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Otabek moves to Denver in February. Toronto has been a slushy mess for months, now, and he takes the UP Express out to Pearson with his two duffel bags of clothes and the gear he doesn’t trust to Canada Post’s tender mercies. Toronto has its own problems, mostly when the streetcars decide not to work or some idiot declares that all of the junior ice hockey players in the entire country should get rink time and Otabek is kicked off of his practice space, but he hasn’t hated living here. There are worst places to live. The buildings are ugly in an endearing way and the Blue Jays are terrible, in an also endearing way. Canadians have problems with their own indigenous people but they’re kind and welcoming to foreigners, like they’re constantly conscious that they have to be better than Americans.

You can get falafel at two in the morning without having to walk further than a block and the bagel shop in Kensington Market sells lox and cream cheese piled between pumpernickel bagels that have made Otabek go cross-eyed with pleasure. Milk is expensive and you have to buy a special bucket for it, but that had reminded Otabek of Almaty more than anything else, like the stretch of an overworked muscle, a kind of deep twinge.

There are worse places to live.

At the airport, Otabek checks his duffel bags and stuffs the paperback he’s reading into the back pocket of his jeans. He buys himself a cup of coffee at a Tim Horton’s near his gate and signs a copy of his receipt for the cashier, who is from Kaskelen and tells him that her grandmother would never forgive her if she didn’t ask.

“It’s not a problem,” Otabek says to her quietly; he realizes after she gives him a peculiar look that he’s said it in English.

“Thank you,” she says in Kazakh. “Have a safe flight!”

The coffee doesn’t make the flight any better; Otabek wills himself to sleep, and wakes up somewhere new.

~

“It’s going to take weeks,” Pénélope says. “We absolutely cannot rush this, Otabek.”

There are rinks everywhere in Denver. Many Americans train here--after Otabek runs into ice dancers at Safeway and speed skaters at his gym and a hockey player in the condo next door who puts Otabek’s laundry into the dryer and offers to buy him a drink, he concludes that there are too many Americans training here--and there is an ice hockey team that is somewhat popular, so it is an understandable investment for property managers.

Pénélope has gotten Otabek daily time at a rink out near one of the universities, bracketed on one side by a glass mess of a medical campus rising out of the dirt and on the other by an incongruous golf course. Otabek has to drive, because there is no other way to get around Denver’s flat, perplexing sprawl.

“I understand,” he says to Pénélope, who is also stretching as she mumbles to herself.

“You need to be careful,” Pénélope continues. She’s pulling her knee up to her chest, unselfconscious as she balances on the edge of a single skate. Pénélope is too solid to have been a competitive skater but she has a bewildering amount of control over her body that seems disconnected from how much of it there is--the perfect coach for Otabek, who had decided many years ago that the conventional training program would not bring him success. “Are you listening to me, Beka?”

“Yes,” Otabek says. “It would be easy to injure myself during these initial few weeks.”

“Absolutely no booze,” Pénélope says. “I mean it! None!” She lowers her knee, shakes it out, and switches her weight to lift the other one up towards her chin.

“All right,” Otabek says. He takes off in his first lazy loop of the rink, using carefully paced strides to measure its circumference. There is a regulation size for rinks, but Otabek likes to have landmarks in each cardinal direction and sightlines to tether himself coming out of spins and jumps. Pénélope leaves him to his circles and takes off herself, cutting directly across the middle of the rink with a little squealing noise of glee.

“New rink!” she says; she has a soft voice that can go hard only with the sharpest edges of her temper. It takes effort for it to soar to fill the roof of a rink. “New routines!” She moves seamlessly into a spiral, stretching her left leg into the air behind her and coasting along the surface like a bird in flight. “New year!”

Otabek’s foot aches after practice; he removes his skates carefully and wraps his foot in an ace bandage and an extra sock before putting his boots back on. When Pénélope sees them she makes an annoyed face. “Those old things?” she says. “Still?”

Otabek stands and tries a few cautious steps, wriggling his toes against the bulk of the additional sock. It’s impossible not to feel stifled by the pressure; he can feel the corner of his mouth twitch in irritation. “Yes,” he says, careful to smooth the edges of his temper out of his voice. “These old things.”

“If you get a motorbike here,” Pénélope threatens, “I will throw you off of the top of the Grand Canyon.”

Otabek wouldn’t swear to it, but he’s pretty sure they’re nowhere near the Grand Canyon. There are mountains in this state, but they’re far off: Otabek sees them in the distance and they make his immediate surroundings visibly flatter for their perspective. It’s dizzying to feel the altitude in his head but see no evidence of it. Parts of Almaty are this high, and you can get higher if you go up towards Talgar, but it is an incline of gradation, not absolutes.

“I wouldn’t have time for a bike,” Otabek says to her instead. “I have to take care of this car that you made me buy.”

Pénélope rolls her eyes. She’s pulled a toque on over her head and is occupied in stuffing her hair under it with the tips of her fore and middle fingers. The toque is lumpy and looks handknit, like something one of Otabek’s sisters would’ve made when they were very little--maybe Pénélope made it herself, although she isn’t the creative type.

“Yes, okay, I tied you up and made you buy that piece of junk,” she says. “That sounds like me.”

Otabek and Pénélope have had this fight before, because you can take the girl out of Paris but she’ll still think the only good car is an expensive one. Otabek has overhauled the transmission and replaced the warped brake motors of every car Pénélope has ever owned and it’s his Honda that’s offensive junk.

“It’s okay,” Otabek says. He wouldn’t have bought it--honestly, it was a little bit of a steal at four grand, but the university student he’d bought it from had wanted it gone quickly--if the first thing Pénélope had said to him upon picking him up at the airport hadn’t been, you’ll need a car, this is the boonies .

What does ‘the boonies’ mean? Otabek had asked, and Pénélope had said, I have no idea, but doesn’t it sound incredible? One of Ping’s friends said it.

Pénélope rolls her eyes again. “It’ll look better with a new coat of paint,” she tells him.

Otabek says, “I like the blue.”

There are still curly bits of hair sticking out from under the brim of Pénélope’s hat, but she’s clearly given up on them. She’s pulling on her leather gloves and they move together towards the front door of the rink. “Ping wants you to come over for dinner--tonight is fine, or tomorrow. It’s a roasted chicken tonight from me, or chopped chicken and rice tomorrow, from her.”

Today’s practice was an abbreviated one--four hours, instead of six, and no jumps. Otabek’s whole body aches like a new bruise. It would be nice to go home and see no one, to be frustrated alone and not to have witnesses to his embarrassment at his own limits. As they open the doors to the parking lot, the cold wind whistles down the collar of Otabek’s coat and up the sleeves, sinking claws into his aches and lighting them on fire.

