Part 1: Upward
Chapter 1: No one can tell us we're wrong
As the early morning sun continues to rise, JJ can't keep his eyes from drifting near constantly to the fuel gauge on his dashboard. He's a good driver – he knows he is – and for a sporty model his car is surprisingly fuel efficient, but it's been hours of nothing but driving and the tank wasn't full when they left (plus he still has dried blood on his arms and the smell clings inside the car, neither of which is exactly ideal). Doing his best to put his worries aside for the present moment, he tells himself not to panic about it until he absolutely must.
Of course, that's the moment the fuel light comes on.
JJ sighs and throws a quick look over his shoulder – it's not entirely necessary to be so quick when the roads are all but empty, but he's in the habit of keeping his eyes on the road (and that's probably why he usually drives). Seeing Otabek lift his head in the rear view mirror, JJ nods to the dashboard.
“We're going to have to stop soon,” he says. “Really soon if we want to be cautious.”
He sees Otabek glance down at Yuri again. “Yeah, probably a good idea.”
“Where's the next town?” asks JJ. “Like, actual town, not farmhouse.”
Otabek checks his phone. “Come off the main road in about five minutes and go to Sastobe.”
“Okay...” JJ checks his mirrors and drifts over a lane.
“Do you think he'll wake up?” asks Otabek.
“Maybe,” says JJ. “He might be so tired he doesn't.”
In the rear view mirror, JJ sees Otabek brush Yuri's hair from his eyes. He estimates it must have been nearly seven hours since they fled Almaty, about six and a half since Yuri passed out from sheer exhaustion, and he knows even without looking exactly how Yuri looks: a little frown on his sleeping face, hair matted and blood still streaking his skin. If nothing else, JJ wants Yuri to be able to clean up and sleep somewhere more comfortable than the back seat of his car. For that matter, JJ needs to sleep too (if he can) – the road ahead has been occasionally blurring for the last hour or so and his eyes are starting to ache. Otabek probably should get to a bed too. Soon, with a sigh of relief, he takes the Sastobe exit and gets off the main road.
They manage to find a petrol station and JJ pulls up outside it, shoulders tensing as he cuts the engine. There's no sound from the back seat: Yuri stays asleep and Otabek seems to hold his breath. After a minute, Otabek nods at JJ to go ahead. JJ is as quick as he can be about it, filling and paying (stopping for a piss and to wash his hands and arms before he does so) and getting back in the front seat in a few short minutes. Once he's back in, he looks over his shoulder.
Yuri is sitting up, wearing JJ's jacket properly now and pressing himself close into Otabek's side. One of Otabek's arms is curled tightly around him while Otabek scrolls through his phone, a frown of concentration on his square face.
“You okay Yura?” JJ asks – the silence is suffocating in the confined space of the car and he can't help himself. Yuri fixes him with a wide-eyed stare; JJ's never seen a face so haunted. Of course it was a stupid question – he wants to kick himself.
“There's a motel a few streets away,” says Otabek, looking up from his phone.
“Is that a good idea?” asks Yuri, voice hoarse. His knuckles are white from gripping Otabek's t-shirt and his eyes flick rapidly between all the car windows. “What if... if...”
“It's okay,” says JJ. “It'll be okay – we got out of there.”
Yuri looks about to say something but jumps and lets out a little yelp when the car behind them honks, apparently impatient to get to the pump. With a growled profanity, JJ turns back around and starts the car, pulling out of the station rather faster than necessary. From behind him, he hears Otabek speaking soothingly to Yuri.
“It's okay,” he says. “Just someone in a hurry – nothing to worry about.” He raises his voice to speak to JJ again. “Take the next right, then the third left. Motel should be on the corner.”
JJ follows the instructions, aware of the shaking of his hands and that he needs to keep it in check for Yuri's sake if no one else's. It's not like he would like to admit it but the car honking so suddenly unsettled him too. Mercifully, Otabek's sense of direction is fantastic as always and they soon pull up outside the motel. Cutting the engine, JJ turns to look at the others again.
