Year Three: Peak Three

"Nothin' shines brighter than gold, huh?"

The lodge was quiet, most riders having already gone home. Nate was leaning on the back a chair, grinning. "Heck of a race, bud."

Griff stood in front of the fireplace, turning a small glass case over in his hands. "It's not gold," he said quietly. He tossed the medal over his shoulder.

Startled, Nate barely caught it before it hit the floor. He frowned when he saw the silver light, reflecting in the case's surface. "Second? Thought you won."

Griff sighed. "Yeah." The fire was starting to die down, but he kept staring into the embers. "They said no one'd ever run the Throne that fast before."

"But..." Nate blinked, realization setting in as he set the platinum medal on the chair. "Wow. Kid, that's-"

"I know." He said it bluntly, without any emotion.

A half-burnt log shifted and fell, kicking up ashes and making a crackling noise. Nate stared down at his boots, suddenly uncomfortable. "Well... congrats, anyway. Dunno why you're not more excited."

Griff shook his head, breaking his gaze away from the fire. "Yeah. Sorry, I'm just- guess I'm tired."

"Fair enough." Nate smiled halfheartedly. "Sure you're okay?"

His shoulders seemed to tense up for a moment, but Griff simply nodded.

"Cool." Nate glanced at the door. "So, uh... We're gonna head to Ruthless tomorrow. Throw down some backcountry, y'know?"

Griff pocketed the medal, smiling briefly. "I'll be there."

Without waiting for a response, Griff turned back to the fire. Why was he so drawn to it? These dancing orange lights, growing smaller and smaller over time... Actually, the more he thought about it, the more it seemed to make sense.

He shouldn't have lied to Nate. He'd been Griff's friend since the start of the circuit, and he'd said that everything was fine. But... could he really understand? Did anyone else know what it was like to feel this? Like he'd been slowly falling apart, running out of air, but at the same time burning too strong, too fast. This gaping hole, an emptiness that only grew with every race, every trophy- how could he describe something like that?

He took the medal out again, staring at the glare on the edge of the case. For this race, at least, he was the king. Fastest. Number one.

Everything he'd ever wanted, but...

"Hey, Nate-" His voice broke, and he tried to cover it up with a cough.

One hand on the door, Nate looked back. "Can I ask you something?" Griff said quickly, before he could change his mind.

"Sure."

The words vanished from his mind, and he had to struggle to bring them back. "D'you ever-" He grimaced. "Ever wonder if this is really it?"

He could tell from Nate's look that the question didn't make sense. "I mean, uh, are you sure the circuit's what you want?"

Nate scratched his head. "Well, yeah. Wouldn't be here if I didn't wanna ride, bud."

"Right." All he could think about was the fire behind him, slowly burning out, darker and quieter until there was nothing left. "But- it's just, I..."

His voice trailed off miserably. Griff stared at the floor, wishing he hadn't said anything.

"Think you might leave the circuit?" Nate said slowly.

He didn't sound mad. "I don't know," said Griff.

Snow was starting to fall outside, gentle but thick. Nate took a deep breath. "Huh."

Seeing the snow, something in him wanted to be out there, riding again. Flying over the slopes, not a care in the world- but he knew that it wouldn't be so simple. It couldn't be like it was.

"I'll tell you what," Nate said. "I've never seen anyone ride like you." Griff looked back at him, but he was facing the window too, lost in the falling snow. "You had somethin', bud. Like every time you stepped out there, it was a whole new mountain. Some of these guys, they don't smile or nothin', but you were like a kid on Christmas."

Griff shivered. "What if I don't have that anymore?"

There was a pause, and Nate shook his head. "It might come back, I guess. But you gotta do what you want."

He hadn't expected that. He'd expected shock, or even anger. Nate was going to be the one to bring him back, to convince him to stay. Instead, he was standing here, telling him to... what?

"For the record, I hope you stick around." Nate was grinning again, and his voice seemed lighter. "Think about it."

Griff felt like he was shaking, and the candle was half-burning, and it was all spinning around and around in his mind. "Thanks," he said.

Nate kicked at the fire, and one of the logs seemed to flare up with red light. "Sure." Another kick, and some of the flames returned, dimly illuminating the ashes.