he ignores Mark’s fake gagging noises in the background.

Yuta returns on the third day of 2018, with several Japanese journalists at his wake. He beams when Johnny and Ten tackle him from a hug, and he looks giddy as he fishes out his National medal from his bag. Gold. On Christmas week, Yuta had edged out Yuzuru Hanyu and Shoma Uno for the National title. Yuta thinks it’s a fluke—Yuzuru had fallen on two of his quads, while Shoma had fallen on his quad flip—but Johnny knows the title was well-deserved.

“I have to work harder than ever,” Yuta says when the journalists finally leave him alone after an hour’s worth of interviews. “Now that I’m National Champion, people expect bigger things from me.”

“I’m sure you’ll do well!” Johnny tells him.

“I’ll do my best.” Yuta’s shoulders relax. “I’m more worried about Hansol, though.”

“Me, too,” Johnny says. South Korean Nationals is next week. While he wants the best for Taeyong and Jaehyun, this competition might mark the end of Hansol’s competitive career if he doesn’t make it to the Olympic team.

“Sometimes I can’t resist reading forums,” Yuta says with a grimace. “A lot of people say Donghyuck has a better chance of making it to the Olympic team. The perks of being under Brian Orser.”

“Being under Brian Orser also means your triple-triple combo will fail you at some point,” Johnny quips, to which Yuta laughs. “Hansol knows what’s at stake. I’m sure he’s doing all that he can. We can only hope for the best.”

His words are easier said than done when practices for Nationals start. They are fourteen hours away from Seoul, but that doesn’t stop them from checking updates on Twitter. SBS won’t broadcast the competition until the next weekend, so they rely vicariously on Doyoung and Taeil, the latter generous enough to Periscope practices. From the stream, Taeyong and Jaehyun are landing their quads, Donghyuck’s jumps seem to have gotten bigger, and Hansol, well, seems out of it.

They all heave a collective sigh of celebration and relief when Taeil tweets that Hansol is the leader after the short program. The video and the protocols that follow show no doubt about it—it’s Hansol’s cleanest program in five years. Taeyong sits in second, and Donghyuck third.

“Now I’m more nervous for the free skate,” Hansol tells them during a Skype call after his press conference.

“You’ll be fine,” Yuta assures him.

“Yeah,” Johnny chimes in. “Eyes on the prize, Ji. You’re coming with us to the Olympics, or else.”

“I don’t even know what ‘or else’ means, but okay.” Hansol huffs. “Please make my prayer circle as large as you can.”

“We’ll get help from Doyoung, don’t worry.” Yuta winks and gives a thumbs-up. “Now, get some sleep. We’re rooting for you. I love you.”

Johnny and Yuta are staying over at Ten’s apartment when Taeil tweets the final update of the men’s event—Hansol is the new Korean National Champion, his first National title since 2010. Taeyong is the silver medalist while Jaehyun is the bronze medalist; the three of them will make up the men’s team in the Olympics. Taeil sends them previews of a tearful Hansol during the victory ceremony, with Taeyong and Jaehyun giving him a rib-crushing hug. Johnny notices Yuta getting teary-eyed as well as the younger one scrolls through his phone.

Johnny sighs in relief when Yuta heads home. He can feel the dredges of exhaustion finally taking its toll—the disadvantages of staying tuned in a competition in another time zone. But he stays behind to help Ten clean up the apartment after their impromptu sleepover. He then leans against the kitchen counter as he watches Ten wash the dishes.

“Looks like we’re going to the Olympics, huh?” Ten says.

“It’s too early to say something about Mark.” He raises his hands when Ten raises an eyebrow at him. “Not that I don’t believe in him! I just don’t want to say things like they’re definite when nothing’s been confirmed.”

“Oh.” Ten’s shoulders relax. He gratefully accepts the towel Johnny hands him. “But I think Mark will make it. Based on the way he skates now, this is the happiest I’ve seen him his season.”

Johnny remembers how Mark had skated to Rhapsody in Blue in Skate America, and he gets it. “It’s like he’s this tiny bean again who just skated a full run-through of the first free skate of his career,” he says. “Do you remember being that happy in your career before?”

“When we were younger, when times were simpler, and when we didn’t have to worry about putting a quad in our program or wondering what the judges thought of us.” Ten steps away from the sink to take Johnny’s hand in his. “But this is what we love, right?”

Johnny clearly remembers how happy he used to be when he was skating. Back then, he could recall the exhilaration of doing his best, even if he didn’t win a medal in the process. Now, he can’t compete anymore, but seeing Mark skate with stars in his eyes, he thinks he can be that happy again.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

[EXCLUSIVE] Mark Lee seeks redemption with new free skate

By Taeil Moon

Junior World silver medalist Mark Lee (CAN) is taking a huge risk this season—changing his free skate two months before the Olympics.

After skating to Rhapsody in Blue in the early half of the season, Mark has scrapped the program altogether and will now be skating to Viva La Vida by Coldplay.

You read that right—Mark will be using the same free skate music his half-brother Johnny Seo (USA) had skated to before his premature retirement just a month before the Olympics in Sochi.

“I initially wanted to skate to Viva La Vida, but I had my second thoughts,” Mark said over a Skype video interview. “I was scared because if the audience hears the music, they’ll immediately think of Johnny’s free skate in Boston. If I don’t pull it off, I’ll be thought of Johnny Seo’s brother who decided to skate to the free skate music. Rhapsody in Blue came a close second to my music choices, but it wasn’t working with me throughout the season.”

Since his silver-medal finish in Junior Worlds, Mark has had difficulty adjusting to the senior ranks. He placed fourth in Autumn Classic, fifth in Skate America, and eighth place in Cup of China. He withdrew from Golden Spin so he can figure out what wasn’t working throughout the season. He and his team decided to change the free skate.

“Changing the free skate in the middle of the season is a risk I’m willing to take,” Mark says. “If I want to make it to the Olympics, I have to make an impact. That’s the effect I want Viva La Vida to have.”

Interestingly enough, the free skate is choreographed by Johnny and Ten Leechaiyapornkul (THA). While the latter is no stranger to choreographing, this marks Johnny’s return to the ice since his retirement. Johnny’s fans celebrated as photos of him on the ice of the Vancouver Skating Club rink surfaced on Twitter.

“It’s great to be back on the ice,” Johnny says, as he joins Mark in the interview. “I’ve worked as Mark’s manager last year, but this is going to be the most special collaboration between us.”

Asked about what makes Mark’s Viva La Vida different from his, Johnny replies, “We tried to make it the story of the two of us. Mark said that he wants to go to the Olympics and skate not just for him, but for us.” There will be bits of Johnny’s old choreography mashed up with new choreography he and Ten have come up with.

Mark will be debuting his new free skate at Canadian Nationals, where he is a favorite to be on the podium, and on the Olympic team. With Canada only having two spots after the World Championships in Helsinki, Mark is aware of how intense the competition will be.

“It’s going to be a tough Nationals,” Mark says. “But now that I have a free skate I feel good about, the support of my family and friends, and my eyes on the prize, I think I can make it to the Olympics.”

All eyes will be on the eighteen-year-old for his quest to be on the Olympic team.

53 comments:

Doyoung Kim: HOLY SHIT

Kun Qian: VIVA LA VIDA OMG

Doyoung Kim: JOHNTEN CHOREOGRAPHING I DON’T KNOW WHAT’S GOING TO MAKE ME CRY MORE, THAT MARK IS SKATING TO VIVA LA VIDA OR THE FACT THAT /JOHNTEN/ CHOREOGRAPHED TOGETHER

Doyoung Kim: Also this is proof that Mark Lee is God’s gift to Canada after Patrick Chan

Kun Qian: @ Doyoung: Also the fact that Johnny is back on the ice??? Choreographing???

Doyoung Kim: THIS IS TOO MUCH TO TAKE CALM DOWN @Mark @Johnny @Ten

Doyoung Kim: @Taeil: How were you calm during this ordeal SHOW ME YOUR WAYS

Taeil Moon: Trust me, how I managed to be calm during the interview was beyond me.

Wendy Son: Managed to get a sneak peek of the run-through last year, and it was fantastic! Thank god we can finally scream about this in public. Good luck in Nationals, Mark!

Sicheng Dong: OMGGGGG

Seulgi Kang: I think I’m gonna die in CAN Nats, I can’t believe I’ll be seeing this live! And not as a run-through this time!