Otabek glances at Yuri, still wearing JJ's jacket (and not much else) and clinging to him. If they're going to get out, Yuri needs clothes, and JJ knows neither he nor Otabek is going to make him put the bloodstained trousers and top back on. Hoping that he's been as lazy as he suspects, JJ gets out of the car again and opens the boot. He's never been so happy to see his ratty old gym bag in his life before – a hallelujah chorus practically plays in his head. The workout clothes inside are sweaty, he knows, but at least they're something. When he gets back in the car, he passes the bag to Otabek.
“We've got to stop,” Otabek assures Yuri. His tone is firm but soft and the arm around Yuri is protective. “You need to sleep. JJ needs to sleep. I need to sleep. They won't find us.”
“But they will,” mumbles Yuri, shoulders trembling. His eyebrows are drawn down low over his green eyes and his stare is fixed on the back of the driver's seat. Instinctively, JJ reaches out with one hand, stroking his thumb gently along Yuri's cheekbone and then down along his jaw. By Yuri's side, Otabek takes his hand and squeezes it.
“We promise you it'll be okay,” says JJ. He knows he can't actually promise that: they could have been followed and anything could still happen. But he's never seen Yuri look so empty before. Their Yuri is feisty, fiery, absolutely unapologetic, and JJ's heart aches to see him like this. “We're here Yura – you know we won't let anything happen to you.”
Yuri takes a shaky breath, holding tighter onto Otabek with one hand and lifting the other to cup the back of JJ's hand on his face. They stay like that for a long moment, unmoving and breathing, until eventually Yuri sighs.
“Fine,” he says, letting go of both of them and reaching for the gym bag.
“I'll go get us a room,” says Otabek. He opens the door and gets stiffly out – JJ suspects that he partly offered to go so he can try and get some feeling back into his butt (and also possibly to pee). Meanwhile,Yuri opens JJ's bag and pulls out the clothes inside.
“Sorry – they're not clean,” says JJ, but Yuri shakes his head.
“S'fine,” he says, shrugging out of his jacket and pulling on the muscle shirt. As Yuri wriggles into the bottoms, JJ feels his stomach twist at the sight of the bruises and scratches on his arms under the blood. When Yuri silently offers his jacket back, he shakes his head.
“Keep it,” he says, and Yuri pulls it back on. Hopefully they can get access to some first aid supplies.
Or maybe some booze.
On second thoughts, maybe not booze.
The front passenger door opens and Otabek climbs back in. “Got us a room,” he announces. “Just for the rest of today and tonight.”
“Thanks,” says JJ, breathing a sigh of relief – he wasn't sure if there would be trouble from the reception. “How did you pay?”
“Cash, but it's cleared me out,” replies Otabek. “We shouldn't use card – they might be able to track us. What do you have?”
JJ winces. “Not much,” he admits. Otabek's right: they definitely shouldn't use card. What else can they do?
“I've got some,” says Yuri. When the other two turn to look at him with raised eyebrows, he reaches down into the footwell and produces a leopard-print backpack that JJ vaguely remembers seeing when he found Yuri last night, shoving it into the front seat between them. Otabek balances it between the gearstick and handbrake before opening the zip. Eyes growing wide, he freezes.
“Yura... What the fuck...”
JJ reaches over, opening the bag properly to reveal bundles of banknotes, so many he can't count them, and feels himself gaping.
“What... what is all this?” he asks, turning his gaze on Yuri.
“I took it,” explains Yuri. “When I... ran. I...” He clenches one shaking fist. “I thought it might be useful.”
JJ's stomach twists again. He doesn't want to raise the point that his money paints a huge – well, a more huge – target on their backs but at the same time... it's dangerous.
“We should go inside,” says Otabek, zipping the backpack shut and passing it to Yuri. He wastes no time in getting out of the car and JJ sees a flash of something flit across Yuri's face before he takes up the backpack and JJ's gym bag and gets out too. With one last quick look around to check that he hasn't parked like a dick, JJ follows suit and the three of them make their way upstairs.
