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just like all those pretty lights

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Karolina has barely slept the past three nights. Chase has given her kind, understanding smiles from across the rink, but she’s gone out of her way to actively avoid him. She knows its not even Chase, really. It’s not really that she wants to avoid him. It’s what he represents that Karolina desperately wants to compartmentalize.

She has her next Grand Prix event in France coming up. She’s already being considered one of the favorites to win the Grand Prix Final, barring any extenuating circumstances where she wouldn’t qualify.

It’s really not the time for her to give much thought to a sexual awakening.

But the more she thinks like that, the more Karolina wonders well, when is? She’s told herself since she was 13, when she saw friends experimenting with different labels and figuring out their own identities, that maybe someday, she’d do the same.

And being a daughter of Leslie Dean, Karolina learned to compartmentalize from an early age.

Karolina has no idea how her parents would react to this news. That she’s a lesbian. She wonders if both her mother and father will say they’re fine with it, that they love her no matter what, that they’re proud of her for being honest with herself and with them. She wonders if they’ll say all that to her face only to grapple in silence with how this news would impact their family’s public image. Karolina knows realistically, in her mind, it would do nothing bad. Frank only has something to gain from being seen as the supportive actor using his platform to advocate for his daughter. So does Leslie.

But she knows that they won’t see it that way. They just can’t.

She knows them both too well. Karolina knows exactly how this is likely to pan out.

She thinks about when she was younger, overly invested in a friendship with a girl in her middle school named Emily. (Karolina knows looking back now that she can call it her intense crush.) It was when Karolina was still in public school, before skating became her entire life, before Leslie’s intensity as a coach could overwhelm her childhood completely. She was twelve, and Emily was just another girl in her class.

In the time she’s spent over the past several weeks, Karolina has cross-examined her past friendships to death, pulling out all the evidence she missed (avoided) pointing to what she’s really wanted this whole time. And just like with Emily in sixth grade, Karolina has found herself captivated by certain girls, finding herself never wanting to be second best on their list of friends, savoring every conversation, trying to come up with the least “creepy” (the only word young Karolina knew to describe it then, she realizes) way to show them how much she’d cared about them.

Now that Karolina has finally stopped hiding it from herself, she doesn’t want it be just her secret. She’s too confused, the weight of it is too much.

She wants to tell someone. To maybe find advice. But at the very least, to start to lift a weight that feels like a cinder block sitting on her chest.

Karolina knows who she wants to talk to, who of her friends she’d feel most comfortable sharing this with (even though it still feels extremely uncomfortable). She wants to discuss this with someone who’s a safe option, someone she know is outspoken about the rights of the marginalized and probably knows more about the LGBTQ+ community than Karolina does at this point, who’s been in this situation themselves.

So naturally she goes to Gert.

Karolina finds her at the rink already setting up for a children’s birthday party that not’s happening until much later in the day, up on a ladder and hanging streamers from the ceiling.

Gert sees her before Karolina can say anything and drapes the streamers over one of the rungs of the ladder.

“Can I help you with something?”

Karolina glances all around the room, trying to see if there’s anyone possibly within earshot, shifting her weight back and forth under the weight of Gert’s gaze.

Karolina knows that Gert is probably still upset about Chase. She doesn’t know she turned him down, doesn’t know Karolina definitely doesn’t want this to come between the two of them.

And maybe this is a bad idea.

“Gert, can I talk to you about something?” Karolina asks, barely above a whisper, head still on a swivel for anyone who might come in unannounced.

Gert sighs and grabs one of the streamers again, continuing to hang them up.

“Is it Chase-related?” she asks.

“What?” Karolina asks, stepping closer. “No, Gert—"

“We get it, you know. He likes you. You probably like him. It’s just how—"

“Gert, that is literally the opposite of what’s happening.”

Finished with the current decoration in her hands, Gert turns toward Karolina to see her pacing back and forth around her ladder.

Karolina has known Gert since they were eight, when a five year old Molly began taking lessons at the rink. They never saw much of each other until Gert began working at the rink when she and Karolina were fourteen, about a year after Chase moved out to LA and moved in to a room in the Yorkes’ to be Molly’s dance partner.