“Thank you,” Otabek says. “I have no plans for tonight.”

“See you at seven, then,” Pénélope says. They split on the third row of cars, where Otabek is parked to the left and Pénélope to the right. “Bring a chardonnay or something, please.”

“What happened to no booze?” Otabek asks, raising his voice as Pénélope takes off.

“La vache,” he hears, just barely, and then she says, “We just won’t share any with you!”

~

Moving to Denver had made sense for Otabek and Pénélope because the infrastructure was already in place for a coach and skater--for an astronomical fee, they had their choice of skating clubs with attached physios and nutritionists and trainers, and the altitude was a little bit of a cliche because it had demonstrable effects--but it hadn’t been the reason why they had moved.

“It’s tenure-track,” Pénélope says, in June, over turkey sandwiches. There’s a lot of turkey that summer, because Pénélope and Ping have invited Ping’s parents to spend American Thanksgiving with them and Pénélope is determined to turn out a spectacular dinner. Her pride demands nothing less.

Otabek pulls a tomato out of his sandwich and eats it alone, to save the rest of his sandwich from a soggy fate. “That’s good,” he says. “She works very hard.”

“It’s incredible,” Pénélope says. “Don’t just--ugh, Beka, you always do this. You’re supposed to eat the tomato with the turkey, it provides moisture.”

“Where is it?” Otabek asks, and Pénélope stops fussing over the tomato and turns back to her own sandwich.

After a prolonged silence of chewing and swallowing, Pénélope says, “In the states.”

It doesn’t surprised Otabek to hear that, necessarily; he knows how hard it is to become a faculty member at a university in Canada, how little money there is for biomedical research, most especially biomedical research done by an American. He’s known Ping long enough to have learned these things.

“Okay,” Otabek says. When Pénélope had first begun coaching Otabek they had been in New Jersey, because Ping was a post-doctoral fellow at Princeton and Pénélope, married for years to an American citizen, had a green card. Otabek’s visa had been hard to finagle but not difficult, as he’d just won silver at World Juniors and the skating club in Princeton had done the legwork. “My old visa is very, very expired.”

“I know,” Pénélope says.

“I may not be able to get another,” Otabek continues, because it needs to be said.

“That’s all propaganda,” Pénélope says quickly, and then she makes a face at herself. “God, will you hear that? And I’m French, too, where we have done worse.” She puts down the sandwich that has been sitting ignored in her fingers and reaches across the table to touch Otabek’s wrist. Ping and Pénélope’s flat in Toronto is sun-drenched in the middle of the day, because the windows in the kitchen are south-facing. It’s nearing unbearably high temperatures outside, but the air conditioning is keeping them cool; Pénélope’s touch is damp, but it’s from the dressing on the sandwich, not sweat. “If you can’t get a visa, or you don’t feel safe, we’ll stay here.”

The truth is: Pénélope is Otabek’s coach, but she is not his mother, or his sister. She does not owe her life or her wife’s professional future to Otabek.

This offer is more precious because they owe him nothing, because Otabek in fact owes Pénélope for years of friendship wherein he has only been paying her coaching fees.

“Let’s do it,” Otabek says. Maybe the Americans won’t give Otabek a visa, but it would be unforgivably cowardly not to try.

~

Otabek is a Muslim, but he’s not a very good one. He does not pray every day; he does not fast for Ramadan, partly because his nutritionists would skin him alive and partly because he does not see the need; he does not find a mosque when he moves to a new city. Probably there is nothing too shameful in this, because Otabek’s parents are not themselves very observant and they did not raise him strong in faith. There was little to reject and Otabek has kept what he can.

When he tells himself that he is doing enough, it feels only a little wrong, like he’s trying to put the proper piece into a puzzle upside-down.

~

Although he has lived in Denver for a week, Otabek wakes up the second day that he is allowed to skate and it feels like the second day of his new life. He has oatmeal for breakfast and drinks hot tea on the balcony of his condo in his pajama pants and his coat, looking out towards the mountains over the flat expanse of this strange, manufactured-looking city. He’s woken with enough time for a run before practice but he hasn’t been cleared for running; instead, he puts his empty mug on the concrete floor of his balcony and spends ten minutes taking a picture of the sunrise over the red mountains.

He sends it to Yuri with WhatsApp and no caption. As a gesture it feels melodramatic, but Otabek has come to realize that Yuri has been peculiarly brainwashed by his skating cohort; Yuri does not like melodrama, but he respects it.

Because Otabek does not expect a response, he doesn’t linger out in the cold. He washes his breakfast dishes, packs lunch to bring to the rink, and takes a hot shower to shake the last of the morning cold out of his body. He opens some of the boxes that have just arrived from Toronto in search of his clippers and takes the time to trim his undercut, which occupies the remainder of his morning before he has to get to the rink.

His hockey-playing neighbor is also leaving as Otabek hefts his small duffel over his shoulder and pulls his door shut behind him. “Oh, hey,” the guy says, lifting a hand in greeting. Otabek, holding his keys, offers it in return.

“How’s the move going?” the hockey player asks. He’s also carrying a gym bag, presumably also off to practice. In his building in Toronto, Otabek’s neighbors had been older people and young professionals--the athletes had mostly prefered houses out of the city or the embarrassingly shiny condo buildings downtown.

“All right,” Otabek says. He locks the deadbolt and the small lock above the knob; the hockey player is waiting for him, and they walk to the elevator together. The hockey player had not introduced himself by name, perhaps because he is famous enough that he has never needed to, but it has put Otabek in an awkward situation he would prefer to avoid. “The last of my boxes arrived yesterday.”

“From Toronto, right?” the hockey player says as they wait for the elevator. “One of my buddies moved here from Calgary last year and his stuff took two months to arrive.”

Otabek says, “That is more in keeping with the general speed of Canada Post.”

The hockey player laughs. He’s significantly taller than Otabek, as is most of the population, and he looks wholesome--blond, under-groomed, with teeth that are crooked but white. It had not been difficult to determine that he was American; the moment that he had straightened from in front of the dryer, Otabek had known, even before he’d apologized for moving Otabek’s laundry-- all the machines are full and I’m in a time crunch, I’m really sorry, man --with the same accent as Ping.

The elevator comes and the hockey player selects the underground parking structure. “Hey, so,” he says, and his entire posture changes, shoulders going loose and his weight sinking his pelvis and knees a few inches, “about that drink?”

“Ah,” Otabek says, carefully.

“I have to insist,” the hockey player says. He smiles and his white, crooked teeth flash brightly. “You just moved here and you gotta learn the best place to get a quiet drink. It’s my responsibility, as your neighbor.”

