It starts with the painful fall on his quad sal during his free skate at Europeans. Which in all honesty, Javi should have seen coming.
Javi knows as soon as he steps onto the ice, there’s a tightness in his chest that refuses to go away, but instead hangs onto every fiber of his being, sapping power from his limbs, making each stroke feel laborious. But Javi’s done this for years now, he knows how to play the game. He’s not only got an overwhelming lead in the short (the cleanest Malagueña’s ever been in competition), he’s polished up his edgework and transitions, and has the highest technical content out of any skater on the continent. It’s not ideal, especially when he’s aiming for a personal best, but he can afford to make a mistake or two, Javi reminds himself as he saves his quad toe and triple axel combination jumps and saunters into his jaunty choreo sequence--
And then the fall. God, that hurt. If Javi were a lesser man, he’d take a few seconds to just bawl out in pain and sprawl on the ice, hoping for the numbing cold to take away some of the agony. But Javi’s a professional, he’s the reigning World Champion, and so he scrambles back up onto his feet and musters the remaining energy he’s got left to make it through the rest of his program. It’s not pretty skating at all, and Javi’s not sure what kind of Elvis he’s portraying when he finishes his last combination spin. Surely the King of Rock and Roll must have had his bad days too?
Brian’s waiting for him by the boards with a worried look on his face. Javi tries to smile but doesn’t quite get there when a spasm of fire sets his hip ablaze and he stumbles, almost falling into Brian’s arms, moaning “Oh, my butt…” Brian chuckles and hugs him a little more tightly before letting him go and giving him a quick once-over before they head to the kiss and cry together.
“You should get that checked out,” Brian tells him in the kiss and cry. Javi nods without listening; his eyes are fixed on the scoreboard, his head running through the mental arithmetic gymnastics (when he had gotten so good at calculating technical deductions? he used to be terrible at math).
190.59. Javi closes his eyes and pushes away the litany of overscored, undeserved PCS, overrated, that fall, so many mistakes, sloppy performance, what a joke aside.
Opening his eyes, Javi steels himself into a tight smile and waves his arms out to acknowledge the fans who have come all this way. It’s the least he can do.
The breath that Javi’s been holding onto since the free skate finally lodges out of his throat when the sports physician at the venue diagnoses his injury as nothing more than severe bruising, with a recommendation for a week off-ice to heal up. Nothing fractured, nothing broken, nothing permanent. Javi’s mortified when he realizes the tears that are sliding down his cheeks but he’s never been so relieved in his entire life.
“You did good out there,” Brian tells him. “A lot to work on, but we’ve got time before Worlds.”
Not enough time, Javi despairs. But Javi only tips his head in agreement, his hand ghosting over the tenderness of his hip. It’s only bruising, just broken blood vessels, but when Javi later has to reach out and tap Maxim’s shoulder and ask for assistance stepping off the victory podium like an old man, Javi can’t help but wonder if the fall didn’t break something else as well.
“Cool hydroblade. Did you get some tips from Yuzuru?”
Evgenia Medvedeva blushes bright red, her expression betraying the tough, sophisticated charisma she oozed on the ice during her exhibition skate. Off-ice, her grace doesn’t quite leave her, but recedes to make way for her youthful energy and enthusiasm for cute Japanese things.
“Oh, I cannot compare,” she says with a shake of her head and a toss of her ponytail. “Yuzuru is korol’-- king of hydroblade. It’s something fun, so I try it.” She giggles. “Maybe I put in competition if it is good.”
“Getting bored of the triple toe combos?” Javi teases. Having worked with her on RevolutiOn Ice last month, he’s become acquainted with her competitive spirit.
Evgenia laughs, though a touch more sober than before. “Is not being bored, it just comes. You know? Like instinct. You do it so much in practice, it feels good, and then oh, you skate good skate and then you jump without thinking. It’s fun.”
“Fun,” Javi repeats and contemplates.
Evgenia claps a fingerless glove to her mouth. “I’m sorry. Is ‘fun’ wrong word?” Suddenly, the reigning Ladies World Champion looks perturbed. “I don’t mean to make fun or insult. I only mean to say I like skating so much; I don’t care about world record or score, just the skating.”
“You’re so...that’s great to think that way.” And Javi means it. He admires the fire and spirit of these young skaters, their sheer excitement to be on the international big stage, charging up the ranks, smashing through world records as they climb, laughing without a care in the world, with nothing to lose and everything to win. To skate without fear dogging every turn, every step, every jump. The same fear that's taken hold of him, Javi realizes. The fear clenched tight in his heart fits like a well-worn glove, it's been with him all this time. Since when had the fear of falling started to outweigh the thrill of flying?
