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From Another World

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(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.

---

“Hey, you.”

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. 

Chapter Text


(Feb. 25, 2018 / The morning of the Closing Ceremony – The early morning of Feb. 26)

 

I almost fell this time.

There had been a newspaper outside my door every morning I’d been here in Pyeongchang, and every morning I’d carefully bent down and picked it up before crossing the threshold. With my foot still bothering me, I couldn’t afford even a misstep. My foot had been the number one thing on my mind every day. Until today. My head was someplace else today.

I reached down and snatched the newspaper off the floor. I’d never even bothered looking at it before today, but now the frustration of nearly tripping over it made me look twice at it. I rolled my eyes. USA Today. They could have at least given me a newspaper in Japanese. Hah, no. I didn’t really want to see a Japanese paper, either. No doubt my face was still on the front page. Here, I’d at least have to turn to the Sports section.

Sure enough, there I was. “Olympic medalists close curtain with figure skating gala,” read the headline. But it wasn’t my name in the lead. It was hers.

Alina Zagitova and Evgenia Medvedeva gave figure skating fans one more show in South Korea.

It should have been her name first. Despite my acknowledgement that Alina had done technically well enough to deserve gold, I had wanted Zhenya to win. I knew it better than anyone. When you put everything out there, you want everything in return.

I gulped, moments from last night flashing through my mind. That’s why I hadn’t let her say it. I didn’t want her to put everything out there, for me. Because I couldn’t give her anything in return.

I shook my head, starting to fold up the paper, but before I did, my eyes fell on a quote. From her.

"I wanted to project the feelings inside of me when I am anxious. All of us have moments in life when we don't know what to do, and in the end we come to a decision and resolve our conflicts, and this reflects the way I feel and express my soul and my inner world."

The paper crumpled in my hands. That wasn’t about me, was it? Kukushka was … for me? A shiver ran through me, kind of scaring me and kind of thrilling me at the same time. I’d skated for people before, too—for my sister, for my parents, for the people of Sendai, for Brian. Skating for someone changed everything about the performance, putting more pressure on you but also giving you a voice that otherwise would have been silent. It was freeing and empowering, and it never failed to draw me closer to the people I dedicated my performances to. But up until now, I’d always been on the giving end. I’d never had anyone skate with… me… in mind. Not like that.

I felt an immediate compulsion to find her exhibition skate online, to watch it once more.  No, there wasn’t any time for that. I’d be late if I did.

Screw being late. The closing ceremonies wouldn’t start for hours. I turned back into my room, slamming the door behind me.

In seconds, the video was up, and there she was, looking like the fighter I knew she was. She hadn’t been flawless yesterday, but somehow, it didn’t matter. Maybe the mistakes made it even more real. Whatever it was, she was mesmerizing me, in a way not many other skaters could. It was the type of music I never skated to. How could she be so raw and exposed like this?

Bits and pieces of the haunting lyrics flew at me as she attacked the ice. I knew what the words meant. I’d looked them up a while ago, like I often did with foreign lyrics, but they hadn’t really meant anything to me, then. Now, they screamed at me as her mouth formed their shapes.

Give me an answer.
It’s good to be with you and hard without you.

You are my sun. Come look at me.

I’m looking at you, Zhenya,
my head answered without my own permission. And then another chill went down my spine as the song ended. I quickly tapped the screen to prevent it from auto-playing the next video. The silence in the room was suddenly deafening.

“All of us have moments in life when we don't know what to do, and in the end we come to a decision—“

I stood up quickly, and my cheeks felt hot even though no one was looking at me. Despite any effort I’d made last night to prevent her, she had put everything out there for me to see. I knew that now. She felt this so deeply, and I’d just spurned her like that? What had I done? Was I really that cruel? How could I have hurt her like this when she was already dealing with the crushing reality of her dreams not coming true? Remorse flooded through me, a strange ache deep in my bones.

But my regret didn’t change my answer. If only I could tell her I was sorry, that I hoped we could still be friends. Would that ease her pain, in some way?

Suddenly my phone buzzed in my hand. It was Javi, asking where I was and scolding me for holding up our van to the stadium.

“On my way,” I texted back, and hurried out as quickly as I could.

---

I didn’t see her again until that night, when we were all crowded into the waiting area of the stadium before the closing ceremonies. Everyone was milling about, talking excitedly and taking pictures together. No matter what anyone had achieved or not achieved here, tonight was about celebrating. We were Olympians. I just wondered if I’d ruined this experience for her. If I could find her, now, maybe I could apologize before this all started, so she could enjoy tonight.

My eyes found her in the sea of athletes, and then they opened a little wider in surprise. She was smiling, laughing, taking selfies with her teammates. A wave of relief passed over me to see her looking so happy. I took a deep breath. She was fine. Maybe I should just stay away.

But just then, she turned her head in my direction. She caught me looking at her, and before I knew it, she was coming towards me.

“Hey,” she said.

“Hey,” I said. I should have sounded friendlier, but I was thinking too much about what I should or shouldn’t say.

“Yuzu--about last night.”

I felt my cheeks warming. “Yeah. I wanted to say—“

She stiffened and looked around quickly while simultaneously interrupting me. “No, you were right. It’s better not to talk about it now.”

My jaw fell open a little.

“I don’t want to end the Olympics with bad feelings, especially when it’s been so good,” she said, smiling softly.

“So…good? You’re really not… upset?” I stumbled over my words, surprised and relieved that she was taking this so well.

“Sure, some things didn’t go the way I wanted, but so many other things did,” she said brightly. “I have lots of reasons to be thankful.” She paused, and I stared at her incredulously. She was stronger than I’d realized.

“And, maybe my way is clearer now.”

I cleared my throat. I wasn’t sure what she meant by that, but she seemed content, and that’s all that mattered. “I’m happy to hear that,” I murmured. 

“Goodbye for now, Yuzu,” she said softly.

For now. She thought we would be seeing each other soon. She didn’t know it yet, but I would be withdrawing from Worlds. I needed time to heal. Maybe she did, too. She’d struggled with injuries this season, just like I had. We’d talked about it multiple times, lamenting about how this was the worst possible timing for both of us. But yet, we’d both managed to come here and compete despite the pain. For me, it was with the help of countless painkillers. I’d never asked her how much she’d taken. Or did she just have a magical way to hide how much she hurt? Was she hiding it now?

“Oh, we should take a picture together, shouldn’t we?” she said suddenly.

“Yeah,” I agreed.

She scooted closer to me, holding up her phone and snapping a selfie.

“I want one, too,” I heard myself saying.

“I’ll just send you this one,” she said. “I take better selfies than you, anyway.”

I frowned. “You always say that, but you never send me pictures,” I protested.

“Yes, I do! I sent you that one from—oh, maybe I didn’t,” she bit her lip, laughing.

I grinned. Somehow, arguing like this felt good. Things really were okay. “See, I’m right again.” I pulled out my phone, smirking at her as I tapped the camera icon and held the phone up with my usual peace sign.

Suddenly I saw her expression change. Something was wrong.

My eyes flashed to my phone screen, my smile frozen on my face. Crap. I’d opened the wrong thing. It was YouTube. It was her EX, still paused right at the end. My arm dropped and I looked down at her. “Ah, about that—I was just—“ I fumbled, my face threatening to light on fire.

Just then, there was a surge in the crowd around us, shoving us together in the unlikeliest of ways, and I instinctively caught her arm to keep her from falling. My heartbeat quickened when I saw her looking up at me. She was close—so close—and the feeling was a little overwhelming. Why was I still holding onto her?

Her cheeks were suddenly brighter. “It means I’m not giving up,” she whispered.

My stomach somersaulted. “You’re not?” My voice was barely a whisper in return.

Our eyes were locked like that again. Was it my imagination or were we moving almost imperceptibly closer? Her eyes were shining, almost like she wanted to…

Suddenly she squeezed her eyes shut and laughed, breaking whatever strange spell I’d fallen under momentarily. “Of course not. You’ll see, Yuzuru Hanyu. I’m going to be even better the next time you see me.”

“Hey, guys, let’s take a picture together!” someone said nearby, diverting her attention. I stared at her for a moment, and then shook my head. She meant she was going to win gold the next time. That’s what she meant. Right?

Someone else grabbed me for a photo right after that, and before I knew it, Zhenya had disappeared from my side, swept away into the throng.

The closing ceremonies were halfway over when I realized I’d never said my own goodbye.

And that’s how I ended up in front of her doorway in the middle of night—or, I guess, it was the next morning. I knew she was leaving for Moscow bright and early, so I had set my alarm for 4:30 and prayed it would be early enough to catch her before she was gone, and late enough that no one would really be roaming her hall.

Sure enough, the hallways of this Village dormitory were completely empty. I looked down at the things I was carrying. Why was I doing this again? I could have just called her or texted her to say my goodbyes. But maybe this was my way of making my apology without having to say the words or turning it into too big of a deal. When she saw my presents out here by her door, there’s no way she wouldn’t know they were from me.

I leaned down, about ready to put them down, and then I hesitated. I looked at them again. What was I thinking? Anyone else that passed by her door would know they were from me, too. I couldn’t do this.

I turned on my heel, starting to walk away. I’d have to come up with something different.

“Yuzu?”

I turned around, my heart jumping a bit.

“What are you doing here?”

She was fully dressed, suitcase in hand. What were the odds that she would be leaving, right now?

Eto—” I glanced down at my arms, and then back up at her.

She suppressed a delighted gasp. “Are those for me?” She let go of her suitcase and came towards me, bouncing way too much for this time of the morning. “You’re giving me a Pooh? Are you sure it’s okay?”

“There’s a lot of Poohs,” I said.

“Olympic Poohs are special,” she said.

I grinned. She understood.

“And strawberries--?” she giggled a little. “Because of—“

“Yes, because of that,” I pretended to scowl.

“You’re cute,” she laughed, and took my gifts as I stood there blushing against my will. What did she just say? I hadn’t planned for any sort of interaction like this. Maybe this was making the situation worse.

“I’ll take good care of Pooh,” she promised. And then she rattled the strawberries in their clamshell. “As for these, I can’t guarantee they’ll make it to Moscow.” She smirked at me, and it felt a little like how things had been during practice the other day, when I’d realized we were…um, joking around too much. Ah, what was happening?

“Zhenya,” I suddenly blurted her name.

She sobered. “What?”

“I just wanted to say, even after… what you said… I hope we can still be friends.”

She looked up at me, and her eyes flickered.

“You understand, don’t you?” I asked.

She nodded seriously. “We’re still friends.”

Suddenly she reached out and drew me into a hug. But then I heard the plastic strawberry carton crunch awkwardly between us and pulled back. Her arm tightened around me insistently, bringing me back to her.

“Don’t tell me I can’t do this, either,” she whispered.

I let out a breath. “It was the strawberries,” I mumbled. I only questioned myself for a moment before letting myself hug her back. Surely a hug wouldn’t complicate things too much, would it?

I felt her shoulders relax. “Stupid strawberries,” she said. I couldn’t see her face, but I heard the smile in her voice.

I squeezed my eyes shut. I wanted to her to be happy, but not because of me. Had this been a mistake? Was I being confusing to her? How could I let her know that I cared about her—but that I couldn’t care for her like that? I extracted myself from the hug that was already getting a little too long.

“Goodbye, Zhenya.”

“You make it sound so final,” she said, her voice strangely louder. “Can’t you say something like, ‘bye for now’?” She gave a strained laugh.

I paused. “I’m not coming to Worlds.”

Her eyes darted up to mine, and I noticed how her cheeks had suddenly lost their color. “Yuzu, are you—”

“What?” I pressed her to finish her question.

She waited a second, and then her lip quivered a little before she spoke. “Are you… retiring?” she whispered hoarsely.

I guffawed. “No. Hell no.”

She looked away, and I thought she looked rather relieved. “Oh.”

“I have lots of plans for next season already,” I said. “But I have to recover completely if I want to accomplish my goals.”

She nodded. “Well, I’m probably not going to Worlds, either.”

I cocked my head. “Are you retiring?”

Suddenly she looked at me with the strangest expression. Her brow furrowed, her eyes scanning mine. “What?” she almost stammered.

I swallowed. I mean, I didn’t think she would retire. It was just a question, like she’d asked me. “Don’t think I meant you should or anything.”

“I’m not… retiring, Yuzu.” She said the words slowly, deliberately, almost like it should have been obvious. She shook her head at me, confused.

I was confused, too. This happened sometimes—okay, a lot, to me. I didn’t always understand English as well as I should, and I know I missed things, lost subtleties in translation. But why did I feel like I’d missed something important here?

“Good,” I said, trying to salvage our conversation before it turned south again. “I wouldn’t want you to. You have a lot left in you.”

“I do,” she said quietly, but her eyes were still shifting back and forth like she was thinking hard about something.

“So, goodbye for now,” I said gently.

Her face softened back into a smile as she looked up at me. “Goodbye for now.”

Chapter Text

(March 24, 2018 / Sendai, Japan)

Is there something you need to tell us, Janny?

I came to a sudden stop right in the middle of my living room, my eyes involuntarily drawn to the phone buzzing in my hand. Along with the message, there was a screenshot of a couple photos of Evgenia that a fan had posted on Twitter. As hard as I tried to stay away from social networks, there were two people in my life who never failed to keep me in the loop.

The Bear Trio, Misha had named our group chat. We hadn’t talked on here as often in the busyness since the Olympics, so for Misha to message us, something must have happened. I looked at the photos a little longer, puzzled. Zhenya looked as nice as always, but nothing seemed significant about the photos. What was Misha implying?

Booo, not you, too, Misha, her reply appeared on the screen just then.

I’m just hurt. I thought we’d be the first to know if you were engaged!

I blinked a million times. Engaged? I zoomed in on the photo. There, on Zhenya’s right hand was a ring. That’s right. In Russia, they wore it on the right hand, not the left. My stomach dropped for a quick second. No way she was actually engaged, right? I quickly flipped through my mental directory. I hadn’t even seen a photo with her of another guy lately, not to mention a … lover. I cleared my throat even thinking of that word. And then I frowned. Anyway, hadn’t she just confessed to me—or tried to, at least? Besides, even if something crazy had actually happened since then, she would have told us before the world found out, like Misha said. Right?

You’ll be the last to know, Misha!

Wait. I’m the last to know? So it’s true what they’re saying, Yuzu? It’s you?

My stomach twisted into a hard knot. Is that what “they” were saying? So the rumors hadn’t stopped. My anxiety—no, curiosity—over whether or not Evgenia was actually engaged was quickly replaced by a feeling of dread. I couldn’t handle another round of media gossip, not when I was this exhausted.

I know you’re reading these, Zu. It says Read by 2, Misha called me out.

I didn’t know what to reply. Fortunately, Zhenya did first.

This isn’t funny anymore.

Sorry. I was just teasing.

Let’s keep it to jokes about strawberries, I finally wrote. Did that sound angry? I wasn’t, really. I was just a little… upset.

Right. I forgot. Your one true love. Misha inserted the laughing/crying emoji for effect, and I relaxed.

You know, I’ve been thinking about that one. It can’t be the strawberries. It has to be the ice. Yuzu is in love with the ice, Zhenya messaged.

Except he can’t kiss the ice the way he kisses his strawberries.

I could if I wanted to, I replied indignantly.

Make sure I’m around when you try, ok? I can’t wait to see you get your lips stuck.

If only your lips would get stuck…closed, I bantered back at him.

Stop it, you two.

Nobody said anything else for a second, and the quiet made the inside of my brain loud.

So you’re not actually engaged? I sent the message before thinking enough about it. Then, I wondered why I still wanted to know.

Don’t be silly. I’m 18, remember? And I’ve had that ring forever. I wore it as a reminder of something important. I didn’t think people would go that crazy over it.

Don’t mind them, Misha quickly replied. And then he added, And don’t mind me, either. It was just my way of saying I don’t want the Bear Trio to ever break up. Love you guys.

I slipped the phone into my pocket of my sweatpants as I walked to the kitchen to get a bottle of water, my thoughts tumbling in my head. So Zhenya wears a ring one day, and people automatically assume I proposed to her? Was it my fans, or hers? Probably both. Probably… it didn’t matter. What mattered is that the rumor mill was alive and well, just like I didn’t want it to be. Why did she have to wear the ring on that finger? Didn’t she know better? I chugged the water hastily. I wondered how she could maintain such a light-hearted attitude about these things. Maybe she just hadn’t been burned by gossip as badly as I had… yet.

This isn’t funny anymore, she’d said just now.

It was going to happen, sooner or later. And it would be my fault. Because of who I was. I couldn’t let that happen. I couldn’t let her get hurt again because of me. That’s why I couldn’t--

My phone buzzed, and I reluctantly retrieved it from my pocket. It was her. Just her.

Sorry about Misha. He can be too much sometimes.

Eh, I know he’s just joking.

I’m glad you’re not mad.

I was upset, but not at her. At the stupid internet. I tried to change the subject.

So what was the important thing you are remembering? I asked.

Ah, it’s kind of weird.

That makes me even more curious.

I promised myself a month ago that I would figure out that problem I have. Well, I figured it out, and even though it’s hard, I’m determined to follow through with it. I’m wearing the ring to remind myself that I have peace now.

A month ago. My mind rewound through the whirlwind of events that had happened in the last few weeks. A month ago we were at the Olympics. A month ago was when she tried to confess to me. A month ago was when said she would figure things out on her own. The stressful feelings from those moments threatened to re-emerge, but then I reminded myself of what she’d just said. I figured it out. Even though it’s hard, I’m determined to follow through with it. I have peace now. I breathed a sigh of relief. I could only hope that meant she was over me now. Everything would be okay now. Even the internet couldn’t fabricate something out of nothing after a while. 

I’m glad you have peace, I replied.

I hope you will, too, Yuzu.

I stuck the phone back into my pocket, but an unsettled feeling had crept back over me. Zhenya’s responses had a tendency to be a little cryptic sometimes. I hope you will, too? Will what? Have peace? Did she mean that she hoped I’d be able to have peace now that she no longer had feelings for me? That must be it.

Then why did I still have that weird sense that I was missing something, again?

 

(April 11, 2018 / Sendai, Japan)

Evgenia had been right—there was an overload of new interest in me back here at home, and the demands of that, paired with obligations of my own choosing, had become overwhelming. I barely had enough time for my family, let alone myself. It was only spring, but I had already found myself dreaming of peace and quiet back in Toronto. Just a few more months of ice shows to get through, and then things would calm down and I could focus on my goals for the new season. And ice shows were fun. It was a time to let loose in front of the audience and do what I loved with no pressure, surrounded by all my friends. I needed time with my friends. Most of the time, back in Toronto, I was alone, except for the few friends I had at the rink, like Javi. And I was fine with that. But being at the Olympics had reminded me of how much fun we’d all had together—all of us. If only there hadn’t been drama at the end.

I tried to put the drama out of my head. I couldn’t let it bother me. Not like before.

But as hard as I tried, it kept coming back.

The next time Misha texted, it wasn’t in the group chat. It was just to me.

I was at the training rink in Sendai when it happened, and it’d already been a rough day working on getting my jumps back. I wouldn’t be attempting any jumps in my upcoming project in a few days, but the real shows would be here before I knew it, and I had to start getting ready. I had to show everyone that I was better, that my injury wasn’t slowing me down anymore. Except that it was. Hardly any of my jumps were consistent. Quads were impossible. I was worried.

I sat down on the benches on the sidelines, breathing heavily. I knew I was probably pushing myself too hard, but Brian wasn’t here to tell me to quit for the day. I’d just take a break and catch my breath, and then I would go back and nail those jumps.

I fished my phone out of my bag to distract myself, and that’s when I saw Misha’s message waiting for me.

I think the last time this happened I offended Evgenia, so I don’t want to say anything to her, but… have you seen her Instagram story?

I sighed, wondering if I should remind him again about bringing up social media. Hadn’t I made it clear I wanted to avoid it? But I was human. I was curious. And something he’d said had already sparked my interest. The last time this happened.

The last time what happened? I wanted to ask. But instead, I found myself looking for the answer myself. I knew how to get to her Instagram just fine, after all. But her first post was in Russian. I swiped to the next. And then I knew why Misha had texted me.

It was a ring. A diamond ring.

My fingers felt stiff as I texted Misha back.

I saw it. What does the caption say?

Basically that something really good has happened to her. The “best thing.” And then she’s talking about how amazing the ring is. The song afterwards is pretty romantic, too.

I didn’t have to listen to the song. Instead, I just closed my eyes. People jumping to conclusions the last time was really no fault of her own, but this time she’d posted the ring herself. You couldn’t just post something like that and expect that people weren’t going to think something. Even I couldn’t deny what it looked like.

Should I say something? We’re practically her brothers. We have to look out for her.

I raised my eyebrows. Brothers? We were good friends, but saying we were like family was too much. What Evgenia posted on social media was her business. It’s not like it had anything to do with me. My phone buzzed again.

I know this kind of thing affects you, too.

I suddenly remembered the comments from last time. Against my better judgment, I looked at what people were saying on her page. I didn’t have to know Russian to recognize my name in multiple places. I went to Twitter, and with each second that passed, with each tweet I read, my blood pressure rose. It’d been months since she and I had even been seen in public together, and this was still going on? I could just imagine the gossip tabloids picking this story up and running with it. Why couldn’t she have been more careful?

Don’t worry, Misha. I’ll take care of it.

My neck feeling hot under my collar, I navigated to Zhenya’s chat. The last thing she’d said to me glared back from the screen. She hoped I had peace? How did she expect me to have peace when rumors about us kept popping up everywhere?

I pounded out a text message.

Why would you post something like that? Don’t you have any idea what people would think? Didn’t you learn your lesson last time?

And then I shut my eyes. How could I actually say something like that to her? I deleted the un-sent message. I had no right to scold her. It was her business.

I closed the messaging app, and Twitter stared back at me.

But it was my business, too. And this was too much.

The next thing I knew, the phone was ringing. I was calling Zhenya, with no plan of what to say. What was I thinking? I didn’t even know.

It seemed like forever came and went before she picked up. “Hello?”

Something inside of me suddenly felt weak, and I slumped forward, gripping the edge of the bench for support. When was the last time I’d heard her voice? What time was it for her? Where was she, even?

“Yuzu? Are you there?”

I cleared my throat. “Hey.”

“Before you ask, I’m not engaged,” she said, laughing. I sat up straight. She was laughing? If my heart had melted a little bit at hearing her again, it hardened just as quickly.

“That’s not what people are saying.”

“Let them say whatever they want. I don’t care about them,” she said almost flippantly.

“Fine. But do you care about me?”

There was an awkward pause, and my face burned with the consciousness of what I’d just asked. What kind of question was that? Why had I asked it that way?

“Of course I do. Why would you think I didn’t?”

“They’re saying we’re engaged again.” It was uncomfortable to even say it.

She hesitated. “Well, why does that matter, if you and I both know it’s not true?”

“It bothers me,” I blurted.

“Oh, come on, Yuzu.” I couldn’t help but notice that her light tone had darkened. “This happens to people all the time. It’s part of being in the public eye.” She paused again. “I know it’s not the first time it’s happened to you.”

I blushed again. She was right. “It’s not, but—” I stopped without knowing why.

“But what?” Her voice raised in both pitch and volume. “Why does it bother you so much? Is it because it’s me? Am I so awful that you don’t want to be associated with me at all?”

What? Is that what she thought? I felt my heart pinching. No matter how worried I was about this, I didn't want to hurt her again. You’re not awful, Zhenya. You’re not awful at all, I wanted to say. But I couldn’t say that, not after knowing how she felt, or used to feel. I just wanted her to realize what I already knew—that being careless could end up making a mess of things.

“It’s not just me I’m thinking of here,” I finally replied. “It’s you, too. Sometimes, my fans—you said it yourself—people are crazy. Wouldn’t it better to just not post things like that?”

“It’s just a ring, Yuzu. Girls wear rings. For lots of reasons. I told you before, I wear mine to remind myself of promises. Besides, I already said publicly that it’s from my family.”

“No one believes that. Not when you posted those other things.”

“What other—oh, the song?” She huffed. “That wasn’t related at all. It’s just their new song. I always post their songs I like.”

That was true, too. I had seen her post lots of EXO songs before. But I wasn’t ready to give this up. 

“And the good thing that happened to you? What was that?”

I expected her to come back at me with another quick dismissal, but instead, I was answered by silence. An unnerving silence. Finally, I prodded her again. “What is it?”

“The thing you don’t want me to talk about.”

My body suddenly felt cold. That thing? That she liked me? But… that didn’t make any sense, not in this context.

“I have a meeting with Brian,” she said flatly. My head spun in confusion. A meeting… with Brian? What?

“I’m moving to the Cricket Club, Yuzu. Whether you like it or not.”

Chapter Text

“I’m moving to the Cricket Club, Yuzu. Whether you like it or not.”

It felt like I’d slammed into the boards at full speed, knocking the air out of my chest. Evgenia was switching coaches. She was coming to Toronto. She was… leaving Russia? That kind of thing didn’t happen. Would they even let her? My head reeled. It made sense that she’d want to try something different after not getting the outcome she wanted at the Olympics. But leaving the country? For a Russian girl, this was unfathomable. I’d never considered that she’d attempt such a drastic change. That she’d come… to where I was.

Whether you like it or not.

Instantly a second realization hit me. She thought I wouldn’t support her. She thought I didn’t support her. She thought—

Kuso.

She hadn’t been confessing. She’d been trying to tell me about this. Everything she’d said that night under the rink in Korea came flooding back, except now it had a completely different meaning. She’d talked to Javi, gotten his opinion. And then she’d wanted mine. I covered my face with the hand that wasn’t still holding onto the phone. How could I have been so stupid? I’d cut her off from saying anything at all. I’d been so focused on trying to stop her from—

My skin crawled in embarrassment. I’d thought she was in love with me—I mean, everyone had been saying it. But she wasn’t at all.

I suddenly realized she was talking again. What was she saying?

“You know, I thought before you were just trying to protect me. But the more you talk, the more it feels like you don’t even want me around. What have I done wrong to make you treat me like this all of sudden? Do you hate me or something?”

“I don’t hate you,” I said quietly.

I heard her take a breath. “Then what is it?”

I froze. I couldn’t admit to her my mistake. It was humiliating, for one, and secondly, it would probably make things even more awkward. I had to keep going with my theme of the day. That she needed to be ready for the inevitable backlash. Because it would come. I was sure of it.

“You know what everyone is going to say.”

She sighed. “Why do you care so much what people say?”

“Because I know the damage it can do,” I answered. I knew it all too well. “I know how badly it can hurt people. Feel lucky you don’t know that feeling, Zhenya. But you will.”

“I’m not stupid, Yuzu. I know people are going to have opinions about me leaving Sambo. About leaving Eteri. But I can handle it. I’m ready. I’m stronger than you think.”

A little smile crossed my lips. She was strong. Stronger than most girls I knew. The decision itself was bolder than what anyone else had ever tried to do. And then I frowned. So how could she possibly know what was coming?

“They’ll say you’re jealous of Alina. They’ll say you’re being ungrateful to your coach. They’ll say you should just retire. And somebody will make this about us, too.” I gritted my teeth. I could have left that last part out.

“So it’s about that, then.”

“No—I just—” I tried to backpedal, but I could already hear that it had upset her.

“Don’t worry, Yuzu,” she said defensively. “I promise you. If I come to TCC—when I come to TCC, I’ll be sure not to involve you in my mess.”

I sighed. I didn’t want her to think of it… that way. But there was nothing more to be said right now. We’d just have to cross the bridge when we came to it.

“So, if you don’t have anything more to say—” she said.

“Evgenia,” I gently interrupted her.

“What?” The word was curt.

“Brian will be good for you.” I meant it. Once the media storm blew over, it would be the right decision. Eteri’s girls never had long careers, and I knew Brian had the ability to strengthen her and sustain her long term. 

She paused. “I know,” she said. “Goodbye, Yuzu.”

Even before she hung up, I felt the chasm between us widening. The significance of the way she’d said goodbye was not lost on me. She’d always cared about the way we said goodbyes. Maybe we were both unsure of what the future looked like for us.

---

A few days later, Brian’s number appeared on my phone. It didn’t take a genius to guess what it was about.

“I assume you wouldn’t have issues as she’s not in your discipline, but if there’s any conflict I should know about, now is the time to let me know,” he said.

If he only knew. But I knew that’s not what he meant. “I trust you,” I assured him. “There have never been any problems with dividing your time between athletes.”

“Good,” he said. “I just wanted to let you know before you found out from other sources. I imagine this will make quite the headlines in Russia.”

But even before it did, something else caught everyone’s attention. Social media. Again.

It was the morning of the parade when I noticed it. Later, I wondered if she had chosen that moment specifically, like maybe she was thinking that even if people did notice, other news about me would soon overshadow it. Or maybe she thought that I wouldn’t notice at all, and if I did, I’d soon be too busy with the day’s events to care.

I was busy. But I did care. More than I thought I would.

I’ll be sure not to involve you in my mess, she’d said. I didn’t know what she’d meant by that at the time, but I had no idea it meant she would delete all the photos of us on her Instagram. And I had no idea that it would feel like… this. She really never had sent me those photos I’d been teasing her about, and in the end I never even got that one myself from the Olympics. And now, they were gone. It was like… I … was gone. Like our friendship didn’t exist. It felt… weird. Bad.

I wanted to message her and ask her why she’d done it, but somehow even doing that seemed strange now. And I knew why, anyway. It was for the best. People would get the message one way or the other. There was nothing going on between us.

Nothing… even as friends. The days went on, and word about Evgenia’s decision to change coaches started to leak out. Some people were in denial at first, saying it was impossible and illogical, but eventually the rumors got louder and louder. And then her coach came out and said things. Awful things. And those awful things got turned into more awful things by the media, by the fans, everyone. I couldn’t stand listening to it, knowing Evgenia would never do the things they were accusing her of—she would have never seriously asked to keep Alina back, she would never have been rude to her coach without reason. If the rumors killed me, I was sure they were killing her. I couldn’t imagine why she hadn’t said something to put it all to rest. I wanted to message her and ask her how she was doing, but I couldn’t. I couldn’t keep barging into her business.

When Zhenya released her official statement, she was diplomatic and poised. Mature. I was proud of her. And I was even prouder when I saw the way she handled the press and the questions. Surely her calm demeanor would quiet the frenzy.

But it didn’t. The rumors got worse. And I hated that the things I’d predicted would happen were coming true. They were calling her names, accusing her of things that were ridiculous, speculating as to what she’d done or hadn’t done. And worst of all, there was gossip about us. Just like I’d said. For a while, it was just on the internet. People said lots of things on the internet. If it stayed there, it’d eventually go away, I knew. It just had to stay there.

And then my agent called me, early one Sunday morning.

I had that feeling as soon my mother handed me the phone. It was on speaker. “It’s the tabloids, Hanyu-senshu. They’re saying you and her are in a relationship. I just need to confirm if it’s true.”

I felt my mother’s eyes drilling into me. Weekly magazines were not to be dismissed as quickly as social media speculation or gossip in the corners of online skating forums. Sure, they weren’t newspapers—but they were everywhere. On the streets, in the bookstores, at the grocery counters. Worse, he meant the tabloids in Japan. I knew how some of my fans would react.

“It’s not true. None of it’s true,” I said.

“Do you have any thoughts on how you would like to handle this?” he asked quietly.

I looked at my mother, and her expression was grave, although not upset. I slightly bowed to her, indicating that she could speak, and then she shook her head. I blinked a few times. She was deferring to me. This wasn’t the same as… last time.

“I need to think about it some more,” I finally said.

“Of course,” he responded. “But, if I may, I advise we do not wait too long. Not just for your sake. I should let you know that some of the articles are asserting that this is Medvedeva’s sole reason for moving to your club.”

My stomach churned, and I handed the phone back to my mother, my hand shaking. How dare they?  Did they respect her that little, that they thought she would put a relationship above making the right choice for her career? Did they think she was incapable of standing on her own? Or were they just inventing nonsense to sell magazines? Why did they think they could toy with people’s emotions and mess with people’s lives like this? Blood boiling, I turned on my heel to head to my room.

“Yuzu-kun.”

My mother’s soft voice halted me. I turned around.

“I know you care about her,” she said.

My cheeks flushed a little. That was just because I was upset.

“You have the power to protect her,” she said. “It doesn’t have to be like last time. Think about it. But don’t wait too long.”

