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just like all those pretty lights

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Karolina loves figure skating. She loves the chill that clears away the last bits of grogginess from her mind as she starts her early morning practice. She loves the feeling of the wind in her face as she glides along on the ice. She loves the burn in her chest after completing two four-minute programs back to back, muscles aching from well-timed jumps and spins and footwork.

But more than anything, she loves that nothing can touch her when she’s on the ice.

Everything you do reflects back on the Dean family as a whole, Karolina. Her mother’s voice telling her to be better and work harder can’t be heard above the sound of her blades against the ice and whatever playlist she’s put on for the session. That song choice isn’t very suitable for a Dean, Karolina. You should do a more difficult variation there, Karolina.

It all falls away until it’s only just her and the ice.

Karolina has been coached by her mother for as long as she’s been able to walk. Her grandfather was a national champion, and so was her mother. As an only child, it’s Karolina’s legacy to continue. Leslie Dean would accept nothing less. The Gibborim Ice Arena was their family’s pride and joy. When she was younger, that meant unlimited skating parties with friends and classmates, but once her mother saw that she’d inherited a natural affinity for the ice, it just meant more and more training time. She knows that with her mother as the face of Gibb, and with Karolina now competing at the senior level among the nation’s best, that that comes with some responsibility. Especially during an Olympic year.

Reaching Pyeongchang is what’s expected of Karolina, and she knows that. But she also knows that the shelf life of a female American figure skater can be rather short, and, another four years from now, skating’s new golden girls could easily usurp her. She knows there are eyes on her because she fits her sport’s mold so well: beautiful, young, well-spoken- American figure skating’s sweetheart with the pedigree to match.

She also knows its a label that comes with extreme pressure that has caused past women in her position to crack.

Everyone at the rink loves Karolina, or as she tells herself in moments of insecurity, they at least do a good job pretending. Every once in a while it makes her wonder if they’re just sucking up to the boss’s daughter or trying to get on the good side of one of the most sought after coaches in LA.  Karolina tries to not think about that, hoping that people like her enough to be genuine with her, hoping they don’t see her as sly and deceitful (albeit extremely successful) like they do her mother. She stays until the evenings to teach group classes to the beginner skaters, letting them follow her around afterwards, like little ducklings trailing behind, in awe of what they dream to one day become. She’s professional and well-prepared and the complete opposite of trouble.

Trouble, in this case, takes the form of Nico Minoru.

Karolina and Nico are no strangers to each other. The world of figure skating is a small one, and even smaller for those talented enough to be on the competitive track. With Karolina training in Los Angeles and Nico living all the way in Boston, their paths crossed for the first time when they were both 11 years old. They placed first and second at the national championship for their level that year, and it was the first time that season that Nico had lost. From that moment on, they were rivals, or as Nico seemed to view it, enemies.

But with an entire country between them, both Karolina and Nico were able to put each other out of sight and out of mind until competitions approached. And yet, just as Karolina is finishing up with lacing her skates, about to get on the 1:00 pm session, the door to the locker room opens and a familiar head of dark hair catches her eye. She freezes.

“Well, look who it is.”

Nico’s tone isn’t exactly teasing, although it’s not completely genuine either. It’s very much the norm for how they interact. Never going so far as to be disrespectful or unprofessional, but the tight-lipped smiles don’t reach their eyes. Karolina’s always found it unfortunate, but it seemed as though once she knocked Nico into second place seven years ago, the nature of their relationship had been set in stone.

It certainly doesn’t help that Leslie monitors her daughter’s friendships pretty closely.

“Nico,” Karolina says calmly but curtly.

The shorter girl takes a seat beside her and begins pulling her skates from her bag. It’s the strangest thing, seeing Nico with her guard down in a way--not dressed in flashy dresses and face mostly clear of the skillful makeup that usually paints it. But mostly it’s just strange because why is she here?

Karolina speaks again, and although it wasn’t her intention, even she can admit that this one comes out a bit rude.

“Why are you here?”

“To skate,” Nico answers plainly, holding up her jet black skates as though it were obvious. As though that were the question she were asking.

Karolina purses her lips.

“Right.”

She pulls on a pair of gloves and stands.

She doesn’t acknowledge the “See you out there,” that smugly follows her out of the room.

