The moment Victor had called and told him the news, Otabek’s life had stopped being the same as before. Everything that he had built up, everything he had hoped for, everything that was important to him had crashed, splintered with that one phone call.
The whole day Otabek had felt like something was about to happen. He wasn’t able to concentrate, a tensing feeling in is stomach keeping him from giving his best during training. Normally, when he was on the ice, he could easily let everything go and just focus on his own existence and the frozen water beneath his skates, yet today had been different. His jumps weren’t as precise as usual and his spins were wobbly. Otabek had tried to push the sense of foreboding away, wishing it was just the memory of a forgotten dream that was still stuck in his brain. Yet this wish wasn’t granted to him.
Otabek stood in the middle of the rink, practising the first movements of his short programme when his coach called out for him.
“Altin! Come here!”
Having no clue what he wanted from him, Otabek glided over the ice to the boards.
“Haven’t you heard your phone ringing? Somebody has tried to reach you multiple times. I usually don’t support taking a break to check those stupid things, but it seems that you have an urgent matter to attend.”
Otabek nodded, left the rink and walked to his sports bag. Right in the moment he grabbed his phone, it started vibrating again. The name on the screen made him swallow. Victor Nikiforov. Why should Victor call him? They had no business with each other. They had just exchanged numbers the last time when he had visited Yuri in Saint Petersburg, just in case, and if he called him now, such a case must have taken place. Otabek’s throat tensed when he took the call with trembling fingers, but before he could say a word, Victor’s voice was already coming through the speaker.
“God, Otabek, finally. I tried to reach you several times.” His voice was hectic, shaky and Otabek could definitely tell that he wasn’t just calling to do small talk.
“Sorry, I was practising. What happened?”
“It’s awful. Yurio had an accident. He’s in the hospital now and we’re waiting for him to come out of surgery.”
“He was on his motorbike when a car ignored his right of way. Both of them were pretty fast on the road when they crashed into each other. We have no idea what exactly happened. The witness that had called the ambulance is currently with the police.”
“And Yuri?” Otabek’s voice was merely a whisper. He tried to focus on Victor, but thousands of thoughts and pictures filled his mind, overwhelming him.
“We don’t know anything more than that he’s in surgery now. That stupid nurse didn’t want to tell us more, although Yuuri and I are listed as his emergency contacts. We’re waiting for his grandfather to arrive, which should be in about 2 hours, and hopefully they will tell him more since they’re related.”
“I’m sure he’ll be alright. If you want to, I’ll call you as soon as we have more information.”
“That would be nice. Thanks for telling me.”
“No problem, I know how close your relationship is.”
For a moment, it was silent and Otabek was one second away from hanging up, when Victor’s quiet voice made him stop.
“Don’t blame yourself. It’s not your fault.”
How he had returned home, Otabek had no idea. When he woke up from a state of numbness and automatic functioning, he was standing in his room. Until now, he had tried to realize what had happened. Yuri had an accident. Yuri was injured. Yuri was in a hospital. Those thoughts were spinning in his head, trying to find their way to travel down his spine, reaching out for every limb to fill him up with dread.
Otabek sat down on his bed, his elbows resting on his knees and his face buried in his hands. Suddenly, other thoughts tip-toed into his mind. It was his fault that Yuri was injured. It was his fault that he had had an accident in the first place. If he had only never let him ride his bike, his friend would never have come up with the idea of getting a bike and a driving licence himself.
From their first meeting on, Yuri had been impressed and interested in Otabek’s hobby, and whenever he had visited him in Kazakhstan, he had insisted on riding through the landscape on his bike. Otabek had loved those days when it had been only the two of them on the deserted roads that had lead them through miles of fields and forests. Yuri’s arms, tightly wrapped around him, had never stopped sending shivers through his body, and being probably the only one to get so close to the boy who hated other people outside his family with all his heart made him feel special.
Their friendship had been shaped by their shared love for motorbikes. From the moment Otabek had saved Yuri from his fans years ago in Barcelona to the moment when the Russian had hugged him out of joy when he had agreed so show him how to ride it on the private land of his grandparents soon after Yuri had turned 18. It was more than unusual of Yuri to initiate body contact, so Yuri wrapping his arms around Otabek’s neck had shocked him so much, he had forgotten how to breathe for a second. Just when he had found out how move again, Yuri had taken a step back, a huge smile on his face, hopping up and down in excitement. Yuri had been a good student and soon he had gotten the hang of how to handle the huge machine. Luckily, Otabek’s grandparents owned a huge piece of land, so they had had enough space to practice. Seeing his friend so carefree, finally finding something he loved to do besides skating, had made Otabek incredibly happy. When Yuri had gotten off the bike after his first lesson, his legs were shaking, but as soon as he had taken off the helmet, the smile on his face was brighter than the sun. He had stormed towards Otabek and once more had wrapped himself tightly around his friend.
