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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.”

 

Chapter Text

Nico is whirling through her free skate program to Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite, landing every single jump flawlessly – textbook air positions, great height, full revolutions, and clean landings. Janet would have been singing her praises if she could see her now.

But Leslie Dean is a hardass.

Nico’s too focused on her program to sneak anything longer than a quick glance at her new coach, but she can tell by the blurry image of Karolina’s mother standing there with her arms crossed that she’s probably not impressed.

Nico ignores it, sets up for a triple lutz, and again lands effortlessly. She follows along to the music, the choreography to this piece ingrained in her head so deeply that she honestly wonders if she could do it blindfolded. She skates near the center of the rink and finishes the program in a flurry of spins.

And yet, Leslie does not look impressed.

“Good. But I need more passion. You need to emote. What were you and Janet working on with this program before you left?”

Nico shrugs. She already knows what Leslie is going to be griping about, and that’s that she’s not artistic enough. Leslie Dean won her national championships in ice dance and, as a result, has always pushed connecting with the music in her students. It’s why Chase Stein and his dance partner Molly train here. It’s part of why Karolina is known for her ability to bring a weeping audience to its feet. And it’s a big reason why Nico came out to LA. Emotion is not her strong suit.

“Honestly, we were really focusing on me landing a triple axel,” Nico replies, because she knows it might tide over Leslie’s frustration, knowing that Nico is one of the only women in the world to have that jump in her arsenal.

She catches the brief look of surprise that crosses Leslie’s face, but it immediately becomes stoic again.

“Well, that’s great, but you certainly won’t do as well as you have the potential to do, even if you land that.”

Nico knows that Leslie’s probably not wrong. The Americans have had trouble keeping up with Russia and most of Europe in international competitions, and a lot of that has to do with lack of emotion.

“Technical scores alone won’t get you far even if you do make the Olympic team,” reminds her.

“Well, the artistic side has just never been my strong suit.”

She knows that. Nico knows that Leslie knows that.

She also knows that that’s probably why her new coach is pushing it so hard so soon.

“Then work harder.”

Nico knows that at the end of the day Leslie is only trying to make her better. But it’s early, she’s still in the process of moving into an apartment considering she just decided to pick up and leave a week and a half ago, and Karolina is doing a terrible job pretending not to watch Nico working with Leslie while she warms up.

“It’s worked for plenty of others,” Nico grumbles.

Leslie sighs.

“And you’d rather just have American skating stay that way? Skating clean and tight with perfect jumps but not skating to the music?”

Nico turns away on her blades just so she can roll her eyes out of Leslie’s line of sight.

“Well then maybe I should ask Karolina since she seems to be much stronger with her component scores,” Nico shoots back, knowing her allusion to Leslie’s unnecessary rule will get a rise out of her coach.

It’s a dumb rule. She has no interest in bothering Karolina anyway. She’s competition, but she’s certainly not going to go ’94 Nationals on her.

Leslie is unamused but says nothing. The furrow of her brow is enough to convey the reiteration of her “don’t distract my daughter” rule.

“Again,” Leslie nearly whispers that small but fear-inducing tone that only a mother can produce, and Nico knows that Leslie is about to work her that much harder. “Try and use your facial muscles just a fraction of the amount you’re using the rest of your body.”

“Or I could show you that triple axel I mentioned.”

“After. Go again.”

Leslie presses play, and the soft opening of Firebird begins to fill the rink. Nico skates along, this time at least trying to feel out the music. She doesn’t want to make Leslie too upset, as annoyed as she is with the coach. But the music is soft and so not Nico that she can’t really figure it out. She’s about halfway through and ready for the rest of the orchestra to come in loud and urgent when Leslie skates toward the middle and flags her down.

“Stop, stop.”

Nico sighs but skids to a stop and comes speeding toward the center toward Leslie, who is visibly frustrated.

“I know that this isn’t something we can fix in a day, but I need you to at least start trying. Think of what the song means, what it’s about. What does it mean to you?”

But honestly? The song means nothing to Nico.

“I don’t know.”

Leslie pinches the bridge of her nose.

“How does the music make you feel?”

Nico’s even more frustrated now. She really doesn’t even know why Leslie is bothering to put so much time with her. She thought she’d made it pretty clear that she just needed a name on a sheet when it came to coaching, that it would be more of a formality.

“This song is a classic, Nico. Feel it.”

“I don’t know what else you want me to do,” Nico sighs.

“Think about how the music moves from soft and slow to loud and thundering! Skate to the music,” Leslie replies, punctuating her words with increasing and decreasing volume and hand gestures that makes Karolina stop and pretend to be checking her phone.

Nico’s bored. She hates this song. She can’t feel anything to it and doesn’t want to anyway. The last thing she needs is to bring all of her family bullshit to the one place she’s able to feel just a little bit freer.

“You know, I didn’t ask for this,” Nico finally responds. “I just needed someone to put down as a coach for now and was going to figure out the rest later. I know these programs.”

That makes Leslie visibly angry.

“Yes, you did ask for this.”

“I’m sorry I don’t—”

“When you asked me to attach my name to yours and put you out at competitions, I took that seriously. I take my reputation seriously. So it’s my job to put out the most competitive athletes that I can. If you would like me to find you a coach who will sit back and let you train yourself and not reach your full potential, I’d be happy to arrange that, although I’m not sure how the skating federation would feel about needing to inform them of yet another coaching change just weeks from competition.”

Nico clenches her jaw and refuses to avert her eyes from Leslie’s.

They soften just a bit as she continues, “You’re a force, technically, Nico. But there is no reason for you to just stop there at the height of your career. Do I make myself clear?”

Nico nods in response.

“Run it again.”

Nico does her best to put her anger into the music, but that’s difficult when the only emotion she feels comfortable expressing on the ice doesn’t match the music. Maybe she should ask Leslie to switch to something else because clearly, the woman wasn’t going to let this go.

She pivots on her blade so that she’s moving backward, picking up speed along the wall as she goes. Nico spots Karolina, whose standing stock still at the boards to give her ample space. She’s still doing her best to pretend she’s not watching, but Nico knows better. Karolina isn’t the slyest person in the world.

Nico ignores the fact that she’s skated her best when Karolina is watching when Leslie comments that her run-through this time was better.

 

//

 

She’s good. She’s so, so good. Karolina wonders when was the last time Nico missed a jump as she watches from the boards, playing with the cap of her water bottle.

Karolina knows that she’s always had the edge artistically but she can’t help but be jealous of the consistency of her competitor’s jumps. She also can’t help but be just the slightest bit annoyed that she has to split her mother’s attention with Nico.

“Checking out the competition, huh?”

Karolina jumps when she hears a voice behind her and realizes she hadn’t even noticed Chase Stein skating up alongside her.

“What?” Karolina looks at him confused for a moment. He gestures over to Nico, who’s now in a spin, and she puts together what he’d said.

“Oh, um, yeah.”

She really hopes Chase doesn’t think she’s staring. She’s not. Karolina doesn’t care… that much.

“So when did she get here?”

Karolina shrugs, still wondering how she zoned out so hard that she didn’t even notice Chase’s presence.

“Oh, just a couple days ago. Still don’t really know why. My mom wouldn’t tell me.”

Chase lets out a heavy sigh at that.

“Yeah, well the whole world is gonna know soon. It’s just a scandal waiting to happen.”

Karolina turns toward him, confused, to see the grimace on his face.

“Nico’s dad is sleeping with my mom,” he mumbles, devoid of any emotion.

Oh. Oh. Well, that… isn’t entirely unexpected. Nico’s parents had always spent a lot of time with Chase’s, both on and off the ice.

Still. She can’t imagine it’s fun to be reminded of it even if he does live across the country.

“Oh my god. Chase, I’m so sorry.”

He shrugs, trying to seem nonchalant about the whole thing. But Karolina knows that even though he barely sees his parents much anymore since the Yorkes family has basically adopted him once he moved out here to live with them and skate with Molly, it still bothers him.

“Out of sight, out of mind, honestly. And Nico’s so above my mother’s capabilities as a coach.”

“But still…”

He cuts her off.

“My dad’s a dick to both of us, so honestly he had it coming. That’s their shit to work out.”

Karolina hears him take a deep breath and watches him close his eyes. She really doesn’t know how her friend can be so relatively calm about all of this. Then again, as much of a stereotypical teenage jock he is, she knows it also takes a certain level of maturity to reach an elite level in any sport.

“Anyway, everyone’s trying to figure out why Nico suddenly moved, so it’s only a matter of time before it comes out.”

“Wow, no wonder she’s been especially broody lately,” Karolina quips.

Seriously though. Even the attitude she was giving Karolina’s mother earlier suddenly makes so much more sense.

(Not that Karolina thinks that her behavior is excusable.)

“She’s really not that bad, K. We spent a lot of time together growing up.”

“So have we.”

Karolina can almost feel Chase rolling his eyes at her. He did spent a lot of time with Nico when they both lived in Boston and were coached by Chase’s mom, and she knows that even though now they only see each other at competitions, they’re still kind to one another. Even though Karolina’s not sure she’s ever seen Nico Minoru smile during a situation that doesn’t involve receiving program scores.

“Well, maybe this new arrangement will be a chance for you two to start over.”

“I don’t think Nico’s interested.”

Not that Karolina’s all that interested either. But maybe if Nico showed even just the tiniest bit of interest in getting to know her, she’d bend.

“Stare any harder, and I think you’ll give yourself a migraine.”

She’s not staring. At least that’s what Karolina tells herself as she finally tears her eyes away Nico floats through her step sequence.

“I’m just not used to sharing my mother with other elite singles skaters. She hasn’t taken on someone new for a couple years.”

Chase smiles at her kindly, and Karolina swears he takes a glance down at her lips. Oh. That’s weird.

“Well, you don’t have to worry. You’re still the best one here.”

He says it with such sincerity that it really throws her off. He’s not… surely he isn’t coming onto her? No, he’s just being nice. Just a good friend. A pal. A bro.