She’s fascinated by the whole dynamic, really. How Chase has forged such a strong sibling relationship with Molly but a weird, butting-heads with a side of sexual tension relationship with Gert all while living under the same roof.

Karolina has gotten to know Gert well enough over the years to know she’s had a crush on Chase since he moved here, how awkward she’d felt about it when he’d first moved in.

And the last thing Karolina wants is both Gert and Chase, two people she cares about so much, upset with her.

“Please believe me,” Karolina pleads. “I told Chase I’m not interested.”

Gert gets down from the ladder, crosses her arms and stands in front of Karolina.

“When?”

“Last night. After you left.”

“Okay.”

Gert shrugs, reaching for a set of one dozen small skating-themed party hats to place around the table.

Karolina sighs. Gert is fiercely loyal, but she’s also stubborn. And over the past year, the unspoken rift growing between them due to Gert’s growing interest in Chase and Chase’s growing interest in Karolina has become impossible to ignore.

(Karolina also knows that Gert is extremely frustrated with herself for letting Chase get in the way of their friendship. She has Molly to thank for that information.)

“Gert, I’m sorry that this got so—"

“So what is this about, then?”

Gert says it with a bite, but when she drops the party hats and looks up at Karolina, visibly uncomfortable, she seems to back down a little bit.

Softer this time, Gert asks, “Does this need to take place in a more private setting?”

Karolina nods timidly.

She knows she can trust Gert, knows logically that Gert will do nothing but support her.

“Probably, yeah.”

“Leslie’s busy with Chase and Molly anyway. She won’t notice if I’m gone.”

Gert motions for Karolina to follow her, and she leads them toward the back of the rink.

“But what if someone comes—"

“Who is going to show up at this rink at ten o’ clock on a Wednesday morning besides the people who are already skating here? Trust me, I know the clientele of this place pretty well by now.”

Karolina follows Gert around the back of the large building to the doors of a storage room.

“You’re sure you won’t get in trouble?”

“Come on, Karolina, I thought we were doing a better job at teaching you about rebellion.”

Gert plucks the key from her ring of the many that unlock the vast majority of the doors to Gibborum, unlocking the doors and ushering Karolina inside.

Gert finds two lawn chairs that used to sit outside during the spring and summer months, and Karolina takes a seat across from her.

“So what’s going on that you decided you wanted to come to me for help?”

Karolina has planned out what she wants to say but has no idea how to introduce it. She considers just blurting, “I think I’m gay,” before sighing and trying to give a brief outline.

“So, I’ve, uh… um, I’ve always appreciated your…progressive, I guess, world views. And you seem to know a lot about these kinds of things…”

Gert gives her the strangest look.

She’s so bad at this.

“God, this is so stupid. I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have bothered you.”

Karolina shifts in her chair and thinks of getting up and leaving for a moment, but a gentle hand on hers anchors her back down.

She’s so nervous. She knows Gert will be so supportive. But she’s so nervous, Karolina actually feels like she might start crying.

“Karolina. It’s okay. You’re safe. Anything you tell me will be kept secret. I promise.

“Okay,” she whispers.  

The hard part now is that Karolina knows that she has to bring up the topic of Chase.

(But maybe this will ultimately make things better with Gert, if she knows everything.)

“Okay, so…god, I hate to bring up Chase, but I feel like its necessary backstory and—"

Gert cuts her off with a sigh.

“Karolina. It’s fine. You can tell me.”

She looks at Gert for reassurance, and her friend reaches across and grabs Karolina’s hand once more, giving a soft smile and nodding.

Okay.

She can do this.

“Chase has made comments for the past few months kind of hinting that he was interested in me, like, romantically. And, at first, I just ignored it. And its not like he was ever pushy or creepy about it, that’s not like Chase.”

“But you still didn’t want it to be happening,” Gert adds, nodding in understanding.