“Thank you! Thank you so much!” he had whispered, and this time Otabek had returned the hug.
Pressing Yuri tightly to himself, burying his nose in his slightly sweaty neck, a tingling and warm feeling had rushed through his veins, as if thousands of little fireflies tried to set every inch of him on fire. A few months later, Yuri had sent him a picture of himself with his licence in his hand in front of his own bike. Otabek had been happy for him and congratulated him, not knowing what he had done.
Suddenly, his phone vibrated in his jacket. As fast as he could, Otabek jumped up and grabbed it from the floor, nearly falling down. With trembling hands, he unlocked his screen and read Victor’s text message.
“Yurio just got out of surgery. He has been lucky. His left arm’s broken and his whole body is covered in lacerations and bruises. Thank god he wore his gear. Regarding his legs, there aren’t any major injuries to be seen, but we will only know for sure in a few days. Also, he has a major brain concussion, but they say that it’s at least no traumatic brain injury. Now we have to wait for him to wake up. You should rest, too. I’ll call you tomorrow.”
‘Rest?’ Otabek thought. How should he rest when he knew that it was his fault that Yuri had been injured? Sure, he was aware of the fact that it hadn’t been him who had crashed into his friend, but it was him who had fired up Yuri’s interest in bikes. He had been so happy that they shared another thing that they both loved that he hadn’t thought about the consequences even once. Otabek was just relieved that Yuri hadn’t injured his legs. That could have been the end of his career and Otabek would have never forgiven himself for ruining the only thing that was important to Yuri.
Trying to follow Victor’s advice, Otabek took off his clothes and laid down, but the whole night he didn’t sleep for longer than 10 minutes. Every time he closed his eyes, images of Yuri being hit by a car, crashed into pieces, bleeding and heavily injured invaded his mind.
Otabek had lost track of time. He had only partly noticed that the birds had started singing outside, hours before the sun started to rise. The first rays of sunlight shyly tip-toed over the floor, but none of them reached his bed. Even when his whole room was filled with the golden morning light, he hadn’t taken his gaze from the ceiling. At some point throughout the night, Otabek’s mind had taken a state of emptiness that was even more painful than being reminded of Yuri. It was heavier than imagining the consequences of what he had done. There was nothing left. No more images. No more sounds. Just pure realisation that he had ruined his best friend’s life.
The first time he dared to look on his phone was when the traffic outside got louder. It was 7 am. It felt surreal that the world on the other side of his windows had kept on turning, while inside his room time had been standing still since he had returned home. If clouds had formed on the ceiling and started pouring down rain, the drops would have stopped falling down, hovering over his head, filling the room with thousands of little drops of water. Besides the time, the sun also denied its service. Its light may have reached through the window, but inside his room it was as cold as ice.
Otabek felt like he was captured in a huge, dark hourglass. The world outside didn’t matter to him. It didn’t affect him. It was shut out by frozen walls of glass, cooling down the air and his body. He was unable to move as the blood in his muscles started freezing, so the only thing he could do was sit down and wait until the sand he was sitting on finally started running through the narrow neck again, pulling him down with it and burying him below its weight. Voices were echoing from the glass walls. They filled his head with never-ending blames and accusations. Otabek wanted to shelter his ears, cover them with his hands, but the cold cancelled all of his movements as every muscle contraction hurt like hell. Sinking deeper and deeper into the sand, its weight pressing against his chest, Otabek had to wait until anything happened.
A sudden ring crashed the glass bulbs and Otabek needed a few moments to realise that he was still lying in his bed. As fast as he could, he grabbed his phone. Without looking at the name, he answered the call immediately.
“How is he?”
“He seems to be alright. At least that’s what we guess.” Victor’s voice was a lot more quiet than usual. Surely, the last day must have been quite nerve-racking for him, too, but Otabek sensed that there was more.
“What do you mean by ‘guess’? Didn’t you ask him?”