“Well, thank you, Chase,” Karolina replies politely, trying to avoid his gaze.

“I mean it,” he continues, and he reaches out to place his hand on her shoulder. It’s not weird. She’s not uncomfortable from this touch—they’ve been close friends for years. But it’s the way he’s looking at her now. It’s different from previous interactions.

“Everyone here loves you and sees you as captivating… beautiful.”

Oh.

Karolina’s not really sure what her face is doing, but she must look confused or unhappy or something because immediately, Chase’s eyes widen and he backpedals.

“I’m so sorry. I wasn’t trying to make things weird. I just—”

“No, no. It’s fine. Thanks.”

Except it’s not fine because Karolina can’t figure out why she’s so put off by Chase very obviously flirting with her. He’s a wonderful guy, a close friend, objectively very attractive. Society has made her feel like this is something she should be flattered by or proud of. But she’s not.

Karolina wonders if it’s weird for her to think that.

 

//

 

Nico awkwardly shuffles into the locker room, her thighs burning from running her program what seems like a thousand times. Trying to balance on her skates as she walks doesn’t help either. She spots Karolina on a bench, back facing Nico, humming along to whatever song is playing on the one earbud she has in.

Nico plops down on the other end of the bench with a sigh and begins to unlace her skates when Karolina takes her other earbud out and turns to see Nico sitting on the other end. Nico sees her pretend to reach for something in her bag and turn away again.

“What, saw it was me and decided to ignore me?”

Nico’s messing with her more than anything, even if it does hurt just a little bit to see Karolina so blatantly avoid her. It’s the nature of their relationship, but Karolina could at least try and give somewhat of a nice Gibborim welcome.

“No, just figured I would say hi. But then I saw it was you, and I doubt you want to make awkward small talk.”

She really can’t argue with that. Nico isn’t even supposed to talk to Karolina anyway.

“I mean, you’re not wrong. And typically the only locker room talk I engage in is complaining about coaches. But I can’t really do that when said coach is your mom.”

Nico almost takes pride in the fact that the comment gets a smirk out of Karolina.

“She’s only trying to make you better, you know.”

Nico knows that. She knows that, but she wishes people would stop telling her that because she really didn’t ask for it.

“I guess I just didn’t expect to receive the star treatment when I got here,” Nico quips.

“Yes, I’m sure you thought my mother was going to be so upset to have Nico Minoru come to her looking for a coach in an Olympic year.”

Nico can’t help but wonder if she’s ever had this long of a conversation with Karolina.

“I’m sorry about what happened, by the way,” Karolina says. She must immediately see Nico’s brow furrow because she quickly adds, “Chase told me earlier.”

Of fucking course he did.

“Well tell Stein to mind his own business,” she grumbles, stuffing her skates into her bag quickly and storming out.

Nico makes her way to the front desk where she sees Gert, who is shooting daggers at Karolina, who must have followed her out of the locker room and is now talking to Chase. She can see Gert huffing about something to the girl next to her, who she’s pretty sure is Chase’s ice dance partner, Molly.

“You doing okay, Gert?” Nico asks as she approaches the counter.

“What? Oh—yeah. I’m fine. I just got a...a paper cut.” Gert holds up a finger. “Blades aren't the only dangerous thing around here, am I right?”

“Uhh,” Nico starts, looking at Gert, thoroughly confused and slightly concerned for the girl. She then turns to the curly haired brunette to her side, noting that she's making a face that has got to look pretty damn similar to her own.

“So she do this a lot?”

Gert lets out a scoff, surely about to defend herself with some other bizarre cover before the girl interjects.

“All the time.”

Gert rolls her eyes, giving the girl a small shove across the counter. “Nico, this is my baby sister, Molly.”

“Please, I’m only three years younger than you.”

Nico chuckles to herself, thinking back to how she and her sister Amy used to act just like that. Her smile quickly fades, and she clears her throat, eager to change the subject before the conversation shifts to herself. She looks out at the rink and sees a guy, one that looks like just about every white, private school lacrosse bro back in Boston. Of course that was what Chase Stein would grow up to look like. He’s standing with Karolina and Nico watches as the blonde’s lips spread into a smile, and she starts to laugh.

“So what’s Chase doing here?” Nico asks, not looking back to the girls at her side.

“Chase Stein? He’s trained here for years,” Gert answers, although Nico’s pretty sure she hears a pencil snap halfway through her answer.

“He’s got a thing for Karolina,” Molly adds, leaning over closer to Nico as she does so.

“Molly—”

“Well, it certainly looks like he does.”

“A boy and a girl can speak to each other without the heteronormative pressures of society to link them romantically,” Gert snaps.

Nico raises an eyebrow at Molly, who meets Nico’s gaze with a smirk. Gert almost seemed… jealous.

Molly turns to Nico.

“Anyway, how do you know Chase?”

She shrugs and answers, “Oh, I don’t know him so well now, but we spent quite a bit of time together considering we used to both be coached by his mom. Then he came out here to be coached by Leslie when we were 13.”

“And became my dance partner and flirts with Karolina whenever he gets the chance,” Molly adds.

Nico hears Gert sigh, and she turns toward Chase and Karolina, who are still talking.

“And you should really be getting out onto the ice so that he has less time to do that,” Gert snaps.

Nico thinks that Gert certainly isn’t trying very hard to hide how she’s feeling. Molly walks away and heads towards Chase and Karolina.

She sees Chase walk away from Karolina with a smile and a wave, and Karolina gives the same fake smile she’s given Nico for years at competitions. Hmm.

“For what it’s worth, if he’s flirting with her, she doesn’t really seem all that into it.”

Gert scoffs at that and responds much too quickly.

“I don’t care. Chase Stein is free to date whomever he pleases. He can date you, for all I care.”

Nico just chuckles at that.

“No thanks. He was like my brother growing up.”

“I didn’t realize you two had been so close.”

They had been. Nico had been coached by Janet since she was 8, and since she and Chase had been the same age, they’d been around each other a lot in skating lessons when they were younger and competitions as they grew up. Janet and Nico’s parents had even tried to get them to skate pairs when they were younger until they realized that Nico didn’t work well with others. Chase wanted to go the ice dance route, and with top notch facilities in their area lacking, he’d moved out to LA.

She’s annoyed that he revealed her reason for moving out here to Karolina. It’s none of her goddamn business. But Nico does still wonder how he’s been, how he’s handling the whole thing with his mom cheating with her dad. Nico wonders if he’s upset with her. Maybe if she’d switched coaches sooner or had a different coach in the first place, it never would have happened. Maybe Chase wants nothing to do with her.

“Yeah, well like I said, it was a while ago. Probably a completely different person now. I really haven’t talked to him much since then.”

“Well,” Gert begins. “It might be nice to start putting down some roots here and bond with some of the skaters. We’ll all be spending a lot of time together.”

Unfortunately true.

“Maybe you and Karolina can finally be seen as friends and not just rivals. You know, support your local girl gang.”

Nico nearly chokes on her water. One two minute conversation was enough to last them another five years.

“No, that won’t be happening. Leslie will make sure of that.”

“What do you mean?”

Nico rolls her eyes.

“Her one stipulation for taking me on as a student was to stay away from Karolina. Probably worried I’d corrupt her innocent little child.”

“Yeah, she always has been the annoyingly perfect ‘all-American’ girl,” Gert mumbles.

Nico raises an eyebrow, surprised to hear Gert make a negative comment about her boss’s daughter.

“So you’re not a fan either?”

Gert shrugs.

“I try not to drag other women down and more try to empower them, but girls like Karolina can make it difficult. She’s not a bad person by any means, but…”

“You’re jealous.”

“What? No. That’s crazy.”

“That broken pencil from when you saw her talking to Chase says otherwise.”

Gert shrugs, busies herself with whatever form she was in the middle of filling out when Nico had walked up.

Nico just smiles at the girl and can’t help but feel bad for her.

“Don’t worry. I won’t say anything.”

Chapter Text

Nico races in from the locker room to the rink as fast as she can with her guards on as she spots Leslie with her back turned, probably talking to the parent of another skater. She groans when she sees the Zamboni out resurfacing the ice.

Nico looks closer and spies purple hair sticking out of the driver’s seat, and she takes her guards off and skates over to the machine, slowing as she reaches Gert, who peers down with wide eyes when Nico slams her hand against the Zamboni to get her attention.

“What, you want to try driving it?” Gert yells over the sound of the vehicle.

“No. I’m avoiding Leslie.”

Gert stops momentarily and gestures for Nico to join her.

“Say no more. Come on up.”

Nico squeezes in closely next to Gert, careful not to step on her with her blades in such close quarters.

“So you do this a lot? Just let the skaters drive around with you in this thing?”

Gert smiles.

“You know, I used to. Until Leslie caught Chase in here with me.”

Now that sounded like an interesting story.

“Interesting.”

Gert groans and rolls her eyes, knowing what Nico is implying.

“Oh, shut up. Molly would ride around with me too.”

“Ah, but never Ice Princess?”

“Yes, Karolina Dean. That rebel.”

Nico smirks and asks, “You ever see her talk back to Leslie? Or get angry? About anything?”

“Well, the look on her face when you showed up a couple weeks ago was pretty entertaining.”

That was true. That was also the coldest she’s ever seen Karolina in their interactions. Probably a combination of the shock of seeing Nico there and knowing that her face had probably gone completely pale when Karolina had seen her.

 “Is that so?”

“Oh, for sure. I still don’t understand the deal with you two.”

Nico rolls her eyes. She likes Gert. She likes hanging out with Gert. But she doesn’t like that Gert asks why she and Karolina don’t like each other during almost every single conversation that they have.

“There is no deal,” Nico grumbles. “We’re just competitive.”

“Seems like more than that.”

“We’ve just been competing against each other for years. Ever since we were at the intermediate level, we’ve just risen up through the ranks at the same time and always competed against each other.”

Gert turns toward Nico and shoots her a look. “I mean competitors is one thing, but you two have crossed over into full-blown enemies.” She turns her head to the side and then finishes, “How did that happen?”