Otabek wants to say no, but he had liked his old neighbors. Mrs. Chakravarti in particular had been very kind and friendly; he’d ended up entrusting his aquarium to her grandson when he’d moved. When you are speaking terms with your neighbors, they call you to tell you that the building’s pipes have burst while you are competing at Four Continents and they’re using the key you left them to check on your belongings.

“Okay,” Otabek says. “Sounds good.”

“Tomorrow?” the hockey player says. The elevator opens into the parking structure and the hockey player steps out, turning around to lift his eyebrows in inquiry. “Eight?”

“Yes,” Otabek says.

“Sounds great, man,” the hockey player says. This time he smiles without the teeth. “See you, Altin.”

Pénélope is waiting for Otabek at the rink with a set of Bluetooth speakers and an insulated bag that turns out to be full of congee, from Ping.

“She was worried you’re not eating breakfast at all,” Pénélope says when Otabek looks up from peering inside the bag. “Yeah, I know you well enough to know that’s shit,” she continues, “but my wife wasn’t to be dissuaded that you were going to be starving to death. She’s making steamed fish for the lunar new year, by the way. Come over tomorrow night and help us eat it.”

“I have other plans,” Otabek says, “but please thank her for the invitation.”

“Other plans!” Pénélope says. She stops thumbing through her phone for music. “Seriously? Did that idiot finally start answering your messages?”

This makes a hot fist clench in Otabek’s chest. He closes the zipper on the insulated bag and places it on the floor next to his duffel, giving himself space to move through the pain. When that doesn’t do enough, he bends down and checks the wrapping on his ankle. “No,” he finally says. “I’m meeting my neighbor for a drink.”

“No alcohol!” Pénélope replies automatically, then, “That seems fast to have met a neighbor.”

Otabek sits down on the bench next to his things and begins to put on his skates. “I met him in the laundry room,” Otabek says. He uses both index fingers to yank the side of each lace as tightly as he can, curling his fingers under the laces and tugging them upwards. It takes focus to coordinate them, which is focus he can then not extend towards interpreting Pénélope’s expression.

“Is this a drink?” Pénélope asks. “Or a drink ?”

“I have no interest in the latter,” Otabek tells her flatly.

She makes a soft huffing noise. “I know that, Beka, but what does he seem to want?”

“It doesn’t matter,” Otabek points out, “as I don’t have interest in a drink .” He can’t make his voice do what hers had; he drops his voice instead, scraping somewhere into a deep bass, and Pénélope erupts into a snorting giggle.

Pénélope finally picks music and they go out onto the ice for warm-ups to the sad country music that Ping favors and for which Pénélope has developed a strange, mocking affection. The rafters of their new rink extend white and arching above their heads, decorated with felt banners from high school ice hockey teams and the local NWHL affiliate, which must play games here although Otabek has seen neither hide nor hair of them. It’s a space made to absorb noise but Pénélope’s sad country music fills the air to eerie effect.

One of Otabek’s earliest exercises was to match the pace of his skating with the music-- they are inextricable , said his first serious coach, who had taken him to St. Petersburg and tried to turn him into one of the Russian nymphs that the national development system churned out like Zhigulis--and he has to speed up to match his crossovers to the melody. Otabek does not like skating to sad music, nor does he like sad themes for his season; he’s not capable of public mourning. But he likes skating to this music.

Pénélope is singing. She’s picking up speed going into the far half of the rink, humming wordlessly with the wailing harmonica, and launches herself up into a pristine double axel. “We should choreograph something to this,” she says to Otabek as she races across the rink towards him. Otabek is still matching tempo like his feet are the swinging edges of a metronome.

“You always say that,” Otabek tells her. He’s trying to listen to the sound of his edges. Otabek does not skate like a Russian nymph but his skating has always sounded clean--aggressive, elegant, crisp. He does not sound crisp, and as he changes edges he can hear the unevenness. It might be his weight distribution.

“Don’t listen to that right now,” Pénélope says. When Otabek looks at her, she wrinkles her nose at him. “Your edges won’t sound the same until you’re healed. If you start overcompensating now I will have to beat it out of you later.”

“So tender,” Otabek says. Now that he’s focused on listening to his feet, he can only hear his skates on the ice; the harmonicas have faded away. “You’re all heart, Pénélope.”

“Speed drills,” she says. “That’s what’ll take your mind off of it.” When Otabek slants a look at her out of the corner of his eye, she laughs. “You need to think about themes for next season, Beka. Love is a game we foolishly play ,” she sings; he realizes a second later that it’s to the music. “There are worst themes than love, you know.”

“Are there?” Otabek says as they finish the last lap of their warm-up and Pénélope has to go to collect her cones for their drills. “I thought I might do nationalistic fervor again--that played so well last year, you know.”

“I will beat you,” Pénélope threatens, jabbing a stack of magenta cones in his direction. “With my belt, like an old grandfather. Now, get over here and skate these drills for me.”

~

Otabek had felt the fracture when it had happened; he’d landed a quadruple flip in practice and the impact on landing had been wrong. Pénélope had shrieked, “Beka!” and then, in a less excited tone, “ Beka !?” as Otabek had laboriously pushed himself to the edge of the rink, dragging his bad foot behind him like a dead animal.

Two days later, Yuri had said, furiously, “A stress fracture ?” He hadn’t been the only one. It’s a matter of honor amongst figure skaters to continue through the pain, and Otabek had broken that code. His physical therapist had said, “Eight weeks of no skating, and then physio,” with the look of a man who knew perfectly well that he was going to be ignored, and Otabek had complied. His season ended in August, two days before Eid al-Adha.

“Yes,” Otabek had said.

There had been silence from the other end of the WhatsApp call like the silence when the water in an electric kettle moves from a simmer to a full, riotous boil.

Before the eruption, Yuri had hung up.

~

Otabek is running late when he stops by his mailbox to see if his gas bill has shown up yet. It has not, but there is handwritten letter with no return address. It says OTABEK ALTIN in small, neat letters--almost cute, really, small and round as they are--so he cannot lie to himself for more than a few seconds in hoping that it is from Yuri.

Before going upstairs, Otabek checks the label on the mailbox for 5F. His neighbor’s name is J. JOHNSON. Otabek makes a note to Google this and see what shakes out, as he waits for the elevator. It’s a long enough wait that he rips open the letter, sliding his finger under the flap and splitting the spine of the envelope.

You are cordially invited , the letter says--in Russian, in handwritten but stylized letters that look like they were hired out to a kind of specialist calligrapher-- to the wedding of Yuuri Katsuki and Viktor Vladimirovich Nikiforov .