Victor sighed and instantly, Otabek was sure that the bad feeling in his stomach wasn’t unfounded.
“We wanted to, but we couldn’t. He hasn't woken yet.”
“The doctor says that this is nothing to worry about. Sometimes, people need more time to wake up from a narcosis. They scanned him again, just to make sure that there was no haemorrhage, but they didn’t see anything. All we can do now is wait. I’m sorry.”
Otabek stayed silent. He had no idea what to say. After a minute, he heard Victor’s voice again.
“Are you still there?”
“Nikolai’s here. He wants to talk to you for moment, is that alright?”
Otabek heard a slight rustling.
“Hello, Otabek.” Nikolai’s deep voice reached his ears. He sounded tired and exhausted.
“Guess Victor has already told you everything?”
“Good.” Otabek heard the old man breathe. “You know it’s not your fault, don’t you?”
The Kazakh said nothing. Somewhere in his mind, he had understood that it hadn’t been him driving that car and that he couldn’t lock Yuri up in his apartment to make sure nothing happened to him. And although everyone kept telling him that he wasn’t responsible for what had happened, the cramps in his stomach, the lump in his throat and the constant tight grip around his heart didn’t want to stop. On the contrary, the longer he thought about it the more his guts ached and the more he felt like his insides would either be ripped out of his body or he would vomit them out himself.
“I know,” Otabek whispered.
“You know it, but you don’t feel it. I can tell that much. Listen, there was nothing you could have done to prevent such things. Yuri is old enough to understand that riding a bike is not only fun but very dangerous.”
‘But it’s my fault he owns a bike in the first place,’ Otabek wanted to shout into the phone, but he kept silent. Instead, he took a deep breath.
“How are you, Nikolai?”
“Me? I’m fine. The only thing we can do is wait, and as long as nothing happens, there is no use in worrying the whole time.”
“I really envy you for your calmness,” the Kazakh muttered.
The loud and booming laugh of Yuri’s grandfather sounded through the speaker. “It comes with age, boy.”
Otabek hesitated. “Is there anything I can do for you?
“Not for me. But…I know you’re currently busy with practise, but I think it might help him if you were here, you know. Just to talk to him. I know how much you mean to him. He was already looking forward to your next meeting in two months. He talks about you all the time. Maybe hearing your voice will trigger something.”
“But what if he’s mad at me? What if he doesn’t want to see me?”
“I really don’t think that he’d blame you for everything.”
“But you don’t know for sure. You know as much as I do that he can be really difficult sometimes. I have no idea if I could handle him shouting at me, throwing me out of his room.”
“Surely, I can’t assure you that this won’t happen, still… If he wants to shout at you, he needs to be awake.”
Quite some time after the call, Otabek was sitting on his bed, too lost in his thoughts to move. He didn’t want to deny the old man’s request, yet at the same time he wasn’t sure whether he was in the position to visit Yuri. Since it was off-season, he didn’t have to consider any competitions and he didn’t care about his training schedule. Yuri was a lot more important to him than skating. He had been more important to him than anything else since the moment they became friends years ago. Of course, he wanted to be with him, be there for him and help him in any way he could, yet he was afraid. Afraid that Yuri hated him, that he didn’t want him to be there. What if he was the last person Yuri wanted to see? Would he be able to handle the feelings of being pushed away by the person he loved the most due to his own ignorance?
For several hours he hesitated before he finally decided to catch the next flight to Saint Petersburg. Right now, he had no idea if Yuri hated him or not. So many things remained uncertain. Otabek should at least use this time to be there for his friend, risking that he might be thrown out later. Nikolai was right. To be angry at him and to blame him, Yuri had to be awake. Even though it would break Otabek’s heart, the fact that Yuri was alive and conscious was way more important than the pain the Kazakh might suffer.
Like a lightning had struck his body, giving him enough energy to move again, Otabek got his laptop and booked the next flight to Saint Petersburg. Luckily, there was one seat left on a flight this evening. It wasn’t the cheapest flight, but Otabek didn’t care. He rather spent a small fortune on a plane ticket than spent another night staring at his ceiling. Shoving clothes, some toiletries, his mp3 player – yes, he was old-fashioned enough to still have and use such a thing – and a book into his bag, he finished packing. He wouldn’t need anything more.
