(Feb. 24, 2018 / The night after the gala)
I hated this. I hated what was about to happen. I’d had to deal with it before, but somehow, it felt worse this time, different than all the others. I thought I’d been helping her. I thought I’d been just cheering her up. But now this happened. For a moment, I wished I could have taken it all back. But at the same time, I didn’t want to take it back at all.
Because I’d been having fun, too. So much fun that I’d been careless in public. And now the rumors were all over the internet. I hated rumors. All forms of them. And the worst part was… they were probably true. She’d admitted to being my “fan,” to many others, and actually, even to me. At first, I didn’t think there would be any harm in getting closer to her, but as time went on, the way she looked at me changed. I knew this was coming. But I didn’t stop. Why didn’t I stop?
Now I had to.
I froze in place, my back to her. A desperate thought flitted through my brain. Maybe there was still a way to avoid all of this.
“Hey. How’s it going?” Did that sound casual enough?
“Fiiiine.” Evgenia drawled the word out, the little upswing in her tone at the end telling me she wasn’t buying my fake pleasantries. “And how are you?”
“Good—great,” I said. I was great, other than this.
“I’ve been looking for you all day.”
“Oh, I’ve… been busy,” I replied quickly. Being a two-time Olympic champion didn’t give you much free time here at the games. But I’d left the rink this morning quickly on purpose. So quickly in fact, that I’d forgotten some things down in the athletes’ lockers. I hadn’t expected her to be here, now.
“Did you get my text?”
So there was no avoiding it. We had to do this after all.
“Ah, yeah. You wanted to talk to me? It seems like everyone wants to talk to me these days.” I let out a chuckle.
“Am I just… anyone?” Her voice was suddenly quieter, and my heart pinched. Don’t sound like that, Zhenya.
I took a deep breath and finally turned to look at her. And then I stopped breathing a little. She looked… beautiful tonight. I scolded myself for having that thought. But honestly. Had she done this on purpose? To make this harder for me?
“Sorry. I did mean to reply. There’s just been so much going on.”
Her cheeks suddenly flushed a pretty rosy color, and it looked like she was trying to hold back a smile.
Don’t look like that, Zhenya.
I don’t want to hurt you.
“I guess I can forgive you,” she said, tossing her dark hair over her shoulder—I didn’t often see her with her hair down. “You are pretty popular these days, after all. I think I have a few thousand more fans to compete with for your attention now,” she grinned, her long lashes rising and falling over her teasing eyes.
I swallowed uncomfortably, and she noticed. The smile faded from her lips.
“So… can we talk?”
I nodded slowly.
She looked around the room. People we didn’t know and some we did still milled about. “Not here.”
My palms felt clammy, but I followed her to around the corner to an empty hallway, the white-painted concrete walls looking yellow and dingy in the garish light down here. A strange place for a confession, I thought. An even stranger place for a… rejection.
I looked over at the petite girl standing with her head tilted at me. She’d seen my expression, and she squinted her eyes a little. Whenever she looked at me like that, it felt like she was reading my thoughts. I glanced away, but she started talking without any cue from me.
“I know this is kind of weird, but… well, I’ve been thinking about it for a long time, and—“
A wave of hot and cold passed over me, forcing my eyes shut briefly. “Don’t do this,” I stopped her without thinking. My heart was beating faster than it did before I stepped out onto the ice, except this time I didn’t have any music to drown out my thoughts, no Pooh-san to calm my nerves.
She frowned. “Don’t do—” Her voice broke off questioningly at the end of her words. “Wait, do you know?”
Eyes darting to hers, I saw a confused expression. I grimaced. Yes, I know.
Her slender hands gripped her hips and a frustrated sigh escaped her mouth. “Was it Javi? Did he tell you?”
Suddenly my throat tightened. No, Javi hadn’t told me. But… she’d told him? Why hadn’t he said something? Why hadn’t he warned me to be careful? He’d intervened before, once or twice. I looked up at Zhenya, and then I knew. It was because… he supported this, didn’t he? She wouldn’t be here right now if he didn’t. Javi had a way of talking people down from a cliff—he did with me, anyway. Surely he’d tried with her, hadn’t he? Or did he really think we should be together, like so many other people did? I pressed my lips together, saying nothing.
“So you just think it’s a bad idea.”
“Zhenya.” Her name came out of my mouth almost like a breath, and I saw the slightest twitch of her lips when the sound met her ears. “Please, don’t misunderstand.”
It was her turn to look away. “I know it changes everything.”
Something inside my chest hurt. Like an asthma attack that was coming on, robbing me of oxygen. Why does it have to be like this? Why does everything have to change? Now I won’t be able to keep you by my side anymore.
“I can’t even imagine what people would say,” she said softly. “Probably terrible things.”
That was the thing I dreaded more than anything else, too. Several moments of agonizing, painful silence followed, but I couldn’t think of a response.
“Say something, Yuzu.”
It seemed like 30 more seconds passed before I could get some English words out. “I wish things were different.”
“So do I,” she whispered. “But I’ve thought and thought about it, and I just don’t know what else to do anymore.”
My gaze was locked onto hers involuntarily, and all I could think about was that I’d never seen her eyes look like that before. They were almost—desperate.
The tone of her voice now matched her expression, and her shoulders heaved as she leaned forward towards me. “I can’t keep going on like this, Yuzu. I want to—I have to—”
My mouth went dry. “Don’t say it.”
There was a long pause. “I can’t even… say it?” she asked hollowly. And then her eyes flashed a little. It wasn’t fair of me, to interrupt her like this, but maybe if she didn’t say it, maybe it would be easier to pretend this didn’t happen. Maybe we could go back to the way we used to be, eventually.
She looked away, her cheeks flushed again, her forehead creased. “I… I’m confused. I didn’t think you’d be so against it. I thought—“
“Things will get better, you’ll see,” I talked over her, trying to sound confident or reassuring or… something. “Stuff like this just…. happens… at the Olympics. Once you go back home and get back to training—“
“Are you kidding me?” Her voice was suddenly louder. “You think going home is going to change anything? Are you that clueless?
“I was, before,” I said sincerely. She had no idea how sincere I was. “But please, believe me, I never wanted you to get hurt.”
Something was glistening in her eyes, and I hated with the force of everything in me that I was the reason for it. If only I could hug her right now. But that would make things even worse.
She blinked hard and tilted her chin up. “I didn’t expect this to happen either, okay? But I thought you would at least listen to me. I thought we were—the way you’ve been acting this whole time—“
I shook my head regretfully.
Suddenly her expression changed. “Actually, you know what? Never mind. I can figure this out on my own.” Her shoulder brushed mine as she moved past me, down the hallway and around the corner, and the air that flooded back into the space she left felt cold.
I’m sorry, Zhenya. I’m really sorry.