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Petrichor

Chapter Text

i .

It begins in Toronto, in the winter after Otabek’s sixteenth birthday, when the snow is slick on the ground and the days are short and Otabek does not head straight home after his Saturday morning rink session.

There’s a DriveTest centre forty minutes away in the other direction, and he counts the stops as the bus rumbles along through the snow. He’s barely been able to focus that morning; his brain has been blanking in the worst possible way, and with every spin and twizzle and backwards crossover his mind hasn’t been on his form or his speed or shoulders away from your ears, Otabek, but on right of way rules and gear shifting. He has a well-thumbed copy of The Official MTO Motorcycle Handbook in hand, and tries to check through the pages he’s bookmarked, the ones with the questions he got wrong most often in the practice quizzes.

But his hands are shaking, and he can barely focus on the words, and Otabek stows the book away before he changes buses.

Before a competition, there’s a point where you can’t practice your jumps anymore, and you run out of time to go through the motions of an entire routine; where you have to trust in your body and mind and the things they have trained to do. As he stands outside the DriveTest centre in the north of North York and gathers his resolve to step inside, Otabek sends up a wish and a prayer on the wind that it works the same today.

 


 

Sixty-three days later, he gets on a motorcycle for the first time.

 


 

Otabek is the youngest person at the M2 motorcycle safety course by a long shot, and he draws himself up to stand a little straighter as they wait to start; he’s definitely the shortest. It’s hard to imagine this will be anything better than the novice ballet class in Russia, where he was the biggest and tallest, yet could barely do a développé écarté higher than his waist.

But he never wanted to do ballet, and he desperately, desperately wants this.

Getting on the bike for the first time is strange. It doesn’t feel anything like he’s ever imagined; but then, the only thing that could come close is riding a pony, from when he was much younger, and a motorcycle is not very much like a pony. There are far more things to keep track of: the speedometer, the handlebars, the clutch, and keeping an eye on the course and the people around him.

The bike is heavy, and it takes no small amount of strength to push it along unpowered. Maneuvering it isn’t easy. Still, nothing in Otabek’s life has been easy, so far, so he pushes on. It’s like endurance training; tiring, straining, but necessary. And unlike endurance training, there are new things to look forward to at the end.

The morning unfolds from there in sequence: finding balance on the bike, braking, learning to look up and ahead. Turning the bikes on and turning them off. At last, putting them into first gear, and starting to ride.

Much to Otabek’s surprise, none of it leaves him in the dust.

He finds his seat and balance fast; being secure in the position he takes and keeping his weight forward is second nature after a decade of skating. Where others on the course are hesitant over lifting their eyes from the handlebars and the path the motorcycle ploughs along the concrete, Otabek trusts the bike will move whichever way his body guides it; he’s had one too many collisions on the ice to look anywhere but ahead. There are lots of things to keep track off, and relying on his hands and the great machine beneath him over his legs to do what he wants takes some getting used to.

But he doesn’t fall. After a few rounds of slow driving, stop-starting to practice with the brakes, it feels more like the times he has to readjust to the ice after days or off for travelling and injury. As morning segues into afternoon, they learn to steer, start shifting through the gears, start to move the bikes around the course as though on a road, and the motorcycle starts to purr like a blade beneath his seat. Otabek knows how to maneuver a blade, and like letting go of the wall, he trusts the wheels will keep him upright. He stops himself from placing down his feet for longer and longer stretches; and slowly, surely, he starts to pick up his speed. He rides the bus back to his homestay with aching legs and an aching seat and unbridled excitement to get back on a bike again.

Perhaps, tomorrow, he will be able to go ever faster.

The second day he enters on the high of the first, and he thrives through the lessons. Swerving, turning corners, awareness of dangers; these are things Otabek does on his blades daily. His body knows these moves, and he launches into them with no fear. The adults comment on Otabek’s prowess and express amazement when he tells them where he’s from, and why he’s in this city, and he holds onto their words not as platitudes, but maybe as something he can be proud of.

The day wears on, and one by one they get a chance to take on the route set up for themselves, to go as fast or slow as they feel like, to get to grips with a whole track for them and the bike and no one else. Otabek awaits his turn with blood thrumming in his ears, more alight and alive than he feels before competitions. This is an electricity in his veins greater than that he felt before Junior Worlds just a few weeks ago, and he wonders how Senior Worlds next year will compare to the sheer adrenaline rush of being on this bike, and going as fast as he likes, with real wind and real ice-chill searing past him.

At last, it’s his turn.

He takes the course slowly, and takes care over each movement, each gear change and brake; after all, you would never do a triple jump without perfecting the double first, and he has the bruises to prove it. The bike is friendly beneath him, and he can hear it; it wants to go faster. Once he has his licence and his own motorcycle and can practise as much as he likes, he knows he’ll be able to ride as fast as the wind.

But right here on this course, there’s a corner coming up, and Otabek moves to slow down.

Only, he doesn’t. Whatever he’s turned, however he’s turned it, the bike picks up speed. He’s going too fast. Way too fast.

Brake.

He slams back his foot, pulls in the hand lever, and the bike skids—and jolts him so badly his foot slips. The back wheel snaps round.

Otabek goes flying.

By the time he’s got his wind back and is picking himself off the ground, one of the instructors, Helena, is already jogging towards him.

“I’m fine,” says Otabek on autopilot at the concern writ on her brow, although when he pulls off his helmet he finds that isn’t strictly speaking true. There’s some blood that comes off on the chinstrap, and he can feel his nose is bleeding. The adrenaline is pounding through his system and his elbow stings a little where it caught the fall—but apart from that, nothing feels that bad. It’s nothing like smashing into an unyielding sheet of ice at 220 RPM. That hurts. He still has a bruise on his hip from a series of falls practising his triple Axel earlier in the week.

But here he has on a helmet and a sturdy jacket and trousers besides, better armour by far than thin lycra against harsh ice. This won’t leave any lasting marks.

He stands up by himself, but doesn’t protest when Helena leads him away from the course, towards Pierre, the other instructor, waiting by a bench with a first-aid kit and no small hint of alarm in his eyes. He lets Pierre check him over and clean up the graze on his wrist and his split lip, and once a few minutes have passed and Helena has the next person riding and he has a wad of tissues pressed to his nose, he reasons it’s fine to ask when he can have another go at the route.

When he looks back, he sees Pierre with a clipboard rifling through papers that look suspiciously like the emergency contact forms, and his stomach sinks.

“Ah, Otabek, how’s your nose feeling?” Pierre asks, catching his eye and coming to sit beside him.

“It’s fine.” Otabek pulls the tissues away and frowns as another drop of blood seeps down. “Still bleeding.”

Pierre gathers up another five or six tissues and passes them over, and Otabek pinches them over his nose with a muffled thanks. They sit in quiet for a few moments watching as Ibuki from the music school tackles the course, and eventually Otabek opens his mouth.

“Pierre, I was wondering—”

“I just realised I should check with you—”

Otabek shakes his head, slight and careful. “You first.”

With a conciliatory smile, Pierre loosens one of the forms from his clipboard, and asks, “Do you think it’ll be easiest to reach your host mom or your host dad right now?”

The sinking feeling turns into a clawing, the kind that crawls up Otabek’s chest and lodges itself in the base of his throat. He’s suddenly very glad Pierre can’t see his face behind the tissues. “Why?”

“You took a pretty bad fall. Maybe it’s best if you come back in a couple of weeks. We can get you in the next session free, it’s no biggie—”

“But I’m fine. I want to go again,” Otabek says; and then adds, remembering the tissues still pressed to his face, “once my nose stops bleeding.”

“Kid, you don’t need to rush it. When the adrenaline wears off you might not be feeling so good—”

And there Otabek stops listening as blood roars up in his ears, because he knows exactly how he feels when the adrenaline wears off after a fall. He’s fallen more times than he can count, and that’s just in the last year. He’s pushed his body beyond its limits over and over and over again, and come out every time still breathing, still fighting.

Pierre gives him a small, empathetic smile, and pulls his phone from his pocket. And the thing is, Pierre is a decent guy; but he doesn’t understand exactly how much Otabek can take.

“Pierre,” Otabek says, “have I mentioned that I’m a figure skater?”

Looking up from the number he’s typing in, Pierre looks puzzled for a moment. “Yeah? Yeah, you were talking about it this morning, right?”

“That’s right,” says Otabek. “I’m learning quad jumps at the moment.”

“Yo, that’s cool! Like JJ Leroy does?”

JJ Leroy. Otabek sort of knows him—he’s about a year older, and his skating was through most of Juniors as up-and-down as Otabek’s, almost—unfathomably—like he too was going from coach to coach to coach in some kind of desperate bid to make a name for himself and his country. He has a lot of fans. He spent a week training at Otabek’s rink when he was looking at universities in October, and he was loud and showy, but respectful and not unkind. And Pierre is right—he has two reliable quads already, and is working on a third.

He supposes he shouldn’t be so surprised that Pierre knows about JJ. This is Canada, after all. Everyone seems to learn to ice skate before they can walk, and the populace follows ice hockey as religiously as Americans follow baseball and gridiron football. Figure skating can’t be that far behind.

“Yes,” he says. “Do you know what that involves?”

Pierre shakes his head. The phone goes back in his pocket, and Otabek seizes his chance.

“It means landing on the edge of a blade on ice after doing four rotations in the air. And I fall twenty—no, fifty times a week. There’s a bruise on my hip that hasn’t gone away in two weeks because I keep falling on it.”

Just slightly, Pierre’s grip on the clipboard tightens.

“Have you ever seen a développé écarté ?”

Pierre shakes his head once, very slowly.

“It’s when you unfold your leg in the air like this.” Otabek demonstrates with his free hand, high on his left diagonal. Pierre’s eyes go wide. “I have to do that in training. That hurts. This is landing on tyres. This is nothing. I want to sit for my licence today. Can I please go on the route again once my nose stops bleeding?”

Pierre has gone pale, and Otabek catches a flicker of fear in his eyes, and knows he’s won, even if only for now. But that’s enough; more than enough.

Getting thrown from the bike was scary; he won’t deny that. But his heart rate has come right down, and he’s been sorer than this after death sprints across the ice before, after breaking his wrist coming down from a jump gone wrong, and it hurts far more doing a développé écarté than crashing onto concrete.

He can prove his worth here, where there are no expectations, where there is no one forcing his leg above hip height and no one filming him falling over and over again; where so long as he can hold on while he’s braking, all he has to do is focus and drive.

 


 

That night, Otabek ices his hip and elbow as he catches up on his weekend ESL and physics homework, and tries not to think about how sore he’s going to be at practice tomorrow. There are more important things to think about: the Doppler effect, and how much of his essay he can draft during music class tomorrow, and when he can go back to the DriveTest centre and exchange his passing grade letter for an M2 licence.

It feels almost like a dream, seeing the letter in pride of place on his dresser. If he closes his eyes, he can almost still feel the bike beneath him, purring like it would take him anywhere in the world. It felt less like a battle to be fought, the way his blades are weapons to the ice; much, much more like the bike was a friend, starting him off on a journey.

He wouldn’t mind travelling the world forever if he could do it by motorcycle.

But that is a thought for tomorrow, and at last he finishes his physics, plugs his phone into its charger, and goes to have a shower.

When he gets back, there’s a string of notifications on his phone, and he follows them to Instagram. Otabek still hasn’t figured out how to turn off the alerts he gets every time someone he follows from his Colorado rink updates their status, and he’s too embarrassed to ask someone to do it for him. He’s not that incompetent with social media; he just hates exploring it, even as his coach and rinkmates encourage him to use it more often.

At the top of his feed is a black-and-white photo of what he recognises as Leo’s church youth group, Leo at the front of the hall with some friends from his church choir and his guitar, and he smiles to see it. Church is for Leo, he knows, what DJing is for him—a little oasis in this fast-moving, chaotic world they’ve thrown themselves into head-on. There are big changes coming up for both of them—Leo finishing high school, Otabek tussling with the thought of finding another coach, both of them moving up to Seniors next season—and through all that, it puts his heart at ease to know at least one of them has something solid and stable to come back to at the end of it all.

He glances to his bedside drawer, where the MTO handbook sits in its usual place. Otabek knows it back-to-front now, and supposes he can stop studying it so intently. He could find it a space somewhere else in this room.

It is a familiar weight in his hands, and opens easily, the spine cracked through long use. He flips through the pages slowly, and watches the highlighted lines sing at him. He knows which road law every Post-It points to.

And finally, he turns back the book to reach the front cover; and on it, a message in felt pen, still bright as the day he opened this book for the first time.

Happy 16th, Otabek! Got my fingers crossed for you - good luck, and ride like the wind!!!!!!
Leo (。•̀ᴗ-)✧

The words stir something inside him just the same as the first time he opened this book when it arrived in the post in October, and he reaches for his phone again. It’s always nerve-wracking to send texts out of the blue, but Leo did tell him to get in touch more often at Junior Worlds a couple of weeks ago, and Leo was the one he talked to about this what feels like forever ago. How thrilling it looked, to ride one of those machines. How much he wanted that freedom. What a far-off dream it seemed.

Leo was exactly the same about driving a car, and though he already had his permit he was itching to sit for his licence. He thinks that Leo ought to know this, if no one else just yet:

That far-off dream isn’t a dream anymore. Maybe—just maybe—there are other great things he can make reality too.

Chapter Text

ii.

Summer lights Almaty in vibrant blue. This city is so beautiful, Otabek can sometimes hardly imagine how he could ever bear to leave it. It is big and growing bigger, full of high buildings and wide streets, close to those great mountains where his heart truly belongs, and he wonders sometimes how lucky he is that he lives here; that he comes from this place.

He wants to share his city and his country with the world.

And while he waits for the world, it gives him a quiet thrill that the first person he gets to bring here is the person that has entranced him for what feels like half his life.

On Yuri’s fourth day visiting, they leave Otabek’s family’s apartment in the morning, while the streets are damp and drying out, still puddled over from the previous day’s rain. They make good progress as they leave the suburbs behind, but as they get into town, Yuri groans loud enough to sound through Otabek’s earplugs when they hit their third red light in a row.

“Are you kidding me? This is gonna take forever, Beka!”

“We only just got into town,” Otabek points out, adjusting his seat. The balance of the bike is a little different with Yuri riding pillion, and stopping always takes some getting used to when there are three of them he needs to keep upright—especially now, with Yuri hitting yet another growth spurt. Although he’s mostly made his peace with his height, Otabek can’t help but wish sometimes that the same could happen to him, even though he isn’t likely to grow further now that he’s nineteen and has finally stopped breaking out in spots every other week, a sure sign that he’s close to breaking past the interminable horrors of puberty. It doesn’t stop him sometimes wishing to gain another ten centimetres overnight, or even just another two centimetres to get into the 170s.