I stared up at my ceiling that night, unable to sleep. This wasn’t like last time, I tried to tell myself. The last time, it was just a regular girl, suddenly and unfairly entangled in a web of lies that nearly killed both of us. She was sweet and innocent, that classmate of mine. I barely knew her, but all it took was one photo of us saying a few friendly words to each other, paired with a couple of nasty jokes—I could hardly call them that—made up by other students,  and the media went insane. My so-called fans went insane. Before I knew it, there were rumors so ugly I couldn’t even think about them without wanting to vomit. My family decided to keep quiet about the rumors, for a long time, hoping that silence on our side would attest to the truth, but it didn’t work. By the time we made a statement, it was too late. Her normal, peaceful life was ruined, her reputation needlessly tarnished. The last I heard, she was in therapy due to suicidal thoughts. I knew the feeling.

But Evgenia wasn’t like her. She was already a celebrity in her own right, used to talking with reporters and handling media speculation and criticism. She had been prepared to face the onslaught of negativity surrounding her decision, even before I’d tried to warn her. She was strong. And she had an agent, too. Shouldn’t I stay out of her business?

I closed my eyes, a flashback starting. How had things changed so much between us? Just a few months ago, we’d never been closer. Things were hard then, too, but somehow our casual friendship had turned into something I found myself depending on more and more. She used to call me, when I was injured and couldn’t be on the ice and was going out of my mind—“just to see how you’re surviving in your cave,” she used to quip. Sometimes her call was the only thing that would give me a break from the intense mental exercises I put myself through. She was like a breath of fresh air on those dark, anxious days, her laughter over the phone and, occasionally, her bright grin on FaceTime drawing a smile of my own out of me. She was dealing with an injury, too, I knew, but she always dismissed it and asked me about my condition instead. She always gave me courage, calmed my fears, and above all, reassured me that I wouldn’t lose everything I had worked so hard for. And for some reason, I trusted her words above all the others. She had the mind of a skater, the heart of a champion, the drive to overcome all the odds to achieve our dreams. We understood each other. Until I’d gone and misunderstood everything.

Why had I taken those conversations for granted? She’d done so much for me, then. Did she even know? Now she was the one going through probably one of the hardest times of her life. And this latest burden, piled onto her already heavy load—it was because of me. And what was I doing for her?

You have the power to protect her.

It was my decision this time. I had to take responsibility. I had to do something.

Chapter Text

(May 23, 2018 / Chiba Prefecture, Japan - Two days before the Fantasy on Ice tour)

The sun was just beginning to set when I stepped onto the sand, the wind whipping through my hair much like it did when I had reached full speed on the ice. Salt-water waves, sparkling with gold in the evening light, crashed into the shore, leaving foamy bubbles behind in their retreat. Moving or frozen, water had a way of captivating me. How long had it been since I’d been to the sea? I hadn’t even come last year.

I wouldn’t have come this year, either, had it not been for Misha’s begging. He wanted to get sushi for dinner, and even though I didn’t often eat out, I found it hard to deny myself such a fresh-sounding meal. Rehearsals for the show didn’t begin until tomorrow morning, anyway, and he’d assured me that the venue he’d picked was private. My driver had left me at the back entrance to the place, but having arrived earlier than our agreed-upon time, I took the chance to come around to the ocean front, just to see. And now I couldn’t look away.

“Take your shoes off.”

I tore my eyes off the burning sunset at the sound of a female voice behind me, but I didn’t turn around—I looked instead at my feet. A lump had appeared in my throat for some reason, and I couldn’t say anything yet. It had been more than a month since I’d heard her voice, but that Russian accent was unmistakable. I had suspected Misha might invite Evgenia. Still, I hadn’t planned on running into her out here, alone. I hesitated even longer. I didn’t want to be rude to her, but I also knew I had to be careful, now more than ever.

“There’s no point in being at the beach if you don’t feel the sand under your toes,” she spoke again, and this time, I saw her move into my peripheral vision until she was standing next to me. My head turned towards her finally. Her hair was loose down her back, and the sea breeze was billowing through her plain black jacket. It had been three months since I’d laid eyes on her, but it seemed like it’d been a whole year. Against my better judgment, I found myself wondering what she was thinking. Was she still upset with me?

 “You never listen to me,” she said abruptly.

I stared at her, my heart rate increasing. Was she talking about before? Had she realized my misunderstanding? Then she suddenly bent down next to me, and before I knew it she was undoing the laces of my trainers. “Come on. Take them off,” she said, straightening up.

I stiffened. “I can’t. We’re going to a restaurant soon,” I mumbled. I reached down and re-tied them, then stood up and looked back down at her.

For the first time, her eyes came up to meet mine, and I found myself feeling unnerved by her gaze.

“You’re very difficult, Yuzu,” she said seriously, and her brows hinted at the start of a scowl. And then she laughed. It stunned me. Were things… fine with us? I hadn’t known what to expect, seeing her again, but in an instant—with that laugh and her eyes twinkling back at me—I felt it. We were still friends. A warm feeling flooded over me like the sun spreading its last rays onto our faces.

A moment later, she’d turned her back to me and started climbing up the short hill to the back of the restaurant, her sandals dangling from one hand. I shook my head at the sight of her bare feet digging through the soft sand. She was just as crazy and carefree as ever. Maybe the events of last few months hadn’t impacted her as much as I’d worried they had. I hoped that was the case.

Misha was waiting for us when we arrived in the small private room at the top of the restaurant, and Evgenia greeted him by throwing her arms around his neck, gushing Russian words I didn’t know. He pulled away from her, grinning, and then gave me a firm handshake.

“It’s good to see you both,” he said in English. “You met each other outside, I guess?”

I glanced over at Zhenya, and I noticed that in this light, her cheeks were a bright shade of pink. Had she been out in the sun today, or was she embarrassed by something? She sat down at the table, murmuring a quiet, “Da.

Misha crossed his arms, his expression no-nonsense. “I’m asking if you’ve worked through whatever you guys need to work through,” he said bluntly.

Now it was my turn to feel my face getting hotter. So he was aware of everything that was going on. Of course. If he hadn’t gathered it himself on social media, no doubt Zhenya and he had talked. What had she told him?

“I’m fine if Yuzu is,” Zhenya said, glancing at me quickly before picking up the menu to look at it.

I sat down next to her. “I’m fine, too,” I nodded.

“Good,” Misha said, plopping down across from us. “We’ll be seeing each other a lot these next few weeks, and I just want us all to have a good time together. Like old times.”

I bristled just a tiny bit. I wanted everything to be like it used to be, too, but didn’t he realize how serious this situation was? Maybe his perspective was different because he was retiring, but Evgenia and I had our future careers to think of. More than that, I couldn’t forget how quickly things could turn ugly.

“I think it would be best if we limited our public interactions.” The words came out in a rush.

Misha dropped his menu. “We? All of us? Or just you and Zhenya?”

“The issue is just with us,” Zhenya suddenly said next to me, and I looked at her. Her face had turned solemn, too. But she didn’t make a rebuttal. Did that mean she agreed? I’d wondered if she’d be offended, but she had been the one to delete the photos, after all. She’d thought about this, too.

“Either way, I hate this,” Misha frowned, his fist clenched. “Our Bear Trio really is breaking up.”

My heart pinched, and then I remembered Zhenya’s smile outside. “Don’t be dramatic, Misha. We’re all still friends. We’re here right now, aren’t we?”

He looked at me warily. “I guess if everything is fine in private. That’s all that really matters.”

I cast a sidelong glance at Zhenya for her reaction.

She seemed engrossed in the menu. “Let’s not talk about it anymore. I’m starving. Let’s just order our food.”

I cleared my throat. “It’d probably be easier if you could actually read the menu.”

“What if I can read Japanese now?” She raised her eyebrows defiantly, but I detected a sparkle in her eyes.

“Don’t lie,” I tilted my chin up at her. “What do you want to eat? I’ll help you.”

She acquiesced and let me read her the descriptions.

“Hey, is anyone going to help me?” Misha grumbled, and we all laughed. Finally, everything felt okay again. At least for now.

Maybe it was the food. Maybe it was the ocean air. Or maybe it was because for the first time since the Olympics, I was well rested and having a good time with friends. Maybe it was because we really were still friends, me and Zhenya. Whatever it was, I was in a remarkably good mood tonight, so good that I agreed to go for a walk on the beach after dinner. Even Misha was surprised that I hadn’t refused.

Evgenia was still in high spirits, too, flinging off her shoes again as soon as she rounded the corner of the restaurant.

“Look at the mooooonnnn!” she called out exuberantly. She twirled in the moonbeams, the silver light gilding her bare, outstretched arms and highlighting the curves of her smooth muscles. Her face upturned to the sky, the thought that she looked pretty tonight crossed my mind again. She had always been an attractive girl, but somehow she looked different now than she had back in February. Had something changed about her in the last few months, even physically? No, it was just the moonlight. Evgenia loved nature, and nature loved her back.

She drew a deep breath of the salty night air. “Even the moon is nicer in Japan.”

“Like the strawberries?” Misha quipped, and I felt my face grow warm again. That joke was from ages ago, but Misha never let it die. I still remembered the two of them making fun of me for getting too excited when someone had gifted me Japanese strawberries. I’d insisted that Japanese strawberries were the best strawberries in the world, and according to Misha, the way I looked while eating them resembled someone kissing. Kuso. Why was I thinking about kissing right now?

“Shut up,” I scolded him as much as my own thoughts, instead focusing on Zhenya running with abandon down the packed sand, distancing herself from us. Misha strolled by my side, and I heard him chuckling.

“She’s happy now,” he said. “I’m glad you two came to a decision.”

I frowned, even though he probably couldn’t see in this light. Zhenya and I hadn’t come to any decision together. We hadn’t talked. We hadn’t discussed anything. I’d announced how I thought we should act from now on, and she’d seemingly agreed. That was it. Was that enough? How would she feel about… my actual decision? Should I tell Misha first?

I didn’t have a chance to get it out. Zhenya was rushing back to us, obviously excited by something.

“Look what I found!” she squealed, shoving something small forward. I leapt back at the sight of a sand crab, waving its pincers as menacingly as it could.

She giggled. “Are you afraid, Yuzu?”

“Things like that are why I don’t walk around barefoot,” I scowled.

“You’re missing out,” she grinned. She squatted down and released the tiny crab, and we watched as it scurried off. Standing up, she brushed the sand off her hands. “See, he’s gone. It’s safe to take off your shoes now, Yuzu.”

I scoffed. I had no intention of taking off my shoes. “No way. Besides, aren’t you cold?” The wind was still blowing her hair wildly around, her pant legs were rolled partially up, and Misha was holding her jacket along with her shoes.

“I’m from Russia,” she declared. “I never feel cold.”

I grinned at her. “Hontou ni?”

Hontou,” she replied in Japanese, returning the smile.

I don’t know what came over me, but the next thing I knew, I had grabbed her arm and was dragging her to the ocean’s edge with Misha following behind us, cackling. “What about this?” I yelled, throwing her into the water. “Is this cold?”

She screamed as the chilly water covered her feet, a wave lapping up against her legs. In retaliation, she kicked at the shore with all her might, sending a giant splash of water and sand back at me. I’d managed to get her in the water without getting wet myself, but now the front of my pants was soaked, not to mention my shoes.

“You didn’t just do that,” I gaped at her, attempting to sound furious. The moon’s light was bright enough that I could see her eyes dancing back at me.

“Want me to do it again to make sure?”

“Try it and you’re dead.” I seized her again, pretending to restrain her. She fought me, laughing as she sloshed more water onto me. I held onto her tighter, acting like I was going to throw her completely in.

“Yuzuru Hanyu!” she shrieked.

The next instant, a strong hand grasped my shoulder, yanking me away from her. “Guys.”

It was only when we’d separated that I realized what I was doing—what she’d done. Misha was stone faced, but his eyes weren’t on us. They were focused on something else. My stomach dropped to the ground. It was my worst nightmare.

Chapter Text

My pulse raced as the bright light from a camera hit me in the eyes. How had they found us? I felt the urge to run somewhere, but there was nowhere to go. And it was too late anyway. Even if there had been a question before about who we were, here in the darkness, Evgenia calling out my name like that would have removed all doubt. This had to be dealt with. I just didn’t know how. Why did this have to happen, now?

Misha started towards the group that stood only a short distance from us murmuring things I couldn’t quite hear. But I quickly caught his arm to stop him, shaking my head. Paparazzi wouldn’t likely speak English, not here. I had to go myself.

“Stay here,” I barked at Evgenia, and she nodded, understanding. Misha moved back beside her protectively, and I turned toward the small gathering, taking a deep breath.

Excited squeals rose up from their midst, and I froze. This wasn’t the paparazzi. They were fans. Was that better or worse? I blinked quickly as more phones pointed harsh lights at me, indistinguishable voices getting louder. I glanced around, hoping other beach visitors weren’t nearby. There was only one thing to do.

“Please,” I addressed them, putting my hands out. “Please stop. I’ll take photos with all of you. I’ll sign whatever you want me to sign. But you have to agree that you will not post anything online about this.”

After I heard a sufficient number of promises, I nodded, and on cue, the group surrounded me. Photo after photo was taken. They were mostly older women, and they were touching me, arms wrapping around my waist, hips shoving against mine. I tried not to flinch, but it was hard. I never did this. It was impossibly uncomfortable. But what else could I do? Distracted by my presence, they seemed to not even notice Zhenya and Misha hovering in the distant shadows. I didn’t know if I trusted their word about not sharing the photos, but it was a chance I had to take. Finally it was over, and they dispersed.

“I can’t believe you actually did that,” Misha said when the coast was clear and they came back to me.

I just stood there, numb, almost shell-shocked, a million things running through my head. “I have to go,” I eventually got out. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”

“Aren’t we staying at the same hotel starting tonight?” he called after me, but I was already leaving. I didn’t even look at Zhenya. I couldn’t.   

Back in my hotel room, I wrenched off my water-logged shoes. I sat there for a long moment, half-terrified to look. But I had to look. I pulled out my phone and did a search for myself. The longer I scrolled through posts, the more frenetic my scrolling got. Finally I assured myself that there was nothing to be found. So far, the world didn’t know of my ill-advised foray into public. There was nothing to add to the gossip. Not yet.

I flopped backwards on the bed. Being seen out in public was one thing. But being caught… with Evgenia. That would have been a disaster. I flung my arm over my face. What had I been thinking? I’d been caught up in the relief of things being peaceable between us, the freedom of knowing that she didn’t actually have feelings for me, and then I’d gone and done the same thing that had caused all that mess to begin with. I wanted to call it just joking around, but it was a little more than joking, wasn’t it? Why was it so easy to be that way with her? In the past, I’d always told myself it was because of my ego being fed by her attention. What guy wouldn’t be flattered by a pretty young girl being enamored with him? But now I knew she wasn’t. And I was still doing it. I’d even started it. Did knowing she didn’t feel that way about me make me want it more?

I shook my head. These were ridiculous thoughts right now. The fact of the matter was, it needed to stop. In public, of course, and apparently now even in private. Being around her made me forget what I needed to do. And I knew what I needed to do. I even knew exactly when it should happen. Day after tomorrow, after the show. I just had to get through the next two days without messing things up.

Apparently that was easier said than done.

(May 24, 2018 / Makuhari, Japan)

More than a few times during the rehearsal I felt her eyes following me. Maybe it would have been better if I’d at least greeted her when we’d stepped out onto the ice, but I didn’t know what to say. Surely she understood, after what I’d said and after what had happened, that it had to be like this now. Still, it felt weird chatting with everyone else, taking pictures and goofing off with all my other friends, and not with her. But there were cameras here. Johnny and the others were taking pictures. It wasn’t safe.

I stole another glance at her as the practice wrapped up. She’d looked cheerful and happy most of the other times I’d seen her that day, but this time her expression was a little sullen. I hated that.

She somehow left the rink without me noticing, and I wondered if that was the last I’d see of her until the show. But when I checked my phone a little while later, she had sent me a message.

A bunch of us are going down to the game room at 8 to play Wii. You should come.

I bit my lip. Games sounded fun, but…

I don’t think I can.

You can’t, or you won’t?

You know why I can’t.

A couple of minutes passed, and I found myself feeling a little anxious as to why she hadn’t replied. Then finally, my phone buzzed.

Is it because of yesterday? No one found out about that. Nothing’s different.

She didn’t get it. Everything’s different.

No, this is private. You said everything would be the same in private.

Misha said that, not me.

I closed my eyes. Maybe I’d replied too quickly. That sounded like I was saying we couldn’t be friends anymore, even in private.

She didn’t reply anymore, and I didn’t know what else to say. I spent the evening alone in my room, going over the new song I was skating to tomorrow. It would be a live performance, and I had to know my elements perfectly so that I could adapt to any changes the artist spontaneously made during our number. I got so absorbed in my work that I didn’t even notice my phone had buzzed. Multiple times.

It was after 10 p.m. when I finally quit, mental and physical fatigue reminding me to get some sleep. I checked my phone. There were a couple missed calls from Misha, and texts from both Javi and Zhenya. I checked Javi’s first—he was just giving me a hard time for not coming down to play Wii.

And then I read hers.

Why are you letting everyone control you?

I stood up with a sudden surge of emotion, glaring at my phone. The message had been sent hours after her last one. That meant she’d put thought into it. I huffed. Did she really know me that well, that she knew exactly what buttons of mine to push? She knew I wouldn’t like hearing that I was being controlled.

And she was wrong. I wasn’t being controlled. I was taking control. She just didn’t know that yet. But I was going to tell her. Right now.

Misha sounded startled when I called him. “What’s Evgenia’s room number?” I demanded as soon as he said hello.

“5308,” he said. “Why?”

I hung up before answering. I didn’t need to tell him why. Maybe he was a little too invested in how things were going between us, anyway. My head still hot, I marched out my door. Inside the elevator, I punched the number 5 harder than I needed to.

Her door opened a few inches almost as soon as I rapped on it.

“Carolina, I told you I can’t—” Her whisper cut off in the middle of her sentence, and her jaw dropped as soon as she realized I was not, in fact, Carolina. “What are you—”

“I don’t want to talk over text message,” I said.

“My mom is sleeping already,” she shook her head. No wonder she hadn’t opened the door all the way. I’d forgotten her mother would have traveled with her.

“Then come out.”

She paused for a moment, avoiding my eyes. “No.”

“What?” I squinted at her.

“You wouldn’t come out when I asked you to. So I won’t come out either.”

I rolled my eyes. Seriously? This girl knew how to play her cards, and it was maddening. “I need to tell you something.”

“You didn’t listen to me when I had something to tell you.”

I breathed out, exasperated. “Zhenya.”

“Good night, Yuzu,” she whispered with finality, and started to close the door. Without thinking, I reached forward through the door, grabbing her arm and pulling her out into the hallway. And then I suddenly let go of her, my heartrate involuntarily skyrocketing as I looked at her. She was wearing nothing but a skin-tight black tank top and tiny shorts, and her hair was pulled back loosely, leaving the creamy white skin of her neck and shoulders exposed. You’d think I’d be used to seeing that much, what with the kinds of things some girls wore out on the ice, but out here in the empty hotel hallway, it looked different. Completely different.

My face must have betrayed me. Flustered, she ripped the elastic out of her hair, letting her curls fall down, but that didn’t help. She probably looked even prettier that way. I had to do something about this. I quickly pulled off my jacket, averting my eyes as I handed it to her. When I ventured to glance back, she was wearing it. There, that was better.

But we couldn’t talk out here.

“Come on,” I said, motioning with my head towards the end of the hall. She looked up at me, her cheeks that now-familiar shade of pink. And then I visibly saw her dig her feet into the ground.

Our eyes locked, steel meeting steel, for an intense moment. And then she blinked. That was the break I needed to reach down and grab her by the hand. Her legs protested at first, but I dragged her down the hallway anyway, all the way to the end. I pulled her with me into the stairwell.

It was darker than I’d imagined it would be in here. Something about the dim, yellowish light reminded me of the corridors beneath the rink in Korea. Just like then, I was about to push her away from me. But this time, I wanted to make sure we both understood why.

She twisted her hand out of mine, and I flushed. I hadn’t realized I was still holding it. She backed away from me before speaking. “Okay, I’m here. What do you need to say?”

I stared at her for a long second, swallowing. Maybe I should have done this over text message after all. Even in the darkness, I could see her large brown eyes searching mine. As expressive as she was able to be on the ice during a performance, she was just as capable of concealing her true emotions. Her eyes had incredible depth right now, and they were drawing—more like, sucking—me into them. I wanted to know what that look meant. But I couldn’t tell.

“Well?” she prompted.

I ripped my eyes away from hers. “I’m planning to address the situation about the tabloids tomorrow.” There, I said it. I glanced back briefly to gauge her response.

Her brow was furrowed. “What…tabloids?”

I closed my eyes. She didn’t know. I withdrew my phone from my pocket, pulling up a photo my agent had sent me of us on the cover of a weekly trash magazine. She looked at it and then back at me.

“I can’t read what that says.”

Part of me had a random urge to tease her about her earlier claim of being able to read Japanese, but that was impossible now. This was serious. I took a deep breath.

“It says you’re chasing me to Toronto. Some of them say we’re already dating.” I paused. “They’re saying the only reason you’re coming is because you’re after me.”

She backed further into the corner away from me, and then she shrugged. “I’ve seen things just as bad on my Instagram.”

“This isn’t the same as Instagram, Zhenya.”

She narrowed her eyes.

“These things are everywhere. Millions of people will see—probably already have. That’s a lot more than whoever reads your Instagram comments. And being on tour together, right now—it’s going to…” I paused, looking for the right word. “It’s going to escalate if I don’t say something now.”

“Escalate into what?”

“You don’t want to know.”

She swallowed. “Look, I don’t like hearing things like that either. But aren’t you overreacting? Things that aren’t true just go away eventually. It can’t get that bad.”

My shoulders fell, and I stepped closer to her. How could I make her understand? How could I make her see I was doing this for her? To protect her from how awful it would get?

“It can get that bad, and it will. It’s happened before. And people are crazy right now, they have been ever since the Olympics. Even more than I expected. You have no idea how much I’m being watched. Fans notice everything about me—the clothes I wear, the music I’m listening to. Every interaction is analyzed. Hosts and reporters apologize for even touching me because they’re afraid of backlash from fans.” I was surprising myself with how easily the words were coming to me in English. I hadn’t planned to say all this, but it was just spilling out. “Not everything is better in Japan, Zhenya.”

Her eyes dropped. Did she believe me now? Finally she looked back up at me. “I understand. That kind of public pressure must be overwhelming.” Her voice was low and controlled, her words clear and almost stoic. But she understood. And then I felt a little sick to my stomach. That meant the separation would start now.

And then suddenly she leaned forward, her expression totally changing. All at once I could read her eyes and they were pleading. “But why does that have to affect your personal life? What about how things are in private? Why can’t we still—“

She stopped herself, and it killed me.

“I’ve thought about it a lot. It can’t be any other way. I… don’t know how to be two different people.”

She stared at me.

“The Hanyu Yuzuru I am in public is the same person I am in private. There’s not… some parallel universe that I can exist in, separate from what’s really happening. I’m the same, here or there.”

She shook her head, her forehead wrinkled. “You know that’s not true,” she said, and her tone was slightly sharper. “We see a side of you no one else sees.”

I did let my guard down with certain people. But even that had been well documented. Someone was always watching. Just like last night. “Just believe me for once, Zhenya. I can’t just allow myself to do what I want, whenever I want. I can’t be seen with just anyone. I can’t just touch anyone.”

“Yes, you can.”

I glared at her. “No. I can’t.” We were arguing again.

She hesitated, and then her dark eyes looked up at me, sparking with fire.

“You could if you wanted to.” She was challenging me. Instantly I felt the temperature in my body rising several degrees higher, again. A challenge was something almost irresistible to me, and this one was striking an especially sensitive nerve. She wanted me to break out of my chains, did she? I could do that. I could do it right now.

"Like this?" I shot back. I took one step toward her, and then my arm went impulsively around her waist. It was sudden and surreal, to touch her this way, but once I'd done it there was no turning back. She felt good underneath my grip, and I pulled her closer. The line I just crossed shocked her as much as it did me, and her eyes widened as her rose-colored lips parted with a little gasp. The sound of it echoing against the concrete walls surrounding us sent an electric current through me, and all I could do was stare at her mouth. I had never seen anything so tempting.

I gave in. I kissed her.

I was three whole seconds into the kiss before I realized my other hand was knotted into her hair. What was going on? As stupid as it sounded, I had thought I was kissing her to prove a point, but now I suddenly realized my heart was pounding and my lips were pressing deeper, more intently, into hers. I ... liked this. A wave of heat coursed down my body at the recognition, my senses heightening even more. Her mouth was warm and wet and soft, and I slowly became aware that her whole body was trembling in my arms. Did she like this, too? I didn't dare separate my lips from hers, but I half-opened my eyes to catch a glimpse of her face. Through the blur of my own eyelashes, I could see that her eyes were still closed. She was beautiful like this. 

And then I realized her cheeks were glistening. My hand unwound from her hair, and the ends of my fingertips brushed her skin. I broke away abruptly, another shiver running through me. Those were tears.

Her eyes opened slowly, and they were as red as her lips were now. "Not like that, Yuzu," she whispered.

I stared at her, trying to comprehend what she was feeling at the same time as suppressing my own desire for more of whatever that was. “What do you mean?”

“You were right. Something like that could only ever happen in an alternate reality.”

I staggered backwards. She hadn’t wanted that. It was wrong. Of course it was. It was the opposite of everything I’d just said. Completely opposite.

She let out a breath and then brushed past me, out the door. I couldn’t gather myself together fast enough to stop her. What could I even say after that anyway? I wasn’t even sure what had just happened. And I sure as hell didn’t know what to do now.

Somehow I found my way back to my room. Once inside, I shut the door behind me, slumping onto the floor, my eyes wide. My fingers reached up and traced my lips, and then my hand fell with a thud. I’d just kissed my friend. How could I have done such a thing? How could I have felt…? No. It was just because I hadn’t kissed a girl since high school. Or had it been longer than that? Whatever. It was just because it felt new again and… different this time. It was just because I was older now. Yes. That was it. I leaned my head back against the door, closing my eyes.

That was a mistake. The kiss replayed in my head, the memory of us together in that dark stairway intoxicating my brain and flooding me with the same physical reactions. I forced my eyes open. No. I stood up, stumbling over to the mirror that hung over the desk in my room. In my reflection, I saw my eyes darkening, clouding over as I fought to get ahold of my emotions. I still had to follow through with my plan, no matter what had just happened. No matter how much I liked kissing Evgenia Medvedeva.

Chapter Text

(May 25, 2018 / Fantasy on Ice Day 1 - Makuhari, Japan)

I stepped off the ice after the opening number of the show, sweat dripping down my back, my heart beating fast with both the effort I’d just given and the excitement of being out on the ice, in sync with everyone else for the group skate, listening to the roar of the audience in my ears.

A blur of black and white passed by me quickly. It could have been any of the girls, dressed that way, but it wasn’t any of the other girls. There were two types of girls on tours. The girls I’d known forever, who treated me like any other skater—they would have said hello or “good job” as they breezed by, or maybe just given me a quick high five. The other girls, the young, shy ones who saw me for the medals I’d won—they would have walked a little slower as they passed, trying to peek at me out of the corner of their eyes. Evgenia had been both of those girls, at one time or another in our history of knowing each other, but now she was neither of them.

I didn’t see her again until she entered the side wings of the entrance to the ice. At that moment, I was thoroughly caught up in the audience going crazy at Evgeni Plushenko’s tango. His ability to work the crowd like that was something I always marveled at, something I aspired to. I wasn’t enthralled in the same way the women in the stands were, but it was always hard to take my eyes off the scene when it was going on. But somewhere in the middle of the program, I sensed someone standing behind me. I didn’t have to think twice before turning around.

Her head immediately dropped like I’d caught her staring, and then she looked out, beyond me, to the ice. She was dressed for her performance now, although in these blue lights it was hard to see what she really looked like. But I could tell she was shivering a little. I bit my lip. I thought she was never cold.

I took a quick glance around to see if anyone was paying attention. Of course they weren’t—they were too busy laughing at Plu-san’s antics. But Zhenya’s face was tight-lipped and drawn. She wasn’t watching him. I knew it.

“Hey,” I ventured.

Her eyes turned to mine. They were unreadable again.

I stepped closer to her. Her gaze immediately dropped to the floor again, and she might have even taken a step back. Taking a deep breath, I moved closer to her again. Not too close—but close enough to make sure she heard me.

“I’m sorry,” I said. It was soft, but it was loud enough. She looked up at me, and this time it was my turn to look away. What those same eyes had looked like last night flashed briefly in front of me, but I willed the image away before it could elicit any reaction.

Just then the crowd roared, and Zhenya raised her voice to be heard. “It’s fine,” she said. I looked back at her, hoping I’d heard her right. “It’s okay,” she said again. “Let’s just forget about it.” She looked past me to the ice again, and then nodded at the stage director. “I’m next.”

I stepped out of her path as she made her way to the front of the small group, a smile covering her face as others began to take note of her presence. Was it really fine for her? How could it really be okay? I shook my head. They couldn’t be. What I’d said last night hadn’t changed—in fact, it was even more solidified. Things would never be the same between us.   

Plu-san was taking his time bowing to the audience, and the longer Evgenia stood there waiting, the more I saw her back and shoulders stiffen. Why was I watching her so closely? I turned away. I had to stop looking at her like that.

But then the lights dimmed, and she stepped out onto the ice, and I told myself that I could watch her performance. There was nothing wrong with that. I watched lots of the performances. I turned back just in time to see her drop something dark on the ice and move into her beginning pose. My curiosity reminded me that I’d purposely not watched her rehearsal yesterday. I had no idea what was coming.

The music started, and half a second later, the spotlights flooded her small form on the ice. It was a small form that she had, and occasionally other girls of her stature looked like they would be swallowed up by the white expanse of the ice. But somehow, Evgenia instantaneously commanded the attention of the entire arena—my entire attention. She always did that, didn’t she?

The music was haunting, although not in the same way Kukushka had been. But just like that performance, Zhenya was putting everything out there again, her entire body immediately invested in every single note, telling the story of Experience. The black feather she’d dropped was now in her hands, and she used it to draw something in the air. What she was drawing, I couldn’t make out, but it didn’t matter. The look on her face was already giving me goosebumps. Her hair pulled back, her dark red dress wrapping around her slender figure, her lipstick the perfect shade to complement her expressive mouth—she was even prettier than last night. No, not necessarily prettier. But this was… somehow… different. What was it?

And then she was dancing across the ice, floating with the notes, gliding fluidly over the surface, and then suddenly I realized what I was watching—what it was. This was not the young girl I’d always watched skating out there. Evgenia had suddenly, mysteriously, miraculously transformed into a woman. When had that happened, exactly? I felt my entire body tense, followed by the feeling that I should look away, but I couldn’t. Once again, she was magnetic and enchanting and spellbinding to me, her spins and jumps catching my breath and making me hold it. The music intensified, and with it, her interpretation. Something was happening. What was this story? Was it about her injury? Her loss at the Olympics? The hate from the last few months? There was agony. A fight. A… slap to the face. She was holding the feather pen again, crossing out her drawing—no, erasing it entirely. The feather dropped, and my stomach followed it to the floor. These were a different kind of goosebumps. Her face broken, Zhenya dropped her hands as the lights went off.

The audience roared their approval as the lights came back on. Zhenya lifted her arms and smiled, but I could see something wasn’t right. She turned away from the audience for only a second, but in that second, I saw her cover her mouth. Was she…? Just then, a sound caught my attention, and I suddenly looked around me. More than a couple of the athletes around me were dabbing at their eyes. So we’d all been moved by that. It wasn’t just me.

She was immediately enveloped by other skaters as soon as she made her way back into our area, and I retreated into the shadows. Something about the rawness of her performance was still gripping me, and if I had struggled to face her before, I certainly couldn’t say anything to her now.

I expected her to leave after that, to go change into her next outfit or something, but she didn’t. It was Stephane’s number next. I’d missed this one at rehearsal, too, and wanted to see it, but I was hesitant to step out of the darkness, in case moving would alert her to my presence. So I just stood there, and listened.

You've got the words to change a nation
But you're biting your tongue
You've spent a lifetime stuck in silence
Afraid you'll say something wrong

I frowned. These lyrics were a little unsettling. And why did Evgenia seem so especially intrigued by them? From where I was standing, I could see the side of her face, illuminated by the soft orange glow of Stephane’s accent lighting. Her lips were parted, her eyes focused on him. I wished I could see what he was doing. But all I could see was her.