Nico leans back in the single seat she shares with Gert, crossing her arms over her chest. “I was 11, and it was my first really important competition. Hell, even my mom got excited when I’d qualified for it. I’d won every competition that season, but this was the only one that mattered. And then Karolina Dean showed up with her famous figure skating family and her perfect life and got the gold.”

Gert rolls her eyes, taking her eyes off the ice before them for a second to look over at Nico incredulously, “Okay, but you guys were 11. It’s been years.”

“So? I was mad about it. I’d gone out there and skated my ass off, and somehow it still wasn’t enough. I couldn’t help but feel like the judges’ minds had already been made up. So I made it my goal to beat her every time that next season- to be so much better than her that they had no choice but to give it to me.”

“And it’s continued to be your goal ever since,” Gert adds.  

She sighs and wishes Gert would just change the subject already. She’s already gotten more personal than she’d wanted She has no interest in mending any sort of relationship with Karolina like Gert is trying to do for her. Nico and Karolina aren’t friends. Only competitors. That’s it.

“Whatever. I just think that in a sport rattled by abusive coaches, young athletes being pushed too hard or driven into inpatient facilities for their mental health, and some seriously stuck-up attitudes, it would be nice to see everyone doing better at supporting each other.”

“And I do support everyone. I support Molly, Chase, you. I support Alex Wilder. I said hi to that Eiffel chick once. I support a lot of people.”

“Just not Karolina Dean.”

No, just not Karolina Dean.

It was hard for her growing up, watching Karolina Dean being groomed into a future Olympic favorite from a young age. Watching her movie star father and champion ice dance mother raise her with all the best coaching and resources that money could buy. Showing up to competitions and being greeted by crowds of adoring fans. Seeing how even though Leslie Dean was insanely tough on her daughter, they still seemed to be the perfect little family at the end of the day. Their sole focus was skating. They didn’t seem to have any problems because there didn’t seem to be anything else besides the ice.

“You have to understand that it’s not easy to watch someone grow up with a seemingly perfect childhood.”

“Oh, right,” Gert snorts. “Leslie Dean is a shining example of a great mother.”

“No, but Karolina was basically born with silver blades on her feet.”

Gert stops the Zamboni in the middle of the rink.

“I understand,” she says sincerely.

Nico lets out a hollow laugh.

“No, I know you mean well, Gert, but I don’t think you do.”

“My parents have sacrificed so much so that Molly can skate. You think my first choice of working through high school is basically running the day-to-day tasks of a giant ice rink?”

No, probably not. As much as Nico likes Gert, she realizes she really doesn’t know all that much about her, other than Molly Hernandez is her adopted sister, and she’ll never admit her crush on Chase Stein.

Nico also realizes that Gert probably knows nothing about her.

“My big sister Amy committed suicide when I was 14. I found her with a bottle of pills in her bedroom one morning. After that, I threw myself further into skating. I started homeschool and just kind of withdrew. My whole family did honestly. Things just weren’t the same after that. Maybe that was kind of the beginning of the end of my parents’ marriage, too. I don’t know.”

It’s been four years, and it still feels like an open wound. All the people crowding into the funeral home, all the family therapy sessions, all the condolences from people she barely knew. And what do you say to that? Nico thinks. Thank you? Thank you for reminding me about why I’ve been in a fog for the past few weeks? Thank you for telling me that suicide isn’t a sin and that Amy will be in whatever version of the afterlife you think is real?

So Nico stopped going to therapy the first chance she got and threw herself into skating.

“Nico, I’m—”

She shrugs and gives Gert a sad smile.

“I didn’t tell you to make you feel bad. But we know now that we both have shit we’re dealing with.”

Gert nods, and a soft smile slowly spreads across her lips. “I’ll be damned. Cold, brooding Nico Minoru wants to be my friend,” she jokes, bumping Nico with her shoulder.

Nico can’t help but smile.

“Only because you’re the least insufferable one here.”

They both laugh until Nico hears the sound of skates hitting the ice, and someone below stops sharply and sends a spray of ice towards the huge machine.

“Excuse me, Mr. Stein. I am resurfacing the ice.”

“Looks to me like you’re just harboring a fugitive.”

Chase gives Nico the same toothy, youthful smile she remembers from years ago.

“Good to see you again, Nico.”

She’s pissed at him. She should be pissed at him. Because he had no fucking business telling Karolina about their parents.

But she’s missed her friend. She hasn’t seen him since Amy’s funeral. Nico still remembers breaking down when she saw that Chase had begged his parents to fly him back to Boston for it.

She misses having a sibling figure in her life.

“You too, Chase.”

He smiles even bigger and then turns to Gert.

“Now, Gert, I’m going to need you to either put that thing away or find me a spot in there with you two.”

“Unfortunately I think I need to put this back before Leslie sees you out here talking to a machine.”

He shrugs and answers, “Suit yourself.”

Gert pushes at Nico a bit, making a shooing motion as Nico gets up to move.

“Okay, Nico. Out.”

She climbs down from the Zamboni, Chase offering her a hand to make sure she doesn’t slip. She waves at Gert as the machine roars back to life and then turns back to Chase.

“Welcome to Gibborim,” he offers.

“Figured it was time for a change,” she replies casually.

It’s awkward. She loves Chase, but this is awkward. He scratches at the back of his neck and looks down, twisting one of his toe picks into the ice. (Gert’s going to kill him for that.)

“Hey, so maybe we should—”

“Karolina told me you told her about our parents.”

She can’t help herself. If they’re ever going to be as close as they were, Nico needs to get that out there. Chase grimaces and keeps looking at the ground.

“You and Karolina friends now?”

Nico scoffs.

“God no. She just mentioned it to me to offer her condolences or whatever.”

“Look, Nico. I’m sorry.”

He finally looks back up at her as he says it, and she knows he’s hurting too. He can try to hide it all he wants, but Nico still knows Chase.

“I wanted to ask if you’d like to get coffee later? There’s a place not too far from here that we hang out at a lot. Just to catch up?

Nico feels guilty again for just a moment, running through the what-if I hadn’t started taking lessons from Janet bit again. But Chase doesn’t blame her. In fact, he wants her around. So she smiles and nods.

“That’d be nice, Chase.”

Gert has since put the Zamboni away, opening the ice to the club’s skaters. Nico spies Molly and Karolina laughing as they join the two on the ice, Karolina’s eyes following Molly as she begins to skate toward her and Chase.

“Time to get to work, I suppose. We’re all leaving for Cup of China in two days,” Chase says.

“Molly’s first international event,” Nico adds, nodding at the young girl who has now joined them. “Congratulations, by the way.”

Molly gives just about the brightest beaming smile that Nico has ever seen, along with an enthusiastic, “Thank you!”

She can’t help but smile back at her. The girl’s excitement is infectious.

“I’ll see you later then?” Chase asks as Nico turns to skate away.

“I’ll see you later, Chase.”

 

//

 

The sharp smell of espresso fills the cozy atmosphere of Timely Coffee as Karolina lounges in an upholstered chair, Gert and Molly across from her as they complete their online homework.

She’s scanning through the neuroscience chapter of her Psychology textbook when she swears she hears a familiar voice as the door opens.

A laughing Nico Minoru and an equally amused Chase Stein.

“Hey, is that Nico over there?” Karolina asks, Molly looking up as Karolina nods in their direction.

“Depends,” Gert responds, still staring at her laptop. “How thick is the eyeliner?”

“Thought you were all about building up other women.”

Gert stops typing and looks up.

“And your conventional standards of beauty drilled into you by our society are making you assume I was saying something negative. Never said it was a bad thing. And Nico’s a friend. I would never be malicious.”

Karolina has had the feeling for a few days that Gert is mad at her, and she can’t figure out why. Or maybe Nico is replacing her.

“So you two are pretty close then.”

Gert shrugs, a soft smile on her face as she looks at Karolina.

“I like her.”

Then her expression becomes a little more pointed as she continues, Molly nodding along in agreement as she does.

“And I’m tired of both of you seeming to be confused as to why I’m friends with the other. Neither of you two are bad people. You honestly have a lot more in common than you think. I mean, you already could’ve related to each other with the whole Olympic hopeful, nationally competitive skater with USFS up your ass at every turn. Now you’ve got the same training rink and coach on top of it. Why continue to let your initial impressions of each other as kids be your lasting impressions?”

“What did Nico say about me?”

Gert throws up her hands and sighs.

“That’s seriously all you got out of this?”

It’s weird having someone who’s so close to both her and Nico. Living across the country made it pretty easy for them to run in different circles, but these close quarters are something new. What if Nico starts turning the whole rink against her?

“For your information, it was nothing they wouldn’t mention during an NBC puff piece about your rivalry.”

Or maybe she’s being too hard on Nico, expecting too little of her. Gert had a point—their whole relationship was based on snap judgments from when they were 11. Maybe they deserve better than that.

“Look, I’ve told Nico this, and I’ll tell you the same. You’ve competed against each other for years and seem to hate each other for no reason. Get over it.”

“I don’t hate her.”

And she doesn’t. But maybe the only way to keep Gert happy is for Nico and Karolina to actually make an effort to not ignore each other whenever they’re in the same room.

“Right,” Gert answers. “You’re just butthurt about how you have to share a room with her at Cup of China.”

“Yeah, because I’d rather be rooming with Molly. Because I know Molly better.”

“Then here’s a great chance to get to know Nico better,” Gert replies, a devious smile on her face.

Sure. Maybe it will be. But then Karolina thinks back to their last conversation and how abruptly it had ended when she brought up what Chase had told her about he and Nico’s parents.

“Honestly, my mom is more annoyed by it than I am. Something about how it’ll be distracting,” she answers, shrugging.

“No, I think you’ll probably both just avoid each other and Nico will sneak into someone else’s room until midnight.”

“Didn’t she always have that weird on and off thing with Wilder?”

“Yeah, I think so.”

Alex Wilder was another singles skater who trained up in Michigan. But he’d also grown up competing at many of the same competitions as Karolina and Nico.

