The first time Johnny sees Mark Lee, he’s crowded up against the wall of a fancy ballroom, being given an enthusiastic lecture by Yunho-sunbaenim that includes a lot of handwaving, exclamation points, and some dance moves Johnny wouldn’t want to attempt without stretching first. Having been on the receiving end of a few of these lectures over the years, he immediately interprets Mark’s expression as a cry for help.
“Ah, hello, excuse me for interrupting Yunho-sunbaenim, Taeil-hyung was just looking for you, I told him I’d direct you his way if I saw you…” is all it takes for Yunho-sunbaenim to straighten out of the splits he’d been in the middle of demonstrating. He offers Mark a smile and a few encouraging words, patting his head enthusiastically.
After a moment of indecision, Yunho-sunbaenim pats Johnny’s head too and then strides off into the crowd. Taeil isn’t actually looking but he’ll definitely be glad to see him. The friendship between him and Yunho-sunbaenim is a source of inexplicable confusion for the members (and envy, on Yuta’s part) but it seems to work and it’ll definitely keep them both occupied for the rest of the evening.
Instead of disappearing, Mark is still there when Johnny turns around, his brow furrowed in confusion as he looks between Johnny and the crowd of people behind him. It occurs to Johnny that he looks uncomfortable at this glamorous party surrounded by some of the most important Korean celebrities.
“You looked like you needed the rescue,” Johnny offers when it becomes apparent that Mark won’t make use of his opportunity to escape. He says it in English on a whim, thinking that it may be Korean and not the celebrities that are giving Mark trouble.
He’s rewarded for his trouble when the confusion on Mark’s face melts into a smile that’s so breathtakingly sweet that a man less used to Donghyuck’s aegyo might simply fall to his knees.
“Oh, man, thank you,” Mark says, and his eyes actually seem to sparkle in the light from the chandeliers, “he seemed nice but honestly my Korean isn’t very good and I’m really out of practice.”
He somehow comes across as genuinely contrite and embarrassed that he couldn’t understand Yunho-sunbae’s meandering lecture, never mind the fact that it probably included at least three separate references to mythological generals and several citations from esoteric self-help books. Johnny is endeared.
“I know how that is,” Johnny offers carefully. “I came here as a trainee only knowing the little Korean we spoke at home. The adjustment was hard. Slang and dialect, you know?”
Mark nods enthusiastically. “Yeah, those are the most difficult for me,” he says, “but also I just don’t have the vocabulary and it seems kind of rude to whip my phone out and refer to my dictionary at a place like this.”
He indicates the ballroom around them, the golden accents on the walls and twinkling lights, posh waiters hurrying through the crowds with full platters of food and drink. Johnny is again struck by the feeling that he seems uncomfortable with all of it.
“I’m sure anyone you talk to would make an effort,” he says before he can think it through. “You’re Mark Lee, after all.”
Mark’s eyes widen. “You know who I am?” he asks and he seems so genuinely surprised that it startles a laugh out of Johnny, shakes him a little out of the persona he usually projects at events like these.
“Yeah, dude, of course, I know who you are, you’re pretty much the reason hockey jerseys are the newest hot fashion item in South Korea,” Johnny says, and it’s true. Mark Lee is in every single sports newscast that Jungwoo sometimes insists they watch at the dorm. Johnny’s seen every member of Dream walk around in a hockey jersey this week, except Chenle, who obviously insists basketball is superior.
Johnny’s seen Mark’s face, up on billboards and on TV, the sports anchors full of praise on what a good skater he is, on his brilliant scoring ability. The buzz started when Mark got drafted by the New York Rangers and truly exploded when he came back home to captain the national team and lead them through a few unexpected victories.
“I didn’t even know South Korea cared about hockey,” Mark says, stuttering over his words a little bit. Johnny notices he’s not wearing make-up, not even a little bit of BB cream, so the blush on his cheeks really stands out.
He’s heard people talk about Mark Lee a lot, but honestly, Johnny hasn’t ever heard anyone say what a cute blush he’s got.
“South Korea started caring because of you,” Johnny says, just to see Mark splutter and blush redder. “I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but you’re kind of a big deal?”
The joke makes Mark laugh, some of the tension unwinding from his shoulders as he takes a sip from his glass of water. Johnny is content to look at him for a moment, the sounds from the rest of the room filtering in. He can hear Doyoung and Taeyong bickering from somewhere nearby.
“Sorry, you kind of have me at a disadvantage,” Mark says, smiling a little apologetically, “you know who I am, but I don’t know you, even though I probably should.”
Johnny snorts. “Nah, it’s okay,” he says because he wouldn’t expect Mark to recognize him anyway. If he were someone like Taeyong or Donghyuck, then maybe, but Johnny is content to stay at the peripherals of the masses. “I’m NCT. Johnny Suh.”
He sticks his hand out to shake, thinking it might make Mark more comfortable. Mark’s hand is smaller but his handshake is strong, his fingers calloused. Johnny isn’t the first to let go.
“Didn’t you have a hockey concept last year?” Mark asks, and Johnny is honestly a little surprised that he knows.
“Not my unit,” Johnny says, shrugging it off with the practiced motion of someone that’s used to not being included. “But, I’ll tell the boys that Mark Lee is a fan, they’re gonna be really excited.”
Mark laughs slightly. “You’re exaggerating,” he says like it’s inconceivable to him that people would be excited that he knows them. “Uh, sorry, I know I was supposed to ask up front, but when were you born?”
