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True North

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It’s after they’ve been grappling on Otabek’s bed for twenty minutes that JJ tells him. After twenty minutes of messy kisses, of hands up underneath each other’s shirts. Twenty minutes of rolling together until Otabek gets JJ full on top of him, lanky weight pinning him down, just how he likes it, JJ’s hands sliding up to hold Otabek’s wrists. Of Otabek telling himself that today, this time, they’ll do more than just rock against each other, hot and sweaty and fully dressed.

JJ tells him after, not before.

“I can’t anymore,” he says. “We’re dating now, officially and everything.” JJ’s face lights up and his eyes go soft.

Otabek has never wanted to punch anyone more. Instead, he pushes JJ off of him and goes to change his underwear.

+

“We had a fight,” JJ says when Otabek answers the door.

Otabek stands at the door, blocking the way, and thinks that if he were soaking wet, JJ couldn’t look any more pathetic. His eyes are red, his face is blotchy. His mouth is sad.

JJ doesn’t say whether they broke up. He doesn’t say anything else either and blocking the door is no use at all because JJ just walks into Otabek, head down on his shoulder and arms around his chest.

Otabek stands there for a few frozen moments, JJ’s weight sagging against him and JJ’s tears and snot wetting his shirt.

Then he puts his arms around JJ, pulls him inside, and comforts him, not the only way he can think of, but the only way he wants to, mouth opening JJ’s mouth, hands pulling at his clothes.

JJ won’t look Otabek in the eye but he does yank down Otabek’s sweatpants. He pushes him down on the couch. He sucks Otabek’s cock, the first time anybody has done that.

Otabek watches JJ’s sad face, his wet mouth sliding up and down, his hand on Otabek’s hip. He gathers JJ’s cheek in his hand, keeps it there while he comes, while JJ presses his forehead against Otabek’s chilly thigh, wiping his lips and heaving a sigh.

JJ’s phone chimes and his translation from despair to hope to glory is swift and ruthless. “She wants to meet me,” he says with that same wet mouth.

Otabek yanks up his sweatpants. “Go.”

+

It’s just the three of them at the café. Otabek sips his coffee, looks down into the cup. JJ can’t stay still, sliding forward and back in the booth, his arm close around Isabella’s shoulder.

“How do you like Toronto?” she says.

“It’s nice.” It’s the exact exchange they had three months ago and he thinks she knows it.

“Bella just won a huge scholarship.” JJ beams and gives her a little shake. “You worked so hard, babe.”

“Congratulations.” Otabek can’t remember ever hearing JJ praise anyone but himself.

“Thank you.” Isabella moves closer to JJ, cuddling under his arm.

“Remember that big test?” JJ tells them both about how he helped her study, the flash cards he made, the energy drinks he bought, his voice too loud for the quiet room.

Otabek catches Isabella’s eye and the same tiny smile curves both their mouths. He can’t hate her even if he wants to.

JJ’s leg bumps Otabek’s under the table, just an accident. Otabek pulls himself in, feet back, elbows tucked, fingers curled around his cooling mug.

“We should hang out all the time,” JJ says. There’s whipped cream on the corner of his mouth and Isabella turns from Otabek to dab it away.

+

They’re alone in the locker room at the rink, late night ice time because you take what you can get. JJ pulls his shirt off and stretches.

Otabek doesn’t look, he’s not looking. He zips up his jacket, checks his pocket for his metro card.

JJ groans and his elbows crack. He leans up beside Otabek. “Did you see my triple axel?” The work-hard smell of him fills the space between them. “I’m going to be the first to land a quad, just wait til next year.”

Otabek closes his eyes because he’s not looking. But he doesn’t have to look to push JJ back against the bank of lockers. To crane his neck and kiss that fucking too-loud mouth. To push his thigh between JJ’s legs and rock up against his eager cock.

He rubs JJ through his pants, hooks his other arm around JJ’s neck. Mouth against his cheek while JJ gasps and squirms and grabs at Otabek’s ass.

When JJ comes, it shudders through Otabek too, every pulse and stutter, JJ’s shout ringing in Otabek’s ear.

JJ sags back, eyes hazy and bright, squeezing Otabek’s shoulders. Then he slides down to his knees and pulls at Otabek’s waistband.

Otabek closes his eyes again and tips his head back. He pushes his fingers through JJ’s hair.