The book he packed wasn’t just anything he was currently reading. He had read it for the first time when he had been a lot younger. It was one of his favourite childhood stories. Once, he had asked Yuri if he knew it, but the latter denied. The Russian had never been a huge fan of books. Aghast that his friend lacked the knowledge of such a beautiful story, Otabek had started reading it to Yuri. Every time they met, every time Yuri called him when he couldn’t fall asleep, sometimes even as a voice message when both of them were busy with competitions, he read chapter by chapter. They were already half through the book, pretty close to Otabek’s favourite scene. Maybe Yuri would hear him if he continued reading to him, even though he was still sleeping. At least, that was what Otabek was hoping for.
How he had managed to spend the time until he had to leave for the airport, Otabek couldn’t recall later. Also, the time he had to wait until he could finally go on board was hidden by a grey foggy wall. Like in trance, Otabek had spent the flight staring out of the window next to him, and even the taxi ride to the hospital was nothing more than a faint memory. Nikolai was already waiting for him in the entrance area. Otabek hugged the old man and the latter led him to Yuri’s room.
“How’s he?” the Kazakh managed to ask with a hoarse voice.
“Nothing’s changed. He reacts to my voice and my touch, but he still doesn’t want to wake up. The doctors made a lot of other check-ups, but they say from the medical point of view there’s nothing wrong.”
Nikolai led him to a small room at the end of a long hallway. Inside there was only one bed in which a small shadow was lying. With cautious steps, Otabek walked closer and recognised in shock the black and blue face of his best friend. His pale skin would resemble a porcelain doll if it wasn’t covered with all the bruises. On his lip, a small suture was visible. Several cables lead from his torso and from the arm that wasn’t covered in plaster to the monitors on the other side of the bed. Slowly, he sat down on the chair next to the bed and continued examining Yuri. His flaxen hair was surrounding his face like a halo. This wasn’t the first time that Otabek noticed that Yuri could really be an angel, but only when he was asleep, and no matter how beautiful he was when he slept, Otabek preferred the wild and not so angelic skater. For a while, Otabek wasn’t sure whether he should talk to Yuri or not. Nikolai said that it might help him, but he felt weird talking with someone who was asleep. Would he even hear him?
“Hey, Yura. Long time no see, um?” Otabek swallowed hard. “I never have thought to see you again so soon, though I wish we would have stayed apart longer for the sake of you being safe and sound.” He paused. “You look awful. If you were awake, you would hit me for saying this.” Otabek tried to smile, but the corners of his mouth seemed to be frozen in place. “It hurts so much seeing you like this. But even though you’re covered in bruises, you’re still as beautiful as ever.” Suddenly realising what he had just said, he faltered. “I probably shouldn’t have said this. Sorry. I just…I don’t even know if you can hear me or not.”
Spacing out of the window, Otabek looked at the night sky. Although it was in the middle of the night, not one star was to be seen. Back in Kazakhstan, he had spent several nights outside, watching the stars and the milky way. Of course, in Almaty, the continuously burning street lamps outshone the small balls of gas, but when he visited his grandparents on the countryside, a beautiful carpet of bright dots spread out above him. Suddenly, Otabek remembered one night, when he had been lying in one of his grandparents’ fields with Yuri by his side.
“Do you remember that one time when you visited me and we were watching the stars? You told me that you have never seen a shooting star before and you said that you wouldn’t go to bed until you saw one. It was summer back then, so even though we were outside for hours, it wasn’t cold. We had this huge blanket below us and at some point you used my arm as a pillow…”
For a moment, Otabek was lost in this memory, which already lay more than two years in the past. Already back then, Yuri had easily managed to let loose thousands of butterflies in Otabek’s stomach. Even now, the Kazakh sensed the shadow of a memory flowing through his body, leaving a tingling sensation in his fingers. He closed his eyes and tried to remember every detail of this night together that was burnt into his memory. Gently caressing the back of Yuri’s hand with his thumb, Otabek continued to share this precious remembrance with his friend and after he had finished, more and more stories of their time together filled his mind. Otabek talked as long as memories appeared, and after that he retrieved the book from his bag and started reading from the point where they had left off last time. Yet as much he tried to push the thought of Yuri’s accident away, every time he looked at his friend’s broken body his feelings of guilt rose to the surface again, until he couldn’t keep them in anymore.