But there’s always a bright side, and mastering new jumps and mastering balance of his motorbike is a thousand times easier given he hasn’t grown a millimetre since hitting seventeen.

“We’re going to hit all the red lights,” Yuri moans, thunking his helmeted head against Otabek’s back. “This is like when Yakov drives.”

Otabek has unfortunately been in a car with Yakov Feltsman driving before, and his propensity for hitting every single red light in town would be remarkable if it weren’t so maddening. He doesn’t want to stop-start his bike the whole way through town either. It’s bad for the engine and for the brakes; and far more than that, he doesn’t want to disappoint Yuri—or worse, put him in a bad mood before the day has even truly begun.

He looks ahead to gauge a way out. There are still plenty of cars around at this time on a Tuesday morning, but the road is just clear enough. He’ll need to be fast. He doesn’t like to skirt the speed limit often, and certainly not in town, but this is a dire situation.

“I’ll get us past the next ones,” he says. “Trust me.”

The opposite set of lights are going to turn soon. He redoubles his grip on the handlebars and starts to rev—once, twice, three times, a domineering force as the sound cuts through the hum of the Almaty traffic. He turns his head just enough to get Yuri’s attention, and sees an older woman in her car looking aghast at him.

He feels bad, but only a little. Yuri likes it when he revs the engine, and between keeping the auntie happy and Yuri happy, there’s no competition.

“Hold on tight,” he says.

Yuri squeezes.

The light turns.

Otabek takes off.

Right on the speed limit, he races through the intersection and darts through the next lights as green blinks over to yellow, and careens the bike to the right as soon as he sees an opening. They can take the long way through town. Less traffic. Faster driving. The bike thrums low beneath his legs, and Otabek gives it everything he’s got.

With anyone else on board, Otabek wouldn’t ride this knife edge so fine the way he does when he’s riding alone; and Yuri is dear and precious to him and he cannot bear the thought of ever letting him come to harm. By all rights Yuri is the last person he should ride recklessly with.

But there’s something about the way Yuri’s eyes light up every time Otabek tosses him a helmet that sets the thrill running high in his soul. It isn’t quite a fire set ablaze; more like he is the smouldering embers, and Yuri is the breath of belief that he will burn high and bright like no one’s ever seen.

He’s loathe to admit it, but Otabek likes showing off on the bike for Yuri.

As he winds through the streets, his phone vibrates in the pocket of his jeans. Otabek pays it little mind until it vibrates twice more in succession. And then a fourth time. No one ever texts him like this at this time of day.

He pulls into a side street, parks the bike, and checks his messages.

From: Berik Zhaparov

dude we have an emergency
like SUPER URGENT
everyone else is at work

u there?

To: Berik Zhaparov

Send me the address. I’ll be there soon.

It’s an unwritten code of conduct in his motorcycle club to help out as soon as possible in times of crisis. He’s sure Yuri will understand if they delay their trip out to see Otabek’s grandma by half an hour.

Yuri does not understand.

“What crisis?” he says, arms crossed against his chest. The studs on his leather jacket point ominously towards Otabek, and he takes a moment to gauge the situation first. Yuri’s temper is short—Otabek knows this—and he knows this really won’t be a big deal. Berik likes to overexaggerate. But he’s known Berik since he was eight, and though he exaggerates he doesn’t ask for favours often. There’s always the chance this really is a serious matter, and Otabek’s conscience can’t let him deal with it alone.

“A friend from my motorcycle club needs help with something,” he says, as neutrally as he can. “Most other people are at work. He wouldn’t ask unless it was important. I’ve known him for a long time, Yura—I can’t not help.”

Yuri bristles like he’s going to put up a fight, and Otabek lays his trump card. “If you don’t come with me, how will you get back to my place? Do you know this part of town?”

An expression comes over Yuri’s face, the kind of oh shit face he gets when he’s backed himself into a corner or when he’s got himself very, very lost in a foreign city.

“I—well—I have Google Maps!”

“And will that get you out to my grandma’s?”

Yuri uncrosses his arms, and grits his teeth like he doesn’t know what’s worse: trying to figure out public transport or giving in, and Otabek seizes his moment.

“Are you going to come with me on the bike or not?”

And Otabek knows, even before Yuri’s face crumples in reluctant acquiescence, that there’s only one answer.

They only have to go a little out of their way to get to Berik, and it’s easy to spot him from a long way down the road. His motorcycle gleams scarlet in the morning sun, making its name whilst sloppily parked even louder than it does on the road. Otabek cruises in beside it, and takes care to park his own bike in perfect parallel to the road markings to make a point.

“Yo, Berik!” Otabek calls as he dismounts. “You texted?”

“Yeah, man, we’ve got an issue,” says Berik. “Brought a friend?”

“I’m taking him to meet my grandma,” says Otabek. When he turns to hook his helmet straps over the handlebars, he catches the look on Yuri’s face, utterly bewildered, and bites back a curse at himself.

“Berik, get over here so I can introduce you,” he calls in Russian. Berik stops in his tracks and raises his eyebrows so high they nearly get lost in the hair flopping down from his mohawk.

For as long as Otabek has known Berik, their whole friend group has only ever talked in Kazakh. They’re all from Kazakh-speaking families, and only ever did Russian as a compulsory language option at school. Otabek is fluent from the fourteen months he lived in Russia and now from being Yuri’s best friend, but truly, he isn’t sure how much Berik actually needs to use Russian these days. His gut is doing some uncomfortable contortions, and he wonders if perhaps this wasn’t such a great idea.

“What’s this about?”

“My friend is Russian, just try it,” says Otabek, exasperated. And once Berik is close enough: “Yuri, this is Berik. He’s part of my MC here.”

“MC as in motorcycle club,” says Berik, straightening up as though that alone can make him match up anywhere near Yuri’s height, “not as in MC Hardcore Almaty Badboy. That’s for the club. And you are…?”

“Yuri’s a friend from figure skating. He represents Russia,” says Otabek. He tries not to cringe at Berik’s DJ name. He doesn’t quite succeed.

He’s surprised. Berik doesn’t sound… well, he doesn’t sound too uncomfortable. Otabek wonders how he’s retained the language.

“Oh—oh shit, are you the guy Beshka tells us to watch? With the jumps? And the spin thing? And the ponytail?”

Yuri bristles, and Otabek notes that under the helmet Berik cannot see his cool new haircut, which he got just yesterday and which Madame Baranovskaya and Yakov Feltsman are not going to learn about until Yuri caves and starts posting on his Instagram again.

“—and the sick music? Yo, I’ve seen so many streams of you from those Russian Charlie’s Angels fans—you are metal, dude.”

But comment about the ponytail or not, there is nothing that gets Yuri’s attention quite as much as warranted praise—and it’s true, Yuri is very metal and Otabek is glad his friends understand this—and he gets off the bike at last and takes off his helmet.

“Hey, uh… thanks. Yuri Plisetsky,” he says, offering his hand. His undercut gleams in the summer sun.

“Berik Zhaparov,” says Berik, eyeing Yuri up and down with a gleam of approval in his eyes. “Keen to help? It’s critical.”

“Hell yeah,” says Yuri, grinning the way he does any time anyone challenges him to do some impossible thing. “What is it? Chasing criminals? Burying a body?”

“What? No, no… it’s… well… come over here, I’ll show you.”

Two minutes later, they’re all standing underneath a tree, and Otabek knows his hunch was correct—Berik was definitely exaggerating at the term emergency.

“That cat,” says Berik, gesturing vehemently up the tree, “has been meowing at me for ten fucking minutes and hasn’t realised it can just come down. It can jump.”

Otabek holds back a laugh. “What have you tried to get it down?”

“What haven’t I tried? You think I’d have called you if this wasn’t getting dire?”

Yes, thinks Otabek, but he keeps that to himself. “Do you have any treats with you?”

“Do I look like the sort of person who carries cat treats 24/7?”

“Yura,” Otabek says, turning around, “do you have any cat treats with you?”

Standing behind him, Yuri’s mouth is open so wide Otabek is surprised it hasn’t hit the ground. It’s very concerning. Even so, Yuri’s hand floats to his jeans pocket, and Otabek is sure beyond all doubt that he has a cat treat or five in there.

They may need all five.

“Yura?” Otabek asks again, and Yuri snaps back into focus.

“How the fuck are we meant to get it down?” he says at last, with no small measure of dismay in his voice, and he makes a fair point. Cat treats or no cat treats, the cat is high up. Really high up. The tree has a long trunk with very few branches low down; Yuri is the tallest of them all, but Otabek doubts he could reach the branch where the cat is perched even en pointe on his sneakers.

As Yuri starts calling and clucking his tongue at the cat, Berik leans in to Otabek with a frown.

“Burying a body? What does he think we do?” he hisses in Kazakh, sifting a hand through his mohawk.

“I told him once I’m going to end up burying a body for him someday,” Otabek explains in an undertone. “It was a joke, but I think that’s what he thinks our MC does now.”

To his credit, Berik doesn’t look alarmed so much as really exasperated.

“We’ll be going to old grannies’ funerals til we’re forty, but we’re not, like, killing them. We’re not that scary, are we?”

Otabek shrugs, because scary means cool and cool always wins where Yuri’s concerned. Berik raises his eyebrows but makes no comment; instead, he approaches Yuri and starts talking to him, complaining about how the shop owners nearby wouldn’t let him take their store ladders out onto the grass. And as Otabek pays him half an ear, he casts his eyes around for something to help them, and ends up back at the bikes, glossy where they sit in the morning sun.

When the idea hits him, he moves without thinking.

“What are you doing?” asks Berik, incredulous, as Otabek cruises his motorcycle at 2kmh towards the tree and parks it right beside the trunk.

“Rescuing the cat,” says Otabek, kicking down the stand and lifting himself to stand on the seat. It’s a bit wobbly, and it takes a moment to stabilise himself, glutes squeezed in and core tight. It isn’t so different from balancing on the ice or on a wobble board, when he thinks about it. And when he’s steady, he edges around carefully and reaches out to the cat.

A strangled, incomprehensible noise splutters through the air.

“Beka, what the fuck?” says Yuri.

“I think I can reach the cat from here,” says Otabek by way of explanation. Berik looks similarly befuddled, and while he isn’t talking for once, he says to Yuri, “Could you hand me one of the cat treats?”

Yuri splutters, but hands over a treat anyway. Berik, on the other hand, gives Otabek a what is your deal kind of gesture.

“Why are you on your bike?”

“There isn’t any other way to get up. It’s safer than trying to climb the tree.” He holds out the treat and clicks to the cat. It mewls plaintively at him but doesn’t approach, and he leans forward as far as he can to balance the treat on the branch. Maybe it will come if he isn’t forcing its hand—or paw, as it were.

“The cat looks fine, Yura,” Otabek says, and something unsets in Yuri’s shoulders. But there’s still an air of tension about him, and Otabek wonders what could be wrong, and says as much.

“Well… it’s… I guess—Beka, when you said you had a motorbike gang I thought you guys dressed cool and did like, mafia stuff!”

Berik snorts, and Otabek frowns. “Why would we be involved with the mafia? They’re criminals.”

“But—this?”

“We don’t normally need to help cats out of trees.”

“It’s more like… if there’s an old granny with a lot of shopping we’ll give her a lift home, or help her cross the street.”

“We pick up litter in the parks, too. We can get a lot of it straight to the landfill on our bikes,” Otabek adds.

As Yuri’s brain starts unravelling across his face, there’s another mewl from the tree, and to Otabek’s delight, the cat has come closer to the trunk. It’s still a little far, but he thinks he can reach it. Just.

As he starts to click his fingers at the cat, Berik places his hand on the bike and it wobbles.

“Don’t do that,” says Otabek warningly.

“Dude, what are you doing?”

“Getting the cat. What does it look like?”

“Beshka, dude. You can’t reach her.”

“I can, if I lean forwards. Yuri, can you pass me another cat treat? She’s not that far.”

“Beshka, this is gonna take forever. Can’t you send Yuri up?”

Otabek flips Berik the finger without looking down, sends Yuri a thumbs-up once he has the second treat in hand, and edges himself a fraction higher on tiptoe. “This isn’t Yuri’s responsibility, Berik. I don’t want him getting hurt.”

“Yeah, and I really don’t know if you’re the best person to do this, Shorta—”

“Don’t you dare.”

“Shortass Altin,” Berik mutters very softly.

“Berik.”

Berik raises his hands in a surrender-apology, but still looks skeptical. “Dude, you cannot reach her.”

“I don’t see you getting into this tree. I’m fine. See, if I just—”

He reaches, and the bike wobbles. Berik is a foot away. But it’s fine. The cat is close and Otabek clicks his tongue to her. If he wants to reach her, he’s going to need both hands, so he lets go of the trunk and leans out further.

“Beshka…” Berik sounds concerned.

“Beka!”

“I’ve nearly got her—”

He lunges forwards one last bit, and finds purchase on the cat. And then his foot slips, and his stomach drops as the bike tips out underneath him.

“Otabek!”

“Beka!”

On the ground, next to his overbalanced motorbike, Otabek winces. He wonders if bruises can become permanent. He imagines the one on his right hip must be etched into his skin like a tattoo by now, with the number of falls it’s weathered.

“Ouch,” he breathes.

Berik squats beside him with a look somewhere between incredulity and relief. “You nearly got squashed by your own damn bike, Beka! We can’t take you anywhere, can we?”

“Trust me,” Otabek says with a dry laugh and a glance up to Yuri, thankful to see his face melt from wide-eyed worry to relief, “I’ve had worse than this. It was worth it.”

He sits up, and in his lap, safely retrieved, the cat nuzzles him.

“Mraow!”

Chapter Text

iii.

When Otabek drives in winter, it is always a brazen reminder of why he couldn’t sit for his licence the day he turned sixteen. Winter in this part of the world is dangerous.

There’s a storm on its way, whipping snow hard against the arrowhead he cuts through the slick road crossing over the mountains. His fingers are numb through his gloves, and his helmet strap digs into his chin. Otabek keeps the visor lifted so the sleet doesn’t build in his frame of vision, but the air bites at his skin. The wind howls mournful through the pass, shrieking and moaning as it sweeps over the bike.

It’s so cold it almost doesn’t feel any temperature at all.

One road sign lights up through the gloom, then another, and Otabek presses the bike on hard and fast. There’s no telling how long he’s been riding for, or how long he has to go; he has never driven this road before. This is the right way, and the bike is firm beneath him, and this is all he needs to know.

The corner comes up as a dark, looming rockface. Otabek veers round the bend at a steep angle, tyres cutting quick along the road, and pushes on. He’s almost at the end of the mountains. He can feel it.

The road ahead turns to mist and he squints through the sleet.

He hits the ice.