And JJ’s phone rings, because of course it does, that terrible ringtone from that terrible pop song. JJ jerks away from Otabek like he’s white hot. He grabs his phone and walks away, the muscles in his back moving as he stretches out, laughing at whatever she’s saying.

Otabek doesn’t punch the locker, he’s not stupid. Not about anything else, at least. He just clamps his headphones over his ears and carries his bag in front of him out into the night, JJ’s sweat still damp on his jacket.

+

It’s too late at night for anyone else to be knocking. Otabek looks through the peephole at JJ’s sad distorted face.

“I’m stupid,” JJ says through the door. He pulls out his phone and texts the same words. When he hears Otabek’s phone chime, his eyes open wide and he knocks again. “Please let me in.”

Otabek sinks to the floor, back against the locked door. He silences his phone as the messages flood the screen. come on beks. let me in. A selfie of JJ’s miserable face. I’ll stay here all night

The door clicks against the deadbolt as JJ settles down against it. I mean it, he texts. why won’t you talk to me

Otabek imagines them sitting back to back in the middle of the living room floor, each messing with their own phone, JJ sending every stupid meme he comes across to Otabek, instead of just turning to show him.

He swipes every message away and leans his head on his knees, hand still on his phone so he can feel it buzz.

Eventually, the messages stop. Otabek gets to his feet. It’s late, so late, he’s so tired, his eyes are so sore.

He opens the door and JJ falls onto his back, blinking hazily as he wakes up. Otabek puts out his hand and JJ takes it, heaving himself to his feet.

They go into the bedroom and stretch out together on Otabek’s narrow bed. Yank and tussle until they’re both naked. Kiss and touch and gasp.

Afterwards, they’re still curled together, JJ’s head on Otabek’s shoulder. “I’m stupid,” he whispers.

Otabek doesn’t ask why. He falls asleep with JJ sprawled on top of him like a weighted blanket and breathing loudly in his ear.

In the morning, he leaves JJ sleeping and goes for a run, pelting until he’s winded and has to vomit his empty stomach in the gutter.

It’s a week before JJ will even talk to him.

+

There are so many reasons to leave. Otabek is tired of living alone, tired of missing his family, his city, his country. Of answering how do you like Toronto? over and over again.

“We’re throwing you a party,” JJ says. He loops his arm around Otabek’s shoulders. “Me and Bella.”

Otabek doesn’t think it’s going to really happen but he ends up in the basement of JJ’s parents’ house with a handful of people he knows and a lot more he doesn’t. People keep pulling him into selfies, asking him the same questions, and he’s as stretched as his name on the banner taped up on the wall.

JJ trails after Isabella, holding her hand like he’s afraid he’ll lose her in the crowd. She pulls him over to Otabek and he thanks them for the party.

“I don’t think the music is loud enough,” JJ says. He goes to fiddle with the stereo.

“Are you looking forward to being home?” Isabella asks.

Otabek feels something ease inside of him, the sag of relief after the needle comes out of your arm. “I never really liked Toronto.”

She laughs and Otabek smiles, like they’re friends. Then she turns away to collect her boyfriend.

It’s too soon to leave so Otabek leans against a wall, a cup of sugary punch he’s not drinking in his hand. One of JJ’s bro buddies parks himself there too, shoulder to shoulder while he rambles about last weekend’s party (“rager”), this party (“shitty”), the Leafs (“should never have traded Phaneuf”).

There’s no booze tonight, officially, but bro sounds like he’s been pre-gaming. Smells like it when he leans closer, hot breath against Otabek’s cheek. Tastes like it when they spill through a closed door, tumbling down on a bed to pass the time together.

It’s JJ’s room, has to be, with all the medals and the trophies and the photos of his high-score smile. And the pics of JJ with Isabella, two smug faces looking down at Otabek.

He flips bro onto his back and climbs on top, grinding his whole weight down while the buzz of the party goes on just outside the door. And as they buck and kiss and grope, Otabek sees it.

A dull laser-printed picture on the wall beside the bed, stuck just crooked enough to notice. JJ and Otabek, a selfie Otabek took of them both on the ice, when JJ kept bugging him to use Insta more.

JJ’s arm is triangled around Otabek’s neck, nearly blocking Otabek’s face with his JJ Style hands. Otabek can still feel the warmth that came off of JJ’s body in the chilly rink, like a wood stove in a winter cabin.