You've got a heart as loud as lions
So why let your voice be tamed?
Maybe we're a little different
There's no need to be ashamed
You've got the light to fight the shadows
So stop hiding it away

And then she turned toward me. My heartbeat quickened. She’d known I was here this whole time? The words were echoing through the arena above our heads, but somehow, the way her eyes were penetrating into me right now, it was like her eyes were speaking them to me.

So put it in all of the papers,
I'm not afraid
They can read all about it
Read all about it, oh

Mouth dry, I tried to break eye contact with her, but just like the invisible power that had drawn me to her performance on the ice, I couldn’t. What was she trying to say right now? She finally looked back to the ice, and I was able to breathe again, but the music kept pounding the message back into my brain.

Yeah, we're all wonderful, wonderful people
So when did we all get so fearful?
And now we're finally finding our voices
Just take a chance, come help me sing this
I wanna sing, I wanna shout
I wanna scream 'til the words dry out
So put it in all of the papers,
I'm not afraid
They can read all about it

I left the waiting area. I could have waited until the intermission, but I had to get out of there. My head spun as soon as I stepped into the brighter hallway, and I squinted my eyes to let them adjust. Why had she been looking at me like that, like I was supposed to understand those words a certain way? Was she telling me not to be afraid of the tabloids? Or was she saying she understood that I had to address the rumors? I felt more lost, more confused than ever. I didn’t have much time left to waver on this. What am I supposed to do, Zhenya?

I stayed inside the lower concourse for most of the other performances, missing Zhenya’s second skate, and even Plu-san’s Nijinsky that I loved.  

It seemed like it was forever until it was my turn to skate. I was grateful that the number we’d picked was an upbeat song. After Evgenia’s number reducing everyone to tears and that unnerving song making me question everything again, I couldn’t skate to something emotional myself right now. I’d just go out there and enjoy the song, and…

I know I’m wrong when I comfort you,
But your tear-filled face is too beautiful and I can't help it.
We became just a bit closer than friends,
And you were my beloved treasure.

Kuso, even my own song was getting to me. A tear-filled face so beautiful that I couldn’t help… what I’d done last night? Thank goodness Evgenia didn’t understand Japanese. This was a mess. How come I’d never paid attention to these words before? I thought it was just the opening to an anime I’d liked ages ago, and now… why was everything that met my ears suddenly relating to my life?

Ignore the words, Yuzuru. Concentrate on your footwork. Focus on the choreography. I immersed myself in the sound alone, and for a while it worked.

And then I jumped a triple axel, and for a second, my body felt weightless. The incredible feeling of effortlessness was something that only ever happened when I’d done everything perfectly in the jump, and the only way to describe it was that it was like flying. For those few split seconds, it felt like I had wings. The words came pouring back into my ears, striking my heart as firmly as my feet making the landing and echoing through my body as loudly as the crowd erupting around me.

Though I cannot fly to the skies,
I can give you my wings.

Wings had always been a powerful visual for me, but this time, instead of myself, I saw Evgenia. Right now, she was a fledgling bird, learning to fly on her own for the first time. Despite the struggle, she kept spreading her wings, trying to take flight. It was that determination that I admired that more than anything about her—in fact, maybe that’s what kept drawing me to her. But how far could her sheer willpower take her? Zhenya could put on a nice face so easily, convincing everyone she had already successfully overcome club drama and federation politics and her entire nation’s criticism, but deep inside, I’d always known she wasn’t made out of rock. If I’d had any doubt, nothing could have convinced me more clearly than her Experience performance just now. Whether or not she was playing a part, she knew those feelings she was portraying. Somewhere inside her there was anguish tearing her apart. And whether or not she wanted to believe me, more anguish would come, from a different place, for a different reason. And the weight of that might be so much that she would never fly.

No. I could never let our relationship be the reason she fell to the ground.

Though I cannot fly to the skies, I do have wings.
That's your whispered password for me,
When our eyes met each other unexpectedly.
Someday the realist will return to the boy,
When that happens, what will my dream for you be like?

For some reason, we were born with each other's wings. \
In order to face the future,
You know love has a gift
The Wings of Words...

I had to do it. It was my only way to give her the thing we both needed as much as we needed to breathe—the freedom to follow our dreams. I had the power to do this. With my words. With my words, I would make sure she would never have to face the crushing burden of hate.

And so, a few more finale performances and a lot of bowing later, I found myself standing in front of two video cameras and a reporter, a microphone hovering close to my mouth. All the questions were about what jumps I could land now, what songs I would skate to next season. These kind of reporters were respectful. I knew they wouldn’t ask. I would just have to come out and say it.

I thought about the words I’d planned back at home. Something about nothing going on between us. Back then, that had been true. Now…? No, it was still true, as far as the public needed to be concerned. Maybe something had happened, but nothing would go on in the future. Still, how could I say address it honestly?

I could sense that the interview was wrapping up. I had to think of the right words, now. And then it was over, and I heard myself giving my customary thanks. The cameras turned off. Now was the time. I paused, but only enough to make it clear that I had something to say. I saw the reporter’s eyebrow raise, and he hurriedly fumbled for his notebook.

“There have been some weird reports, but I’m not involved,” I suddenly got the sentence out. “Actually I was shocked.”

As soon as I said it, it felt like someone had poured ice water through my bloodstream. I hadn’t even said her name, but it suddenly felt like I had permanently driven what could be the final nail into the coffin of our friendship. Why did it have to be like this?

Movement to my left caught my attention. To my horror, there was a gathering of skaters at the end of the hallway. They were all taking pictures and talking amongst themselves—all, except for Zhenya. She was looking at me. She knew what I was doing. She’d hear about this, one way or another.

Am I so awful that you don’t want to be associated with me at all? Her voice echoed in my head.

I had to say something else. Something so she would remember that this wasn’t because I hated her. Suddenly, I knew the right words.

“I thought it was about a Hanyu Yuzuru from another world.”

You’ll understand what I’m saying, won’t you, Zhenya? Just like you said. In another world, it wouldn’t be like this. I don’t know what it would be like, but it wouldn’t be like this.

The reporters stared at me, a little dumbfounded, and I gave them an uncommonly plastic smile before turning and walking away. I was halfway down the hallway when I heard steps fast approaching behind me. Something about the way they sounded made me stop in my tracks. I turned. It was her. My heart raced for a brief second, until I realized she wasn’t looking at me, her eyes set straight ahead. She was probably just heading for the dressing rooms around the corner like I was. And then I looked at her eyes again, and my stomach somersaulted for what was probably the fifteenth time today. They were burning with intensity, like they had been lit on actual fire. I stepped out of her way, wondering if she could even see me like that.

And then, as if in slow motion, she turned towards me, and her smoldering eyes darkened. I opened my mouth, but before I could even think of something to say, I felt something slam into my chest, hard. I coughed in surprise, and looked down. And then my stomach turned over again. It was my jacket.

Her face and eyes turned straight ahead again, and she kept on walking, without saying a word. I felt like throwing up. Her back disappeared around the corner, and I slumped backward against the wall, staring down at my jacket. Couldn’t she just have kept it? The only thing I’d ever be able to think about when I looked at it was what she had looked like wearing it, how warm she had seemed when my hand had slipped underneath it to pull her body close to mine. What it had felt like to kiss her. And how that could never happen again.

I stood up straighter. What was done was done. I had to suck it up and move on now. With time, those silly physical feelings I’d had would fade. And if all went according to plan, the rumors would end with my statement, and never again would anyone bring up a romantic interest between me and Evgenia.

I nodded as if to reassure myself and started to head to the dressing room to change. But I stopped before I could even turn the corner. Zhenya was talking to someone. Was that Rika?

“I can’t believe you choreographed that yourself!” she was exclaiming. I frowned. Were they talking about Experience? I had assumed one of her old choreographers had created it for her before she’d left. That had all been Zhenya? I was suddenly impressed… and unnerved.

“Thank you. It was very personal to me,” I heard her voice in reply.

“It’s okay if you can’t say, but…what was it about?” Rika ventured.

Zhenya laughed, but I couldn’t help but notice that it sounded a little strained.

“Was it about the Olympics?”

I couldn’t stop listening. I wanted to know, too.

“It was about a lot of things, but… it was actually more about a relationship.”

Suddenly images of her fighting with the air, pounding on an imaginary door, reeling from a figurative slap to her face filled my brain again. A… relationship? What relationship? My face felt hot, and then I immediately shook my head. Stop it, Yuzu. I wouldn’t be so delusional this time to believe that it could possibly be about me. Kukushka hadn’t actually been about me. Neither was this. It must be something that happened with Alina, or Eteri, maybe even one of her parents.

“Was it your coach?” Rika whispered.

“Ah, no. It doesn’t have anything to do with sports.”

There was my stomach again. And there was her voice again, making me reach for the wall to keep standing upright.

“It’s… about romance.”

Chapter Text

(May 26, 2018 / Fantasy on Ice Day 2 - Makuhari, Japan)

 

“You’re a jerk, Yuzuru.”

I looked up from my bowl of rice and eggs sullenly. “Good morning to you, too, Javi.”

“So you don’t deny being a jerk.” My Spanish training mate plopped his breakfast tray down across from me. I usually ate breakfast alone. Javi knew that. Today, he didn’t seem to care about my preferences.

“She knew what I was going to say. I told her ahead of time.”

Javi shook his head. “That doesn’t mean it hurts her any less.”

“I know.” It was only the lesser of two evils.

“Why are you doing this, Yuzu? Why are you so afraid?”

I took a deep breath, trying hard not to bristle at his accusation. “I’m not afraid for myself, I’m afraid for her. You should know more than anyone what can happen with the media.”

“I wasn’t talking about the media. I meant your feelings.”

My eyes shot to his. “What?”

“Why are you so afraid to admit you have feelings for her?”

I choked on my food, simultaneously looking around to see if anyone had heard that. “I don’t have… feelings… for her. She’s just a friend.” A friend I happened to kiss. Randomly. For no reason.

Javi scoffed. “You don’t look at other girls the way you look at her, Yuzuru.”

I could feel the heat rising in my neck. Did I really look at her a certain way? A… different way? Since when? I cleared my throat. “That’s because I don’t look at other girls at all. I’ve never been… passionate… about women the way you are, Javi.”

He let out a laugh. “That’s because you never found the right one. Until now.”

I scowled, irritated. I used to envy Javi’s ability to create close friendships, to be so open with others. But that wasn’t who I was. I didn’t let people see my inner thoughts, not even Javi. But here he was, acting like he knew what I was feeling. He had no idea what I was feeling.

“You’re going to lose her if you keep this up. You know that, right?”

“She was never mine to lose,” I blurted out suddenly. I glanced around again, and lowered my voice. “She doesn’t have feelings for me, either, Javi.”

Javi rolled his eyes. “That’s what you think.”

A wave of frustration hit me. I rose hastily to my feet, gripping the table as I leaned forward to look at him pointedly. “No. That’s what I know.”

All I could see were Zhenya’s tears trickling down her cheek after I kissed her. Maybe it was vain of me to think so, but I knew very well that plenty of other girls would have been thrilled if I’d done that. But Zhenya had been the opposite of thrilled. That was not a reaction of a girl who wanted to be kissed. Of a girl who actually liked me. And it had confirmed what I’d been realizing all along—that despite her jokes and smiles, Zhenya was not merely a fangirl of mine. From the decisions she was making in her career to the way she argued with me and challenged me, she was proving that she was strong and independent with no need of a guy disrupting her focus.

“You’re very difficult, Yuzu.”

My breathing stopped momentarily. Those words sounded familiar. And then I remembered. That’s what she’d said, too. Flustered, I whirled around and left him and my breakfast at the table, heading back to my room.  

I didn’t make it very far. Evgenia was in the lobby, with Misha, and as soon as my eyes fell on her, my feet halted involuntarily. She was dressed in loose fitting sweatpants and a casual hoodie, but underneath the hoodie I could see she was wearing a cropped top that showed off her toned stomach muscles. I kicked myself mentally for looking. I couldn’t let Javi be right about that. Evgenia was a pretty girl, no one would dispute that. So what if I happened to glance for a moment at a pretty girl? It didn’t mean I liked her.

But didn’t kissing her mean I liked her?

I shook away the question, propelling my feet forward. But that caught both of their attention. Misha’s body turned towards mine, but Evgenia—Evgenia’s eyes darted away, her back stiffening.

“Yuzu,” Misha called me over, and at my name, I saw her eyelashes flicker. Everything about her body language was telling me to stay away.

“Sorry, I have to be somewhere right now,” I lied. “I’ll catch you guys later.”

Misha glanced between the two of us, and his shoulders dropped. I sensed what he was thinking. We’re broken up. It felt awful to me, too. I had to go.

It took a while for someone to answer my admittedly impatient knocking at the athlete’s entrance to the rink. The guard who finally answered looked surprised when he recognized me. He eyed my equipment bag. “I’m sorry. I thought practice wasn’t until later.”

“It is. But I need the ice for a little while now,” I said.

He nodded and let me in. “I’ll call someone to turn everything on,” he said as I hurried past him.

“It’s fine,” I dismissed him. “I know where the lights are.” I’d only practically lived at rinks for as long as I could remember. Everything was always in the same general area.

The ice was colder than yesterday when I stepped out onto the surface, no body heat in the empty arena present to warm it. I liked cold ice, and the sound that my blades made carving new lines into its smoothness was familiar and comforting. In a few minutes, I had worked up a sweat, my breath slightly visible in the chilly air and the dim lights. Time to do the real work now.

But after a while, triples weren’t satisfying me anymore, not even the axel. I knew I could do more. The doctors and therapists told me not to risk it yet, and so far, I’d listened to them, afraid of an injury before the season even started. Afraid. It was a legitimate fear, after what had happened last season. But it was still fear. No. I wasn’t going to be afraid anymore, not of this. I could do this. I could do a quad, I could feel it. As soon as the thought hit me, I was already flying across the ice. I launched into a quad toe loop—and promptly fell on the under rotation. A little bit of panic shot through me as I crashed into the ice, but as soon as I realized I was fine, it was quickly replaced by a feeling of annoyance. I was better than that. I picked myself up. Again and again, I recklessly attempted the jump.

I fell, popped, and stepped out more times than I could count. But something inside me drove me to keep going, and the more I did it, the more my fear of injury dissipated. I was going to land this jump. I knew I could.

And then it happened. My leg swung around, and in perfect rhythm, my toe struck the ice, skyrocketing me into the air. One, two, three… four rotations---and then impact.

It wasn’t beautiful—not yet—but it was clean. It was enough.

I crumpled onto the ice in exhaustion, the freezing cold seeping into my overheated body as I sprawled out nearly face down. Almost immediately I was filled with a sense of gratefulness to the ice, grateful that it gave me what I needed today, grateful for what it always did for me. My arm under my head, I rolled onto my side, eye level with the ice.

I swallowed. From here, I could see ugly holes in the ice all around me, irregular shaped marks where my blade had gashed the ice for the jump, over and over. For some reason, even looking at it made me sick to my stomach. Something that had done so much for me—and I’d damaged it that way.

“Hanyu-senshu,” gasped the flustered staff member I grabbed in the hallway moments later.

“I need snow.”

“Snow?” she stammered.

“For the ice,” I elaborated. “I need to fix it.”

---

It wasn’t just the separation between us that made things feel so different tonight at the arena. It seemed like everything about Evgenia had changed by the time she took the ice for Experience--her hair swept up in a way I’d never seen before, her makeup more flawless than ever. Even more than that, she’d somehow found the time to alter her dress, the sleeves having been cut off to reveal her long, graceful arms. I turned away, unwilling to allow myself to watch. Every time I looked at her, something changed inside of me, too, and I wasn’t ready to acknowledge what that was.

But halfway through the program, I lost my resolve. I turned back to the ice, and in front of me Zhenya floated by, exquisite as a dream. Had she ever been more beautiful than in that moment? She reached out her hand—and suddenly I saw myself on the ice, reaching back out to her. She was pulling me in, step by step, into her world, and I no longer felt like resisting her. I swallowed, my eyes locked on her. These feelings I was having—they were unfamiliar and unnerving, but just the same as when I kissed her, I liked them. I liked—I liked—

The climax of the performance abruptly broke into my dream, startling and shocking me, even though I’d seen the exact same thing the night before. It was the fight, the struggle. Tonight, I was powerless to deny anything about what I was seeing. Yes, Evgenia was strong and independent, but that was when it came to skating, to her career. Despite the fact that she was an athlete of international acclaim, Evgenia was still a girl, a woman, with feelings, and she was showing them to the entire audience right now—to me. And I couldn’t keep rationalizing this away. I had to admit that this could be—no, this had to be—about us. After all we’d been through together, the way I’d treated her had been like a slap in the face, and as hard as she’d continually tried to break down my barriers, she’d been unsuccessful. She drew the X in the air, then erased it, and something inside me started shattering. She was giving up now, wasn’t she?

Why wouldn’t she? To her, I’d closed the doors. Practically slammed them. Her hands trembled as the lights dimmed, and it killed me. What had I done? What had I been thinking? How could I have done this to her?

The lights came on. Maybe the audience couldn't see it, but from where I was standing, it was all too obvious. Last night, I'd wondered what I'd seen, but now I knew. She was crying.

Because of me.

She came off the ice, and I saw Misha go to her, try to put his arms around her. She brushed him away gently, shaking her head and refusing to meet his eyes.

“I'm fine,” she said softly.

She was not fine. Was she ever fine when she said she was?

She rushed out, but even in the darkness I could see her whole body was shaking now. I stood there for a moment, an internal battle going on inside my head. Finally I looked up. When I did, Misha was standing in front of me.

It was as if he knew exactly what I was thinking.

"Go."

I didn't need any more prodding. I instantly turned on my heel, rushing out of the waiting area, bursting through the curtains. My eyes stung in the bright light, but I couldn't have cared less as I swung my head left to right, looking for any sign of her. How could she have disappeared that fast?

The dressing room. She must be changing.

Seconds later, I was at the door to the ladies’ dressing room. Why was I pounding on the door like this? The girls that answered gaped at me.

“Is Evgenia in there?” I craned my neck to see inside, and I heard a couple of shrieks from girls trying to get out of my line of sight. I stepped back, embarrassed at my lack of propriety.

“She’s not in here.” I recognized Satoko’s voice as she came to the crack in the doorway. Her eyes looked me up and down, and I felt criticized. “Why are you looking for her?”

I stared at her. How could I answer that question? I suddenly had the sense that everyone was acutely aware of what was going on between me and Zhenya—everyone from Javi to Misha to even all these girls standing here right now. I couldn’t answer her. Partly because I didn’t want people knowing even more about our business, and partly because I was still struggling to admit it to myself.

It’s because I hate seeing her crying like that. Because I hate feeling this separation between us. Because I miss her.

Because I need to fix this.

Satoko pursed her lips at my silence.

“Well?”

“It’s complicated,” I finally said.

She sighed. “Check the hallway on the other side of the ice entrance. I saw her head that way after her number.”

Arigato,” I threw over my shoulder as I took off again. I didn’t care if she was judging me right now. All I knew was that I had to get to Zhenya, scared as I was of what I might find. In my mind, I imagined what she would look like, crumpled in a heap on the ground, sobbing alone. I’d never really seen any girl cry like that, much less Zhenya, much less because of something I’d done. What could I do to console her? Would she let me hold her in my arms again? Would she forgive me if I told her I’d made a mistake? Would she listen if I promised to fix this, to make everything better for us in time? Would she—

I stopped in my tracks. I was already at the corner of the hallway, and I could hear something. It was her. But it wasn’t crying. It was… giggling.

My stomach dropped to the floor, my head spinning. Was I too late? Was someone else already comforting her? I listened as hard as I could despite the blood rushing through my ears. But there was no other voice to clue me in as to who was with her, just a couple more suppressed laughs from Evgenia. The suspense was destroying me. What was going on? I closed my eyes, pressing my back against the cold concrete wall. It felt weird and wrong to contemplate practically spying on her, but I had to know. I opened my eyes, and then slowly, carefully peered around the corner for a split second before rushing back to my place against the wall.

She was alone. What? I needed a second look. This time, I saw her more clearly. She was completely unaware of my presence—completely absorbed in… her phone.

I swallowed again. Was she… texting someone?

Just then the phone buzzed in her hand, and I jumped back out of sight as she looked up. It was a phone call. Around the corner, I heard her voice.

“I can’t believe you actually called.”

Chapter Text

It wasn’t until she said the next sentence that I realized she was speaking in Russian. I’d spent a good amount of time studying Russian, for sure, but it surprised me how easily I’d understood what she’d said. Maybe it was because her tone had said all the things I didn’t need to translate. The giggle, the pleasant surprise at the phone call… it wasn’t her grandmother she was speaking to.

My brain did a weird thing where it went into overdrive and simultaneously stopped working. I could no longer understand a word of what she was saying, and at the same time, my own thoughts were jumping to conclusions faster than I could take off into a triple axel. It was a guy she was talking to. A Russian guy. It had to be. Was this the guy she was having her “romance” with, instead? Was I completely wrong about the meaning of her skate… again? I couldn't believe I had let myself fall into the same exact trap as before. But at the same time, it didn't make sense. Did nothing actually have to do with us at all? Was it possible that none of the recent events had actually impacted her as much as they had me? Well, it was possible. She had been crying only moments before, and now she was here, laughing and talking to someone. Someone else.

I suddenly realized that I was breathing heavily, and my stomach felt like it was tied into knots. I looked down, trying to shake off the feeling like it was pre-competition nerves or something. So Zhenya was talking to another guy. So what. What difference did it make?

“You okay there, Yuzu?”

My head shot up at the sound of my name, said in an unmistakably familiar Spanish accent. Javi. Of all the times for someone to call me out.

“I’m fine,” I said as quickly and as quietly as possible, moving away from the wall and turning my back to the corner. Evgenia couldn’t find out I’d been eavesdropping, not now.  

“You don’t look—“

Shut. Up,” I yelled at him hoarsely, grabbing him by the arm and swinging him around the other direction.

Javi wrestled his arm out of my grip. “What the heck is wrong with you, Yuzu?”

“Nothing,” I said emphatically. “Nothing.”

Just then, another laugh floated around the corner, meeting our ears. He looked over his shoulder back where I’d been standing, and my eyes dropped. There was no need to pretend—he knew that laugh as well as I did. When I dared to look back up, Javi was wagging his head at me with judging eyes.

I couldn’t take it anymore. I stormed off, down the hallway, back into the wings of the arena. But instead of going to the ice, where everyone else was, I ducked beneath the curtains, slipping into the darkness underneath the back side of the stands. I sat down next to one of the heavy support beams. Why did Javi have to show up right then? Why did he have to look at me like that? I knew what he was thinking, that what he’d accused me of this morning was true.

It wasn’t true. It wasn’t.

For one, I didn’t have time for feelings. What I’d said to Evgenia back in Korea was true—I had lots of things ahead of me for next season—two new programs that I wanted to put my entire heart and soul into, an inevitable new set of rules I would have to learn and adapt to, and certainly not least on the list, the quadruple axel that I absolutely had to be the first to land in competition. The time and energy needed to accomplish my goals would surpass even what I’d given before the Olympics, and I still hadn’t recovered from that mental and physical drain. I wouldn’t have time for anything but work.

Secondly, there were still all the reasons that had caused this mess to begin with. My fans and the media had already proved that they would explode over anything that even remotely looked like I had an attachment to one girl over the other. As much as Zhenya thought she could handle that, I knew it was naiveté on her part, otherwise I wouldn’t have said what I had. And if things were so bad that I needed to address them when nothing was going on, I couldn’t even fathom what would happen if something actually were. The scrutiny she would have to undergo, the potential hate she would have to endure would be exponentially worse. I couldn’t do that to her. Nothing had changed from the way I felt yesterday.

I closed my eyes and swallowed, reaching out for the cold metal beam and grasping it hard to release the tension that was building inside my chest.

Oh, but something had.

Since yesterday, I’d started to lose her.

Why was it that whenever I lost something I always wanted it more? Whether it was a silver medal hanging around my neck instead of gold or a new world record flashing across the screen that didn’t have my name next to it, nothing drove me to push myself harder than knowing something was gone that should have been mine. In those critical moments when those things were slipping out of my grasp, I felt in the deepest part of my body everything that they meant to me.

And now, it was happening with her. Suddenly I was realizing how much I cared about her, how much I’d taken her presence for granted. Her smile suddenly gone, I now remembered how much warmth it had given me. Her laugh suddenly given to another, I now wished it was for my ears only. Her eyes that had so frequently followed me suddenly unwilling to even look my way, I now understood how beautiful they were.

I opened my eyes and let go of the beam. This was ridiculous.

What I was doing, hiding out under the stadium bleachers, practically agonizing over a girl, much less one who wouldn’t even speak to me at the moment, one who was talking to someone else at this very second in time? Between that moment of confused anguish after I’d kissed her and now, I couldn’t have been more pathetic. And Yuzuru Hanyu was not pathetic. I was not having these feelings. I wouldn’t allow it. I scrambled to my feet, wiping a bead of unexplained sweat off my forehead. I ducked my head and made my way back through the cavernous underside of the stands, shoving aside the heavy drapery when I got to the end.

My heart dropped with a thud when I realized I had come out of the curtains directly behind Evgenia. To my horror, she turned around, and for the first time since the jacket incident in the hallway last night, her eyes came into contact with mine. And I suddenly couldn’t breathe. With her hair drawn away from her features in the most perfect of ways, her eyes looked larger and … kuso… more beautiful than anything I could ever remember seeing. I forced my own eyes elsewhere, except they landed on her shoulders. Why did she have to remove the sleeves of that dress? Her bare skin was luminescent in these dim lights, and it looked as soft as Japanese silk. I sensed her own eyes dropping, and for a moment it felt like the intensity between us had managed to swallow up everything else in the arena around us, and it was only Evgenia standing there with me, and no one else. I wanted to touch her. I had to touch her.  

And then, the opposite of everything I was expecting—she touched me.

I couldn’t even process what was happening at first, but somehow her hand reached out and her fingers grazed over my stomach. It was only a small amount of pressure, but for some reason it literally felt as if she was burning me with her touch. In the next second, she pressed deeper, and the burning sensation turned into something else, something scorchingly hot. No one had ever touched my stomach like that before, and now Zhenya… Zhenya… Her fingers twisted the fabric of my shirt between them, and I thought I might actually die. My mouth was completely dry, my whole body paralyzed.

I suddenly realized she was saying something. I wasn’t sure what was more miraculous, the fact that she was talking to me again, or the fact that I could even hear anything at all with my heartbeat this loud in my head.

“Did you hear me? What were you doing under there?”

I blinked quickly, reality hitting me hard with her perfectly unaffected tone of voice. Under… oh... the bleachers. Crap. What was I supposed to say? More importantly, would my voice betray the disastrous, overwhelming feelings I was struggling to get over right now?

“I… lost something.”

She tsk-ed, still tugging at my shirt as if it was the most normal thing in the world. I finally looked down, and then I realized what she was doing. Across the white swath of fabric in the design of the opening number’s shirt, there was a dark streak of black. It must have come from the steel beam I’d grabbed underneath those cursed bleachers. She was… cleaning… my shirt.

“Well, it won’t come out,” she said, her voice just a little too loud. “You’d better give it to the hotel.”

Hai,” I nodded abruptly, suddenly anxious to get out of this situation. I carefully moved past her in order to head back out of this place that had inexplicably turned sweltering hot.

“Yuzu.”

I stopped. There was her real voice. I’d missed that voice.

“Come back here.”

My heart leapt into my throat, a strange hopefulness stirring in me. I turned around, and she was there. I took a few steps back towards her, unsure of what she would say. But she didn’t say anything. She just reached up and rubbed my forehead with her thumb. I gritted my teeth. More dirt.

“You’re a mess,” she shook her head.

I was a mess. I was trying to think of something else to reply when I heard a familiar buzz, and her eyes dropped from me to her phone in her other hand. She didn’t even glance back at me as she half-turned away to look at it.

I stood there, numb, but only for a second. Then I looked away, straightening my shoulders in attempt at finding my former resolve. My reasons—I had to remember my reasons. And above all that, I’d already so emphatically denied everything to everyone. Javier shaking his head flashed again in front of my eyes. No, I wouldn’t let him have the satisfaction of knowing he’d been right. I just wouldn’t let it be true.

But then I caught a glimpse of a small smile in the blue-white glow of her cell phone, and a different kind of fire threatened to burst into flames, and I knew… I knew it was absolutely, completely true.

At the very worst time and in the very worst circumstances, I was falling for Evgenia Medvedeva.

The next night, Zhenya didn’t cry at the decrescendo of Einaudi’s music. This time, she drew a new face and smiled.

Chapter Text

[May 28, 2018 | Somewhere between Makuhari and Kanazawa]

Social media was going to be the death of me.

“Yuzu, can we talk?”

I flinched a little at the sound of Misha’s voice. I hadn’t talked to him since that night—Saturday night—when he’d told me to go after Zhenya. I guess I’d been avoiding him, not wanting to admit to him that I’d never actually talked to her and that things were even weirder between us now, now that I’d… realized that I felt something for her. But now we were all gathering in the lobby to take the bus to Kanazawa and there was no avoiding a conversation. I knew it was going to be about Zhenya. How was I supposed to get over these feelings if people kept bringing her up every time they talked to me?

I nodded in acknowledgement of his question as he sat down, and looked around to be sure no one would hear us. My heart skipped a beat when I saw Evgenia enter the lobby, smiling brightly. Was that going to happen to me every time I saw her now? That strange, fluttery feeling that made me want to just drown in how beautiful she looked? It seemed like the whole lobby was glowing in the radiance of her smile. And then I wondered at the reason for her smile this morning, and a gnawing feeling appeared in my stomach again, the same feeling that appeared every time I closed my eyes at night and relived the events from backstage at the show.

“So, some stuff has happened that we need to discuss,” Misha started, and my head whipped around from staring at Zhenya to face him.

“Maybe we should talk… later,” I said pointedly. Surely he’d seen her come in.

He glanced over at Evgenia, who was within hearing distance now. “She can be here. It’s nothing she doesn’t already know.”

I could feel my ears turning red. What exactly was he talking about? What did Evgenia know? I looked around for Javi. Had he told others his suspicions?

“What are we talking about?” Zhenya plopped down casually next to us.

“Social media,” Misha said, and suddenly I could breathe again.

“Oh,” I said quietly.

“What did you think...?” he started and then stopped himself, raising his eyebrows. I shook my head, and he let it go, but I knew he’d started to connect a couple of pieces together. Dang it.

“So what is it?” I prodded, more than ready to move into whatever he had to talk about before it got even more awkward.

“Well, I don’t know how to say this, but—” Misha looked uncomfortable.

“Misha is the new haters’ target instead of me,” Zhenya inserted bluntly.

I frowned. I hadn’t suspected it would be something like that.

“People are accusing him of the same things. That he’s using you for fame and attention and that our friendship isn’t really real.”

I blinked, my jaw dropping a little. People were saying things like that? I pulled out my phone slowly, but I saw Misha shaking his head.

“I deleted the post already,” he said. “Remember, the one of us I asked if I could share?”

I remembered. I hadn’t thought anything of it then. Lots of other skaters asked if I would take pictures with them after the shows were over, and I almost always agreed, knowing full well some of them would get posted on social media. It was usually harmless. Usually.

“I don’t know what’s gotten into everyone,” Misha shook his head. “Between this and all that nonsense from your interview…”

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Zhenya bite her lip, and my stomach twinged.

“Sorry,” Misha said, noticing our reactions. “I just feel like people are purposely trying to break us up. But you guys matter too much to me. I won’t allow it.”

My chest felt strangely heavy. I hated that people were saying negative things about Misha, the same way I’d hated that they’d roped Zhenya into gossip. But there was only one way in my mind to get that to stop.

“We should probably just all lay low for now,” I said.

Misha huffed. “Oh, because that’s working out really well for you and Zhenya. You guys barely hang out now.”

That was different. Besides, there were other reasons for that. Reasons he didn’t know.

“We can’t let people control us like this. We shouldn’t just go into hiding and pretend that we’re not actually friends. That makes it look like they’re right,” Misha said adamantly.

I looked over at Zhenya, and her eyes immediately dropped. A few days ago, she had sounded just like Misha, almost begging for things to stay the same between us. As much as I disagreed with her, it had still meant something to me that she wanted it. But she wasn’t fighting for it now, not anymore. Something had changed. And as much as I’d tried to avoid thinking about it, I had a feeling I knew what it was.