Below the date and location and a note about RSVP-ing and nonsense about donations to some animal charity in lieu of a wedding gift, there is another scribbled section in blue ballpoint. It’s the same cute, small letters as Otabek’s address-- We would be really happy to see you come, Otabek! It would mean a lot to us to have you join us for our wedding , in English. It has to be Yuuri Katsuki who has added this note; it strikes Otabek as too kindly framed to be the work of Viktor Nikiforov, who presumably would have just mentioned Yuri outright.

Otabek flicks a glance back up to the date and location--June, Hasetsu, near the hot spring that Yuuri Katsuki’s parents own. Yuri had said Hasetsu was the kind of place that’s charming to idiots like Viktor who think villages are cute and small for his personal pleasure ; it had been funny to Otabek at the time, because both he and Yuri were from huge cities and had approximately the same understanding of small village life as Viktor--which is to say, none. It’s not small and cute? he’d asked Yuri, who had said, Viktor thinks it’s his own personal kingdom, helpfully pre-supplied with serfs .

The elevator opens on the fifth floor to Otabek’s neighbor, hand raised, in the act of knocking on Otabek’s door. He’s wearing a green button-down shirt and what Pénélope calls Nice Jeans in a lilting voice. He looks particularly large standing against Otabek’s front door. At the noise of the elevator he turns and sees Otabek. His face opens in a way that is a little alarming: a general brightening.

“Hey!” he says. His eyes go up and down Otabek quickly, taking in his boots, sweatpants, and damp hair. There had been time to shower after his workout, which had been wedged into the only spot left open in Otabek’s day after back-to-back physio and nutritionist appointments, but it had been a very fast one. His hair is probably sticking up, Otabek realizes, and he puts a hand up to smooth it down over the crown of his head.

“Hey,” Otabek replies; he lifts his hand off of his hair in a brief wave. “Sorry, I’m running late.”

The hockey player quickly steps back from Otabek’s front door as he moves closer. “Oh, yeah, no problem,” he says. “You want to take a few? I’ll come back in like--half an hour?”

“Yeah,” Otabek says, and then he takes in the stiff Nice Jeans again and he adds, “Actually, want to come in?”

J. JOHNSON follows Otabek into his condo, hands stuffed into his pocket, and watches as Otabek takes off his coat, puts his bag on the floor, and kicks off his boots. “Oh, your kitchen’s open,” he says, strolling over to the kitchen as Otabek goes into the bedroom to change. “Mine’s walled off, but it’s got an extra window in the back.”

“Nice,” Otabek says, stepping into his bedroom and putting a hand over his shoulder to yank his t-shirt off. It sticks damply to his shoulders before coming over his head, so he uses it for a few seconds to scrub at any lingering spots that he hadn’t toweled off sufficiently after his shower. Otabek doesn’t have any casual button-downs--only extremely nice ones, from Hudson’s Bay, that he wears with his suit for press conferences--and he’s anyway a little alarmed by the appearance of the Nice Jeans, so he pulls on another t-shirt, less damp, and a knit sweater that zips at his neck. None of Otabek’s jeans are nice, which means he can just wear the ones from yesterday.

He’s changing his socks when he comes back into the living room, hopping from one foot to the other to pull them on. “I’m good,” he says to J. JOHNSON, who is looking at the photographs hanging on the wall by the futon.

“Did you take these?” J. JOHNSON asks, half-turning and pointing at the wall. Otabek had tacked the photographs up when he’d first moved, with two pieces of double-sided tape at each of the top corners, and they’re curling up at the bottom corners. From the kitchen you can’t really see the photographs at all; at that angle the whole wall looks white, with ripples from the curled edges. It can be off-putting to move and suddenly see them, which is maybe why Otabek has never gotten around to tacking down the bottoms.

“No,” Otabek says. “Uh, only some.” He runs a finger along the back of the neck of his sweater, checking if any of it has rolled under. “You want to go?”

“They’re really good,” J. JOHNSON says, standing by the wall as Otabek pulls his boots back on. They’re crusted with salt on the bottom; Otabek notes this, and then that he should reseal them soon. He licks his thumb and rubs a spot on the toe that’s gone dusty and white. “I can’t even take something for Instagram--these are amazing.”

The attention paid to the photographs makes Otabek feel peculiar--itchy, really, so he runs his finger around the back of his sweater’s collar again. The only person who spends time in this apartment is Otabek, who abandons it for Ping and Pénélope’s house when he wants the low sound of a television or to witness a meal being cooked. The secret parts of Otabek’s life are on display here, where there is no one to see them, and having them exposed makes him feel disoriented. The fish in Otabek’s old aquarium had never liked to be out in the open areas of the tank; they’d always hidden as a school in the parts with manzanita branches and moss, where they felt less vulnerable.

Otabek says, “Where are we going?”

~

The J in J. JOHNSON stands for Jack; Otabek doesn’t find this out during their drink, but he Googles his neighbor, afterwards, and finds a Wikipedia page with an unflattering picture from when Jack played for the Columbus Blue Jackets.

Was it a date , Pénélope has sent him on WhatsApp.

Just a drink , Otabek now replies, home alone and sitting in bed with his laptop. I had juice .

Just drinks is a date , Pénélope responds immediately. I had ‘just drinks’ with Ping and now we’re married and she wants to get a cat.

The cat is not new--Ping had wanted one when they lived in Toronto, too, she said to lessen her loneliness when Pénélope and Otabek had to travel for competitions and she was left alone for weeks. Pénélope had said, Who’s lonely? You’re at lab the whole time I’m gone, a cat would starve to death . She hadn’t been wrong, necessarily, so Ping had laughed. But Otabek had sensed something there, inside of the easy back-and-forth of their quick argument.

You should , he sends Pénélope. He has emails from home to answer but he’s still on his neighbor’s Wikipedia page, reading about statistics he doesn’t understand.

Not you too!! Pénélope responds. Go to sleep, traitor, see you tomorrow .

The temptation has been there the whole time, but Otabek only now succumbs: he thumbs back to the chats menu and looks at his conversation with Yuri, timestamped from his message the day before. The two check marks are blue; Yuri has looked at it, at least, even if he hasn’t answered.

It shouldn’t make Otabek pleased, but it does. He should suffocate this feeling, but instead he closes his laptop and puts his phone to charge on the bedside table, holding his being pleased to himself like it’s the blanket he pulls up to his ears.

~

Jumps are not like flying: they are like falling, suddenly, from the top of a tall building. Otabek is not an effortless jumper, but he is compact. Pénélope, microscopically taller than Otabek in both Europe and Canada but legally the same height in the United States, had retaught Otabek to jump from a purely athletic standpoint and always said that the grace would follow afterwards.

The silent hurt from Pénélope has mostly disappeared in the years that Otabek has known her; when he was sixteen, stocky, he didn’t have the problems that the Russian nymphs were having, and his frustrations were ones that Pénélope countered with stiff, unpracticed sympathy. The hard edge of her reactions said, I’ve survived this, so can you . For once it had not chafed at Otabek to receive this sentiment.