The bike skids. No traction. No drag. There is only black ice, and a pitfall in Otabek’s stomach. He clutches the handlebars as hard as he can as the bike spins, round and round and faster and faster and faster, falling backwards, and he screams through a throat that cannot breathe until the bike trips and jolts and crashes down.

He loses his grip. It flings him off, up and over the cliff, with his heart in his throat—

 

and then he’s falling,

 

falling,

 

falling—

 

Otabek slams into the mattress and chokes back a cry as he wakes.

His room is dim, grey shadows cast over the photos and band posters on the walls from the streetlight several storeys below which filters through his curtains; but the dark cannot drown out the wind and the rain, howling and shrieking at his window so loud they sound one step away from crashing into his room and tearing down everything in their path. The storm does nothing to set his battered nerves at ease, and he gropes for his phone or perhaps his bedside lamp, anything to bring him some light. The sheets are tangled and twisted around his chest. He’s drenched in cold sweat.

Otabek finally lays a hold on his phone and switches it on. 3:26, it says, glaringly bright, and he lets loose the breath clawing and choking his throat. He can still go back to sleep.

His insides are still falling off the cliff. He doesn’t want to sleep again and dream of that.

Pushing himself to sitting, Otabek moves to unfurl himself of the mess of sheets and cast-away blanket his bed has become. The mattress is unyielding in the wrong sort of way; soft and comfortable, but with no springiness as he shifts about on the bed. It’s new. The bedframe is new as well; he long outgrew the single bed of his childhood, but couldn’t bring himself to part with it when he returned home barely a month ago, and it’s only under the insistence of both parents that they’re more than happy to pay for a new one that he’s yielded at last. The sheets from the old bed are folded away in his closet, deep blue with a print of pine trees and leaves and bears. He can’t bring himself to throw them away.

Free from his covers, he switches on the lamp, and across the room his motorcycle helmet gleams at him.

It hasn’t happened yet, he tells himself firmly, loud enough that it might drown out the sick feeling rearing in his stomach. It hasn’t happened yet, you haven’t crashed yet, you didn’t crash you aren’t dead you haven’t failed—

“Fuck,” he whispers, drowned out by the rain.

A thought fleets past that he might go and wake his parents and tell them. But tell then what? That he's scared? That one of his worst fears has him by the chest and won't let go?

It's been so long since he last asked someone for a hand to hold that he doesn't think he knows how anymore.

Otabek doesn't need someone's hand. He doesn't need to talk about this, he reasons as he opens up his phone and his much-neglected Instagram app. He just needs to not think about it.

His feed is full with a week's worth of photos: a screed of fellow skaters, his favourite DJs and bands, a few old friends from school. He smiles at a photo of Jean-Jacques and his girlfriend Isabella cuddling puppies; Phichit Chulanont giving live updates of every facet of his own move back to Thailand, from the food to the rink to candid shots of his little brother and sister; something more from the strange saga unfolding about Victor Nikiforov uprooting his whole life to go and coach the top skater in Japan. Otabek's been watching it with interest, especially since he saw the photos and videos of Yuri Plisetsky challenging Yuuri Katsuki to a skate-off not long ago.

No one from Almaty is around, which is no surprise; none of the DJs he’s met in his brief time back will have a gig this late mid-week, not even this close to the summer, and as far as he knows, all his childhood friends work normal hours.

But as he scrolls again, he sees an ad for a motorcycle and his stomach swoops without warning. He hits the home button and squeezes shut his eyes as though that can take him away from the terror of the cliff face, or the gut-twisting burden of disappointment in failure.

It's cold, he realises. The sticky heat of the day has been swept away by the storm, and there are goosebumps crinkling up on his bare arms. He crawls down his bed and unfolds the duvet from the far corner to spread it the breadth of the mattress, and steps softly to his drawers to find a jersey. Even after all these years, he still remembers where the floorboards creak underfoot, and he crosses the floor with barely a sound.

As he gets under the duvet and wraps his long cardigan around himself, he picks up his phone and opens the messenger by accident, a slip of a finger; and he’s about to close it, when one of the icons blinks and pings green.

It’s selfish, Otabek thinks as he stares, because this guy will definitely be awake, and must have time to talk. And it’s so stupid, this fear of his.

But he can’t think of anything else at this point, and he knows that if nothing else, this guy will listen.

The call takes an age to go through, but the first ring barely sounds out the other end before the phone picks up; and from down the line, far away over mountains and ocean, halfway around the globe, Leo de la Iglesia says, “Otabek?”

Otabek sucks in a breath.

“Hi, Leo.”

“What’s this? You haven’t texted me in like, forever, not since Worlds, I was starting to think your coach was keeping you at the rink 25/8 or something!” Leo laughs, and Otabek closes his eyes. Leo’s voice has changed so much in the years since they first met. It’s deeper now, warm like a summer song over the radio, and he sounds nothing short of delighted.

“25/8?”

“24/7 but worse,” says Leo, and Otabek breathes a laugh of his own. The rain is incessant at his window, but it’s easier to blot it out with a kind voice sitting next to him. He bets it’s sunny wherever Leo is right now.

“I couldn’t stay at the rink all the time, you know.”

“I know, but I also know some people who’d like to try. Busy off-season for you?”

“A little. I’ve got some DJing gigs lined up.” He decides not to mention finishing high school, or the move, or the whirlwind of having people approach him on the street to say hi or ask him to sign their jerseys or notebooks or arms; it’s all too much chaos he doesn’t want to bring into this burgeoning steadiness.

“Same. Well… not the DJing.”

Otabek knows what’s been filling up Leo’s social media accounts for the last three weeks, and he has to ask. “Stars on Ice?”

“Yeah,” Leo breathes like he can barely believe it. “I was not expecting that, but oh man, it’s been so much fun! You know, I bet you’ll get an invite sooner or later. I’m already putting together my routines for the season, I’m getting so many good ideas here—”

He continues to talk, lively and excited, and a fond smile tugs at Otabek’s lips as he leans back against the wall. Choreography is the thing Leo’s always loved most about skating, and back when Otabek shared a rink with him he was already getting input into his routines: what songs to use, what dance styles to try, little bits of his free program that were all his own. He wonders how much more of it will be Leo's own this year.

“It sounds great,” he says when Leo finally pauses for breath, and he gets another laugh.

“One day I’ll make a program for you and you won’t complain one second about the choreo, trust me,” says Leo, and Otabek rolls his eyes. Leo told him the same thing a year ago, and the year before that, and he still knows that nothing will bring him round to enjoy dancing—off the ice or on it. “Heck, I bet I could fly up to Toronto next month and—ah, wait, you moved back to Almaty, didn’t you? Gosh, there’s been so much going on I totally forgot…”

And then Leo’s quiet; a little too quiet.

“Otabek,” he says, with a strange note to his voice, “what time is it for you?”

Otabek winces.

“Um,” he says.

“Aren’t you like thirteen hours ahead—Otabek, it’s the middle of the night for you!”

Otabek curls in on himself and the storm rattles his windows a little louder. His throat tightens up. Maybe this wasn’t such a good idea.

“Has something happened? Is something wrong, Otabek?”

He shakes his head, and wishes he could have Leo sitting here in front of him. It’s so much easier talking when someone else can look at you and read your silences easy as anything. “It’s silly.”

“Can’t be that silly if it’s keeping you up.” And the surprise and exasperation is gone, just like that—replaced by a voice tending to soft, the voice of the big brother in Leo on duty and ready to save the day.

“A storm woke me up,” Otabek says at last.

“Whoa. How big is it?”

“Pretty big. Noisy.”

The wind chooses that moment to shriek a banshee cry again the building, and Leo makes a little noise of clarity. “I hear it now. Do storms like this freak you out?”

“Not the storm.”

Leo makes another noise, like a question, but doesn’t say anything.

The room flashes white, and Otabek's stomach squeezes as the thunder rolls in.

“I had a dream,” he says at last. “That I crashed my motorcycle, and I think… in it… I think I…”

He can't bring himself to say it; it's too horrific. With the way Leo breathes his name, oh, Otabek, he knows there's nothing more he needs to say.

“It was just a dream,” Otabek says, and his voice comes out small, even though there's only him and Leo to hear it. “I haven't crashed. Nothing's happened.”

“Good. I was scared for a minute there. You're okay? No one in your family—or anyone else—?”

“No one,” Otabek confirms.

Leo lets out a sigh heavy with relief. “I mean, I don’t know why I was worried, I know you’re a good rider… how’s the riding been over there? What kind of bike are you using?”

And well—that’s the thing, isn’t it?

“I can’t ride over here.”

“What? Beka, you have your M2—”

“The legal driving age is eighteen.”

“Ohhhh. Aw, that sucks. But hey, that’s not so bad… you can wait a little while, right?”

“I wanted to sit my M licence this year.”

It’s such a small thing compared to everything else, all those other important things like his family and his country and the sport that leads his life.

Otabek isn’t sure where the words come from, why the sudden admission—this isn’t Leo’s problem, there’s no reason to give his secrets away. But now that he’s started, he feels an urge to let it out, to tell someone for the first time. “I thought I was going to be in Canada for longer—a lot longer. I had a plan, that I was going to sit for my M licence this year if I stayed there to train.”

“And then you moved.”

“There’s enough funding for me to train here now, and… Leo, I’ve missed Kazakhstan so much. But…” Otabek presses the phone closer to his ear, like somehow that will materialise Leo in the room. “I haven’t ridden in a month, and I keep thinking about if I try to sit my licence in Canada, or even here...”

I’m scared I’m going to crash. He can’t make himself say it.

He shuts his eyes for a moment, and imagines what it might be like if Leo were on the bed with him. Would he come closer? Reach out?

“Is there no way you can ride over there? Just to get in the practice?”

“I’m not old enough to buy a motorcycle either. Or to rent one,” he adds before Leo can say anything, “for another five years.”

“Seriously? Oh man, that blows. Do any of your friends have motorcycles?”

An automatic no, why would they? springs to his lips; and then Otabek pauses, and reconsiders. He doesn’t actually know. It’s been a while.

It’s been a while. It sounds something like the story of his entire life. It’s been a while since that Juniors’ training camp in Russia where he started to lay his own path, trying to reach that fierce boy with battle-hardened eyes. It’s been a while since Colorado Springs and Leo. It’s been a while now, even, since Toronto and Jean-Jacques. It’s been a really long while since he last saw any of the people he grew up with in the flesh. Bits and pieces of their lives filtered through Facebook and Instagram are not quite the same thing, and he wonders how little he knows of them all now.

Motorcycling was something a few of them wanted to do as dumb twelve-year-olds, a dream bolstered by the cool factor and blaze of speed. How much easier, he imagined then, it would be to race one of those great machines into the sunset than to master a camel spin, petering around slower and slower on the ice until he overbalanced, going nowhere. He supposes, in the end, he was lucky to be able to see it through. He never thought to imagine if Berik or Erzhan or Akhmet or any of his other friends might have done the same.

“I’m not sure,” he says at last.

“You could just ask them, you know,” says Leo, and Otabek wonders what it’s like to be that confident you can just talk to people. You can’t just talk to people.

But then, he called Leo out of the blue. It isn’t impossible.

“And when did you want to sit your licence test, exactly?”

It sounds terrible to say it aloud, and Otabek nearly lies, nearly tells Leo he planned to wait another year again; but he doesn’t like to lie, and he has always wanted more; has always been hungry to get the next step ahead.

“October,” he admits. “During Grand Prix season. If there’s any chance I’ll get Skate America or Skate Canada… I thought I could take a few days to go to Ontario and sit for my M licence.”

Grand Prix season; he says this with certainty only because for him, it cannot be anything but certain. He doesn’t say it lightly, either; not with Leo on the other end of the line, Leo who may get an invite, and may not. He expects a rebuke, or a caution at the very least.

But far away, Leo simply hums.

“You know,” he says, “Skate America this year is in Milwaukee. That’s not too far from Toronto.”

Otabek starts. “How do you know that?”

“Looked it up. I figured—well.” Leo’s voice goes wistful. “Way back, before you said you were moving back to Almaty, I kinda figured if I got into Skate America, I could fly up and see you around then.”

“But what if I was travelling early?”

“Details, details,” says Leo, light and dismissive. “My point is that you’re not far away, if you really wanna go for it.”

“And if I get one of those assignments.”

“If? Dude, I’ve done the math.” Otabek raises an eyebrow. Leo really hates maths. “Christophe is gonna get Eric Bompard, that’s just a given, Victor… ran off to coach Yuuri Katsuki, so he’s out… he’d have Rostelecom Cup if he were still competing. He used to get Skate Canada a lot, though…”

“I’m lost, Leo.”

“I figure that’s three competitions of the six, right? You and Christophe won’t get assigned the same GPs, and I bet they sorted your placements ages ago before Victor hopped on a plane. I reckon you’ve got a good chance at getting Skate America. Maybe Skate Canada…”

Otabek takes a moment to process it all. There are so many technicalities. Whole factors he doubts Leo’s even thought of. But it’s so tempting. So promising.

“Do you really think it’ll work?”

“Cross my heart. And… you know, I might even get to see you.” Leo’s voice, so matter-of-fact and brashly confident, goes quiet. “We haven’t really seen each other much the last couple of years, huh?”

They haven’t. The days they used to spend together feel like a lifetime ago, and ever since, they’ve had so little time: snatched hellos at Junior Worlds last year, Worlds two short months ago; catching up over drawing their free skate order at Four Continents; no time to sit together like this, with no people between them, and no time they have to rush through.

Otabek hopes, in his heart of hearts, that Leo has this same stridently certain chance of getting Skate America too. Leo surprised everyone when just a few months ago in his senior debut, he took silver at US Nationals with no quads and no falls, by dancing his heart out across the ice. He’s never stood on a podium with Leo before. He tries to picture it, and somehow sees Leo beaming up at him from his left. Gold and bronze. What a sight that would make.

“They’ll have been fighting to snap you up.” With the air of a presenter, Leo continues, “Think about it: blah blah blah Progressive Skate America, featuring World bronze medallist Otabek Altin, coming to a cable station near you this fall terms-and-conditions-may-apply-see-a-sales-assistant-for-details. It’ll look amazing on their promos.”

A laugh springs up from somewhere Otabek can’t place, but he shakes his head. “Hardly. I’m not that special.”

There’s a soft silence on the other end of the line.

“You’re pretty special.”

The words come out in a breath, and so quickly Otabek isn’t at all sure it wasn’t just something in the wind, or perhaps the roll of thunder that rumbles by.

“Hey, give me a day once assignments go up. I’ll see what I can find. Leo the internet detective hasn’t left a case unsolved yet!”

And just like that, Leo’s back to his usual self and his usual voice, and Otabek leaves off wondering.