“In ‘95. I’m older than you,” Johnny says, then bites his tongue because somehow telling Mark that Johnny knows his age is a little embarrassing. Like Johnny keeps up with him, or something.
“Oh, uh, so, Johnny-hyung?” Mark tries, stumbling over the honorific.
“Let’s just talk freely,” Johnny says. He drops honorifics with the members sometimes too. It’s not a big deal. “You should probably use hyung when we’re in front of other people, but I don’t mind you calling me Johnny.”
“Johnny,” Mark repeats thoughtfully. Johnny takes a sip of his drink, hopefully disguising the expression on his face. “Where are you from, Johnny?”
“Chicago,” Johnny says, endeared by the way Mark’s face scrunches up.
“Oh, are you a Blackhawks fan?” Mark asks, playing with the stem of his glass. The crystal surface is marred with his fingertips.
“I wasn’t really a hockey fan when I lived in the US,” Johnny says, smiling slightly, “if anything, I’d say I’m a Rangers fan.”
Johnny is flirting. He can’t quite help it. It’s worth a little risk for the way Mark sputters. “Oh, man, thank you for your support,” Mark says and laughs awkwardly.
Johnny is just opening his mouth to say something else, probably as embarrassingly flirty as he’s been this whole conversation, but a professional-looking lady appears at Mark’s elbow, looking harried. “There you are, Mark-sii,” she says as Mark shrinks in on himself, “we’ve been looking everywhere for you.”
And then Mark is being whisked away, throwing one last desperate glance at Johnny over his shoulder. “It was nice meeting you, Johnny,” he says. “I’ll see you around!”
“I’ll see you around,” Johnny echoes belatedly, even though Mark is long gone. He stays at the edge of the crowd, lost in thought, as the chandelier lights sparkle off the golden decorations until Doyoung comes to get him because they have to go home.
Johnny wins the front seat because everyone else is too tired to argue about it. Most of the van is asleep, leaving Taeyong checking through his phone, and their manager fiddling with his seatbelt, while Johnny picks out the music for the ride. There’s a tap to his elbow, and his manager hands him a piece of paper.
“What’s this?” Johnny asks.
“A KakaoTalk ID,” his manager says, backing the car out of the parking space.
“I thought you weren’t allowed to give me fans’ phone numbers,” Johnny jokes. The manager rolls his eyes.
“It’s from Mark Lee’s agent,” he says.
“Oh,” Johnny says, and suddenly the little strip of paper seems infinitely more special. He takes care to type the ID in correctly, checking twice if he’s got it right. Mark’s picture is of him with a cute dog. For some reason, Johnny thought it’d be hockey related.
‘Hi, this is Johnny,’ is what he ends up texting, and because he’s lame, ‘that’s a cute dog.’
Mark texts back right away. ‘Hi Johnny! It’s my teammate’s dog actually, I don’t own a dog. I don’t actually have an apartment yet, I’m still boarding, but I think I might want to get a dog once I have one. The teammate I’m staying with has two though, do you want to see pictures?’
Mark sends a series of pictures of admittedly cute dogs and a few really rambly texts including one where he rambles through apologizing for rambling. Johnny doesn’t have to try really hard to keep his poker face, because everyone except the manager is asleep. He thinks he would have failed anyway.
So, sometimes Johnny texts with Mark Lee. It’s not a thing.
Timezones make it weird but Johnny’s schedule isn’t anything resembling normal especially on the cusp of a comeback, or during one. In contrast, Mark’s every day is almost painfully regimented. They make it work.
It turns out that there’s a lot they have in common. Mark’s fitness regime is set up differently, focused on functionality rather than aesthetic, but there’s enough overlap that Johnny can pick up some tips. There’s not a lot that he can tell Mark about his own body, but he likes that Mark listens to him when he’s trying to choose between two similar brands of protein blends.
Mark is also surprisingly knowledgeable about Korean pop music pre-2012. He confesses, a little shyly, that it’s something that brought him comfort when he was struggling with his identity in a hockey environment that was and remains predominantly white.
Johnny sends him an old photo he took with Taemin and Mark just about loses his mind.
The inner workings of Mark’s life are fascinating - the rigorous schedule, the workouts, the bustle of a game day after the season starts - it all reminds Johnny a little of touring, except for how it’s nothing like it.
What surprises him is that Mark seems equally as interested in Johnny’s lifestyle, even when Johnny carefully exposes him to the shittier parts of it. It almost feels like, among all of Johnny’s friends who aren’t idols, Mark is the one who gets it. He understands why Johnny has to be up at 5 am to go in for hair and makeup, or how boring the long hours before a performance are.
It’s novel, having someone in his life that isn’t his family or the members that he can talk to and not be worried that it’ll appear in a magazine somewhere. Mark is safe in how he’s totally removed from an environment that Johnny has cultivated a persona for. And before Johnny even realizes what he’s doing, there are pieces of himself he allows to slip that haven’t seen the light of day in a decade.
SM seems committed to milking the hockey concept as far as it’ll take them, so somewhere mid-April Johnny finds himself in a hockey jersey and full hockey regalia, sweating uncomfortably as he toddles across the ice in a small rented arena near Seoul. It’s just for a photoshoot, not for an actual comeback. The jerseys are Rangers colors, with no names on the back. Donghyuck takes some pictures as he glides effortlessly across the ice. Johnny hadn’t even known he could skate.
Johnny gets him to send them to his phone, so he can text them to Mark. Mark replies with a string of emojis and a blurry selca. A week later, there’s a delivery at the dorm. It’s a jersey, in Rangers blue, and when Johnny unfolds it, it’s got Mark’s name on the back.