“You think so?” Evgenia looks amused. “I know not everyone likes it. Some people are mad, they even hate me, because I break world record with invalidated jump. They think I’m playing, making fun, like little child.”
Better a little child than an old man, Javi can’t help thinking as he watches Mikhail Kolyada chase Maxim Kovtun around the rink.
“Miki, do you think I look old?” Javi asks out of the blue over Skype.
Miki Ando inelegantly snorts.
“Is this a serious question?” she asks, her lips played in a half-smile, as if she knew a secret but refused to share. “Or are you fishing for compliment?”
“Half-serious,” Javi tells her. Suddenly, he regrets even bringing up the question at all. It’s a silly one that he doesn’t even want to hear the answer to.
“Yes, yes, Javi, you look very handsome.” Miki rolls her eyes. “I don’t see why you worry.”
“Just stupid thoughts. I think too much.”
“If you think as much as you practice maybe you wouldn’t fall so much.”
“Do you really have to put it like that? You’re supposed to say nice things to me. I’m injured, you know…”
“Oh, stop it, you big baby. You bruised your ass like almost a week ago. No way it still hurts.” Miki lets Javi whine some more before adding, “Besides, if you’re feeling old, what about me? I should be the one who’s worried! I’m almost 30!”
He wants to argue that it’s different for women, especially women like Miki, who are born just naturally pretty, but he's smart enough not to pick a battle he knows he will lose. Javi is not a vain man, but he fears he’s becoming one whenever he catches himself lingering on the wrinkles in the mornings when he wakes up to brush his teeth. He’s never looked at his own face so intently, so intimately before and the progression of the years chiseled into every pore is frighteningly obvious.
Javi practices his best smile for the TV interviews, which all revolve around his historic five-peat as Europeans champion, and of course, the talk about quads and Javi’s prospects to bring home Spain’s first figure skating medal in Pyeongchang next year. It’s not hard for Javi to be his usual charming self--he has always considered it an honor to represent Spain and be the pioneer in bringing figure skating to his country, but Javi finds it harder to smile when asked about his post-Olympics plans and if he had any plans to skate competitively.
“It depends on the physical form and the desire a skater has,” Javi recalls saying in an interview. “But people who know the figure skating sport know well that very few skaters have endured beyond age 26 or 27. The body slows down--it weighs more. The question to answer is to whether leave when you’re at the top or endure.”
Javi has already competed at 11 Europeans and 11 World Championships. He will be 26 at Pyeongchang, turning 27 two months later. Aside from Patrick, Javi will be the oldest contender for the podium.
During practice, they hear the Twitter news explosion when China’s Jin Boyang announces his adding a quad loop to his free skate layout at Four Continents to challenge United States’ Nathan Chen’s five-quad free skate program. Javi doesn't know how to react, but only feels numb and angry for allowing himself the slightest bit of relief that European skaters aren't allowed to compete at Four Continents. He misses all of his jumps, and even blanks out on the step sequence, which he knows backwards and forwards like the feel of his skates. Brian, to his credit, only calmly pulls Javi rinkside after a particularly bad run-through.
"I've already talked with Yuzu about this," Brian tells him, after they sit for a while, just taking small sips of their green tea while making faces. It had been Yuzuru's turn that week to bring beverages for everyone to share, and despite the Japanese skater swearing upon his soul that Japanese sencha was the next best thing since strawberry shortcake, Javi still can’t chug down the drink without gagging. “But I want to ask, first and foremost, if you’re okay.”
Javi laughs, almost a little too brightly. “Why wouldn’t I be okay?”
Brian looks at him and tries another tack. “There’s been a lot of buzz in the media about quads and mid-season program layout changes--”
“It’s okay, Brian, relax.” For good measure, Javi gives Brian a friendly bump on the shoulder as he swallows the last mouthful of his drink. “I’m committed to sticking to my layout the way it is. There’s plenty of things I can work on. Let the young guys chase the quads--I know my limits.” Somehow those words taste worse than the tea.
Brian still looks uncertain. “If you’re sure…” His eyes widen as he spies something over Javi’s shoulder. Brian excuses himself with a quick apology before dashing out onto the ice.