Doyoung Kim: Brb, making a prayer circle for our sanity in two weeks

Kun Qian: #StayStrongTlist

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The next two weeks pass by so quickly that Johnny barely notices it’s the third week of January until they’re on the drive to Hastings Park for the short program. They reach the entrance of the Pacific Coliseum, and they are greeted by camera flashes from the media standing by the barricades. The media frenzy for Mark is temporary, though. Once they’re inside the locker rooms, most of the scrutiny is on the reigning National Champion. Mark, in the last group, goes by his warmup and his program without much difficulty, and he ends up in third place after the short program.

“It’s okay,” Johnny tells Mark after the small medal ceremony, his hands on the protocols. “Your elements are flawless. I think you should have been in second, though. Those PCS are a little low.”

“It will all come down to the free skate, huh.” Mark takes a deep breath. His expression is less serious when some fans with banners approach him, asking for a photo. Johnny can barely make out the conversation, but Mark looks more relaxed when they wave their goodbyes.

“What did they tell you?” Johnny asks.

Mark grins sheepishly. “They told me they’re excited for my new free skate,” he says in a low voice.

Johnny has heard most of the fans’ anticipation about Viva La Vida. Even PJ Kwong had approached him while Mark was interviewed by CBC to express her excitement. Johnny is, too, but the one he should be asking is Mark. “How about you?” he asks. “Excited to be debuting your new free skate?”

“Nervous, too,” Mark says. His cheeks are red as he scratches the back of his head. “I mean, it’s like going back to square one. I have no idea how people are going to react. What if they think this is a bad rip-off of your free skate?”

“Then I will be grossly offended because I’m the choreographer and I made sure it isn’t going to be a rip-off.” Johnny sniffs indignantly, and he’s relieved to hear Mark laugh.

“I’ll do my best, okay?” Mark says. “For us.”

Johnny smiles, wrapping his arm around Mark’s shoulders as they walk on.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Johnny didn’t know what to expect in the free skate, but he was sure it didn’t involve thunderous applause so loud he thought the coliseum would explode anytime. Mark stays at the center of the rink after he had finished his free skate, eyes widening as he glances around the audience, before he pumps his fist in the air. He had just skated his cleanest free skate of the season.

“I …?” Mark’s jaw drops when he reaches the boards, barely responding to Coach Lee and Johnny’s hug. “When the music started, I was barely aware of what I was doing. It’s like I’m in a trance, or something.”

“It happens,” Johnny says as he holds out Mark’s jacket, prodding his brother to put it on. He spots Ten and Yuta in the audience waving at them, and they wave back. He finds Seulgi on the other side of the media arena, wiping her tears; Wendy still has her camera out, still taking photos, though Johnny knows that she’s just as emotional. The arena starts replaying some of the highlights of Mark’s program, and Coach Lee wastes no time praising every element shown on video. Everything was perfect, and Johnny thinks it was magical.

They leap to their feet, and the audience roars, when the scores are announced. It’s a personal best, seven points above Mark’s scores at Junior Worlds. Twenty minutes later, they would leap to their feet again as the final scores are flashed on the screen—Patrick Chan has secured his tenth National title, while Mark will be taking home the silver medal.

Skate Canada will be announcing the Olympic team the next day, but Johnny is very sure Mark is going to the Olympics.

No, scratch that.

They are going to the Olympics.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There’s little time to celebrate the victory, although they manage to squeeze in dinner a day after the exhibition gala. Mark’s schedule becomes more packed as the Olympics draws near. Everyone wants to interview him, the official Olympic sponsors want a photo shoot of the Canadian delegation, federation officials and government officials want to meet with him. That, and he has to train.

Johnny notices how calm Mark is throughout the crazy schedule. He sits up straighter in interviews, smiles and makes small talk before the actual interview, stares into the camera during photo shoots, and oozes primness and properness in official dinners.

“He’s growing up, isn’t he?” Johnny remarks when he and Ten watch Mark being filmed in VSC’s rink, to market the Canadian team for the Winter Olympics. Mark seems to have said something that has charmed the lady interviewer.

Ten smiles, leaning his head on Johnny’s shoulder. “He has to, hasn’t he? Canada’s number two.”

“I know,” Johnny says. “Though sometimes I wish the little brother can stay little.”

To Johnny’s surprise, he’s suddenly shoved to the spotlight, too. Blogs and news sites want a feature of him with Mark, the unstoppable Seo-Lee brothers. Others just want to feature him and his comeback on ice. These days, Johnny is used to being on the background, so this feels new to him once more. Not that he’s complaining.

Suggestions of him coaching and choreographing also start pouring in. “If you had a dollar for every person asking you to be their coach or choreographer, you could start your own skating school now,” Ten says one day with a chuckle.

Johnny tries to laugh along, but he ends up grimacing. He had one told Ten that he could never see himself as a coach or a choreographer, but that was when he was still scared of being back on ice. Now that he’s back and has dabbled on choreography, that door seems to have opened up again.

“It’s something you’re curious about, but something’s holding you back?” Ten guesses, slipping his arms around Johnny.

Johnny blinks. “What’s holding me back?” he asks. It’s more of a question to himself than to Ten. Choreographing Mark was a thrill, but he doesn’t think it’s something he’d like to do full-time. Coaching seems to be the more interesting option, but based on his experience in managing Mark … would he be even a good coach at all?

“That’s for me to know and for you to find out.” Ten chuckles again, lips brushing the crook of Johnny’s neck.

Those questions are pushed to the back of his mind on the first Saturday of February, when they take the flight from Vancouver to South Korea. The trip from Vancouver to Incheon and then Gangneung feels like an eternity, but they are all smiles when their press their faces against the window as the bus passes through the entrance of the Olympic Village. The familiar white-tiger mascot Soohorang is standing by the entrance, holding a banner with the words “Welcome to the Winter Olympics!”

This is it. Their dreams are unfolding right in front of them.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Canadian team gets to have a building to themselves in the Olympic Village, so do Japan and South Korea. Meanwhile, Ten’s accommodations are a ten-minute walk away from Canada’s national house, much to his dismay. “It’s too far away from everyone else,” he says with a pout.

“I’ll drop by once we’re done unpacking,” Johnny says, ignoring the whistling coming from Yuta. “I’ll pick you up, then we can go meet the others.”

Ten smiles at that. “Sounds like a plan.”

“Ten can move here, right?” Mark says as they wheel their luggage to the national house. Johnny thinks the atmosphere and the design of the house reminds him of the venue of the welcoming ceremony in Canadian Nationals. “I mean, I can invite him to move here. This is for Team Canada friends and family, after all.”

“I doubt it, kiddo,” Johnny says with a shrug. “I don’t mind dropping by Ten’s place every so often. It keeps the relationship interesting.” He laughs when Mark fake gags. “Keep that in mind for you and Eunji!”

“Shut up, Eunji and I aren’t even together!” Mark retorts, and Johnny bites his lip to prevent himself from commenting at how his brother sounded upset.

The accommodation of athletes from smaller federations is half the size of Canada’s National House. Yet, Ten’s room is as cozy as a superior deluxe room of a hotel, so Johnny thinks his boyfriend will be fine. Ten looks tired from the flight, but he beams when he lets Johnny in. “I’m on the same floor with some people I know,” he says, “but it would be better if I was with you guys.”

“Mark wanted to start a petition to get you in the Canadian National House,” Johnny chuckles, sitting on the edge of Ten’s bed. He glances at the luggage, which is left unopened. “You haven’t unpacked yet?”

“I can do that tomorrow. I want to soak this all in!” Ten sits beside Johnny, their legs brushing against each other.

“It’s real, isn’t it?” Johnny says, his hand drawing lazy circles on Ten’s thigh. “We’re here, in the Olympics.”

“Yup, and we’re living our dream.” Ten puts his hand on top of Johnny, beaming at him as if his smile can put sunshine to shame. “I’m glad you’re here.”

“I’m glad you’re here, too.” Johnny leans in, and Ten meets him halfway. The kiss is very soft, every movement languid, and Johnny wants to map out every dip and ridge of Ten. Ten lets his tongue run across Johnny’s bottom lip slowly, and Johnny sighs against his mouth, lips parting in agreement.

“Aren’t we supposed to meet the others?” Ten asks when he parts for air, giggling, though he doesn’t complain when Johnny pushes him down, the older one climbing on top of him.

They’re supposed to meet the others in the park so they can go around before training takes most of their time again. But that would mean he and Ten would have less time together. “Five more minutes,” Johnny mutters before closing the distance between them again. His fingers settle on Ten’s cheeks, tracing over the contours of his face, his jaw line. Ten’s hand goes to Johnny’s chest, tracing over the stitching of his coat, and Johnny is tugging at his lip gently, in a way that demanded nothing but offered everything.