Karolina has already made a few laps around the rink, stretching and warming her muscles, when her mother appears in the penalty box. Karolina grabs her water off the wall as she rounds the corner and moves to stand in front of her coach and mother.

“Why is Nico Minoru here?” she asks.

Leslie raises her eyebrows and replies, “Nico Minoru is here?”

Karolina nods.

“Huh, I thought that was just a rumor,” the woman mumbles, her arms crossing her chest.

Her daughter’s head tilts to the side in curiosity.

“What was?”

“Picking up and moving cross-country.”

“Well why is she here?” Karolina pushes. “Who is she taking lessons from?”

“To train, I suppose,” her mom offers with a shrug, “and no one, as far as I know.”

Her brow furrows. That kind of spontaneity and change is a foreign concept to her. It doesn’t make sense. Nico has medaled at the last two national championships and is slated for her fair share of international competitions in the upcoming season. What reason did she have for doing all of this now? How could this possibly benefit her training?

“Regardless,” Leslie begins, drawing her out of her thoughts, “it’s none of your concern. Whether Nico Minoru is skating back in Boston or on the same session as you, your training stays exactly the same.”

Leslie pauses as Karolina returns her bottle to the boards before shrugging, her eyebrow raising as she looks at her daughter. “Who knows, having some competition around here might do you some good.”

As if on cue, the sound of ice spraying up to hit the sideboards causes both skater and coach to turn, looking at the girl in question as she comes to a stop. Nico looks at the pair expectantly, eyebrows raised slightly as though daring them to say something. But when no comment is made, she nods her head, directing her attention to Karolina.

“You mind if I put on some music?” she asks, holding up her phone.

Karolina’s mouth opens and closes, unsure of what to say--especially since she put on the new playlist she’d spent last night making not five minutes ago. She doesn’t want to cause problems though, and really, that sort of thing shouldn’t affect her training, so she nods.

“Sure.”

“Great,” Nico says with a smile. “Time to get this party started.”

Before she can say anything more, Nico is setting Karolina’s phone aside to plug in her own, and the sound of too loud guitar is blaring through the speakers.

“Think of it as an exercise in focus,” Leslie offers, her head tilting to the side as she watches Karolina take a controlled breath in, her fists balling at her sides. “If you can deal with her here, you can deal with her anywhere.”

 

//

 

“Do you own anything that’s not neon? It’s too early in the morning to be staring at something so obnoxiously bright,” Karolina hears just as she stands, finally done with her post-morning-workout stretching.

She looks over at the girl before her, dressed in all black with her hair up in a way that she doesn’t think could survive a gust of wind, let alone a day of training, and a face full of dark makeup (so much for having her guard down) along with a coffee cup in hand as though she’s some girl showing up to the mall for her shift at Hot Topic rather than a professional athlete showing up to training. Karolina raises her eyebrows in equal parts puzzlement and disapproval.

“It’s after 11.”

“Which makes it morning. Glad to see that whatever private institution your online courses were coming from covered the same stuff as Massachusetts’ online public school.”

Karolina does her best to hold back an eye roll.  She swallows hard before speaking.

“I saw that Eiffel had to drop out of Cup of China because of her ankle, and that you’ll be taking her place. Congratulations.”

“First international event as training mates,” Nico replies, raising her coffee in some kind of mock toast.

Before Karolina can form some sort of reply to the odd, half-genuine statement, Nico’s phone is ringing and she takes that as her way out. With a tight-lipped smile, she nods her head once and makes her way back to the locker room.

“You’ve been here for a day. I’d hardly call us training mates,” Karolina mumbles in frustration once she’s gone.

She surprises herself when she actually notices Nico hasn’t joined her on the ice 20 minutes later.

 

//

 

Nico lets her phone drop into her bag with a heavy sigh. She had been taking some pretty big liberties in thinking that she could move cross-country, not have a coach, and have everything work out for her. Of course she’d planned on finding a coach eventually, but that required some trust and for that, she needed time.

Because the last coach she’d had broke up her parent’s marriage. And she had trusted them both. They’d jeopardized her career and had gone behind her back and lied to her and she’d had enough. She’s 18. She’s an adult.

So she left.

