"Tell me about your program," Lilia said, and Yuri made a face on the other side of the boards. She hadn't yet seen the program, or even heard the music, though she had watched him in person last December at Nationals, a tiny thing they let compete among the seniors there a year earlier than the international stage would. He had been impressive for his age, yes, but even before she'd walked into the rink again at Yakov's request and seen him close-up, she had known there was a lot of work to be done.
"The music is this boring light church-y shit—" In response to her stare – there was no need for such language over a piece of music – he hastily corrected, "Stuff, I mean – anyway, it's supposed to be this program about, like, God's infinite love or whatever, he called it agape." He huffed. "Vitya gave the cool music to the pig."
"Pig?" Lilia asked, at the same moment that Yakov, standing next to her, clarified: "Katsuki." He crossed his arms. "Yuuri Katsuki. The other Yuri, who as you'll recall, beat you not two weeks ago."
Yuri's scowl deepened considerably, but also solidified into something more serious. That was a look she liked, a look that promised hard, concentrated work for an afternoon. She told Yuri, "It is not acceptable to refer to your competitors in that manner and I expect you will not do so again. Go put your music in the queue." He skated off across the busy rink, and she turned to Yakov. That name sounded familiar, vaguely. She thought she knew it from more than the gossipy headlines about Victor's departure, in spite of the fact that she didn't keep up with the sport the way she had once. "Was he the Japanese one at the Olympics?"
"He was the best of the Japanese men there, yes," Yakov said, nodding and leaning on the boards. "Finished in the top ten, I don't remember what, maybe seventh or eighth."
Overhead, the speakers started to play someone's song; both of them looked at each other and then heavenwards as a classical piece that had been overused thirty years ago came on. At least, she knew, Victor would have picked something interesting for Yuri.
"Where would he have beaten Yura?" she asked. The Japanese skater she remembered from the Olympics, skating to elegant piano music – the impression from her memory was that he would be too old for juniors.
"Some stupid little competition in Japan," Yakov grumbled. "Although because of it, Yura now has an idea that he can't simply step into the senior field with a quad or two and become the the next Russian hero. So there's that."
When it was Yuri's turn to skate his program, Lilia found herself somewhat impressed despite herself. Yuri's ability to perform it was still terrible, of course – and he was so sloppy, limbs flying everywhere – but the intent of the choreography was obvious, and it had Victor's attention to detail and complexity all over it.
Despite Yuri's dismissiveness about the song and the subject of the program, when she spoke with him about it later, over dinner, it was clear that he at least had some idea of what it meant, if not yet the means to properly express and interpret it. It was a challenging theme for a surly teenager, and yet Victor had trusted that he could carry it and grow into it. She looked forward to seeing if Yuri would rise to meet the program, as well as her other standards. He complained constantly but he also worked, and given his talents, she hoped the latter would win out.
"Tonight," she told him when they were all finished eating, "it is your turn to take care of the dishes."
"But," Yuri said, barely glancing up from his phone. (It wasn't just the lessons he complained about. She could see why Yakov had wanted her and not another teacher for him.)
"No buts," Yakov cut in. "If you're old enough to jump on a plane to Japan by yourself without telling anyone, you're old enough to to clean up after yourself like an adult."
Ah. Yakov's students hadn't changed. "He will show you where to put things away," she said – she hadn't changed the organizing system that she and Yakov had developed together over the decades – and excused herself to her bedroom. There she took a moment to roll out her neck and rub a couple of joints that ached from the long day before she sat down at her desk.
Katsuki. Curious about this man Yuri was sore over, she turned on her computer and searched for him. The picture on his wiki article was unassuming and plain, and his results table was all over the place, though gradually trending upward. The article also informed her that this competition where he had beaten Yuri hadn't been so much a competition as a show put on by Victor, and she searched for a video.
Someone had uploaded the whole thing. It was a professional broadcast, not a shaky camcorder recording, which was nice to see. After skipping through most of it – she didn't need to see the hour of performances from young local talents – she found Yuri, skating in what she was fairly sure was one of Victor's old costumes. It looked familiar enough. Skipping forward a few minutes more, she found the man who had beaten him.
Yuuri looked less plain under the show lights, his hair slicked back. And that was certainly one of Victor's old costumes. She remembered that one well; she had wanted a purple costume for Victor to fit the music, perhaps a handsome chiffon shirt or a soft tunic. Victor, growing more demanding over his choices as he started growing up, had insisted on black with gaudy stones and an androgynous theme.