Which inevitably led to Karolina walking into a single-stall bathroom in San Jose last year and finding Alex and Nico wrapped around each other. (She still remembers the look on Nico's shocked face, her kiss-swollen lips and flushed cheeks. It's weird, and she doesn't know why it still crosses her mind every now and then when she sees Nico.)

The sound of Gert’s voice gets Karolina out of her own head.

“But she seems a lot more focused now, you know? Who knows. Your mom might turn her into you.”

Karolina frowns. She knows that Nico is technically the most consistent ladies skater the United States has to offer. She’s heard the rumblings about she’s working on a triple axel. And Karolina also knows that her strength comes mostly from her artistry. Her mother is no doubt trying to get Nico to that same level of artistry. She’s seen her coach Nico. 

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

“Nico has always been the more rebellious type. You, Karolina Dean, are not. Leslie’s probably keeping her on a pretty tight leash to keep her head in the game.”

Karolina just decides to change the subject, rather than focusing on Gert’s implications of how uptight Karolina is.

“So what do you think she’s doing over there with Chase?”

That gets Gert’s attention again immediately, causing the purple-haired girl to look up quickly.

“Oh, yeah, that’s Chase!” Molly confirms, oblivious to her sister’s reaction.

“I wonder what they’re talking about,” Karolina says.

Gert seems to notice Karolina zero in on her and how suddenly she perked up at the sound of Chase’s name.

“I mean, they did spend a lot of time together when both of them were still coached by Janet,” Gert answers coolly. “Probably just catching up.”

“I guess I just never imagined those two as friends,” Karolina adds, partially because it’s true, and mostly to see Gert’s reaction.

“What are you, jealous?”

“What? Jealous?” Karolina scoffs, maybe a bit too dramatically- but then again she is Karolina Dean. She literally gets praise for how dramatic she is on the ice. The blonde takes a sip of her coffee and looks at Gert. “No. I don’t even know what you think I’d be jealous of.”

“Alright, alright,” Gert replies before turning her attention away from her. She’s got the end of her pencil against her paper and begins erasing with a passion. Karolina and Molly share a look, noticing that Gert isn’t really even looking at the paper as she rids it of marks.

Karolina raises an eyebrow.  “What’s your deal?”

Finally Gert returns her gaze to her notebook before mumbling, “Nothing. Just this math homework.”

 

//

 

Karolina lets out an almost inaudible groan. Dinner had been going so well, and then of course the conversation had shifted back to Gibborum and her training and Cup of China. Couldn’t they make it through one meal talking about something else?

Leslie picks up her wine glass, the pink liquid swirling against the glass as the woman gestures as she speaks. “I just don’t understand why you wouldn’t want me to ask someone to switch rooms with you, Karolina.”

Karolina balls up her napkin against her lap beneath the table. “Because that’s weird, Mom,” she can’t help but laugh thinking about how absurd it would be to have her mother call and request a room change for her. “I’m not going to spend a lot of time at the hotel anyway. But it looks suspicious and gives people reason to talk for no reason.”

 “She’s a distraction—” Leslie begins before Karolina interjects.

“Why do you keep saying that? We barely speak to each other. We’ve made it so far without her causing my career to go down the drain. Why is it such a big deal to you?”

“I just think she’ll be a bad influence on you, Karolina. Or she’ll keep you up too late because she’ll play her music too loud or be up talking with other people in your room or something.”

Karolina wishes her mom would just say what she means by all that. Nico is a factor in Karolina’s skating that Leslie cannot control, and so of course now she needs to fix it. The blonde turns to her dad, the tired, begging look in her eyes apparently sending him the message that she needs him to back her up.

Frank clears his throat. “Leslie, I think Karolina can handle herself. She’s 18 and has been doing the international circuit for years now.”

“Exactly. I’ll be fine,” Karolina chimes in. “I don’t even really see why you’re so upset. Nico’s one of your skaters now.”

Leslie dabs her napkin against the corner of her mouth, but her expression remains the same serious, tense look of disapproval despite Karolina and Frank’s attempts. “She will be as long as she proves herself useful.”

Karolina pauses for a moment. What does that even mean? Probably something about maintaining her image as the perfect skater, perfect coach, perfect mom—perfect, perfect, perfect. She has to stop herself from rolling her eyes. Starting something more will only make her mom more determined to have her way.

So instead, she takes a breath and puts on a smile, forcing her tone into one that’s calm and light. “Mom, come on. It will just create controversy and drama if I change rooms now. It won’t even be a big deal.”

Leslie takes a sharp breath in, her fingers going to the bridge of her nose like Karolina’s words have just given her a migraine. Finally the redhead looks back at her daughter. “Alright fine. Have it your way. But if it impacts your performance it will reflect poorly back on you.”

See, Gert's wrong about her. Karolina can have her own version of rebellion. And maybe this will keep her off her back about Nico. Maybe, because of their mutual friendship with Gert, they'll be forced to be friends now too. 

With how strange things have gotten at Gibborim over the past few weeks, Karolina thinks it's not out of the realm of possibility. 

Chapter Text

They’re approaching the front doors of the hotel when Molly turns to Nico and whispers, “Promise me you’ll try and play nice with Karolina while my sister isn’t around, okay?”

Chase overhears her and sighs.

“Yeah, pretty shitty that Leslie wouldn’t let her off for a few days to come with us.”

Nico doesn’t miss the look of disappointment on Chase’s face and fights back a smile. Interesting.

“Pretty shitty seems to be Leslie’s general attitude anyway,” she answers.

Molly rolls her eyes and argues, “She just wants to make us better.”

“She has an incredibly interesting way of showing it sometimes,” Nico mumbles.

Nico finds Chase smirking at her comment and bumps his shoulder. The smirk fades, and he gives her a pointed look.

“But back to what Molly said. Yes. Please be nice.”

Nico groans, bothered that the two are even focusing on this.

“Leslie literally doesn’t want me talking to Karolina anyway, so that shouldn’t be an issue.”

“Not sure Gert will think that just ignoring each other for over a week is beneficial to either of you,” Molly offers.

Nico doesn’t really give a fuck what Gert thinks right now. She’s jet-lagged and all she wants is a bed.

“Gert is not my mother. This isn’t even important right now. What’s more pressing is making sure that Molly is prepared for her first international competition.”

She pats Molly on the back, earning a smile from the somehow still excited young girl. Molly and Chase had moved up to the senior level in ice dance last season, staying within the States, but a bronze at Nationals had earned them the opportunity to start competing on the Grand Prix circuit this season.

They made their way to the front desk in the lobby, Nico putting on her best fake smile as the employee at the desk asked how they could help her.

“Room 202. Under Nico Minoru.”

The employee hands her a key card, and Chase and Molly trail not too far behind her. They all board the elevator and head up to the second floor with their bags in tow. The three head their separate ways with a promise to meet up later when the elevator opens. Nico lets out a heavy sigh as she pulls out her key card and enters, bracing herself in the event that her roommate has already arrived.

She enters quietly, scanning the bathroom and the closet and the nice enough room with two full beds and a modern décor. Nothing is disturbed yet. She must have beaten Karolina here. Nico lets out a sigh of relief as she lays her eyes on the two beds and flings herself onto the one closest to the window, ready to doze off already.

She stuffs her face in a pillow and groans loudly when she hears a knock on the door ten minutes later.

She relaxes again when she sees that it’s just Chase.

“Enjoying the peace and quiet?” he asks as he steps past her into the room.

“Where’s Molly?”

Chase shrugs and flops down on one of the beds.

“Ran into some other skating friends.”

She nods and half-jokingly replies, “So you’re letting an unaccompanied minor run around in a foreign country?”

Chase’s eyes shoot wide open when she says that.

“Well when you say it like that…”

Nico throws a pillow at him and sits down beside him.

“Just don’t tell Gert,” he mumbles from behind the pillow.

She smiles and answers, “I won’t, but if anything happens to her, we’re dead.”

They sit in silence for a few moments, Nico taking the time to connect her phone to the hotel wi-fi and see what she’s missed on social media during their 13 hour flight. A few minutes pass, and Chase props himself up on his elbows and turns to her.

“Can you believe we’re here?”

“Well, technically I’m here because of Eiffel’s ankle injury,” she quips, scanning her Instagram feed.

“You know that’s not what I meant.”

Nico looks away from her phone and meets his gaze, just to indulge him. She knew he’d get like this at some point – all nostalgic and sappy. Chase has always been a softie underneath all that muscle and broody, perpetually furrowed brow.

“No, Stein. I really have no idea what you mean.”

He grins and takes her response as a cue to continue.

“We’re somehow skating at the same rink again, and now we’re both at an international competition. And during an Olympic year, Nico. It’s crazy.”

“Wow, did NBC start already with the dramatic commercials, or are you always this emotional?”

She always deflects him with sarcasm, but Nico has to admit it’s sweet (even though she’d never tell him that out loud). She kind of likes knowing that at least someone at Gibborim has her back.

“Shut up. You have to admit it’s kind of nice to be around each other again.”

He sits up and wraps an arm around her shoulder, and Nico leans into her friend.

“I’m sorry we lost touch,” she says after a minute, barely above a whisper.

He squeezes her tighter.

“I kind of lost touch with everyone I knew after—”

Chase cuts her off immediately.

“Hey, you don’t have to explain yourself to me. Losing Amy was hard on all of us at the rink. I can’t imagine what the past few years have been like for you. And now this bullshit with our parents, too.”

She gives Chase a soft smile as if to say thank you for not making me talk about Amy. He’s one of the few she’s willing to do so with, but still. Maybe not while jet-lagged and preparing for an international competition.

So instead she just laughs and says, “Pretty fucked up, isn’t it?”

He smiles and nods.

“Pretty fucked up. But we’re good, right?”

“We’re good. And it’s nice to know I have a friend around here.”

“Let go of years-long grudges, and you might make more!”

She rolls her eyes and grabs another pillow to throw at him.

One reconciliation was enough for now.