Suddenly it felt like something was trying to choke me. “I can’t… talk about this anymore,” I stammered, standing up hastily and grabbing my bag. Misha and Zhenya both looked at me in alarm, but I fled from their gazes, out the door of the lobby and into the waiting bus.

“We’re not loading for another few minutes,” the driver said as I climbed on, but I ignored him and headed towards the back of the bus, sliding into the last seat. My fingers dove into my bag for my favorite headphones, and then I reached for my music.

I stared at my phone. And then, instead of opening my music, I… looked. I looked at social media. I saw re-posts of what had been said about Misha, and then what he had said as well, but that wasn’t what I was looking for. It was something else.

I finally found it, on Twitter, and it was easier than I had even imagined. There was actually a screenshot of a text conversation, and I knew it had to be him. The guy whose existence had been nagging me at the back of my mind for the last two days. I navigated to the profile, and there was more. My heart pounded harder the more I saw. Who was this guy, anyway?

It didn’t take long to find out details. His name was Kristian Kostov, and he wasn’t Russian, he was Bulgarian. He was a singer. A musician. Why did that make my stomach churn a little? Maybe because I knew how much Evgenia loved music. Maybe because I loved music. It was something we shared. I tried to breathe normally. But it only got worse. He was younger—her age, actually—relatively good looking, I supposed, tall, skinny, with hair a bit on the wild side, like those EXO guys Evgenia crushed on. I bit my lip. Maybe that’s what this was. Just a celebrity crush like that. Maybe she was just fangirling over him, like she had—I swallowed—like she had with me.

But just like with me, this wasn’t just an admiration from afar. They actually knew each other. He was retweeting her posts, she was liking his. They had each other’s phone numbers. Just like… us.

I threw my phone into my bag, disgusted. What was I doing? I was acting like that type of fan, scouring the internet for clues of what might be going on between them. I couldn’t be upset about what the public did if I was doing the same thing myself, could I?

Two minutes later, I was back on my phone, reading more about this dude, starting to get critical about the gap in his teeth, his oversized glasses, his fashion sense. Did Zhenya really think he was that attractive? More attractive than…

I turned the screen off again, closing my eyes. Everything about this was wrong. Most of all, my feelings. I could literally feel my blood getting hotter beneath my skin. There was no way around it. I was jealous. Straight up jealous.

How could this have happened?

“Yuzu.”

My eyes flew open, my heart rate increasing at the sound of Zhenya’s voice. What was she doing here? Her gaze darted away from mine.

“Misha wants to play some video game with Javi,” she said softly, shrugging and motioning with her head towards the jovial group that was beginning to board the bus now. “Could I… sit with you?”

I stared at her, my mouth falling open a little. Should I tell her it wasn’t a good idea? Should I suggest that she sit with one of the girls? I should. But I didn’t want to. I wanted her to sit next to me. I wanted it a lot. Especially right now.

More people started getting on the bus, and Zhenya ducked down, slipping into the seat beside me. The slightest bit of warmth from her body reached me, and for a quick moment I fought between the urge to move away and the inclination to lean just a little closer. I did nothing, of course. And then, she finally looked up at me, her eyes still scanning mine for permission. “It’s safe back here, isn’t it?”

All the thoughts I’d had just a moment ago of keeping our distance and laying low had flown out the window at the sight of her next to my seat, the renewed knowledge that I was on the brink of losing her the freshest thought in my mind. Her coming here meant she hadn’t completely given up on our friendship after all, and right now, I knew I couldn’t give her up either, not yet anyway. Besides, how could I say anything else with her so close I could smell the scent of her hair, so close I could see the flecks of gold in her brown eyes? It was safe back here for us. So I nodded. And then she smiled. For me.

I turned to face the seat in front of me so she wouldn’t see how that affected me, and then I felt her settle back into the seat, a small breath escaping her lips. She sounded… content. I felt myself relaxing, too. For the next six hours, Zhenya would be here with me, not with anyone else. Six hours. That sounded nice.

“Want to listen to music?”

I stiffened again, remembering that Twitter was still open on my phone, open to the profile of that stupid Kostov kid.

“Uh, let’s listen to yours,” I replied hurriedly, and she seemed rather pleased by that. She reached into her bag for her phone, and I quickly closed the app while she was distracted.

But just then I saw a set of eyes peering over the top of the seat. I bristled. It was Misha, and he disappeared as fast as he’d appeared. Why was he… And then it dawned on me. I clenched my fist, trying to prevent myself from jumping up. He was checking on us.

I felt a touch on my arm. “Yuzu,” Evgenia whispered and I turned to look at her. Her face told me everything I needed to know.

“He made you come sit here with me,” I spat out. I guess I sounded angry. Probably because I was. Why was he so hell bent on fixing things right now? I mean, I wanted things to be okay, too, but this wasn’t the way to do it. It’d only felt right when I thought Evgenia was the one…

“Yuzu,” she said. “I wanted to.”

It felt like my senses were coming back to me. Why would Zhenya want to sit next to me, when she was already invested in what appeared to be the beginnings of a new relationship with some other guy? Why would she, when there was no hope that things would ever get easier for us in the public? Why would she, after I’d fought with her, rage kissed her in the stairway, denounced her to the media, and then avoided her for the next three days as far as she knew?

“Don’t lie,” I said, my voice low and gravelly.  

“I’m not lying,” she said, and the way she said it sounded so sincere I almost believed her. But I shook my head instead.

“Just listen to me, okay? What you said—I know you were trying to protect me,” she said. She looked away, but I stared at her, feeling the tension in my body start to dissipate. She knew that? She… understood?

“And I know you didn’t mean to kiss me,” she blurted out, shocking me with how easily she said it. But then her voice softened, even as she kept her eyes riveted on the seat in front of us. “I know you’re going through a lot. I understand. I really do. We’re all going through a lot.”

I swallowed. She was going through a lot, wasn’t she? She’d been going through a lot for a while. I suddenly wanted to hold her, even though I knew I couldn’t. Instead, my gaze passed over her gently, caressing her hair, her face, her shoulders. And then, finally, she turned her eyes back up to mine, and for a second I thought I might drown in how deep they were right then.

“I know things can’t be the same for us anymore. I know things will be different when I come to the Cricket Club. But every once in a while, we can be ourselves, can’t we?”

Her voice was barely a whisper, but in that whisper I could hear an earnestness that I wanted to hold onto forever.

“Can’t we, Yuzu? Just for a while? In places like this, in our own world?”

My face—no, my whole body—suddenly felt warm all over. In our own world. In… another world. She’d heard it. She'd understood what I meant... what I wanted--another world for us where things would always be okay. When I'd said it, I believed it was an impossibility, a dream. But here she was, believing it could be real. Instead of challenging me like she had before, she was asking me, asking me to see what she saw. I swallowed again, my heart feeling fuller than I could remember it ever feeling. Maybe it could be real. Maybe not every day. But sometimes. In places like this. Just for a little while. Couldn’t it?

“So we don’t forget,” she said softly.

Forget?

“I could never forget,” I whispered seriously, my voice catching in my throat. Our eyes were locked on each other’s, a current flowing between us that was indescribable. Was I even breathing? Maybe I hadn’t exactly meant to kiss her before, but I sure as hell wanted to kiss her now.

Just then, the bus lurched forward, thankfully knocking me out of my trance and reminding me that that would mess things up again. I leaned back in my seat, and I heard her murmur a small laugh beside me.

“You missed me, didn’t you?”

“No,” I said quickly, but I looked out of the corner of my eye at her. She was smirking. It was cute. She was cute. I scolded myself for that thought, and elbowed her as punishment.

She giggled and squirmed out of elbow reach, and then suddenly, she stopped and leaned towards me instead. I drew back in surprise but she didn’t stop, her eyes dancing. What was she doing? Did she know this was affecting me like this? Was she teasing me as my punishment?

She moved nearer and nearer, and then all of a sudden, she closed the distance completely between us, her body coming in contact with my arm. A hot rush passed through me, making me a little lightheaded, but somehow I still managed to catch a glimpse of her out of my side vision. Her eyelashes had fallen over her eyes, and she was biting her bottom lip almost… flirtatiously. And then she angled her head, bringing her lips to my ear.

“Don’t lie,” she whispered. A shiver ran through me, but I liked it. I liked it a lot.  

And then I felt her tuck an earbud into my ear.

Almost instantly she was back in her seat like a normal person, scrolling through her playlist to find something she wanted. I stared at her, wondering how this girl had suddenly gotten to have this kind of power over me.

And then I blinked. A girl who liked someone else wouldn’t have done something like that, said things like that, would she have? I grinned smugly to myself. Maybe she didn’t like that kid after all.

“None of that EXO junk,” I said to her, lifting my chin, suddenly feeling a little more confident.

She glared up at me. “You said I could pick.”

The next thing I knew, Korean boy band music was blasting through my right ear, and I shook my head at her, pretending to be annoyed. She grinned, and I couldn’t help but smile back. Everything was okay again, wasn’t it? And now I had her next to me for the whole bus ride to Kanazawa. I imagined how it would go. Eventually she’d fall asleep, of course. And naturally she’d end up leaning on me, and then she’d have to rest her head on my shoulder. I felt my heart rate accelerate a little in anticipation. Nobody would see us back here. Maybe my arm could slide over hers without being too noticeable, and then my fingers could just “accidentally” touch hers…

I shook myself out of my daydream. I was getting ahead of myself. None of that was happening yet.

Six hours later, my eyes had almost burned a hole into the back of the seat in frustration. Apparently none of that was happening at all. Zhenya had fallen asleep, but at no point in the entire trip had her head even drifted in my direction. Did she have a neck muscles of steel or something? To make matters worse, there was still at least a three inch gap between her hip and mine. Six full hours on a bus ride, and all I’d gotten was a brush against my arm for half a second?

Just then, Zhenya stirred, stretching her arms out as she yawned.

Correction. A brush against my arm and an elbow into my chest. I rolled my eyes, sighing.

“Sorry,” she apologized, recoiling. “I guess I fell asleep.”

I grimaced. “Yeah, you did.”

Her eyebrows raised. “I didn’t fall asleep… on you… did I?”

“No,” I answered, fighting hard to disguise my disappointment at that fact.

“Good,” she said. “That would have been embarrassing.”

“Yeah, super embarrassing.”

Her eyes widened. “Wait, did I do something else embarrassing? Did I snore?”

I couldn’t help but laugh at her worrying about something like that. If she had snored, I was sure I would have thought it was cute. “There wasn’t anything.”

She narrowed her eyes at me skeptically. “You’re not—“

“—Lying?” I interrupted her with a grin, and then, I felt myself getting serious all of a sudden. “No, Zhenya,” I said softly, looking at her. “I’m not lying.”

The only embarrassing thing is how much I’m starting to... like… you.

It was her turn to look a little flustered, but she recovered quickly by looking past me, out the window. “Oh, we’re almost there, aren’t we?” she said, and began to busy herself with gathering up her things.

I followed suit, reaching down for my jacket on the floor. My hand paused over it briefly. It was the white one. The one she’d thrown at my chest when she was mad, the one she’d worn when I’d kissed her. I snatched the jacket, forcing myself not to think about that right now.

This girl was going to be the death of me.

Chapter Text

(May 31, 2018 / Kanazawa )

Don’t leave right away, okay?

I chewed my lip a little, and then sent the text message before I could think too long about it. It was probably crazy, asking Zhenya to meet up after practice like this, but I just hadn’t seen her nearly enough this week. Of course I saw her, at rehearsals and sometimes around the hotel, but we hadn’t spoken in days, and it was starting to drive me crazy, with her so close and still so far.

I waited as long as I could for that Read timestamp to show up before I reluctantly put my phone back in my pocket without it. She probably didn’t even have her phone on her right now. I stole a glance over where I knew she would be, talking with all the other girls about their part for the finale. She had donned a loose hoodie over her training outfit from earlier in the day, her hair pulled back into a low bun. The light pink sweatshirt dwarfed her form a bit, giving me less of a view of her figure than her black lace top had from before, but it didn’t matter. She looked tiny and soft in it, and I wondered what hugging her would feel like. Oh, right. That wasn’t why I looked over there. I looked a little closer, and as she moved, I saw what I was looking for--the shape of her phone in the hoodie pocket. Good. Now I just had to hope she’d see my message in time.

My heart skipped a beat when I felt my pocket vibrate a minute or two later. That had to be her. I tried to hide my smile when I saw that she’d replied.

See, I knew you missed me.

No. I just have something to give you, I wrote back right away. I looked over at her across the ice. She was grinning, and I turned away so I could still manage to act natural.

What is it?

I smirked. You’ll have to stay to find out.

I’m supposed to get dinner with Misha and the others afterwards, though.

It won’t take long. I promise it’ll be worth it.

She didn’t reply right away, and I swerved around on my blades to see where she was. She was still looking down at her phone, hesitating. My stomach flip-flopped. Was she going to turn me down completely? Didn’t she miss me, too—a little, anyway? C’mon, Zhenya, I willed her to respond.

My phone buzzed.

Where should I meet you?

I bit my lip, but my smile broke through, anyway. Don’t worry. I’ll find you.

A delicious sensation tingled my spine when I grabbed her hand from behind the group a little while later as they came down the hallway. She stifled a gasp to see me next to her out of nowhere, and as I dragged her into a deserted corridor, I suppressed my own desire to wrap her up in my arms right then and there.

 “What are you doing?” she whispered, her smile letting me know this amused her.

I placed her gently against the wall and let go of her hand reluctantly. And then I raised my chin and looked at her coyly. I’d be lying if I denied knowing that I was flirting a bit with her right now.

“I told you, I got something for you.”

She squinted at me, but her smile didn’t leave her lips. “This had better be good.”

“It is.”

Her eyes widened when she saw what I pulled out of the bag I had left on the floor. And then she laughed. “Are you kidding? Strawberries again?”

I grinned. “This time, it’s the real ones. Japanese ones. I’m determined to convince you of their greatness.”

She laughed and took the box from me. She glanced down at it for a moment and then back up at me. “This is really important to you, isn’t it?”

I nodded, trying to look as serious as possible. “Very important.”

She bit her lip, and I wondered briefly how something could be both cute and sensual at the same time. And then her eyes changed, and it almost looked like she might be flirting back.

“So important you made me stay after practice and sneak down a hallway with you just so you could give them to me?” My heart was doing that weird skipping thing as she spoke. Sneaking down a hallway with you. I liked the sound of those words, even in English.

I cleared my throat. “I’m just trying to avoid more jokes from Misha,” I excused it.

“Well, then,” she said, her eyes laughing, “Thank you very much. I will let you know what I think of them.”

The sudden realization that she was leaving hit me, and unwilling to let her go so soon, I reached for the wall next to her, my outstretched arm blocking her way. “Try them right now,” I said.

She looked up at me, and in that moment, it seemed like we both suddenly realized what position we were in, my hand on the wall forcing me to lean in a little closer to her. It was kind of thrilling to have trapped her with me like this, and I saw a small blush rise in her cheeks, too. My eyes were drawn to her mouth again, and the temptation to lean even closer overwhelmed me briefly. If she didn’t want this, she could escape easily. But she wasn’t trying to escape, not even a little. My gaze slowly met hers… and then she blinked.

“Hah. I know what you’re up to,” she said, her voice louder than mine would have been with everything I was feeling at that second. “You want to see if it looks like kissing when I do it, too,” she grinned, bringing up that old joke again. “Like I’ll let you have the satisfaction of seeing that.”

“Whatever,” I bantered back. “I already know what that looks like.”

Zhenya immediately paled, and my stomach hit the floor. Did I really just say I knew what kissing her looked like? I could feel my face turning crimson. What had I been thinking? Would she be upset that I’d mentioned it? Or was it better that I treat it like it wasn’t a big deal?

Just then, a sound at the end of the hallway broke through my scattered thoughts. My eyes darted to the source, and instant terror shot through me. It was Satoko, and she’d stopped in mid-stride at the sight of me… and Zhenya… standing… like…

I immediately dropped my arm, taking a step backwards from Zhenya. I couldn’t decide which was worse, what I’d just said, or the fact that I’d just been caught alone in the hallway with her. Zhenya suddenly seemed to want to extract herself from the situation just as much as I did, and I saw her mustering a smile.

“Thanks for the strawberries, Yuzu,” she said, nodding politely. “It was sweet of you to think of me.”

Sweet of me? I growled a little internally as she quickly left the hallway, but I didn’t have time to be bothered too much. First of all, I was bewildered by Satoko’s presence—wasn’t she supposed to have left after Makuhari? Either way, she had picked the perfect time to appear, barging in on my secret moment with Evgenia, and now her eyes were drilling into me.

“Was I… interrupting something?” she asked in Japanese. Her left eyebrow twitched, but I couldn’t read her body language at all. Was she shocked? Embarrassed? Upset?

“I wasn’t able to talk to her that other day,” I said, hoping the redness in my face was gone by now. “You know I don’t like conflicts. I was just trying to make things better.” Maybe she would buy that explanation and forget about the fact that it looked like I had been thisclose to kissing Zhenya instead.

She fully raised her eyebrows now, but her response was quiet. “I see.”

“Yeah,” I nodded. This was awkward. She didn’t seem convinced, but at the same time, she wasn’t saying anything else. Not yet anyway.

Finally she stepped closer to me. “Yuzu-kun.”

My stomach flip-flopped at her tone. Even though she had spent time living in North America like I had, I had always viewed her as a traditional Japanese girl—quiet and demure—and she’d only ever been complimentary and supportive of me. But something was telling me that was not what I was going to get from her this time.

“I heard what you said after the interview the other day,” she said.

I stared at her, unsure of how to respond. Her large, almond-shaped eyes examined me for a moment, and then they dropped. She looked hesitant, but her words were bold.

“How do you think people will feel if they found out that was a lie?”

My mouth went dry. Was it a lie? I hadn’t said anything specific, after all—not even her name. But I knew what she meant. What I had implied, everyone had understood correctly. Guilt washed over me, but I fought to justify myself regardless.

“She’s not chasing me to Toronto. We will not be living together or anything even close to that. Those rumors needed to stop.”

Satoko was listening, but she still wasn’t looking me straight in the eye. “And what about the rumor that you’re dating?”

Despite what it must have looked like just now, this I could answer honestly, even if I wished it weren’t true. “We’re not dating.”

At my words, I saw her shoulders relax and she finally looked up, relief evident on her features. “Forgive me for thinking the worst, Yuzu-kun.”

“The worst?”

She paused. “That you had forgotten our duty to our country.”

I frowned slightly, the nuance of her word choice puzzling me. “Our duty?”

“That you and I—we’re role models. You know how everyone looks up to us,” she said.

“I’m aware,” I said slowly.

“Yes, you’ve always chosen the correct path,” she said quietly. “That’s why I admire you so much. I’ll continue to have faith in you, Yuzu-kun.”

She bowed suddenly and backed out of the hallway, leaving me there in stunned silence. The correct path? What was the correct path?

My phone buzzing in my pocket interrupted my thoughts. It was Misha.

Come out with us tonight.

Us. I knew that meant with Zhenya. The desire to see her again was strong. But Satoko’s words hovered in the back of my head. And what if we were caught like we were the last time Misha invited us out together?

I can’t. I’m sorry.

I thought things were better now.

It’s still Japan, I replied. Kanazawa was a big city. I’d still be recognized everywhere. And Satoko was right. Being seen with Zhenya would ruin everyone’s faith in my word.

Ok. We’ll miss you.

I sighed as I clicked off my phone screen. I’ll miss you, too, I thought. But more than him—the dark-haired beauty I’d stolen away down an empty hallway only minutes ago. Her alluring eyes flashed in my memory. Why did Satoko have to ruin everything like that? Frustrated, I stormed out of the hallway, making a quick phone call for my own transportation. I didn’t want to ride the bus back with everyone else right now. I just wanted to be alone.

I spent the rest of the evening in my room again, working on my plans for my next exhibition number. Haru Yo, Koi, it was called—Spring, Come. When I’d chosen the song a few months ago, the cherry blossoms were in full bloom around me, my heart full of hope. I’d finally fulfilled my dream—and my country’s dream—of winning two Olympic gold medals for my beloved country, and at the time it had seemed like there was an empty page open before me, just waiting for me to choose what to write on it. But nothing had changed, had it? Like I’d told Zhenya that night in Makuhari, I still couldn’t do what I wanted if it didn’t fit with what the expectations of me were. I’d been happy when my dreams and the dreams of Japan were the same. But what if my dreams were different now?

Would my spring ever come?

---

(June 1, 2018 / Fantasy on Ice Kanazawa - Day 1)

“Only three nights left,” Misha said to me as he pulled his shirt down over his head in the guys’ changing room.

I glanced over at him, trying to concentrate on what he was saying instead of what I was going to do during the opening of the show in a few minutes. “Three nights left of what?”

“This is Zhenya’s last stop on the tour, remember? And I only have Kobe after this,” he said, pushing open the door for us to go into the hallway. “Only three nights left for the Bear Trio to be together—until who knows when.”

It hit me kind of suddenly. I had so many shows left, I’d forgotten they’d be leaving soon. Just then, I saw Evgenia coming around the corner of the hallway, and an ache took hold in my chest.

Misha said something to her in Russian I didn’t understand, and then added on some English words for me as she got closer. “I just reminded him this is our last weekend together,” he said, and then he looked at me with a grin. “I think he’s sad.”

Zhenya’s eyes shifted to me. “Are you?”

I opened my mouth. I wanted to say yes. I even wanted to say no in that teasing way like when she asked if I missed her. Instead, I deflected.

“It’s not like we’re going to forget about each other,” I said.

“Right,” Misha said, grinning. “That’s why I got us these, just in case.” He pulled something out of his pocket, and I took my eyes off of where they had been—on Zhenya—and looked down at what he had. My whole body immediately turned rigid.

“They’re kind of like what you have. They’ll remind us of each other.” Misha was talking, but I was barely listening to him. All I could do was stare at what was in his hand.

Bracelets. Power stone bracelets, to be exact. And they were exactly like mine—the ones my mother gave me, the ones I always wore. The ones that had so much significance to me, that had been with me through so much. Had Misha seriously just gone out and bought some on a whim? With his description, they seemed like some tawdry friendship bracelets, and it bothered me.

“I got the black one, and Zhenya picked the white one,” he went on, picking the white onyx and crystal beads up and handing them to Evgenia. I frowned. Zhenya had been in on it? Didn’t she, of all people, know what things like that meant to me? I looked back and forth between the two of them, not sure who I was more upset with right now. I could tell Zhenya was reading my reaction and starting to look concerned—no, I wasn’t mad at her. This was Misha’s fault. This was just another attempt of his to prove to the world…

Suddenly another thought entered my brain.

“You’re… not… actually… going to wear them, are you?” I asked hoarsely.

Evgenia stepped forward. “Why wouldn’t we wear them?”

Because if you wear them, everyone will think I gave them to you, like I gave one to Brian. Everyone will see that you and I are still connected. Everyone will know… that what I said is a lie now.

Anxiety wrapped its icy fingers around my neck, making it hard to breathe. “How many times do I have to say that you guys just need to stop,” I managed to get out before turning around and leaving.

Two seconds later, I felt a hand grabbing my arm, stopping me. Zhenya forced me around to face her.

“You can’t just walk away every time we try to talk about something with you,” she declared hotly. I flushed. Had I been doing that? I guess I had. “What’s going on, Yuzu? Why is everything a rollercoaster with you? I thought things were fine with us.”

“They were,” I said quietly.

“Then what’s so bad about something like this? You gave one to Brian to show everyone he and you were a team. Why can’t we show everyone we’re still friends?”

“Because—because—” I sputtered, frustrated. Why was it so hard to think in English when I was upset? How could I tell her what I was feeling without telling her what I felt for her? “People are still thinking… something different.”

Her eyes sparked in understanding. “Satoko.”

I lowered my eyes.

She shook her head slowly. “That’s not fair, Yuzu. You asked for that, not me.”

Gritting my teeth, I avoided her eyes for a second before looking back. I took a deep breath, but the tension in my body made it shaky when I exhaled. “You’re right. It’s my fault. I told you I didn’t know how to live in both worlds, Zhenya.”

“Only because you let yourself be controlled by others!” she spat out. “Well, I am not going to be controlled by what anyone thinks. You or anyone else.”

Her outburst flustered me and angered me at the same time. She knew I didn’t like hearing that I was being controlled. And I didn’t like that she was right about it… again.

“Do what you want, Evgenia,” I shoved the words at her.

“I will, Yuzuru.” She said my name bitterly, and it stung, but not as much as when she turned her back to me and returned to Misha, who had stood watching the whole exchange. His face was a mixture of shock and discouragement, and I was struck with remorse for my anger, knowing he would have never bought the bracelets if he had anticipated that this would happen.

Suddenly I heard the music begin from within the arena. The show was starting. There was no more time for this. Misha reached down and took Evgenia by the hand, leading her past me. She refused to make eye contact with me, and I could see her shoulders were shaking. I hated seeing her like that. But more than that I hated that we were like this, again. Misha looked at me briefly. “I’m sorry,” he mouthed at me, and I felt even worse. I nodded weakly. It was all I could do.

The two of them disappeared into the entrance, and I stood there, wondering how in the world I was supposed to recover from this in less than a minute to go out there and perform in front of people, most of whom were here especially to see me.

A strong hand clapped down on my shoulder from behind. It was Javi. He’d seen everything, hadn’t he? I looked at him in desperation.

“What do I do?”

“You could always just tell her you’re in love with her,” he said simply, and I wanted to hit him.

“I meant right now—for the show,” I hissed at him through clenched teeth.

He turned towards me, looking me straight in the eyes. “Sometimes you just have to pretend that everything’s all right, Yuzu,” he said seriously. “I have to do it all the time.”

I looked at him, a little puzzled over what he meant by that, but then he pushed me towards the doorway before I could say anything else. I breathed in deeply again. He was right. I could just act like I was fine.

It was easier said than done— I struggled to get my concentration at first when I got out there, missing my jump in the opening. I didn’t watch Evgenia’s performances to save my sanity, and I managed to get through my own, but it was hard not to notice her when we were all on the ice together. She was beautiful in that green dress, her hair tied up this time with a pretty ribbon that caught my attention every time she passed by me. Misha stayed close to her the whole time. I was glad he was there for her, but the fact that I couldn’t be with them made me feel like the life was being drained out of me. When it was my turn to show off at the end, I couldn’t come up with a single thing to do.  

My feet felt heavy as I walked to my room that night in the hotel, alone. Javi was nowhere to be found, and Misha and Evgenia had disappeared immediately after the performance, probably together. I’d stayed behind to do some interviews regarding a prestigious award I had been selected to receive, and now getting back this late, it was likely I wouldn’t see any of them until tomorrow.

I rounded the corner to my hallway, absorbed in my own thoughts, when suddenly I was stopped by a strange sound. It sounded like… crying. I squinted to make out the crumpled heap on the floor, my pulse jumping a bit. That wasn’t Zhenya, was it? No—this was the guys’ hallway. Surely she wouldn’t be here.

But that was a girl. I stepped forward, and just then the heap unfolded, revealing not just one girl, but two. The tinier of the forms turned towards me. Satoko, again? Confused, I kept going towards her, but she put out her hand, motioning at me to stop. She crawled to her feet, and it was then that I recognized the other girl she had been consoling. It was Miki, of all people, and she was still crying—sobbing, more like it.

Satoko shooed me back around the corner and then she came to talk to me.

“What’s going on?” I asked.

Satoko sighed. “She just needs a minute. Well, maybe more than a minute. If you haven’t guessed, she’s the reason I’m still here.”

“I don’t understand.”

“You guys don’t understand anything,” she murmured.

“Us… guys?” I repeated.

“You and Javi.”

My head spun. Me… and Javi? What was she getting at? Then I remembered. “Miki and Javi are over. It’s been over for a long time,” I said, shaking my head.

“Not as long as you think,” Satoko said. I raised my eyebrows. Javi never hid his relationships from anyone, but at the same time, I had no idea of any of the details. But I knew one thing for sure.

“He’s definitely with Marina now,” I insisted.

“Just because the person you love is with someone else doesn’t mean you don’t have the right to tell them how you feel,” Satoko said, her eyes dropping to the floor.

“I… guess,” I nodded, although a bit skeptically.

She looked at me. “Either way, she tried to talk to him tonight,” she said. “He refused.” And then her voice got quieter again. “I guess… neither of us got to say the things we wanted to.”

Suddenly I got a weird feeling in the pit of my stomach. I stepped back, looking at her, my heart rate rising along with the blush in her cheeks. What was she saying? Her words rushed back into my brain. You guys don’t understand anything.

She took a step towards me. “Maybe… it’s not too late for me,” she ventured.

My head pounded, and I took another step back. Everything was confirming my suspicions, but I didn’t want to be wrong like I had with Evgenia. “Satoko-san,” I breathed out. “I don’t know what you want to say—“

“I’ve wanted to say it for a long time,” she said, her voice trembling. “There always seemed to be something in the way. Our careers, the Olympics, other people. And you know I'm not one to say something like this first. But Miki-san convinced me that you can’t just wait for things to work out. You have to fight for the things you want. She said we should both take our chances together. So now I have to—”

“Satoko-san,” I interrupted her quickly, knowing I was right now. “There are things you don't understand, too.”

This sucked. Why did this always happen to me? Of all people, one of my longest friends—and she was too sweet of a person to be harsh with. How could I let her down gracefully?

She shook her head. “I know what I saw, Yuzu-kun. I know Medo-chan likes you. But I have faith in you. I have faith you wouldn’t choose a girl who isn’t right for you. There’s a better type of girl for you. You know that, don’t you?” she asked, imploring and hopeful. “Someone you have so much more in common with. Someone our people would accept. Someone like...”

And then with a rush of emotion, she came towards me. Before I could stop her, she was clinging to me, her small hands wrapping around my neck. “Someone like me,” she whispered.

My feet felt stuck to the floor, my body momentarily immobile with the shock of her unexpected physical contact and her unforeseen confession. I finally, hesitantly, put my hands on her waist, intending to separate us—

And then I actually froze. There at the end of the hallway, watching me and Satoko, with her mouth hanging open, was the only girl I ever actually wanted to hold like this in a hotel hallway. Evgenia’s eyes met mine, and then the worst thing possible happened.

She smiled, bowed, and backed away.

Chapter Text

I felt like I was going to throw up. What must it look like, Satoko’s arms around me like this, my hands on her like this? I was holding a girl—another girl. In frustration, I pushed Satoko away from me more roughly than I meant to, and she looked up at me fearfully. I softened, realizing my own actions. “I’m sorry. I really am.”

Tears began to well up into her eyes. “Won’t you even consider it?”

“You’re a really nice girl, Satoko,” I said, trying to sound as gentle as possible. “But… there’s already… someone…” I’d never admitted it out loud, not to Javi, not even to myself.

Her eyebrows knitted together, and then she shrank back from me. “You said yesterday that you weren’t with her. You… lied.”

I shook my head. “I didn’t. We’re not dating,” I insisted. “But that doesn’t mean I don’t have feelings.”

It was her turn to look sick to her stomach, but she nodded. “I… understand.”

I almost wished she’d lash out at me or something, but she was too nice for that, and it made me feel even guiltier.

“Most of all,” she said, lifting her chin up as the tears spilled over now. “I want you to be happy.”

I suddenly remembered her telling me where to find Zhenya that night in Makuhari. She’d liked me then, and she’d still been willing to help me? How could someone be that selfless? She was too nice. And… she must truly like me.

“I want you to be happy, too, Satoko-san. But I’m not the one for you. I’m… very difficult,” I said.

Evgenia had said that. Evgenia—whose feet were taking her farther away from me with every passing second. I had to find her. I had to explain.

“Forgive me,” I said to Satoko, and before she even had a chance to respond, I turned and fled the hallway. I turned the corner, hoping against the odds that Zhenya had maybe stuck around to eavesdrop. She hadn’t.

I broke into a run, a desperate feeling overtaking me. I didn’t know what I’d say, what she’d say. But I needed to see her. I was out of breath from running through empty hallways before I reached for my phone.

“Misha,” I blurted out as soon as he picked up. “What’s Evgenia’s room number?”

There was a long pause, and I stopped my frantic search to listen for his voice. “Misha… are you there?”

“I’m here, Yuzu,” he said.

“I need to know Zhenya’s room number,” I repeated myself urgently.

“I—can’t give it to you.”

“What?” I almost bellowed.

“I think we all need some space tonight.”

I ran my fingers through my hair in exasperation. “Misha, you don’t understand,” I sputtered.