“You don’t have to do this,” he says, but even he can feel how the words sink warm into the night with the fondness of being touched, really touched, by how much Leo is willing to do for him.

“What are friends for? Can’t let you not get your licence after all this time. Hey, but you gotta find someone’s motorcycle to ride in Almaty. Someone’s gotta have a bike you can borrow, right?”

It’s a small chance. Very small. But if he went and pursued that dream from when he was small, there’s no telling if one of his friends hasn’t either. And some of them will definitely be eighteen by now.

“I know some people I can ask.”

“That’s that, then! Hey, are you feeling better?”

The storm is still raging fierce, but Otabek’s heart is no longer beating five hundred times a minute, and he’s telling the truth when he says: “Yes. A lot better.”

“Gonna try going back to sleep?”

“I think so.”

“Good. Do you want me to stay on the line a while?”

“I’ll be alright. Leo?”

“Yeah?”

“Thank you.” The distance feels so great, and this doesn’t feel enough. But it has to be. “Thank you for being here.”

And as ever, Leo makes the distance disappear with an easy laugh and a warm Otabek can feel against his skin from thousands of kilometres away..

“What are friends for? Hey, make sure you get enough sleep, you have my full unbridled permission to sleep in tomorrow.”

“It’s still today over here.”

“You’re already in tomorrow for me! I know what I mean.”

“I know. Goodnight, Leo.”

“Night, Beka.”

For a second, there’s silence down the phone line, like they’re both waiting for something.

And at last, Otabek draws the phone away and ends the call.

His home is unfamiliar. His bed is unfamiliar. Everything feels unsettled, like it could all slip out from him as easily as his tires might on black ice.

But he also has friends who look out for him, and skill enough to steer away from the edge of a cliff; and perhaps, he thinks as he lies down and sets his phone to play Chopin as a quiet counterpoint to the storm, that’s enough to get him through right now.

Chapter Text

iv.

A cloud of dust blows up as the bike screeches past.

It’s could be the scene of a movie: an engine rumbling fit to burst, whining in dips and flows as it skirts the track; dirt rising from the ground, rubble blown up from under the tyres in slow motion; one man on a mission on the bike, cloaked in leather, and another figure silhouetted stark against a bright grey sky.

Except that in movies, Otabek thinks as he gags on another wind-gust of petrol, you don’t keep choking on exhaust from your best friend’s shitty bike.

“You don’t need to crank it so hard!” he yells, although he doubts Yuri can hear him. “You’re going fast enough!”

Yuri slows down a fraction, only to immediately rev the handlebars again, and Otabek knows that he heard something. How typical, that even riding away and unable to call back, Yuri has to get the last word in.

At last, Yuri circles back around to where Otabek’s standing and pulls to a halt. He brakes neatly and carefully compared to every other way he rides the bike, and Otabek lets himself be impressed for as long as it takes Yuri to wrestle off his motorcycle helmet.

“You were going fast enough,” Otabek says, and Yuri rolls his eyes. 

“This bike can’t keep the speed up.”

“Get a better bike, then. That one’s not going to last you another year. I’m amazed it got a warrant.”

Yuri shrugs. “It was cheaper than the rest. Motorcycles are fucking expensive.”

Otabek knows Yuri has a boatload of savings from his wins, but also knows they are just that: savings. Yakov and Lilia and Nikolai between them helped Yuri set everything up, and he can’t access most of it for another couple of years. He also knows Yuri was desperate to learn how to ride a motorcycle.

Otabek knows the feeling well.

Yet right now he’s playing coach, and there is a long list of notes he’s been making while he watches Yuri ride. He sort of understands now why his own coach, and Yuri’s, and everyone else’s get so nitpicky.

“You’re still taking the corners too hard and you’re not countersteering enough,” he says, “and if you do that you are going to fail. And you’ll fail if you mess with your speed like that. I’m serious, Yuri.”

“Fine, okay. What else?”

“You’re keeping good control and you brake in plenty of time, and I can see you’re keeping an eye on your surroundings, but Yura, you’re still weaving.”

“You weave.”

“I weave to get between cars. You need to be able to keep going in a straight line if you want to pass your test. Yuri, I still think you’d be better to wait another year.”

“A year—?”

“You don’t even get a chance to practise properly during the season. I know you want your full licence but you can still drive on your restricted permit.”

“Yeah, but it’s not the same! You got yours when you were seventeen!”

“I was eighteen, and I’d already been learning for two years. You can’t rush this.”

“I can ride fine.”

“You’re still making mistakes. I know—” Otabek holds up both hands as Yuri starts to protest again. “I know I also make mistakes sometimes, but you can’t make those kinds of mistakes when you’re taking your test.”

“So I won’t.”

“You can’t guarantee that.”

Yuri is as stubborn as a bull, and believes often that he is just as invincible. It’s this belief, Otabek knows, that has brought him so much success. But his stubbornness sometimes makes him lose full sight of the world around him, and the places where he doesn’t have the same control he wields over the ice.

“Yeah, I guess,” Yuri says in a voice that very clearly says I can absolutely guarantee that, “but I mean—that’s why you’re doing this, right?”

And this is true: Otabek is doing this willingly, but Yuri had asked. If Yuri’s determined to do this come Hell or high water, Otabek figures there are worse things he could do than help.

Otabek spends the next half hour setting out lists of things for Yuri to do the way he remembers from his own tests. Motorcycle tests are nothing quite like being out on the roads, and that strangeness in itself is its own barrier to overcome. He steers away from getting Yuri to try doing any kind of slalom, given he’s still weaving more often than not, but he guides him through all the test items, stopping for feedback after each one, and by the time they stop for lunch he’s feeling a little less apprehensive.

A little. Yuri’s still speeding up too much.

“You’re making that face,” Yuri says, nudging him on the shin while they’re waiting for their kebab wraps.

“What face?” says Otabek. He’s been twisting a paper napkin between his fingers, and it’s starting to disintegrate with the friction. He pinches it round in one last twist, then pockets it, takes another, and starts to fold it. One diagonal, and then another.

“That face. You know, the one you make every time your coach tries to bring up ballet lessons.”

Otabek wrinkles his nose and Yuri points.

“That one! You’re thinking about something.”

He can’t really deny it, so Otabek turns back to flattening out the folds that will become the wings of a crane and tries to figure out how to say it. Yuri pulls his phone out, and starts double-tapping in a way that can only mean he’s on Instagram. They can have whole conversations like this, between pockets of silence, until his thoughts take form like the bird under his hands.

“Was I being too harsh?”

“Harsh?”

“On you.”

Yuri doesn’t even look up from his phone. “Dude, you’re the expert. You’re better than Yakov, the old man would just shout at me.”

Otabek laughs through his nose and smooths out the kite shape, checking that all the layers are sitting where they should be. “Doesn’t he shout at you about just riding it?”

“Only once. Lilia’s cool with it and he doesn’t argue with her that much anymore. Or… you know, they argue, but they always have these weird smiles like they enjoy it. It’s super gross. Not as bad as Victor but like, super gross.”

“Weren’t they married once?”

God , don’t remind me.” Yuri steps out then to grab their order from the counter, and when he slings his way back into his seat he says, “But like, seriously, Beka, it’s fine. I wanna pass my test. It’s really cool of you to help me.” He does not say pass my test on the first go because he doesn’t need to; this is a given, in Yuri’s eyes.

“Of course I’m going to help you. Just as long as you listen.” Otabek keeps his voice light, and Yuri half-laughs, half-snorts around his kebab. Otabek smiles, and leaves the half-finished crane to bite into his own falafel wrap, and the air is a little clearer and lighter between them again.

As they leave the kebab shop and head back out to the bikes, Yuri accepts the pair of disposable earplugs Otabek hands him. Otabek has proper earplugs, but Yuri loses tiny things like that all the time, and it’s easier to just have foam disposables on hand. He bites them between his teeth as he zips up his leather jacket, well-worn and well-cared for. It’s the only thing apart from his much-hated formal suit that he actually hangs up in his wardrobe.

“Ready to go?” Otabek asks.

“I’ve been ready to go since like, forever,” says Yuri, but in a happy way. Otabek nods and checks him over where he stands by his own bike. Jacket: zipped. Helmet: buckled. Gloves: on. The last time Yuri was out biking, he overbalanced and had nasty scrapes down the palms of both hands.

“Remember, if you get in trouble just pull over and text me. My phone is on vibrate and I’ll stop and come back for you. Okay?”

“Beka, I’ll be fine.”

“I just want you to promise that you’ll tell me if something’s going wrong or you need a break.”

“Nothing’s gonna go wrong!”

“Yuri.”

Yuri’s face tenses up, like he’s trying very hard not to roll his eyes, but he huffs out the side of his mouth and says, “I’ll text you if any shit happens.”

“Thank you. Keep some distance between us, and drive closer to the left side of the lanes— don’t try to overtake cars unless I go first, okay? I don’t know these roads very well and I don’t want us getting caught out.”

“I’ve got it.” Yuri is always impatient to go, always raring ahead. Nothing in him is ever inclined to wait behind or come in last; he charges ahead like he could scale a mountain if you dared him hard enough. Even with something like the motorbikes, he has a confidence that Otabek isn’t sure he needs at the moment. Yuri isn’t a beginner rider, but he’s more beginner than Otabek by several vital years, and Otabek can’t help but worry. He’s always going to worry about Yuri.

But worrying won’t get them anywhere, and for all Otabek takes him to task about countersteering and going too fast, Yuri isn’t a bad rider. He’s good enough to go on a real ride, somewhere outside the town and little parking lots and speed limits of 50 kilometres an hour. Otabek knows, too, that he wouldn’t trust anyone else to take him out somewhere where the risk is that much greater.

“Okay,” he says at last. The fire gleams back in Yuri’s eyes, and Otabek takes a deep breath. Nothing’s going to happen. It’s the outer suburbs of Moscow; nothing ever happens out here.

“We’re gonna go slow until we get out of town, and then we can pick up speed—I don’t want you going on the limit though. We’re going to go at eighty kilometres—don’t argue. If anything happens at all, the slower we go, the better off we’ll be. We’ll still be going faster than in the city. It’ll feel like we’re going at the speed limit.”

“Yeah, but I’ve been on the bike with you doing a hundred. I know what it feels like!”

“Humour me. Once you’ve got more experience we can speed up. Can you trust me on this?”

Yuri holds his gaze with a hard look in his eye, but doesn’t even miss a beat as he says, “Yeah. Yeah, I trust you, Otabek.”

The words mean more than Yuri will ever know, and Otabek lets himself breathe, relieved, before he pulls his own helmet on. “Then let’s ride.”

It’s a whole different sensation, revving up his bike and hearing another engine growl its own way into life just behind. They keep the engines quiet as they ease through the main streets, and pick up their speed a little as they leave the suburb behind and cruise through the outer limits of town. Otabek rides in front, even though Yuri knows the streets better—it’s safer to have the experienced driver riding ahead and setting the pace. He can’t glance back much to check on Yuri, but he trusts in what he can hear through his earplugs: another engine rumbling fierce on his tail. One brief check drawing up to the lights tells him Yuri’s keeping a safe distance, and when he shoots Yuri a thumbs up to check how things are, he gets a double thumbs up back.

They’re good to go. Otabek takes them through the last set of lights, and weaves through the road to where the highway sign ups the speed limit—and on a wing and a prayer, revs the engine and lets the bike fly.

The road drops away on either side as he heads out on the highway. There aren’t many cars around, not now in the off-season before high summer hits and this small part of the world reaches a rush. It’s just him and Yuri and the odd car here and there, sleek beasts cruising along far faster than Nikolai Plisetsky’s little Soviet-era model could ever go.

Not far out of town, the road leads into wooded area, and Otabek takes down his speed a little, and hopes to Allah that Yuri does the same. There are corners coming up, and the woods dim the visibility a little. There’s always more to be cautious of when there are trees in the way. Sometimes there are rabbits hiding amongst the brush, which will spring out into the road without thought or caution. Hedgehogs too; Otabek once had to make an emergency brake for a deer. And the woods are often moving, just little flickers at the edges of his blind spots which make the driving all the more dangerous.

Motorcyclists have lots of blind spots. There’s no peripheral vision to speak of, wearing the helmets which give your face full protection. Otabek doesn’t mind wearing a smaller, lighter helmet for himself—it’s easier to travel overseas with, and frees his head and his eyes to take in far more hazards about him on the road. But he’s also seen crashes, and seen what damage they can cause. He’s acutely aware too of Yuri, still a novice rider in the grand scheme of things and still vulnerable to the worst kinds of accidents, the ones that come when you simply lack the experience to know what to do without thinking when the worst comes. He knows that in those scenarios, sometimes the right helmet makes all the difference.

He also has an overbearing mother who wouldn’t let him leave home for the cross-country bike trip to western Russia unless he was wearing the heavy-duty helmet. He’s pretty sure she gave his lighter helmet to the family cats as a bed, which is not at all fair, but he can’t really fight the cats or his mother. He’s already pushing it between attempting quad axels on the harness and the undercut.

The road straightens out a couple of minutes later, and Otabek breathes a sigh of relief. There’s only one more tricky spot up ahead, and then they should be riding clear. He can still hear Yuri’s engine on his tail.

Otabek hears the car before he sees it, the throttle of an engine loud enough to rival his own. Some idiot boy racers, the kind who race up and down the long roads in the centre of town back home with no care for noise or safety, high off their own stupidity. He glances ahead. There isn’t much room before the next wooded section, and while he isn’t keen to let them get away with being idiots on the road, he also doesn’t want to give way with so little space to manoeuvre.

He can wait for a longer stretch of road to pull over and let them pass. It won’t be long. His nerves are already grinding on edge, but he forces himself to breathe and focus on the road. It won’t be long, and then he can enjoy this ride again.

The engine behind growls louder, and a voice sounds in a faint echo over the air.

“Beka!”

“Just hang on!” he calls back. Even idiots who want to race won’t overtake here, where the road winds often and there are too many blind spots to count.

Or so he thinks, until they pull around to a long stretch of road, and a rush of heavy metal and exhaust screeches by so fast it clips the bike and sends it skidding.

Hands on the brake, foot on the brake, Otabek doesn’t breathe as he fights to slow the bike and keep it on the road and behind him, he hears his name, strangled and alarmed like he’s never heard it before, and he can’t think beyond knowing he nearly crashed.

Otabek’s heart is pounding so fast he doesn’t think it’ll ever slow. 

“The fuck was that?” he hears from behind him through his heart blocking his throat. Yuri comes into sight, visor up and cheeks scarlet with fury. “What are those assholes up to?”

“Just ignore them. Forget them.”

“No! Why do they think they can get away with that?” 

“Because they’re idiots who like fast engines but don’t know how to drive them. It’s nothing.”