 

//

 

Karolina has been here for hours already.

Rather than going straight to the hotel, her mother had insisted that they check out the rink before they do anything else.

Everyone’s flying in around this time, so there will be no one around. It’ll be great.

It was not great.

She was exhausted, and when some of the employees had offered to let Karolina get on the ice for a bit with some of the more local competitors, Leslie’s eyes had lit up like a light show at the Sochi Opening Ceremonies.

Karolina knew Nico was probably already in the room and groaned when she’d grabbed her key card, the employee at the desk confirming that her roommate was already here. She parts ways with Leslie as she heads out to check on some of her other students. Karolina heads to room 202.

She presses into the door, awkwardly maneuvering her bags through the doorway. Nico lays on the bed further from the door, eyes closed and earbuds in.

The sound of the door slamming shut quickly behind Karolina causes Nico’s eyes to open, and she curses inwardly, wishing she would have caught the door sooner and not have disturbed Nico.

“Hey,” Karolina offers as Nico removes one earbud and acknowledges her presence.

“Hey. Wasn’t sure you were gonna show up.”

Karolina just smirks in response, because even though Nico’s comments are usually meant to cut a little, there’s a lightness to this that she rarely sees.

It’s almost pleasant.

“Well, you’ve gotten to know my mother well enough lately to know that she had to go check out the rink first instead of go to sleep like a normal person, so naturally, I had to go with her.”

“I don’t know what you mean. Your mother is a lovely, calm woman,” Nico deadpans.

Karolina has to fight back a laugh. She’s never really been able to do this before, bond with someone over mutual frustration with a coach. Mostly because her mother has always been her coach, and no one except Nico has ever been brave enough to do it anyway.

Karolina keeps playing along with the banter.

“Please. Gert told me about how you’ve been hiding from her in the Zamboni in the mornings.”

Nico types away on her phone, looking away from Karolina.

“I have no comment.”

Karolina wonders if she’s losing Nico’s interest already, that this is the only decent conversation they’ll have for another several weeks. She doesn’t know why, but she doesn’t want it to stop. It’s fun. Bantering Nico is fun.

“What, do you think I’m going to go running back to her and tattle if you say something about her? I know how hard she is on her skaters. I’m no exception. She’s crazy sometimes.”

Nico peers up at Karolina at that, an eyebrow quirked up, as if surprised that the blonde is so willing to throw her mother under the bus like this. Nico scans Karolina up and down before replying, noticing the hands planted firmly on her hips. Karolina finds it unsettling.

“Wow, the lack of sleep makes you feistier than I remember,” Nico retorts.

Karolina shrinks back down after that, as if remembering fully who she’s talking to. Gert had probably told Nico to be nicer to Karolina to appease her. It was nothing. They’d go back to ignoring each other in five minutes.

“Yeah, I guess. I’m sorry,” Karolina mumbles, tossing a duffle bag onto the bed and rummaging through it.

“No, it’s fine. Banter is better than awkward silence, right?”

It’s awkward still, but surprisingly Nico seems to have less animosity than she usually does at competitions around Karolina. But again, they have mutual friends now. They see each other every day. Their attitude toward each other has to change, at least a little bit.

“Well, the awkward silence would be filled by Gert’s constant messages reminding me to try to be civil and interact with you,” Karolina replies.

Nico snorts and answers, “You say the sweetest things to me, Dean.”

Karolina drops the shirt she’d picked up out of the bag. That was…forward. But she didn’t mean anything by that, right? Nothing weird. Stop making it weird, Karolina. It’s a joke.

It’s weird, the joking flirty tone in Nico’s voice. But Karolina doesn’t hate it. She has no idea what that means. It must just be the excitement of the two of them actually having a civil conversation.

“Calm down,” Nico finally answers, probably noticing the shift. “Chase was doing the same thing to me earlier.”

“Chase was here?” Karolina asks, only as a way to change the subject.

“Yeah, why? Need to get some pre-practice flirting in?”

Karolina narrows her eyes at that, but Nico doesn’t see her, too focused on whatever game she’s messing around on. Did Nico really think that she and Chase were a thing? He’d made that comment a few weeks ago about her being pretty, but… no. It’s not like that.

“So you two seem pretty close,” Karolina comments after realizing she’s probably gone silent for too long.

“We skated together when we were younger. Lost touch after my sister died, and he moved out to LA.”

Karolina pretends to be looking around for things in her makeup bag, her heart clenching a bit when Nico mentions her sister, surprised that she brought that up so nonchalantly.

Karolina doesn’t know what else to say, so she tries to just let Nico know that she’s listening.

“I remember hearing about that. Amy, right?”

She watches as Nico shifts uncomfortably on the bed, still not looking at Karolina.

“Yeah. And then that wasn’t enough of a tragic backstory, so we had to throw in the cheating father too. But you already knew about that.”

And there it is. Just like that, the mood has changed again, back to the stiff, sputtering conversation that Karolina is used to with Nico. She drops the tube of mascara she’s been fidgeting with and stands tall, turning toward Nico.

“Look, I’m sorry for saying anything, but don’t take it out on Chase. It affects him too.”

“I know that,” Nico grits out, eyes ever focused on the small screen in front of her. “Chase and I are fine, and our friendship really isn’t your business.”

This is the Nico she gets most of the time. Karolina will make what she thinks is a kind comment, and Nico will shoot back by saying how Karolina doesn’t know her. It’s been a pattern they’ve danced since they’ve met, with the occasionally kind conversation.

And now that Karolina knows for a fact that Nico can be nice, she’s over the brooding front.

“Hey, sorry, I wasn’t trying to pry.”

Nico forcefully places her phone on the bed next to her, like she’s trying to make it clear to Karolina that now she’s really got her attention.

“Then don’t waltz in here and give me advice like you know me!”

“I do know you,” Karolina responds almost automatically.

And she does. She’s known Nico since they were kids. She knows her annoying defense mechanisms that have kept Karolina at further than arm’s length. She knows about Amy. She knows about her parents. She knows she won’t let herself connect to the music she skates to, even if she doesn’t quite know why. But Karolina knows Nico Minoru better than she thinks. She’s not as complicated as she makes herself out to be.

But Nico disagrees. She grabs her phone again and vaults herself off the bed, suddenly invading Karolina’s space. She’s a good head shorter than Karolina, but she leans in and stares into her with angry eyes.

“You don’t know a damn thing about me, Karolina Dean,” Nico whispers.

Normally she’d back down, but Karolina is frustrated and tired and so over Nico’s bullshit (not to mention that her heart is beating rapidly now that she’s standing this close to her).

“Only because you never let me.”

It’s so quick, but Karolina sees it—the flash of confusion in Nico’s eyes, the vulnerability. Like she’s never even imagined that their “rivalry” over the years could be hurting Karolina. That maybe, deep down, Karolina has wanted them to get along long before Gert tried to encourage it.

Another wave of exhaustion hits Karolina, and she finally decides to give in. It’s getting late, anyway.

“Whatever. You’re right. I’m probably just tired. I’m going to sleep. We have practice early tomorrow.”

They wordlessly toe around each other for the next hour, taking turns in the bathroom and arranging clothing without so much as a glance at each other. The only thing said between them the rest of the night is when Karolina asks if it’s okay to turn off the light. (Nico says yes.)

They go through the same routine early the next morning, their alarms going off at about the same time, most likely because Leslie had sent a group text to be at the rink at 7am.

Karolina zones out watching Chase and Molly run through parts of their short dance, trying to get the transitions smoother and the twizzles tighter. After a while, Leslie has them drilling one of their lifts when the duo finally hits it in a way that pleases her.

“Lovely,” Leslie calls out. “We’ll work on that lift some more in a bit. Take a break.”

Molly heads toward the exit and puts on her guards, stepping off the ice, while Chase slides to a stop at the boards next to Karolina.

“How’s the roommate situation going?”

“Well, we had our longest conversation in the seven years that we’ve known each other.”

Chase flashes a giant grin, looking like he can’t wait to update Gert on the progress that Karolina and Nico must be making.

“That’s great! See, no one can resist that Karolina Dean charm.”

“It ended in us fighting.”

The grin is gone, and now Chase just looks confused.

“What?”

Karolina knows she needs to be on the ice, so she decides to leave poor Chase guessing for awhile while she practices.

“I have to warm up now. Bye!”

Chase calls after her, but he’s too late. Karolina has flung herself onto the ice, quickly picking up more and more speed as she warms up. Chase is shooed off the ice by Leslie as Nico and a few other skaters come on.

Karolina minds her own business for the first bit, mostly working on turns and a few spins in the center of the rink before whirling into a triple flip. She lands cleanly, like its second nature, and she keeps her eyes on the others to make sure she has a clear path into her next jump. She hops up into a triple lutz, again coming down cleanly.

She feels good, and with the beginning of the Grand Prix season coming up in just a few days now, Karolina can’t ask for more. She’s focused. She’s ready to claim an Olympic spot.

And then she happens to catch Nico out of the corner of her eye. The girl is gliding along, picking up speed as she goes. Karolina watches in awe as Nico takes off forward, and… no.

There’s no way.

Nico gets a huge jump and makes a full three and a half revolutions, coming back down as if it were nothing special.

She had a triple axel. Nico had a triple axel. And her mother hadn’t even bothered to warn her.

Awesome.

Karolina hears a few gasps and sees a few people clapping (Leslie included). Karolina whips back around to see Nico smirking at her as she flies off into her next jump.

It’s beautiful. Textbook, really. But Karolina can’t help the knots in stomach because she knows if Nico can land that consistently, along with the rest of her programs, Karolina may be fighting for second at Nationals.

She loses her focus and skates around aimlessly for a minute until Karolina hears her name on the lips of her mother.

“Karolina, let’s go. You can watch everyone else’s programs during the competition.”

 

//

 

Nico is seething.

She’s sitting in fourth after the short program, with Karolina in first. But Karolina knows that Nico would be in first if not for her botched triple axel, which she popped and only landed a single.