“Only doubles or single combinations,” Pénélope says after they’ve finished warming up. It’s been months since Otabek attempted a jump, and he’s worried about his knees, but it’s in the back of his mind. “If you try a triple I’m going to come after you with a toe pick.”

Otabek had learned to skate very young, at the hands of Uncle Sezim, who was a second-line center for Barys. Otabek does not remember a time when he couldn’t skate, but that does not make it easy. Under certain conditions it can be impossible to breathe, and Otabek has been doing that for even longer.

“Single axel!” Pénélope shouts; Otabek realizes that he’s been gathering dust in his brain as his feet push him in lazy loops around the rink. In the air, the one and a half rotations of a single axel seem impossibly slow, after years of triples. Otabek barely has the time to feel the sick clench of his stomach before he lands. Muscle memory lands it, as cleanly as he’s ever landed a single jump, and it takes three strides before Otabek feels the clench in his knee from the impact, the twinge in his injured foot from the landing.

“Clean!” Pénélope shouts. Otabek flicks a look at her and she has a fist in the air. “Very nice! Give me a double, won’t you, Beka?”

The double gives him enough time to sink into that sick feeling, the euphoric nausea. Otabek’s body is not built on slim, clean lines, but it is powerful. Never send an aristocrat to do a peasant’s job , Pénélope had said, when Otabek had won World Juniors. It had been an absurd assessment of the abilities of Otabek’s competitors but Pénélope had laughed gleefully in the kiss and cry, her arms around Otabek’s neck and her omnipresent scarf gently suffocating him. The sturdiness and dependability of this build carries Otabek so securely into the air that he has time to think about falling--not from a jump, but from the CN Tower.

“Clean!” Pénélope yells. “Get your head together, Otabek! What’s going on over there? Are you wool-gathering about your hockey player?”

“No,” Otabek bites out. He pushes himself into another double axel before he can think about it, and misjudges the distance to the dasher boards; he lands and has to swerve immediately to avoid plastering himself to the Plexiglass.

“Okay, break,” Pénélope announces. “Come over here and drink some Gatorade. Do you have another date with the hockey player?”

“His name is Jack,” Otabek tells her, once he’s finished with his Gatorade. His fingers are trembling finely but his feet feel rock-steady. “I don’t have another date with him, Pénélope, as I am not dating him. Which you know.”

Pénélope says, “How are your knees?”

“Fine,” Otabek says. He puts one of his trembling hands against his knee and focuses, for a second, as if it will let him feel the individual pull of each tendon. Sometimes silly things have a purpose. “Yes,” he says, straightening. “Fine.”

“The foot?” Pénélope asks.

It will hurt, later, and that is preluded by a different and less permanent kind of pain right now. Otabek says. “Well enough to continue.”

Pénélope bites her lip. Off of the ice, out of her skates, she is much shorter than Otabek. Her hair makes up the absolute difference--she’s been wearing it in a fluffy cloud around her head since they moved to Denver, claiming that it’s too dry for braids, but Otabek suspects that vanity has had more of an influence than the humidity. She looks softer without the braids; it reminds Otabek of Van Gogh’s paintings of cypress trees, which he had seen in Los Angeles with Yuri.

“Okay,” she finally says. “I want doubles of everything, then we will break it down into focus areas. Start with a lutz, will you? I miss your lutzes.”

Just for Pénélope, Otabek gives her a ring of single lutzes around the circumference of the rink: four fit, just barely, and then Otabek finishes with a double. Otabek had not become a skater out of a desire to bring beauty to the world, but it is nice to give something to Pénélope that she will enjoy. It fights the seasickness in his belly.

“Enough lutzes for you?” Otabek says drily, using his hands to pull himself to a stop in front of Pénélope and reaching for his Gatorade.

Pénélope doesn’t answer. “Ah,” she says, and then something in French, mean-sounding and rough. “He’s here,” she says. “Your double lutz was very nice, Beka, but your landing edge was not so good.”

“Who?” Otabek says. “The hockey player?” He knows about his landing edge. All of the singles had been clean--this is what he deserves, for showing off.

“No,” Pénélope says. “Salchow, then a flip.”

Otabek lowers his Gatorade. There is something crawling along the back of his neck--sweat, probably, but it feels sinister. “Who?” he says. It seems absurd to hope for something that will be disastrous, like wishing for an earthquake.

Salchow ,” Pénélope says, “then a flip, and then I will tell you.”

Otabek falls on the flip, half a rotation too far, and he lands flat on the ice with the sick, nauseous feeling of being airborne following him the whole way. It’s like his body knows who is here, before his mind does. Otabek hasn’t flubbed a double in years, although to be fair he’s never before been healing from a stress fracture.

Maybe this is what falling has felt like for his entire skating career: anticipated humiliation.

~

Yuri is waiting outside, on the front steps of the rink, with his leopard-print roller bag and a coat that makes him look like a mob wife, thick with fluffy faux fur. Like all Russians, Yuri walks an impeccable line between trashy and fashionable that he is mostly able to carry off due to his cheekbones. His head is bowed down, probably looking at his phone, and he has his omnipresent hoodie on underneath his terrible coat; Otabek recognizes the zipper that runs up the back of the hood.

Otabek clears his throat, and Yuri’s head jerks up and around to look at him. “Ah,” he says, crossly, “there you are.” It’s impossible to tell, with the hood, how long his hair has gotten, or if he’s even still growing it out.

“When did you get in?” Otabek asks. It’s one absurd question out of a dozen that are floating around inside his head. It feels easier to ask this than to ask why .

Yuri lifts his left shoulder in an irritated shrug. He climbs to his feet and it takes longer than usual; Otabek realizes after a few seconds of protracted movement that it’s because there is more of Yuri than there had been the last time they had seen each other. His legs stretch an impossible distance off of the ground. “This morning,” Yuri says. “What was that, in there?”

“Practice,” Otabek says. He takes the handle of Yuri’s roller bag and carries it down the steps to the parking lot. It’s packed for the afternoon; Otabek abstractly wonders if the mysterious NWHL affiliate has practice, and then puts it aside.

“Don’t,” Yuri says once he realizes Otabek means to carry his bag to the car. He reaches out and makes to grab for the roller bag, so Otabek switches to carrying it with his other hand. They are very close to each other now, shoulders nearly bumping, and Yuri is-- very tall. It must make him furious, but Yuri uses his anger to subsume so many of his feelings that it’s impossible to distinguish between them.