“Assholes,” Yuri spits. And then he reaches out, and retracts the movement, like he wants to touch Otabek but isn’t sure how. “You good? Wanna get going?”

His brain is still on fire, and Otabek shakes his head.

“Not yet.”

Yuri opens his mouth as though he wants to say something, but huffs out a sigh from his chest with the same rough edge as a swear word and kills his engine.

Otabek eases the bike further off the road before he turns off his own ignition, and rests his head on the handlebars as he works to calm the nerves sending electric shocks through his body. Nothing happened, he tells himself. Nothing happened, and he’s okay. Yuri is okay.

It still takes several minutes before he can think properly, and decides he’s ready to go again.

Starting back up, the thrum of the bike judders his nerves and he makes himself look ahead and focus on the road as he leads the way. Nothing happened, he tells himself fiercely every few seconds. Yuri is okay. He himself is okay. They’re both fine.

A few minutes pass, and they ride through one town, and nothing happens. Otabek breathes easier.

Once they’re out on the highway again, Otabek checks his speedometer. 75 kilometres an hour. The ride is going smoothly, and Yuri doesn’t seem to be having problems. He kicks up his speed to 80; and then, cautiously, to 85. They have the room to ride fast.

There’s a sharp roar through the air and he drops his speed instantly, hissing a curse. Where’s there’s one boy racer, there are always more.

His phone buzzes against his chest, and his attention jumps for a split second.

A swarm of angry hornets. A slick of exhaust.

Something collides with his back wheel hard.  

Like a bad fever dream, the rest goes in slow motion. He clutches at the brakes in a panic as the bike spins and hits the edge of the road, the grass, the world drops out beneath him—

He isn’t sure if he’s thrown off or if he dives in one desperate fit of self-preservation.

 


 

Otabek’s heart is hammering in his throat, and his head is full of static. He blinks his eyes open to see grass. and the same bright grey sky, and he remembers falling off his bike.

Falling? Or throwing himself?

He can’t recall. It all happened very fast.

His body feels jarred and wooden, but nothing really hurts, so he heaves himself around and pushes up to a seat. Immediately, he regrets it; his stomach churns tight and sick, and his head swims. Fiercer still, his right shoulder flares up like someone is tearing it from the socket. Otabek squeezes his eyes shut and holds his breath until the nausea passes.

When his stomach settles, he chances taking a look; but it’s like he’s looking through someone else’s eyes, as he sees his shoulder isn’t quite sitting in the right place.

“Fuck,” he breathes, as he takes a hold of his right wrist and starts to lift his arm up parallel to the ground.

He’s dislocated his shoulder a couple of times before; once in practice, and once when he fell on it two-thirds of the way through the NHK Trophy last year. Both times, he shoved it back in place as he spiralled up to his feet, too acutely aware of what was at stake if he stopped his routine and pulled out. It doesn’t make it hurt less now as he pops it back in its socket, and he sort of wants to throw up at the pain as it stabs down almost to his lungs. He can’t breathe right, and his helmet feels too constricting. The weight of what just happened is crushing; so great, he can feel pressure in his ears like he’s trapped underwater.

He’s never been run off the road like that before. Drivers are never that inconsiderate, even if they are boy racers. The overtaking car came out of nowhere; just sneaked up from behind.

Yuri was riding behind him.

His whole body goes numb, and then begins to quaver and tremble. His stomach roils, and he just manages to pull his helmet off before he doubles over and throws up in the grass.

Yuri was riding behind him.

When he gets his breath back, Otabek clambers to his feet, unsteady and dizzy, and casts his gaze about the ditch, desperate. He’s all alone.

He didn’t hear another crash, but that doesn’t mean anything. With all the chaos around him when he got run off the road, anything could have happened. Yuri must have been some several metres behind him; with the distance until the boy racer caught up to him, how far down the road might he be?

How long, he wonders, has he been lying in this ditch?

“Yura!” he calls. The words barely have room to come out, his throat is so choked up, and he tries again, forcing himself to start walking towards the bank. “Yura!”

There’s stillness. He can hear an engine, far in the distance. His knees are trembling, but he knows he can’t stop; knows what may be at stake if he gives up.

“Yura!” he calls out again.

“Beka! Beka, holy shit—”

And up there on the bank, Yuri kicks down his motorbike stand and runs down the slope, wrestling off his helmet as he goes. His eyes are wide and panicked and his face white.

“Beka, what the fuck, I saw them crash you off the road—”

Yuri reaches him in what seems like no time and grasps his elbow; the one on the arm that doesn’t hurt. “What happened?”

Otabek hesitates. He knows he crashed. Yuri can’t be asking about that, surely. But how he crashed—it’s swimming in his head, not staying still for long enough to think and remember.

“I don’t know,” he says at last.

Yuri’s face tightens. “Dude, it was like thirty seconds ago—”

“I don’t know,” Otabek repeats, trying to get his muddled thoughts to line up and make sense. “I was trying to pull over, and he just… hit me.”

“Shit. Bastards!”

“Yeah. You’re not hurt?”

Yuri’s brow creases. “No?”

“They didn’t hit you?” Yuri isn’t visibly bleeding, and he isn’t limping or holding anything stiffly; and even if he were trying to hide it, Yuri can’t help but let the entire world know just how he feels. But Otabek has to ask.

“Fuck no,” says Yuri. “I pulled over, those guys scared the crap out of me. I texted you, I was gonna catch up but I didn’t know if there were more of them, and then—they hit you.”

“Shit.”

“Yeah.”

Otabek swallows back the bile rising in his throat again.

“How’s your bike?” Yuri says all of a sudden. Otabek blinks.

In all the chaos, he hasn’t even thought about where the bike ended up.

“I don’t know.” He turns—and there’s the bike, not far from the dent in the grass still dampened with sick. Yuri starts to walk towards it, and pulls him along, and Otabek does his best to keep up on shaky legs. He knows he can’t let Yuri see anything is wrong.

“It looks okay,” says Yuri, squatting beside it. The key is still in the engine, and Otabek kneels slowly, bracing himself against the handlebars so his legs don’t give out from under him. He turns the key and pulls it out, and Yuri, apparently satisfied, takes a hold of the seat and starts to lift it from the grass.

“Fuck, that’s heavy!” he says, lowering it back down. “Beka, can you help? This thing weighs a ton.”

“It weighs a hundred and eighty kilos,” says Otabek, with one hand on the handlebars. He bends, ready to start lifting—but Yuri starts before he does, heaving the bike upwards, and his shoulder wrenches with pain.

He drops the bike with a strangled cry, and Yuri jumps back; he’s fast, and that’s the only thing that stops one hundred and eighty kilograms of motorcycle landing on his foot.

“Fucking hell , Beka! Give me some warning next time—”

And then he turns, and even though he’s doubled over, clutching his shoulder through the spasms of pain, Otabek sees the exact moment all the blood leaves Yuri’s face.

“Beka?” he says, and his voice is like a stone falling, falling, falling down a chasm without end.

“I’m fine,” Otabek says through gritted teeth. “I just— fuck—

“What happened?” Yuri’s close, but his hands are hovering and hesitant, unsure what to touch or where will make Otabek hurt. “Beka, what happened?”

“Shoulder. I popped it back in, it’s fine.”

“You popped it—” The red spots of colour come back to Yuri’s cheeks as his face expands and creases in understanding. He looks angry, and Otabek thinks he knows why. Yuri was waiting for him when he came off the ice at that NHK Trophy. “Beka, the fuck, did you dislocate it again? That’s the third time! You know they told you not to pop it in yourself last time!”

“And what?” Otabek clenches his fists, and the nausea creeps up in his throat again. “We’re stuck out in the middle of nowhere and my arm’s just hanging useless and hurting all that time? What if you had been hit too? What if I were by myself out here? I couldn’t just leave it, Yuri!”

Yuri falters.

For the first time since the crash, Otabek realises, with the clarity that comes in the wake of anger, just how scared Yuri is.

He takes a step back, and winces.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t think, I just… it’s easier like this.”

“Dude, you know they said if you do it badly they might have to operate.” And that would be the worst thing in the world, for someone like Yuri. Otabek doesn’t miss how shaky his voice is, like he’s only saying this so he doesn’t have to think about something else. Everything else.

“That’s not so important right now.”

“I guess. Anywhere else?”

“I might have blacked out. I’m not sure, but my stomach doesn’t feel good.”

“You got a headache?”

It occurs to Otabek that the pounding in his ears isn’t just in his ears, but through his head as well. “A little bit.”

“Concussion? We… we probably shouldn’t go anywhere if you have concussion. Shit, I don’t think you’re supposed to be moved…”

Yuri, as ever when faced with a problem, whips out his phone. He curses again.

“No signal. Fuck, I can’t even call Grandpa!”

It takes Otabek a few seconds to extract his phone from inside his jacket, and when he does there’s only one bar of signal, which flickers to a cross, and the sign “Emergency calls only”, before struggling to zero bars. There’s also a text from Yuri which he doesn’t bother to read. His stomach curls again. No signal means no pick-up. It means a long wait until someone else drives by.

He looks over his bike again, and realises there’s one other option.

“Yuri,” he says, “can you drive us back?”

Yuri’s eyes go wide. His face is still drained of all colour.

“Beka… Beka—I don’t think I’m allowed to take passengers—”

“I don’t think I should drive,” says Otabek, as firmly as he can manage. “Not with my arm like this, and definitely not if I hit my head. There isn’t any signal out here, and we need to get back to Moscow somehow. Please, Yura. Take us back on my bike. I trust you.”

Yuri swallows hard, and the air is silent and heavy between them.

“I’ve never driven with someone else on before,” he says, and Otabek catches in his low voice what he doesn’t say, and won’t say. Those drivers may still be on the road, may have turned back by now; and even if they aren’t, learner riders are so many more times likely to crash.

“You’ll be fine,” he says.

Yuri could go back by himself, and he would be okay, Otabek knows this. But the thought of waiting out here by himself with no way to contact Yuri or Nikolai or anyone else scares him. And his shoulder is really starting to hurt.

And at last, something gives in Yuri’s steely eyes. He nods with a sort of imperceptible grunt, and turns back towards the bank. As Otabek follows, Yuri pauses, and picks up his helmet from the grass. His knuckles are white as he pulls it back on.

Yuri pulls over four times on the way back to that town. In an unfamiliar seat behind him, Otabek pretends not to hear the way his breaths are harsh and scared, like he’s about to cry.

Please trust that this won’t happen every time, he thinks through the rest of that afternoon, in the blur of getting a pick-up sorted for Yuri’s bike and having his shoulder set and finally, finally returning to Nikolai’s house. Please, don’t let this scare you, Yuri.

Please don’t let this scare you the way it scared me.

Chapter Text

& i.

 

Somewhere near Otabek’s head, something is beeping, soft and insistent. It sounds like an alarm in the morning, on snooze for half an hour. It sounds as exhausted as he is.



beepbeepbeepbeep-beepbeepbeepbeep-



beepbeepbeepbeep-



beepbeepbeepbeep-



beep-



beep-



beep-



Otabek is exhausted. It must be morning, and time to get up for training. But his whole body feels weighed down, sluggish and warm like he’s slept with too heavy a blanket in this summer heat. It’s strange; he hasn’t even been sleeping with a sheet on. At home, Leo generates more than enough body heat, and Toronto is humid and sticky; it’s hard enough getting to sleep even stripped as bare as you can in a shared dorm room.

He can hear voices nearby. If it’s someone coming in to tell him to get up, he has half a mind to tell them to do something he would never dare say in front of his mother. But it all sounds strange; sort of like he’s lying in a bath, and someone’s talking to him from outside, a little blocked and muffled by the water.

There’s a dull ache through his chest, and another way down on his thigh. It hurts to breathe. Something sits uneasy in the back of his mind.

It feels, almost, like something’s wrong.

Something—someone?—nudges against his hand, and there's another sensation there. Something trailing against his skin. Something clamped around his finger. It twinges to move his hand even a fraction.

“Otabek? Hey, buddy, you there? Can you hear me?”

He knows this voice well.

Yes, he wants to say, yes, I can hear you and I don't know what's going on. What's wrong? Am I sick? Did something happen?

He can barely even muster the strength to open his eyes. He waits, and waits, and the hand cradling his own squeezes, in a way he might call desperate.

“Buddy? Bella, he opened his eyes just before.”

A different voice comes from his other side.

“That happens sometimes with concussion patients. And he’s probably still getting over the anaesthesia. There’s no reason to worry if he’s not very responsive right now—you know that, JJ.”

“I know—”

The voice hitches. Otabek breathes cold air through his nose.

“I know, Bells. I just—I hoped—”

A scraping sound, and then footsteps, and then Isabella's voice comes again, gentler, from his right side.

“He's going to be alright. He's going to be just fine. It looks like he can hear us, and that's a good sign, JJ. I’m sure he knows we’re here.”

Otabek can't quite understand what's happened. But it can't be good, if Isabella's here, because—

Because Isabella is in Montreal. Even she and JJ aren't so joined at the hip that she goes with him to his training camps; she has rotations for medical school, and conferences over the summer. JJ’s been telling him how busy she’s been; so busy she’s booking out leave months in advance to get to his bigger competitions.

What's wrong? he wants to ask, so desperately it makes his lungs hurt. What happened to me?

Part of him wants to go back to sleep, because none of this feels real. Most of him desperately wants to wake up. He takes another breath, and his eyes close a little tighter, and suddenly there’s a conversation fading in that he can’t remember the first part of.

“Any news on the bike?” asks Isabella.

"Mom's going to take a look this afternoon. She’s not expecting much. The way Otabek is… I saw some photos from the crash site on the news."

He wants to hear more—what about the way he is? And who has his bike?—but something stronger is weighing him down again, and Otabek doesn’t have the fire to resist it. 

As JJ’s voice gets further and further away and he sinks underwater again, a different sound grows stronger; a small, persistent beep. In his mind’s eye, he envisages a spike and a flat line with every beep.

Oh, he realises on the edge of sleep, as his mind finally puts two and two together. Hospital.

But the question of why he is in the hospital doesn’t have a change to cross his mind before soft oblivion takes over, lulled in time with the soft hum near his head.

 

beep-

 

beep-

 

BEEP—

 

A horn blares out as he cuts in front on the motorway. Otabek raises his hand briefly in apology before he revs up his speed and takes off on the way back to Toronto.

Sunday at this summer training camp is a half-day, given this is Canada and half the skaters and coaches attend some kind of morning service. Otabek elects to do his training alongside Yuri in the morning, with an empty rink while everyone else is off at church or, in Guanghong Ji’s case, enjoying a sleep-in. He takes off before lunch on his rental bike, and heads up the coast on the 401 going north, the direction that if he kept going would land him in Quebec. It’s the first time in almost a month he’s been able to head out on a long ride like this; he had a busy week preparing for the training camp before he left Colorado Springs, a busy month with sponsorship engagements and drilling a new quad loop before that, and the skating up here has kept him occupied dawn to dusk.