Johnny had pulled away from the kiss so for his lips to ghost on Ten’s neck when there’s a knock on the door. Ten groans as he pulls away from Johnny to open the door. Johnny huffs as he tries to catch his breath, running a hand through his hair. From outside, Michael Christian Martinez is saying something to Ten, something he can’t make out.

Ten is licking his swollen lips when he returns to his side. “Well,” he says, “I guess we should get going.”

“Right.” Johnny sighs as he gets up, pressing a kiss on Ten’s temple.

They meet outside at the park, joined by Donghyuck and Eunji. Johnny nudges Mark to go along with his friends, and he laughs when Mark gives him a look and shoves his arm before going after Eunji as they walk the other way. Hansol and Yuta start making bets on when Mark is going to make a move on Eunji, and Johnny gets bad flashbacks.

They explore everything there is to explore in Gangneung. Hansol, Taeyong, and Jaehyun have already toured them in most of the places, but they go along with it anyway. They won’t be able to get the chance to explore once February 9 starts—the first official day of practice. Still, there are new places to explore, the newly constructed buildings for the Olympics, mostly. Sometimes, fans would stop them for a photo op, and Johnny doesn’t feel out of place, with some of the fans when he was still competing also in attendance.

“I saw Mark’s free skate in Nationals,” one of the girls tells him, her hands shaking as she clutches her camera. “I cried the whole four-and-a-half minutes. You and Ten choreographed it beautifully.”

“Thank you.” Johnny smiles as warmth spreads to his chest; it always happens whenever fans come up to him and say he has touched them in some way with his skating. He’s glad that he can still make an impact on fans even when he isn’t skating anymore.

“Will you be choreographing again next season?”

Ah, that question again. Johnny is not sure if he’ll choreograph again, but he had secretly looked at coaching lessons in the Skate Canada Web site. It’s going to take him at least two years to be a certified domestic coach, though Coach Lee has hinted there’s a way to fast track it. “I’m still thinking about it,” he answers, instead, before Taeyong interrupts and volunteers to take a photo of Johnny and the fan.

Their last stop is the statue of the Olympic rings just outside the Gangneung Ice Arena. Ten fishes out his cell phone, and they all try to cram on the frame so that they, and the Olympic rings, are visible. Ten looks satisfied with the result, thumbs swift as he types up a caption on Instagram. “Off our bucket list—a selfie with the Olympic rings! Very grateful to have these five with me on this journey. Now, on to the opening ceremony!”

They eat out in one of the outdoor restaurants by the beach. The gust of wind is colder than usual, and Johnny finds Ten’s fingers intertwining with his. Hansol orders for all of them, including bottles of soju enough for all six of them, but not too many that they’ll be complaining about hangovers the next morning. Taeyong teases Hansol into making an “Uncle Speech,” and Hansol rolls his eyes but stands up anyway, raising his shot glass.

Hansol, strangely eloquent that night, raises his glass to Team VSC, and their fulfilled dream of making it to the Olympics. (“Though some in stranger circumstances than others,” he says, glancing at Johnny.) He raises his glass to the journey ahead and for everyone to make it to the free skate and to have the skate of their lives.

“And for Johnny,” Hansol adds. “I know you won’t be skating out there, but I hope you’ll have an Olympic experience you’ll never forget.”

Johnny smiles and raises his own shot glass to that.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

They’re allowed inside the Gangneung Ice Arena on the morning of February 9, hours before the opening ceremonies. Before they board the bus, Mark hands him a package wrapped in blue paper, and his brother’s grin is infectious. “Happy birthday!” he greets. “Come on, open it!”

Johnny does, and he pulls out red fabric from the wrapping paper. His eyes brighten up when he sees his name and the familiar Canadian maple leaf symbol stitched at the front.

Mark’s cheeks are pink when Johnny looks at him for an explanation. “I know you used to represent USA,” he says, “but I hope you like it? I realized you don’t have a team jacket yet since you became my manager, so …”

Johnny interrupts Mark by giving him a hug. “I love it. Thanks, kid.”

Wendy and Seulgi stop him by the rink entrance, Wendy holding a birthday cake. Soon, people start gathering around him and singing “Happy birthday!” Johnny can’t remember the last time this many people have gathered to celebrate his being born. Nevertheless, he accepts the cake and closes his eyes to make a wish.

The questions from fans and fellow skaters come to mind when he closes his eyes, and he wishes for clarity before blowing his candles. Ten pulls him for a kiss, and the crowd cheers. Frank Carroll, who has just passed by, asks when the wedding will be, and Johnny doesn’t know if he should laugh or pray for the ground to swallow him whole.

Even worse, Brian Orser is smiling as if he knows something Johnny doesn’t. It’s Coach Lee who verbalizes it. “Johnny and Ten had just admitted their feelings for each other, Coach,” he says. “How do you think I felt watching them all these years? It was a very slow burn …”

Coach Orser sighs. “At least they finally admitted it,” he says. “Meanwhile …” He glances at Yuzuru Hanyu, who is talking animatedly to Michael Christian Martinez.

Ten stops him by the entrance to the locker room, and Johnny nods to Mark to head inside without him. He has that kicked puppy dog look. “I wasn’t able to buy you a present,” he admits. “I’ll make it up to you when we fly back to Vancouver.”

Johnny doesn’t mind, really. “It’s okay,” he says, reaching for Ten’s hand. “I’m celebrating my birthday in one of the biggest sports events of my life. I’m with my friends, I’m with my brother, and I’m with you. It doesn’t get any better than this.”

The first day of official practice is an eventful one. There are lots of falls during run-throughs, Mark included. The sound system fails more than once during music rotations. Frank Carroll complains to the volunteers about the ice. But that is to be expected. Everyone is still adjusting; everyone is allowed to make mistakes this early. By the time the team event starts, there is no longer room for error.

They leave the rink at past two in the afternoon, where the ice is resurfaced to give way to ladies’ practice. They were all requested to return to their accommodations to meet with their respective federations. They listen intently as the head of the federation gives them instructions for the opening ceremony. Patrick Chan will be the flag bearer, but Mark couldn’t care less because this is his first Olympics and being able to march in the opening ceremony is still a big deal.

To Johnny’s surprise, his name is on the list of the opening ceremony participants instead of Coach Lee. Coach Lee merely shrugs when Johnny looks at him, asking for an explanation. “I’ve already had my share of walking in the opening ceremony,” he says. “It’s time for yours.”

Johnny wants to pinch himself right now. “Are you sure the federation won’t mind?”

“That’s your name, isn’t it?” Coach Lee smiles. “Now, go get ready. And have fun!”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

By early evening, they take the bus to the Pyeongchang Olympic Stadium. The air is thick of revelry when Johnny steps out, and it’s hard not to catch the excitement. He spots Hansol, Taeyong, and Jaehyun trickling inside the athletes’ entrance in the opening ceremony, and they jump up and down as they wave at his and Mark’s direction. Johnny could have sworn his cheeks are going to split from all the smiling and laughing he had done in the past hour, and the ceremonies haven’t even started yet.

Team Canada is still on the line backstage when his phone rings, Ten’s name on the caller ID. “Hello?” Johnny says when he picks up the call.

“Are you here?” Ten’s voice is a little difficult to hear from the other line, what with the chatter and the music and all.

“Yeah, we’re waiting for our turn. You?”

“Just got in! It’s lonely here, but I’ll manage! Who’s the flag-bearer for Canada? Tell him it’s a lot heavier than I thought it was!”

It almost slipped Johnny’s mind that Ten is the lone Thai representative for the Olympics. There had been two representatives for alpine skiing in Sochi, but they didn’t make it this time.

“Um, listen. I gotta go. We’re being moved to another entrance. Do we meet each other after the ceremonies?”

“Of course.” Johnny thinks they’ll be meeting after the ceremonies, anyway, to soak in on the revelry. He’s about to text the others, but a volunteer speaks through the megaphone, announcing that it’s their turn to march.

Johnny has dreamt of his moment all his life. He can still imagine it clearly; he was the one holding the flag, and he takes in all of it—the lights, the sounds, and the crowd applauding every time he takes a step. This time, he’s walking under a different country and he’s not the flag-bearer, but the lights, the sounds, and the crowd are better than what he had imagined.

Mark clutches to him, eyes wide as he takes in his surroundings. “This is really happening, right?” he says, voice barely above a whisper that Johnny almost doesn’t hear him. “We’re here.”

Johnny loops his arm around Mark’s. Canada’s walk in the stadium is over, and the lights start to grow dimmer and dimmer as they approach the exit. “We’re here,” he repeats, and he knows he couldn’t ask for a better opening ceremony to be in.