She’s filled out all of the paperwork to inform her sponsors and the skating federation and done her best to play by the rules. She still needs the money and the support. She doesn’t want to ruin this for herself. But she’d left the spot where a new coach’s name should be blank. Because she doesn’t have one. There are plenty of coaches in the country that’d give their right arm to take her on, and Nico knows that. But they just want the fame and attention and bragging rights that come attached to the girl’s talent and name. They don’t care about her. And she knows that too.

But apparently the people over at Team USA don’t make special “my dad cheated on my mom with my coach so I left in a fit of rage” exceptions. They need her to be in China next month, representing her country and her sport, and she needs to have a coach there with her. Those were the conditions. And saying no to the people in charge of deciding who got to go to the world championship every year probably wouldn’t do her any favors. Especially since she’s also gunning for the Olympics.

So now she’s got a week to figure it out.

Throwing her now-cold coffee into the trash bin, she lets out a groan.

“Tough day at the office?”

The question comes from a purple haired girl, who looked to be about the same age as Nico. She stands behind the front desk, her arms crossed.

Nico lets her head roll back, ridding herself of a kink in her neck. She shakes her head, letting out a tired sigh.

“You have no idea.”

Nico is about to turn and move into the locker room, but changes her mind at the last second.

“Hey, totally off the record, who would you say is the best coach here?”

Gert looks the blonde over for a moment, sizing her up before she responds.

“Leslie, definitely. They’re all good, but she’s the one I’d recommend if you can get in with her.”

Nico nods.

“I was afraid you’d say that. Still, thanks-”

“Gert.”

“Gert,” Nico repeats, before adding, “I’m Nico.”

The look Gert gives her tells her that she’s well-aware of who Nico is, but she appreciates being at a new rink and feeling a sense of normalcy rather than being eyed by strangers who recognize her.

“Nice to have you here at Gibborim, Nico. Let me know if you need anything. If this place is open, odds are I’m here.”

“Cool,” she says with a nod, and her smile widens a little. Because, aside from Karolina, this is the first person she’s talked to since her move. And, although she really couldn’t blame her, Karolina hadn’t exactly been all that welcoming. Not that Nico really wanted her to be, anyway.

Having been competitors for the last seven years had led to a lot of backhanded compliments and snark and stare downs, but in large part the reason they had never moved past that behavior was Nico’s fault. She was really competitive, and used to winning, especially when she was younger. So for this toothpick of a girl, lanky and quiet and unassuming, to have ruined 11-year-old Nico’s perfect season, had been unacceptable. 

And truly, Nico couldn’t help but be jealous of Karolina. She came from a renowned skating family. She’d basically been born with a pair of custom-made skates on and had been raised to grow up in a way befitting of the skating community. All of that had been new to Nico and her parents when she had first started sliding around the kitchen floors in her socks at the age of four, and her parents figured that throwing that activity into something productive might be good.

Karolina is kind and considerate, and Nico is pretty sure she’s never rebelled once in her life. It’s a major reason why she’s never gone out of her way to befriend Karolina. Nico was the one who’d stay up late and occasionally sneak out of her room while away at competitions. Karolina was the one making trip itineraries since the age of 13.

So for the past seven years, Nico had seen her as her chief rival (and the pundits at Ice Network ate that shit up).

“Hey, uh, Mrs. Dean?” Nico calls as Leslie steps off the ice. She’s been at the boards for a while, waiting for her chance.

“Nico.”

It’s the only indication she gets that the woman’s even noticed her.

“Do you have a minute?”

“To do what?” Leslie responds, not even making eye contact but instead typing out a message on her phone.

“To have a chat.”

“A chat?”

Leslie steps off the ice, one eyebrow quirked at Nico as she puts her guards on her blades. Nico figures there’s no point in stalling, and that she didn’t get this far in skating from a lack of confidence.

“I need a coach.”

Leslie looks up at her, and for a moment Nico thinks she’s going to straight up deny her request then and there. But then she nods once, and Nico understands where Karolina got that gesture from.

“Let’s go to my office.”

Nico follows, chancing a look back at the ice to see Karolina watching them with an unreadable expression.

Leslie closes the door behind them and takes a seat.

“Before I decide anything, I need the whole story. Why is Nico Minoru at my ice rink in LA in need of a coach far too close to the start of the season?”

Nico runs a hand down her front, trying to flatten her shirt that’s still wrinkled from being stuffed in her luggage. She’s not sure what she expected. She knew she’d need to inform Leslie Dean of what happened if she wanted to even be considered.

