MARCUS COULDN’T remember the last time he was this nervous.
Well, okay, maybe he could. His first audition all those years ago, the one that had gotten him a speaking role on a feature film…. He’d about shaken out of his sneakers before stepping in front of that camera.
He’d come a long way since then. Now he was known for action-packed movies with passion-powered romances, famous for doing his own stunts and fight scenes. He’d been on six different World’s Most Eligible Bachelors lists in the last year alone, renowned for not only his acting but his physical skill, and a heartthrob leading man who always got the girl. And… after a lot of talks with some of the big names in the industry and ready to put his career on the line for something he felt was so important, sometimes Marcus got the boy instead. He was the poster child for success in many, many ways.
Now, nine at night, he was standing in front of the building he’d practically grown up in, and he wasn’t sure what to do with himself.
Choi’s Taekwondo Academy.
In complete contrast to what he’d built a career on, at ten Marcus had been so shy he could barely talk. He’d kept to himself, had no friends, and hid when his parents had people over. His aunt, who trained herself, had recommended starting him in a martial art. “It builds confidence,” she’d said. “It’s great exercise. He’ll get to meet kids his own age in a different setting.”
Still, that first day on the mat, he’d nearly thrown up. Especially with how loud it was, how much was going on, how many people there were.
And then Master Choi had come over and crouched down and smiled at him.
Taemin Choi, barely twenty at the time, was the son of Grandmaster Ki-hyuk Choi, who owned and ran the school. He worked under his father as an instructor and was being groomed to run the school himself. He probably hadn’t expected to gain a shadow in the form of a tiny, overwhelmed ten-year-old, but he’d taken it in stride. He was always patient, always kind, and he didn’t just teach Marcus and go on his way. He took extra time to go over things, always listened when Marcus talked about an interest of his own, and even scheduled private classes, free of charge, to gently introduce Marcus to sparring. He was the perfect mentor and had entered Marcus’s life at exactly the right moment.
Over the five years that Marcus trained at Choi’s, Taemin pushed Marcus to be his best. Marcus credited his success as both an actor and a martial artist, the discipline and training and confidence, all to Choi’s and to Taemin. Even after moving to California when he was fifteen, even when he started training at different schools and in different disciplines, Marcus stayed loyal. He never wore the patches of any other school, always made sure to practice the Choi forms along with the other ones he learned over the years, and whenever he needed an extra boost, he recited the tenets of taekwondo in his head.
It had crossed Marcus’s mind dozens of times to reach out, try to reconnect with Master Choi, but in the end he never could bring himself to do it. What would he say? How would he say it?
What if… what if Master Choi didn’t even remember him?
But now, ten years later, wildly successful and still with this gratitude in mind, Marcus was back in Michigan for a shoot.
And Choi’s was right there.
He’d planned it out, actually. Had looked up their operating hours online to make sure he wasn’t showing up during classes. First off because he hadn’t wanted to accidentally cause a scene, being a well-known celebrity. Secondly because he still wasn’t quite sure what to do. So he’d planned to go over after hours, at least stand in front of the building he loved so much. Look at it, breathe deep, and maybe get the courage to call the next day.
Things had mostly worked out. Classes were clearly over.
But the lights were still on, and there was a man on the mat, and ten years felt like no time at all.
THERE WAS a man standing outside of Taemin’s dojang.
Classes had been over for about half an hour. Taemin had said goodbye to his students, gone over his bookwork for the evening, and was wiping down the mats when the man showed up. Taemin had expected him to come in, maybe inquire about lessons, but instead he just… stood there.
Surely he realized, while he could see Taemin through the windows, Taemin could see him as well? It was a dojang. The entire front wall was clear glass.
It might’ve been a little suspicious all told, but Taemin wasn’t too worried. He seemed nervous, but not hostile. Dressed lightly for spring in a thin long-sleeved shirt and dark jeans, he was shifting from foot to foot. He’d take a step and then stop. Take a deep breath and then let it out.
Puzzled, Taemin finished with the mop and set it aside before going over to the door and pushing it open.
The man had clearly seen him, and he looked almost afraid when Taemin stepped outside.
“Hello,” Taemin said, with what he hoped was a welcoming smile on his face. “It’s a nice night.”
He watched the man swallow. Dark, curly hair, a sharp nose—the man looked very familiar, even though for some reason Taemin was remembering much less broad shoulders, a much smaller build.
But mostly he looked nervous. “Is there something I can do for you? Are you interested in lessons, maybe? You’re free to come in.”
“I—” The man took a step forward and then stopped. Clenched his fists and then relaxed his hands. “I, no, it’s okay. It’s late, sorry—”
Taemin held out a hand. “It’s fine. You sound a little like you need to talk.” He paused. The voice, it was deeper, but the cadence of the words, especially said haltingly…. “Do I….” He wracked his brain. It was right there, if only he could put his finger on it. “I’m sorry, but do I know you?”