“No, Yuzu. You don’t understand. We’ve tried very hard to be understanding of you and the pressure you’re under, but you don’t seem to understand us and the fact that we have feelings of our own,” he said firmly. “Do you have any idea of the hate Zhenya has to deal with back home? Half her country is rejecting her right now.”

“I know,” I said quietly.

“She doesn’t need to have her friends reject her, too.”

His words completely silenced me.

“Just… go to bed, Yuzu. We’ll all think better in the morning.”

I think he assumed I’d be able to sleep that night. Only, I couldn’t sleep at all. All I could see were Zhenya’s eyes when she’d caught me holding Satoko in the hallway, and they were torturing me. For a split second, they had looked… hurt. But why? The question rolled over and over in my brain. Why, Zhenya? Was it possible she’d been jealous, too? Could she possibly have feelings for me after all?

The hope thrilled me for a second, but then I shot myself down, remembering what Misha had said. Zhenya was hurt because of my rejection of her friendship. Like my reaction to the bracelets, me being with Satoko looked like I’d chosen her side in all of this. That I’d chosen to listen to everyone else and reject all connection with her. That’s why Evgenia had looked hurt. That was it.

Then why was I still worried she might think I liked someone else?

--

“Rough night?”

I looked up from my breakfast tray the next morning to see none other than Javi grinning widely back at me, again. Did he have a sixth sense for knowing exactly when I didn’t want to be bothered?

“Something like that,” I grumbled.

“Same here,” he said.

“I heard,” I said slowly.

“Ehh,” he said, shrugging it off. “What’s done is done now. Right? Time to move on.”

I stared at him incredulously. “How can you—” My question faded away.

“Don’t get me wrong, Yuzu. I care,” he said seriously. “But I told you. Sometimes you have to pretend to be okay. It’s for the best.”

I nodded. And then, as if on cue, I heard a sound coming from the lobby adjacent to the breakfast room. It was the sound of shoes—heels, to be exact—and of course, they belonged to Zhenya. It was all I could do to keep my mouth from falling open as she came into full view, wearing a pair of black leather shorts that made her slender legs look like they were a mile long and a silk blouse that fit her in all the right places. Her hair was pulled back into tight bun, accentuating the winged eyeliner and red lipstick she’d chosen. In sharp contrast to the cute, soft thing I’d held captive in the hallway a couple of days ago, she looked like a fashion model who’d stepped right off the runway—a woman I didn’t even deserve to touch.

How was I supposed to look like I was fine when Zhenya looked like… that?

She was quickly joined by a group of other girls dressed in similar styles, although none of them could hold a candle to her. Regardless, I knew their presence meant I wouldn’t have a chance to talk to her this morning, either. It was clear from their chatter that they were going out shopping. Although I couldn’t for the life of me figure out why girls had to look that sexy to go shopping this early in the morning.

It wasn’t until they walked out the doors that I realized Javi was looking at me. He burst into laughter.

“You need to work on your act a little more, my friend,” he finally got out, and I glared at him.

And then my eyes involuntarily darted back to the glass doors, where I could still see Evgenia’s legs. I did need to work on that. I really did.

And so I tried. Zhenya was nowhere to be found all of Saturday, and I pretended not to care. Zhenya acted like nothing was wrong that night at the show, high-fiving me at the end like she always did, and I pretended that was cool. Zhenya joked and laughed with everyone in the breakroom afterwards, so I did, too. I was fine.

Until I saw her eyes meet mine across the room—just for a second, a split second—but it was enough. I broke. I wasn’t fine. And I wouldn’t be until I could talk to her. I pulled out my phone.

Can we talk somewhere? I messaged her.

I watched a little nervously as she reached into her pocket for her phone. She looked at it briefly, her eyes flickering as I knew she was reading my message. And then, she stuck her phone back in her pocket.

I suddenly felt numb. Was this what it felt like to be rejected? Answer me, Zhenya, my thoughts pleaded. But she didn’t. She wouldn’t. She avoided eye contact with me the rest of the night, clinging to Carolina and giving me no room to catch her attention again.

Exhaustion forced me to sleep that night, but in the morning, I still didn’t feel rested. I stayed in bed instead of going to breakfast, not wanting to interact with anyone. That only worked until I heard a knock at my door.

I smoothed my bed-rumpled hair as best as I could as I went to the door and answered. To my surprise, it was Misha—and Evgenia.

“Zhenya said you wanted to talk,” Misha said simply.

My eyes shot to Evgenia. This wasn’t what I meant. I wanted to talk to her alone. Didn’t she know that? Her eyes dropped. So this meant she didn’t want to.

I cleared my throat. “Come in,” I said.

Misha plopped down on my bed, and Evgenia chose the desk chair. I stayed standing. It was awkward.

“What did you want to talk about?” Misha finally prompted.

My mind was drawing a blank—I couldn’t exactly tell him about Satoko. Honestly, I didn’t even know how I would tell Zhenya about Satoko without it turning into a premature confession that I liked her, instead. I looked over at Zhenya, but she wasn’t looking back at me, her fingers playing with something dark on my desk—my bracelet. I’d taken it off last night for the first time in a while.

The bracelets. That was it.

“I wanted to say I’m sorry about the other day,” I said quickly. “I shouldn’t have gotten so upset about the bracelets.” Javi’s words echoed loudly into my head. Sometimes you have to pretend to be okay. It’s for the best. “I’m really fine with you wearing them.”

“No, no,” Misha said. “I wasn’t thinking how it might affect things for you. If you’d rather us not, we’ll respect that.”

“No, I wasn’t thinking how this all affects you,” I returned, remembering his words from our call. “I don’t want you guys to think I don’t care about you. I do, a lot.” I looked at Zhenya again, whose eyes had finally lifted to mine. More than you know.

When I looked back at Misha, he was grinning. “Wow, Yuzu. I didn’t think you’d be so sentimental.” His tone was a bit teasing, and suddenly the air felt a bit lighter in the room, giving me a sense of relief.

“I’m not sentimental,” I scoffed.

“It’s because it’s our last night together, isn’t it?”

“Maybe,” I rolled my eyes.

“Well, then, let’s put on a good show tonight. Right, Zhenya?” Misha sounded like his normal, jovial self again, and he’d gotten up from my bed, going over to Evgenia and smacking her shoulder playfully.

“Right,” Zhenya said, smiling. I swallowed. Her face was smiling, but her eyes were not. There was nothing I could do right now to fix that, though.

“It’d better be a good show,” I said, trying to match his spirit. “It’s the televised one.”

“Oh, right,” Misha said, starting to head for the door.  Zhenya got up and followed him. “Way to make me more nervous,” he pretended to complain. “Anyway, we’ll see you later. Thanks for talking, Yuzu.”

“Thanks for coming,” I said, trying to catch Zhenya’s eye one last time before she left. But my eye caught something instead. There, peeking out from underneath the sleeve of her shirt, was a flash of white on her wrist. My stomach flip-flopped. She was already wearing the bracelet.

What’s going on in your head, Zhenya?

---

We put on a good show that night. For a while, I even forgot the problems we were all having behind the scenes. A loud audience had a way of making me forget. The ice had a way of making me forget.

Misha was exuberant in the finale, and I fed off his energy. Tonight, we ended up together for the bows, something I had been avoiding during all the shows so far. At first, it felt like the most natural thing in the world, to be happy with my friends by my side. But then Misha wanted me to join them when I pushed them out on the ice at the end, and something in me stopped me. It was the rumors again. The gossip. The fear of being found out. So I refused.

But I hated that I refused. I wanted to be out there with them, showing off, acting silly with Misha like I used to, challenging Zhenya to a jump battle like I used to. But I couldn’t. Everyone had ruined it, with their words. Their words filled my brain, getting jumbled and tossed together, swirling around and making me dizzy.

Why are you letting everyone control you? How do you think people will feel if they found out that what you said was a lie? Don’t lie. We can’t let people control us like this. You missed me, didn’t you? Don’t forget your duty to your country. You don’t understand that we have feelings of our own. Sometimes you just have to pretend that everything’s all right.

Yes, all I had to do was pretend that everything was all right, and then everything would be.

And then, Misha pulled us together for a photo. It was fine. Just one photo would be all right. It was our last night. Ah—why couldn’t I do even this? I was a liar, but I was a bad one. Even Pooh ears and a towel couldn’t cover my face well enough.

Misha didn’t seem to notice my uncomfortableness, joking around and patting me and Zhenya on our heads when it was over. But I knew someone would notice. People on the internet. Zhenya.

Her dark eyes pierced through me as soon as I stepped inside the curtains at the end of the show, making my stomach turn weirdly.

“Well, that’s a wrap,” Misha said. “Tonight was fun.” He started going on about the performances like he usually did, but the group of skaters swept him away as they all left backstage together. I stood stationary, my eyes locked onto Evgenia’s.

“Thanks for the photo, Yuzu,” she said flatly. “That must have been difficult for you. Especially considering what…people…are thinking.” I heard the bitterness in her tone, and I stepped closer to her.

“I still need to talk to you,” I said. Was this my only chance? On the other side of the curtain, reporters were waiting for our final interviews. There wouldn’t be much time. But we had to talk sometime. This feeling between us—I couldn’t stand it anymore.

She looked at me, her lips parting for just a moment. And then she swallowed and lifted her chin.

“There’s no need,” she said, and before I could stop her, she was gone.

Yes, there is, I argued back.

And so, mere seconds after I’d finished one of the quickest interviews ever, I was once again pulling Evgenia Medvedeva by the hand down the hallway towards the exit—towards the only place I knew I could talk to her.

It was dark in the back of the bus, but I didn’t need light to understand the force of resistance I was feeling from Zhenya’s arm. I almost flung her into the last seat.

“This is ridiculous,” she huffed, jumping back up to her feet. I quickly blocked her way with my body, my knee on the seat and my arms up on either side. For a second, we were gridlocked in that position, but then she made a move to duck under my arms.

“Zhenya,” I said, grabbing her by the shoulders. “Stop avoiding me.”

She wrestled quickly out of my grip, backing up until she hit the window, and then she plunked down in annoyance. I could see the flash of her eyes in the glow from the parking lot as they stubbornly met mine.

“I thought we agreed to avoid each other,” she said, in that sassy tone that I kind of sort of actually liked.

I ignored her deflection, and went straight to the point. “If it’s the bracelets, I really don’t mind.” I waited for her reaction, but there was none. “If it’s Satoko—“

“I said we don’t need to talk about it, Yuzu,” she interrupted me harshly. And then, she looked away. “Don’t you think we should just stay out of that part of each other’s lives?”

My mouth went completely dry. So it was about Satoko. But… that part?

“Why?” I asked, but my voice was only a whisper. This wasn’t about friendship, was it? This was about…

Zhenya’s eyes turned back to me, and her mouth opened, but all I could hear was the sound of her taking a breath.

Suddenly, her face seeing me and Satoko in the hallway came flooding back into my memory again, and with it all the thoughts I’d had that sleepless night afterwards. And then the way she’d whispered in my ear on the bus, her teasing eyes at the rink, the bracelet on her wrist… My heart was pounding by the time I focused back on the girl in front of me. Everything seemed to be adding up, but at the same time, it didn’t seem like it could be true. It wasn’t true. Was it? The words came out of my mouth before I could even realize it, the question that I wanted to ask more than anything else right now.

“Do you… like me?”

“No,” she said, way too quickly.

No. I knew it. Of course she didn’t. I could feel my face burning. What had possessed me to ask that? Hadn’t I learned yet that I was clueless at understanding things like this? I scrambled to recover.

“I was kidding,” I scoffed, plopping down next to her and training my eyes on the seat back in front of me.

“That’s not funny.”

I looked at her, my heart still racing. As long as it was doing that, I might as well push forward and get to the bottom of this. I swallowed, gathering a few ounces of courage. “But there is something weird between us.”

I sensed her body tensing up next to me, but she was looking straight ahead, too.

“This is just how it’s going to be from now on,” she said, her voice quiet now. “I think… I’m just preparing myself for it.” And then she looked at me. “For when we’re not friends anymore.”

My heart felt like it was splitting in two at her words. “What happened to what you said, before? We’ll still have… places like this.”

She looked down. “You said you don’t know how to live in both worlds.”

Her reminder of my own words punched me in the stomach. “I don’t,” I admitted. “Not yet. But I can try.”

“It was just a silly dream,” she shook her head.

Was it? I had doubted it myself, but when Zhenya believed in it, I could, too. But now, if she didn’t believe in it anymore—

Sounds from the front of the bus caught both of our attention. People were getting on now.

If things had been different, I would have died for the chance to ride back to the hotel with Evgenia in the back corner of the bus, both of us safely hidden in the dark. But right now, with my heart aching like this, it wouldn’t seem right. Right now, nothing really seemed right. Zhenya got up, and I felt her legs brush over mine as she crossed over me. I watched her leave, the parking lot lights catching the sway of the ribbon in her hair as she turned her back to me, walking back down the aisle. Everything in me wanted to reach out for her, call out to her, something—but I couldn’t. So I stayed still. I stayed silent. What else could I do?

It wasn’t until we were on our way to the next city that I realized that was exactly the opposite of what I should have done.

I’d admittedly been checking her social media way too frequently, hoping for some clue as to how she was feeling now, some message that might help me understand where to go from here. As soon as she posted the song, I pulled it up to listen to it.

We found each other
I helped you out of a broken place
You gave me comfort
But falling for you was my mistake
I put you on top, I put you on top
I claimed you so proud and openly
And when times were rough, when times were rough
I made sure I held you close to me
So call out my name

I could never assume the song was truly for me, or that all of the words applied. But there was enough to make me think, again—about all the things that she’d done for me last season, about the way she’d always put my needs first, about how she never failed to try to understand my side. There was enough to make me realize that I’d made her feel like she wasn’t worthy to stand next to me anymore, that I’d added to her list of rejections, that I’d made her give up yet another dream.

There was enough to make me act.

The next morning, I was at her door.

“It’s not just a dream, Zhenya. I’ll prove it to you.”

 


  

So call out my name
Call out my name when I kiss you so gently
I want you to stay
I want you to stay, even though you don't want me
Why can't you wait?
Why can't you wait 'til I fall out of love?
Won't you call out my name?
Call out my name, and I'll be on my way


I said I didn't feel nothing baby, but I lied
I almost cut a piece of myself for your life
Guess I was just another pit stop
'Til you made up your mind
You just wasted my time

You're on top, I put you on top
I claimed you so proud and openly, babe
And when times were rough, when times were rough
I made sure I held you close to me

So call out my name
So call out my name when I kiss you
So gently, I want you to stay
I want you to stay even though you don't want me
Why can't you wait?
Why can't you wait 'til I fall out of love?
Babe, call out my name
Call out my name, and I'll be on my way

 --The Weeknd--

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=J3vav5Sfhrw

Chapter Text

(June 6, 2018 / Nagano, Japan)

“How did you find out my room number?”

“Shoma… who found out from Rika… who found out from Wakaba.” My reply was rather sheepish, as I knew it showed the lengths I’d gone to find her. Misha was gone now, not like he had been much help the last time, so I’d had to get… resourceful. But my effort was worth it. First, it had been at least 30 seconds and Zhenya hadn’t shut the door in my face yet. Second, catching Zhenya a bit off guard in her hotel room always returned the best results. Her hair was a little messy, which I pretty much loved, and she wasn’t wearing any makeup at all, which made her look soft and sweet. And as much as I was trying not to look down at her legs, I knew she was wearing shorts again, too.

“It’s early,” she said.

“It’s almost 9,” I guffawed.

“That’s early,” she scowled.

“Either way, get ready. I’ll wait out here.”

She stared at me. “What are you talking about? Get ready for what?”

“We’re going out.” I said it matter-of-factly, even though vocalizing it still made my stomach flip-flop. Either way, it had the correct effect. Evgenia’s eyes widened skeptically.

“What? You don’t… go out.”

“I go out sometimes.” Rarely. “Anyway, I told you. I’m proving something to you,” I said.

Her lips parted like she wanted to say something, but she just looked at me instead, her eyes getting deeper by the second, turning from disbelief into something like wonder. I could feel the moment turning serious, which was tempting, but that’s not what I wanted, not yet. There would be time for that later.

“Do I need to drag you out looking like that?” I taunted her.

Her eyes responded to that, frowning. “No.” The severity of her tone frightened me for a second. Maybe she was rejecting me again. And then she looked over her shoulder back into the room. “I’ll… need a few minutes.”

I tried hard to suppress a smile. She was coming. “I’ll wait as long as it takes.”

“Are you implying I’ll take a long time?” she said, lifting her chin at me.

“No,” I raised my eyebrows at her. She rolled her eyes and shut the door, and immediately I felt my whole body relax. I hadn’t realized I’d been that tense. But she was coming. That’s all that mattered.

I didn’t have to stop myself now. I stepped backwards, leaning against the opposite wall, my smile hurting my cheeks it was getting so wide. I looked down at my phone, chuckling to myself.

“Yuzu.”

I dropped my phone in shock, the smile melting off my face fast, but not fast enough. Zhenya looked a little amused as she peeked out from the open door, and I knew for sure she’d seen me grinning like an idiot like that. I also knew for sure that my face had turned completely crimson. She swallowed her smile down. “How should I dress?”

“I don’t know,” I said, flustered. “Whatever you want.”

She narrowed her eyes. “Whatever I want?”

I nodded, anxious for her to get back inside her room and leave me to my humiliation. She smirked and shut the door, and then I sank to the ground, holding my head in my hands. I needed to get ahold of myself. The whole day couldn’t be like this, me falling all over myself in front of Evgenia. Today was supposed to be about being normal. Today was supposed to be about us, as friends, without anything or anyone intervening or putting pressure on how we should be, one way or the other. Today, we could be in our own world, in a place that already meant a lot to me. It was probably our last chance for a while, and I wanted more than anything for it to go well.

It was only 10 minutes or so that I had to wait, during which time I waffled between worrying whether or not I’d be caught out in front of Evgenia’s hotel room, and stressing about what exactly I’d permitted by telling her she could wear whatever she wanted. We needed to be discreet today, and something like what she’d worn shopping the other day wouldn’t qualify, as much as I’d like to sit next to those legs in the back seat of a car.

When the door finally opened, I mentally breathed a sigh of relief. She was dressed in a simple outfit, skinny jeans and a soft black v-neck T-shirt, her hair straightened and natural-looking makeup done. She looked pretty. Really pretty. What had I been worried about, again? Oh, my ability to keep myself together. It was then I realized I’d been staring a bit.

“Is this okay?” she asked skeptically.

“You look fine—great, I mean—” I stumbled a bit. “Too bad you’ll have to cover your face with this.” I handed her a mask. I tried to be nonchalant about it, knowing she wouldn’t like it.

Sure enough, she pursed her lips. “I figured as much.”

“It’s a compromise, okay?” I said.

She looked down at the black fabric, and then lifted it up to her face, pulling the straps over her ears. Suddenly, I noticed it—the thing she’d meant by “whatever I want.” She was wearing the white bracelet. My stomach turned over, but I pushed the feeling away. Instead, I reached up and pulled the mask down, revealing her face again. “Not yet. And not all the time. Just certain places where it isn’t safe for us.”

“Okay,” she said softly, and I wondered why her voice had changed just now. “Where are we going?”

I smiled. “You’ll see.”

Two men in suits met us a few minutes later as we made our way down the back stairway and down a deserted corridor. At first, they flanked us, but I saw Zhenya eyeing them a little. I quickly directed them in Japanese, and they moved to follow us from behind instead. She looked over her shoulder at them a few times, and I wished they didn’t have to be with us. But they always came with me to public places—and even the last few private places, after what had happened at the beach in Makuhari.  

“Sorry,” I murmured. She nodded in acknowledgement but said nothing.

I pushed open the door to the exit, where a black car sat idling in the alleyway, waiting for us. My driver recognized us and came around to open the door to the back. I started to go down the stairs, but Zhenya had paused. I looked back to see her shaking her head a little.

“What?” I asked.

“Nothing,” she said, starting to follow me again. “It’s a lot of effort for you to go out, isn’t it?”

“That’s part of the reason I don’t go out very often,” I said. “I don’t like to inconvenience all these people.”

She stopped at the door to the car. “What’s the difference today, then?”

I cleared my throat. “Today… today I’m doing everything for you.”

Her eyes sparked a little. “Everything?”

My own eyes narrowed. “Why does that question make me nervous?”

She looked over at the bodyguards and then she stepped closer to me. “They make me uncomfortable.”

I frowned. “You’ve had security before, Zhenya.”

“Yes, but today it doesn’t feel right. We… can’t be ourselves like this,” she said softly, and something in her voice made my heart skip a beat and my skin feel warmer. Her soft brown eyes looked up to mine, and I melted.

I faked a huff. “This isn’t very smart,” I warned her, but I motioned the bodyguards over and I saw her grinning in my peripheral vision as I told them the change of plans and dismissed them.

“But it’s a lot more fun,” she smirked.

“Are you getting in or not?” I asked, seeing that she was still standing at the open door to the car.

“You know how to drive, don’t you?”

My eyes widened at her implication. “Seriously?”

“Well, do you?”

I bit my lip, suddenly regretting the international license I’d insisted on getting while I was home last summer. I had no excuses. Evgenia looked triumphant, and I found myself asking the driver if it was possible for me to drive the car. To my dismay, he had no problems with my taking the car at all, and the next thing I knew, Zhenya was sitting next to me in the passenger seat as I pulled out of the alleyway. We were on our own… completely on our own… and as nervous as I was about this, I also felt sort of empowered. I never did things like this.

Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Zhenya starting to slyly reach down for my phone.

“Hah,” I caught her, swiping my phone off the center console, making sure she couldn’t see the GPS anymore. “No looking ahead.” She pouted, and I laughed. “It’s not that exciting, actually. Don’t get your hopes up too much.”

“I do have my hopes up!” she grinned. “It’s not every day Yuzuru Hanyu drives you around Japan to some secret location.”

I scoffed.

“Besides, it’s been a long time since I’ve been on a…”

She paused and my stomach dropped. Date? Did this seem like a date? All of a sudden, now that we were alone, maybe—

“…Adventure,” Zhenya filled in quickly and looked at me. “This is going to be an adventure, isn’t it?”

“Mm,” I nodded. An adventure.

I pulled into a parking spot a little while later, glancing over at Zhenya for her reaction. “A market?” she guessed.

“You never told me what you thought of the strawberries,” I said. “I figured if I was going to get you to try Japanese fruit, I’d have to make you eat in front of me.”

“How weird,” Zhenya rolled her eyes with a laugh, slipping the mask over her face before getting out of the car. I did the same, and then we were off. I felt a little worried, taking her to such an average kind of place first thing, but as soon as I saw her eyes getting wide at the sight of all the produce, I grinned to myself.

“These are huge!” she exclaimed, reaching out and picking up a bunch of grapes. “I’ve never seen anything like this in my life!”

I bought the grapes from the vendor. “You’ll like those,” I said. “But Nagano is famous for its apples.” I reached out and turned her by her shoulders towards the next stall, where bins of the huge, delicious-looking red fruit were overflowing. Beyond the fruit stands, other stalls offered a variety of other Japanese treats I knew she’d love, from sweets like dango and daifuku to savory snacks like sushi and senbei.

Zhenya looked over at me as we exited the market a little while later, our bag stuffed with an assortment of delicious things. “I never imagined going grocery shopping with you, Yuzu,” she laughed.

My heart suddenly jumped, but not for the usual reason.

“Hey, don’t say my name out loud,” I said, sending a few scattered looks around us. The market wasn’t as busy as it would have been earlier in the morning, but there were still enough people around to overhear her. With dark hair like everyone else’s, I blended in fairly well, but the public was aware I was in town and even someone saying my name might blow my cover. I looked back at Zhenya. My stomach dropped when I saw the smile had faded from her eyes.

“Are you really that afraid of being seen with me again?”

I stepped closer to her. “Don’t think like that.”

“How am I supposed to think?”

“I just don’t want anything to ruin today. Today would be over if we were seen. You know that.”

She nodded, and then I saw her eyes brighten a little. “Does that mean there’s more to today?”

I grinned. “Lots more. Did you think I just wanted to take you to get groceries?” Without hesitating, I reached down and grabbed her wrist. She laughed as I pulled her out of the market, towards the street.

“Wait, wait,” she stopped me, yanking her hand out of mine. I paused and looked back at her. She had taken an apple out of the bag and was holding it up, positioning her phone to take a photo of it. I couldn’t help but notice her bracelet was visible as she held it—but for some reason, it didn’t bother me so much. Let her take the picture if she wanted to.

I circled behind her to see her photo. “That’s a pretty normal looking street for a background,” I remarked.

“I like normal things,” Zhenya said, and I felt my heart miss a beat.

“But don’t you think this view would have been better?” I reached up for her shoulders again, turning her towards the place I was actually intending to take her. Her mouth dropped, and I grinned. Around the corner from the marketplace, the square opened up into a full, breathtaking view of the mountains of Nagano.

“Okay, you win,” she laughed.

“And my reward is that you will eat the fruit in front of me,” I said, pushing her gently towards the square.

More like a small park than a square, flowers and trees dotted the grassy area, and I picked a spot that seemed the most private. Behind a few sun-dappled bushes, we sat down, and then I reached over and pulled her mask off.

“Now eat,” I said, shoving the humongous bunch of grapes at her.

She laughed and popped one into her mouth. “Mmm,” she said, letting herself fall back into the soft grass, closing her eyes as she savored the taste. “They’re wonderful.”

I felt my head starting to spin as I looked down at her, her silky brown hair flowing around her as she lay next to me, her eyelashes fluttering over closed eyes. No, you’re wonderful. Why did she have to be so pretty? And then she licked her lips from the juice of the fruit, and I thought I might actually die.

She opened her eyes just then, catching me staring at her. She narrowed her eyes with a smile, and then she reached up for my mask. The way she pulled it down pulled me towards her, and I had to catch myself with an outstretched hand on the ground to prevent myself from falling.

She giggled, and I blushed, but for some reason I was stuck in this position, halfway leaning over her.

“By the way,” she whispered with a grin. “I liked the strawberries, too.”

Strawberries. My heart raced. It would be so easy to just—no, I couldn’t. I cleared my throat and sat back up straighter. “So you ate them,” I said as normally as possible.

“Of course,” she said, sitting up next to me. “I even ate one looking in a mirror to be sure. It’s just you that looks like that.”

I pretended to swat at her, and she laughed. “You’re worse than Misha,” I frowned. And you have no idea how kissable you look eating fruit, I mentally added.

Soon we were done eating our snacks. Sitting out here, at our makeshift picnic, with the mountains in front of me, the fresh breeze cooling my skin, and the girl I liked next to me, I wished I could stay longer. But I stood up, holding out my hand to Evgenia. “C’mon. There’s someplace else I want to go.”

Zhenya fell silent as we got out of the car at our next destination. I glanced over at her, but she had already put her mask on, and I could only read the expression in her eyes. She knew where we were, didn’t she?

If there had been any doubt, it was removed when we rounded the building to the front, and five colored rings came into view. I saw her eyes lift up to them. Her eyes looked sad, and I worried a bit over my decision to bring her here. She was quiet as we entered the building, quiet as I revealed myself to the front desk attendant and asked for admittance, quiet as we walked the empty concourse to the entrance to the arena.

But then I opened the doors, and the chilled air flowing across the ice met our warm bodies.

“This is White Ring,” I said, turning toward her as I opened the entrance in the boards to the surface.

“I know,” she said, and she finally pulled down her mask, but I didn’t need to see the rest of her face now. Her eyes were burning with fire, riveted on the Olympic rings set high above the ice. That’s what I wanted to see. I knew it would come here, on Olympic ice, in the stadium from the 1998 Nagano games.

“Why are we here, Yuzu?” she asked.

“I’m going to skate to Hope and Legacy this weekend,” I said. She looked quickly up at me in surprise, and then she nodded in understanding.

“This is where everything started for me,” I went on, walking out onto the ice. “Did you know that every Japanese skater who competed here was from Sendai? That was one of the reasons my mother was watching—and because of that, she took me and my sister to the rink for the first time. And because of that, I first felt my dream.”

I turned around. Zhenya was still standing at the edge of the ice, staring at me.

“At least you achieved your dreams. Twice,” she said. “Four years is a long time. I don’t even know if—” The words died in her throat.

I went back to her, and then drew her out onto the slick surface with me. We were just wearing street shoes, but standing on the ice, I knew it would affect her. She shivered, but not because she was cold.

“I know you won’t give up, Zhenya. That’s why you wear this, isn’t it?”

I reached down for her hand, running my thumb over the diamond ring still on her finger, months after I’d first noticed it thanks to social media. I wore it as a reminder of a promise I made myself, she had said back then. I wasn’t sure when I’d figured it out, but I had a pretty good feeling I knew what that promise was now. Her simple nod confirmed it.

“At the next Olympics, you’ll have your chance at your dream again,” I said.

She smiled a little, and then she turned her head up to me inquisitively. “Is it still your dream, too?”

I dropped her hand. That’s what everyone else seemed to want to know right now, too. “I’m still figuring out my next dream, if you haven’t noticed,” I chuckled. “We’ll see.”

“You can tell me,” she cajoled. “I won’t tell any reporters or anything.”

“I’ll tell you when I know,” I said.

She sighed and looked back up at the rings again, her eyes clouding over. I didn’t like that. I wanted to see them lit up with energy, not full of self-doubt. I made an attempt to interrupt whatever thoughts she might be having.

“So, if you wear jewelry to remind you of important things,” I started, sliding around the ice in front of her, “Then why are you wearing this?” I grabbed her wrist and held it up, jangling the bracelet.

She snatched her hand away. “I just like it,” she said defensively. And then her eyes sparkled. “Actually, that’s a lie. It’s to irritate you.”

I glared at her, heading back towards the boards. “You’re the worst.”

“No, I’m the best,” she laughed. “That’s why you missed me so much.”

“I didn’t miss you,” I argued back teasingly.

“Then why are you doing this?” She stopped mid-stride, her voice suddenly serious again.

I turned back to her, taking a deep breath. “Today isn’t to make myself feel better because of what happened, if that’s what you’re wondering. It’s because I really did realize that I was wrong. Misha reminded me of how much rejection you’re getting from people back home. And that you don’t need your friends rejecting you, too.”

“Misha said that?” she asked softly.

“It might be hard, and we might have to wear these stupid masks and keep our distance when people are watching, but we’ll find a way. I’ll always be here for you, Zhenya. I won’t reject you.”

An expression I didn’t understand flickered across her face, and then she suddenly turned away from me, saying something so quietly I couldn’t hear.

“What?” I asked.

She turned back, putting on a smirk. “Nothing.”

I half-scowled at her. “That’s not fair. I just said all these things…”

“Proving it is what counts,” she said over her shoulder as she made her way off the ice, her smile teasing me.

“I am proving it!” I protested, hurrying after her. “We have one more place to go, anyway.”

 

---

 

I breathed a short sigh of relief as we walked up the steps to the temple. This had been by far the most dangerous part of our day—the part I’d wanted the bodyguards here for initially. It seemed like a miracle, but we’d made it through a bus ride on public transportation as well as a walk down one of the busiest roads in Nagano completely unnoticed. Maybe it was because of how normal Zhenya was acting, taking pictures and videos, and ooh-ing and ahh-ing in general over the sights and sounds of traditional Japan.

“What is this place?” Zhenya asked me, looking up in awe as the temple loomed in front of us past the large wooden gates.

“The Zenkoji temple. It’s the reason Nagano is here,” I said.

“And why are we here? To pray?”

I smiled. “If you want. But you could have done that at any of the other shrines,” I said, referencing the half dozen we’d passed today. “There’s something special about this temple. I’ve always wanted to come here and never had the chance,” I said. “But now... it seemed like the right time.”

I led her through the courtyard, bypassing all the typical tourist stops. Soon, we were inside the temple itself. I let her wander around a bit, enjoying the ornate décor and the serenity of the place.

“I’ll be right back,” I said to her, and in a few moments, I came back with two slips of paper. “We need tickets for this next part.”

She tilted her head curiously but followed me to where a small group had gathered near the altar.

“This is the okaidan tunnel,” I said. “It goes underneath the temple, so it’s completely dark. You can take that off when we go down if you want,” I said, pointing to her mask.

“Completely dark?” Zhenya repeated.

“It’s part of the experience,” I said. “Someone will explain before we go down.” She didn’t respond, and I looked down at her. It was then I noticed she seemed uncomfortable. “What’s wrong?”

“I’m just—a little afraid of the dark, that’s all,” she said, laughing nervously. “Don’t you know that’s why I love the moonlight? It chases away the dark.”