“Well, for starters I fired Janet.”

Nico becomes more intimidated at the lack of reaction Leslie has to that. She only glances at her phone and asks, “Any particular reason for that?”

“Yeah,” Nico replies, crossing her arms against her chest, hoping it comes off as a show of defiance rather than the nervousness and discomfort she’s feeling.

“I’m waiting.”

Nico sighs and averts her gaze to the floor. She’s never had to say it out loud before.

“She and my dad were sleeping together.”

The words leaving a bitter taste in her mouth, Nico glances up and catches the split second where Leslie’s eyebrows raise in surprise at the confession, but then she recovers and her face goes back to its neutral, stoic expression.

“Have you told your sponsors and the skating association that you dropped your coach and changed training locations?”

Nico nods. “Yeah, of course. But as I’m sure you can imagine, they don’t exactly want to see a blank space where a coach’s name should be.”

“Especially not when they’ve just put you on Cup of China.”

She nods and continues. “Exactly. In fact, if I don’t have a coach by the end of the week I lose my spot.”

Leslie nods, looking down at her folded hands that rest on her desk.

“Well look. My schedule’s pretty tight, and just because you’re Nico Minoru doesn’t mean I’ll take away from the students I already have. I think we can make it work, but stay away from Karolina. I don’t need her distracted right as the season’s starting.”

Nico has to physically fight the urge to roll her eyes.

“Yeah. I don’t think that’ll be an issue.”

 

//

 

Nico pulls up to the Gibborim Ice Arena the next morning and almost laughs as she puts her car into park, remembering Leslie’s sole stipulation for taking Nico on as a student.

Stay away from Karolina.

That was like asking Nico to please wear only black. If ignoring and steering clear of Karolina Dean was all she had to do to get her skating career back on track and keep everyone at US Figure Skating happy, then she was as good as gold. 

Just as Nico unbuckles her seatbelt, she hears the buzz of her phone beside her. Was it her dad again, sending text after text of apologies? Or her mom reminding her that this move had better not mess up her training? Had the skating federation gone ahead and pulled her from Cup of China even though she still had a few days left to notify them she’d gotten a coach?

She quickly grabs it and checks the screen. She lets out a sigh of relief as she reads her screen. It wasn’t any of those things, luckily. Just the room assignments for Cup of China being sent out.

Swiping her finger across the screen, she unlocks the phone and begins to scroll through the email, searching for her name. Usually, she’d have gotten a say in who she shares a hotel room with at her international events, but because she was added last minute, she’s going in blind.

Room 202: Karolina Dean and Nico Minoru

Oh, you have got to be fucking kidding me.

Nico rolls her eyes and has to fight back a laugh because of course something like this would happen. She knows that this definitely won’t warm Leslie up to her any faster, considering it goes against the only condition she’d specified. But she also can’t help it. If Leslie wants to bitch to whoever was in charge of room assignments, she could go right ahead. As long as Nico has a coach on paper to show her sponsors and the federation and a person standing at the boards in China next month, she could care less about the rest. She’d just be in the room to sleep and would avoid Karolina as much as she could the rest of the time.

With one earbud in and music blaring, she grabs her bag from the trunk and makes her way into the Gibborim Ice Arena, psyching herself up for the day’s practice. It’s not until she’s a few feet from the locker room that she turns down the music on her phone, hearing raised voices coming from the other side of the door.

“Karolina, it is your job to skate well. And it is my job to make sure you skate well.”

“I know mom, I just don’t think they’re going to accept-”

“Not if you don’t ask they won’t.”

“What happened to ‘maybe some competition would do you some good’?” Karolina asks, her voice parroting her mother.

“Well maybe if-”

Nico decides that now is as good a time as any to make her entrance, since there’s no sign of the argument ending anytime soon. Besides, she really needs to be getting ready to skate (partially because she wants to prove to Karolina that she can, in fact, make it onto the ice before noon). Plus, she’s never seen Karolina exhibit any emotions beyond fake happiness and extreme focus, and she’s kind of curious how pissed-off-at-mom looks on her.

She pushes open the door and lets her bag drop to the floor with a thud, announcing her presence. Her mouth curves into a smirk as she turns to face Karolina.

“Hey there roomie.”