He wears it almost every day.
NCT 127 is booked to play Madison Square Garden in late autumn, with a free day after to spend as they like. Johnny tentatively texts Mark about hanging out, trying to keep his expectations low.
Mark replies with ticket booking information for the whole group for the Rangers game on their day off. And the implication that he’d be open to hanging out with Johnny afterward.
Johnny starts walking around the dorms with a spring in his step. Ten keeps giving him knowing looks whenever he meets him in the hallways. Johnny knows he’s being transparent but he can’t quite help it. The prospect of being able to see Mark again makes him buoyant for reasons he’s not quite ready to articulate to anyone. Not even to Taeyong who cautions him to be careful with a tone so gentle and worried that Johnny doesn’t have it in him to get upset about it.
So, sometimes Johnny flirts with Mark Lee. It’s not a thing.
He tells himself it’s just an extension of their dynamic from their first meeting. That it’s not weird when he tells Mark he looks cute sometimes just for the way Mark’s voice stutters through the phone call.
It’s not strange that he sends Mark his best selfies, the ones he doesn’t use for photocards or social media. It’s just pride in his hard work when Mark compliments him on his body and it sends warmth pooling to the base of his stomach.
It’s not a thing when he’s got his eyes shut in the darkness of his dorm room, and Mark’s wide guileless eyes and sweet smile are the only things he can think of.
It’s not a thing when Mark starts to flirt back.
It’s not until later that it occurs to Johnny to ask Mark to guest in an episode of JCC. He suggests it as a joke since Mark has been acing all of his media appearances lately because of Johnny coaching him through the best tips that SM’s acting classes had to offer.
He’s surprised at how quickly Mark agrees to do it. The rest is just logistics, better handled by their managers and Mark’s agent until the day comes and Johnny is sitting on a park bench in Central Park.
It’s the end of November and it’s cold, Johnny’s breath misting up in front of him. It’s early, the last vestiges of weak autumn sunshine breaking through the trees. Johnny has to be on stage in twelve hours. Most of his members were still asleep when he walked out of their rented house in the morning, rubbing the sleep from his eyes. His manager is idling nearby, nursing his cup of coffee and presumably keeping an eye on any rabid fans, not that there’s anyone here this early, except some very enthusiastic joggers.
Johnny takes a sip of his coffee, lets it warm him up from the inside, as he wonders for the hundredth time if this is a good idea. Their texts and calls are no way to tell if he and Mark actually have any chemistry in real life. That time at the gala could have just been a fluke. Maybe Johnny has been seeing more in their interactions than what’s actually there.
Johnny looks up, and there’s Mark, wrapped up snug in a warm-looking jacket, a beanie pulled over his ears. He’s pink-cheeked from the cold and his smile is wide enough to warm Johnny more than his coffee.
He’s so glad to see him.
“Hey,” Johnny breathes out. He knows he’s smiling too wide but he can’t seem to stop, as Mark smiles back and moves to sit on the bench next to him. “I brought you some hot chocolate.”
“Not coffee?” Mark asks, accepting the takeaway cup. He takes a sip and smiles. The sunshine seems to linger on his cheeks, highlighting his cheekbones, lighting up his eyes.
“You don’t like coffee,” Johnny says automatically. “And you’d never drink it before your morning workout.”
Mark’s shy smile tells him he got it right. “I’m sorry if I’m late,” he says instead of replying. “I’m never very good at telling how long walking anywhere will take.”
“You walked here?” Johnny asks, raising an eyebrow. “Isn’t that really far?”
“Nah, man,” Mark says, shrugging, “my apartment is really near, just down that way.”
He points and Johnny follows the movement of his finger but he’s thinking about Mark’s apartment. The apartment he got a virtual tour of before even Mark’s parents visited. The apartment where Mark’s bed is, sheets perpetually messy -
Johnny’s manager clears his throat, startling Johnny out of his thoughts. Johnny hurries to introduce him to Mark.
“We should probably start recording,” Johnny says, even though he wants to call the whole thing off, send his manager away, and spend time with Mark alone instead.
“Oh, right, yeah,” Mark says, eyes darting around before they settle back on Johnny’s face. “So how do we do this?”
“I turn on the camera and introduce you, and then I thought we could go for a walk and talk for a bit. Maybe get some brunch?” Johnny says, fiddling with the selfie stick.
“Oh,” Mark frowns slightly, “is that it?”
“Yeah, did you expect something more?” Johnny says, slightly bemused. “I guess it’s not the TV crews you’re used to…”
“ Stooop ,” Mark whines, nudging his side. His cheeks are dusted pink again, and this time it can’t be all from the cold. “I just meant that it’s usually so much more complicated. You make it sound so easy.”
“It’s all easy when it’s with me,” Johnny says, and he knows it’s cheesy but it makes Mark laugh, so it’s okay. “Ready?”
Mark nods, and Johnny pushes the recording button.
“Hello, Johfam,” he starts, “welcome to another episode of Johnny’s Communication Center. Uh, today we’re out here, in New York, in Central Park. Today we have a very special guest...Mark Lee.”
He moves the camera so it’ll include Mark in the shot, and Mark waves shyly, letting out a small, “Hello!”
“Yes, viewers, you’re seeing it right, international hockey superstar Mark Lee is today’s guest on our humble program. We’re here on his stomping ground, the Big Apple, New Your City,” he turns to Mark, who’s already giggling into his hands. “What do you have to say for yourself, Mark?”