The room is basic, obviously: a double bed, some cheap furniture and a tiny en suite shower room with a stained shower tray and limescale-encrusted taps. JJ doesn't care – he deadbolts the door and sits heavily on the foot of the bed. While Yuri disappears into the bathroom, Otabek pulls shut the thin curtains, casting a quick glance out of the window as he does so.
“How are you doing?” asks JJ. It's kind of a stupid question (well, another) but he's very aware that both their focuses have been on Yuri for a while and he wants to make sure Otabek is okay.
Otabek looks over at him and half nods. “Yeah, I'm... I'm fine.”
“Yeah, just... Shit, everything's so crazy and you drove literally all night and you're asking how I'm doing,” Otabek says, collapsing into a creaky armchair with a heavy sigh. They hear the toilet flush and water running. Otabek's gaze stays on the door as he asks, “Did you see his arms and his chest?”
JJ nods. “They really did a number on him.”
His heart surges with the most desperate desire to shield Yuri, to protect him and keep him from harm. In the armchair, Otabek clenches his fists JJ knows he's thinking the same. Of course, it's too late for that now. Eventually, the lock squeaks open and Yuri emerges. He's cleaned his skin, sloughed off the dried blood, and sorted his hair out using the comb from JJ's gym bag. He looks exhausted but at least more like himself.
“The water runs kind of brown when you first turn on the tap,” he warns. “Just let it carry on for a bit.” He looks between the two of them, mouth tilting suspiciously. “What's wrong?”
JJ shakes his head. “Nothing.”
“We were talking about where to go from here,” says Otabek.
Crossing to the bed, Yuri crawls onto it and curls up against the headboard, both JJ and Otabek turning to look at him. “And where's that?”
“Well, do you remember when I... when we met up?” asks JJ, to a nod from Yuri. “You mentioned Saint Petersburg and a guy called Viktor.”
Yuri's shoulders rise, his frown slackening and eyes briefly widening. “And?”
“Well we've got no other ideas,” admits JJ. “So we thought this Viktor might be the best option.”
“Why?” asks Yuri. JJ isn't entirely sure what the look on Yuri's face says but it's not good.
“You said he'd know what to do,” explains JJ.
Yuri shifts, wrapping his arms around his legs so that his chin rests on his knees. “We really don't have any other options?”
JJ shakes his head as Otabek says, “What's wrong Yura?”
Yuri half shrugs. “It's... not the worst plan,” he concedes, “or it wouldn't be, just... we parted on some pretty bad terms and I don't know how happy he'd be to see me again.”
They all fall silent and JJ wonders for possibly the thousandth time that day who Viktor even is. With this new revelation, would it be more sensible to seek an alternative?
“But if that's the only plan we've got then we should go for it,” adds Yuri.
“You sure?” Otabek asks.
Yuri nods slowly. “Can't be worse than going anywhere else and honestly I don't care. As long as we're together.”
He reaches for JJ with one hand, the other pointing towards Otabek. As Otabek gets up and crosses to the bed, JJ shuffles up it and settles next to Yuri, leaning down to kiss him softly on the lips. When Otabek joins them, Yuri breaks the kiss and turns his head to kiss him too, and JJ laces his fingers with Otabek's, Yuri's hand folding around the hold as they lie back on the bed. The mattress has seen better days; from years of romantic and less than romantic encounters, sleepless nights and long days, the springs have lost their original integrity, and JJ can feel one pressing into his hip as he curls around the other two. It's nothing like their own bed, a wide king with a foam mattress, and JJ feels a fleeting pang when he realises they'll probably never see it again, but it doesn't matter now. Everything important is here, breathing with him on this old, shitty mattress, and if the rest of his life is spent on mattresses just as shitty, he'll gladly take it as long as he shares them with these two most wonderful men he's ever known. He has just enough energy left to sit up and kiss Otabek's lips too over Yuri's shoulder before he sinks heavily down again and falls into a dead slumber.