“Yeah. And I kept feeling like I should like him back, you know? I think I’ve always felt that way. Even when we were younger and I got scared when someone would mention playing Truth or Dare or Spin the Bottle or something. I chalked it up to being young and just not old enough to be interested in dating. I remember my mom was always so proud that I ‘had a good head on my shoulders’ or ‘wasn’t boy-crazy.’”

Karolina sighs in relief that she’s made it this far, that she’s able to verbalize some of these things she’s held in her head and heart for so long.

Karolina doesn’t let herself pause for too long, afraid she’ll lose the momentum.

She lets the next words fall out of her mouth quietly, like she’s still afraid that someone other than Gert or herself will hear it.

“But I don’t think I’m ever going to feel that way about a man. Like… 99% sure.”

Gert gives another understanding nod, letting the silence between them settle. Karolina doesn’t say anymore. She desperately wants Gert to just say something.

“And what about…”

Gert leaves the question open-ended, presumably waiting for Karolina to fill in the blank rather than assume anything.

“Girls,” is all Karolina says in explanation.

Karolina looks at Gert again, who’s fighting off a wry smile at Karolina’s answer.

“Uh, yeah,” Gert responds, a bigger smile on her face now, more compassionate.  

“I don’t…I don’t even think I can say it.”

“You don’t have to if you’re not ready to put a label on it. But whatever that label is, please remember that its not a bad word or something.”

Karolina lets out a long, shaky breath. She’s thankful. Thankful that Gert knows how to handle this with such understanding, that she doesn’t launch into a monologue about the plague of compulsory heterosexuality or something.

“You know you’re the first person I’ve ever said any of this out loud to.”

“Oh, Karolina.”

Gert stands and reaches her arms out in offering to Karolina. She stands and lets herself be hugged tightly, and when Gert finally lets go, Karolina feels like she’s beginning to let go of the shame she’s been held onto for so long.

“Thank you for trusting me with this,” Gert says as they sit back down.  

Karolina nods, and they sit in silence for a moment.

(Karolina realizes she hadn’t really planned anything beyond this.)

“Do you want to talk about it more?” Gert offers after a minute.

Karolina shrugs.

“Like, what about it?”

“I don’t know. Any girls that you like?”

Karolina’s heart skips a beat. It’s weird, and it’s a scary thought—openly talking about girls she’s liked. But it’s freeing. It feels normal, and she finally understands the appeal of talking about crushes when she could never understand why her friends always wanted to when they were younger.

Her heart stutters again when the first girl that comes to her mind is Nico.

Because she definitely doesn’t have a crush on Nico.

Karolina has just happened to see what Nico looks like immediately after she’s been kissed, skin flushed, lipstick smudged, hair messy, breathless. She also just happens to know what she looks like in a towel after a shower.

It’s not a big deal. Nico probably hates her anyway.

Karolina realizes she’s probably been quiet for too long, zoned out staring at the ground, when she looks up and sees Gert staring at her with an amused smile.

Karoline blushes, but Gert doesn’t say anything.

“I mean, no. I don’t know. Not right now, I guess.”

Thankfully, Gert drops it, but Karolina knows she’s probably filing that information away and wondering who Karolina is thinking about.

Whatever.

They sit in silence for a few minutes longer before Gert asks if Karolina is okay.

“Yeah. I’m better now. I think.”

Karolina actually believes it when she says it. Feels the relief of being validated, of being understood.

“I don’t mean to pry, but have you thought about telling your parents?”

Karolina has. A little bit. But not enough to actually flesh out a plan of telling them. And she knows that Gert means well, but that’s a topic she’s not ready to approach yet.

“Honestly, no. Not really. I think I just need a little time for me to be more comfortable and tell my friends who I know will be supportive.”

Gert nods and then suggests, “You should tell Chase.”

“What?”

Karolina is taken aback by the proposal at first, but after telling Gert, suddenly, the idea of talking to Chase doesn’t seem as scary anymore.

“When you’re ready, of course. I know things are awkward, but he’s still one of your best friends.”

“I don’t—"

“You deserve to have people who care about you supporting you, Karolina.”