Which is why Nico is eerily quiet (more so than usual) as she stuffs her skates into her bag while the rest of the competitors mill about the locker room.

Karolina knows the disappointment of missing a jump you’ve drilled over and over. But competition is different. International competition? Even more.

Karolina also can’t ignore the relief she feels right now. Only five points separate her and Nico, and there’s plenty of room for Nico to make that up. But Karolina is sitting on top for the time being.

Later that night, when they return to the hotel, Nico storms into the room with Karolina hot on her heels.

“Nico, hey.”

Nico lets her bags fall to the ground with a dramatic shove, ignoring Karolina as she makes to remove her jacket and toss that as well.

“Nico.”

Nico continues to ignore her and grabs her laptop, probably to Netflix binge in silence like they have been for the duration of their stay thus far.

“Nico, are you—"

The smaller girl whirls around as Karolina reaches out to get her attention.

“Would you please just leave me alone?” she snaps.

Karolina flinches. She regrets even trying to talk to Nico, and she doesn’t even really know why. She’s always been the comforter in her friend group, at the rink. She usually takes it upon herself to give encouragement after a bad skate. Nico clearly doesn’t want to hear it.

“I’m sorry. I was just trying to—”

“Trying to what? Befriend me and pretend we haven’t ignored each other for years and then have this heart-to-heart like they do in the fucking movies?”

“No, I just—”

“Just because your life gets to look like a movie with your literal movie star father and national champion mother doesn’t mean that everyone else’s gets to.”

She wishes she never would have said anything. She wishes Nico would just stop because this can only get worse.

Trying to diffuse the situation, Karolina just replies, “Hey now, there’s no need to make it personal.”

Nico scoffs, and Karolina realizes quickly that clearly that wasn’t the correct response.

“Really? There’s no need to make this personal.”

Karolina can see the gears turning in Nico’s head, clearly not done talking yet. They’ve probably been building to some sort of verbal showdown like this since they’ve met. All she can think to do now is just let Nico have her moment and hope they’re both still standing when the dust settles.

“I have had to watch you be USFS’s sweetheart since we were 11 years old. They’ve been grooming you to grow up to be exactly what you’ve become since we were kids, and I have had to bust my ass since I was four years old, when my mother decided to throw a pair of skates on me. And the entire time, you’ve just gotten to focus solely on skating because that’s all your family’s life revolves around. I didn’t have that. None of us had that. You had everything handed to you and—”

(Karolina can take everything else she’s said. But she can’t let that go unchallenged.)

“I have not had everything handed to me.”

“Well, you really could have fooled me, Karolina.”

It’s then that Karolina realizes that being in proximity with someone for seven years doesn’t necessarily mean you know them. Maybe they don’t know each other at all.

“My family looks perfect on paper, doesn’t it? I’m the only child of Frank and Leslie Dean, two exceptionally successful people. To hear that medaling at Nationals this year would be the bare minimum of what’s expected? Do you have any idea how much pressure I am under?”

Nico refuses to meet Karolina’s gaze and she sits down on her bed, and Karolina prays that she’s not coming off as insensitive. She doesn’t mean to diminish Nico’s pain because Karolina knows there’s a lot of it, and with good reason.

But Karolina has also just recently realized that her relationship with her mother is probably extremely unhealthy, and she’s so mad at Nico and the way she’s been acting that she can’t help but let it show.

She never gets to do this. Never really gets to vent to anyone because at the end of the day, everyone worships the ground that Leslie walks on, regardless of how manipulative she is.

“We definitely don’t have the same struggles, but it doesn’t mean that they’re not there. You have to deal with my mom for a few hours every day. I have to go home with her. And my dad sees how downright ugly she gets with me sometimes and just sits there. And I don’t do anything about it because I never thought anything she was saying was wrong. Because she’s my mother. I should be able to trust her, right? And then you get to an age when you start to realize that maybe parents aren’t always the perfect example that you’ve made them out to be. That their parenting methods are actually just gaslighting you into submission. Everybody thinks I’m this perfect, well-behaved child who’s so happy to be the face of Gibborim, completely innocent and pure. It’s because I was scared into being anything else. Every time I’d get a little frustrated while practicing, she’d just tell me how grateful I should be that I had a mother who wanted to spend so much time with me, that she had sacrificed so much for me, and I have no idea how hard it is to be a parent, especially when I’m so ungrateful.”

Karolina’s voice cracks, and she begs her eyes to hold back the tears that are threatening to fall. Nico still refuses to look at her.

“I guess what I’m saying is that I know that this is about a lot more than a failed triple axel. And I’m not sure we can keep going like this not having some better understanding of each other.”

Nico finally meets Karolina’s eyes, her jaw clenched tight and her eyes blank to not even give the slightest hint to Karolina at what she’s feeling.

Karolina is laying it all out here, and all she can do is hope that Nico is taking it to heart. So she keeps going.

“And you do work your ass off, Nico. To even be confident enough in a triple axel to put it in a program is more than what almost any other female skater is doing right now. That’s something to be proud of. And I know you can land it too. And especially having just moved across the country and—”

“Karolina.”

She’s not sure she hears her correctly at first, that Nico has actually acknowledged her. But Karolina pauses anyway and waits.

“Yes?”

And with that, the façade falls. Nico’s eyes soften, and she smiles—probably the most genuine smile she’s ever seen out of Nico Minoru.

“I had no idea you talked so much.”

And Karolina lets out a relieved laugh, perching herself on the edge of the other bed so she faces Nico.

“Look, I’m sorry. And I’ll shut up now, but you should know that I have a lot of respect for you as an athlete. And as a person.”

Nico nods solemnly and looks away from Karolina as if she just realized something important.

“I’m sorry.”

“I accept your—”

“No. I’m sorry. I shouldn’t even be having this conversation with you.”

Karolina is frustrated now, assuming that Nico is falling back into their old habits of being cold with each other.

“What are you talking about?”

“Your mother has told me to stay away from you because apparently I’m a distraction.”

Karolina’s stomach twists, and the uncomfortable and sickening feeling that comes with it comes on so quickly, she nearly doubles over. Why would her mother do that? Karolina knew that she would prefer that she wasn’t around Nico, but to go so far as to tell Nico to stay away from her?

“Oh.”

Nico shrugs and replies, “I kind of assumed you were in on it. But judging by what you said, you didn’t know.”

“I had no idea.”

“I’m sorry, I—”

“No, it’s okay. Now we’re even, right? We both know about your cheating dad and my mom being a conniving bitch.”

The shock on Nico’s face when Karolina says that is enough to bring the slightest bit of relief. But she’s still angry. She’s so angry. Controlling everything about her skating was one thing, and something that Karolina had almost resigned herself to over the years. Controlling everything about her interactions with other people, regardless of who they were, was another thing entirely.

“Wow.”

“You know, she also desperately wanted me to swap rooms with someone.”

“I figured that would happen as soon as I read the email.”

“Maybe she thought this would happen, and we’d both end up realizing she’s an extremely good coach but a terrible person.”

Nico snorts and shakes her head fervently.

“No.”

“You don’t think so?” Karolina asks.

“I certainly didn’t see myself saying more than two words to you each day we were here. I don’t think your mother did either.”

Karolina nods and can’t help but smile, despite the simmering dread of the continuous deterioration of her trust in her mother. Now she might just have to become friends with Nico to spite her mother.

“Well, it wasn’t the worst thing in the world, was it?”

“Your conversational grade of execution is surprisingly high,” Nico quips.

“Wow. Nico Minoru making skating puns. Fascinating.”

Karolina giggles and watches Nico fight a smile at the blonde’s response to her joke. She stops, and the two just stare for a moment, letting out deep breaths they both seemed to not know they were holding.

Nico gives her one last small smile before standing.

“Well, I don’t know about you, but the muscle soreness is setting in for me, so I need to get some sleep.”

Karolina nods as Nico grabs some clothes and heads to the bathroom to change. The achy feeling in her stomach has been replaced with something lighter, something she’s only felt a few times in the past interacting with friends. It’s nice, and she’s always just assumed it’s because she’s excited about the budding friendships she’s made.

Karolina can’t help but fall asleep with a smile on her face at the thought of moving toward friendship with Nico.

Chapter Text

Karolina sits hunched over in the bleachers as she watches one of the warm-up groups for the men’s free skate. Chase sits between Karolina and Nico—the two had ended their conversation last night on a more positive note than it had begun, but today has been a struggle getting Nico to say anything to her. On top of that, Karolina is still reeling from Nico slipping up on the fact that her mother is trying to control her interactions with other skaters.

Karolina has barely spoken to anyone all day and blames it on a mix of being tired and wanting to focus on her own skating.

“How do you think Alex is going to do?” Molly suddenly asks from beside her, watching the young man go through his warm up.

Karolina just shrugs and internally rolls her eyes at the mention of Alex Wilder. She knows that she should be cheering for him, but she’s always been fairly indifferent toward him, seeing him at competitions in the past (and in the San Jose rink bathroom with Nico).

It makes her angry—how easily Alex seems to connect with Nico. Nobody else in their group is all that close to Alex at all, except for Nico. Nico has been so unpleasant the majority of the time they’ve known each other that it’s odd to see her be close with someone else. She’s seen it with Alex and now with Chase, and that was probably because of how they’d grown up together. What does he have that she…they don’t.

Karolina gets even angrier as the thoughts come tumbling into her head the way they do… that’s not how she means it at all. She doesn’t even really like Nico still (or, that’s what she tells herself), with how hot and cold she’s been. She just wants to know why she’d rather hang around Alex when Karolina and the Gibborum group have done nothing but try to be nice to her. It’s infuriating, really. She thought she was getting somewhere with her after last night, and now she’s barely looked at her all—

“Karolina? You there?”

It’s Chase talking to her this time, about…she doesn’t even know what because she’s completely spaced out. The men are filing off the ice now, ready to continue with the competition, and Chase repeats his question.

“You think he stands a chance against some of the international skaters?”