I swallowed. “We don’t have to go.”

“No, I want to,” she said quickly. “I can do it.”

“I’ll be with you,” I said, attempting to sound reassuring.

“My hero,” she said a little saucily, and I grinned. Just then, a temple guide began to speak, and she moved closer to me to hear my translation for her. First, he outlined the history of the tunnel, and then he explained what would happen next.

“Before entering the tunnel, you must remove your shoes out of respect,” I repeated after the attendant. “In the darkness of the tunnel, all people become equal in the search for enlightenment. When you enter okaidan, it is said that…”

The words caught in my throat a bit as my heartbeat quickened. She turned towards me expectantly. I was translating after all. But the words he’d said… the words I’d known were coming… I had to say them.

“It is said that… you enter another world.”

Her eyes suddenly flashed, meeting mine with understanding.

That’s why I brought you here, Zhenya.

I ignored the fluttering in my stomach to keep translating. “As your journey takes you through the tunnel, you will search for the key to salvation. If you find the key, you are promised the blessing of peace as you move from this life into the next.”

She stared at me, taking in my words, saying nothing.

“Ready?” I asked. She nodded, and together both of us removed our shoes at the tunnel entrance. And then slowly, we began to descend down the steep, rickety staircase into the darkness.

My bare feet landed on the cold dirt floor, and I turned around for Zhenya coming down behind me. She smiled nervously at me, and seeing her without her mask on, I remembered I could take off mine now, too. Without it over my face, I became conscious of how cool the air down here was, and how it was tinged with a musty, cave-like scent. I helped Zhenya off the last step, and then we both turned towards the tunnel. The backs of the people in front of us disappeared in seconds.

“I wonder how long it’ll take,” Zhenya murmured as we started forward.

“By the way, he said to hold onto the wall to find our way,” I said, looking back at her in the increasingly dim light. “And to find the key.”

She nodded, placing her hand against the wall. We made our way farther into the tunnel, and then it seemed that the path started turning, winding its way deeper underground. Soon we made another turn, and then another, and suddenly we were truly in total darkness. I paused. All the muffled sounds that we had heard from other tunnel visitors seemed to be gone now. It was utter blackness, utter silence. I turned back to see how Zhenya was doing—but of course, I couldn’t see her. It was at that moment I realized I couldn’t sense her presence near me, either.

I put my hand out, but all it found was empty air. “Where are you?” I whispered.

“I’m… here.” Her voice was small, and further behind me than I expected, and I immediately backtracked to where I’d heard her.

Suddenly out of the darkness I felt her hands reaching out for me, frantically running over my body until she found my arm. I almost chuckled, until I realized I could hear her breathing. It was rapid and ragged.

“Are you that afraid?” I asked gently.

“Mmhmm,” she said, squeezing my arm so hard it actually kind of hurt.

“You can do this,” I said. “Let’s keep going. The slower we go the longer we’ll be down here.”

I reached up and pried her fingers off of my arm, but I held onto her hand. That was okay, wasn’t it? She was scared. I tugged a bit and she responded, following me further down the passage.

The deeper we got, the thicker the air seemed, closing in around us. I could feel that the tunnel was narrow, and the curves and winding path it took gave me the feeling that we might be getting lost down here, even though I knew better—there was only one way in and one way out. I shook the threat of claustrophobia away, concentrating on feeling for the key, holding onto the wall—and holding onto Zhenya. Slowly I adjusted to the sensations, and soon I became aware that I was actually enjoying the coolness of the air, the smooth texture of the walls, the dirt beneath my feet. No wonder they said it felt like a different world down here. I listened to Zhenya behind me. Her breathing was even now. Her hand was softer in mine.

“Still afraid?” I whispered.

“Not anymore,” the answer came softly. “Not with you.”

My stomach flip-flopped. Not with you. She didn’t have to say that part. But she had, and suddenly I felt warm all over. My hand tightened around hers involuntarily, and I felt her squeezing back. Why did it feel so natural like this? Down here, in the darkness, I could hold Zhenya’s hand, with no judging eyes from others, no fear of consequences from myself. Why did I suddenly feel so… at peace?

The way through the tunnel was taking longer than I anticipated, but I found myself not wanting it to end. I wanted to hold onto this feeling a little longer. I wanted to hold onto Zhenya’s hand a little longer. But then, all of a sudden, my hand touched something cold. It was metal. A solid, heavy bar of some sort. The key. We’d found it.

“It’s here,” I whispered, a quick thrill rushing through me. Zhenya let go of my hand to come up next to me, feeling along the wall herself.

“I found it, too,” she said, her voice trembling excitedly. And then she paused. “Do you think it’s true?”

“What?”

“That this will give us… salvation?”

“I think… it’s not the key. It’s the journey. It’s the experience that shows us… that if we keep pushing through the darkness, we’ll find our own salvation, somehow—maybe,” I faltered a little.

“Maybe,” she said, but I heard her voice crack at the end. I stood there in the darkness for a moment, not sure what to say next, but not wanting to leave at the same time. And then, I heard something. It was soft, but I knew what it was. She was crying. Was it possible this had affected her that much, too? Had she needed this experience for herself even more than for us?

“Come here,” I whispered, and before I knew it, she was coming to me, and I was wrapping my arms around her shoulders, hugging her gently. Her head met my shoulder, her tears soaking through my shirt. A wave of warmth passed through me again. How long had it been since I’d hugged her? Was it the Olympics? And here we were again, after everything. How had this happened? How had I ended up caring so much for this girl? And why did I want to hold her like this forever?

After a while I realized that her shoulders had stopped shaking. She was done crying. But for some reason, neither of us were moving away yet. And then it started happening—the moment turning from something spiritual into something a little more… physical. In the darkness, my senses were heightened, and I started becoming more aware of her warmth, more aware of the scent of her perfume, more aware of how close her legs were to mine. I tried to focus on slowing my pulse, but just then, someone passed by us, pushing me and Zhenya together up against the back of the wall, and the increased contact was too much for me. My self-control weakened, and my arms went fully around her waist. It was instant headrush. Suddenly she was so close that I could feel her inhale and exhale, and each breath took me on a rollercoaster. When she breathed out, the curves of her chest pressed a little closer to mine and I thought it might be more than I could handle, and then when she breathed in, we separated too much and the desire to have her nearer drove me insane. Three, four—five breaths—and I couldn’t take it anymore. My fingers dug into her back, pulling her body flush to mine. My head moved down to hers, my cheek brushing against her hair. This wasn’t just a hug anymore. A hug wouldn’t make it so impossible to breathe. Or was it just because it was Zhenya that I couldn’t breathe? The thought that later I might regret this or have to explain it somehow appeared briefly somewhere in the back of my brain, but the warm fog I was lost in right now made it so that I didn’t care. And then, I felt her responding, her own hands sliding farther around my back, her cheek nestling deeper into my shoulder, and I thought my legs would give out if the wall wasn’t holding me up. Everything about this was overwhelming me, and I knew I needed to stop before I completely lost it and starting kissing her right here, underneath the temple with Buddha or God or whoever else watching. My hands relaxed their hold on her, and I opened my eyes—I hadn’t even realized I’d closed them. But suddenly I felt her resisting, the pressure from her fingers increasing just enough for me to feel it. I flushed.

“Don’t let go of me, Yuzu,” she whispered, and I wanted to die from how good that sounded.

Are you trying to make this harder for me? Don’t let go of you? I let myself nuzzle her hair with my nose, just a little. “Don’t say my name,” I mumbled into her, laughing softly as I reluctantly released her.

She murmured a laugh of her own. “Sorry. I forgot.”

“It’s ok,” I said. And then, even more softly. “It’s just that I’ll want to say yours, too.”

I felt Zhenya’s stillness. “What?”

“Nothing,” I said more loudly, and she tsk-ed disapprovingly as we started walking again. This time, she went ahead of me, and I found myself thanking the darkness for its ability to cover whatever my face must look like right now. But it wasn’t long until we rounded another corner, and suddenly we could see the light from the exit glowing above the tunnel in the distance.

“We made it,” she said excitedly, her steps quickening as she hurried towards it. I hung a little farther behind, nervous that things might be awkward in the light after what had happened back there. But then, Zhenya’s eyes smiled back at me as we paused beneath the stairs to put our masks on, and I knew everything was still okay. As I ascended the staircase out of the darkness into the light, the sense of peace I’d had before flooded through me again—peace, and another strange feeling I couldn’t quite put my finger on.

The waiting attendant caught the both of us as we stood at the top, squinting in the brightness, pulling us over to a huge ornate mirror.

“Did you find it?” he asked in English. We both nodded. “Do you feel enlightened?”

I looked back at my reflection in the mirror, contemplating his words for a second. And then I looked over at Zhenya. Maybe this feeling was enlightenment. Because now I knew something I didn’t know before—something I hadn’t even known when Zhenya had asked me this morning at White Ring. Somewhere in the okaidan, it had suddenly become clear. I knew my dream now. Zhenya was my dream.

Chapter Text

(June 7, 2018 / Nagano, Japan – Heroes & Future Rehearsal)

Muscle memory was an incredible thing. As soon as the music started, it amazed even me how quickly everything would come back, even if it had been months or years since I’d last performed a program. And it wasn’t just the choreography. Sometimes it was even the thoughts and feelings I’d had while practicing or competing that came back—like I was back in that same moment, reliving it. Hope & Legacy was one of those programs that instantly sent me back in time. Sometimes, it took me back to Helsinki. Sometimes, it took me back to practice, when I was perfecting each tiny part with the hopes that the audience would understand what I was trying to convey. Sometimes, I even heard Shae-Lynn’s words.

“Learn who you are. Learn what it means to be free. This is about removing all your doubts. Erasing all your fears. You are alive. Live. Be yourself. Be happy.”

I knew skating to Hope & Legacy here in Nagano would move my audience. To many people, it was the symbol of perfection, and I took great pride in hearing that some thought it was the best free skate ever performed. For them, I was their hope, and skating at a level like that would always be part of my legacy. But what they didn’t know is that I was only halfway between my own hope and legacy. I was still pursuing all those things Shae-Lynn had talked about so long ago—learning what it meant to be free, learning how to free myself from my fears, learning to be happy.

I looked across the ice from where I stood, and a small smile crept onto my face. I’d been trying to do it on my own for so long, but maybe what I’d always needed was someone by my side to help me find the way. Who better to teach me what it meant to be free than the girl who had just done the impossible by choosing to leave her coach and her home? Who better to help me conquer my fears than the girl who didn’t let anything faze her, who was constantly telling me to take control for myself? And was there anyone who was happier than Zhenya? She lit up a room when she walked in, attracting guys and girls alike with her magnetic personality, always laughing the most enthusiastically and joining in on anything fun. How had I not realized it before? Zhenya was the missing piece. Zhenya was what I needed. She’d been there all along.

“Hanyu-senshu, are you finished?”

The event coordinator’s voice echoed across the ice, interrupting my dreamy thoughts.

Eto—hai,” I stuttered. I didn’t really need to practice this, anyway.

“Thoughts someplace else?” Javi teased, carving a circle in the ice around me.

“Maybe,” I glared at him.

He raised his eyebrows. “That’s progress.”

“What?”

“You’re not flat out denying it anymore.”

I almost argued back, but just then Zhenya sailed by and my mind went blank.

“Hey, Zhenya,” Javi called out to her, and my eyes widened. What was he doing? She turned back towards us, and butterflies filled my stomach. Why was it every time I saw her up close now all I could think about was how pretty she looked?

“We were just talking about you,” Javi said, and I clenched my fist to keep from smacking him, which, of course, would give me away.

“You… were?” Evgenia looked surprised, and then she glanced over at me.

I scrambled to think of something. “I was just thinking… it’s been a long time since we had a jump battle.”

She laughed. “That’s true.”

“Want to?” I grinned, rather liking the idea I’d come up with. I looked at Javi and he rolled his eyes. I made a face at him.

“I don’t know, you’ve been injured,” Zhenya said hesitantly.

“So have you, and you haven’t slowed down any out there,” I responded.

“That’s because I recover faster than you.” Her eyes were dancing now, and I knew I was close.

I tried to sound skeptical. “Oh, really? How sure are you about that?”

“Pretty sure,” she grinned.

“Prove it,” I challenged her. She laughed, and I knew she’d taken the bait. I watched as she skated to the other end of the rink to build up speed, and then she launched into a triple flip-triple toe loop.

“Pssh, too easy,” I scoffed as I flew by her, doing the same jump combo but adding a rippon on the toe.

She upped the challenge, and somehow landed three triples in combination out of nowhere.

I matched her effort, but in my haste, I didn’t get enough speed, and I fell on the final triple. She skated by, laughing at me, and I got up, dusting ice crystals off my pants, annoyed. “I’m just out of practice,” I yelled across the ice at her.

“Like I said, you haven’t recovered enough yet,” she taunted. “If you had, you’d be able to do this.” And then suddenly she hit four triples, at least two with tanos.

I circled around her, my competitiveness brewing. Four? I wasn’t about to be beaten by a girl, even a girl I liked. “Why would I have to worry about that, when I can do this?” And then I landed the clincher, a quad salchow-triple toe.

She crossed her arms, stationary on the ice. “Not fair,” she pouted. “You know I can’t do a quad yet.”

My eyebrows raised curiously, and I looked over at Javi, who’d been watching the whole thing. I skated closer to her so others around couldn’t hear. “Yet? Are you planning on trying?”

“A little more and my triple sal could be a quad,” she lifted her chin.

“Seriously?”

“Seriously.”

It was just a question. I hadn’t meant for it to be a challenge, but like me, Zhenya was always trying to prove something. Before I could stop her, she was flying across the ice, her ponytail whipping over her shoulder. As soon as she took off, I could tell it was the highest, biggest triple sal I’d ever seen. It was… too big. She took too much air, started to over-rotate—and then she crashed. Hard. The sound of her body hitting the ice sent a tremor through my own, and my pulse went through the roof as I saw the position she’d crumpled into on the ice. What had I done? What if she was injured again?

I raced towards her as fast as I could, but Javi beat me.

“Are you okay?” he asked, lifting her halfway up off the ice. She winced.  

“Um, I think so,” she said, and then she looked up at me. “Bad form, huh?” she grinned.

“Crazy girl,” I said, my heart pounding as I knelt down next to her. I didn’t even care that a couple others were gathering around us now. “What hurts?”

She reached forward and pulled up her legging. Javi let out a low whistle. A bruise was already beginning to surface on her knee. “It’s actually not that bad,” she said. “Just stinging, you know?”

“You better get ice on that right away,” Javi said.

“I’ll be fine,” she said, shaking her head and trying to laugh it off. “You guys know I fall all the time, right?”

“Ice,” Javi frowned. “Yuzu, take her.”

A few minutes later, Zhenya was sitting on a chair across from me, her leg propped up on my thigh as I held a bag of ice cubes from the breakroom freezer on her knee. “This is too much,” she sighed. “Go back to rehearsal.”

“No, this is my fault,” I said, still upset with myself. “I should have never challenged you.”

“It was fun, though,” she said, and I looked up at her.

“Yeah,” I said, smiling softly. Our eyes locked onto each other’s for a second, and I felt the butterflies returning. I looked down at the bag of ice, pretending to re-adjust it or something.

“Are you ready for the show tomorrow?” Zhenya changed the subject.

“The show?” I repeated. ”I’m not going to be there tomorrow, remember? I have that awards thing.”

“That ‘awards thing’?” she laughed. “Only someone like you could say it so casually like that.”

“It’s because I’d rather be skating.” I’d rather be here with you. Another thought crossed my mind, and it came out before I could stop myself. “We only have a few days left together.”

Evgenia’s eyes fluttered, and I could see her swallowing. Kuso. Should I not have said that? She finally spoke, and her voice was low and soft. “That’s why I’ve been wanting to make the most of it.”

My heart skipped a beat. It mattered to her, too?

“That’s why I don’t mind things like this,” she said, looking down at her knee. “We were having fun.”

“Yeah,” I said, and then I cleared my throat. “I mean, no,” I said emphatically. “You shouldn’t get hurt.”

“It’s ok,” she smiled. “It was worth it.”

“Hey, finale run-through is up next!” a voice came from the hallway.

“I should go to that,” I murmured.

“Me, too,” Zhenya said, grabbing the bag of ice and taking it off her knee. She stood up. “See, I’m fine.”

---

(June 10, 2018 / Nagano, Japan – Day 3 of Heroes & Future)

If being away from her for a day and a half was any indication of how well I’d manage a month and a half without her, I had a long road ahead of me. More and more, I found my thoughts drifting to Zhenya—when I had a few quiet moments to myself, when I was riding in the car, when I was falling asleep at night. When I closed my eyes, Zhenya looked like an angel. And when I opened them, she was better than my dreams.

I wasn’t ready for this to end, but time was running out. It was our last night in Nagano. Our last night together. I’d thought about how I’d say goodbye to her tens of times, but I still hadn’t come up with a plan by the time the show started. All I knew was that I wanted to hold on to every last moment, freezing everything in my memory until I could see her again.

Maybe that’s why I paid more attention tonight.

Zhenya really was an angel tonight, wearing that exquisite white dress for the opening number, and my heartbeat quickened when I saw she’d chosen to wear the white bracelet with it. A few days ago, I’d have been worried, but now I had a sense of pride seeing it on her wrist. It was something that connected her to me, and my fear that others would know was dissipating. Was this what would happen? Would I slowly get used to the idea that it didn’t matter what others thought, and one day, I could admit my feelings for her in the open? Maybe we really could get there, someday.

Tonight I still had to hold back from openly staring at her, though. Satoko was back with us this again, and I knew she would notice more than the others. She’d been incredibly sweet all weekend, joining up with Evgenia and the other girls backstage, acting like nothing was wrong. But I knew her feelings couldn’t have disappeared so fast, and I couldn’t knowingly trample over anyone like that. But when Zhenya took the ice for her last performance, I finally had an excuse to watch her unabashedly. I stepped to the front of the boards for the closest view I could get. It was the last time I’d see her perform in person until who knows when.

If I’d thought that nothing could be more beautiful than Evgenia in pure white, my mind was quickly changed when I saw her in the dress she’d chosen for her exhibition. She looked ethereal and almost other-worldly in the costume others had nicknamed the Leftovers dress as she came to the center of the ice. The music started. I’d heard parts of it last night, but tonight I was determined to give it my full attention. There were lyrics to this song, and like my own music, I knew that Evgenia had chosen this song with intention. She always had a message to give, a story to tell.

The words were soft and rapid, and I struggled a bit to process them all. Like the title itself, the words were poetic and circular, winding around and around and setting a mysterious, hypnotic rhythm in time with the twirls and spins Zhenya formed around the ice. But the more I listened, the more I heard familiar things, and the more I found myself shrinking back from the boards.

Like a tunnel that you follow to a tunnel of its own
Down a hollow to a cavern where the sun has never shone
Like a door that keeps revolving in a half forgotten dream
Or the ripples from a pebble someone tosses in a stream


Why did summer go so quickly, was it something that you said?
Lovers walk along a shore and leave their footprints in the sand

 
When you knew that it was over you were suddenly aware
That the autumn leaves were turning to the color of her hair
Like a circle in a spiral, like a wheel within a wheel
Never ending or beginning on an ever spinning reel
As the images unwind, like the circles that you find
In the windmills of your mind

 

She ended the song lying on the ice, her body curled into the fetal position. I swear I saw her shoulders shaking for a moment, but when the lights came back on and she stood, she was smiling, like everything was fine. Maybe it was. It was just a song.

But if I had mixed feelings then, it was nothing compared to what happened later that night.

The show ended on a high note. The crowd was massively pleased with everyone, and I was massively pleased with almost everything. Zhenya and I were finally back in a good place, and even though the knowledge that this was our last night was bittersweet, I felt a hope in my heart. Zhenya was coming to Toronto. Things wouldn’t end here. I had no idea what the future would hold, but for the first time, I had a feeling it might be good.

Backstage, our eyes connected across the group of skaters. The way she was looking at me—it almost felt like… No. I had to remind myself that she had just told me she didn’t actually like me. But that didn’t mean she wouldn’t ever like me, right? I grinned inwardly. Maybe in Toronto, where there would be plenty of places that were safe for us, I’d have a chance to convince her.

She was still looking at me, and I couldn’t take my eyes off her either. Maybe Javi was watching. Maybe Satoko was watching. I didn’t care. I wanted to go to her, take her away somewhere. But how?

I didn’t have to figure it out. Before I realized what was happening, she came to me through the crowd. I sucked in a short breath when I felt her hand slip into mine. This time, she pulled me away from everyone else, out of the skaters’ entrance, down the concourse, and into a hallway. Where else.

This time it was my back that was to the wall, but of course, Evgenia didn’t lean forward and trap me there. Instead, she just stood there, a good distance from me, and as I studied her, I could see she was fidgeting, tapping her long, manicured fingernails one by one against the pad of her thumb. Was it possible she didn’t know how to say goodbye, either, just like me?

“Evgenia,” I said softly.

Her eyes lifted up to mine. When she spoke, it was halting. “I just—wanted to say—thank you.”

I tilted my head at her curiously. “Thank you? I didn’t do anything.”

She looked down again. “You don’t know it. But you did. So thank you.”

I smiled and nodded in acknowledgment. Maybe she meant our day together. Maybe she meant getting over the bracelet thing. Maybe she meant our jump battle like old times. Whatever it was, I was glad it made a difference to her.

But then, she looked up at me again, and to my surprise—her eyes were filling with tears.

“Zhenya,” I said, stepping forward, but she drew back, opening her mouth like she had something to say, only nothing came out. She blinked, and a tear spilled over. And then, she was in my arms.

My back hit the wall as I stumbled backwards in surprise. Her head buried into my shoulder, and instantly I went back to the tunnel. Muscle memory. My eyes closed, my face moved close to hers, and my hands instinctively pulled her body to me with the same fervor I’d felt then, and maybe even more, as I wondered when I would get to hold her like this again. I always wanted to hold her like this. If only she wasn’t crying. Why was she crying, again?

She seemed to sense my mental question and pulled back. I fought against the urge to keep her with me—we weren’t hidden in a dark tunnel this time, after all, and the memory of Satoko walking in on us the last time was too fresh. Instead, I looked down at her, searching her eyes. The anguish that was there before was gone, replaced with a serious, serene steadiness.

“Nagano was wonderful, Yuzu,” she said. I smiled and nodded again. The memories here would last us until we saw each other again, wouldn’t they?

She took another step back. “I’ll never forget it. That’s all I wanted to say.” She looked away suddenly, and at the same time, my stomach twinged. “Goodbye, Yuzu,” she whispered.

Something was weird about her lack of eye contact as she said that, and it seemed like there was a coolness in the air. I stepped forward. “Don’t you mean, goodbye for now?” I asked gently, teasingly, trying to remind her of what she always used to say. “We’ll see each other in Canada.”

She looked up, her eyes scanning mine. She opened her mouth, hesitating. And then she smiled, nodded, and slowly backed away.

Something was really weird.

Two days later, everything made sense. Two days later, my dreams were turning into a nightmare.

Chapter Text

I hurled my phone onto the bed, letting out an infuriated growl. I was a fool. How could I have let this happen, getting so invested in a girl when I knew… I knew this already. I’d seen it coming, and like an idiot, I’d pretended it wasn’t real. But it was real. There was no question about it now.

I crawled onto the hotel bed, grabbing for the phone again, against my better judgment. It made me sick to look at it, but I still had this uncontrollable desire to look at it anyway. She was beautiful, smiling like that with him. Maybe she would have looked like that with me, if I hadn’t made her wear that mask. But with him, she didn’t have to wear a mask. She didn’t have to hide anything. She could even post things on social media… like this. She could do what she wanted, just like she said she would.

I growled again, watching her run her fingers through his hair for the fifteenth time. So this is what you want? I should have been angry with him, for taking her away from me. But who could blame him for liking her, after all? Instead, I was angry with her. Did nothing mean anything to her? The words we’d said, the looks we’d shared, the feelings… were those only my feelings?

Don’t let go of me, Yuzu.

I closed my eyes, hearing her voice in the okaidan, feeling her cling to me. That had only been a few days ago. Had I just imagined all of that? How could she say those things, be that way with me… and then just flip-flop to him as soon as she was out of my sight?

I didn’t understand her. I didn’t understand… girls. Say one thing, act like another, and who knows what’s really going on in your head? This is why I stayed away from women. This is why I should have stayed away, like I’d told myself before. That way they couldn’t lead you on and get you into a mess like this.

I argued with myself in my head. No, Zhenya hadn’t led me on. She’d been honest. She’d told me she didn’t like me. Other than the goodbye, she’d barely even initiated anything. Except for the bracelet. She’d worn the bracelet for me. I knew it meant something to her, even though she’d joked it was to irritate me.

It hadn’t irritated me. But it irritated me now. I suddenly felt my hand fumbling at my wrists, undoing the clasps. The bracelets fell onto the bed. I felt oddly naked without them. Empty. Or maybe it was just because she was gone. Really gone.

The next day, she posted another photo of them together. He was using her hair as a mustache, she was making a cute pouty face. “Mood color: yellow,” she posted. Yellow was the color of his jacket. It had something to do with his album, I guess. I don’t know. All I knew was that it infuriated me. And yet, I kept looking back at the photo, analyzing how close they were sitting, how her shoulder covered his. Jealousy consumed me. All our weeks together and she’d never chosen to sit that close to me. She hadn’t even accidentally moved that near me, even on the bus.

And then something possessed me to click on the photo. It was a mistake. The comments made it worse—people speculating on their relationship status, complimenting them on how cute they were together. It was like… what people used to do with us. Then, I saw that she was replying to some of them. Someone had said that her “brother” was cute, and she’d quickly replied that he wasn’t her brother. I rolled my eyes. She had to make that clear, didn’t she? And then someone else was talking about him using Pantene—her sponsor—and she replied that he had to use it, he had no choice. My stomach churned. Something about that comment made it seem like they were … so close. How long exactly had this been going on? How long had they been friends… or… together? I thought I knew her so well. But she had a life I didn’t know about at all.

I turned off my phone screen again. Looking at her social media just made things worse. I shouldn’t look at it anymore.

But the next time I picked up my phone, there she was again, and I couldn’t help but stare at the picture again. And then, my heart jumped. How many times had I looked it at before and hadn’t noticed it? Maybe it was because it hadn’t been visible in the thumbnail on my feed before, or maybe it was because the comments had distracted me when I’d opened it. But there it was, still on her wrist—the bracelet.

A ridiculous feeling of hope surged through me for exactly two seconds before I shoved it back down. I had to stop thinking there was something when there was nothing. These pictures—they were actually a good thing. They proved to me once and for all that I had to stop this nonsense of liking Zhenya.

---

“I need your help with something.”

Javi looked up from his breakfast at me, bewildered at my approaching him first. “Sure. What?”

“I need you to get me some flowers. Eto—roses. Roses would be good,” I said matter-of-factly.

Javi’s eyebrow raised, half-frowning. “What for?”

“I can’t exactly be seen out buying flowers,” I shrugged.

Javi sighed. “That’s not what I meant. What do you need flowers for?”

“They’re for Satoko-san. I’m planning to…apologize,” I said.

The widening of Javi’s eyes unnerved me and I looked away.

“Apologize for what?”

I could feel my cheeks flushing, but I had to tell him if I wanted him to do this favor for me. “Satoko-san—she—confessed a while ago. I rejected her initially, but I need to apologize now.”

“With roses.” Javi scoffed loudly. “What’s gotten into you, Yuzu? Don’t you know she’ll think—”

My eyes shot back to him. “That I’m taking back my rejection? Yes, I know she’ll think that.”

“This is about Zhenya, isn’t it?”

My stomach dropped. I should have known he’d bring her into this. “No, this is between me and Satton.”

“Like hell it is,” Javi said, slamming down his fork with a noise that made several people look in our direction. “Yuzuru, don’t be an idiot. You know you’re in love with Evgenia. But you screwed it up. And now to make yourself feel better, you’ll risk hurting someone else?”

“What?” I didn’t even know what he was talking about, but it was making me mad.

“I saw the posts from Moscow just like you did, Yuzu. You might be jealous and hurt right now, but you can’t just do this to another girl.”

“You’ve got it all wrong. I’m not trying to hurt Satoko. I already hurt her, and now I want to make it better. It wasn’t fair that I rejected her so quickly. She’s a nice girl, and she made some good points that we have a lot in common. Why shouldn’t I consider her?”

“Because you like Zhenya.”

“Zhenya and I can’t be together,” I spat out before I realized that I was confirming his statement yet again. “It’s impossible.”

“Since when did you back down from impossible?” Javi shook his head. “I know you, Yuzu. Once you commit to something, you don’t let go this easily. You don’t want to feel this way, but you do. Replacing her with someone else isn’t going to work.”

I gulped. I wasn’t trying to … replace… I was just trying to do the smart, reasonable thing. “So you’re not going to help me, I guess.”

“I won’t help you make another mistake, no,” Javi said, averting his eyes back to his food.

I left with a huff, pulling out my phone. I had other people who could do favors for me.

By that night, a dozen red roses had been delivered to my room, and I sat looking at them on the desk from where I sat on my bed. Zhenya had sat at that desk, I couldn’t help but think. And I couldn’t help but think that she was more beautiful than a million roses could ever be.

I took a deep breath, drawing up my courage. If Evgenia could move on so quickly to the next person, so could I. I stood up hastily, grabbing the bouquet and heading out of the room. Before I knew it, I was up on the girls’ floor, making my way towards Satoko’s room. 628, Shoma had said, right? I could still see him looking at me oddly when I’d asked for it. After all, it’d only been a few days ago that I had been pestering him for Evgenia’s room number. It wasn’t like me to ask for any girl’s room number, much less two different ones this close together.

My hand trembled a bit as I raised it at Satoko’s door, and just then it occurred to me that I had not thought through what I was going to say. That wasn’t like me, either.

What was I going to say? I imagined her face when she would open the door and see me holding roses and I could feel my face already growing warm. Surprise, then… hope. Maybe even happiness. It was exactly as Javi had said. She would immediately think… something. I could apologize for being short with her that other night, for running away when she was crying—that was a start—but then what? Would I say I wanted to give her a chance? Ask her to do something with me?

Suddenly a hot shiver rushed through my bones at the reality. Me—going out with Satoko, having a relationship with Satoko? It had made sense this morning. Why didn’t it make sense at all right now? My right hand fell from its mid-air position, and my left let the roses droop towards the floor. Javi was right. This wasn’t right. I didn’t have feelings for her. I couldn’t lead her on. I couldn’t… lie… this way. I staggered backwards, turning away. At the end of the hallway, I stuffed the roses into a garbage bin.

I winced as I withdrew my hand, a thorn catching on my skin. I looked down at the tiny droplet of blood that was forming on the surface of my skin and scoffed bitterly. This is why I should stay away from things like this entirely. No matter what I tried, I’d just end up hurt.

Love was just a silly dream. Just like Zhenya had said.

No, that wasn’t what Zhenya had meant. And I knew it was cynical of me to think so. But part of me wanted to wallow in self-pity, just for a little bit. For the rest of the week, I let myself feel however I wanted to feel. Jealous at seeing reports of Zhenya and that singer guy at the airport together, mad at Javier for his annoying, uncanny ability to simultaneously read me and put me in my place, despondent at the reality of having to face all of next season with Evgenia close by, just out of my reach. And then, when the weekend came, and the next show was about to begin, I put it all away.

It wasn’t until the lights dimmed for my new program that the truth hit me. As the delicate notes of Haru, Yo Koi floated through the air of the Kobe arena like falling sakura petals, I allowed myself to become as lost in the music as my audience was. Slowly, steadily, a strange, surrealness came over me—a feeling I had only felt a few times before, like when I was skating to Hope & Legacy. Instead of the confused, shaky feeling that had been dominating my body the last few days, my feet felt surer and surer beneath me, my confidence growing with each step, each spin. This was where I was meant to be. On the ice, I understood everything. Here on the ice, I could focus on what really mattered—skating. My dream couldn’t be Zhenya—my hope couldn’t lie solely in just one person. It wasn’t fair to put that kind of pressure on someone else. The only person I could rely on for that was myself. I thought I had put everything out there when I won the Olympics, but right here, right now, I could feel it. There was more. I had more to give.