A sharp exhale, and then the man rubbed the back of his neck, ducked his head. “Um, yeah. Though it—it was a long time ago, I doubt you remember me—”
It hit him all at once. “Marcus?” Taemin asked, eyes widening. “Marcus Economidis?”
Marcus gave him a lopsided grin. One Taemin recognized. The same grin he’d done his best to pull out of a promising but unconfident student. “Hi, Master Choi.”
Taemin laughed with delight. “It’s been years! How have you been?”
Marcus shrugged, but he was still grinning. “Pretty good.”
“Keeping up with your training?” he asked, maybe teasing just a little.
Marcus chuckled. “Yeah I—yeah. You could say that.”
“I’d love to catch up with you. Would you like to come in? Just for a little while, maybe.”
Marcus ducked his head. “Yeah I’d… I’d really like that, if it’s okay with you.”
Taemin smiled and held open the door. “Of course it is. Come on in.”
MARCUS HAD been fifteen the last time he’d set foot in Choi’s dojang. Fifteen when he’d last seen Master Choi—and even then, the last couple of years training with him, Marcus had known his feelings had started to evolve from the basic hero worship to something more.
Taemin hadn’t changed much since Marcus had last seen him. Still lean, strong, and incredibly graceful. Still with the same short black hair, the same… god, the same beautiful smile.
The biggest difference was Marcus. He wasn’t a gangly five-foot-six teenager anymore. He’d grown into himself, pushing his limits and his body, and now was a solid and strong man. Six two, and at least four inches taller than Master Choi. It was a little disconcerting to be looking down at him instead of up.
He wasn’t quite shaking when he followed Master Choi into the dojang, bowing instinctively toward the mat and the flag as he stepped inside. He immediately toed off his shoes and nudged them into sitting neatly side-by-side on the carpeted area in front of the mat. When he looked up, it was to see Master Choi watching him and looking unbearably fond.
Marcus swallowed and smiled back.
“You’ve remembered all your good habits,” Master Choi said, sounding pleased as he led Marcus to the little office off to the side of the mat.
“Well, you know,” Marcus said as he sat in the chair Master Choi gestured him to, “I had a really good teacher.” Master Choi grinned, and Marcus went hot. “It’s really good to see you again, Master.”
Taemin shook his head. “We’re not training right now. You’re a friend coming back into my life. I’m pretty sure you can call me by my first name.”
Right. Yeah. Equal footing. Marcus wasn’t fifteen anymore. And while Master Choi was always going to be Master Choi a little in his heart, right now he was Taemin too. “Taemin, then,” Marcus said, trying to shove down some of the anxiety-inducing awe. He was a grown-ass adult. He could handle the fact that he was being treated like one. “It’s still good to see you.”
“I can say the same. How are you? What are you doing here? I’m certainly not complaining, but it… it’s been a long time.”
“I know. I’m sorry, I kept… wanting to reach out, but every time I thought to, I couldn’t….” He sighed. “I’m sorry.”
“Don’t be sorry,” Taemin said. “Sometimes it’s hard to bridge a gap, once the distance has been made. You’re here now, and I couldn’t be happier. So? What brings you to town?”
“I’m here for a movie shoot.” That was an easy, comfortable topic. “We’re filming in downtown Detroit. I’m here for at least six months, maybe more than that, depending on how things go.”
Taemin’s eyebrows shot up. “You’re an actor?”
“Yeah.” Marcus grinned. He was proud of himself and how far he’d come. And it was a little funny to hear Taemin sound so surprised. “Turns out all your lessons about self-confidence really paid off.”
“Really!” Taemin leaned forward. “Please, tell me more.”
Still grinning, Marcus launched into the story he knew would make Taemin smile: how his new martial arts school in California had a guest come in and ask about using the location for a short film, how she’d asked some of the students (and parents) permission to use them as extras. How much Marcus had liked it, how he’d decided to try his hand at an acting class after that.
“My teacher was impressed by the martial arts,” he told Taemin. “And one day she gave me the name of a talent agency and told me to call them and tell them that she had referred me to try out for the role of Daniel in Billy’s Prayer. The agency signed me that day and then sent me out on the audition the next. It was this crazy whirlwind, but… one thing sort of led to another.”
“That’s amazing. I’m so proud of you.”
“Thanks. Yeah. I know, it was a big change to go from ‘unable to meet anyone’s eyes’ to being a leading man, but… I owe a lot of it to you.”
Taemin huffed a laugh. “I think this is the part where I’m supposed to say it was inside of you all along. And it was! But I know I helped open you up a little, and I’m happy to take the credit when you’re clearly so willing to give it to me.” He winked, and Marcus couldn’t help but laugh. It was so Taemin. He hadn’t changed one bit. “But speaking of—you did say you were keeping up with your training, didn’t you?”