Some of the delegates hop back in their buses to their respective houses. Johnny and Mark stay behind to watch the rest of the festivities. Johnny messages their Team VSC group chat to meet outside the stadium when the ceremonies end, and the rest of his friends give a thumbs-up in reply. They run into Donghyuck and Eunji, along with speed skaters Jaemin and Yeri, on their way to the area reserved for athletes, and they end up sitting together. Johnny feels like a baby-sitter, though he chuckles fondly when Mark sits next to Eunji.

Johnny cheers for his friends as they emerge from the stadium. Yuzuru Hanyu may be Japan’s flag-bearer, but Johnny can only see Yuta waving his arms as he looks around the stadium. The cheers for South Korea are the loudest, Taeyong and Jaehyun sandwiching a very emotional Hansol. And finally, Thailand. Ten is the only one who emerges, holding the flag as tight as he can, smile as bright as the sun despite watery eyes. From his side of the stadium, Johnny stands up and cheers as loud as he can, ignoring the ripping sensation in his throat. The crowd seems to have followed, some of them standing up to cheer on Ten, too.

Maybe it’s just him, but Johnny could have sworn their gazes met, and the crowd of thousands seem to have disappeared as they share smiles.

Mark asks if he can go home with his friends, to which Johnny allows. They exchange messages of “Good luck” before Mark lets Eunji drag him away by the wrist. Johnny furtively snaps a photo of the moment before sending it in the Team VSC group chat.

Hansol, Taeyong, and Jaehyun are already waiting for him in their designated meeting place, and they yell at each other before giving each other a group hug. They’re in the receiving ends of stares, but right now, they can’t care less. Ten is the last to arrive, and it’s Johnny who runs to him first, letting their lips crash upon contact.

“What was that for?” Ten giggles when they pull away, their friends cheering in the background.

Johnny remembers Ten glowing as he walks through the stadium. God knows how much his chest wants to burst just remembering. He settles for a shrug and a grin.

They manage to catch the last bus heading to the Olympic Village. It’s almost eleven in the evening, yet the energy hasn’t died down. Each of them relive their experience in the opening ceremony, from the anticipation to having their country’s name called, to that moment when all eyes were on them. Taeyong pokes fun at Hansol crying during their march, which Hansol takes in stride. “It’s my first and last Olympics,” he mentions with a sniff. “Can’t I have my moment?”

They part ways when they descend the bus. Johnny chooses to walk Ten home, texting Mark that he might not return to the Canadian National House for the night. Mark doesn’t reply; he’s probably asleep already.

“You’re acting weird today,” Ten says, his and Johnny’s fingers intertwining as he leads the way.

“It’s what happens when your birthday is on the same day as the Olympic opening ceremony.” Johnny still has less than an hour before his birthday ends. Maybe it’s because of that, and the image of Ten glowing as he marched in the opening ceremonies, that he feels braver than he had ever imagined. “Or do you want me to leave?”

“I didn’t say that.” Ten chuckles as he walks on.

Ten lets Johnny in his room, making his way to the mini-fridge to grab two bottles of water. Johnny gladly accepts the water bottle and takes a few gulps, if only to ease whatever’s unspoken between them. He has an inkling that Ten wants what he wants; it’s only a matter of who says it first.

It’s Ten who speaks first. “It’s amazing, you know?” A smile is playing on his lips as he sets the water bottle down. “It’s something I’ve dreamt of for so long, but to have it come true …”

“Yeah.” Johnny can feel his lips drying up, and his heart pounds furiously against his chest. He loves Ten, he knows that, but the realization hits him every time like he had only realized it now. And this time, it’s stronger than ever. He loves Ten, and he wants to explore all of Ten, how to make him smile brightly even without the stadium lights, to discover what sends chills down Ten’s spine—

“I just wish it could have been less lonely for me. The fed could have come with me, or Coach Lee—”

“Ten.” Johnny didn’t know his voice can go that low, but either way, it gets Ten’s attention. Ten’s eyes widen, and he gulps. Johnny takes it as a sign. He sets his water bottle down and steps forward, hands holding Ten’s face as he brings their lips together. He hears Ten groan, and yes, they both want this.

Their mouths join lazily, lips breaking apart and coming together with long breaths and quiet gasps of pleasure in between. Johnny shuts his eyes and feels Ten’s arms wrapping around his neck. Ten deepens their kiss, parting his lips and allowing their tongues to meet. It’s unhurried and cautious, as if they’re both still in a state of dreaming.

Johnny returns to reality seconds later when he backs them up, pushing Ten against the wall. Ten gasps at the sudden collision, but arches against him with a moan that Johnny is close to losing it entirely.

Suddenly, Ten pulls away and gently pushes Johnny off, his breaths ragged and his lips swollen. Johnny is about to wonder if he did something wrong until Ten reaches for his hand, a twinkle in his eyes. “It’s not too late for me to give you a birthday present, right?”

Johnny grins like an idiot and nods as Ten drags him to the direction of the bed.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Johnny and Ten arrive at Team Canada’s dining hall the next morning beyond their scheduled time. Their training mates stare at them as if an elephant had appeared right behind them, and Johnny tries to ignore Yuta’s snickers when he looks at Ten, who’s wearing a turtleneck. Yes, that same turtleneck.

(Johnny continues to not be sorry about that.)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Olympic figure skating event finally kicks off with the team event. Mark is set to skate in the team event’s short program, and so are Yuta and Hansol. China is leading after the pairs short program, Canada in second and Russia in third. The arena is half-empty when they arrive; even though a medal is at stake, the team event has yet to be considered an important discipline.

Johnny and Ten navigate the arena seats so they can sit beside Wendy, Seulgi, and Taeil. Sicheng and Kun won’t be arriving until tomorrow, and Doyoung had opted out of the team event because he’d rather watch the individual disciplines. (“Besides,” Doyoung had tweeted a week ago, “what’s the point of watching the team event if I don’t get to watch Jaehyun and Mark’s free skate?”)

Mark is sixth to skate out of all the men. He falls on his quad toe, but the rest of the elements are clean. He doesn’t look frustrated, though, when he skates back to the boards, happily accepting a Pororo plushie a fan was dangling from the stands. His short program score was enough to put him in fourth, and for Canada to stay in second.

They meet Mark and Coach Lee in the lobby when the first day of the team event is over. Mark is supposed to rest for a bit before going back to the practice rink; he has a week left to get into shape for the men’s event. “How was your first Olympic competition?” Johnny asks, an arm around Mark’s shoulders as they walk.

“I fell on my quad toe, but that’s okay, as long as I don’t do that in the actual short program,” Mark says with a grin. “It really is different when you’re in the Olympics.”

“It is, isn’t it?” Johnny is expecting that the green-eyed monster would emerge from within, and he would once again crave to be back in the rink, wish he were there competing with his brother. Somehow, it didn’t come. Maybe he had moved on. Maybe he had finally accepted that he’ll never compete.

For that, he’s glad.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Canada wins the team event, after Patrick Chan, as well as the pairs and ice dance teams, pull a strong free skate. Johnny’s heart swells as Mark stands atop the team podium, with Andrew Poje from the ice dance team ruffling his hair. Mark accepts the medal from the ISU President, and his eyes widen as he lifts it up on eye-level view. It’s not as big-time as an Olympic gold medal in a singles event, but it’s an Olympic gold medal nonetheless.

Mark puts the medal on Johnny when they arrive in their room. “Because you deserve this medal as much as I did,” he explains, grinning and punching him lightly on the arm before heading to the bathroom.

Johnny copies Mark during the victory ceremony and holds the medal up on eye-level view. It’s heavier than how he imagined it to be. The medal had made constant appearances in his dreams when he was a kid, around his neck as he stood atop the podium. He’s older now, and he will never have the chance to skate in any Olympics, but the gold medal in his hands made him feel happy, that at least he helped Mark earn that spot on the podium.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The individual competitions start the next day, starting with pairs, then ice dance. Mark has four more days for run-throughs and some last-minute adjustments in choreography and program layouts. Coach Lee divides his attention between Mark and Ten, but delegates some of Mark’s coaching to Johnny. It’s a strange request at this time of the competition, but Johnny complies anyway since he’s working on Mark’s choreography.

Mark is distracted on the thirteenth, popping lots of jumps during his practice. Johnny prevents himself from blowing up; after that time in Skate America, he knows well enough that Mark doesn’t work well after he’s been yelled at. He lets Mark finish his practice for the short program and the free skate before speaking up. “You look out of it,” he says, handing his brother his bottle of water.