In the end, she had let him have it. He was the one who would be wearing it, and he'd lit up so much at the first fitting that she'd known it was a good choice, whether or not it was the one that most matched his music. Moving in it, he had looked beautiful.
But the program Yuuri was wearing it for wasn't something pretty, meant for a fairy.
She couldn't understand the Japanese commentator reading the name of the music, but she didn't have to. It was another version of the same song Yuri had been given, eros as the counterpart to agape, with Katsuki's arms flowing around his head and down his body.
Like Yuri, he hadn't yet grown into the performance, but compared to him, he made a more competent, mature go at the choreography itself. His movements in the step sequence that began his program were controlled, though they still lacked their full confidence, and he moved with more elegance than most skaters. Clearly, she thought, this was a skater who took his dance lessons seriously. He was decent at spins, too, and Victor had given him interesting movements between the jumps, which he accomplished with good flow despite the one mistake.
Even without having watched Yuri's performance, she didn't doubt that Katsuki had won fair and square. By the end of the season, it could be quite the captivating program – a good challenge for Yuri to be up against. A rivalry to cause him to push himself, which according to Yakov, he hadn't found among the other juniors or even his older rink mates.
Out of curiosity, she checked his wiki page again, and her eyebrows rose on reading the name of Minako Okukawa. There was a woman she hadn't seen for a while – and now she was training skaters, too. No wonder he had that grace with a teacher like her.
Apparently she had choreographed some of his older programs. Lilia made a mental note to look at them later. She remembered Minako's dancing – her high jumps and fiery, bold expressiveness – but she wasn't familiar with her work as a choreographer.
A few weeks later, once she had spent some time in the evening responding to emails that needed responding to (a friend, one of the more reasonable journalists, a business inquiry) and deleting the ones that did not need responding to (two less reasonable reporters digging for skating drama, an insultingly off-base business inquiry, a discount offer on leotards), she searched for more videos of Yuuri.
It only took trying a few for her to learn that she ought to consult his wiki page before clicking on the videos, if she wanted to watch him when he was hot rather than cold. She couldn't even judge based on his expression before he started. The video where he set his official personal best began with him skating out with a face that strongly reminded Lilia of a recent student who had suffered horribly from stage fright. Yet somehow he had rallied himself, relaxing into the pretty notes of the music and turning easily from choreography to jumping passes.
Minako, it turned out, had a knack for choreography as well as dance (Lilia made a note to see if she'd worked with other skaters as well, or some company – was that what she was up to nowadays?), and Yuuri exhibited it well. There were of course the ballet-inspired programs – Lilia found herself especially struck by his Waterbird performance, where he skated with beautiful lines and control, his movements slow and quick as the music demanded. The ending, where he held himself on a long, curving arabesque before slowly collapsing to his knees, was so striking and well-done that Lilia watched it four times in a row.
But he could carry music other than classical, and he didn't only do good work with Minako's choreography. There was his dark tango program where his footwork was daringly quick. The exhibition set to some kind of Japanese music, in which he swayed and glided like a flower petal drifting on the breeze. The short program with pop music, something Lilia thought she recognized from a competition warm-up or the like, where his limbs were loose in a purposeful way and he seemed like he was having fun simply dancing along.
After watching that one, Lilia was contemplating his wiki page again when there was a soft knock on the open door of her bedroom. Glancing up, she saw Yakov, holding two mugs. "I made coffee," he said, and if she hadn't known him for so long, she might not have picked up the thread of awkwardness in the short sentence.
It was odd, living together again, though it had been her idea. But it had been the correct choice, as it did make things so much easier – in particular, made it easier for Yakov to drag Yuri out of bed early enough to make it to morning practice on time, which Lilia had gathered was not his usual habit. And she and Yakov hadn't returned to arguing again. Perhaps the separate bedrooms helped, or the knowledge that they were now roommates and no longer trying to make a marriage work, or simply spending most of a decade in cities that were hours apart and rarely talking.
Still, there was the strangeness of having him in her kitchen again, or seeing him over the dining table as though they had never divorced, or returning and putting her shoes next to his. And they'd gone and picked up another stray student again. It was what they did instead of having children, she supposed.
She rose and accepted the coffee from him. "If Vitya had to run off to coach someone, he at least chose a good student," she said. "I've been watching Katsuki's programs. He's a very musical skater."
Yakov cradled the other mug between his hands and snorted. "I can guarantee you, that's not why he chose him. I hope for Katsuki's sake that he's working with someone else as well. It's clear as day that his main problem is mental – he can do the jumps when he does them – and Victor's never had an anxious day in his life." He frowned deeply at his coffee.