With renewed energy, I flew across the ice, and suddenly I felt my hopes and dreams taking shape. I didn’t need to throw away love. I just had to focus it in the right direction. And what I truly loved was this—performing, making people happy, pushing the boundaries of this amazing sport, doing what everyone else thought was impossible, here on the ice. But I could do the impossible. My body leaned down low to the ice, in the deepest hydroblade I’d ever done. Nearly parallel to the ice, defying physics, I briefly wondered if my blades might slip and give out on me like they had in practice. But they never did. The ice held me, supporting me with a force outside myself as I spun, and I lowered myself even further, my lips nearly kissing the shimmering white surface. The sensation was dizzying, terrifying and exhilarating all at once. But one thing I felt more than anything else. In this moment, in this space, I felt love.

Zhenya had been joking when she said my true love was the ice, but it wasn’t a joke anymore. Misha had been kidding when he said he wanted to see me kiss the ice, yet here I’d symbolically done it. And this was just the beginning. I would prove to them, to myself, to the world who I really was, how much I could do. Moments later, I landed a delayed single axel with the kind of effortlessness I craved, and I knew it without a doubt.

By the time I set foot inside the Cricket Club a month and a half later, I was completely fine. I was completely over Evgenia Medvedeva.

Chapter Text

 

 

-- PART II --

 

 

Sometime in late summer 2018 / Toronto, Canada

It was a musty smell that greeted my nose when I walked into the building—musty, due to the age of the building and the various sources of water in different states of matter that it housed—musty, but not unpleasant. In fact, it was comforting and familiar, especially on mornings like this when I felt a little more tired than normal. More than my apartment, more than my room, the Cricket Club felt like home. After all, I spent most of my time here, either physically or mentally, and its everyday sameness had always calmed me.

Until recently.

Because something wasn’t the same here anymore.

I pushed open the doors to the rink, and it was like my eyes had a will of their own, scanning the ice. I shook my head at myself. It was too early. She wouldn’t be here yet. And it didn’t matter if she was. And then my heart jumped. There in the far corner of the rink spun a slender, dark silhouette. So she was here.

I sighed, plunking down my bag on the bench. It seemed like I was never prepared when I saw her here. There was always something that caught me off-guard—her unpredictable presence like this morning, her loud, sometimes even boisterous voice on the ice in the middle of a session with Brian or Tracy, her choice of training outfits. The outfits annoyed me most of all.

I looked over at her, again. Today she wore a long sleeved training jacket, but her short skirt skimmed over barely opaque black tights that accentuated the curves of her legs. In the short time that she’d been here, I could see a difference in her muscle tone already. In fact, her whole body was changing. Not that it was more attractive or anything. I really had gotten over any weird thoughts I'd had over the tour season. 

Suddenly I became aware that she was coming to the side of the ice. My head dipped down as I sat down on the bench to lace up my skates, not wanting to make eye contact with her. I was here to work, and I couldn’t be distracted by…

She was taking off the jacket. Perfect.

“Morning, Yuzuru,” she called out to me. Yuzuru . It was always Yuzuru now. Never Yuzu.

I looked up at her, and it was all I could do to keep my face composed. Under her jacket she was wearing one of those sheer numbers again, which only served to draw my attention to the shape of her bra—no, tank top—underneath. Why did her outfits seem so much sexier than they used to? I blamed Gabby. Or Nike. Or women's fashion in general. This wasn't fair. 

“Isn’t it a little early for you to be here? It’s not even 9 a.m.” It was supposed to sound like a joke, but for some reason it ended up sounding a little bitter.

She paused, and it felt uncomfortable. “I have a lot of work to do today.”

“Yeah, me too,” I said. That sounded standoffish, too, didn’t it?

“See you around then,” she said briskly and glided back onto the ice away from me.

I took a deep breath and looked down at my skates, and I was dismayed to see I’d missed two hooks. I undid the laces, fixing my mistake. I didn’t usually make mistakes like that.

Once I was finally on the ice, I drowned myself in preparing the elements of my new programs. Already they were coming together, and already I could feel the excitement building inside of me at what they could eventually become. I lost myself in my head for a bit—and then she caught my eye again as she was leaving the rink. I felt a strange twinge as I remembered our conversation from before. How long had it been since we’d been training here together, and not once had we had a conversation that had gone further than basic pleasantries? Today, it hadn’t even been pleasant.

It was just the way she’d said it would be.

This is just how it’s going to be from now on. I think… I’m just preparing myself for it. For when we’re not friends anymore.

A kind of anger welled up inside of me. This was her fault, her own prophecy being fulfilled. It didn’t have to be this way. But she’d done everything possible to make sure it was. She had stopped texting after Japan, even our group text with Misha. She'd been all business here in the club, too. No joking around or making comments to me when we shared the ice together. We hadn't seen each other even once outside these doors.

It was fine. I didn’t need her. All I wanted was to achieve my dreams on the ice now. All I needed to do was skate for myself. Like I’d learned well to do when things didn't go the way I wanted, I twisted that hot, angry feeling into a renewed fervor for my work, and its energy was not to be disregarded. I could feel it—I had the power to achieve great things this season.

But so did Evgenia. It would have been hard not to notice the progress she’d been making since she’d arrived. She was already faster than I remembered on the ice, and I’d overheard the congratulations across the rink as she’d landed a lutz or two with a flat edge. She was fixing things, improving things. If I hadn’t been mad at her, I’d have been proud of her.

That thought was still lingering in my mind during our afternoon session, when by some mistake again, our eyes met in the mirror along the wall of the rink. Had she been looking at me, or had I been looking at her? It had happened too quickly for me to really tell, but either way, she had my attention against my will again. I struggled to block her out for a few minutes, and then I gave in and looked over at her.

Just then, she drove forward into a double axel, and my eyes widened at the size. Since when had that improved so much? I felt my lips curving into the slightest of smiles, and then I reeled myself in. What was that all about? Flustered, I left the ice, but for some reason, something in my willpower had snapped, and I kept watching her from the sidelines.

I observed as Brian swirled around her, giving her feedback. She was taking it all in. In record time, Evgenia was already mastering English, something that I still struggled with years after arriving here, and she was like a sponge, soaking in everything he said, processing it, focusing. Her face was one of sheer determination, an emotion I related well to. I watched as she changed the speed and angle of her entry on the next attempt, and this time, the jump was even higher, even farther. I couldn’t stop my smile this time. Kuso. I was proud of her, wasn’t I?

I don’t know how much time passed, but by the end of the training session, I was totally enthralled again. I’d never watched her this closely. I’d never paid attention to how quickly she could adapt and change. I’d never known how attractive a girl hard at work could be. It was even more attractive than a sheer crop top.

But it was the sheer crop top that I had to tell myself to not look at when she came around the corner on the way out that night. She halted quickly when she saw me, pulling her earbud out of her ear.

“You scared me,” she said.

“Sorry,” I said, standing up from my chair. I hadn’t been waiting for her… not exactly. I was editing music after noticing a few things that needed tweaking. It didn’t mean anything that I had picked a chair on the route I knew she took out of the building instead of my usual spot. Sometimes I just liked a change of scenery, okay?

“I thought everyone had left already,” she said. “It’s late.”

“You’ve been here a long time,” I said. She nodded.

“Did you eat dinner already?” My own question surprised me. Where was I going with this? I didn’t even know.

“I had a smoothie,” she said.

I frowned. “That’s not dinner.”

“It is now,” she said. “I’ve gained weight.”

“You’ve gained muscle,” I was quick to reply. Maybe I hadn’t known where I was going with it, but it wasn’t this. I’d heard rumors of what girls over there had to go through. “Weight isn’t always a bad thing.”

She scoffed, and then shook her head. “It’s harder for girls. You wouldn’t understand.”

I probably didn’t. Her statement silenced me a bit, and at my pause, she started to walk past me, reaching up to put her music back in. My heart jumped. I hadn’t waited out here for nothing. “Let’s get a real meal," I blurted out. 

She halted immediately, eyes straight ahead. “What?” 

My mouth felt a little dry for some reason. She turned and looked at me, and my stomach did that weird flipping thing. It’d been a while since I’d felt that.

“I’m hungry,” I managed to get out.

Suddenly I saw her shoulders relax, and she turned towards me, a smile on her face. “Sorry,” she said. I couldn’t help but notice her tone was totally different. Totally… not her . “I have to get back home.”

I swallowed, nodding. Her mother would be waiting for her, no doubt. But her voice… it bothered me. “I just thought, it's been awhile,” I said.

Zhenya looked straight ahead again. “I’m really busy, Yuzuru.”

“We haven’t even talked.” The words were coming out without my permission. Why was I saying these things? Why did I sound like I missed her so much? Suddenly I felt a little rush of awareness. I… missed her. I did. Standing here, only two feet away from her, I could feel it inside my bones. My mind flashed back to her old quips about me missing her. What wouldn’t I give to hear her make a joke like that now?

“I don’t have time to talk to anybody,” she said. “I only have time for work.”

Her reply was firm, but a little softer, and it made me pull back a bit. Yes, she was busy. She’d just moved to a new country, was learning a new language, new techniques, new programs. I shouldn’t interfere with that. Her not wanting to hang out or talk—it wasn’t anything personal. Right?

“I understand,” I said. “Have a good night then.”

The old Zhenya would have grinned and wished me good night, too. But this Zhenya, the new Zhenya—she didn’t. She just nodded, put in her earbud… and quickly walked out.

It was just because she didn’t have time.

---

Except she did have time.

I didn’t realize it until two days later, on a Friday afternoon. I was in the locker room, showering after a grueling workout in the gym, when I overheard them. It was Jun-hwan Cha, the tall, gangly kid who sometimes reminded me of myself, and Jason Brown, a veteran who was also new to the club this year. Normally, I wouldn’t have paid them any mind, but the name they mentioned made my ears perk up. Her name.

“I don’t want to bother you and Evgenia,” Jun-hwan laughed. “You guys are basically best friends already. I’d be a third wheel.”

His words hit me so fast, I immediately shut off the water. My ears strained to hear them better. Jason and Evgenia? Best friends? Third… wheel? Wasn’t that what people said when they were talking about joining a couple?

“Stop it,” I heard Jason’s laugh echo through the walls of the locker room. “You wouldn’t be a third wheel at all! Zhenya said herself that she wants to get to know you better. There’s always room for more friends.”

And then there was Jun-hwan’s reply. “I have kind of been craving McDonalds.”

My hand suddenly reached out to the tiled shower wall for support. McDonalds? They were going to get McDonalds? Why wasn’t I invited? Even the internet knew I liked McDonalds. But it didn’t make any sense. Evgenia had just told me she was too busy to hang out. She said she was only drinking smoothies. She said she only had time to work. Had all of that been a lie? Was she really just blowing me off?

The water on my skin was starting to make me cold, but the shiver I felt inside was not a chill. I was upset. Again. Jealous. Again. 

And just like that, Evgenia had my whole attention again. 

And then, I began to understand something else. I had none of hers. 

It dawned on me Monday morning. The day started out just the same as the last time, with Zhenya greeting me good morning out on the ice. But now, suddenly I was paying more attention, and now, suddenly I noticed the difference. If things had been good between us, her smile would have lit her eyes and her voice would have a special ring to it. And if something had been wrong, she wouldn't have greeted me at all. But this…. this... was just so utterly flat and generic. As if she felt nothing at all. It was awful. 

She started her warmup on the ice, and I turned away to keep from staring at her. Something in me was burning--the strongest desire for things to go back to the way they used to be between us. The strongest desire to hear her say…

"Good morning!"

I whirled around at the sound of the familiar tone, my heart skipping a beat unintentionally. And then my heart sank. It was for none other than Jason. Her new best friend, apparently. 

Hadn't I been one of her best friends, before? Hadn't I been the one she looked forward to see the most at competitions and shows? And now, we saw each other every day, and this was how it was. 

This is what she said would happen. This is what I made happen, by saying the things and doing the things I did. 

We're not friends anymore

I turned away from the sight of her and Jason joking around about something, a knotted feeling in the pit of my stomach. I didn't know Jason that well, but everything I knew about him told me he was a good guy. I shouldn't be jealous. But it was hard to watch Evgenia so light-hearted and free with him on the ice. That's how we used to be, before everything got ruined. How was it possible to miss someone so much when they were just across the ice? Was there no way to get back what we had? But how could there be, when she obviously had no interest.

I found myself circling around the rink, pathetically hoping to catch a bit of their conversation each time I passed. The first time around, they were talking about hair, of all things, and how Jason was going to cut his. I couldn't care less about something like that. 

But the next time I passed, my ears perked up. They were talking about something else. 

"Can you stay late tonight?" Zhenya was asking Jason. "I have some skating questions for you." 

That fiery burn of jealousy churned in my stomach again. I was the top skater here at the club, not Jason. I could answer any questions she wanted. In fact, I used to, when things were good between us. More than once, she’d pulled me aside just like that. And then I remembered the last question she’d asked--well, tried to ask me--my opinion on her coming to the club. She’d thought I didn’t want her here. I’d never straightened that out with her. I’d never told her coming here was something I’d never even allowed myself to dream about. And now she was here, and instead of us getting closer, we'd never been farther apart. It was my fault. 

I hated this. I wanted to take all of those mistakes back. I wanted to fix this.

Jason laughed as I passed by again. "I don't know how I can possibly help the great Evgenia Medvedeva with skating, but I'll sure try."

"Don't be so modest," she poked at his shoulder. "Your skating skills are what I'm after. I've always been a fan."

I nearly slipped on the ice. 

That was it. That was how to get back to how we were before. Before I fell for her, we were friends. But before we were friends, she was… my fan. 

I'd show her some real skating skills. 

The rest of the day, I kicked it into overdrive, hell bent on perfection, hell bent on attracting Zhenya's attention.

I underestimated her focus. 

She was 100 percent attuned to her own training the whole time, zeroed in on some minutiae of her elements every time I looked over at her. I would have admired her concentration if I hadn't been so frustrated at my complete inability to get her to look my way at all. 

I stormed off the ice after our shared practice session, headed straight to Brian's office. 

He looked up at me in surprise when I appeared at his door. 

"Something happen on open ice?" he asked. 

"No, nothing," I said. A lot of nothing , I growled internally. 

"So what is it?"

"I want to do a run-through tomorrow. The free."

Brian's eyebrows raised. "At the other rink," he guessed.

"No, here."

"What happened to waiting til the media day?" he asked. I knew he would be suspicious. Every summer I purposely avoided full run-throughs of my new programs at the club, keeping them secret, paranoid of social media leaks. 

"We'll use the screens," I said matter-of-factly, referring to the tech that obscured the observation windows. "That's why we have them."

"Okayyy," Brian nodded, chuckling a bit. "I won't stop you, although I'm curious as to what's brought this on."

"I have my reasons." 

He chuckled again. "I'm sure you do, Yuzu. I'm sure you do."

---

I hadn't miscalculated this time. Everyone at the club knew each other's music by now, so by the time the first gong of Origin rang out, I was confident that literally all eyes in the rink were on me. 

It was an intricate program already, full of new and complicated elements that would impress judges, please my fans, and, I hoped, pay homage to my idol. Although as with any program, its main purpose was to earn me enough points to win against my rivals in the toughest competitions, today it would serve me differently. Today it would win me Evgenia back.

Three quads, two axels, an Ina Bauer and a hydroblade later, I knew I'd have her. I was completely exhausted by the end of the program, and the final spin nearly got me to the point of dizziness, but I struck the final, powerful pose amidst cheers from my rinkmates and coaches. Breathing hard, I dropped my head, searching the ice that had come to a standstill during my performance. She'd seen it, hadn't she? 

And then I saw her, standing motionless on the edge of the rink. Her red lips were parted, her dark eyes were shining, riveted on me, spellbound...just the way I wanted. Just the way it used to be. How it was before. Our gazes locked, and for a second, it was like everyone else in the rink faded away and I could see only her. This was the moment she was supposed to be remembering how awesome I was, but all I could think about was how beautiful she was and how much I wanted to be with her.

Fear of the people surrounding us noticing my stare brought me back to reality and I tore my eyes off her. The rink was abuzz as I got up off my knees, and a small swarm of people were already coming up to me to talk to me. I hadn't thought about this part. I hadn't thought about what happened next. I finally broke free from them all, starting towards where she was. 

And then I realized it. She was gone.

Chapter Text

Brian caught me before I could go after her, wanting to talk about some of the program elements, but for once I didn’t want to talk about my program. I wanted to go after Evgenia. But Brian couldn’t know that. It was all I could do to buckle down and talk about training again, all I could do to restrain my eyes from looking towards the door to see if she’d come back in. And then, after Brian was done, Ghislain came to analyze my jumps, and then Tracy came to comment on my edges, and then there were the juniors just wanting to gush. It was like I had released the water from a dam that had been filling up all summer, and there was no stopping it now. 

By the time everything quieted down, I was sure I’d missed any opportunity to see or hear Evgenia’s reaction, and by that time, I had resigned myself to the fact that she was probably gone. It was fine, though. I’d seen enough. I’d sparked something in her, at least for those few minutes. I could see it in her eyes. It was a start. 

But then, as I walked out of the rink, my eyes happened to fall on the cubbies where everyone stored their things, and a particularly familiar looking jacket colored white, red, and blue. She was still here. Somewhere. 

The Cricket Club was big, though, and my wanderings proved fruitless. She wasn’t in the weight room, or the dance studio, or the cafeteria--yes, I even ventured there. I eventually gave up. It was getting late in the day, almost everyone had left by now, and I needed to get home, too. I’d just check the rink one last time, and--

My feet came to a halt. Eyebrows furrowing, I stared at the windows overlooking the rink. The screens were darkened again, blocking the view of the ice to any passersby or onlookers. I'd been the one to request their addition, years ago, when my fame had reached a level where people became desperate for news about me and I became desperate for privacy. I knew I had seen the screens turn off after my performance earlier, going back to their original state. But now they were back on again. That meant someone else was using them. 

Someone else had something to hide.

I hurried faster than necessary down to the lower level. Sure enough, the sign was up on the door--Reserved. I scrambled to find the sign out sheet for private ice time, and my heart skipped a beat. There, in the current time slot, was the name I suspected: Evgenia Medvedeva. 

I stared at the door for a few seconds, letting the fact that she was on the other side of that door, working on something I wasn’t allowed to see drive me crazy for a second. It wasn’t her programs--I’d seen both of those already. What could she possibly be doing, staying late after everyone had gone?

And then I remembered. 

"Can you stay late tonight?" I heard Zhenya’s voice in my head, and then my heart rate increased. Was she in there...alone...with Jason? No, she’d asked him that yesterday. Would they be here again, tonight? And why would they need the windows blocked? Suddenly Jun-hwan’s comment about being a third wheel came back to my mind, and then I saw Zhenya poking his shoulder playfully. Was there something going on between them? 

My mind told me no, but jealousy is a weird thing. I had to know for sure. I had to see what they were doing in there. The sign glared back at me from the door. Everyone knew when it was up, you weren’t supposed to go in. The sign meant, Keep Out.

I went in. 

Quietly, though. And it was a good thing, because the rink was quiet as well. The sun was setting outside the windows along the west side of the building, streaking the ice with gold and orange tones. It was beautiful, empty like this. But where were Zhenya and Jason?

Suddenly I saw her come into view, out of the sound booth. She was alone. Jason wasn’t here. I sighed a bit in relief, scolding myself for imagining things. Now that I knew, I should turn around and leave as noiselessly as I’d entered. But the sun was catching the natural highlights in her brown hair and reflecting off the jewels in her boots and I couldn’t take my eyes off her once again. She glided across the ice, her skates making that smooth whisper I knew so well. I slipped backwards into the shadows, mesmerized.

And then the music started. (Like a River by Bishop Briggs. Right-click, open in new tab, or open in app)

Suddenly the calm, serene scene was interrupted by a strong, heavy beat. Evgenia’s body responded to the rhythm of the totally unexpected music, sending her dancing hypnotically across the ice. 

Like a River…

I shivered. Was this her new EX? Already I could tell it was dark, maybe even darker than Kukushka, almost angry. Her movements matched--sharp, fierce, and jaw-droppingly gorgeous. But soon I realized they weren't choreographed. The music was just moving Zhenya the way it wanted to. 

Suddenly on a dime, the lyrics turned soft and melancholy, and Zhenya spun gently across the ice in front of me. 

How do we fall in love?

Harder than a bullet could hit ya

How do we fall apart?

Faster than a hair pin trigger

Don't you say, don't you say it

Don't say, don't you say it

One breath, it'll just break it

So shut your mouth and run me like a river

Without warning the music grew loud and demanding again, and I almost lurched backwards from their power as they basically punched me in the face. At the same time, Zhenya unleashed. 

Shut your mouth, baby, stand and deliver

Holy hands, oh, they make me a sinner

Like a river, like a river

Shut your mouth and run me like a river

Zhenya was attacking the ice, her blades ripping into the surface, leaving craters in the aftermath of her forceful toepicks as she catapulted into jumps, flew into spins. She was breathtaking like this. 

Choke this love till the veins start to shiver

One last breath till the tears start to wither

Like a river, like a river

Shut your mouth and run me like a river

Soft Zhenya appeared again out of nowhere, dancing hypnotically to the next verse. I'd heard of people commenting on my duality before, but did anyone realize that Zhenya could transform the same way?

Tales of an endless heart

Cursed is the fool who's willing

Can't change the way we are

One kiss away from killing

Don't you say, don't you say it

Don't say, don't you say it

One breath, it'll just break it

So shut your mouth and run me like a river

I thought I was ready for the next part again, but I wasn't. 

Shut your mouth, baby, stand and deliver

Holy hands, oh, they make me a sinner

Like a river, like a river

Shut your mouth and run me like a river

It was then that I ironically realized my jaw was hanging open. And why did this wild, stormy performance seem almost passionate? I shouldn't have been so turned on by something so aggressive, but Zhenya was so on fire she could very well have melted the ice underneath her. I lost myself for just a moment, stepping closer to see her better, practically aching to be nearer to her. 

It was a mistake, again. She saw me. My heart stopped as our eyes connected, and my cheeks instantly flamed. Her own were flushed as well, not only from the spent energy, and she reached for her watch, shutting off the music faster than I could blink. 

"What… are you doing here…?" Her voice was a hoarse holler. 

I stared at her, transfixed by her wild appearance, her hair loose and disheveled from its formerly neat style, her skin glistening with sweat, her chest heaving with each ragged breath. 

I had no answer. 

Her eyebrows knitted together. "You weren't supposed to come in. No one was supposed to come in." She was angry. Rightfully so, I knew. But there was something else. 

I swallowed. Embarrassment? Not the kind as if I'd seen her doing something stupid, though. The kind as if I'd walked in on her naked. 

"Zhenya," I finally said. It was so soft I wasn't sure if she could hear me across the ice. "It was… beautiful." 

It was true. I’d never seen anything so beautiful as Zhenya raw and exposed. This was no EX, no practice. No one could skate like that unless they felt it inside of them.  

She clamped her lips down and strode across the ice, and then suddenly she was in front of me, her eyes flashing like lightning. "Don't talk to me like that. You have no right--" she stopped, breaking eye contact with me. 

"I know," I said. "I'm sorry." 

Her eyes shot up to mine. They were edged with tears, and it took me aback. She shook her head, distrustfully. And then I felt a cold rush come over me. The song… It was her response to me, wasn't it? What were the words again? I didn't know what they meant, but it was meant for me. I could tell by the way she was trembling.

Suddenly she was coming off the ice, brushing past me.

"Zhenya."

She stopped, her back to me for a moment before she half-turned her head over her shoulder. 

"Can we fix it?"

"Fix what?" she asked, her eyelids lowered and wary. 

My mouth was dry. "The ice."

She turned her whole body suddenly, looking out past me. The once-smooth surface was pocked with the holes she'd driven into it during her turbulent skate. She looked at it for a long second, and then shifted her steely gaze to mine, saying nothing.  

"We can't just leave it like that," I whispered. 

And then she said it. 

"I don't care." 

I took a step forward and met her eyes solidly. "Don't lie."

She looked away. "I can't do it. Not right now."

She was gone before I could think of anything else to stop her, and I found myself going through the motions of getting the bucket and filling it with snow. Still in my street shoes, I went to the ice. I knelt down, my hand packing a divot to fill it. 

I spent a half hour filling all the holes alone. It wasn’t only because I respected the ice too much to leave it this way. It was because these holes gave me hope that somehow we were still connected. That Zhenya could still have feelings related to me, even if they were from anger, or frustration. The way she’d skated just now, I’d seen the true Zhenya--the Zhenya I hadn’t seen in a while, the Zhenya I wanted back. I wanted her back more than anything.

That night, I put on my bracelets again, the ones I’d removed all those nights ago in Kanazawa. It was time to start over.  

It was oddly satisfying the next morning when Zhenya marched past me--right past me--without a word. My lips curved into a smile as I laced my skates and stepped out on the ice. She cared again.

I was in such a good mood that day, I told Ghislain I wanted to practice the quad axel. I'd been busy preparing my programs the last couple of weeks, but I didn't want to neglect the training of my number one goal. I hoped it would be ready by nationals, and if not, Worlds was at home in Japan this year, too. Either place would be perfect for unveiling it. 

"When do you want to head to the other rink?" Ghislain asked me. "I have a session here at…"

"We don't have to leave," I interjected. "We can do it here."

Ghislain's reaction mirrored Brian's from a few days earlier. I knew it was out of character for me, but I had to get out of my comfort zone if I wanted to keep making an impression on Evgenia. She'd never seen a quad axel. Even in a harness, it was a thing of beauty. And after yesterday, it would be a one-two punch. I smiled just thinking of her reaction. I'd just have to trust my rinkmates to abide by the policy of keeping my training off social media. 

That afternoon, Ghislain came to me with the harness operator and we went to work. I started out slow, just increasing the power and size of my triple, but within a few minutes I could feel it coming back to me, and I knew I was ready to try it. I nodded to Ghislain, and then glanced around the rink. 

"No one is watching, you're safe," he chuckled. 

Right, but that was the problem. I needed Zhenya to see this. She was engrossed in some kind of a discussion with Tracy, though, her attention completely occupied. 

But I couldn't keep everyone waiting. I sighed and looked over at the guy holding the harness. "I'm ready."

And then, I did it. Even though I still had to use the harness, landing the jump of my dreams always sent a delicious thrill through my body, blocking out my surroundings for a second. After the wave of triumph passed, I became aware of skaters around me applauding. I grinned, and my eyes darted to the other side of the rink. Had she seen it?

She was still looking at the iPad with Tracy. I sighed. But then I realized Tracy was looking at me, and just then she poked Evgenia, motioning towards me. I saw her lips form the words, Quad Axel, and Zhenya's eyes widened momentarily. My stomach flip-flopped as her attention turned my way, and then our eyes met across the rink. 

And then she shrugged. 

I fumed inwardly. She shrugged? I watched as she turned back to Tracy, talking a mile a minute, paying me no mind. 

"Yuzuru?" 

My head snapped back towards Ghislain. Oh. They were waiting for me. 

"Again," I nodded. She hadn't even seen it. Surely if she'd seen it… 

I hit three more 4A after that. I know for sure she saw one. But if it impressed her, she had the poker face of all poker faces. I almost laughed at the end of it all. This was crazy, me so desperate to get her attention. This girl. What had she done to me? 

I looked across the ice as I finished up. Once again, she was gone. This time, I shrugged. Like the quad axel, there was no rush. It would take time and patience, but it would happen when it was supposed to.

But there was no shrugging going on when Evgenia breezed through the rink doors for the final session. She was with Jason, as usual, but something was different. I could tell even from the far side of the ice. 

Suddenly I heard Gabby shriek from over in the corner, and I saw her racing towards them excitedly. Some of the other skaters immediately went up to them as well, obscuring my view. I tried to keep my own poker face on as I nonchalantly circled the ice closer to the entrance. And then I realized what the commotion was about. 

She'd cut her hair. They both had. While Jason's was more dramatic--his signature ponytail was gone--Evgenia somehow looked even more different to me. She had bangs. It was almost a little shocking how different she looked. 

I was so taken I didn't even realize that I'd come to a stop on the ice. That is, until Zhenya's eyes shifted pointedly in my direction. I gulped having been caught gawking at her. And then I saw her eyebrows flicker, just slightly, as she turned away.

All of a sudden I was riled again. Was she one-upping me? Or was she proving that she had just as much power over me than I had over her? 

I could play this game. 

I knew she always ended her day with weights in the gym. It wasn't my usual weight training day, but right now I was more than willing to make an exception. I'd be making more of an exception with something else, anyway. 

When I got there, she was already in the middle of her workout. She didn't notice me at first, facing away from me as she used the pull down bar, giving me a few moments to admire her. She was wearing one of those cropped workout tops again, and I let my eyes wander over the smooth skin of her back, and then along the curves of her slim shoulders. Sweat was already beginning to form around the back of her neck, but it only served to make me think about how a neck could be so attractive. 

Wait. This wasn't what I was supposed to be doing here. In fact, it was the exact opposite. And there were still a few people here. What if someone saw me staring so unabashedly at her like that? I gathered my willpower and turned away, plunking my bag down and getting my own workout started.

I'm not sure exactly when she became aware of my presence. The gym where the skaters trained wasn't as big as the main one here at the club, so I was confident she knew I was there, even if I kept my eyes trained on what I was doing. But more than my workout, I was watching everyone else here, gauging where they were at in their sessions. Slowly but surely, as I'd hoped, the last few athletes began to trickle out, and fairly soon it was just me and Evgenia. As I'd hoped.

We moved carefully around each other as we transitioned between equipment for awhile. She kept her eyes down and her earbuds in, signaling that she had no intention of having a conversation. That was okay. A conversation wasn't what I was after. 

I waited, strategically, until she moved to deadlifts. There was no avoiding looking up now--she would have to check her form in the mirror. Sure enough, I saw her eyes dart to me in the mirror--just briefly, but just enough. 

I pretended not to notice, and diverted my attention elsewhere, but I felt my stomach twinge a little. I set down the weight I was lifting. It wasn't illogical, what I intended. I wa s drenched in sweat already. It was hotter than usual in here--it seemed like it anyway. Aish

Just do it, Yuzu, and stop overthinking it. It will work. 

So I took my shirt off. I had a tank top on underneath, of course--I wasn't about to go completely shirtless in public or anything--but it was one of those wifebeaters, and it showed way more skin than I'd intentionally shown to anyone in years. I acted as nonchalant about it as possible, though, and grabbed a pair of dumbbells before looking up in the mirror. 

It was all I could do to suppress my grin. Zhenya's mouth had practically fallen open, and she had stopped halfway through her deadlift to stare at me. It was exactly the effect I'd wanted. (Although, that must have not been enough weight for her.)

Just then, I heard a commotion in the main hallway outside the gym, boisterous voices approaching. Crap. How could I have forgotten? This was the time when the juniors came, after the rest of us were usually done. I quickly set down the weights, looking around for where I'd thrown my shirt. I'd have to hurry to put it back on before--

A loud sound whipped my head back towards Evgenia, and my eyes widened as I saw that she'd flat out dropped the deadlift bar. And then my heart jumped as she came straight for me, grabbing my wrist and dragging me through the side door of the gym.

All of a sudden, I found myself with my back to the wall of the dark hallway, a tiny spitfire blazing in front of me. She was mad, and it was sexy. 

"What do you think you're doing?" she hissed. 

"Working out," I replied. 

She narrowed her eyes. "No. I mean this." She poked her finger at my exposed collarbone, and the mere contact sent an electric current through me. I instinctively grabbed her hand to stop her, but that inadvertently caused her to stumble a bit towards me. Suddenly we were standing inches apart, so close I could feel the heat from her skin on mine. I looked down at her, my heart racing. It'd caught her off guard, too, and she was just staring at me, her pretty lips parted, her breathing still heavy from exercise. It was impossible not to think about how good it would feel to kiss her right now. I let go of her hand to reach up to her face, intending to brush away her new bangs from the sweat on her forehead. 

But then she snapped. Her eyes ignited again and she stepped back. "Don't think I don't know what you're doing, Hanyu." 

My hand fell. Thinking of kissing you?

"Trying to impress me so I'll fangirl all over you again," she spat out, and suddenly my stomach felt queasy. That had been my plan, but for her to say it like that--it sounded selfish and vain. And then I realized I was standing in front of her in only my undershirt. My cheeks burned in the darkness. What had I been thinking?

"It won't work," she was saying. "I have more important things to concentrate on than some silly--"

"That's not what I want," I suddenly interrupted her. "I just wanted you back." My pulse increasing as I said those words made me rephrase. "I wanted things back to how they used to be."

She stared at me again for a long moment. But then she blinked. "You should have thought of that a long time ago. You can't fix everything, you know."