Marcus grinned, took a breath, and rattled off the ten principles of Choi’s taekwondo as fast as he physically could. It was something all the kids tried as a personal challenge: reciting the principles in one breath. “—and ten is finish what you start, sir!” He wasn’t quite panting when he added, “As if I could ever forget.”
Taemin looked absolutely delighted. “You know, a lot of our students have to drop the honorifics in order to say the principles that fast.”
Marcus waved a hand. “I’ve had a lot of practice.”
“And I’ve been, you know, keeping up physically too. I do almost all my own fights and stunts on camera. But, uh, off camera I make sure I’m doing things right.”
“I’d expect nothing less,” Taemin said warmly.
“What about you?” Marcus asked, clearing this throat. “And how is Grandmaster Choi?”
“He’s doing well. Very well. He’s been much more hands-off the academy for the last few years and mostly comes in for testings and special training sessions and classes. He and my mother spend a lot of time back running their dojang in Korea, now that I’m pretty firmly running the Michigan school.”
“Oh wow. So you’re leading the entire school yourself?”
“Well, not entirely by myself,” Taemin said. “I’ve got junior instructors to help me with nearly every class. And remember Mr. Avi?” Mr. Avi’d been around only at the tail of Marcus’s time at Choi’s, but Marcus had been a junior instructor around that time. He was an older man, midfifties when Marcus left. He had to be in his sixties now.
“Yeah, yeah, he’s doing well?”
Taemin chuckled. “He’s a third-degree and Master Instructor now. Preeti is also an instructor here. You remember her? She was only about ten when you left.”
“Hey, yeah! I remember. Preeti. She was ‘pret-ty’ small. She teaches here now?”
“Yes. She started working as an assistant instructor at seventeen. Now she helps me run classes three nights a week. She even decided to go to college locally so she could continue to work and train here.”
“Wow! That’s… that’s really amazing.” Choi’s touched so many lives. Was continuing to do so. “What’s she going to college for?”
“Sports medicine, actually.” Taemin grinned. “So we’ll have her around for a while yet.”
“That’s so cool. Good for her.”
“You’re welcome to tell her yourself, if you’d like to pay a visit during our open hours,” Taemin said. “I’m sure everyone would get a kick out of seeing you.”
Marcus raised an eyebrow. “A kick? Really?”
Taemin let out a burst of laughter. “I didn’t even do that on purpose, I promise.”
God, he was just—if there was a human version of the word delightful—“Well,” Marcus said, sitting back in his chair, “it’s good to know you only make terrible jokes on accident.”
“Hey, you show me some respect.”
Taemin laughed again, and Marcus felt himself go warm. He’d missed this. He’d missed him.
And Marcus wasn’t fifteen anymore.
“Look,” he said, “it’s late. And I’m sure you’ve had a long day. I don’t want to keep you any longer tonight. But I’d love to keep catching up with you, if you’d be willing.”
“Of course I am.”
“Awesome. I’m free for the few days while other people get flown in and settled and sets finish being built. I just came in early because I wanted”—to revisit this place, to check out the changes, to see you again—“to, you know, get a feel for being back in the D. I—would you like to meet for coffee or something tomorrow? Or it doesn’t have to be tomorrow, you know, whenever it works in your schedule.”
Taemin tilted his head, considering. “I’ve got a better idea, if you really are free.”
“Yeah?” Marcus asked, trying not to sound too eager.
“I’m here every morning to train. My morning sparring classes are Mondays and Wednesdays, but since tomorrow is Thursday, I’ll be by myself. I’d be very interested to have a match or two with you. If you’re up for it.”
Oh my god yes please. “Sure. You’d have to lend me some sparring gear, though. I didn’t bring mine with me.”
Taemin grinned. “I think I can find something to fit you.”
“Then yeah, of course. Maybe uh… maybe I could treat you to breakfast afterward?”
“I’d love that.”
“Awesome. Okay.” Marcus stood up. “Then I’ll see you tomorrow. What time?”
“Why don’t we say nine. Give us both a little more time to sleep.”
Marcus glanced at his watch. Holy shit, it was almost eleven. “Oh man, I’m so sorry I kept you so late. You probably haven’t even eaten dinner—” No one trained or taught classes on a full stomach.
Taemin held up a hand. “Please, it’s fine. I’m thrilled I got the chance to talk to you. And I look forward to seeing you tomorrow at nine. Okay?”
“Come on. I’ll close up here and walk you out.”
Once outside the dojang, now with the lights off and the door locked, Taemin turned to Marcus as they neared their parked cars.
“So,” he said, holding out his arms. “I don’t suppose I get a hug, after all this time?”
Marcus didn’t quite rush forward into them. He had to lean down just a bit and—enveloped Taemin just a little.
It felt so good to have him in his arms.
He let go and stepped back. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“Have a good night,” Taemin said.
“Yeah, you too.”