“Um …” Mark looks uncomfortable as he looks over his shoulders. “Can I tell you about it in the locker room? When no one’s around?”

“Okay …?”

He should have expected Mark’s dilemma when he blurts it out in the locker room. “It’s February 14 tomorrow.”

“I know,” Johnny says with a nod. “It’s Jaehyun’s birthday tomorrow.” Doyoung had e-mailed him the details of their birthday lunch for Jaehyun.

“Yeah, and it’s Valentine’s Day,” Mark points out, sighing as if Johnny isn’t aware of the occasion.

“Yeah …? And you suddenly care about Valentine’s Day, why?” Johnny draws a fake gasp. “Oh my god. Are you and Eunji going on a date?”

“Not so loud!” Mark glares at him, his face flaming up as he looks over his shoulder, as if afraid that someone might walk in on their conversation. “Donghyuck has been prodding me to ask Eunji out and … well, we’re going out tomorrow …”

“Dude!” Johnny yells, getting shushed by Mark again in the process. “Finally!” He makes a mental reminder to treat Donghyuck to something. “Where? What time? What are you gonna do?”

“I don’t know, I’m not good with these things—Help?” Mark says helplessly as he wrings his hands.

Johnny thinks in amusement that a date with Eunji is more nerve-wracking for Mark than his first competition in the Olympics. He chuckles. He has waited for this to happen. After years of denial, Mark has actually—finally—asked Eunji out on a date. “My baby brother’s all grown up,” he coos, ruffling his brother’s hair. “I can’t believe this day has come. I should mark this as a life event on Facebook

“Johnny. Shut up.” Mark glares at him. “I need help.”

“Okay, okay, hold on a second.” Johnny tries to calm himself down after laughing before he can talk to Mark properly again. “Let’s get you changed, and then let’s see what you guys can do.”

They didn’t have to plan hard about the date. That day, several bakeries are open, selling a mix of Olympic-themed and Valentine’s Day goodies. A group of Korean artists will be staging a concert in one of the smaller arenas. Restaurants and cafés all over the area are holding Valentine’s Day promos.

They agree to have Eunji and the others tag along to Jaehyun’s birthday lunch, just to ease the tension. After that, they go their separate ways. The rest of the day is up to Mark.

“What if I screw up?” Mark asks. “What if I run out of words to say? What if she doesn’t like me as more than a friend?”

Johnny wants to make fun of Mark panicking, but decides against it, because his brother looks like he’s about to suffer a mental breakdown; he can’t encourage a mental breakdown, not with the competition coming up. “First of all, calm down.” Johnny puts his hands on Mark’s shoulders, and the latter one stops babbling. “Second, it’s your first date. You may or may not screw up, but that’s okay; you’ll learn from that. And third, if Eunji doesn’t like you as more than a friend, it’s not the end of the world. Got it?”

Mark doesn’t look convinced.

Johnny sighs. “You can always ninja-text me when you think the date is going bad. I’ll be in touch.” He then realizes something. “Sort of. I still don’t know what Ten and I are doing tomorrow.” Oops.

Fortunately for him, Ten seems to have forgotten about tomorrow, too. “I only remembered Jaehyun’s birthday,” he says when they meet for dinner after evening practice.

“Of course we can’t forget about Jaehyun’s birthday. Taeyong is gonna strangle us if we do.”

“Yeah, he’d do that.” Ten rolls his eyes. “But, seriously, what are we gonna do? It’s our first Valentine’s together.”

Johnny doesn’t know either. Valentine’s Day is supposed to be this big, special thing for couples who make grand, sweeping gestures to show their love for each other, but he doesn’t see him and Ten that way. Their transition from being friends to more than friends is as natural as gravity that Johnny doesn’t have to buy bouquets of roses or take Ten to the highest place in Korea to show that he loves Ten to the moon and back.

“You know what?” he says. “Let’s wing it tomorrow. After Jaehyun’s birthday lunch, let’s walk around, see what we can do.”

“Improvising is so not like you.” Ten chuckles. “But okay. Let’s wing it.”

The next day, they all gather in the same restaurant they went to in last year’s Four Continents. Doyoung had put up the banners of all February celebrants—including Johnny’s, much to his surprise. Jaehyun’s banner is the biggest of all, a photo of him in his Aladdin costume with the words “A Whole New World with Jaehyun.” From his peripheral vision, Doyoung is beaming as he looks at the banner.

Yuta laughs when Kun also takes out his banner with a photo of Hansol. “I thought this is going to be Jaehyun’s birthday celebration?” he says.

“This is the Olympics,” Seulgi says cheerily. “There are a lot of things we can celebrate—birthdays, ends of careers, gathering of friends …”

“Besides,” Wendy adds, “we are broke. We are not paying for three separate birthday celebrations and one farewell party.” And everyone laughs at that.

Seulgi is right. The Olympics gives them so much to celebrate. It’s a celebration of sports, and everything else that came along with the sport aside from aching muscles and the drive to give the performance of a lifetime. There’s also the people they’ve met and have befriended because of the sport, and the fact that even if anyone of them retired, these people will be more than just people cheering them on in competitions.

Johnny is in the middle of his musings when the door opens. Donghyuck enters, followed by Eunji, Jaemin, and Yeri. He snickers and nudges Mark, who chokes on his samgyupsal.

They part ways a little past noon, the fans going the other direction to hang out some more. Mark glares at them before departing with Eunji, and Johnny puts a hand to his chest, a little overwhelmed. “He’s so grown up now,” he says. “It’s seems like it’s only yesterday when he learned how to skate.”

“And this date is a long time coming,” Donghyuck says, fishing out a beanie and jacket from his bag. “Seriously, they like each other, but they’re too shy to admit it. It’s hard playing third wheel to them, you know?”

“That’s what we felt about these two before they started dating,” Hansol says, gesturing at Johnny and Ten. “If you have any doubt about Johnny and Mark being brothers, this would be the proof you need.” He smirks and ignores Johnny’s glare.

Donghyuck goes on ahead, promising to send lots of photos of the date to them as soon as possible. The six of them go their separate ways, too, because this is what happens when they start going out with each other.

“Winging it” isn’t as bad as Johnny thought it would be. They poke through every street food they can find, buy sweets that suit their fancy, take stupid couple selfies in every landmark they can find. They end the day by settling comfortably on the benches of the park before sunset, Ten’s head on his shoulders, arms wrapped around each other.

“I had fun,” Ten says. Johnny can feel the younger one’s lips curve to a smile.

“Me, too.” Johnny presses a kiss on the top of Ten’s head. “Let’s do more winging it next year.

“Of course.” There’s a long stretch of silence before Ten sighs. “I don’t wanna go to practice yet.”

Johnny doesn’t want the day to end either. “What time do you need to be in the rink?” he asks.

“In thirty minutes …?” Ten releases his grip on Johnny, a hint of playfulness in his eyes. “Why?”

Johnny mentally estimates the distance between the park and the rink; they should have left twenty minutes ago if Ten wants to make it to practice on time. He shrugs—being a little late won’t hurt—says, “Screw it” before leaning in.

“We’re doing this in public?” Ten giggles in between kisses, though he lets a hand drift on Johnny’s nape and kisses back.

Johnny shrugs. He’s about to shove his tongue down Ten’s throat when their phones beep simultaneously, and he swears as he pulls away to fish out that darned gadget. It can only mean two things—Donghyuck has a huge scoop on Mark and Eunji’s date, or Coach Lee asking where Ten is.

There are messages from the two people Johnny is expecting, but he opens Donghyuck’s message first. He almost falls off his seat as he reads the message. Beside him, Ten lets out what Johnny thinks is a squeal (but Ten will never admit that, if asked).

The message reads, “Your baby Mark is all grown up. Happy Valentine’s Day, hyung!” Attached are two photos—Eunji handing Mark a box of chocolates, and Eunji kissing Mark on the cheek.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Finally, the day of the short program has arrived.

The atmosphere is heavy as he, Mark, and Coach Lee board the bus to the Gangneung Ice Arena. Ten arrives two minutes later and squeezes next to Coach Lee, barely greeting him. Hansol, Taeyong, and Jaehyun arrive, but they only manage stiff smiles before heading towards the back of the bus. They won’t be waiting for Yuta—as far as he can remember, Team Japan had already gone ahead.

“Nervous?” Johnny asks. When Mark nods, he pats his hand. “It’s okay. I am, too.”

By the time they arrive, the second group is already starting. Johnny goes with his friends inside the locker room, to help Mark get changed. Even in a locker room, no one barely spoke a word unless it’s asking for someone to get something within their reach.