The memory of packing the holes with ice last night came back, and with it, a coldness began to seep into me.

"Things can't go back to how they were before," Zhenya said, lifting her chin up. "Things have changed. I've changed. Everything about me has changed."

My heart felt like it was splitting apart, and as I looked at her, I realized everything she was saying was true. Things were different. She even looked different. I swallowed. Was that what the bangs meant? Not a challenge to some sort of jump battle like I'd imagined, but a sign that she wasn't the same as she used to be. Maybe it was even a message to leave her alone. I'd misunderstood again. Maybe I didn't understand her at all. My heart rate rose again, but this time it wasn't because of how appealing it was to be so close to her like this. It was because I was the one who was upset now. 

"You're right, Evgenia," I said, and my tone was flat, edging a little bit on harsh. "You have changed." And then I used a phrase Brian had told me, long ago when I'd first come here, too. I leaned forward, glowering more than I should have. 

"Not all change is for the better."

This time I saw her swallow, her eyes flickering. She said nothing, but I knew I'd gotten to her. 

I turned on my heel and left her in the hallway without looking back. I didn't look back for weeks. 

Media day came and went like a blur. Training kicked into high gear, competitions looming on the horizon. Summer was over. 

The tension between me and Zhenya fizzled with time, and we went back to mostly just ignoring each other again. It was less of a calculated move from either side and more of a need to concentrate on ourselves. I knew being at the top this year, any year, would mean complete focus. No time for silly… whatever Zhenya had started to say. Any lack of focus could result in disaster. 

Except Zhenya was already dealing with a bit of a disaster. Not that I was paying attention, or anything, but I overheard the test skates in Russia went poorly...that she forgot part of her choreography. I had half a mind to reach out to her again, give her some tips I used to remember new programs. But I didn't. I just stayed away. 

But then it was Autumn Classic. And everything changed again. 

Chapter Text

(September 20, 2018 / Oakville, Ontario, Canada)

Autumn Classic. I never did perfectly here. Even with the stakes low and the competition slim, my first outing always revealed problem areas I couldn't see until the pressure of competition brought them to light. I would almost surely fall, forget some bit of my choreo. It was the first pancake, Brian always said. It had the potential to be ugly.

But I was okay with that. This season wasn't about winning or losing for me, like I'd told the press last month. It was about skating for myself, embracing my love for the ice. Of course I wanted to be at the top at the end of the day, of course I wanted to properly thank Plu-san and Johnny with my performances, but I had a higher sense of purpose this year. I wanted this year to give me that sense of fulfillment and even enlightenment, like I'd briefly felt that day in the tunnel, a bigger picture of who I was and where I should go next.

I wasn't the only one looking beyond my former self, of course. Evgenia had made it quite clear, to me, and practically to the world, that she was turning over a new leaf. Despite the drama of test skates, she had debuted two programs in completely different styles than she had ever done before, and the skating world was going a bit mad over it. While my fans would wait with bated breath to see my new costumes and layout here, Zhenya's haters would lurk in the shadows like rabid wolves waiting for a moment of weakness. There was far more pressure on her than there was on me, and everyone knew it.

Brian approached me about it a few weeks before we all left for the competition. 

"I promised you I wouldn't divide my time unequally," he said. I knew where he was heading. 

"But Evgenia needs you more," I finished his thought. 

"We'll be there for all the usual things," he said. 

"I'll be fine," I reassured him. "I'll have Ghislain, too."

"Yes," Brian nodded. "Thank you for understanding." 

I knew I could have demanded more of their time backstage if I'd wanted to. If Brian had sensed I was upset, he would have made it work, I knew that. But I really would be fine on my own. And in a way, I felt like this is one way I could help her, even from a distance. It's not like she'd let me close enough to help any other way. 

Or so I thought. 

I was about to leave the arena Thursday afternoon after my practice session when it happened. I'd stayed unusually late afterwards, and I'd be lying if I denied I was contemplating how I might be able to watch the ladies short program live. The first group had already started when I finally decided against not going in--I couldn't risk the stress of rumors at the beginning of a season. I was pulling up the number for my ride when I heard my name being called. 

"Yuzu!" 

Tracy was rushing over to me with a panicked look on her face. What was she doing out here? Shouldn't she be with Zhenya?

"Is everything okay?" I asked, frowning, but before I could get an answer, Tracy grabbed my arm and started pulling me with her, back in the direction she'd come.

"Oh my goodness, I'm so glad I found you before you left," she said.

"What's going on?" I asked again, bewildered as she continued to shuffle me down the concourse. 

"It's Evgenia," Tracy managed to get out.

My heart jumped. Was she hurt? Had she fallen in her practice? "What happened?"

"It's--she needs you." 

I stared at Tracy as she pulled me along. She needed me? I didn't understand. What could she possibly need me for? 

Suddenly I realized we were at the ladies dressing rooms. "I can't go in there," I balked. 

"We have a private room," Tracy said hurriedly, and practically shoved me through the door. Two seconds later, we barged into said private room, me expecting the worst. 

The room was darker than usual, the vanity table lights the main source of illumination, presumably to create a calm, relaxing and reflective atmosphere. In front of the vanity mirror, I saw her. Evgenia turned around, and my feet felt stuck to the floor. There was nothing wrong with her. Nothing wrong at all. In fact, I'd never seen her like this. She was wearing her new costume--I'd never seen it before--a blue and black dress with suspender straps and fringe for the short skirt, the look a combination of a flapper and a cigarette girl. Her hair was up, her Audrey Hepburn bangs sweeping across her forehead, her lips painted a shade of dark pink. In this light, the dress glittered even more than it would on the ice. But the thing I couldn't stop looking at was... her skin. Her shoulders, her neck, her collarbone, her decolletage--it was white and creamy and soft, and ridiculously sexy. The thought that I didn't want anyone else seeing her that sexy crossed my mind briefly, but I didn't have much time to think about anything else--Tracy was already fluttering around her, poking at things. 

"It's the dress. We don't have much time to fix it," Tracy was saying. "Her warm-up is in 20 minutes."

I couldn't unglue my eyes from Evgenia. She was staring back at me, her whole body shaking. 

"What do I do?" she whispered, her lip trembling. 

I forced myself out of my stupor, assessing the dress. And suddenly I could see what was so wrong. "It's too heavy."

She nodded rapidly, biting her lip. "Tracy said you'd know what to do."

"Why would they put jewels on the fringe," I muttered. My eyes scanned the room, and I grabbed the scissors when I spied them, marching up to Zhenya. "Tracy, get another pair," I barked. "We're need both of us to take them off."

"How many do you think we should take off?" Tracy asked worriedly. 

"How... many ? All of them," I spat out, looking back at Tracy while simultaneously kneeling next to Evgenia. "She can't jump like this. Hurry. You said we don't have much time."

Tracy scurried out of the room for another pair of scissors and I turned back to Zhenya. Check that. Back to Zhenya's legs. I tried to swallow away any weird feelings about Zhenya's legs. We didn't have time for that. But then I grabbed a handful of fringe, and my pulse quickened regardless as the back of my fingers grazed her thigh. 

"Can you, uh, shine your phone light here?" I faltered. 

She quickly grabbed her phone and turned it on so I could see better. My fingers went to work right away, flipping the tiny jewel over and deftly snipping the thread that attached it to the fringe before sliding the stone off. I'd done this to my own costumes countless times before. Tracy knew. But there were so many jewels. And so much fringe. And so little time. 

"Didn't you realize when you tried it on…" I started. 

"This is my first time seeing it," she said softly, and my head shot up to look at her in surprise. 

"I'm so behind on everything," she said. "We couldn't decide on a look forever, and then the designer we wanted ghosted us. I designed the bodice last week, and then sent it away for someone else to do this top part, the straps and the fringe. It just arrived here this morning." 

My eyes wide, I continued work on the next jewel. I'd taken part in creating costumes for sure, but this sounded so piecemeal and last minute. No wonder she was so frazzled. This wasn't the way to start a competition. 

"It's… so bad."

"We'll fix it," I said. My fingers were flying, onto the next jewel. 

"Maybe the jewels. But not...everything...can be fixed," she said and I heard her voice quiver. 

I frowned. "What do you mean?"

"It's… too much," she said. "Too much… skin."

I paused, clearing my throat softly. I knew what she was referring to. Standing up, I reached for the fabric of Zhenya's shoulder. "It's not that bad. Maybe we can fix…" My mouth went dry. Where was Tracy? Surely it was inappropriate for me to try to adjust her cleavage area, especially since we were alone, in a dimly lit dressing room. Suddenly I was overly aware of how close I was standing to her, and how my height provided an ample view of…

I dropped back down to my knees. The jewels. I had to work on the jewels. 

"They're going to tear me apart in the media," she whispered. 

"Don't think about that right now. Think about your program. Let me and Tracy fix the dress," I said. Her mindset wasn't anywhere near where it should be for a skate happening in… crap… 15 minutes now. 

"But you've seen the program," she said, her voice full of worry. "The moves, in this…" 

I recalled that flirtatious hip pop at the beginning that had caught my eye more than once across the ice in practice. She'd been showing skin, then, too, but that was the club. I understood why she might feel uncomfortable now, her first outing with us and all eyes on her. But she looked gorgeous, and she should feel it. 

I stood up and looked at her square in the eye. "This might not be what you wanted, but you look good. Believe me. So use it to your advantage. Go out and sell it."

She stared at me, a little blush rising in her cheeks. 

Of course it was at that exact moment that Tracy burst through the door again, huffing and explaining everything she had to go through to find another pair of scissors. After an impossibly long moment, I managed to tear my eyes off Zhenya's, and then I turned to pull up a chair for Tracy before kneeling down again and continuing to work. 

Brian barged in a minute later. "How's it coming--what are you doing here, Yuzu?" he interrupted himself in surprise.

"Can you think of anyone else who would know what to do?" Tracy said over her shoulder. 

Brian sighed. "You're right. He probably has an exact number calculated for how much a costume should weigh."

I looked up. "Actually, scientifically--"

"Enough," Tracy hushed me. "Later." 

We worked from then on in silence, Brian hovering nervously in the corner, and Evgenia just standing there, strategically holding the phone for us to see. 

Finally the very last jewel was removed, and Tracy and I backed away. "How does it feel?" Tracy asked. 

"So much lighter, thank goodness," Evgenia replied. "Thank you all so much."

"You have exactly three minutes," Brian said. "Take a second and gather yourself together."

She nodded, nervousness still written on her face, her fingers spreading over her bare clavicle as she looked in the mirror. I should have followed Brian and Tracy out the door, but suddenly I realized something. "Where's your necklace?" She always wore a gold cross, didn't she?

"I was thinking, this time--" she faltered.

To be different? I wanted to say something about not all change being for the better, but I held my tongue and shook my head instead. "It will help." In more ways than one.

She was still hesitating. I tilted my head in question. There was something else, wasn't there?

"It reminds me of… her."

I blinked. She didn't have to say her name for me know who she meant. Of course if there was a negative association, she shouldn't wear it. But Zhenya needed something, and not just for the visual diversion. Competing without something she always had could throw her completely off. 

"Do you have anything else?" I asked gently.

She fumbled briefly through her bag. "This one," she said, holding out another necklace to show me. "I wore it at practice."

"Even better," I said, and without thinking, I reached forward and took her open palm in mine so I could look at it more closely. It was something like a cross, too, but with more jewels and a slightly different shape. "Similar, but different," I murmured. 

"I'll wear it,” she whispered. She turned towards the mirror, holding it up to her neck. 

Again, I should have left, but something made me stay. Maybe it was because her fingers were trembling so much as she tried to put it on. 

"Let me do it." I came up behind her in the mirror, taking the necklace. 

And then I reached up to her, encircling her slender neck with the delicate chain. Her fingers immediately clasped the cross as if it had an instant calming effect. I knew it. Sometimes the smallest things had the greatest effect.

Like how my fingers touching the back of her neck was making me warm. There was something that felt... soft about this moment, like time was slowing down for a second as I fastened the ends together, watching her shoulders rise and fall. She was breathing just a little faster than normal. She was still nervous. I wished I could hold her. 

"Will you stay and watch me?" Her voice was soft. So soft.

I looked at her quickly. She was still facing ahead, but she was looking my way under lowered lashes. 

I swallowed. "I can't."

I saw her draw in a deep breath, and she nodded in acceptance. I'd finished putting on the necklace. There was no reason for me to stay anymore. I headed for the door, and then it suddenly hit me. How normal we had been just now. Like, ourselves again. We had fallen into it so easily, like nothing had happened and no time had passed. Had she noticed it, too? Ah, I couldn't help it. I looked back.

She saw me, looked my direction. "Thank you again." 

That wasn't what I was waiting for. But still, I nodded. 

"Fighting," I said simply. 

She nodded back. And then, she smiled. How was it possible that a single look could light up my whole heart like that? It took a moment for me to realize I was smiling, too. 

I ducked out of the room before she would be able to see that I was the one blushing now. I left the venue under an orange-colored sky. 

---

It wasn't until late that night that I ventured out again, this time to the hotel rooftop. It had become somewhat of a ritual of mine to come here the night before ACI, to calm my nerves and mentally prepare for what tomorrow would bring--what the season would bring. Up here, the air would be cool and peaceful, the sounds of the city of Oakville muffled. It was a good place to think. It always had been.

I pushed open the door at the top of the stairs and breathed in deeply as I made my way to the edge of the roof, looking out. City lights twinkled prettily below, but I didn't find any charm in them tonight. I patted the railing dismissively and turned around. There was another spot that would satisfy me. I poked around til I found the familiar small maintenance ladder leading to the top of one of the service units. I quietly scaled the ladder, and then climbed over, finally laying down on my back on the smooth metal surface.

Ahh, yes. This was the view I wanted. A few shining stars, fluffy silvery clouds, and a bright, nearly full moon. I took in the scene above me for a few moments, letting my thoughts drift like the clouds, assuming they'd take me, as they usually did, to the place I needed to focus on most competitively tomorrow. But they didn't. I tried to then direct them myself, forcing a mental run-through of my short. But that didn't work either.

I sat up, frustrated. It was that damned moon. That's why I could only think of... her. I closed my eyes, and suddenly all I could see was Evgenia running down the beach in Makuhari, the moonbeams spilling over her shoulders and the sea breeze catching her hair, her smile lighting up the night and her carefree laugh filling up my heart. Where had that girl gone? What a contrast to the shaking, unconfident young woman in that dressing room today. My lame encouragement of "Fighting!" hadn't been enough. I'd watched her short program in the privacy of my hotel room. She'd fought, of course, and was in first place--but the performance felt a bit flat, her nerves evident from the start. And she'd stepped out of that pesky double axel. I hadn't seen that kind of thing from her since Rostelecom, and that had been just a fluke. But today hadn't seemed like a fluke. It was different.

She was different. But not in the way she wanted, I knew. The new Evgenia was supposed to look better, skate better, not get nervous and make mistakes. Those things were inevitable with the changes and everything they were trying to fix, of course. But she was like me, sometimes, and wanted everything to be perfect now. I knew somewhere she was sitting, thinking, like me, unhappy with the less than perfect day.

I looked up at the moon, and couldn't stop myself anymore for doing what I wanted to do. I reached for my phone.

Good job today.

It was a simple text, but I hadn't sent her one in so long, it seemed oddly significant, and I stuffed the phone hurriedly back in my pocket like the thing would burn me if I held onto it waiting for a reply.

And then I heard a ding.

My heart skipped a beat. That wasn't my ding. And my phone was on silent. I fumbled in my pocket, checked my phone to be sure. There was no reply. Was it possible...? The ding was loud enough to know it was nearby.

Slowly, silently, I slid to the edge of the service unit. And then I saw her, sitting on the concrete ground below, her head leaning back against the next unit over. She was here. My stomach flipped, and I leaned back instinctively so she wouldn't see me. After all, she must be here for the same reason as I was, for peace and quiet, and I didn't want to bother her.

But what were the odds she would notice me up here, at the top of a random service unit? I could look at her one more time, couldn't I?

I looked back over the edge. This time, her face was illuminated by the light of her cell phone. My text message. Right. I fished my phone back out again. My stomach twinged again to see there was a notification.

Don't lie.

The corner of my mouth turned up at the familiar phrase. That was as close to joking around as she'd sounded in a long time, and even better, it practically invited a response.

I was about to type a bantering reply when I heard a sound. My eyes widened, and I quickly peered over the edge again.

I was shocked to see her head in her hands, her shoulders shaking. She was crying? After a text like that? I stared back down at my phone. I couldn't just joke around now, knowing she was in tears. Why was she in tears?

It wasn't as bad as you think, I texted back. She was first, after all.

Her shoulders shook a little less as she read my message, although I couldn't be sure she'd stopped crying.

Does that mean you watched? her reply came quickly.

I watched for her reaction as she received my next message. Maybe.

I hoped for a smile to break through her tears, but the best I got was her head leaning back again, her eyes closed. Her phone clicked to dark in her hands. I bit my lip. Was the conversation over? I didn't want it to be.

I saw it here at the hotel.

She looked at the phone, read my message, and turned off the screen. I gulped. She wasn't going to reply? So I asked a question, one I'd wanted to know the answer to, anyway.

Why did you ask me to stay?

Her fingers began moving on the screen, and they kept moving. It was a long reply coming this time. Why did I feel so nervous waiting? Watching her like this was kind of killing me. Finally I received the message.

There was no one else. My mother won't watch me live. It was always my grandmother who would come. But she's not here anymore.

And then, her shoulders started to tremble again, and it actually did kill me to see her crying alone, on top of hearing how alone she'd felt out there on the ice. Brian and Tracy were there for her as coaches, of course, but that wasn't quite the same. The thought hadn't crossed my mind til now: I was the person she had known the longest, more than anyone else here. Pangs of regret hit my chest heavily. I should have stayed. But I couldn't have. And it was too late to reveal myself to her now, up here. Why was this so hard? Wasn't there anything I could do to cheer her up now?

I bit my lip again, praying this would work.

So you think of me as your grandma?

I didn't realize I was still looking at my phone until I heard a soft sound. It was a laugh. My eyes quickly darted down to her. She was smiling, finally. Just a little smile, but it was enough.

Maybe.

I'm old, but not that old.

I grinned, expecting another bit of banter back, and I probably would have taken her reply as such had I not seen the serious expression on her face as she wrote me back.

But you are as stubborn.

I stared at my phone, but the sound of her standing up forced me to shut my screen off, fearful the light would attract her attention. She never looked my way, though, as she headed out the rooftop door.

Stubborn? The word rolled around in my head. Did she mean because I said I couldn't come?

You can't? Or you won't?

Those words from Makuhari rang in my head again. But just like then, I was doing it with her in mind, to prevent rumors from distracting her at the beginning of her new start. I was doing it for her, wasn't I?

Except Evgenia wanted me there today.

It was what I'd been wanting, to feel her wanting me, and I'd missed the opportunity. Maybe even made her feel worse.

I closed my eyes, imagining what it would feel like to sit in the stands and watch her skate, seeing her skim across the ice in competition. It would be great, in and of itself. But to see her looking up from the ice to the stands for me, wanting me there--that would have been amazing. A thrill rippled through me just visualizing it.

But then I imagined the crowds around me, pointing at me, then swarming me. And then the photos, the videos, the media, the rumors about why I was there. I shook my head. I couldn't.

I had to focus. Competitions weren't the time to be thinking of these things. Tomorrow I needed to be at my best if I wanted to achieve the fulfilling performance I hoped for.

I failed. My short program performance was fine, by others' standards, but I was not in the mental state I wanted to be, before, during, or after the skate. Especially after the skate. I had expected to feel at peace with whatever the outcome was, knowing it was just a starting point for the season, but after realizing one of my spins was actually invalidated, it was impossible not to be upset. Like Evgenia, being first meant nothing to me if it was not a clean, quality skate. I was determined to skate perfectly in the free.

And then I heard Evgenia lost. I don't know if I was more shocked or confused. I was used to first pancakes, but the reason we went to challenger competitions was so that it was still possible to win with them. What was happening?

With my regret to make up for from the short, I felt even more nervous for the free, and it showed. I fell on the sal, and popped a quad toe into a double, not to mention countless other things I had wanted to do differently. By the end of the skate, I was an exhausted, frustrated mess.

But I was even more of a mess when my eyes swept the stands, and landed on... her .

Chapter Text

Our eyes connected for only a moment before I had to finish my bows to the audience. My thoughts bounced between my performance and her as I picked up toys from the ice, between wondering why she'd come and hating that she'd just seen me do that.

I met Ghislain rinkside at the kiss and cry, setting down the Poohs and other things I'd gathered from the ice, afraid to look her way again. Had she really come for me? To prove to me that she could do what she wanted? That I could have done the same?

If you wanted to.

I tried to concentrate on the replays they were showing of my jumps. I was reading too much into things. I was not the only skater she knew here today. She was here for Jason. And Junhwan.

I looked up. And my heart stopped again. She was still looking straight at me. I swallowed, diverting my eyes. She might have been here for them. But she was also here for me. I could feel it.

My scores came up and I laughed in shame, but inside I could feel something starting to burn, all of my zen thoughts about the season fading fast. 

I couldn't help but spill some of my emotions out in the interviews afterwards.

"I'm very frustrated and have regrets," I said to one reporter. "But I think it was good to compete at this competition because now my desire to win is very strong again. After the Olympics ended, I lost that winning mindset for a while, but now I feel like I've been set on fire again."

The reporter nodded knowingly, and I turned to go. Ghislain was waiting for me to escort me back to the lockers and then the hotel. We rounded the corner, and suddenly I almost ran straight into her. My feet skidded to a stop. What was she doing here? Had she been listening to my interview? The look on her face told me she had. Her eyes were wide, like she was surprised at what I'd said.

I was trying to put together words of something to say to her, but nothing was coming into my head. Maybe because I had no idea what she was thinking. Why was she looking at me like that?

"Are you coming?" Ghislain's voice tore my eyes off Evgenia.

" Hai ," I said, in Japanese, which didn't make any sense at all. Ghislain didn't speak Japanese. I looked back at Evgenia, and then I blinked. Evgenia didn't speak Japanese either. I'd given that interview in Japanese. So what would have sparked that kind of reaction?

I eyed Evgenia one moment longer, and then finally followed Ghislain down the hallway. But that look in her eyes was plaguing me. What did it mean?

I pulled out my phone as we walked.

"On the bus tonight, sit in the back?"

I stared at what I wrote for a second, and then impulsively hit send. My stomach didn't settle down the whole time between then and when we were finally done packing up at the hotel and were ready to board the club bus back to Toronto.

I caught sight of her getting on ahead of me in the back parking lot. She'd never answered my message, but I could tell she'd seen it. Would she do what I asked? Would she come?

No, she was with Jason. He was holding her stuff, and they were laughing and carrying on as usual. I growled mentally. She could have at least replied. I boarded the bus, refusing to look anywhere but straight ahead so I wouldn't have any chance of making eye contact with her.

I went straight to the back and threw my things on the seat, rummaging around my bag for a different set of earphones. I finally found them and then turned to sit down. And then my heart jumped.

Zhenya sat across the aisle, one foot up on the seat, her arm casually hanging across her knee, with her head tilted at me. I stared at her. My mouth was probably hanging open.

"Did you want me to sit in the back so you could just look at me?"

I thought she hadn't--

Pfft, why did she look so cute even when she was judging me?

I made a convincing scowl at her.

"You never said you were coming."

"Well, I'm here."

I frowned again. "Not...here." I shoved my bag to the floor, motioning for where I really wanted her, next to me.

"You can sit over here," she said, staying put in her seat on the other side of the aisle. My eyebrows raised, and I saw a hint of a smirk on her lips. She really did like a bit of a power struggle, didn't she?

"I like this side of the bus," I returned.

"I want a window seat."

"It's only an hour."

She shrugged and turned ahead, not looking at me. "Sometimes I get motion sickness."

I rolled my eyes. A figure skater who spent half their time on the ice spinning in one form or the other. Sure.

She cast a sidelong glance at me to see why I hadn't responded. I grinned and finally crossed the chasm of the aisle between us, grabbing her arm.

"Don't lie," I whispered and pulled her out of the seat. "But you can have the window."

I could see her suppressing a smile as she let me shuffle her over to my side. I sort of blocked the aisle with my body, glancing over my shoulder to see if anyone was looking. The goal of sitting back here was to not be noticed together, after all, and now, with this bit of commotion... But everything seemed fine.

Evgenia was looking at me when I finally turned around and sat down next to her.

"Okay, now I'm here."

The bus began to roll just then, and for some reason that sparked a sense of urgency in me. I cut right to the chase.

"What was that look for in the hallway?"

She blinked. "That's why you...?" she started, and then shook her head. She cleared her throat. "It's just that... you change your mind a lot."

My brow furrowed. "What do you mean?"

"Your interview. I heard what you said."

I guffawed. "You speak Japanese now?

She smirked for real this time. "Maybe."

I gave her a blank look.

"Okay, I don't. But I heard you say kuyashii ."

I stared at her. She knew what kuyashii meant?

"What happened to skating for the pure joy of it, and all of that?" she asked.

I swallowed. She'd read my media day interviews? "I... You saw how I skated. I don't know. It feels so bad..."

"It's not like you lost or anything," she said quietly.

"It feels like I did," I said. "Like I lost to myself. I said things would be different this year, but as soon as I got out there, it wasn't what I expected. I suddenly have this fire now... I feel like I have to work much harder."

"We both do," she murmured. I looked at her quickly. "I have Skate Canada soon, you know," she said.

"You'll be fine. It takes time to adjust," I said.

She looked down at her hands, fidgeting with her ring. She suddenly looked uncomfortable, and I struggled to think of what to say next. I didn't want to talk about her programs or what she needed to do to improve. She knew all of that already. If anyone was my equal at being overly analytical of ourselves, it was Evgenia.

"We don't have any Grand Prix together this year," she remarked after a moment.

I knew that. I had picked my venues carefully, for multiple reasons. It hadn't been completely intentional that we didn't have anything on the circuit together, but I remembered feeling relieved when I saw her assignments that we wouldn't have as many public moments together. Now, I... regretted that we wouldn't be traveling together, seeing each other at the hotel, hanging out at the banquets, and all those other things I'd taken for granted the past few years.

I leaned my head back on the headrest behind me. She was right. I did change my mind a lot about things.

"We'll be together at the Final and at Worlds," I said. Wait, and every day at the rink. This was a conversation we would have had before, when we would only see each other a few times a year. But things were different now. Why was she bringing this up? I was about to ask her, but she was already talking.

"That's a long time from now," she said, and she sighed as she looked out the window. "I need to take one day at a time. Right now, I want to focus on... right now." She turned and looked at me. Just then, the bus rounded a corner, and golden evening light flooded through the window, turning her hair auburn and making her glow like an angel.

Right now, you look beautiful.

"Right now, I'm kind of tired, Hanyu," she said, smiling at me. "Do you have anything more to interrogate me about?"

"It wasn't an interrogation," I scoffed. "I was just curious, and besides..." I stopped myself short.

"Besides, what?"

I wanted to be with you like this.

I could feel my face turning warm, and it wasn't just the sunlight.

She poked me. "Besides, what?" she repeated.

I looked at her, my heart beating so loudly I wondered if she could hear it sitting right next to me. Ah, just say it. 

"I missed you."

Her eyes suddenly widened again, her mouth opening just a little in surprise. I suddenly got scared, wondering if I'd get a harsh response like I did that one time in that back hallway outside the gym, when she told me I should have thought of this a long time ago.

But this time, her face softened, and a smug smile appeared. "Of course you did." And then she closed her eyes, leaning her head back in the warm late afternoon sun, settling back into the seat.

And then, her arm nestled up against mine. I caught my breath, and then quickly tried to control it, aware that she'd be able to feel any significant reaction through the contact. I closed my eyes. Why was something so simple as her arm touching me making me feel like this? Maybe because I'd wanted it for so long. It wasn't like she was actually leaning on my shoulder or anything, but it was... something. Something in the right direction.

The hour slipped by faster than the setting sun. It was dark by the time we pulled into the parking lot at the Cricket Club. I hadn't slept. I hadn't even listened to music. Was it wrong that I'd kind of just watched her the whole time? It had been so long since we'd had anything like this. I'd missed her so much.

I almost didn't want to wake her. Maybe no one would realize it if we didn't get off. I'd be more than happy to spend the night here with her.

No, that was ridiculous. Jason still had her bags. Oka- san was waiting for me at home.

"Evgenia," I whispered her name.

She stirred next to me, and then her eyes opened, immediately locking on me. I could have drowned in them they were so deep. But then something sparked in them in recognition, and she sat forward, blinking.

"Back to reality," she said, and the words sunk heavily into me. We'd been in another world for awhile again, hadn't we? She stood up, and it took me a beat before I realized I needed to get up, too. I stepped out of the aisle to let her go ahead of me. 

She brushed past me, starting to head towards the front. And then she paused. She turned back, her hair swooshing over her shoulder.

"Bye."

---

I was back in the club the first thing the next morning. Zhenya was there, too, her hair slicked back in a tight bun. Her training outfit was all black, unusually opaque, ankle to wrist. Less of a distraction, I guess , I chuckled to myself, as I started my stroking warmup.

But my gaze kept shifting to her anyway. Something seemed different about her. What was it?

I circled the ice, skating to where she was practicing a spin that had given her trouble a few days before. She did it perfectly, and I smiled. She would fix everything that had gone wrong all on the first day, no doubt. She opened up from the spin, her ending position facing me. She blinked when she saw me watching, and then quickly looked away.

Right. Back to reality. I gritted my teeth and went back to work on the opposite side of the rink, if that's what she wanted. I avoided her the rest of the day, and then she disappeared sometime during the afternoon. I stayed late to work on my own problem areas, and then I hit the showers on my way out. The place was pretty much empty by the time I was done.

I headed for the exit, but just then I remembered I'd left my current favorite earphones at the rink. Ah, I could just get them tomorrow. No, there was a section of Origin I needed to listen to more carefully--something with the cut wasn't quite right. I turned around and went back to the rink.

A white sign on the door halted my feet. Reserved . My thoughts immediately jumped to Evgenia again, and a quick check of the sheet confirmed my guess. I chewed my lip. What was she working on by herself? I thought back to when I'd first come here, and how difficult it was to learn a new style of coaching, new techniques and a new language all at once. A few times I'd reserved the ice just to be able to do a few drills from my old school in private, just to feel something familiar. After an outing like Autumn Classic, maybe she was missing her old life, too.

Curiosity about what she might be up to got the better of me, and I couldn't help but head to the observation lounge.

It was dark when I got there. Of course, she was using the screens. My shoulders dropped and I turned around, about to leave--and then I stopped. Somewhere above me, music had begun to play. I sucked in a breath. The only music that played here was run-through music from the ice. She'd forgotten to turn it off.

The music was interesting and different. Maybe this was actually her EX this time. Intrigued, I stuck around.

 

When the world shakes us
Trying to take us out of line
Fear of tomorrow
Feelings we borrow for a time
Water so deep, how do we breathe?
How do we climb?
So we stay in this mess
This beautiful mess tonight

 

I sat down suddenly. This song was... um, nice. I swallowed, trying not to think of... anything.

 

And we don't have a thing to lose
No matter what they say or do
I don't want nothing more
Our love is untouchable

Even in the line of fire
When everything is on the wire
Even up against the wall
Our love is untouchable

 

I closed my eyes as the music swelled, and without my permission flashbacks started. Kissing her in the stairway, holding her in the tunnel, her whispering in my ear in the back of the bus, her fingers pressing into my stomach backstage.

 

When the colors turn gray
And the lights all fade to black again
We’re in over our heads
But somehow we make it back again

 

Somehow we make it back again. That's the feeling I'd been having all weekend. We'd been all over the place the last few months, but twice it had happened--in a split second we could be ourselves again.

In places like this.

On the other side of these walls, did she feel the same? My heart pounded, and I tried to talk myself out of it. It's just a song. Someone probably chose it for her. It doesn't mean anything, just like the others didn't mean anything. I had to stop reading so much into lyrics.

I left the observation room quickly, despite the music still playing, and went home.

But that night when I got in bed, the unfinished-ness of the song bothered me, and I'd be lying if I said I didn't want to let it spark more replays of our moments together. Besides, maybe I'd heard the words wrong. I needed to hear it again.

Mmm, what would that song be called? Maybe.. Our Love is Untouchable? I searched it as a guess.

No, it was called Beautiful Mess. And it was-- 

I sat straight up in bed. I stared at the screen, my body ice cold. It couldn't be.