“Welcome!” Mark says, but then he’s laughing too hard to talk and burying his head into Johnny’s shoulder, and it’s probably not going to make for great content but Johnny feels like he’s lighter than air.
They spend almost two hours together, not all of them filming. Mark loosens up enough on their walk that he manages to answer some questions from Johnny. He even goes on a rambling tangent at some point, which Johnny definitely intends to leave in, despite Mark’s embarrassed protests.
Johnny gets to take Mark to brunch at a trendy restaurant that allows them to film, and when they’re done eating, he insists on paying, pulling the hyung card despite the fact that Mark hasn’t called him that since their first meeting.
It’s way past time to go but Johnny still lingers, the camera turned off, trying to ignore his increasingly agitated manager because Mark is real and in front of him. Johnny couldn’t have imagined the way he leans into Johnny’s side as he laughs at Johnny’s jokes. He couldn’t have fathomed his warmth, the way his eyes sparkle and drop to Johnny’s mouth as he’s speaking.
Johnny only sees Mark for a couple of minutes before he’s set to go up on stage and Mark has both a teammate and his team’s publicist with him. They’ve brought all of NCT jerseys, and Johnny thinks about the one he has at home as he tries not to stare too obviously at Mark’s profile. They get to take a couple of pictures with Mark, and then they’re waving him goodbye, rushing to change all the way into their concert outfits. Probably for the better honestly, from the meaningful looks that Donghyuck, Yuta, and even Taeyong, keep shooting in Johnny’s direction.
It’s a good show. Then again, it always is, because Johnny would like to think that they’re all professional enough to bring their best to the stage every night. Jungwoo’s mic jams at some point and Jaehyun stumbles over some stairs but it’s alright because the fans are singing along and Mark is somewhere among them, and Johnny can’t let himself think about that because he thinks he’ll get distracted.
Still, the collective gasp that fills the arena when Johnny rips off his buttons during Punch is an excellent boost to his ego. He looks good and he knows it. He’s worked hard for the body he has, and in the hot spotlight of the stage lights, under the gaze of thousands, Johnny feels loved.
The comedown from that is harsh but they’re all used to it. The lights go dark and the cheers fade, and Johnny takes desperate swings from his water bottle as the sweat begins to dry on his skin, his body cooling down rapidly in the cold temperatures of backstage. There’s smeared makeup on his face, running despite all the fixing their stylists do, and there’s not a part of him that isn’t sweaty and starting to ache.
So, predictably, that’s when he runs into Mark.
Mark is alone this time, leaning against the wall to their dressing room, playing with the VIP pass hanging around his neck. Johnny freezes when he sees him, stopping in the middle of the hallway. It sets off a chain reaction, as Jungwoo runs into his back with a painful noise and then lands with Donghyuck in a heap on the floor.
“Hyung, you’re a brick wall,” Jungwoo groans from the floor, and Johnny, torn between helping him up and looking at Mark, laughs helplessly, horrified when it comes out as a high wheezing noise.
“Oh, hello, Mark-sii!” Taeyong says, and Johnny’s eyes widen in horror because performances are like an energy drink for Taeyong, which translates into long meandering conversations that are almost impossible to escape from.
“Alright kids, keep moving, leave Johnny’s friend alone,” and, fuck, Johnny’s gonna owe Yuta a big dinner after this for how he sweeps in, pulls Jungwoo and Donghyuck off the floor, pushes them into Taeyong’s way, and then herds the rest of the members into the dressing room with a knowing wink.
“Hey,” Johnny says, in the awkward silence left in the members’ wake. Mark is looking up at him, eyes wide and mouth open.
“Uh, hi,” Mark stutters, gaze dipping lower, and it occurs to Johnny that he’s still wearing his ripped shirt, his chest fully on display, dripping with sweat, his nipples tightening because of the cool air in the hallway. He tries to salvage some dignity by pulling the edges of the shirt together but it just gapes open again when he tries to fix his hair.
Mark is tomato red and Johnny’s mouth feels dry even after a whole water bottle, and he’s too aware of the people passing them by in the hallway - techs and venue workers - all giving them curious looks for just standing there in the hallway. He remembers there being an out of the way stairway nearby from accidentally wandering into it while looking for the toilet earlier.
“Do you want to go somewhere a little more private?” Johnny says, and Mark’s eyes snap to his face, almost comically wide, so he hurries to add, “So we can talk.”
“Oh,” Mark says, letting out a little nervous giggle as Johnny waves him over to the side door. The stairway is deserted, but definitely cooler, and Johnny draws his arms around himself, hoping Mark won’t notice that he’s cold.
The awkward silence follows them through the change of scenery. “Did you like the show?” Johnny asks carefully, trying to break it.
“Oh, shit, dude, yeah!” Mark says, lighting up. “You were great out there. All that dancing, man.”
He shakes his head like the concepts of dancing and singing in front of a crowd is foreign to him, and Johnny smiles, hopelessly endeared. “It’s all just practice,” he says modestly.
“No,” Mark shakes his head, and his excitement fades into something quieter. “Honestly, you were incredible. Everyone was good but you really stood out, man.”
“I didn’t even have a solo,” Johnny says, suddenly feeling embarrassed. “It’s nice that you say so, but I-”
“Johnny,” Mark cuts him off, and he sounds so serious that Johnny’s mouth snaps shut. “You were amazing.”