Coach Lee calls Johnny as Mark starts his off-ice warmup, earphones plug so that he won’t be distracted by the noise. “I want you to take my place by the boards when Mark skates.”

Johnny blinks. He doesn’t expect the coach to be asking him for this kind of favor. “Me?” he clarifies. "Aren’t you his coach?”

“I’ve been made aware.” Coach Lee’s expression is deadpan as he says it. “I may be the coach, but I need someone else by the boards, especially at this time. Besides, Mark and Ten are skating back-to-back, and I can’t be in Mark in the kiss and cry while Ten is warming up.”

“Are you sure this is the right thing to do?” Johnny asks. The last time he had been with Mark by the boards was in Cup of China, and he’s sure Coach Lee is very well aware of how that went. “I mean, won’t Mark feel pressured if I’m there with him?”

“He needs the pressure, and besides”—Coach Lee’s expression softens—“he needs you. He keeps saying you’re in this together, and I’m letting him have his way now.”

Yes, they’re in this together. Mark has continued to trust him even after their argument … “Okay. I’ll do it.”

As expected, Mark’s eyes widen when it’s Johnny who appears with him as the last skater in the second group heads to the kiss and cry. “Where’s Coach Lee?” he asks.

“With Ten in the off-ice warmup,” Johnny says as he waves a hand. “He’s fine, but he has a lot on his hands. I’m his sore substitute.”

“I don’t think you’re a sore substitute,” Mark says, looking confused. “I’m …” His cheeks turn pink as he blurts out, “I’m glad you’re here.”

Johnny smiles. “Me, too.”

Warmup is smooth sailing, with Mark landing all his jumps. Johnny takes the opportunity to glance around. He had seen the crowd during pairs and ice dance, but it’s a full house for the men’s event. He spots Wendy and Seulgi on the other side of the media area, equipment ready, Taeil just above the row of photographers, beside Jackie Wong. Doyoung, Sicheng, and Kun occupy the center of one row, stacks of banners piled in front of them. Chills run down his spine as he takes in everything—he’s not dreaming; he’s in the Olympics.

He’s not here in the way he had dreamt it, but then again, sometimes the dreams you come up with may not be the dreams you leave with.

The warmup ends, and everyone but Mark skates back to the boards. Johnny hands him a bottle of water and his tissue box. Mark says a silent thank you as he drinks out of the bottle and wipes the sweat on his forehead.

Barely a minute later, Mark sets down his water bottle and nods. Johnny can see the fire in his eyes, ready to give a performance of a lifetime.

Suddenly, the announcer’s voice booms all over the arena. “On the ice, representing Canada—Mark Lee!”

Johnny pats Mark on the hand before the younger one skates to the center, arms stretched out as he greets the roaring crowd. Johnny clutches his hands together as the crowd falls silent, and Mark strikes his opening pose to Moonlight Sonata. “Go get ‘em, kid,” he mutters under his breath.

Whatever consistency Mark had with his short program had surprisingly disappeared, though his only undoing was a step-out on the quad—the rest is perfect. The crowd doesn’t seem to mind, but Mark looks disappointed as he skates back to the boards, clutching a teddy bear he had picked up after a fan had thrown it in front of him.

“It’s okay,” Johnny says, wrapping an arm around Mark as they walk to the kiss and cry. Some fans are dangling gifts at them, and Johnny accepts them all in Mark’s stead. “You were great.”

“I screwed up on the quad toe, though.” Mark grimaces as he sits down, looking grateful when Johnny helps him put on his jacket. “I’m usually so confident in the short program. I don’t know why I let the nerves get the better of me.”

“What’s done is done.” Johnny finds his hand on Mark’s shoulder. “Let’s do better in the free skate.”

“Okay,” Mark says, although he doesn’t look convinced. He only relaxes when his scores were announced, placing him in first and qualifying him for the free skate. He manages to smile as he waves to the crowd before following Johnny in the waiting area.

Mark ends up leading after the second group, and it was torturous to wait for the ice to be resurfaced for the third group. When the fifteen minutes are up, Johnny stiffens as his friends’ names are called for the warmup. His heart pounds furiously as the camera pans to Taeyong, to Jaehyun, to Hansol, to Yuta, and to Ten. “Good luck, you guys,” he mutters.

How Johnny had managed to watch the group without combusting is beyond him. Not that his friends’ performances are bad. Yuta and Taeyong skated to personal bests, and Hansol is surprisingly clean (though underscored, in his opinion). Ten had under-rotated his quad sal but managed to land all his jumps, while Jaehyun stepped out on his quad and his triple axel. Mark trails third after Taeyong and Yuta, and the two both step inside the waiting area with satisfied expressions.

By the end of the fifth and final group, Taeyong sits in fifth place, Yuta in eighth, Mark in ninth, Ten in eleventh, Jaehyun in twelfth, and Hansol in sixteenth. They would celebrate the good results, but the free skate is tomorrow—they can celebrate when all this is over.

Mark is unusually quiet when they board the bus back to their hotel room. “You okay?” Johnny asks. He shoots a glance at Coach Lee, who is sitting beside Ten. He seems to be very busy discussing with Ten about what they’re going to do for the evening practice.

Mark doesn’t say anything until they get in their room. “I’m freaking out,” he says. He plops on the edge of his bed, his fingers digging in the fabric of his jeans. “I don’t know what’s gonna happen tomorrow.”

“Me either,” Johnny says. “But you’ll be fine.”

“But what if I screw up?” Mark says, his bottom lip trembling. “I wanted this free skate so bad, and I don’t wanna mess it up. People are looking forward to it. I don’t wanna disappoint them!”

It isn’t like Mark to be this scared in a competition. He can’t have this fear tomorrow. The problem is, Johnny doesn’t know how he’s gonna get Mark back in the right mindset. “You know what?” he says eventually. “Get some rest so you’re ready for evening practice. We’ll talk about this later.”

Mark does as he’s told, limply getting up and grabbing the towel hanging on the rack. Johnny has lied down on his bed—exhausted himself—and is contemplating on calling Ten, but he stops when he hears Mark saying something softly before closing the bathroom door.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Mark is sound asleep when Johnny’s phone beeps, Ten’s name on the notifications. “You doing anything?” he asks.

Johnny is quick to text back. “I’m bored. Wanna meet up?” He doesn’t wait for Ten’s reply, as he quickly gets up and sneaks out of the room, careful not to wake Mark up.

He finds Ten leaning against the lamppost by the center of the village, earphones on as he softly nods to whatever he’s listening. Johnny greets him by plucking one earbud before leaning forward for a quick kiss, which Ten reciprocates. “Hey, you,” he greets, breathlessly, when Johnny pulls away.

“Hey yourself,” Johnny says with a grin. “What time are you supposed to be in the rink?”

“In two hours.” Ten unplugs his earphones and stuffs them in his pocket. “Just thought I’d see you before practice and competition consume us again.”

“You make it sound like we won’t be seeing each other again.” Johnny chuckles as he reaches for Ten’s hand.

“Idiot.” Ten playfully swats him on the arm. “Come on, let’s go for a walk.”

The city is starting to get busier as they stroll along the village. Several restaurants are already packed with fans and probably athletes. Several fans stop them along the way for photo ops, some of them wishing Ten luck for tomorrow’s free skate; others ask Johnny to send their best wishes to Mark. Ten is all smiles as he poses for photos, and he’s in a better mood when fans bid him goodbye.

“They keep me from freaking out,” Ten says when the fans are out of earshot. “They want me to do my best, and I have to do it.”

“Knowing you, you’ll be fine.” Johnny smiles. “You’ve come so far. I’m proud of you.”

Ten laughs. “You’re being dramatic.”

“Yet, you’re dating me, princess.”

“Shut up, fatass.”

They head to Ten’s accommodations just as the sun has set completely. Johnny is reluctant to let go, but he does. “We’ll probably only be able to talk to each other after the competition, so, good luck.”

“Good luck to Mark, too,” Ten says. “See you later.”

“Got it.” Johnny leans in for a quick kiss before Ten closes the door. Maybe he should have said something more, but words shouldn’t be that necessary, right?

Ten knows Johnny believes in him, and Johnny hopes that will suffice.

Mark is awake when he returns, looking a little more relaxed than earlier. At least, that’s what Johnny likes to believe. He acts as normally as he possibly can, prodding Mark to get up and going lest they miss the next bus to the practice rink.

“He’s petrified,” Johnny tells Coach Lee when they run into each other for practice. He glances at Mark, who lands all his jumps, but without the usual excitement he had seen from his brother in his previous practices. “I’ve never seen him this scared before. He doesn’t want to disappoint everyone who’s looking forward to his free skate.” He doesn’t mention Mark’s words earlier.