That wasn't entirely true, though the main example Lilia could recall was Victor picking at a bandaged wrist, worrying at it and the joint sprained from a bad fall in competition practice, until Lilia had made him put his practice gloves on so he would stop. But it was true that competing rarely made him nervous, and he'd had a far more consistent career than Yuuri.
Lilia studied Yakov's face and wondered if maybe she should have clicked on at least one of those articles about Victor's departure after all. Sports journalists seemed to be little more than gossip-mongers lately. She had ignored headlines promising quotes from the Yubileyny rink manager, from the head of the Russian Olympic committee, from every coach in Russia, from a coach who had left Russia twenty years ago to teach in America, from a former skater who had retired when Lilia was still at the Bolshoi and never touched the sport again, from, no doubt, Yuri's cat. They'd attempted to get a quote from her, too, which she had ignored in favor of the stage.
Perhaps she shouldn't ask. But she was curious, and better to hear it from Yakov than anyone else. "Then why did he leave to coach him? I haven't kept up."
Yakov gave her a disbelieving look, then sighed and stepped into her room, closing the door behind him. He sat on her bed, so she turned around the chair at her desk and sat as well. "Do you know any of it?"
"I know that Vitya's in Japan and supposedly coaching him," she said. "And that he's either retired or taking a year off or he'll be back very soon to win more medals, and that he's either he's a traitor to the nation or our usual Hero of Russia surprising us."
Yakov rubbed his face with one hand. "He's not coaching, or if he is, he's playing at it. He's never had any experience with it – god, I hope he at least has picked up enough from us to not overtrain the poor man or let him get hurt trying to teach him all the other quads, or whatever nonsense he gets in his head. What he's doing is bad enough without ruining someone else's career."
"Vitya's not a teenager any more," she said. "I know he's never been the most responsible or obedient, but surely you aren't still treating him like a child at the rink. If he didn't know those things for himself, he wouldn't have made it to his age and still be winning competitions. Is he really that thoughtless nowadays?"
Yakov looked at her over his spread fingers. "Did you know," he said, voice flat, "that he didn't tell me, by text message, that he was leaving? Not until he was already on his way to the airport. On foot. When I couldn't convince him to stop being an idiot, I had to shove him into a taxi."
Lilia raised her eyebrows. That... sounded like Victor, but no, that was not very gracious – or practical – behavior.
"And even at the airport, he only wanted to talk about Katsuki and Japan and Yakov, they have hot springs there! It's amazing! You should come visit! As though any of the rest of us can jet off for a vacation whenever we feel like it and abandon all our responsibilities – and then Yura ran off after him for a week without telling even his grandfather – and it's all due to a damn whim."
"I hadn't realized we'd raised him to be like that," she said, not entirely serious but not a joke; Victor had spent far more time with them than his family once he was past childhood. Yakov sighed again and drank some of his coffee. "A whim? Are you sure? I thought perhaps he was injured and hoping to let it heal."
"He's not," said Yakov. "Or, well. There's something wrong with his head – more than the usual, I mean – but he's fit as ever otherwise. He's been, I don't know, bored or something, maybe all the pressure. He was flightier than ever trying to plan his programs for next season. Wouldn't talk to me about it, though I tried. Still could barely keep him out of the rink when he needed to rest." He sounded frustrated.
"It happens to artists." She'd seen it herself. "Perhaps he did need a change of pace, even of career, although – I suppose it's a very Vitya way to go about it, suddenly deciding to coach a friend of his."
"Friend?" Yakov gave her a look, then laughed, no humor in it. "They're not friends. They'd only spoken once."
Lilia paused halfway through taking a sip from her mug and blinked at him twice over its rim before lowering it. "That's a bit much, even for him."
"Spoken may not even be the word for it," he said. "Katsuki had a rough competition at the GPF, then got so drunk at the banquet that he stripped to his underwear and started pole-dancing with Giacometti – don't ask where the pole came from, I've no clue – and then Victor asked him to tango. Next thing I know, Victor's convinced they're in love and whining that Katsuki hasn't texted him once in three months. Then someone posted a video of Katsuki copying his program after Worlds, and he was on a plane less than twelve hours later convinced that his crush liked him back."
"I... see." That was a far more ridiculous course of events than she could have imagined. "Far be it from me to disdain the driving forces of love even from one passionate night, I suppose, though he ought to have found a more responsible course of actions to be driven to. Did he at least bring you good flowers?" she asked dryly.