There’s something about the intense look on Mark’s face that’s got him off-kilter, the dynamic between them moving into something that has Johnny’s heartbeat stuttering in his chest. He’s too aware of the small distance between them. The empty stairwell gives the moment an illusion of privacy. Mark’s eyes keep flicking between Johnny’s eyes and his mouth and it doesn’t take a genius to guess what he’s thinking about, and Johnny could just -
Mark’s phone rings shrilly, echoing off the concrete walls, and Johnny steps away with a gasp that he barely manages to change into a cough.
“That’s the team publicist,” Mark says apologetically, pulling out his phone. “They’re probably looking for me.”
“Yeah, probably,” Johnny says, grasps for a joke, for anything to lighten up the situation, to stop Mark from making his way to the exit. “I should probably get changed. I’m all gross and sweaty.”
Mark’s eyes flick downward and he gulps, audible in the quiet. “For sure,” he says, “listen, uh, I’ll see you tomorrow, right?”
“Yeah,” Johnny says, and Mark is already pushing the door open, letting in a burst of noise from the outside. “Looking forward to it.”
Then Mark is gone, leaving him with a shy smile and a quiet goodbye that Johnny barely gets to echo before the door is slamming shut behind him. It’s cold but he stays in the stairway for a little bit, unable to shake the feeling that he’s in way over his head.
Seeing Madison Square Garden transformed from their concert venue to a hockey rink is kind of amazing. The stands look familiar but the cold that’s rising up from the ice isn’t, nor are the colorful banners hanging from under the roof. The audience is different too, decked out in jerseys instead of concert merch. They don’t have lightsticks, though Johnny privately thinks they would improve the experience. The stage he stood up a few hours ago is gone. It feels like a metaphor for something Johnny doesn’t usually think about. He doesn’t know why he’s thinking about it now, leaning over the railing and looking at the bustle of people below.
A lot of their jerseys have Mark’s name on them. Johnny has seen him do his thing on grainy sports broadcasts, but it feels different, knowing he’ll get to see it in person.
There was a huge poster of Mark’s face set up on the facade of the building, lit up in lights, and it’s starting to sink in that this is Mark’s homeground, his home away from home. Johnny’s heard him talk about this rink a dozen times, listing the temperature, the slant of the ice, the exact sharpness of a skate blade it takes to cut a temporary path into its surface, and he’s listened but he’s never really understood. He never will, probably, but looking at it now, the pristine icy surface gleaming under the lights, waiting to be marred, he thinks he gets it, just a little bit.
Mark has been quiet all day. That’s not unusual because Mark usually gets intense before games, especially important ones but in light of the moment between them the previous night, Johnny can’t help but feel worried. Out of the solitary stairway, the situation feels distant, a little dreamlike. A little like Johnny could have misunderstood it, projected his wants onto Mark.
Donghyuck sinks into the seat next to him, pressing into his side insistently, and Johnny raises his arm to let him snuggle more comfortably.
“Are you fighting with your boyfriend, hyung?” Donghyuck says quietly and Johnny forces himself to laugh.
“Mark isn’t my boyfriend,” Johnny says. “And he’s just busy.”
A moment later, he’s biting his tongue as Donghyuck’s expression turns knowing. “So it is about Mark,” Donghyuck says, grinning.
He loves Donghyuck, but on a good day, their relationship is about Donghyuck pushing his buttons and Johnny never giving away that he’s bothered. He knows he’s revealed too much and there’s no way he can backtrack.
“He’s just busy getting ready for the game,” Johnny says, sounding unconvincing even to himself.
“You were talking for an awfully long time yesterday,” Donghyuck observes, “and the manager said you looked cozy during your JCC recording.”
“The manager said what?” Johnny asks, horrified.
“Well, he didn’t really say it like that, but I can guess,” Donghyuck says, pushing at Johnny’s arm where he’s taken it away. Johnny wraps it around his shoulders again, obedient. “And he hasn’t contacted you since then?”
Johnny sighs, thumbing open his phone with his free hand. His conversation with Mark is open, and there’s been no reply to the picture of the giant billboard of Mark’s head he’d taken that morning. Donghyuck peeks over his shoulder and snorts.
“Romantic,” he says. In the picture, Johnny’s holding his hand up so his finger is poking in one of billboard Mark’s nostrils.
Johnny pinches Donghyuck’s nape in retaliation and the resulting squeal almost masks the sound of his phone buzzing with a text, and Johnny has to scramble to hold onto it while navigating Donghyuck’s flailing limbs.
Mark sent him a text. Johnny pins Donghyuck so he stays still while he opens it.
‘Haha!’ Mark has sent him, followed by, ‘Hey, would you want to come over and hang out at the apartment today after the game?’
Johnny stares at the phone, blinking a few times to make sure he’s seeing it right.
“Hyung, does ‘come over’ mean what I think it means?” Donghyuck whispers from where he’s blatantly reading over Johnny’s shoulder. “Is he asking you over to eat some ramyeon?”
“Shut up, oh my god,” Johnny hisses as Donghyuck collapses into giggles. He stares at the text, and then at the rink below, where the stands are already mostly full and the Zamboni is making its meandering path across the ice.
“Seriously though,” Donghyuck says once he stops laughing and once Johnny stops squishing him into the couch. “Are you going to go?”
“I don’t know,” Johnny says, chancing a look in their managers’ direction. For the most part, they can do whatever they want with their downtime, provided it doesn’t reflect badly on their image, but somehow he doesn’t think the same rules will apply in a foreign country.
Donghyuck follows his line of sight and something in his face hardens. “Text him to say you’re coming,” he says, “I’ll take care of the rest.”