“Yuzu, don’t think I didn’t catch you practicing that quad lutz in the back, and don't hide behind Jun-Hwan, either...I might be old but I’m not blind…”
When Javi is done with practice, he finds Yuzuru waiting by his locker. His training mate, pouring over a thick book full of crawling Japanese characters and complicated looking diagrams. To this day, Javi still doesn’t really know what Yuzuru actually studies, only that it’s something scientific and scholarly sounding and involves writing very long and meticulous reports that he has to send to his professors by email every week. When Javi sets his gear down and begins to unlace his boots, Yuzuru carefully places a bookmark on the page he’s reading and puts the book and reading glasses away.
“Big snow outside,” Yuzuru informs him. “Safer to walk together.”
“Good idea.” Javi nods agreeably. He changes clothes and slips on his coat.
Yuzuru’s right. The snow falls thick and fast in Toronto and Javi shivers, rubbing his hands. He’s forgotten his gloves again. Despite having virtually lived in Toronto for the past six years, Javi doesn’t believe he’ll ever get used to the cold. It’s small wonder that he caught the flu a few weeks ago; with his carelessness, Javi thinks it’s a miracle he’s still alive.
Javi jolts awake when he feels something warm press into his hand. By the time, Javi registers the heat pack nestled in his palm, Yuzuru's already snapping another heat pack for himself, before digging into his pocket to pull out an extra pair of gloves.
“You always forget to bring gloves,” Yuzuru chides him as they shuffle along the sidewalk, taking great care not to skid on the remaining icy patches.
“Can you blame me? When I can count on you to have a pair handy?” Javi presses the heat pack to his cheek. “Oh, that feels good.”
“Don’t put pack so close to face--it burn your skin off.”
Javi drops the heat pack in alarm but Yuzuru catches the pack before it splats on the ground. He returns the pack to Javi with an amused quirk of his eyebrow.
“Just kidding, pack is safe, but better safe than sorry.”
They arrive at the bus stop on time, but the bus hasn’t arrived yet. Javi wonders what they’ll do if the bus doesn’t come, if the roads close down because of the snow. They could be stuck here, waiting for a while.
Yuzuru hunkers down under the thick branches of an oak tree, rubbing his hands and pulling his scarf up closer to cover his neck more securely. He starts a little but relaxes when Javi’s arm snakes around his shoulder, pulling the Japanese skater closer as he sits down. A minute later, they’re sitting down at the foot of the tree, Yuzuru comfortably nestled against Javi’s chest, almost sitting on top of Javi. Javi thinks he’s got the short end of the stick, with his butt in the snow and makes his feelings about their current sitting arrangement quite plain. Yuzuru’s reply?
“You’re more heavy,” Yuzuru points out with a yawn and shifts more of his weight on Javi. Javi winces. Though Yuzuru might look weightless on the ice, the Japanese skater’s slender body tucked away more lean muscle than naked eye scrutiny would suspect.
“Oh, gee, thanks, what every guy likes to hear.” Javi means it as a joke but the words come out more acrid than he intends.
“Just telling truth,” Yuzuru says and lifts up a gloved hand towards the sky. “It stop snowing.”
“It did.” Javi says, but doesn’t feel like getting up. Yuzuru seems of the same idea as well and flops back next to Javi. The Japanese skater looks up again and studies the tree boughs above.
“This tree, I like very much.”
Javi follows Yuzuru’s gaze at the thick branches. Javi supposes in the summer, the tree would look magnificent; but given that it was winter, with its branches bare, it didn’t look terribly different from all of the other trees in the vicinity.
“What makes this tree special from all the other ones?”
Yuzuru caresses the tree bark, looking contemplative, his fingers running down lightly as he examines every whorl, every bark pattern, the immense girth of the trunk; it’s a look of concentration Javi is familiar with, the same kind of intensity Yuzuru brings to the ice every day, with everything that he does.
“Is old tree. Very old oak.”
“Oh, are you a tree expert now?”
Yuzuru shrugs. “Can tell just by looking. Tree trunk is old. Wide, with many rings. Many winters.” He waves a hand to gesture at the younger saplings across the street. “Other trees younger. Thin, less rings.” Yuzuru pats the trunk of the old oak.
“They grow fast though,” Javi points out, not at all sure where Yuzuru is going with this. It’s hardly the first strange conversation he’s had with him, and over the years, he’s learned to just go with the flow; but the last one about earbuds and sound quality was at least somewhat relatable, even if Yuzuru did seem a little OCD about his ever expanding collection. He slaps the trunk. “This guy’s as tall as he can get.”