Its that statement that causes Karolina to pause, to reframe things. That it maybe isn’t so much about her telling people to be less scared or to feel less like she’s keeping a secret from someone, that she’s somehow lying to them, but about being honest with people in her life like Chase on how they can support her. So that they can support Karolina when she finally does decide to tell people who may not.

“I’ll think about it.”

 

//

 

“So you’ve selected a song then?” Leslie asks Nico as she pulls into the center of the rink after her warm-up.

“Yes,” Nico answers simply.

Nico has known what song she’s wanted to skate to for over a year, since she put it on a secret Spotify playlist.

“Tell me why you chose it. Tell me how it makes you feel.”

But one reason, among many, Nico has never even attempted this kind of program before is because she feels like she has to justify why—like she’ll have to somehow defend that it makes her think of Amy, makes her think of her parents, makes her think of all the shit that has taken place over the past several years that has left her scared of who she’ll become when she loses anything or anyone again. Like someone is going to tell her, “Oh no, you can’t pick that song. It’s too emotional. You’ve identified with it too closely.” It makes her feel raw, vulnerable.

But Nico isn’t about to tell Leslie that.

“I don’t think—"

“Well how else am I going to choreograph it if I don’t understand the message you’re trying to get across?”

Nico swears she can physically feel herself deflating. She’s had plans for this program for months, not ever expecting to skate to it, but if nothing else to serve as a creative outlet.

But of course Leslie wants to do it herself. She knows what she’s doing. Nico doesn’t. She can almost feel the statement coming out of the look on Leslie’s face: What do you know about choreographing a program?

She chances it anyway.

“And what if I want to help choreograph it?”

Leslie shakes her head.

“No, I need you focusing on Moscow. We fly out in one week, and for now, I need you focused on what we have. Let me worry about Nationals.”

“And if you want me to feel comfortable with it, then please let me help.”

Leslie rolls her eyes, placing a hand on her hip and taking a moment to scroll through her phone.

“Shame that the change in program didn’t come with a change in attitude.”

Every day, Nico can feel her tolerance her Leslie’s coaching methods steadily declining.

“Do you want me to qualify for the Olympics or not?”

Leslie gives her another look, one that Nico knows means something to the effect of don’t question my authority. .

Calmly, Leslie pockets her phone and turns fully back to Nico.

“Let’s table this discussion for later. We need to run Firebird.

She’s only run it once in competition this year, and Nico is already so tired of it. She wants her own program. She wants her own choreography. And pissing off Leslie seems to somehow outweigh the anxiety that comes with thinking about performing such an emotional piece.

So Nico tries the bargaining route instead.

“If I land my triple axel consistently today, will you consider it?”

Leslie rolls her eyes, and Nico’s not entirely sure if she means it when she says, “Maybe.”

And Nico does. She lands her triple axel cleanly 3 of the 4 times she attempts it before Leslie has her run the majority of Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite. (And she lands it cleanly then too.)

Leslie yells for her to make more dramatic gestures with her body during the choreo sequence, to loosen up in the step sequence, to at least for the love of god Nico act like you’re enjoying it.

Nico knows that she’s only marginally improved in these areas since her last competition. But its like she has some kind of mental block keeping her from any sort of breakthrough.

She just doesn’t care enough.

It isn’t until the last run-through, Leslie barking orders to Nico as she transitions from a combination triple lutz and triple loop into her next element that she just decides she’s going to make it up as she goes along. Nico does her best to “connect” with the music but instead lets all her emotion come from the anger she’s feeling, has been feeling, at Leslie.

The anger at how she’s treated Karolina. How she’s pissed that its been almost a week, and Nico still hasn’t been a decent enough person to apologize.

Leslie seems satisfied with the result, and Nico gives her half-truth answer when she asks what changed during that round, telling Leslie she just was applying herself more.

(Nico leaves out the part about her anger at Leslie driving Karolina into paranoia about who she can and cannot hang out with.)

Leslie doesn’t say anything else about choreography for her new program, and Nico doesn’t push it. That’s a battle for another day.