Karolina opens her mouth to speak, making the mistake of turning toward Chase but letting her eyes wander past him and onto Nico.

“Don’t you think you guys are being a little hard on him?” Nico interjects.

The rest of the group all give her the same confused looks.

“You don’t have to defend him just because you’ve slept with him, Nico,” Chase answers, and Karolina wonders how Chase is still alive after making that comment.

Nico rolls her eyes.

“Fuck off, Stein.”

Chase only smirks and offers Nico his contraband M&M’s that he somehow got past Leslie, which she happily takes.

Karolina is fascinated by their dynamic.

She’d never tell him, but she wants to know how Chase got there with Nico.

“For the record, I never slept with him,” Nico adds, and Karolina feels the weirdest, unexpected sense of relief at Nico’s words.

She blames it on the lack of sleep and utter confusion she’s in about where her budding friendship with Nico stands. She’s just getting on her good side. Maybe she just doesn’t feel like sharing Nico with someone she barely knows in Alex.

(Alex ends up a respectable sixth, which is honestly better than Karolina expected of him.)

The men’s competition finishes around 12:30pm (around 9:30pm in LA as Molly reminds them all, to their dismay), and Leslie ushers her students to the ice for practice. Nico is still silent as they head to the locker room to change, and Karolina just can’t help herself as they’re on their way back out.

“Hey,” she calls out to Nico, causing her to stop just inside the doorway as others pass them, Molly giving them both an odd look as she passes by.

“Yes?” Nico responds, looking mostly confused and annoyed.

“Are we…okay?” Karolina asks, shifting awkwardly back and forth on her skates.

“What do you mean?”

Nico looks confused and anxious to get out as they partially block the exit to the locker room, receiving some looks from other skaters as they walk by. This is stupid, and Karolina is this close to making a split decision to tell her “good luck” or something, but she also knows that Nico is way too perceptive to believe that’s why she stopped her.

Plus, Karolina’s never considered herself very good at lying.

“Well, I just…things got a little tense last night, and then I thought we were good, but then today you’ve been kind of quiet, and—”

“Oh my god, you really do talk a lot, don’t you, Dean?”

Nico’s face is softer now, lighter, and it makes her lose all focus as another skater accidentally bumps into Karolina on her way out.

Still, she’s slightly embarrassed by Nico’s response and knows she’s failing to fight the blush on her cheeks.

“I’m really sorry,” Karolina mumbles. “I shouldn’t have said anything.”

It’s awkward now, and Karolina just wants to bolt and go skate and hope that somewhere in the chaos, Nico will forget that this pathetic interaction ever happened.

Instead, she can’t help more words from tumbling out.

“I just thought maybe we were…starting to get over our original impressions of each other.”

She’s usually so withholding with Nico—cordial, but not over the top. And apparently the past few days have completely ruined the stoic façade she’s been cultivating with Nico over the past seven years. Nico laughs, and Karolina’s stomach churns.

“What?” Karolina asks, almost afraid to hear what Nico has to say.

“I see. You’re going to be one of those kinds of friends.”

Oh.

(She won’t ever admit it to herself or anyone else, but Karolina’s heart skips a beat knowing that Nico just used the word “friend” to describe their relationship.)

“Huh?” she manages to get out.

“The kind who needs constant validation that we are indeed, friends.”

“Friends?”

Karolina knows she sounds like a bumbling idiot, but she’s somewhere between utter disbelief and joy that Nico apparently considers them friends now.

“Sure. Or at the very least, we have to pretend just to piss your mom off.”

Oh.

Nico smirks, and Karolina has to clench every muscle in her jaw to hide her disappointment.

She gives a hollow laugh, hoping that it’s just enough to hide.

“Yeah, of course. That’s a great idea.”

“Better get out there then, bud.”

There’s more sarcasm in Nico’s voice than Karolina would like as the shorter girl turns on her heel to make her way out of the locker room. Karolina follows her and sees her mother eyeing both of them.

Karolina steels herself, clearing her throat to grab Nico’s attention again and whispering, “Well, in that case, we better keep talking because I see a certain coach of ours looking quite annoyed with us right now.”

“Lovely.”

They walk the short distance from the locker room to the rink side by side, Leslie’s watchful eye giving them both a disapproving look as they walk by. Nico gives Karolina an amused smile as she takes off her guards and steps onto the ice.

And maybe, Karolina thinks, this will be enough for now.

She puts her heart and soul into perfecting every little bit of her free skate that Leslie comes down hard on. Karolina feels strong, and she swears she sees Nico watching intently out of the corner of her eye.

Later in the afternoon, Karolina is back in her and Nico’s room by herself, trying to keep herself preoccupied and not thinking about how Nico might be hanging out with Alex Wilder.

A knock on the door stuns her out of her brooding, and she goes to see Molly on the other side of the door.

“Molly, hi!”

Molly, young and curious as ever, wastes no time with greetings.

“What were you and Nico talking about earlier?”

Karolina frowns and changes the subject, knowing Molly has to be at the rink again soon for the short dance.

“Shouldn’t you be getting ready?”

Molly shrugs.

“I am, and I know I’ll get too anxious if I think about it too much for the next hour. So tell me what was up with you and Nico? I thought you two hated each other.”

“We don’t hate each other,” Karolina responds automatically.

Molly brushes past her into the room, and seeing that Nico isn’t there, gives Karolina a look.

“We’ve kind of, I don’t know, bonded? Just really hashing things out and trying to start over, I guess.”

Molly has apparently perfected the steely look that Gert gives when she’s trying to get something out of someone as the girl only looks at her harder.

Karolina can only sigh, and, knowing that Molly means well, sits down on her bed and explains.

“She also let slip that my mom told Nico not to talk to me, so now I’m pretty sure she’s just talking to me to help me piss her off.”

“Is that really a good idea this time of year?”

It hurts a little to see how trusting of Leslie the girl is, knowing that her mother, like with all of her skaters, has taken advantage of Molly’s young age and her searching for a mentor in her life. Karolina doesn’t want to hurt Molly, but she’s more worried about Leslie doing even worse.

“Look, I’m tired of her controlling every aspect of my life. I deserve a little space to do what I want.”

Molly cocks her head and replies, “Wow, Nico’s really gotten you to loosen up all of a sudden.”

Karolina rolls her eyes and tries to pick her next words carefully.

“Oh, stop. It’s—”

She’s interrupted by another knock at the door. Karolina is about to get up to answer, but Molly is already up and opening the door.

“Hi, Molly.”

Karolina can hear her mother’s surprised voice as she appears in the door behind Molly.

“Shouldn’t you and Chase be getting ready to head over to the rink?”

“Yes, coach,” Molly answers. “I was just leaving. Just wanted some last-minute advice from someone who’s been at this level of competition before.”

Molly smiles at Karolina as she says it, and Leslie looks at her daughter proudly.

“Good idea, Molly. I’m glad that you see Karolina as a positive role model.”

“She’s the best!” Molly replies, as if Karolina hadn’t just been explaining her frustrations with the woman before them thirty seconds ago. (She owes Molly, she thinks.)

“Well, time for you to go find Chase and get ready. I’ll join you in the lobby shortly.”

Molly nods, smiles and waves at Karolina, and makes her way out.

“Hi, mom.”

Leslie steps into the room with authority, and Karolina can already tell that she’s not here for friendly small talk.

“Karolina, dear. I wanted to discuss something with you before I left. You and Nico seemed awfully close today.”

Of course.

“Mom, it’s not that—”

Leslie cuts her off.

“I thought I told you no distractions.”

And oh, god forbid that any other skaters be sources of support and not distractions.

“You don’t see Chase and Molly as distractions,” she challenges.

Leslie narrows her eyes at Karolina, clearly not used to and not enjoying how her daughter is testing her.

“And they’re not your direct competition, sweetheart,” she responds. “I’m just telling you to be careful who you trust.”

“And I’m just trying to get through being her roommate without any drama, and for me, that means being kind.”

Karolina sits back down on the bed, and Leslie remains standing. Karolina wants to roll her eyes because she knows her mother well—she knows this is just a power move.

“You always were an idealist.”

“What is that supposed to mean?”

Leslie scoffs at her, as if it’s obvious.

“You really think someone with a background of being surrounded by betrayal is actually interested in getting to know you? She’s trying to get in your head.”

She snaps. As frustrated as she is with Nico right now, Karolina is even more upset with her mother. Skating isn’t famous for its objectivity, but Karolina never enjoys hearing her mother’s unedited opinions of some of her other skaters.

“Mom, I don’t really think its professional to be discussing your personal opinions about your other students with me.”

Leslie rolls her eyes in a way that Karolina only sees when her mother seems utterly exhausted by the fact that someone could have an opinion different than hers.

“Since when do you mind?”

“Since I’m not the only ladies’ singles skater at Gibborum currently on the Olympic contenders short list,” she answers sharply.

Leslie’s voice gets louder now.

“Oh good, you do still have the Olympics on your mind. It was getting difficult to tell with how interested you seem in creating a friendlier environment between everyone.”

“Oh for fuck’s sake, Mom—”

Karolina blurts it out without thinking—18 years of walking on eggshells completely gone out the window with her frustration. She’s never cursed in front of her mother.

Leslie remains expressionless, her gaze shooting deep in Karolina. And then, in the coldest, quietest voice, “What did you just say to me?”

“I’m sorry,” Karolina mumbles out of reflex.

“What was that?”

“I said, I’m sorry, Coach,” she answers again, with more conviction. “It’s just, I’m sitting in first place right now. I don’t know what else you want from me.”

She knows it’s a lousy excuse. It’s true, sometimes she doesn’t know what her mother wants from her. But mostly, Karolina just wants Leslie to give her the same generic speech she always does so she can get out.

“Karolina, you’re in first by less than two points. And Nico is only five points behind you. I shouldn’t have to tell you what else I want. You should know.”

And Karolina does know. They’ve been over this dozens of times. There are higher component scores to get, better GOE’s, but even coming off a silver at Junior Worlds last season, competing in an Olympic year doesn’t come without stress.