“Natural for young to chase, to grow,” Yuzuru waves around again, this time more emphatically pointing up with his finger. “Young tree small, only way to grow is up and up, to get closer to sun. Cannot see anything else but up, only see other trees, see how tall they are.”
“Sure,” Javi says and secretly wonders if trees can actually think. It’s been a long while since he’s been in school, and Yuzuru seems knowledgeable about this kind of esoteric thing.
Yuzuru’s single index finger clenches into a fist before opening up his hand.
“When tree get big enough, get tall enough, survive enough winters, then what do they see?”
Yuzuru slaps him lightly on the chest.
“Don’t be lazy. Think.”
Javi groans. He’s been doing too much thinking as of late. He didn’t need to add another item to the list.
“If cannot think, then look.”
The new bite of urgency in Yuzuru’s voice compels Javi to open his eyes. Like Yuzuru, he studies the aged oak they’re under, this time more carefully. His eyes track the massive girth of the trunk, the scarred bark skin, the sloping boughs branching off into multiple branches, like a minimalist peacock’s plumage bloomed into explosions of tiny branches upon branches, growing not just upwards but sideways, downwards, expanding outwards in every possible direction. Javi marvels at the immensity of the oak’s heavy, intricate crown, full and deep, even without the leaves and imagines the sheer number of years this tree has lived, the accumulation of seasons and growth to achieve that kind of stature. The aged oak has no need to grow as high as possible, like the young trees do. The young ones sprout up because they must, for that is the only way they can go, but for the olden oak, the possibilities are endless.
When Javi tears his gaze away, he sees Yuzuru looking back at him, eyes as warm as summer oak leaves.
“Bus is here,” Yuzuru says and offers a hand to help Javi up.
Javi sees Yuzuru off at the airport. Brian is back to his usual fretting competition self--he’s got a bigger gaggle of skaters to manage and the fact that their flight’s been delayed several hours due to the inclement weather was not helping his nerves. Alaine, Elizabet and Gabrielle are all giggling over cat videos while Brian tries to find out how long the flight will be delayed.
“You’ll be flying back to Japan first?” Javi queries as Yuzuru meticulously checks his bags. Kikuchi, his trainer, passes by, armed with Sharpie markers and ballpoint pens as he hands out luggage tags.
“Yes, first to Tokyo, then to Sendai,” Yuzuru affirms.
“And then to Pyeongchang,” Javi concludes. “Brian says the rink is beautiful. I wish I had the chance to try it out.”
“I will take notes for you,” Yuzuru promises, fastening the luggage tag onto his rolling suitcase.
“Uh...you can just take pictures or something. Just tell me about it when you get back,” Javi adds before Yuzuru can make up his mind to prepare a detailed report of his experience on the Pyeongchang ice and rink conditions down to the last cubic centimeter.
“You sure? I take very good note, my professor say so…”
“I’m very sure.” Brian comes back, looking slightly less stressed out than before. He fills Yuzuru on the details regarding his updated departure time and gate number before wishing him luck and leaving with the girls. Javi finally lets go of Yuzuru’s suitcase handle and looks uncertainly at Yuzuru and then at the quietly waiting bodyguards. Yuzuru catches his eye and nods.
“Well, good luck,” Javi says, shuffling his feet. “You’re going to do great. You’ve practiced so hard and it’s going to pay off.” He reaches out towards Yuzuru’s face but checks himself and settles for a friendly one-armed hug. “You’re just going to keep on growing higher and higher, aren’t you?”
And suddenly, Javi finds himself breathing in Yuzuru’s scent, of clean shampoo that smells vaguely like spring flowers. Yuzuru’s thrown his arms around Javi’s neck, pulling him into a tight embrace. Javi hugs him right back. He doesn’t want to let go, but holds on for dear life even as Yuzuru’s hands lift away from his back to grasp his arms. There’s a clack as Yuzuru slides something over his fingers and when Javi looks down, he sees two beaded bracelets encircling both wrists. Yuzuru leans in towards Javi’s ear, his cheek almost brushing against Javi’s own.
“Is oakstone bracelet,” Yuzuru clarifies. “For you to have for training. Remember you grow too.”
Yuzuru lets go, his own wrists now bare. He smiles and walks off, pulling his rolling suitcase behind him. He sticks his index finger high in the air, his signature victory move at competition. As he strides away with one arm high in the air, the raised finger closes into a fist before opening up into a hand, five fingers branching out to wave in all directions.
Javi waits until Yuzuru’s retreating back disappears into the crowd. He fingers the oakstone before heading out.
Javi’s got a lot of work to do before Worlds.