“This is it,” Otabek says, lengthening his stride and shouldering Yuri gently out of his way. His little Honda is sandwiched between two Priuses and it’s easy to click open the trunk and sling Yuri’s suitcase in along with Otabek’s duffel. “Are you staying with me?” Otabek asks. He struggles to make it sound like a muscle-memory inquiry, like he hasn’t gone stiff the whole way down in anticipation of the answer.

“Pft, yeah,” Yuri says. “Unless your place is crap, I guess.”

“It’s probably nicer than Toronto,” Otabek says as they peel out of the parking lot; the Honda handles very well, for its age, and it’s small enough that Otabek doesn’t feel like a domovoi driving it. “The apartment, I mean. Not as old.”

“You don’t have to sound so disappointed about it,” Yuri says, with a noisy, nasal exhale. “That place was a death trap. If the poorly ventilated developer fumes weren’t gonna kill you, you were gonna be drowned by exploding pipes in the middle of the night.”

This gruesome obsession with the source of Otabek’s eventual demise would be off-putting coming from anyone else, but Otabek has to smother the smile that wants to creep onto the edge of his mouth. “Probably,” he agrees, and checks his blindspot as he signals to change lanes to disguise that he is not successful at hiding the smile. “Nothing out here is that old, so don’t worry about it.”

“I don’t worry ,” Yuri counters immediately, hotly, as Otabek had known he would.

“Ah,” Otabek says, not looking at Yuri. “Sorry.”

“It’s--whatever,” Yuri mumbles. Otabek is busy not looking; he can only imagine the flushed, frustrated look on Yuri’s face. It is not hard to imagine. Otabek spends a prodigious amount of time thinking about Yuri’s face--its expressiveness, its mobility, the minute differences between a true scowl and the pouting, half-mocking one that means, if he can overcome his embarrassment, he can be tricked into laughing. Even when he is not answering WhatsApp messages, Yuri is the companion that Otabek keeps tucked away inside of himself. It had not seemed shameful when Yuri seemed to be catapulting himself out of Otabek’s life; it feels invasive now that Yuri is here, cricking his neck to avoid bumping his head against the roof of Otabek’s tiny car.

“Want to get a drink?” Otabek says. “You’re legal here now.”

“Yeah, sure, fine,” Yuri says. It is a response that does not acknowledge the small, grasping desperation that is surely visible inside of Otabek.

~

Otabek only knows one bar in Denver. After he leaves his car and their bags in the parking structure beneath his apartment building, he takes Yuri around the corner to the bar to which his hockey-playing neighbor had introduced him. Otabek had liked the warm wood paneling, the iron grillwork on the bar, and the dim lights; Jack had commented that it was quiet and he liked being left alone. Yuri has deplorable taste, so who knows what he’ll think.

“This is such an old man bar,” Yuri says approximately three seconds after they’ve taken seats at a high table backed into a corner. “It’s just missing the framed picture of Vladimir Putin behind the bar.”

Yuri takes off the mob wife coat but he still has the hood up, casting dramatic shadows over his face and masking whatever it is that he’s hiding--his hair and his expression are impossible to see with any real resolution. Yuri has an innate understanding of lighting that had made him an incredible photographer from the first moment that Otabek had introduced him to his off-season hobby. Like many other parts of Yuri, this comprises both the most beautiful and most exasperating aspects of his personality.

“Are you going to the wedding?” Yuri says abruptly.

“What?” Otabek says. “Oh, Viktor and Yuuri?”

“The Shitshow Spectacular,” Yuri says. “Fuck, what a mess. You would not believe the shit that Viktor is pulling out of his ass for this.”

Otabek nods at the waitress as she places a glass of tonic water and lime in front of him. Yuri had ordered some kind of vodka cocktail and Otabek had known better than to say anything to him about the altitude that could be construed as condescending or concerned. There is a little bamboo skewer of maraschino cherries speared through the center of Yuri’s glass and he picks it up and bites two of them off of the bottom, grimacing.

“They have waited a long time,” Otabek says, taking a sip of his tonic water.

“Yeah, cry me a fucking river about the star-crossed love of Fuckface and the Rice Bowl,” Yuri says. He has a sip of his drink, makes the edges of a pleased expression, and drinks more of it. Yuri is susceptible to artificial cherry flavoring. “I’m sure it was really hard, having to live in sin off of Viktor’s fuck-off modeling contracts and being beautiful alone together in the most expensive penthouse in Admiralteisky.”

Otabek makes a humming noise in the back of his throat, which he knows Yuri can choose to take as encouragement if he wants.

“Every day,” Yuri continues. “Every fucking day, I go to practice and Viktor is there with his phone out, showing everybody pictures of the latest endangered species he’s having picked off of a mountain in Australia and shipped to Hasetsu for this clusterfuck. If I wanted notes on choreography--which, obviously, I don’t, since Viktor is a fucking idiot--I had to pull them out of him like I was yanking out his fingernails.”

Otabek makes a face at this.

Yuri makes it back at him and tilts his head back, draining his glass. The hood stays firmly in place, but Otabek can see a glint of pale hair lying flat against the side of his skull. Yuri lifts his glass towards the bar and tilts it. “Then, of course, Katsudon was desperately needed in Japan, probably because Viktor is transporting the entire wildlife population of Cambodia into his parent’s place, so now Viktor’s moping.”

The waitress comes over with another cocktail for Yuri; this one has extra cherries on the stick. “You want a refill?” she asks Otabek, who nods.

“There is some time now before Worlds,” Otabek observes. “Time enough for you to be here.”

Yuri doesn’t say anything for a while. He finishes his second drink in a few minutes, gripping the glass between the thumb and forefinger of his left hand hard enough to turn his nail beds white.

“Yeah,” he says, eventually. “I had some time.”

~

Back at his apartment, Otabek removes Yuri’s boots carefully. Yuri is sprawled across the bed and snuffling into the pillow on the left side through a mouthful of his hoodie. His face is the same color as the cherries from his drink, although there is not much of it visible: the removal of the hoodie seems like an insurmountable obstacle, versus the much easier task of taking off his boots. He will not suffocate himself, probably.

Yuri’s boots are black leather, topstitched to a thick rubber sole that is worn down along the insides of the heels; Yuri walks with his weight unevenly distributed. There is salt encrusted along the seams, crawling up the laces like a fungus, jammed between the treads as big rock crystals. Otabek is completely sober, but he feels almost drunk as he holds Yuri’s ankle cupped in the palm of his hand and peels off his socks. Whatever inevitable middle of the season injuries Yuri’s feet are nursing will feel better for the time to breathe.

Yuri snores when he is drunk, but the noise is not why Otabek goes out to sleep on the couch.

~

Otabek is not a person of grand romantic gestures. They are embarrassing and Otabek hates to be embarrassed. He is much better at small acts of devotion, which almost counts as self-sabotage when the object of your affections mistrusts every action, large or small, and is only susceptible to being blindsided.