Johnny gapes at him. He and Donghyuck have always been close, and while the boundaries of their age blur sometimes, Johnny has always been distinctly Donghyuck’s hyung, looking out for him and taking his side in arguments.
“Since when have you been this devious?” Johnny asks and Donghyuck laughs.
“I learned from the best, hyung,” he says, getting up to brush imaginary dust off his shirt. “Text your boyfriend, okay? And find some chill.”
He says ‘chill’ in English, then flounces off to whisper something in Yuta’s ear, tugging on Jungwoo’s sweater to bring him closer. Johnny shakes his head. Those three are a dangerous combination and he’d rather not speculate on the plans they’re coming up with. He texts Mark back with a quick confirmation and settles deeper into his seat as the lights dim and the announcer starts his spiel.
Honestly, Johnny knows that Mark is good at hockey. He might not know the intricacies of the game, not the way Mark does, face gone sharp and intense as he talks about statistics, or the exact angle to sharpen a skate or the way the stick sounds when it hits the ice at the right time. Johnny knows that Mark went seventh overall in the NHL draft, the highest of any Asian player ever. That he won the Calder trophy in his first year in the NHL. That he was the youngest player to captain the South Korean national hockey team.
He knows all of those things but it’s nothing like hearing the announcer shout Mark’s name and having the crowd roar in response, Mark’s steady focused expression splashed across the jumbo screen.
The Rangers fall behind in the first period, but it’s Mark who rallies them to a tying goal in the second. The third is tight and Johnny’s on the edge of his seat, especially when Mark gets roughed up by the opposing players. It seems like Mark is everywhere on the ice, pushing the attack forward, his voice rising above the din as he directs the play. No one is surprised when he’s the one who gets the game-winning goal, the relief and euphoria erupting as Mark gets smothered by his teammates.
Mark gets announced as the first star of the evening, and when he skates onto the ice the second time, some of his intensity has faded, the shyness creeping back in from the way he waves at the crowd. Johnny cheers especially loudly and it might be his imagination, but it seems like Mark glances up to the balcony where he is.
The crowds below begin to disperse and Taeyong starts gathering the group together to leave. The nervousness that the game has been keeping at bay drops into the pit of Johnny’s stomach.
A woman pokes her head into the room and Johnny recognizes her as the publicist from the previous night. He knows instinctively that she’s here for him and he looks around for Donghyuck, panicked.
Donghyuck is already in motion.
“Jungwoo-hyung,” he shrieks, “you stole my peanuts!”
Jungwoo, obviously in on it, holds the packets of complimentary peanuts over his head tauntingly, and then goes down like a sack of potatoes as Donghyuck tackles him to the ground.
“Now, now kids, don’t fight,” Yuta says in a calming tone that’s obviously fake to anyone who knows him, right before he proceeds to knock over a display of brochures that hit the floor and scatter, showering the wrestling bodies in the paper.
Taeyong’s alarmed voice is the last thing Johnny hears before the door shuts behind him and he feels a little bit bad about it, but not really that much because it means he’ll get to see Mark soon. He’ll get to go to Mark’s apartment.
The publicist leads him down a maze of hallways and into an elevator that takes him down to the underground garage. Mark is waiting for him, leaning up against a big black car and looking at something on his phone. And Johnny’s just heard a couple of thousand people roar his name at the top of their lungs but all he can think of saying is-
“Wait, you’re driving? Is it safe?”
Mark looks up from his phone and his face just lights up, even as he rolls his eyes at Johnny’s comment. He bumps their shoulders together as Johnny comes to stand next to him, and Johnny catches the smell of him, generic soap and traces of a subtle cologne. He must have showered after the game.
“I’ll have you know, I’m an excellent driver,” Mark says, and then he presses the wrong button on his car keys, making the alarm blare for a couple of seconds as he tries to turn it off. By the end, most of Johnny’s nervousness has been eclipsed by pure joy as he leans against the concrete walls, howling with laughter.
He’s still snickering when he settles into the passenger seat. The car radio plays something soft and mellow and Mark is actually a good driver, navigating easily through New York traffic.
Johnny sneaks a glance at him, lingering on Mark’s profile. His hair is curling around his ears and there are a few pimples on the edge of his hairline. His mouth looks dry and chapped. The street lights flickering through the car windows paint his face in blurred sepia, the shadows pooling under his cheekbones making it look angular and unreal.
“What is it?” Mark asks when they stop at a red light. “You’re staring.”
‘You’re beautiful,’ Johnny thinks and chokes down. “You were amazing out there tonight,” he says instead, which is probably just as incriminating.
“Thanks, man. I was just doing my job through,” Mark demurs. He sounds a little embarrassed, and Johnny shakes his head in frustration.
“Don’t say it like that,” Johnny says firmly. “Like you aren’t special. You were incredible. I’m proud of you.”
Mark stares at him, eyes wide and luminous in the dim light. Since the first time he’d met Mark, Johnny’s found him easy to read because he never learned to mask his emotions like Johnny’s industry colleagues. Mark’s never been as obvious as he is now though, the play of emotions across his face cycling through surprise, then joy, and settling ultimately into something Johnny shies away from naming, even to himself.
“I-” Mark starts, only to be startled by the sound of a car horn from the car behind them, scrambling to put the car in gear because the light has gone green and they’re holding up traffic.
Johnny stays quiet after, grateful that the faint light hides the way his ears are burning red. Mark keeps his eyes on the road. At one point, Johnny catches him muttering a soft, “Gosh,” under his breath and he can’t quite keep from smiling at how endearing it is.