But there is time now for him to be out here alone; to recharge, to take stock; to feel the grounding speed of this bike as it races over the road.

Out here in the wilderness, the land flies away beneath Otabek and his bike. Green fields slip away one by one, flanking these roads that stretch into the distance, across hundreds of thousands of kilometres, these roads he could drive on forever, these roads he could ride for the rest of his life. Sometimes he entertains the idea of heading up to Canada on the weekends just so he can drive. Leo laughs and says if he wants to drive in the Canadian wilds so badly, they might as well move there; or, he suggests cheekily, they could just head up a couple of states to the Rockies.

Otabek won’t deny that Colorado has wide open spaces and roads that stretch on forever too; and Colorado has mountains, great high mountains that remind him of Almaty, of the place he will never stop calling home. But Ontario has forests, fields, green, lush colours full of life, and the lakes. So many lakes.

He saw Lake Toronto for the first time at sixteen, and was awe-struck by that great expanse of water, right on the shores of the city, that stretched as far as the eye could see. He spent any time he could squeeze from his hectic life down by the shores of that lake. He loves to drive by this lake, or any of the others in this province; or when he’s in a coastal city, by the sea.

Out here, he could take off into the sky. The bike is a blade that sings over the road, and even the thrill and speed of launching into a triple Axel pales when he’s out here and there is nothing in his way. No walls. No end.

All too soon, he’ll be back at the training camp; it’ll be back to the usual routine. Skating, the gym, skating, a fancy meet-and-greet or two, more skating, and maybe some time for dinner or a night in with Leo in between. It’s his choice of life, and there’s almost nothing that could make him leave it behind.

Even so: out here, unrestrained like an eagle in the wild open sky, he thinks could spend his whole life on the road.

 

beep-

 

beep-

 

beep-

 

The pain is a hazy fug, quietly pulsing in the background like the machine near his head. One heartbeat, one twinge. One heartbeat, one twinge. Over and over it goes; sometimes in time with the music and the quiet words that drift in and out, sometimes not.

It starts to press and twinge harder, some time later, when his eyelids feel less heavy than they have in forever.

In this cocoon here, everything is warm and safe. Outside, someone is talking again. He can feel this person near his leg, leaning beside him, and realises for the first time where the pain is issuing from.

It would be so easy to stay where he is. 

Dammit, Beka.

This is not the first time he has heard these words. This is the first time he’s heard them like this—muffled like they’re hidden behind a hand or buried in the crook of a neck, choked through tears.

Don’t cry, he says, or tries to say. Please—

And he doesn’t say that either, but something comes out. His mouth is too dry, and he tries again.

A hand closes over his own and squeezes, too tight, but that doesn’t matter. The voice is calling him again in his own tongue: Beka, c’mon, open your eyes, do you know how worried I’ve been, I didn’t sleep on this fucking chair all night for you to just give up, dammit with all the bitter edges wrought mellow, and he fights against the warmth and comfort, because sometimes pain means the struggle is real, but you still have the breath left to keep struggling.

The room is dim, and quiet, and above him, wide and cutting, are the unforgettable eyes of a soldier.

 

beep-

 

beep-

 

beep-

 

Otabek stops at a service station to refill the tank, and checks his phone while he’s waiting in line to pay. Yuri’s sent him a message; several messages, bracketed by photos of harsh sun on bright buildings and shots of fellow skaters from the training camp playing Mario Kart.

From: Yura
so fukcin bored without u here
it’s super hot
and humid
feels like hasetsu in summer i’m so sweaty its gross

Otabek chuckles.

To: Yura
I think there’s a storm coming in. It’s very hot out on the road.
I can pick up ice cream on my way back if you like.

From: Yura
YESSSSSSS
Can u get moose ice cream

Otabek does a double take.

To: Yura
Moose are a protected species here.
And I don’t think you can get moose ice cream.

He stares at his phone and considers. Maybe Yuri meant something different. There are some very strange things he’s encountered in Canada and the US. Things like Gatorade, and fifteen-pound poutine, and every kind of meat under the sun turned into bacon, and any of that same meat in ice cream doesn’t sound too far off the mark.

To: Yura
Did you mean bacon ice cream?

From: Yura
no lmao moose tracks
idk one of the american brands
u live there u know what i’m talking about

To: Yura
I misunderstood.
Ben and Jerry’s is better.

From: Yura
and i wouldnt get bacon icecream
u couldt eat that stuff
whatever u want beka
no fun if i have to eat all the icecream infront of jj by myself

He also has messages from Leo, not in Toronto with the rest of them, but out in Colorado Springs. USFSA Champs Camp wrapped up two days ago, straight in the middle of this training camp. Otabek remembers how apologetic Leo was that he couldn’t make it, and even though he knows the summer has been going well for Leo, between successful program runs at Champs Camp and intensive training out in California and performing in the first Phichit on ICE show (Otabek received an invitation, and politely declined when he learned he would be skating wearing a hamster hat)—

Well, he still misses Leo. Most days, he skates with Leo, and training without him alongside puts him a little off-balance. It'll be good to get back to their current home rink. It'll be good to see him again.

From: Leo
how’s the ride?

To: Leo
It’s been good. I’m not far out of town.

From: Leo
sore butt?

To: Leo
Sore tailbone. Don’t tell anyone.

From: Leo
you got it babe :*
what times ur fligth on thursday?

To: Leo
I get into CS at midnight. I’ll get an Uber home.

From: Leo
beka i’ll come pick u up
i said i would

To: Leo
It’ll be late. 

From: Leo
not that late
if i said i rly can’t wait to see you again does that help my case?

Midnight is well past the time Leo is usually asleep; and for all that, it’s so, so tempting. Otabek sighs, and holds his phone a little tighter, the way he might Leo’s hand.

To: Leo
OK. I’ll let you know the terminal.
I miss you too, Leo.

From: Leo
<3<3<3<3<3
have fun the rest of your ride!
love u

To: Leo
I love you too.
See you on Thursday.

He glances at the time. It’s not too late, but he wants to get a move on so he has time for a shower before dinner. Up above, the clouds are gathering fast, and he’d like to beat the storm back to the dorms. On the chat thread, Leo’s typing something else, but Otabek powers off the screen and tucks the phone in his pocket. He can read it once he gets back.

As he mounts his bike again, there’s a shift in the wind, electric. Up above, clouds are rolling in, dark grey like they will breathe down his back.

He’s halfway back to the city when the first of the rain comes down, spitting down for half a minute before the skies open up. For the briefest moment, Otabek grimaces as the rain hits his exposed face. He brought his lighter helmet so he could fit everything into a smaller suitcase, but he wishes he had the plexiglass shield to keep away the elements right now.

Ahead, the wind moans as low as thunder.

 

beep-

 

beep-

 

beep-

 

The next time he wakes, it is faster. Someone is speaking words he cannot understand; fast, soft, desperate. As the words run on and on and repeat themselves, he realises it is a prayer.

He knows this voice.

A set of beads rustle together, and he blinks open his eyes.

The room is dimmed, with curtains closed, but dimmed in the soft yellow of daylight. The bed is only reclined halfway; the doctor explained yesterday it’s to take the pressure off his damaged ribs and make it easier for him to rest. Someone has straightened out the blankets, and he notices one of them is now draped over the cast on his lower leg.

Right in front of him is a person, elbows resting on the edge of the bed, rosary beads clutched tight in his hands, murmuring this prayer the way water moves with the ocean tide. The words wash over him, and though he cannot understand, they tug at his gut, release an undercurrent terrifying in its power:

Fear.

Otabek’s throat is too tight and too dry to speak. All of him is heavy, still weighed down with that insatiable weariness. At the edge of the bed, Leo looks lost, like all the hope in the world has deserted him.

Otabek has heard the story of folding a thousand paper cranes; that if you do, your wish will be granted. What kind of god, he wonders, would grant wishes for pieces of paper: so sturdy as they sit with wings and beaks proud, yet so easily swept away with the squeeze of a fist or the strike of a match? One benevolent, or foolhardy?

A rosary has five large beads, and ten between each. Fifty small beads. Fifty small prayers. Twenty vigils until the wish that must come true. A bead is sturdier than a paper crane; but beads are strung on a chain, and it is only too easy for a chain to be snapped, to scatter a thousand prayers across the floor.

A motorcycle is bigger and stronger and sturdier than both. So how was it so easily pushed and flipped and tossed away like paper to the wind?

He wonders how many times Leo has been around his rosary already. He hopes it hasn't yet been twenty. He hopes twenty is a long way off, if only so Leo won't lose his faith—for everything is fading out again.

And it strikes him like a slap in the face.

Leo is here.

Leo should be in Colorado Springs, but he’s here and Otabek rises as best he can, and it strains and it hurts and he barely has the strength to lift his head—

But then Leo lifts his, and Otabek never wants to see that look on his face again.

“Beka,” he says in a voice raw and disbelieving—

And he drops his rosary on the bed and the smile he puts on is wobbly, and not quite enough to disguise that look like his heart was about to break.

“Lay down, Beka,” says Leo, rising to his feet. “It’s okay, you’re okay.”

“Leo—you—”

It’s hard to get the breath to speak, never mind how dry his throat is, how unpractised after this many days drifting in and out of sleep, and still chafing from a ventilator tube. He can breathe, but it hurts, like something is squeezing and piercing at his chest, and it isn’t just his ribs, cracked and bruised with nothing to support them. Leo reaches a hand over and brushes it through his hair. The touch is so familiar and so gentle that Otabek’s heart tightens.

“You’re here,” Otabek manages at last. Leo’s eyes widen momentarily, and then he nods.

“I got here yesterday afternoon,” says Leo, still stroking his hair. “It’s Thursday now.”

That can’t be right. He would know if Leo had been here yesterday. Wouldn’t he?

“You have a concussion, Beka,” Leo says, like he can read Otabek’s mind.  “You were a little out of it when I first got here and they think you might have some memory loss.”

Otabek tries to think if Leo was there yesterday, but the days in the hospital run together in his head. And yet he remembers the bike, and the wind, and how he was tossed away.

“The doctor said you weren’t doing too good with the pain yesterday, and JJ said you’ve been sleeping a lot. It’s okay,” Leo says, trying again for a smile that doesn’t quite make it. “You’re here, and we’re gonna look after you. You’re going to be okay.”

He sifts his fingers through Otabek’s hair a few seconds longer; it feels like he’s easing out the tangles, the way he sometimes does late at night cuddling Otabek close to his chest.

“I need to get a nurse, I think—babe, if you need more morphine, there’s a control for that right by your hand. I’ll just be gone a second and then I’ll be right back—”

But as he starts to pull away, Otabek shakes his head and does his best to sit up straighter. It doesn't do much, and it hurts, it hurts right at his core and all through him, and Leo's eyes widen as he steps in close and takes Otabek’s shoulder, supporting him to lie back against the pillows.

"Beka, sweetheart, you gotta lie down—"

"Why are you here? Thought—" Otabek grits his teeth against his protesting ribs and tries again. "You have things to do. At home."

Leo inhales, sharp and still. He sits at the edge of the bed, so light he barely makes a dip in the mattress, and takes Otabek's hand, and swallows hard. When he speaks again, his voice is very tight, like he's trying hard to hold something back, like sadness, or fear.

"Because you're hurt, Otabek. I—I would have come sooner if I could. The storms closed down the flights, but I swear, I swear I would have been here the next morning. I had to come."

Otabek frowns, because he feels like he's missing something. You don't spend half a day travelling to another country because someone you love is hurt. Do you?

But there's something about the way Leo said you're hurt. Something about how Yuri looks like he’s been crying, and Isabella keeps asking the doctors questions they answer in technical terms that make her face go tight, and no one is really talking about what’s happening to him.

He wants to ask: how bad is it?

But he knows Leo; Leo, who hates to tell a lie. And even through the fuzz and the fog and the pain, somehow he knows that it will hurt Leo worse to tell the truth.

“And besides,” Leo says, his voice so light Otabek can hear every tremble, “I said I’d see you on Thursday, didn’t I?”

And even though he can’t remember a lot about what happened, the promise sounds so familiar that he knows. He can’t remember, but he knows.

“You did.”

Leo breaks into a smile, soft and relieved, and gives his hand another squeeze. It isn’t for another minute that he gets up, with a firm admonition to lay down and stay still, I’ll be back real soon with a nurse, okay? Otabek watches him leave the room, and feels his eyes grow heavy again; mostly from exhaustion; a little with the unfamiliar sting of tears.

He can read Leo as well as Leo can read him, and Leo doesn’t need to say it for Otabek to know this too:

It’s bad.

It’s really, really bad.

 

beep-

 

beep-

 

beep-

 

The rain comes harder and faster the closer he gets to Toronto. He's ten minutes from town, maybe a little less. 

Otabek keeps up his pace, but only because the road is nearly empty. It’s mid-afternoon on a Sunday; no one is travelling right now. The 401 is more or less straight all the way, and he’s careful to keep the bike upright and steady on course. There isn’t anywhere to stop where he won’t get drenched. The air is still humid, still warm even through the cutting rain, and he can tell even by the smell of the wind that this is a storm that won’t blow out quickly.

The sky splits with a stab of lightning.

Otabek's heart catches in his throat, but he keeps his course steady. When he was little and it stormed in Almaty, his dad would tell him you could tell how far away the storm was by counting the seconds between the lightning strike and when the thunder started to rumble. He does this in Colorado Springs, where storms are not infrequent and Leo comments that it's a good thing US Olympics didn't build their major training centres in the middle of Tornado Alley.

He has to focus on the road, but it isn't long at all before the thunder hits. The sound echoes out over the wide country, low and ominous like a wolf in the night. Otabek wears earplugs when he rides, the same ones he wears when he goes to concerts, to protect his ears from the engine noise and the violent whine of the wind when he rides fast, and even he can tell how loud it is.

He figures it must be right over Toronto.

The lightning flashes again a couple of minutes later, the sky seizing in electric white, and the thunder sounds out louder and sooner. The wind howls in his face. Otabek grits his teeth and ploughs through, every bit of tenacity and sheer stubborn willpower he’s ever honed through skating now keeping his bike firm on its course. A small part of him wants to pull over. He could text that he’s been held up by the weather; wait until the wind, at least, dies down.

But he’s five minutes from the city, where there will be shelter from the elements, and he’s starting to get some cars behind him. He’s not close enough to the outside lane to pull over just yet. It’s too big a risk.

Otabek rounds the corner.


















It happens fast, in the end.


















Otabek rounds the corner, and sees the truck, struggling to control itself as the back wheels slant ice-slick across the lanes. There is no time to stop, and no room to get around it. He swerves.