“What is this?” Yuri asks, with a small growl, when he sees his boots sitting next to Otabek’s by the living room radiator.

“The salt is bad for leather,” Otabek says. “I was doing mine anyway.” He finishes draping the laces over the top of the radiator; it had taken laundry detergent to get the grit and salt out of the string laces of Yuri’s boots.

Yuri’s facial expression is complex, and pink. “Ahh,” he says, like the sound is being strangled out of his throat. Otabek steps back from the radiator and sees that Yuri is yelling from the doorway to the bedroom, wearing his boxers and the corduroy shirt that Otabek had left draped over the foot of the bed. Contrary in everything, age has lightened the color of Yuri’s hair--age, maybe, and lemon juice--and he looks nearly ghostly in Otabek’s dark blue shirt. He’s putting stress on the shoulder seams but Otabek knows better than to say anything.

“They need to dry,” Otabek tells him. “Do you want some breakfast?”

“Fine,” Yuri says after a second.

Otabek finds bok choy stir-fried with dried shrimp in his fridge, amongst all of the Tupperware containers foisted upon him by Pénélope because she refuses to let Ping buy a cat and vent her maternal urges elsewhere, and he fries a handful of eggs to put on top.

“What’s this?” Yuri says, looking into the Tupperware container that Otabek has left open on the counter. He’s less pink, now.

“Bok choy,” Otabek says.

“And the bugs?”

Otabek says, “They’re shrimp,” and flips each of the eggs individually, moving carefully around the edge of the pan to ensure he doesn’t break any of the yolks.

Yuri says nothing for a few seconds; Otabek can feel the weight of his eyes, the way it had felt at the rink yesterday: like Otabek is an overexposed photograph, being bleached by light. It’s futile to wish that he cared less, to know that if it were J. JOHNSON here watching Otabek fry eggs, Otabek wouldn’t care if he broke any of the yolks. It matters deeply to Otabek that Yuri is here, will eat food that Otabek has made, will wear shoes that will keep his toes dry because Otabek woke up, too early and unable to sleep, and sealed them.

“Gross,” Yuri finally says, sounding approving. Otabek puts two fried eggs on top of a pile of cold, slippery bok choy and pushes the bowl towards Yuri with his index finger. He’s looking away, putting the eggs into his own bowl, when Yuri grabs it, but he doesn’t need to be looking to know Yuri’s exact squirrely movement.

They eat standing up at the counter.

“I have rink time this morning,” Otabek says. “You can come, if you want.”

“Eh,” Yuri says. His cheeks are puffed out and he’s slurping a strand of yolk-covered bok choy like it’s a piece of spaghetti. There’s going to be egg all over the corduroy shirt. “I guess. Is your coach gonna shank me?”

“I’m not sure,” Otabek tells him. “Probably not.”

“Oh, that’s great,” Yuri says, sarcastic, mouth full of greens. “Yuri Plietsky, fresh off a gold from the European Championship, done in by a toe pick to the head by a nutso French lady in backwoods America--”

“It’s hardly Hasetsu,” Otabek says, and Yuri snorts. Egg predictably splatters across the kitchen. Yuri does not look as sallow as Otabek might have expected after the half bottle of Svedka he put away. He stands on one foot, hip propped against the counter, his other leg bent and the foot pressing flat against his inner thigh. He looks like a very elegant flamingo; the skin of his thighs is pink, the skin dry and flakey from too many hot showers. He smells like Otabek’s laundry detergent.

“I’m going to take a shower,” Otabek says. “We leave at nine.”

“Fine, whatever,” Yuri says. “You got any coffee in here?”

“No,” Otabek says. He puts his bowl in the sink and fills it with water. “We can stop on the way to the rink.”

He leaves Yuri eating bok choy in the kitchen and takes a quick shower. It takes effort to prevent the walls of the shower stall from closing in on top of him; he has to close his eyes and scrub at his scalp with the tips of his fingers, focusing on the physical act of shampooing instead of casting his thoughts out towards Yuri. Otabek dresses in his bedroom with the door half-shut, slipping on sweats and an athletic shirt, and comes out to find Yuri no longer in the kitchen; he and the bowl of bok choy have migrated out into the living room. Yuri is looking at the wall by the futon.

“You can take the shower,” Otabek says to him.

“What the fuck, Beka,” Yuri says. He looks furious, turning on Otabek in a whirlwind of hair. Maybe someone recommended that he grow it out like Viktor--or, more likely, that he grow it out as a fuck you gesture--but, like Yuri, the hair is a wild creature. It does not elegantly mimic his movement, like Viktor’s long tail had. Yuri’s hair is like the furious claws of a descending bird of prey.

Otabek says nothing.

“I told you to--get rid of these,” Yuri spits.

“I didn’t want to,” Otabek says, assuming that he means the photographs.

Yuri, once small and always full of bluster, has never put in the effort to lose the Muscovite edge to his Russian; his exaggerated A’s roll out of his mouth like his sneer was perfectly formulated to spit them out. When Viktor had said, Oh, your Russian is so nice, Beka! Much nicer than Yuri’s! there had ensued a terrible three-week spread of slurred, horrible twang, with lost O’s and heavy A’s and slang that Otabek had had trouble with.

“I told you to ,” Yuri says, and fury has ground his accent into an angry slurry.

It is true; Yuri had said, They’re shit, just toss them . And it is also true that Otabek had not listened. “I didn’t want to,” he says. The photographs are very good, for an amateur not used to using film, for someone who had never before used an enlarger and complained about the smell in Otabek’s cramped, darkened bathroom rather than paying attention to the stop bath. Yuri had gotten better, the more times he visited Otabek and stole his camera. There are years worth of small visits that Otabek had been no more interested in throwing away than cutting off his own feet.

They did not need to be good, though, to be saved.

Yuri’s face is turning red, the flush crawling up his throat from the spread collar of Otabek’s corduroy shirt. “You’re such an asshole,” he complains. The paleness of his hair makes the flush more obvious. It is not a flattering color, but Otabek’s lungs feel constricted inside of his chest.

“I wanted to keep them,” Otabek says.

Yuri makes a strangled noise; it is both angry and helpless. “What the hell is wrong with you?” he says. “I didn’t call you or answer any of your texts for six months.”

“No,” Otabek admits, “you didn’t.”

“And then I just showed up on your fucking doorstep and what--nothing’s changed?”

“Yes,” Otabek says. “Nothing has changed.”

Yuri drops the bowl, hopefully empty of its contents, onto the futon. He makes his fingers into little claws and scratches them in Otabek’s direction. “I can’t believe you! ” he yells. “Don’t you have any self-respect? What the hell is your problem?”