Yakov threw up the hand that wasn't holding his coffee. "He's not retiring, so he says! He's taking a year off. And what he's supposed to do with Katsuki if it's only a year after all, who knows. I doubt he does. If he think he can just bring Katsuki back here without asking, or god forbid he decides that next he'll coach himself – it'll be trouble of some kind."
As well as more of Yakov's hair parted from his head, she was sure. After a moment, he deflated and drank more of his coffee, and she did the same, feeling sympathy for him. Somehow, he had never ended up with a single student who was all of level-headed, sensible, and conscientious. At best it was two out of three, and more usually perhaps one. The thing they all had in common was their talent; he was very skilled at spotting potential and drawing it out to its fullest. The lively personalities, he put up with.
And got attached to, she thought, watching Yakov sink into his thoughts. It didn't sound like he'd lost all of his fondness for Victor over this once incident; perhaps Victor would find a way back into his good graces again, though she suspected it would take a few apologies and either developing into a real teacher or giving up coaching.
Or 'coaching'. No wonder Yakov sounded so dismissive of it. He couldn't have declared a year off to do choreography instead? Then he still would have had a good excuse to fly off to Japan and stay with his main muse, and Yuuri could have found someone who knew what they were doing to teach him.
"I'm sorry to hear that he's been such a burden," she said. "If it's any consolation, not a single one of my dancers suddenly abandoned us for another country last year, though one did leave – the correct way – to dance at the same theater as her husband."
Yakov laughed, this time with a bit of life to it. "We'll see how he does. Maybe he'll get his head back on straight when the honeymoon phase wears off. Hopefully won't mess up Katsuki's any more, while he's at it." He fiddled with his mug, and his next words came out reluctant. "I watched his short program. It's good work. He's a talented skater."
"He is. I know his dance teacher. She's almost as good as I am." Yakov smiled at that. "Yura will need to keep working hard to keep above him and the other competition."
Yakov stood, and Lilia accompanied him to the door. In the doorway, he coughed, cheeks faintly flushed. "Thank you," he said. "I know you didn't expect that much."
"I did ask," she said. "It's like old times." Her memories of venting at each other about the antics of their students – not just their skaters, as Lilia's dancers had been better-behaved, but not perfect themselves – were fond ones.
Toward the end of summer, a new video of Yuuri popped up in Lilia's TubeYou suggestions. It stood out from the various dance clips, musical performances, and relaxing gardening videos that surrounded it. She couldn't remember seeing that particular performance before, and she was in the right mood – a day off, unwinding away from the rest of the world – so she clicked on it.
It was an older program from a show, and Yuuri was visibly younger. He was less refined, too, but the strong foundations his progress had been built upon were there in his smooth stroking, soft expressions, and gently curved fingers.
Lilia liked it very much, and not only because of his lovely skating. The song was a familiar one to her, an old favorite that she hadn't listened to in a long while. She adored it not only because of the poetic lyrics about the importance and variety of human connections, but also because of the singer's whispery, hopeful voice and the quiet feeling of the music, which Yuuri had complemented well. It wasn't a flashy program, but he still gave it presence without relying on jumps or exciting moves.
She didn't think that song was very well-known. Perhaps Minako had suggested it. She and Lilia had listened to it together at least a few times when they'd met as dancers in Moscow.
After a search of her music folder showed that she did not have the song in digital form – something she should rectify – she rose and went to the living room to look through her CDs instead. Yakov was already out there, relaxing into an easy chair and reading a book. One of the cases made her pause, and she pulled it out to stare at the cover even though it was the wrong one.
It didn't match the rest of her collection, as it was meant for someone far younger than her or Yakov. It was Victor's; she could still recall him presenting it to her. He'd been thirteen with hair down to the middle of his back, not having quite outgrown Yakov yet, begging for a program to his favorite song. Lilia hadn't liked the music, but it had only been for a show, one Yakov was organizing to feature all of his students, so she had made the program for him.
That had been the first time they worked together, as Lilia had only just begun instructing him. She'd been surprised at how quickly Victor learned the choreography; despite his scatterbrained nature, he did have some smarts in his skull.
If only he would use them more often. She put the jewel case back and continued searching until she found the one she was looking for. Yakov looked up as she put it on and set the track to the song from the video. For a moment they both simply listened to it, before Lilia, needing to move, started to tidy up the room.
She slid a book she'd left out back into its place on the shelf behind Yakov's chair. For some reason, she couldn't get the image of Yuuri's skating out of her mind, or that of a much younger Victor excited to skate to music he loved. "What would you do," she asked, "if Vitya wanted to return and groveled sufficiently, and also brought his new boyfriend?"