Mark’s apartment is located in a gleaming high-rise, on one of the higher floors, and Johnny’s never been there before, but he’s hit with the strange sense of familiarity when he steps in. Mark hands him a pair of slippers with the Rangers logo on them and it makes Johnny smile before he’s preoccupied with the view of the living room.
“Oh, hey, you got the couch we talked about,” Johnny says, drinking in the sight of the fuzzy monstrosity dominating half of Mark’s otherwise minimalist living room. It’s checkered black and white, with patches of faux fur that must be a nightmare to clean. Johnny had loved it the moment Mark sent him a photo from the high-end furniture shop. It’d been recent, so he hadn’t realized that Mark had actually bought it and gotten it delivered.
“It’s very comfortable,” Mark shrugs, gesturing for him to sit, “and you seemed to really like it.”
Johnny doesn’t know what to say. He sinks into the incredibly comfortable couch and takes in the apartment. He realizes that he recognizes the blanket thrown carelessly over the back of the couch, that he knows the brand of speakers mounted on the wall and the exact pattern on the curtains. It had seemed like a game, all the times Mark texted him to ask Johnny’s opinion on a tablecloth color or a television, or the carpet.
It’s slowly sinking in that he’s sitting in an apartment that has pieces of him in every nook and cranny, despite the fact that he’s never been there. It makes something in his chest feel tight and painful, and he tries to breathe through it, so preoccupied that it startles him into gasping when Mark presses a cold water bottle to his neck.
“You look like you’re thinking really hard,” Mark says gently. Desperately, Johnny looks around the living room for a distraction because he’s feeling a lot and if he keeps looking at Mark it’s all going to come spilling out. His gaze stops on an acoustic guitar sitting on a stand near the TV.
“Oh, hey, I didn’t know you played,” Johnny says, and Mark follows his line of sight and flushes.
“It’s just something I do for fun,” he says, and, “I’m honestly not any good at it.”
“Play something for me,” Johnny says because it feels safer, it feels like solid ground. “Anything.”
He expects Mark to refuse, but he goes over to pick up the guitar, and then sits cross-legged on the couch, close enough that Johnny can feel his body heat.
“Oh, man, okay,” Mark mutters under his breath, mostly to himself, but his hands are sure and steady when they grip the guitar, fitting into position. He plays a few chords of a popular pop song that Jaehyun has had on repeat around the dorm and before Johnny really thinks about it, he’s opening his mouth and singing along.
He knows he isn’t the greatest singer in his group but he’s got years of vocal lessons behind him and his voice is steady and clear. In the quiet of Mark’s apartment, he sounds almost delicate, nothing at all like what music producers usually expect of him.
Mark’s hands stumble on a chord and Johnny lets his voice fade out, opening his eyes, surprised to realize that he’s shut them.
Mark is looking at him with a look of such naked admiration that Johnny can barely handle it, feels it spear through his chest, a feeling like pain but not really. He can’t stand it, being looked at like that, and he’s moving before he thinks it through, taking the guitar from Mark’s unresisting arms and setting it aside, cupping his cheek, feeling breathless as Mark leans into the touch.
And then he’s kissing Mark Lee in the living room of his New York City apartment, on a couch he’s helped pick. Mark’s mouth is slightly chapped and he makes a soft sound when Johnny presses closer, and his hand comes up to clutch at Johnny’s shirt.
Early tomorrow morning, Johnny will have to kiss him goodbye, apologize to his manager and go on to another city, another stage, where thousands of adoring fans will be screaming his name, and there'll be a seemingly endless stretch of months where he won’t see Mark in person at all, their relationship reduced to a tiny screen and phone static.
But at least for now, Mark is a warm and heady weight in his arms, and Johnny tries to memorize it, the way he gasps when Johnny slips his hand under his shirt to touch the soft skin of his stomach. How he reflexively elbows Johnny in the solar plexus because he accidentally hits on a spot that’s ticklish, the way their mouths meet in short kisses between Mark’s giggles and apologies, and Johnny’s gasping fight to regain its breath.
It’s not perfect but it’s something. And it’ll have to be enough.
Johnny’s been finding himself lost in daydreams lately. He wakes up and imagines Mark’s voice calling from the kitchen. He imagines getting ready with him and going out for schedules together, talking to him about the music they like, the music they’re making.
He’s in the makeup chair and he’s thinking about Mark getting his makeup done next to him. He’s up on stage and imagining the sweaty crowd singing their names, the consonants blurring into each other. He’s imagining Mark as a singer, brilliant like he is at everything he does, bursting with intense focus and overwhelming talent.
He’s imagining Mark as an idol, laughing at Donghyuck’s jokes, ducking out of Yuta’s exuberant hugs, smiling back at Taeyong, and looking at Johnny, through it all, always looking at Johnny, calling him ‘hyung’ and curling up in his bed when he’s tired.
He’s thinking about Mark as an idol because he wants to have him close all the time and that’s the only way he can imagine it when in reality Mark is several thousand miles away, a voice on the phone and a grainy picture. The only thing Johnny can do is daydream and watch Mark score goals, and count down the days until he gets to see him again.
It’s a nine-hour flight from Seoul to Vancouver, and Johnny spends most of it napping. There’d been a fansign before he boarded the plane, and a photoshoot in the early hours of the morning, so he’s running on no sleep, traces of makeup still clinging to the corners of his face, feeling gritty and mortifyingly disheveled.
By the time he’s landed and settled in a rental car, it’s late afternoon. The sky is a vivid pink, and the sunlight is almost blinding, caught on the surface of the river as the sun makes its slow path to the horizon.