Nico walks into what she’s hopeful is an empty locker room, only to find Karolina lacing up her skates.

Nico really hasn’t seen her much since last week. They’ve been skating at different times, just missing each other or only glancing at each other while the other probably isn’t looking while on the ice, Nico thinks. She wonders if Karolina is avoiding her or if its just coincidence.

Not that Nico was. Not at all (or so she tells herself). But she definitely feels cornered now. She can’t turn back around and leave without making it obvious that she feels uncomfortable.

But Karolina deserves an apology.

Has deserved one.

Karolina finally looks up as Nico takes a few steps further into the locker room, taking a seat on a chair across from Karolina as she begins to untie her skates.

“Hey,” Nico offers.

“Hey, I’m sorry. I’m just about done, and I’ll get out of your way.”

Karolina looks down again, focusing much too intently on how precisely her skates are tied for someone who has been skating since she was three years old.

And Nico hates herself all over again for making Karolina feel like this. Like they can’t even be in the same room anymore.  

“Getting ready for France?” Nico asks, a plea for normalcy, a plea for Karolina not to bolt out of here before Nico can say she’s sorry.

Karolina’s hands freeze, and she sits up to look at Nico for longer than a fleeting glance. Nico swears she can almost see a hint of a smile.

“Yeah, at least my mother won’t be having an aneurysm about us competing against each other.”

“No, save that for the Grand Prix Final,” Nico quips.

“If we make it,” Karolina replies, ever the realist, even though Nico thinks that Karolina has to know that considering the likely competition in Grenoble, Karolina should easily medal and likely, win.

When we make it,” Nico corrects.

Karolina nods and laughs softly at that. Nico takes the diminishing tension as an opportunity.

“Hey, I just wanted to apologize for the other day.”

“Oh.”

Karolina is looking down again, this time focused on a loose thread on her leggings. Nico feels the discomfort continuing to creep through her body and wonders if apologizing is going to fix things immediately or force them to wade through more of their problems. She hates it. But Nico wants to do better. Needs to do better. As uncomfortable as it feels.

She thinks back to her conversation with Chase a few days ago.

Everyone at the rink deserves that from her.

Karolina deserves that from her.  

“Yeah, there was really no excuse for me to treat you that way.”

Karolina finally looks up at her again. Her gaze is softer this time, less anxious, and a lot less angry than the last time they spoke.

Nico pours as much sincerity as she possibly can in when she says, “I’m sorry.”

Karolina nods, smiles, and rises from her chair, balancing on her blades as she walks over to sit beside Nico.

“Nico, I accept your apology.”

Nico lets out a breath she didn’t realize she’d been holding and Karolina continues.

“But Chase also told me that you had just found out that a lot of people somehow found out about your parents. So, I think I can cut you a little slack.”

Nico’s first thought when Karolina says that is to remind herself not to be angry with Chase. Everyone knows anyway. And Chase was surely just looking out for her, trying to advocate for her.

“Please don’t be mad at Chase for telling me. I was just trying to find out what I did to make you upset.”

Something softens in Nico when she hears that. Chase hadn’t gone seeking Karolina out but the other way around. Nico can’t understand it—she’s treated Karolina terribly, especially lately, and she goes out of the way to make sure Nico is okay, to find out what could possibly be triggering her to lash out like that.

Nico can’t quite comprehend how a person can carry that much light within them.

She used to think it was annoying, performative almost.

Now, Nico’s just in awe.

Karolina keeps rambling.

“And look, I don’t know what you’re thinking happened, but if my mom said something…Nico, please know, I don’t agree—"

“Regardless of whether or not Leslie said something, I know its not your fault.”

Nico almost feels like she’s meeting Karolina for the first time again, like that night they fought in their hotel room, when they finally saw a different side of each other. She’s reflective, and self-aware, and so opposite the obedient, brainwashed, willing Gibborum poster child Nico has long thought Karolina is.

Nico feels like maybe she’s waking up to just how much damage she’s caused (and could cause) by putting up such thick walls around everyone, around Karolina.