He turns away and leans into bro, kisses him deep, gives him a handie that’s hopefully better than shitty. Gets one in return and it’s good enough for farewell Canada.

Before he leaves the room, Otabek pulls the picture off the wall. Chips of paint come off with it, sticking to the tape on the corners. He folds the paper and puts it in his pocket.

+

Otabek arrives in Almaty with JJ’s airport hug still pressing on his body. He posts a pic to Insta, glad to be home, and goes to meet his family.

They cluster around him, a little awkward for a minute or two, then everyone slots into place and Otabek really is home. He’s quiet on the car ride, listening to all the news, and when his phone buzzes in his pocket, he doesn’t pull it out.

A few days rest and then he’s back into it. He skates well, works hard, does as much roadwork as his trainer will allow, then adds a little more. How did you like Toronto? everyone asks but after a week or two they’ve all heard his fine.

His old group of friends makes a space for him and he fits, almost like he’s never been away. One of them has rich parents and a shit ton of vinyl and Otabek learns how to spin.

The texts from JJ taper but never quite stop. Otabek reads them all: chatty, boastful, those shiny selfies with Isabella, the one am miss yous that arrive while Otabek is eating lunch.

Instead of replying, he watches porn — a scary amount of porn — on his phone at night, and gets himself off without picturing JJ’s face at all.

+

When he turns on his phone back on in Barcelona, the first thing he sees is the announcement. The smiles on their faces, the rings on their fingers. Then for a moment, he sees nothing at all.

His coach turns back and calls his name. Time and Otabek start up again, rolling along the concourse, towards the only thing that matters: a medal.

By the time he sees them, he’s already tired of bracing himself. They’re close together in the hotel lobby, like they’ve been waiting for him. Maybe they have.

Otabek’s chest squeezes, one lost breath. But he’s ready for them. It’s not hard to turn away.

And there is Yuri Plisetsky, a flash of light in a dark room. Otabek hasn’t braced for this, the loop of years pulling tight, the same bright fury still shining from Yuri’s face.

Otabek walks out the door and the tension swirls around him like a gust of wind. Leave it behind, he tells himself. You’re here for one reason.

But he can’t help seeking Yuri out. Otabek is aiming for gold and Yuri, well, he’s golden.

Even after Yuri comes away with Otabek, he’s still wary as a stray cat and angry as an old man. It’s reassuring. Yuri might spit in your face but he’ll always tell you why.

But Yuri doesn’t want to spit in Otabek’s face. He opens up to Otabek so sweetly, so fierce and fresh and uncertain. It warms Otabek’s cold fingers, relaxes his twisted mouth.

When they say an awkward good night, it’s all Otabek can do not to take Yuri’s face in his hands and kiss him.

+

Otabek stays awake until the knock comes.

“Why won’t you talk to me?” JJ says. He leans against the door frame, bending like a birch tree in the wind.

Otabek pulls him in without a word and they roll together in the bed, naked and hungry. Otabek rubs his face in JJ’s armpit, dizzy with the smell of him, the music of his groans, the desperate scrabble of his hands on Otabek’s skin.

Otabek laces their fingers together so he can feel JJ’s ring biting into him while he sucks JJ’s dick, while he fucks JJ’s thighs. While JJ gasps out his name, over and over, until Otabek is sick of hearing it.

Then he curls up around JJ, two warm spoons in a hard hotel bed, and they sleep the night away.

+

Otabek leaves Barcelona with no medal and the sting of Yuri’s eager kiss on his mouth. They’re going to text, probably Skype a bit. Visit each other, maybe. A bright flame in Otabek’s life. He wonders what he is in Yuri’s.

He’s back home in the rink unlacing his skates when the message comes: Wedding is in June. I’ll send a Save the Date.

One of his rinkmates claps him on the shoulder. “Weight room?”

“I’ll meet you there,” Otabek says. He clicks the screen off. His fingers are numb and it takes him two tries to find the button.

Before he can put it down, the screen lights up again. Will you be my best man?

All of Otabek goes as cold and stiff as his fingers. Like he’s already there, standing behind JJ while he looks down at Isabella, tears in his eyes, making her promises. Like he’s supporting JJ, having his back, drinking his health. Waiting until they fall back into a bathroom stall and rake each other, kissing until their mouths are swollen. Then watching JJ drive away.

He squares his shoulders. Like he’s already there.

Please beks?

Otabek taps the message. Yes.