He means to clip the back just fast enough to slow down; to give himself those precious few seconds to dive off and roll out of harm’s way. He doesn’t see the car already crumpled ahead on the road.

Neither does he see the one coming from behind when it hits him.

All Otabek hears is the crunch and screech of colliding metal; and then a crack and thud as the ground comes up to meet him.


















beep-

 

beep-

 

beep-

 

Otabek had a nightmare once, a long time ago. It was about losing control, and falling off the side of a cliff. He thinks about it, sometimes. How far it was to fall. How long he fell knowing what was on the other side.

The shock of waking before the end.

It is a shock the first time he finds out what happened. It is also a shock to learn that only now is he cognizant enough to find out what happened. It scares him. Otabek likes to be in control. His whole life, he’s set his own course and stuck to it. Nothing is more important than knowing he will choose the direction, and can steer wherever the winds carry him.

You nearly fucking died, says Yuri, who is trying to be blasé; but his voice cracks, and his eyes have been red-rimmed every time Otabek’s seen him for the last week, and it shakes Otabek to his core in a way the words of the doctors never could.

Yuri doesn’t lie about his feelings. That he’s trying to, for Otabek’s sake, speaks more than anything else he says.

The ways he was injured comprise a list, a long list, and Otabek thinks it would be shorter to list the things that aren’t hurt. He watches the sun set, late in the evening, and goes through the list, and winces as he breathes.

Concussion, which he’s had before, and which he hates for slowing everything down.

Road rash, all up the side of his neck, on his chin, over his fingers and wrists. It stings; but it’s largely superficial, and he has his jacket and fingerless gloves to thank for that.

Laceration above the left eye. Four stitches. It’s probably going to scar. I’m sorry.

Fractured wrist. A clean fracture, easily set, and it shouldn’t take more than six weeks to heal. Even through the knowledge that he was lucky, so lucky it wasn’t worse, it chafes that he cannot even keep his hands busy while he’s convalescing.

Four cracked ribs. Several more bruised ribs on both sides. There is, Otabek knows, nothing you can really do about cracked ribs, except breathe through the pain and wait.

Cut to the thigh. Eleven centimetres long. Five centimetres deep. Incurred from broken glass. Patient lost 1.3 litres of blood. Received blood transfusion of 940 ml. Blood type B+. Seventeen stitches.

Fractured ankle in two places. Surgery undertaken to insert two pins and a screw.

He’s been told he should be able to start therapy for his ankle in a couple of months. He should be walking normally again by January or February, all going well.

No one has said anything about when he can skate again. Not his coach. Not Leo, who looks like he hasn’t slept in a week and is steering every conversation towards making sure Otabek is doing the right things to recover right now. Not Yuri, who brings in Ben and Jerry’s and tells him about the exploits his cats are getting up to in his absence, and doesn’t talk about skating and hasn’t said a thing about when he’s going back to Russia.

Otabek hasn’t dared to ask.

It’s something he tries not to think about as he falls asleep, but there is too much to think about, even with a concussion, even when he’s supposed to be resting his brain.

Things like where he’s going to recover. Who’s going to look after him. What he’ll do if the worst comes to pass and he cannot skate again.

Motorcycling is a risk, one Otabek takes in his stride. There's risk with everything; his sport is proof enough of that. Being scared does nothing for him, so Otabek chooses not to be. His own wits and skills will take him where he needs to go, and anything that goes awry is from his own folly or not. He doesn't drive dangerously, and that's all he can do, in the end—do his best to keep himself safe.

But in the small hours of the night, when nightmares sneak up like shadows to pluck your misgivings from the darkest parts of your soul and feed them to your breath, Otabek is constantly, quietly afraid of two things:

That he might one day hurt someone else riding alongside him; and that he might one day take off on his bike and never come back.

That night, a week after he almost bled out on the Ontario 401 in the middle of a thunderstorm, he falls into an uneasy sleep to his heart monitor’s soft, persistent beat.

 

beep-

 

beep-

 

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beepbeepbeepbeep-

 

beepbeepbeepbeep-

 

Somewhere near Otabek's head, something is beeping, soft and insistent. It's muffled. It sounds exhausted.

It sounds like his phone’s default ringtone, and he reaches out.

He tries to. It’s like his limbs are made of wood, and in the faded beyond he can hear things that are loud, so many people, nothing like any dream he’s ever had; but he opens his eyes and reaches again, and nearly chokes at the rip of agony as his hand gives up halfway and hits the ground.

The road smells like ash. When rain falls on hot concrete, a smell rises from the ground, cloying and acrid. Petrichor, they call it.

Petrichor is tinged with iron, hot and clear and dry. Otabek can taste blood on his lips. It is damp, and it is sticky, and all at once the rest of his body wakes up and pain crests through him.

This, he thinks on the brink of passing out again, is what his instructor was asking about during those first lessons so many years ago. With no tyres to break his fall, no dirt or grass to land on, the force ten times greater, this hurts worse than a développé écarté.

Much, much worse.

 

 

Chapter Text

v.

The door is locked when Otabek gets home, and when he limps into the entranceway, the lights are all off.

Thank God, thank God, thank God, he thinks as he unlaces his boots with fumbling fingers. Blood is trickling down from the grazes on his palms, and though he wipes it off on his jeans as best he can, it still seeps into the laces. He thinks it will be okay. He can wash the laces later—and besides, Leo isn’t going to look at the motorcycle boots on the rack too closely, not when his own trainers always just end up kicked off somewhere on the floor.

Once in the bathroom, he elbows on the light. It stings, and he winces. He hadn’t even felt his elbow catch when he crashed; but he hurts all over, and maybe it isn’t a surprise that he’s overlooked one injury—or several—in his haste to get home and clean up the blood. He rinses his hands under the tap, but ends up having to dry them on his jeans again for fear of soiling a towel, and blood beads back anyway.

It does the job it needs to, and his fingers are clean to open up the cupboard labelled Skating Stuff and sort through the chaos within. It stings to kneel down, and his stomach does a funny turn as the bloodstain on the shin of his jeans gets darker and damper.

It takes several long, antsy minutes, but he uncovers Band-Aids under the box of Tylenol, and cotton pads buried under a mess of strapping tape alongside the concealer Leo uses at competitions, and gauze and tape in behind his own travel shaving kit.

Right at the back of the cupboard, he spots a newer acquisition; a tester product he was sent last June in a sponsorship deal that was cancelled after that crash on the 401. He eyes it over for a moment, and then takes it up as well.

His stomach curdles as he glances down at the rip in his jeans and the blood seeping through the fabric all down his shin. A small part of him thinks that maybe he should take this to the hospital. Most of him wants to keep this quiet. If no one knows, then nothing’s wrong, and no one has to worry—

“Beka!” a voice sings out as the front door clicks open. “Babe, are you in?”

—least of all Leo.

Otabek swears under his breath. He didn’t think Leo would be back for another hour.

“I’m in the bathroom!” he answers.

“Got it!” Leo calls, a little too loud for their little apartment, but Otabek has bigger things to worry about than the couple next door complaining about the noise. The bathroom door is still ajar, just slightly, and he stands as quickly as he can through the pain in his knee to cross over and close it. He pushes at the lock mechanism and hisses when pain shoots up his finger. Another bruise. Great.

While he’s standing, he pulls off his jeans. They’re ruined, he thinks—dirt and gravel driven into the fabric, blood staining the fibres, ripped in the front. He drops them in the bathtub and sits at the edge of the tub to take a look at the damage. The cut is several centimetres long, and still bleeding a little. It doesn’t look as bad as he feared, and he’s certain it’s not a big enough deal to take to the emergency room, but with the size and the steady rate it’s bleeding, he needs more than bandages.

With trembling fingers, he picks up the box of zip stitches from the floor and rips it open.

The instructions on the back of the box are clear and easy to follow: stick; zip; done. Otabek holds one of the sterile packages over the cut and tries to envisage how it will fit. It’ll be a pain to keep from Leo, but as long as he wears loose trousers and makes enough excuses not to have sex for a week, he might be able to make sure Leo doesn’t have to worry about this.

“Babe?”

Leo’s near the door, and he sounds concerned. “Babe, you’ve been in there a while. You okay?”

“I’m fine,” Otabek says. He desperately hopes Leo can’t hear the throb of his knee stinging the longer he leaves it, or the ache pervading his whole body. “I won’t be too long.”

“Want me to put the kettle on? Tea? Coffee?”

“Tea would be nice.”

“‘Kay!”

Leo’s footsteps disappear towards the kitchen, lilting into the soft thumps and humming that tell Otabek he’s dancing his way about the apartment, and he turns back to the zip stitch.

He’s strapped up his sprains and minor fractures before, and patching up grazes and careless nicks from his blades is second nature after so many years. This is the same sort of thing; just bloodier.

Otabek washes his hands again and dries them on toilet paper to blot away the blood from his palms, and at last unwraps one of the zip stitches from its packaging. His nails are so blunt it takes several tries to get a good grip to pull off the adhesive backing; or at least, he tells himself this, even though his hands have started to tremble so badly that he can hardly steady the strip enough to lay it flat on his skin.

And all too quickly, both sides of adhesive strip are secure in place, and he has four plastic zips to pull tight.

Somewhere in the apartment, Otabek can still hear Leo’s feet pattering about in their dance, and he steadies himself. He can do this while Leo’s all the way over in the kitchen. It won’t be long before Leo will realise something’s up and that he’s taking too much time; but all he needs is enough time to do up the zips and slip into the bedroom to change.

He lays his fingers on the plastic. One hand to pull, one to anchor. Easy. He can do it quick, like ripping off a Band-Aid.

He tugs, and barely bites down a whimper.

One more, he tells himself through gritted teeth and eyes squeezed shut against the pain. I can get it in one more go. It can’t hurt any more than this.

He steadies his fingers, and with a prayer, he holds his breath and tugs again.

Then there’s a knock at the door.

“Beka, are you nearly done? We’re out of soap in the kitchen and I think the hand towel needs changing, can I come in?”

“I’m—” Otabek hisses through the soft clicks of the second zip drawing through its plastic catch. He holds his breath. There’s a very long silence.

The door handle moves, just a little.

“Otabek?” Leo’s voice is suddenly low with worry. “Hey, Otabek, is everything okay in there?”

“I’m fine, Leo.” Even he can hear how not at all fine his voice sounds, and he winces.

There’s a long, weighted pause.

“Beka… Beka, can I come in?”

“Leo—”

The handle turns, and Otabek’s stomach seizes up at the lock he forgot to push in all the way, and Leo steps into the bathroom. His face goes slack as he looks at Otabek, and down at the blood.

The look in his eyes hurts worse than any of his wounds.

“Oh my God… Beka? What happened?”

“It’s nothing,” Otabek says as Leo drops to kneel beside him and his thumb hovers over the grazes and the beads of blood rising from knuckles torn raw. “My bike skidded too hard when I was turning a corner and I forgot my gloves at home. It’s just a few grazes.”

The blood drains from Leo’s face.

“You crashed?”

“Not really,” says Otabek—which is a lie, so he corrects himself. “Sort of. The bike’s fine.”

Leo doesn’t look like he’s listening, the way he’s turning Otabek’s hands over and how tightly his lips are pressed together; and he lands at last at Otabek’s knee, cradling his calf in both hands as he stares at the half-closed zip stitch.

When he speaks a few seconds later, his voice is surprisingly calm.

“Do you want to go to the hospital?”

“No,” Otabek says. “I’m fine, it’s just a few grazes. And…”

He gestures to his knee. “That.”

“What is this?” Leo asks, running his thumb up the right adhesive strip.

“It’s a zip stitch,” says Otabek. “It does the same thing as normal stitches, I read about them online. This isn’t a big cut, and I thought—Leo, I really don’t need to go to the hospital—”

“No,” says Leo, his voice steady as he runs his eyes over the half-closed zip locks, “I don’t think we need a doctor for this. But I want to get this off.”

“Leo?”

And with that same steadiness, Leo gives his wrist a long squeeze before he stands up.

“You haven’t cleaned out the wound properly, Beka. Take that off while I get a few things, okay?”

Otabek ends up sitting with his feet in the bathtub, the jeans folded and up on the rim while Leo rinses the blood from his knee. He uses warm water, flushing out the cut from a sponsor’s plastic sports bottle that missed the latest charity shop donation, and wipes round the cut with a damp flannel and a little soap to catch all the dried blood and dirt. A few tiny chips of gravel come loose, and clink as they hit the bathtub in the pink-tinged water flow.

While Otabek holds the flannel to the cut, Leo takes each hand in turn and gives it the same treatment—rinse, clean, rinse again. He dries the grazes with a threadbare towel procured from the bottom of their linen hamper, and bandages them carefully in turn: Band-Aids wrapped around torn knuckles, buddy taping to secure the bruised index finger, a fabric dressing smoothed over the deep graze in his palm, a gentle squeeze of each hand once he’s done. There is no hesitation in his movements or in choosing which bandage to put where, like he’s been doing this for years. With his own share of skating injuries and several younger sisters who look at him like he hung the moon, Otabek supposes he has.

Once his leg is dried and wiped with an alcohol swab, Otabek turns so Leo can kneel on the floor before him, and Leo unwraps and lays down a new set of zip stitches over the cut. His hands are steady and sure as he pulls each zip in firm—and it still stings, but not so badly as when he was crashing from loss of adrenaline—and in what feels like no time at all, Leo’s snipping the ties close and taping the bandage from the kit over the mechanism.

“All done,” he says, with a small smile under his bangs. “Here—go and get changed, I’ll clean up and find you some painkillers.”

“I can clean up,” Otabek says on reflex, because he can’t expect Leo to clean up the bathroom after patching up the rest of him. “It’s my fault there’s so much mess, it’s fine—”

But Leo rises, so swiftly Otabek doesn’t see his face before he leans down and presses a kiss long and lingering to the crown of his head.

“Let me,” he says, a smile in his voice Otabek can hardly fathom. “You need to rest tonight, okay?”

It’s not okay, not entirely—but he finds he doesn’t have the energy to argue.

It hits him, as he’s pulling on sweatpants in the bedroom, careful of his still-stinging knee, that he’s shaking. His stomach’s turning somersaults, and his whole lower face is tingling, and it strikes him at last that he is in fact freaked out by what happened.

It wasn’t the worst crash he’s been in. He’s not hurt—not badly enough to warrant a hospital visit. His bike’s no worse for wear. Scratched paintwork is nothing compared to infrastructure damage or a blown tyre or the destruction of another vehicle going as fast as him.

But he still lost control. He still fell.

It’s fine, he tells himself sternly as he tugs on a jersey. Nothing bad happened. The jeans will need a soak and a patch job if they’re salvageable and his coach will give him another pained look about the bike when he sees the grazes tomorrow, but that’s the worst of it.