“Karolina, why do you care so much?”

Karolina furrows her brow, looks at Nico in pure confusion.

“About what?”

“About what I think of you.”

Nico immediately realizes she could have worded that better as Karolina’s brows rise and her eyes widen. Like Nico’s accidentally unlocked some unspoken secret.

Or maybe Karolina’s just surprised that Nico is curious about this all.

She doesn’t think about it too hard.  

“What, no…it’s not, it’s not that, I just—”

Seeing her sputtering, Nico clarifies.

“I’ve been an ass to you, especially lately, and yet you seem so willing to forgive me. Why?”

Karolina just stares back at her like the answer is obvious.

“Because I know you have enough people holding things against you that you can’t control. And I know what that feels like.”

Nico hates that in such a short time, Karolina has seemed to learn to read Nico so well. She constantly feels like she’s letting someone down—Leslie, her parents, Chase… maybe if Nico somehow could have saved Amy, her family wouldn’t be falling apart. Her dad wouldn’t be having an affair. And then Chase’s life wouldn’t have turned upside down either. And she wouldn’t have had to move out here and ruin everyone’s lives at Gibborum. Maybe if—

Nico also knows she needs to do better to keep herself from spiraling into that thought train.

But Karolina’s right.

It is lonely.  

“Thank you,” is all Nico says in response.

“Of course.”

Karolina gives her one last small smile, as if to symbolize that they’re better now. Nico just nods and reaches over to gather her things.

Karolina rises and is headed toward the door when she turns around once more.

“Hey Nico?”

“Yeah?”

“Sometimes on Wednesday nights when my mom has to leave early for some board meetings, I’ll stay late and practice more. It’s kind of nice. No one’s here to bother you…”

Nico already knows where Karolina is probably going with this but chooses to play dumb.

“That sounds nice.”

“My mom told me you’re changing one of your programs for Nationals. If you wanted to practice it tonight, you’re welcome to join me.”

“Oh.”

Karolina shrugs, plays it off like she’s sorry she suggested it.

“You don’t have to, it was just a thought.”

“No, its just I don’t have any choreo.”

It’s a lie, and Nico knows that this would be a perfect opportunity to finally bring all the ideas she’s had to life. But Karolina is probably just being nice, doesn’t actually expect her to say yes.

“Maybe we could work on it.”

“Oh, your mother made it pretty clear she didn’t think I should be focusing my efforts on that and let her worry about it.”

Karolina frowns and seems to take that as her answer.

But Nico’s really getting sick of seeing Karolina sad.

Oh, what the hell.

“Well, technically, she said she’d maybe let me help if I hit my triple axel today.”

Karolina smiles, realizing that Nico is considering the offer.

“You landed it perfectly every time today.”

Nico raises her eyebrows in surprise that Karolina was clearly watching her during practice.

“I mean, from the one I saw,” Karolina recovers, trying and failing to make it sound casual.

Nico smiles and counters, “Aren’t you worried Leslie will find out you’re sneaking me out there for extra ice time?”

She’s almost convinced.

“Honestly, everyone knows about it. Everyone is just usually so exhausted already that they don’t come. And she won’t. I’ll see you here at 8?”

Karolina stands in the doorway, waiting for an answer, when Nico finally nods.

“Yeah. See you at 8.”

 

//

 

Karolina shivers as she glides over to meet Nico. She chalks it up to the cold of the rink and the fact that she hasn’t warmed up yet. Definitely not that she’s suddenly nervous around Nico.

But Nico stands sheepishly at the boards, like she’s still not quite sure how to act around Karolina.

Like they’re both thinking about how things seem to go sideways when its just the two of them having a conversation.

“So were you going to run your programs too or…?”

Karolina shrugs.

“Uh, it’s whatever you want really.”

Karolina wonders for a moment if this rift between the two of them is going to be too much to overcome but squashes the thought almost immediately. Karolina feels like they owe it to each other to at least try to be friends.

(It has nothing to do with the fact that Karolina just really finds herself wanting to spend more time with Nico.)