“The pressure is getting to him,” Coach Lee says as he glances at Mark as well. “This is why I want you with him. You know him best.”

“What if I don’t know what to say?” Johnny believes in Mark, but what else can he say aside from, “You’ll do great, I believe in you”?

Coach Lee doesn’t seem to be cooperative. “You’ll figure it out,” he says, before waving him away.

Johnny leans against the boards and watches Mark, just in time for Viva La Vida to play. A wave of nostalgia hits him. Four years ago, that could have been him at the center of the rink, skating to this music. It would have been his big break. He may not have been a podium favorite, but that would have made a name for himself, would have shown everyone that Johnny Seo is the next name to watch out for

His time has passed. Now, it’s Mark skating to this music in possibly the biggest break of his life. It’s his turn to make a name for himself now, to prove that he’s not just Johnny Seo’s little brother …

Johnny stands up straighter as realization dawns on him.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Less than ten hours later, they are up and ready for the free skate.

Hansol had gone ahead in the second group, while Mark, Yuta, Jaehyun, and Ten warm up off-ice. Johnny had stayed behind while Coach Lee watches over Mark and Ten, eyes glued to the television screen in the lobby. This is the final skate of Hansol’s competitive career; he can’t miss it for the world.

It’s the best free skate of Hansol’s career. Johnny watches as Hansol fights for every element, making every jump, spin, and sequence worth it. He tries to blink back tears as Hansol strikes his final pose, then cries as he pumps his fist in the air. The camera pans to a screaming and jumping Kun waving his banner, then back to Hansol, who had laid down on the ice, shoulders heaving as he sobs.

There’s a hand on Johnny’s shoulder, and he turns to see Yuta standing beside him, eyes sparkling as he blinks profusely. “Aren’t you supposed to be getting ready?” he asks.

“I missed his skate,” Yuta says, “but I’m not missing this for the world.”

Hansol is already seated in the kiss and cry, hugging a frog plushie as he talks animatedly to his coach, who has handed him the tissue box. He then faces the camera and calls everyone in VSC, thanking them for everything. Hansol’s eyes widen and his jaw drops when his scores are announced—a personal best—and he jumps up to wave to the crowd before his coach ushers him in the green room.

And just like that, it’s over.

“Well.” Yuta clears his throat and gently rubs the side of his right eye with his finger. “Time to get ready for the warmup. See you later, Johnny.”

Mark is quiet as the group heads to the rink for the warmup. His forehead is scrunched as he attempts to take off on his jumps, and most attempts end up in falls. He’s overthinking. Johnny has to pull him out of the rink and clear his head somehow. Now that he’s last to skate in the third group, he has lots of time.

Ten is the third to skate in the group. He pays no attention to the television backstage, instead attempting jumps on the mat. By the time the second skater has started on the ice, Coach Lee pulls him aside for a talk. Johnny can’t make out whatever Coach Lee is saying, but he can see Ten nodding at almost every word.

Johnny manages to grab Ten’s hand before he heads out of the rink. “Good luck,” he says as he squeezes Ten’s hand. “Go get ‘em, Chittaphon.”

Ten smiles at him. He’s dazzling in his traditional Thai costume, and Johnny wants nothing more but to lean in and kiss Ten like crazy. But there’s going to be time for that later. “Thanks,” he says, squeezing Johnny’s hand as well before heading to the rink.

Johnny doesn’t settle for the television screen backstage and follows Ten and Coach Lee out, though he stays by the volunteers’ side. He takes a deep breath as Ten skates to the center of the rink after his name is called, and he lets out the breath as the audience quiets down, before Thai music starts playing in the rink.

Just like Hansol’s performance, Ten’s is just as spectacular. He moves like the wind, effortlessly landing jump after jump. Johnny yells and cheers for every element covered, clapping the hardest when Ten gives it his all in his closing step sequence.

When it’s all over, Ten is beaming. Johnny’s hands are too sore from clapping hard, and he could have sworn the arena is about to go down anytime because of the crowd’s deafening cheers. Ten skates around the center as if to calm himself before taking his bow. He catches Johnny’s gaze, and Ten gives him a thumbs-up.

“It’s gonna be hard skating after that,” Jaehyun says with a nervous laugh before the volunteer opens the other entrance to the ice for his warmup. “Wish me luck, Johnny!”

Johnny barely has the time to answer, because Ten’s scores are announced—a five-point difference from his previous personal best. He would have wanted to rush to the kiss and cry, but he won’t be seeing Ten until after someone kicks him out of the top three, or until Mark gets in the top three. There will be time.

Right now, he should be getting back to Mark.

He heads back inside and finds Coach Lee talking to Mark, the former’s hands on the latter’s shoulders. Mark is nodding to whatever Coach Lee is telling him, but Johnny can still see the fear in his brother’s eyes. Coach Lee turns to him and nods, giving Mark’s shoulders a gentle pat before gesturing towards him.

Johnny faces his younger brother, managing a smile. “Hey,” he says.

“Hey,” Mark returns softly.

“You nervous?”

Mark gulps. “Terrified.”

“Why’s that? Because of the crowd? Because everyone is looking forward to the free skate and you’re pressured to do well?”

“Yeah, and …” Mark trails off, avoiding his gaze. His words from back in their room yesterday echo in his mind, but Johnny waits for Mark to say it himself. “If I tell you the real reason, you won’t get mad, promise?”

“I promise I won’t.”

Mark leans against the wall, pausing when he hears cheers from back in the rink. Jaehyun must have gotten a good score. Johnny is reminded of Mark’s first competition as a novice skater, bottom lip trembling as he’s close to crying, close to deciding to withdraw.

“This is our Olympic dream, right? We worked on this free skate together. If I screw up … then it wouldn’t be the dream we imagined—you imagined—and you’ll be disappointed. I don’t wanna disappoint you.”

Johnny doesn’t expect the words to hit him that hard. In the end, Mark is still thinking about him, and it’s unfair. Mark is starting to make a name for himself, yet he continues to think about Johnny, to help Johnny get to his own dream, to keep Johnny present even in his free skate music … Sometimes Johnny thinks he doesn’t deserve Mark for a brother.

Johnny shakes his head and he reaches for Mark’s hands. “You listen to me carefully,” he says, “and before you skate, keep in mind what I’m about to say, alright?”

Mark nods meekly.

“Yes, this is our Olympic dream, and I’m really thankful that you helped me reach it, even if it’s a way I didn’t imagine. But right now, it’s you taking to the ice, not me. I want you to skate for yourself, got that?”

Mark blinks rapidly, his eyes getting watery.

“I’ve achieved my Olympic dream,” Johnny continues, blinking rapidly himself. “Now it’s time for you to go after yours.”

Mark is about to say something, but they hear Coach Lee calling them to be on standby. He fishes out a handkerchief to dab the edge of his eyes before Johnny gestures him to follow their coach.

They emerge just in time to hear the crowd’s cheers, where Yuta is giving a fiery step sequence. Johnny glances at Mark, whose expression is deadpan as he watches on. When Yuta pumps his fist in the air after his performance, and it starts raining stuffed toys in the arena, Johnny pats Mark on the shoulder before he takes to the ice for his warmup.

It barely feels like a moment when Yuta’s scores are announced—eight points higher than his previous personal best. Johnny takes a deep breath as Mark skates by his side, taking a sip from his water bottle. “Mark,” he says.

“Yeah?” Mark dabs his forehead with tissue paper then sets the crumpled piece down.

“You’ll do great. Trust yourself on that.”

Mark nods, and Johnny almost jumps in surprise when his brother clutches his hand as the announcer calls his name.

Johnny clutches his hands together and takes another deep breath just as Mark strikes his opening pose. Go get ‘em, Mark.

The first few notes start to play, and Johnny can already tell that Mark’s movements are … different. Every gesture seems to have more emotion and determination. Then Mark sets up for his quad toe-triple toe, and lands it. Johnny jumps in place as the crowd goes wild. “Yes!”

Mark lands jump after jump, and Johnny thinks it’s getting hard to breath now that his heart is pumping faster and faster. He wipes his eyes with his sleeve just as Mark gets to the step sequence, his favorite part of the choreography. He and Ten have made the step sequence reminiscent of his free skate, but now, Johnny can no longer see himself skating it—now, all he can see is Mark.

The crowd is on their feet before Mark can even finish his program. When it’s all over, his knees give in, and he falls to the ice, hands on his face as he takes in everything that has happened. Behind the ISU officials, Johnny can see that Wendy and Seulgi have snuck out of the media area so they can wave the banner “Viva La Mark.”