Yakov sighed; when she crossed her arms on the back of the chair and leaned over, he looked up at her. "He used to train with Cialdini," he said. "I know him. He doesn't put up with nonsense. And Katsuki's talented. He'd fit at our rink."
"And if Vitya decides to take coaching seriously and retires?" she asked.
Yakov's face twisted into something more unhappy than angry. He took a moment to answer, and Lilia let him, returning to her cleaning. As she swept some scraps of paper – Potya's doing, probably – off of a side table, he said, "If he takes it seriously, that's his business. But if he continues without any idea of what he's doing, if he's a danger to his students, then I'm flying to Japan myself to yell at him."
"Perhaps then I'll have to buy tickets to Japan as well, to complete the household set," she said. "I could stand to see Ms. Okukawa. As far as I can tell, all she's done recently is choreography for him and a handful of lesser-known Japanese skaters, and ballet lessons for children. I don't understand it. I must chase her down at one of the competitions this season to catch up."
That aside, Lilia was curious what Victor would do. Toss off his past as a figure skater to become a coach or even choose something else, building new layers of himself with new experiences, like a growing pearl? Retirement was an inevitability, and even if he was still in good health, he was already old for a figure skater. While Lilia disapproved of how he'd gone about it, leaving on his own terms would be good for him, rather than being sidelined with injuries or watching his abilities fade.
Or maybe he would find teaching wasn't for him, and that could be a valuable experience, too – so long as it wasn't to Yuuri's detriment. If Victor's relationship with Yuuri worked out, in whatever form it took, perhaps that, along with a break from skating himself, could reinvigorate Victor. It might help him find a new sense of self, so that he could let go of whatever it was that Yakov had said was troubling him and polish himself to an even more lustrous shine than before. Lilia had always enjoyed his performances, but there was the potential for further development in every artist.
She finished tidying the room – there hadn't been too much to do. Banging sounds were starting to come from the kitchen; that would be Yuri. To Lilia's surprise, his hobbies included cooking and baking, and on more than one morning, they'd awoken to a plate of pastries set out like a peace offering. "Lilia!" Yuri shouted. "Where's the oil?"
"In the cupboard on the right," she called back. "Where it belongs. You will return it there when you are finished. Do not forget to wipe down the counters."
She didn't need to be in the kitchen to see Yuri rolling his eyes at her. Why did they keep taking in teenagers? Victor, at least, had been charming and liked cleaning, and he didn't insist on trying to reorganize half the apartment to his liking.
Yakov shook his head. "He'll be back in school soon," he said. "And then test skates in a couple of weeks."
"He'll be prepared," she said, perching on the arm of his chair. Yuri's short program was coming along nicely, and she thought his free program was even better, more suited to his natural personality. There were still many weak areas to shore up, but he did his stretches almost every day and applied himself in her studio. It would all come to him with practice and maturity. "And soon after is Katsuki's first competition. We can judge how Vitya is taking to his new occupation and what the free skate is like."
"You've turned into a fan of Katsuki's," he sighed, though his voice wasn't serious about it. She crossed her arms and gave him a look, which made the corner of his mouth twitch up for a few seconds. "I already knew about it," he admitted. "Victor even texted me about it the other day. He used five exclamation points."
"It sounds like he, at least, thinks it's working so far."
"Perhaps. We'll see when Katsuki skates. I suppose at least the relationship must be working out if he hasn't come crawling home yet." He shut his book. "If nothing else, he better be good for Victor," he grumbled. "Make it worth all of this. He may be ungrateful and thoughtless, but he could use something in his life other than an old man and a dog and an ice rink."
She looked at him, and just as she opened her mouth to reply, Yuri's overly loud voice came again: "Lilia! Where did you put the biscuits?"
They were in the same place she always put biscuits. Was he going to keep doing this? She patted Yakov quickly on the shoulder – they rarely touched, now, but he seemed like he could use it – and slid off the arm of the chair to go help Yuri before he put everything in the wrong place yet again.
The music was still audible from the kitchen, and at some point, the CD came back around to the song she'd been looking for earlier. She was surprised to hear Yuri singing along under his breath as he poured his cake mix into a pan. "You know this song?" she asked, pouring water to make a fresh cup of tea. "I would have thought it was before your time."
He shrugged. "Yeah, well. Someone used it in a program, I think."
Probably not that many someones had skated to it. Lilia suddenly suspected that in a few weeks, all three of them would be loading the video of that Japanese competition, to check on a rival skater or judge Victor's coaching skills or, perhaps, to watch Yuuri's performance and see what loveliness he would be bringing to the ice this season.