“I mean, did you have ideas for your new program? What song did you pick?”

Karolina watches Nico, who seems to be internally debating with herself about something, until she finally blurts out, “So, I actually have a pretty good idea of what I want to do.”

Karolina finds herself impressed. She knows that Nico has always struggled in her component scores, has often been called out by fans and commentators for her ability to be so technically sound but struggle to really perform. She also knows that her mother has been trying to get Nico out of that. But if there’s anything Karolina has learned about Nico in the past several weeks, its that the girl is not very forthcoming about feelings.

Which makes Karolina all the more interested in what song Nico has chosen and the fact that she feels strongly enough about it to want to make it entirely her own.

“You choreographed it by yourself?” Karolina asks, doing her best to keep the admiration out of her voice.

Nico rubs the back of her neck and looks down at the ice, twisting a toe pick into the ground.

“I mean, kind of. Not all of it.”

“Why didn’t you tell Leslie that?”

Nico looks at her like its obvious, and Karolina knows the answer. Leslie Dean isn’t exactly the kind of person you think of when you think of people to share the details of trauma with. Karolina knows this all too well.

“Do you want to try it out?”

“Do you think I could try it alone first? Like, you turn around or something?”

“Oh. Sure. Of course. I guess we should, like, warm up first?”

“Yes, of course. Probably a good idea. Don’t want to explain an injury to Leslie.”

They laugh awkwardly, and Karolina feels her heart beating faster as a flustered Nico skates away. She follows behind and the two skate around in comfortable silence. Karolina starts practicing spins, and Nico sets up for a jump. Karolina finds herself focusing harder, adding as much flair as she can while she floats around.

Like she’s unconsciously trying to impress Nico.

Which she’s not.

Maybe she just wants to remind Nico how good she is.

Yep. Totally it.

Karolina grabs her water bottle as she turns to see Nico underrotate a jump and curse. She immediately sets up for another when she notices Karolina watching. Nico leaps into a triple flip and bobbles on the landing.

Karolina can’t help but wonder if them watching each other is having the same weird effect on Nico as it is her.

Karolina returns to the ice and continues putting herself through her paces until twenty minutes later, Nico calls out to her.

“I’m good now, I think. You mind if I try it out?”

Karolina smiles brightly and nods. She’d honestly begun to wonder if Nico was ever going to try it, or if the night would just continue with them skating around each other in silence.

“Okay. Cool,” Nico replies, and Karolina can tell her confidence that she’s built up the past half hour is quickly fading again.

“I’ll just go put the music on. You mind starting it?”

“Yeah. And then I’ll just… not watch,” Karolina replies, doing her best to be supportive.

“Cool. Yeah. Sounds good.”

Karolina follows Nico over to the speaker system, plugging in her phone and pulling up the song. Nico heads back out onto the ice and calls out to Karolina to start the music as she gets into a starting position.

Karolina turns around and presses play, the beginning chords of “She Used to Be Mine” ringing through the empty rink.

Karolina doesn’t know the song very well, has heard it maybe once or twice, but she can quickly tell from the lyrics and just from knowing Nico that this is a much more personal choice than anything she’s ever done.

Karolina sneaks a glance as Nico lands her triple axel and then glides around the rink somewhat aimlessly, occasionally miming a jump or some sort of movement that she hasn’t quite figured out yet.

She can’t help but keep watching.

The song builds into the end of the second verse, and its clear that Nico has this next part planned.

You're not what I asked for
If I'm honest, I know I would give it all back
For a chance to start over
And rewrite an ending or two
For that girl that I knew

Karolina has never seen so much emotion on Nico’s face, has never seen her movements so committed. It’s almost painful to watch as its obvious—the longing that Nico has to change the past, the frustration she has at the present, the way she visibly looks like she’s searching for a way to protect a younger Nico from all of it.

It’s haunting.

Karolina can’t bring herself to look away. Nico, the skater everyone has pegged as a jumps and spins machine only, is putting on a masterclass in performing right in front of Karolina’s eyes.