He tells himself this as he sits on the bed and takes in a breath for four counts, holds for seven, exhales for eight. He tells himself this as he breathes again, and again, until the tingling goes away and the knots in his stomach untangle. He tells himself this as he goes to find an icepack in the freezer, like he might after a bad fall at practice, and he can convince himself the worst of it is over, and that everything really is fine.

There are two cups of tea still sitting on the counter, forlorn and lukewarm.

When Otabek at last looks into the bathroom door, the pink water and chips of gravel have been washed down the drain, all the waste from the band-aids cleared away. The traces of blood on the tiles have been wiped up too, and Leo is running water from the bath faucet over the ripped jeans.

It feels like every time he crashes, there’s someone else picking up his mess. It always sits strangely in Otabek’s gut, because for most of his life he’s been responsible for himself, and there’s a tiny voice in his head that tells him more often than he’d like that he has to take care of everything himself, just in case his whole world flips on its head come tomorrow. And it was just a bit of blood on ceramic tile: easy to clean; easy to make right again.

“Thanks for cleaning up,” Otabek says, and Leo looks around like he hadn’t been expecting him. Which is strange; Otabek had started to wonder when Leo would realise how long he was taking and come looking for him.

“I found the painkillers,” says Leo, nodding towards the vanity. “And—oh, good, you got some ice, I was gonna say…”

“Do you want me to put the kettle on again?”

“Let me. You should go and sit down, Beka. Take it easy tonight.”

It really isn’t that bad, Otabek wants to protest—he’s shaken more than hurt—but he doesn’t say anything, because there's something unsettling about the way Leo looks; or, rather, the way he doesn’t look at Otabek.

He wants to say something, and takes a step forward; but hesitates, and instead takes the Tylenol from the vanity without another word.

Although he can’t tell exactly what, he knows in his gut that something is wrong.

Otabek puts the kettle on anyway, seeing as he has to go back to the kitchen to get water for the Tylenol. Leo gives him a Look when he comes out of the bathroom, but one of resigned fondness more than annoyance, and Otabek thinks, tentatively, that maybe nothing’s wrong. Maybe Leo was just a little rattled too.

The evening passes quietly. Otabek ices his knee on the sofa and puts on a gory and dramatic true crime Netflix show that Yuri and Guanghong had both, independently, recommended to him. Leo joins him, sitting behind Otabek with his back to the armrest and cuddling Otabek from behind, but also pointedly pressing his face into Otabek’s back during the bloodiest reveal-of-the-act recreations. 

(When Otabek first met Leo, Leo could barely stomach gory horror or the Scandinavian noir Otabek was getting into at the time; but over the years he’s grown a tolerance, if nothing else, for this kind of genre. Otabek thinks it’s something to do with Guanghong’s annual viewing sessions of The Godfather and The Godfather II, which he likes to do with Leo in hotel rooms during Four Continents, and Leo’s staunch commitment towards being a good best friend.)

Otabek does concede that it isn’t the greatest accompaniment for food, and switches to River Monsters rips on Youtube after Leo gets up to make dinner, which is reheated leftovers from when they had lunch at Leo’s parents’ last weekend. Leo is insistent that Otabek doesn’t need to help with dinner or with dishes with the way his hands are; but for all that, after they’ve turned off the TV and put on one of their quiet postrock playlists to wind down to, Leo doesn’t hesitate when Otabek draws him in close and starts to breathe soft kisses over his hairline, and down his cheek, and past his jaw to find his lips as they lie on the couch together. It grows late and dark as Otabek brushes his lips against Leo’s skin, smooth like satin, laces his arms over his hips, and feels his eyes grow heavy under his warm, sweet weight.

That night, Leo is the one who wakes up enough to drag them both off the sofa, and they keep most of the lights off as they brush their teeth and change for bed. When they at last make it under the covers, Leo cuddles up behind Otabek, one arm draped over his chest and the other threaded underneath, where Otabek half-laces their fingers together. The nights are getting cooler, but Otabek hasn’t yet switched out the comforter for their heavier winter one; Leo radiates so much heat and likes to cuddle so close when they sleep that there isn’t any need for extra blankets.

He falls asleep to the faint sounds of the deep of night, and to Leo laying a trail of soft kisses through his hair.

 


 

The bed shakes, and Otabek wakes up.

Someone’s pushing at him, and he blinks open his eyes to a room cast dim by grey shadows, still dark like the dead of night, but with faint light spilling from somewhere further down the apartment. The bed behind him is empty, but the sheets are still warm.

There’s a faint rattle like the pipes are straining, and the soft hiss of running water, and Otabek pulls the comforter higher over his shoulders where it’s slipped down during the night. It’s warm enough under the covers that he could probably sleep again, but he wants to wait for Leo to come back from the bathroom first.

But lying there for several minutes, and then several more, it strikes him that the water’s stopped running, but Leo hasn’t come back to bed.

He blinks, a little more awake, and strains his ears. There’s nothing like the sound of the kettle or the clatter of crockery from the kitchen; nor the hum of the TV, or the clatter of a laptop. The only noise in the apartment is the soft sound of gently lapping water coming from the bathroom.

Otabek eases himself upright, wincing as something tight in his shoulder pops and lets loose. It’s cold outside the bed, properly cold for the first time in several months, and he stops to pull on the nearest jersey before he leaves the bedroom. It’s a sweatshirt, warm and worn, and he can tell by the stretch in the collar that it’s Leo’s. The apartment isn’t big, and it only takes a few seconds for Otabek to get to the bathroom door, slightly ajar with light spilling out into the tiny hall.

The mirror is visible through the gap between the door and the wall. There’s a box of laundry powder on the vanity unit, and the sink is filled with water, and in the mirror, Leo is scrubbing at the jeans Otabek was wearing earlier, breathing heavily, with a crinkle in his forehead and unmistakeably red eyes.

“Leo?” Otabek says softly, pushing the door open—and his chest catches like his heart was scraped along the road too when Leo looks up, something distraught and frightened in his gentle eyes, and clutches the jeans tighter in the sink. Some water splashes out and onto the floor.

“Do you need the toilet?” asks Leo, and it hurts to hear his voice like this, quavering on the edge of something about to spill out and overflow. “I can do this in the kitchen… sorry, did I wake you up?”

“Leo,” Otabek repeats, stepping into the bathroom. When he reaches out and lays a hand on Leo’s shoulder, he can feel his heart beating too loud, too fast. “What’s wrong?”

“Nothing’s wrong,” says Leo, averting his eyes, shaking his head, “not really. Had a bad dream. Couldn’t get back to sleep. That’s all.”

That can’t be all, not in the slightest. Otabek habitually wakes up in the night, roused by a dream, sometimes by Leo moving or murmuring in his sleep, sometimes by seemingly nothing at all. Leo, by contrast, always sleeps the night away and wakes every morning looking refreshed as the dawn. Otabek envies him for it sometimes.

Leo rarely has nightmares. This one must have been bad.

“What was it about?”

“It’s nothing, Beka. Honest. I couldn’t get back to sleep, so I figured I could see if the bloodstains soaked out. Go back to bed. I’ll be there soon.”

Otabek looks at his creased, scared eyes, too awake and alert, and thinks: will you?

And then he thinks it looks a lot like Leo needs a hug, and fast.

“Leo…” He lets go of Leo’s shoulder, so he can reach his hand out for Leo’s instead. “Come here.”

Most times when he says this, a breath at the end of a long day, Leo melts into him. Now, Leo doesn’t meet his eyes.

“I wanna get these stains out. It won’t take that long.”

“Leo…” Otabek feels like he’s floundering, caught in the deep end with nowhere to swim and nothing to grab on to. And then he looks at Leo’s hands, white-knuckled around the jeans and the blood and the rip in the fabric, and it clicks. Of course.

Of course.

“Is this about the crash?”

Leo presses his lips together.

“Please. Talk to me.” Otabek draws a deep breath and tries again. “Did I scare you?”

“Of course you did.” Leo’s mellow voice is tight, like he’s talking just from the top of his throat, and it rises in volume as he lets go of the jeans and braces his hands on the edge of the sink. “Of course I was scared. Otabek, wouldn’t you be scared if you came home and it was me bleeding all over the bathroom?”

Otabek’s mouth is too dry to speak.

“I thought you’d been in a fight or… or mugged or something, when I saw your hands.” Leo’s voice is thin, wobbly like it is those very few occasions Otabek’s seen him cry. “And then I saw your knee and all that blood and then you said you crashed…? Otabek, what do you think? I was terrified.”

Otabek drops his gaze to the tiles and where the bathtub was awash with water tinged pink. He can imagine. The last time he crashed is still etched in his memory and still aches in his ankle when it rains; and there’s no way in the world Leo will have forgotten.

This is the crux of it. He’s started riding his motorcycle again recently—but only very recently. He finished at physical therapy way back in March, moved back in with Leo just after Worlds, but he’s still getting his feet back on the ice. He pulled out of his Grand Prix placements two months ago. And he’s only taking the bike out on short trips: to pick up groceries from the nearest Trader Joe’s, to fill up with gas; he hasn’t taken it out as far as the rink. He hasn’t taken Leo pillion. He doesn’t want to risk that.

He knows that one day, he won’t be so scared when he rides his motorcycle. But that day isn’t now, that day isn’t any time soon, and he knows what the easy option would be. This thing that he loves, that lights a fire in his soul, he could let go. Just like that.

Leo doesn’t keep that many secrets from him, but Otabek has to ask.

“Leo… do you want me to stop riding? Would that make it easier?”

“No.” Leo speaks with conviction, and Otabek is surprised. This is, after all, the way things normally go. “I don’t—I helped you so much to get you your licence and lessons, and it’s always made you so happy. I love biking with you. I don’t want you to get rid of it. I don’t want you to stop riding, Otabek.”

Otabek swallows. This isn’t the way he expected this conversation to go. “Then what is it? What’s wrong?”

Leo doesn’t answer for a long minute. He takes the small towel from its rail beside the sink, and slowly draws it across his hands; and then he sits on the edge of the bathtub, and finally looks Otabek in the eye.

“I know you’re tough, and I know you can take anything life throws at you because… because you’re Otabek Altin. You’re cool and you’re smart and you have an Olympic medal, and you travelled all over the world when you were like, fifteen, and you just let everything bad that happens to you roll off your back like it’s nothing.

“But I can’t help but be scared when you come home and you say you’ve been in a crash. I want you to be safe, and there’s nothing I can do to stop it happening, and I can patch you up afterwards but it isn’t… it isn’t enough.”

Otabek leans against the wall and folds his arms across his stomach; buries his hands in the soft fabric of Leo’s sweatshirt which has lasted the years so well. “I’m not trying to be reckless. Sometimes shit happens on the road and there’s nothing I can do.”

“I know it does. But knowing it and seeing it…” Leo rests his elbows on his knees, and his hands twist together too close for comfort. “It’s not the same.”

His eyes flick downwards, just for a second.

Otabek knows where he’s looking. He only has on a t-shirt and boxers under Leo’s sweatshirt, and the scar on his thigh is hard to miss: eleven centimetres and seventeen stitches long, after two hours in surgery to staunch the bleeding and get all the glass out. No one said much about it, but he didn’t need them to. He lost nearly a litre and a half of blood. Much more, and he probably would have died.

Otabek exhales deep. “Yeah. Leo… I'm sorry I scared you. I thought I could just… take care of it myself, this time. It wasn’t so bad. I've had much worse than this from skating.”

“Skating injuries don't look that awful,” says Leo; and then some of the tension drops from his shoulders and melts from his forehead, and when he looks up at Otabek, his eyes are gentle once again. “It's not this messy when you eat ice or twist your ankle.”

Otabek laughs in soft agreement; and then, tentatively, reaches out once again. Leo meets his hand halfway, and with a soft tug, Otabek pulls him to standing, pulls him in close. Leo folds into him and clasps his arms around Otabek’s back, and they stay there like that for a while, Leo and Otabek and the soapy water in the sink losing its bubbles one by one. Otabek presses his cheek into Leo’s soft hair, and feels the moment when their breathing syncs together, chests rising and falling in soft embrace. He thinks how lucky he is that after everything, he is still here, and that Leo is still here with him too.

After some time, Otabek finds his eyes, half-closed, are starting to grow heavy again. He lifts a hand and starts to stroke it through Leo’s hair, and breaks just enough distance to look at his face again. Leo’s cheeks and the shoulder of Otabek’s sweatshirt are both damp. When Otabek reaches up to brush away some of the tears, Leo leans into him, and it feels like the weight of the world is resting on his hand.

“Let’s go back to bed,” Otabek says, softly, and Leo draws in a shuddering breath.

“I should finish up with the jeans,” he says, looking back at the sink. But his head comes down to rest on Otabek’s shoulder, and his voice lacks its usual conviction. He sounds exhausted, and Otabek holds him close for a moment more.

“Leave them,” Otabek says. “It’s just one pair. I don’t care if they’re ruined. It doesn’t matter.”

All that matters, right now, is that Leo is okay. That they’re both okay.

And after a moment, a long, long moment, Leo nods against him.

They switch places, when they return to the bed; ever since that crash in Canada, Otabek has slept on one side to keep the weight off his ankle and the long scar. Neither of them hurt, most of the time, but his left side bore the brunt of the injury and it still gets uncomfortable if he lies on it too long. Leo lies facing him, and holds on low enough that Otabek can breathe into his hair. Leo’s face, Otabek thinks, is somewhere close to his own heart.

“Tell me next time, okay?” Leo’s voice is a little muffled, but Otabek can hear every word in the stillness of the night. “Just… send me a text, or give me a call, or something. So I know what happened. So I know you’re okay.”

Otabek nods against Leo’s head. “I can do that.”

“You make me worry too much, you know.” Leo draws away a fraction and lifts his hand, and tenderly, feather-light, he brushes back Otabek’s hair over the scar running across from his eyebrow. “Don’t make me get grey hairs before you even start doing quads again, huh?”

Otabek laughs at that, and reaches up to squeeze Leo’s hand. Even through the Band-Aids and the slight sting, it’s still a comfort to feel Leo’s long, calloused fingers beneath his own, to feel the beat of his heart.

This heartbeat is so familiar. Their bed is so familiar, and just lying here, the exhaustion draws Otabek closer and closer to sleep, and it isn’t long before he feels Leo’s weight go slack in his arms.

A small part of him is still unsettled, and it still feels like he’s riding on that knife edge, honed to a point so fine and sharp it would be only too easy to slip.

But he has Leo right here to look out for him, and Yuri and Berik and so many others looking out for him from far away. He is still alive, and he has the fortitude to drive wherever he wants to go, and the courage to get back on when he falls.

And as sleep falls over Otabek soft and quiet as the night, he thinks that, for now, is enough.