After a few minutes, the concrete surroundings of the city fall away, giving way to lush forests, turning dark and mysterious in the lengthening shadows. There are kids playing outside, caught up in a game of street hockey, and Johnny’s manager stops the car, waiting patiently for them to clear off. Johnny chances a look at him, at the dark circles and the wrinkles that weren’t there years ago when Johnny debuted, and wonders how the hell he’d managed to convince him into doing this. He’s going to owe him more than a few weeks of good behavior.
They pass by cute shopfronts that are closing for the day, the shopkeepers drawing the security blinds as the streetlights wink on, one by one. Soon, signs of civilization grow sparser, giving way to more trees that only occasionally break for driveways leading up to big houses with sprawling backyards.
The house they stop at has a high fence and a security code, which Johnny types out with slightly clumsy fingers. Beyond the wall and up the driveway, the house is lit up in welcome, and Johnny swallows around a dry throat.
He gets out of the car right as the front door swings open, and Mark is standing in the doorway, waiting for him. He’s tan and the fading afternoon light makes his skin look golden. Johnny wants to kiss him so badly. But he’s standing on Mark’s front lawn, in front of god and his manager, and his exhausted brain finds itself at a loss. Luckily, Mark makes the decision for him.
Mark rushes down the stairs and across the dewy grass, throwing himself at Johnny, expecting, trusting him to catch him. He smells like the outdoors, like pinewood and the warm summer breeze, and Johnny sinks into him, lets himself be held up by his arms for just a moment.
“Hey, glad you could make it,” Mark whispers into his shoulder.
Johnny laughs quietly. “I wouldn’t miss it,” he says and Mark steps away only to take his hand, leading him up the stairs.
“Let me introduce you to my family,” he says, and oh, yeah, there’s Johnny’s nerves again, threatening to close up his throat.
Turns out, he shouldn’t have worried. Mark’s mom reminds him of his except with less kissing. Her hug is tight and warm, and she makes it clear that she thinks Johnny’s too skinny. Mark got his smile from his dad, and Johnny does his best not to slouch when he bows to him, tries to look respectable, and not like the mess he feels. And then there’s a veritable sea of cousins and aunts and uncles until Johnny feels a little dizzy.
Through it all, Mark vibrates next to him, like introducing Johnny to his family really is the most exciting thing he can imagine. He keeps saying ‘my friend Johnny’, and Johnny wouldn’t have expected anything else, but he thinks that the way Mark’s palm rests on the small of his back says more than words anyway.
Johnny is just about to settle into a kitchen chair with a cup of tea when the doorbell buzzes and one of Mark’s younger cousins comes hurtling into the room to yell: “It’s here!”
There’s a big black SUV parked in the driveway. A uniformed man steps out, pulling on a pair of pristine white gloves. Mark walks up to meet him, exchanging a few words before the man pulls a big black box out of the trunk, unlatching it.
The last rays of summer sunlight catch on the pristine surface of the Stanley Cup, making it glow golden bright as Mark hefts it over his head, turning around. His smile is brighter than the sun.
Johnny traces the engravings on the cup with his thumb, looking at the rows of names he doesn’t know and some he does. Mark is in the last row, the lines of his name clean and even, prominent. The pristine surface of the trophy is marred with several dozen fingertips, and the inside of it smells like the spice from the kimchi jjigae that Mark ate out of it, even after they’d washed it out.
Johnny brushes the pad of his finger against Mark’s name, probably leaving another fingerprint that’ll get washed off tomorrow night when the cup gets passed on to another winner.
“What are you thinking about?” Mark asks behind him, making Johnny jump. He’s freshly showered, damp hair flopping into his eyes. Johnny is showered too, the makeup finally totally gone, even if it’d taken borrowing some of Mark’s mom’s products. He’s so beyond tired that the situation feels unreal, Mark standing before him, the silver trophy warming up under his palm.
“It was nice of them to bring it over early,” Johnny says. He raises his arms automatically as Mark comes closer so that Mark can step under them and hug him.
“Hmm,” Mark makes a soft noise from where he’s got his face buried into Johnny’s shirt. “It just worked out like that. Are you coming to bed?”
“You wouldn’t rather take the cup?” Johnny jokes and Mark giggles softly, muffled into his chest.
“I’m not Ovechkin,” he says, “I’d rather have you.”
Johnny’s breath hitches in his chest and Mark laughs again, softer. “Are you sure it’s okay with your family that I sleep here?” Johnny asks, serious, and Mark draws back to look up at him.
“I think that,” Mark gestures at the cup behind them, “probably helps. But we’ll get there.”
Johnny allows himself to be guided to the bed by Mark’s grip on his wrist, getting under the covers, breathing a sigh as his exhausted body hits the cool sheets. Mark turns off the bedside lamp and spoons up behind him, his body hot like a furnace and his breath stirring the fine hairs at the back of Johnny’s head.
“Thank you for saving me from your cousin by the way,” Johnny mutters, “I was honestly about to say fuck it and give her Jaehyun’s number just to escape.”
“You’re welcome,” Mark laughs, “you looked like you needed the rescue.”
Johnny turns blindly, to press a kiss against Mark’s cheek, hums happily when Mark slots their mouths together. They’re too tired to do more than kiss, but Johnny still gets a crick in his neck before they settle down to sleep.
It’s quiet in the room, save for Mark’s soft even breaths and the occasional distant cry of a fox. The cup gleams softly in the moonlight, and it’s the last thing Johnny sees before he closes his eyes and finally surrenders to dreams.