Nico skates around, deep in thought, the last several measures of the song, again looking as though she’s trying to figure out what should fill up the space. And then Karolina watches as Nico collapses at the very center of the rink as the music ends. Karolina looks away as she hears a stifled sob from Nico.

It’s extremely quiet. All Karolina can hear is the sound of her own breathing and Nico’s gasps, a combination of physical and emotional exhaustion. Karolina gives Nico a few minutes of silence, still looking away, letting her come down from the emotions.

Karolina isn’t sure how welcomed her presence will be, but she puts a timid foot out onto the ice and skates over to Nico.

Nico is staring at the ice, her breathing evening out now, and Karolina reaches out a hand to help Nico stand.

Nico takes it, still barely looking up.

“Hey,” Karolina offers quietly. “You okay?”

Nico finally looks up at Karolina and asks, “Did you watch?”

Karolina smiles.

“Yeah, a little bit.”

Aside from the performance just minutes before, Karolina isn’t sure she’s ever seen Nico look as vulnerable as when she proceeds to ask Karolina what she thinks of the program.

Karolina doesn’t even know how to answer. It’s devastating. It’s heart wrenching. It’s mesmerizing, its not even done yet and its…

All the words Karolina comes up with seem to fall short though. Nico just bared her heart and soul for her.

“It was…”

But Karolina just trails off, shaking her head.

“That bad, huh?” Nico replies, and Karolina knows she’s only being partially sarcastic.

“Nico, that was amazing. And its not even finished.”

Nico shifts uncomfortably at Karolina’s praise.

“I’ve never seen you connect to music like that. And your jumps are so effortless. Your spins looked so elegant…and that I’m used to seeing. But the emotion. Nico, that was…”

Karolina knows the way she’s looking at Nico right now is nothing short of awe-struck, but she can’t will herself to care. Nico deserves it.

Nico just laughs and looks away again.

“Sorry. I’m rambling.”

“By all means, keep going,” Nico quips.

“You should show Leslie.”

Nico just shrugs and shakes her head.

“Maybe after Rostelecom.”

Karolina gives her an empathetic look, suddenly remembering all that Nico has to focus on in the next week. Because they both know that if Nico is going to qualify for the Grand Prix Final, she’ll mostly likely need a first or second place finish in a competition where she’ll have her work cut out for her.

“Right.”

Karolina again finds herself in awe of Nico, confused by this weird dynamic they’ve developed. How they’ve gone from intensely competitive to screaming matches to heart-to-hearts, oscillating back and forth trying to figure each other out.

Now more than ever, Karolina finds herself drawn to Nico. Drawn to the kind, sensitive person she can be when she lets Karolina see.

“Hey, can I ask you something?”

“Sure.”

“What changed?”

Karolina wants to know, wants to know how they can best get past the growing pains of being around each other so much so suddenly, how they can keep changing their narratives of each other from rivals to something else.

“What do you mean?”

“I don’t know,” Karolina answers. “A couple days ago we were fighting, and… you just seem a lot more receptive to social interaction all the sudden.”

Nico smiles, and Karolina wonders why it doesn’t feel like this when someone like Gert or Chase smile at her.

“Decided it was lonely.”

Karolina fails to hide the smile that takes over her face at the realization that Nico has given so much thought to what she’d said when they last spoke.

“I really am sorry, Karolina.”

And Karolina knows from the sincerity in Nico’s voice that this time will be different.

“Thank you.”

Nico looks at her like she’s not entirely sure what Karolina could be thanking her for.

“For letting me be the first to see your new program,” Karolina explains.

“Just wanted to give you plenty of time to prepare for me to beat you with it.”

Karolina laughs as Nico reverts to their old banter, but there’s no venom to it this time.

Yes, this time will be different for sure.

“Ah, there’s the old Nico,” Karolina jokes.

Nico smiles and turns to skate off toward the exit of the rink, turning around once more.

“I’ll see you tomorrow,” Nico says with a smile, leaving Karolina alone at the center of the rink.

Karolina stays for a few minutes longer but leaves soon after Nico, too distracted thinking about seeing her again.