Otabek says nothing. He can feel the ends of his hair dripping cool water down the back of his neck, soaking into the wicked collar of his athletic shirt. He is well aware of the source of his problem.

Yuri huffs one, two, three enormous breaths. His finger claws straighten and then clench into fists. “You should have gotten rid of them,” he says, sounding less hysterical now. His Muscovite accent is not quite so pronounced. “It wasn’t worth moving them.”

“Yes,” Otabek says. “It was.”

~

Otabek and Yuri had gone to Quebec, to Montreal, to Nova Scotia, to Prince Edward Island, to bars on Queen Street and the St. Lawrence Market and Niagara Falls. Yuri had taken photographs of weird fruits, weird birds, weird trees, and every cat that they saw. It had turned out that Yuri had the endless patience required to coax a belligerent cat into having its photograph taken; Otabek had not been surprised, and he had never gotten bored of watching him do it. Later, when they had developed the photographs and hung them in the bathtub to dry, Yuri had named all of them: Hana, Pizza Crust, Misha, Baby, Ginko . Otabek had said, This one looks like a potato , and Yuri had written FRENCH FRY across the bottom in black Sharpie.

~

Yuri does not so much move towards Otabek as launch himself like a nuclear missile; they are one moment separated by the length of Otabek’s living room, and then Yuri is in the air, a wordless, frustrated scream fizzing out of his mouth, and then he is slamming into Otabek and they are both stumbling backwards, tripping in their sockless feet, to brace against the half-open bedroom door. Yuri does not kiss Otabek so much as bite him, like he wants to give him rabies. He has the rich, cloying taste of egg yolk.

Otabek feels like he is at the bottom of Niagara Falls, thousands of pounds of pressure crushing the breath out of his lungs. He does not think to kiss Yuri back for a handful of seconds, but when he comes back to himself he realizes that his body has done it for him: his hands are on Yuri’s shoulders, his mouth is open and panting under Yuri’s, they are breathing together. This is the nauseating feeling, again, of falling, collapsed into a single second of endless agony.

~

Pénélope says nothing at practice about Yuri’s presence, Otabek’s hair dried into a curly, haphazard mess, or that they had arrived fifteen minutes late without Starbucks. She says nothing after lunch when Otabek takes Yuri with him to the gym for an hour of strength training and then to the ballet studio for a few hours of flexibility training. She finally says something, obliquely, when they are separating in the evening: “Ping is making pad khee mao, bring ginger beer.”

They are standing in the parking lot outside of the ballet studio, which is nestled into a corner of downtown. There are certain angles that make this part of the city seem like a prop on the set of an old western movie, the kind that Otabek had watched on television as a child with extremely bad dubbing; you would be forgiven for thinking that they were just painted storefronts propped up with sawhorses in the back, nothing behind their doors and windows.

Otabek looks to Yuri, who is furiously texting and pretending not to be paying attention. He had corrected Otabek’s leg extension, once, his cold fingers pinching Otabek’s calf and pulling it tight. Yuri is still more flexible than Otabek, having retained his early Russian nymph training despite puberty and his numerous growth spurts, but they are on a more even footing now. It does not make Yuri any softer.

“Okay?” Otabek says to Yuri in Russian.

“Whatever,” Yuri says, in English. “What the hell is ginger beer?” he adds in Russian.

“Half an hour?” Otabek says to Pénélope, who is staring intently at what she can see of Yuri’s face under the scoop of his hoodie. She nods slowly. Yuri may not be able to see her but he has a professional performer’s awareness of observation; he is starting to flush, maybe from anger, and his knuckles are turning white as he taps harder on the screen of his phone.

“Yes,” Pénélope finally says. “See you soon, Beka. Good evening, Yuri.” She kisses Otabek on the cheek and goes left, towards her car, with a little finger-wave for Yuri. Pénélope’s voice and hair are soft, but she is solid and can use her presence as more of a threat than her words. Perhaps Yuri is jealous of that.

“Bye,” Yuri finally spits out, when Pénélope is nearly out of earshot, climbing into her car.

“It’s a soda,” Otabek says to Yuri. “Made from ginger syrup. You make a drink out of it with vodka and lime juice that Pénélope’s wife likes to have with Thai food.”

“Soda!” Yuri hisses. “Unbelievable.”

“You don’t have to have any,” Otabek says mildly. He doesn’t feel in a rush, so he puts his hands in the pockets of his leather jacket. “Pénélope just tells me something to bring for Ping, who is cooking.”

Yuri sticks out his tongue. He’s being judgmental for someone who drank his own weight in cherry syrup last night, but Otabek doesn’t see the point in saying that. Yuri is aware of his own absurdities; he doesn’t need Otabek to highlight them. “Whatever,” he says. “You may not be skating this season but I hope you’re not drinking any of that crap.”

Otabek, who is not fond of soda, makes a humming noise in the back of his throat.

The furious flow of texting finally slows. Yuri licks the corner of his mouth and then looks up from his phone. “Well, fine,” he says. He does not sound mollified. “We gonna go get that crap, then, or what?”

Otabek would not consider himself a brave person, necessarily; he is instead extremely patient. He is content to work hard and wait for slow improvement. Everything he has learned to do with his body--walking, first, and then skating, quadruple Salchows, an arabesque considered adequate by a student of Lilia Baranovskaya, riding a motorcycle--has taken years. Waiting for Yuri has taken years, but they have not been empty. Otabek is patient because he likes the process as much as the final result.

Yuri says, “What?”

Otabek says nothing, but shifts his weight onto the balls on his feet and leans forward three or four centimeters. Yuri’s eyelids droop almost automatically and he sinks into a slouch that makes him look like a delinquent. The clenching, terrible feeling of falling has gripped Otabek’s stomach with its hot fingers and choked some out of the evenness out of his breath. When he touches his lips to Yuri’s mouth, oxygen deprivation makes the moment feel protracted. It is a brief kiss, a matter of one or two seconds, and Otabek settles his weight back on his heels feeling like he’s run through his entire long program. His calves burn; his bad foot has the deep, removed ache of something healing.

“My car is that way,” Otabek says, tilting his head to the right.

“Right,” Yuri says. His tongue darts out and touches the corner of his mouth. He has a blush burning high in his cheeks but he blows out a long breath as if he is annoyed and says, “Can we go now, or are you gonna stand out here all day?”

The sun has begun to set; it has turned the edges of the buildings to the west into fuzzy, liminal places. Even this light seems red, somehow; the afterimage it leaves on the inside of Otabek’s eyelids when he blinks is nearly orange. This light makes Yuri’s eyebrows, damp from a quick shower, look pink. There is beautiful light in this city for black and white photography. Otabek thinks that Yuri will find many recalcitrant cats here to charm.

“Let’s go,” Otabek says.