When JJ wakes later, he finds Yuri gazing silently at him, green eyes wide and head resting on his arm. JJ reaches towards him with one slow hand, stroking his blond hair off his face. If it weren't for the incredibly hard mattress and lingering smell of damp, JJ might almost believe they were back home in Almaty.
“Hey,” he says groggily, pulling Yuri in for a quiet kiss. “What time is it?”
“About half four,” says Yuri. “Otabek went out to get stuff ten minutes ago.”
“Food, clothes,” replies Yuri. He shifts closer to JJ, cuddling into his chest. JJ puts his arm around Yuri and rests his chin on Yuri's head as Yuri's hand rests on his hip. Yuri's skin is warm to the touch – JJ feels almost cold from the lack of movement and snuggles Yuri to him like a hot water bottle. Yuri shifts in his arms. “Good sleep?”
“I think so,” says JJ. “You?”
JJ feels Yuri hesitate before muttering, “Not really.”
“No?” JJ can't keep the worry from his tone.
Yuri shakes his head. “Kept seeing his face.”
“Oh Yura...” JJ whispers. He drops kisses in Yuri's hair – he's not sure what else to do, only knows that he wants to take away Yuri's pain. If he could take all of it on himself and leave Yuri without ant of the hurt and fear he's going through, he'd do it in a heartbeat. As it is, all he can do is try and help Yuri through it. He rubs his hands over Yuri's back, hoping that it soothes, and trails his kisses down Yuri's forehead, over his eyelids, across his cheekbones, eventually kissing his lips. “I'm sorry,” he says between kisses. “I'm sorry I wasn't there.”
“Don't be,” says Yuri. “You've nothing to be sorry for.”
Yuri's fingers come up to tangle in JJ's hair and JJ lets Yuri pull him close. The kiss grows more searching, more fervent, and JJ almost gets swept away. Almost – when Yuri's legs tangle with his own and he feels Yuri slide a hand down his torso, JJ pulls his lips reluctantly away.
“Not right now kitten,” he says softly, leaving one last kiss on the tip of Yuri's nose. “I love you but this isn't the right time.”
Yuri glares at him and turns over, facing away from him. The younger JJ wouldn't be able to deal with such rejection and would likely badger Yuri into irritation. As it is, JJ slowly sits up and sighs, patting Yuri fondly on the shoulder as he gets off the bed.
When Otabek gets back, they clean themselves up and change into the clothes he got before eating and drinking. Yuri stays silent, frowning to himself. The food tastes like cardboard, feels like cotton wool and his stomach is a pit. JJ's trying hard to help, Yuri knows, as is Otabek, but part of him wonders without thought or word if he'll ever feel even slightly normal again, when his insides feel like they're gnawing at themselves. So far nothing he's tried has helped quell it – and he's still pissed that JJ foiled one plan. He wants to try again but when they curl up in the bed together again to sleep through the night and he catches JJ's eyes, he holds back. Obviously he only wants to distract himself so why can't they just let him? Despite himself, he does manage to fall asleep, only to wake again an hour later, his mind full of blood and screaming and eyes watching him. He spends the rest of the night dozing fitfully and muffling sobs into a hard pillow.
They set off early the next morning, Otabek behind the wheel at his own insistence and JJ with Yuri in the back. As they leave Sastobe and get back onto the main road, Yuri gazes at the horizon out of the front windscreen. His eyelids feel heavy and as he leans against JJ he thinks he might be able to drift off again, but then he feels JJ turn his head before leaning forward.
“Otya,” he says urgently. Yuri's eyes snap open and he stares up at JJ. “Check the rear view mirror.”
Yuri watches Otabek's gaze flick to the mirror and his shoulders stiffen. “Shit.”
“What?” asks Yuri. when both JJ and Otabek remain silent for a long moment, he sits up a little straighter. “What's going on?”
JJ looks over his shoulder out of the back window. “There's someone following us.”