Karolina tries to reason with her, and there’s so much more she wants to say—how she can’t stand being treated like the 11-year-old scared into skating better with the threats of having things taken away, or the 15-year-old who had to ignore choreographers brushing up against her as they took an entirely too “hands-on” approach to teaching her while her mom looked the other way. Karolina wants to tell her that she’s trying her best. She wants to tell her that she’s tired, that the pressure is mounting, that shockingly, the only person that’s made her feel better about all of this so far is Nico.

But she’s much too drained to fight right now. So she does what she’s done most of her life.

Karolina apologizes.

“I’m sorry. I wasn’t even thinking Olympics when Sochi rolled around because I was only 14. And last year, Junior Grand Prix was stressful, but… this is just different, you know?”

Karolina notices her mother relax just the slightest bit, looking at her with an almost motherly gaze now.

“I do, but the fact is we don’t know where you’ll be in another four years. Beijing may not even be an option.”

The fact that Leslie is already thinking years from now is enough to make Karolina want to scream.

“I know. But you have to understand that I’m still adjusting.”

“Then you should understand that this season isn’t about being Nico’s best friend,” Leslie replies coldly.

And again, Karolina snaps.

“And I just think I should be allowed to decide who I associate myself with. You really think you can dictate who I speak to?”

Leslie eyes Karolina carefully, and she instantly regrets her decision to speak.

“Well, I see Miss Minoru is terrible at keeping secrets. See what she’s doing, Karolina? She’s trying to tear us apart.”

There’s so much to unpack—the way Leslie blames Nico, the way she frames it in such a way that there’s no way Leslie is at fault, that Nico is the unhealthy piece of the relationship, even while admitting she had in fact instructed Nico to stay away.

But she’s spent.

“How about we just focus on my actual skating?”

Leslie checks the time on her phone, probably realizing that Molly and Chase have been waiting for several minutes now.

“Fine. But anything less than a gold at this competition, and I’ll have to speak to Nico about keeping her distance.”

Karolina doesn’t look up at her mother, only stares listlessly at the carpet.

“I have to go now. I’ll see you at the rink later?”

Karolina nods and falls back against the pillows before the door slams shut.

 

//

 

Nico comes back to her hotel room to find Karolina dozed off in her bed. Even in sleep, she seems focused, but a lot less comfortable—eyes shut tightly in what looks like a restless sleep.

It’s odd, spending this much time with Karolina. It certainly wasn’t what Nico had expected even just a few days ago when they’d gotten here. She watches the other girl for a moment, thinking back to their conversations from last night.

You don’t know a damn thing about me.

Only because you never let me.

It’s haunting, almost, how that poised nature of Karolina could also come out in darker ways Nico never thought she’d see. Karolina is portrayed in a certain light, always has been—determined but kind, confident but humble, artistic and beautiful.

Nico wonders how much of that is actually the real Karolina.

Nico goes to take a shower, preparing to head to the rink to watch Chase and Molly, and comes out expecting Karolina to still be sleeping—which is probably why the blonde looks mortified when Nico comes back out with only a fist clutching her towel shut while she reaches around in her luggage for clothing.

“Welcome back, Sleeping Beauty.”

Karolina still looks stunned and probably still half-asleep as Nico turns back to her after grabbing a shirt and pair of jeans.

“Um, yeah,” she laughs. “Uh, I guess I was really tired or something.”

She’s not sure why Karolina is acting so shy—she’s a skater for God’s sake. She’s been in plenty of locker rooms.

Nico figures that it’s just her “pure and innocent” nature as she disappears back into the bathroom to change, not wanting to scar Karolina for life by undressing in the same room.

She re-emerges to Karolina tapping away on her phone.

“You want to head over soon? I’m sorry you’ll be stuck sitting with me.”

“Huh? No. I mean yeah, I’m ready to go. And I don’t mind.”

Nico had meant it as a lighthearted joke that Karolina had completely missed. She’s distant, off, and it’s weird to see her so…not bubbly.

Then again, she also has never spent this much time with Karolina. Nico wonders if this is what she’s usually like behind the scenes. She wonders if this is the toll that having Leslie Dean as coach and mother takes on someone on a regular basis.

And even though Karolina seems to only be interested in friendship to piss off Leslie, Nico doesn’t hate having her around. She’s still mad—about her popped axel and about everything else under her sun. Karolina has always seemed so graceful and kind in the midst of all of the pressure, and its infuriating because Nico doesn’t know how.

But, the more Nico sees of Karolina, she realizes that maybe they aren’t so different.

She thinks back to earlier in the day, when Karolina seemed so very insecure. It was almost endearing, to see so many different sides to someone portrayed in the skating world as confident, sure of herself, but sweet.

She’d mostly been anything but sweet. (Granted, that was mostly due to Nico’s provocation.)

But as a result, Nico also didn’t know what to do with that.

Which is why she’s barely talked to Karolina since last night.

Which has, apparently, made Nico look like more of an asshole than anything.

So she figures she should try a different approach. (She’s not good at this, the whole female friendship and empowering other women kinds of things that Gert gets so passionate about.)

“Are you doing okay? Did Leslie give you shit about hanging out with me?”

Nico pretends she doesn’t see the hurt flash across Karolina’s face just as quickly as it disappears. Nico wants her to know that she cares, but she also doesn’t want to pry.

“No, I’m just really tired. And she’s just being typical hardass coach Dean.”

Nico smirks, because the more she hears Karolina speak, the more she likes her.

“Wow, I’ve never heard you cuss so much.”

“To be fair, you’ve heard me talk more in the past week than you have in seven years,” Karolina answers quickly, never looking up from her phone.

Nico wonders if she’s done something wrong.

When she doesn’t answer, Karolina finally looks up and adds, “I’m not as pure and innocent as everyone makes me out to be.”

And, oh, there are so many directions she could take that, but as much as Nico is trying to be nice, Karolina doesn’t seem too receptive of it.

So instead of concern, what comes out of her mouth is, “So you and Chase have boned.”

It’s a joke, and her subtle way of trying to do recon on the whole Karolina-Gert-Chase triangle that seems to be unfolding.

“What? I’m—no. Oh my god, no,” she sputters. “Why? Did he tell you that we did or something? I’m going to—”

Well, that settles that.

“Relax. I’m joking. Though it is terribly painful to watch him with his crush on you while Gert pines after him.”

Karolina laughs.

“Gert’s crush on Chase. Now that is one thing that we can agree on.”

Nico decides to leave it at that. They should be leaving now anyway.

“You want to head over?”

Karolina nods and grabs her purse, heading toward the door.

As they leave, Nico presses just a little further. Just because she can.

“So should I send her a bunch of snapchats of closeups of his ass or do you want to?”

Karolina gives Nico a half-hearted glare, shaking her head.

“She might get the wrong idea if I do,” Karolina reasons.

“Mmm, fair.”

 

//

 

Chase and Molly end up tenth after the short dance, respectable for their first ever international competition and the fact that they’re both still teenagers. Karolina knows that her mother is playing the long game with them—they’ll be strong Olympic contenders in the years to come, but this year is more for seasoning and growing as a pair than anything. The main focus in 2018 is on Gibborum’s ladies’ singles.

 Of course, even with nine other people in the event, Karolina and Nico end up back to back in the starting order for the Ladies’ free skate, with Nico skating second to last and Karolina closing the event. Nico expects for Leslie to do little more than hold her water bottle, thinking that all of her focus will be on her daughter. She doesn’t even mind it, seeing as she really only got a coach because US Figure Skating wouldn’t send her to the event without one. Now that she’s here, she could manage psyching herself up for the long program. Which is why it comes as a surprise to her that, as she lines up at the door with the other skaters, waiting to take the ice for her six minute warm up, Leslie starts talking to her.

“Make sure you don’t let your artistry fall by the wayside in the second half of your program. Keep those arms engaged and fully skate the choreography. I’ll be with you before you skate, and then Aura and Frances will be with you in the Kiss and Cry while I put out Karolina.”

Nico nods, still half wondering if Leslie is talking to someone else, even though she doesn’t have any other skaters in this event aside from her and Karolina.

 

//

 

Nico lands her triple axel cleanly, and Karolina steps onto the ice after seeing it with a pit in her stomach, but it all seems to fade when her music starts and the audience falls silent. Her mother makes a show of giving her a big hug in the Kiss and Cry when the scores come in, painting them again to be the perfect mother-daughter duo as its announced that Karolina has won gold, with Nico in second.

Karolina is excited and relieved, but Nico barely says a word to her on the podium. Molly and Chase greet them after with cheers and congratulations, but Nico’s “thank you” is cold. Molly and Chase stand awkwardly, like they’re trying to figure out what to say to diffuse the situation or just run away completely, when another voice joins them.

“Congrats on the win, Karolina.”

Karolina whirls around to see Alex Wilder smiling shyly.

“Thank you, Alex.”

Alex turns his attention to Nico immediately, as if addressing anyone else in the group is merely a formality.

“Although, I do have to say, Nico, that triple axel was amazing.”

Nico’s expression changes quickly as she smirks with pride.

“You looked great out there,” he adds.

Karolina is almost positive that she sees Chase turn away so he can roll his eyes, while Molly stands next to him, seemingly oblivious to the situation.

“Thanks, Alex,” Nico replies, and it seems much more genuine than the thanks she gave Chase and Molly.

“You guys headed back to the hotel sticking around? Nico, you wanna catch up?”

Karolina frowns—not at the thought of Alex and Nico hanging out, she tells herself—but at the difference in how she’s treating Alex from Chase and Molly.

Nico almost seems nervous at his proposition, as if she only expected a confidence boost in front of everyone and then for him to move on.

“Um, I’m sure Leslie wants to see us before anything else.”

Alex tries (and fails) to hide his disappointment.

“Of course. Right.”

“I’ll text you?” Nico offers with a smile.

Alex smiles back, and Karolina’s blood boils.

Later that night, she sees Nico in that damn towel in her dreams.

Karolina has no idea what that means, if anything.