“I’m sorry. I’m sorry for what had happened to you. I know that it’s my fault. I might not have been driving that car, but I never should have taught you to ride a motorbike. I was happy when you asked me to teach you. To share one more thing we both liked filled me with so much joy I didn’t think about the consequences. It feels so stupid to say this, but when you came to me and told me that you wanted to get your licence I was so overwhelmed. This was a thing only between the two of us. None of your other friends, not even Victor or Yuuri, could have helped you. It was only me and you chose to trust me. I wish I could have fulfilled the task you gave me. If I had been worthy of your trust in the first place, I would have declined your request, telling you that it was too dangerous, especially for you who lives for skating only. I should have thought everything through before I bluntly accepted and taught you your first lesson, but my brain was switched off from the moment you smiled at me. I guess I’ve always been weak for your smile and the shimmer you have in your eyes.”
He stopped, and for a moment, he caressed Yuri’s pale cheek. Then, however, he noticed what he was doing and pulled his arm back, the feeling of his friend’s soft skin leaving a tingling memory behind.
“I’m sorry for putting your career in peril. I know there’s nothing I can do to make this undone, but I’ll stay with you as long as you want me to. I’ll never leave you and you’ll see: everything’s going to be alright. I just hope that you don’t hate me. Well…you can hate me, but please, try to forgive me someday, okay? I don’t know if I can live without you. I’ll do my best to support you. I’ll do everything I can to help you get better soon, but please, please, wake up. We all need you. Your grandfather, Victor and Yuuri. They all need you. I need you.” Taking a deep breath, Otabek prepared himself to say something he never believed he would ever say aloud.
“I feel so stupid saying all these things. I don’t even know for sure if you’re hearing me, so either you’ll laugh at me for saying so much bullshit, or I talked with myself for hours. Yet, I somehow have the urge to tell you all this. God, I really hope that you’re not hearing what I’m about to say. It feels like this is my last chance to tell you this. Not because I think you won’t wake up, but if you do, you might throw me out and then I’ll never be able to do so.” Otabek reached out for Yuri’s hand and intertwined their fingers cautiously.
“I don’t know when I started to be unable to decline any request of yours. Seeing you smile became my greatest weakness in no time. I guess this was also the reason why I let you ride my bike without thinking about how dangerous it was. All I wanted was to see you happy. That’s still what I want. Completely selfishly, I put you at great risk, just because I wished for one more thing that would tie us closer together. I hoped that sharing one more common hobby would lead us to share more memories together. And all of this just happened, because I wasn’t able to control my feelings for you anymore. I like you, Yura. I like you more than anybody else. I swore to myself that I’d never let you know. I decided that I wanted to be a friend to you, but the more I got to know you, the more you grew up and changed over the years, I fell more and more in love with you. At first, it was only your eyes that caught my attention, but over the years, I learnt to love all of your other sides. I love how you can go from cool to mad in a heartbeat, and I love how much you are obsessed with cats. Talking to you on the phone on the weekend has become the thing I look forward to on Mondays the most. I love your determination and I love your childish sides, for example when you want to watch the Lion King for the hundredth time. But most of all, I love your eyes. I really wish to see them again. Even if they are full of hate for what I’ve done. Even if they are full of disgust at my feelings for you. I just want to see them one last time. So please, Yura, please wake up.”
Otabek was woken up by a ray of sun, tingling his nose with its brightness and warmth. He stretched and looked at the clock above the door. It was already past noon. He got up from the hospital bed, wondering how and when he had laid down there. Everything that he remembered that he had been sleeping, his head resting on his arms on an unoccupied space of Yuri’s bed. Victor had woken him up cautiously, but Otabek had no idea what had happened afterwards. He had been way too tired after not sleeping for two nights, sitting and talking to Yuri without taking a break. Rubbing the sleep out of his eyes, he walked down the hallway to Yuri’s room when Yuuri crossed his way.
“Ah, so you’re finally awake?”
“How long did I sleep?”
“Just eight hours or so. You looked like you needed it.” The Japanese smiled softly. “But it’s good you’re up again. Yuri’s waiting for you.”
Yuuri laughed. “He woke up pretty early this morning. They already checked him through and he seems to be quite well. He’s just a little tired, but he had enough energy to shout at the poor nurses.”
Without really listening to Yuuri’s words, Otabek had increased his pace until he finally had reached Yuri’s room where Victor and Nikolai were already waiting. Totally mesmerised by the sight of his friend, being alive and conscious, Otabek stopped in the doorframe. Yuri, who was talking to his grandfather and his friend, suddenly turned towards the door and a beautiful smile appeared on his face.