Mark looks like he’s still in a daze until a stuffed toy lands in front of him. Johnny watches as he picks it up with shaking hands before he smiles and waves to the crowd. Johnny is shaking himself as he waits for Mark before pulling his brother to a hug as soon as he gets to the boards. Mark starts sobbing on his shoulder, and Johnny would have wanted to make fun of him for it if he wasn’t crying himself.

“We did it,” Mark tells him, voice cracking. “We did it, Johnny.”

Johnny shakes his head. “No, Mark. You did it.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Johnny finds himself outside Gangneung Ice Arena in the early morning the next day. It’s a miracle how he had managed to get up at six in the morning, given how they all stayed up late for celebrations and had barely gotten any sleep afterwards, still high from the adrenaline rush of the competition. Mark had ended up placing sixth overall, and his friends placed pretty well—Taeyong surprised everyone (even himself) by winning the bronze medal, Yuta placed seventh, and Ten, Jaehyun, and Hansol in tenth to twelfth.

“There you are.”

Johnny looks over his shoulder. He smiles and puts a hand up in greeting as Coach Lee approaches him. His coach has dark circles under his eyes—he hasn’t slept a wink either, Johnny presumes—but he looks more relaxed now since … Johnny can’t remember the last time his coach had looked this relaxed.

“Where’s Mark?” Coach Lee asks once he’s standing beside Johnny, looking at how enormous the arena is from where they’re standing.

“He’s with Eunji,” Johnny says. He chuckles at the memory of Mark being over the moon when Eunji let their fingers intertwine as they left for early breakfast. “They’ll be with us in a while.”

A small smile plays on Coach Lee’s lips as he shakes his head. “It’s been a good two weeks, huh?” he says.

“It’s been unforgettable,” Johnny replies. He’s reluctant to take the flight back home to Vancouver, even though there’s a hero’s welcome waiting for their team. He wants to turn back time and experience the Olympics one more time, because it’s going to be another four long years until the next Olympics in Beijing. He’s not even sure if Mark is looking forward to Beijing, and he’s in no rush to talk to him about it.

“What now?” Coach Lee asks. “We’ll go home, attend a few celebrations, then what?”

That question again. Not that Johnny’s tired of it; it’s just that back then he was looking for that one sign that will answer that question. When Mark took to the ice for his free skate, he thinks he finally found it.

“Hey, Coach?” he says. “How did you know you wanted to be a coach?”

Coach Lee doesn’t look surprised, like he had expected Johnny to ask that question. “It’s funny, because I had that realization before my free skate at Salt Lake,” he says. “My coach was giving me this pep talk. I realized how important fulfilling my dream was, but it wouldn’t have been possible if I didn’t have the right person by my side. And with my career ending, I wanted to be that right person for that one skater.” He grins at Johnny. “Coincidentally, you were my first charge.”

Johnny smiles at the memory of being introduced to Coach Lee, still young and hopeful. He realizes he had never thanked his coach for everything, up to his retirement. “I couldn’t imagine anyone else coaching me,” he says. “I’m grateful that I was able to work with you.”

“Are you saying we’re ending our partnership now?” Coach Lee quips. “We’re still working together, right?”

“Ha, ha. Right.”

“I’ve seen you talk with Mark last night,” his former coach continues. “I think coaching is something you should consider.”

“I’ll give it some more thought when we get home,” Johnny says though, in truth, he had already signed up for the first batch of classes in Skate Canada. He doesn’t know how he’ll squeeze in classes in between Mark’s schedule, but Mark will understand. He had asked Johnny to be his manager so that Johnny can reconnect with the sport he loves, and it worked. All Johnny wants is to catch up with figure skating, contribute to the sport, push Mark to be his best until the time comes Mark will start thinking about life beyond competing.

“I’ve told you what I think, but make sure you’ll make a decision based on what you want, and not because anyone told you that the job fits you,” Coach Lee says. “Remember, you will be in charge of someone, and that someone is going to trust you with the direction of their career.”

Johnny remembers Mark when he was four, hand tight on his as he glided to the ice for the first time. He remembers Mark wide-eyed after his bronze-medal finish in JGPF, wondering if this is going to change his life. He remembers Mark full of energy as Johnny teaches him the new free skate choreography. He remembers Mark trusting him on every step of the way.

Johnny remembers feeling light and free during those times. He remembers how fulfilling it was to see Mark not just make huge strides in improvement. He loves it the most to see Mark skate because he loves skating. Johnny wants to see that all the time—he may not have fully attained his dream to be the best skater he can be, but he can at least help Mark, and maybe someone else in the future, to fulfill that dream.

“Yeah,” he finally says. “I will. Thanks, Coach”

“Johnny! Coach Lee!” Johnny looks over his shoulder to find Ten running towards him, looking like he hadn’t slept a wink either. “There you are! Taeyong said they’re already inside.”

“Right, let’s go.”

They run into Mark and Eunji (holding hands, Johnny wants to point out) by the entrance, and they follow Ten towards the athletes’ entrance and into the rink. The area is dim, the seats void of people, but a small crowd has gathered at the center of the rink.

Yuta spots them and waves. “Come on, you guys, hurry up! Put on your skates and get in here!”

“This is embarrassing!” Hansol says, hands on his cheeks as more and more people start to gather—the fans close to them (with Doyoung mentioning he officially hates the Olympics because it made him cry too many times), some younger skaters from Korea, and of course, the rest of Team VSC. “I just wanted a small gathering!”

Yuta chuckles and puts an arm around Hansol’s shoulders. “Babe, with the many people who love you, it’s impossible to have a small gathering.”

“All right, places, everyone!” Taeyong tells everyone in attendance. “We’re about to start Hansol’s retirement ceremony!”

Everyone forms a circle in the rink, with Hansol skating at the center. Soon, people start coming forward with their speeches, some just short messages of “Good luck, we’ll miss you!” while others are longer, more heartfelt. Hansol is already bawling during his coach’s speech, and there is no dry eye in the rink at that moment.

He, Yuta, Taeyong, Jaehyun, and Ten are the last ones to give their speeches—it’s the six of them, after all, who have trained together the longest. How they’ll be able to survive a season with Hansol in Korea is beyond him. Just like what Ten had told him before, there’ll be another bigger, gaping hole when they return to the rink for training, and it will never disappear. But that’s life; it will go on, but the memories will stay.

“Johnny.”

“Hmm?” Johnny blinks and sees Ten looking at him with amusement. In the background, Hansol had cupped Yuta’s face with his hands and now they’re kissing. Taeyong is attempting to break the two apart because “there are kids watching.”

“Your turn to say something,” Ten laughs, giving Johnny a gentle shove forward. “Or else the two over there will spend the whole ceremony making out.”

“Right.” He glances at everyone in the rink, then to Hansol, then takes a deep breath. He didn’t have a speech prepared beforehand—he didn’t have the time to make one—but he knows what he wants to say.

“Yuta actually asked me to be the last to make the speech because, you’ve know, I’ve been there,” he begins, “though not in the way I wanted it to.” He laughs nervously. “Anyway, enough about me. The rest of Team VSC already shared the memories we’ve had with you, so I’m not gonna repeat that. But just so everyone knows, Hansol and I have known each other since our JGP years, and I’ll look back at those times when we can’t even jump a double axel and laugh about it.

“Retirement isn’t going to be easy. It’s like the worst break-up ever. It’s like something inside you died. You’ll wake up early in the morning when you don’t even have to, and sometimes you’ll unconsciously reach for your boots even though you’re not supposed to wear them anymore. You’ll get sad whenever your friends post updates of them skating. You’ll get constant reminders of the life you used to live, and sometimes you’ll wonder why you stopped at all.

“But you’ll be fine.” Johnny smiles. “You’re one of the strongest people I’ve ever met. That, and you have an amazing group of friends who you can always run to when life gets hard.” He glances at his friends; Ten is crying (again), Taeyong gives him a thumbs-up, and Jaehyun and Yuta return his smile. “Just say the word, and we’ll be there.”

After Hansol makes his speech, Yuta takes him by the hand and drags him for his “retirement lap” in the rink. Hansol loses it when Bolero blares all over the arena, while everyone else claps along. Mark scoots next to Johnny, giving him a grin and a light punch on the arm. Suddenly, Ten takes his hand and drags him along the “retirement lap” as well, because he didn’t get a proper retirement ceremony years ago.

“You’ll be fine,” he had told Hansol. Maybe Johnny wants to tell that to himself, too. Retirement was something he wasn’t prepared for, but here he is now, looking forward to what’s about to come.

He’ll be fine.

-End-