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i.

Mila is aware of Sara Crispino when Mila is still clawing her way through the Junior ISU. You should know your competitors better than you know yourself- Mila is meticulous in this, in learning their weak spots and tells, and exploiting these later when she’s on the ice.

Sara Crispino is charming in the Kiss and Cry, and quirks a feline smile when she lands a triple Lutz – triple Loop with practiced ease, and Mila hears from Vitya that her brother is making a name for himself in the Men’s competition. She is popular with her fellow skaters.  Mila is certain, when she watches her, that Sara’ll be a thorn in her side once Mila develops her focus enough to compete in the Senior division. Crispino’s routine is packed of high-difficulty moves: a fitting program for someone who is talented but lacks true passion.

“Her choreography could use work,” Victor says, fingers curled around his jaw. On the rink, Crispino sways to the rhythm of the music in a graceful, almost ferocious Biellmann. “But her performance is exquisite.”

Mila looks at the skater thoughtfully. The whip of her skates is strangely entrancing.

“She’s got potential,” she agrees.

 

ii.

The first time they talk, Mila has secured first place in the Short Program at Canada and they’re in a bathroom.

Sara Crispino is four years older than her, with silky black hair tied intricately upon her head and a proud tilt to her jaw. Out of her skates, Mila has a good two inches on her, which shouldn’t make her smile but does.

“You looked amazing out there,” she says, because the narrowed slits of Crispino’s eyes are disappointed and resentful, and also because it’s the truth. Crispino shrugs, and the bright stream of sequins on her dress catch the light. “I can do it better,” she tells Mila confidently, teasingly, “I’ll probably beat you next year,” and Mila laughs a little, because she probably will.

“You don’t need to give up already. There’s always the Free.”

Crispino looks at her with a light in her strange purple eyes. “I’ve seen you in practice. Let me offer my early congratulations on your place in the final.”

“Accepted,” Mila says, and, to her horror, feels a giggle rise up in her throat, which she crushes immediately.

The silence stretches, until Sara asks, “Have you ever been to Canada before?” and, somehow, Mila ends the week in a small cafe in Mississauga with Sara Crispino, and they drink flavoured lattes.

Sara is the type to put people at ease. Mila knows this from the hours spent watching post-skate interviews and somehow, it still surprises her.

She tells Sara about her family, and their house in Volgograd, about her mother’s work in the family’s general store before she married Mila’s father, how she misses her brother even though he calls her every week. She talks about the rink she used to go to as a girl, clutching her mother’s hand and shit-scared of falling. She tells Sara about how she hates the taste of the coffee Victor makes but that she doesn’t ever have the heart to tell him that it’s swill, and Sara laughs and nods and tosses her pretty hair over her shoulder.

Mila learns that Sara’s brother, Michele, is her twin and they have been inseparable since womb; that their father first wanted only Sara to learn to skate so that she would have something that was just her own, but Michele cried every morning that she left for her lessons so eventually he started learning, too. Sara talks about the thrill of landing a jump that is just so, and how she sometimes misses the ease of skating just for the fun of it. Sara has a Siamese cat at her home in Venice named Osaka, because it was where she won her first Junior competition.

Sara runs her hand up Mila’s forearm when she laughs. It’s terribly distracting.

“I was right, you know,” Sara says suddenly, resting her chin in her hand. “Your Free was exceptional.”

Mila grins nervously, which is ridiculous, because she’s never nervous, and Sara is only another girl. “Oh,” she says, and takes a sip of her coffee. “Ah- thank you.”

“It’s hard to believe this is your first year. I could never have landed some of those jumps in my first Senior Grand Prix.”

The buttery light of the café turns Sara’s hair into ribbons of soft gold. Mila mentally shakes herself. “You should’ve seen me in practice. I spent half of them on my ass when I first added those jumps to my programs.”

“I don’t believe it,” Sara marvels.

“Ask Victor,” she sighs dramatically. “He’s got an entire collection of videos. I don’t think there’s any skater left in Russia who hasn’t seen the full extent of my grace.”

Sara snickers. It really shouldn’t be cute.

There’s a strange little catch in Sara’s voice when, later, she says, “There’s- a public ice rink, near here, in the Civic Square, if you wanted- I know you’ve just spent the whole weekend skating, but-”

Mila smiles crookedly. “Okay,” she says.

It’s late when they reach the rink, the streetlamps colouring the ice yellow. The ice is half scored to death from the skates of all the families here hours ago, and Sara pays for both their skates with an easy, you can pay me back next time, and Mila’s heart thrums like a bird in a cage.

They’re not the only ones on the ice, but they are the only ones who don’t need to clutch at each other just to stay up. Mila identifies this strange feeling in the pit of her stomach as wistfulness, which clearly means she’s going crazy.

She can feel the other skaters watching them enviously when Sara skates backwards to carry on her conversation with Mila. “How did you get into skating?” Sara asks. She’s produced a bobbled hat from somewhere.

“I always felt it was my destiny to be wealthy and famous,” Mila tells her, seriously.

Sara’s eyes spark up as she laughs. The tip of her nose is red. “You should’ve gone in for tennis, then,” and laughs harder when Mila shudders theatrically. “Have you met tennis players-” Mila starts, testily, even though she’s ever only met them through the lens of Victor’s alcohol-soaked parties, when Sara suddenly grabs her hands and they shoot across the ice, narrowly missing a couple who shout something obscene at them. Sara grins brightly and lets loose a stream of filthy language that Mila would never have believed could come from her mouth if she hadn’t been there to see it.

“My God,” she says, startled into laughing, “you’re awful,” and Sara keeps hold of her hands until they’re off the ice and making their way back to the competitor’s hotel. Mila hasn’t slept properly in days, and she finds she still doesn’t want the night to end.

“You know, I’ll be at the Final,” Sara tells her, when they’re outside her door. “Mickey has a place in the Men’s.”

Mickey is the brother, Mila remembers. “You trying to say you’ll see me there?”

“If you want,” Sara says.

“Well, shit,” Mila deadpans, “I’ve been trying to lose you all evening,” and they’re snickering, Sara’s gloved hand warm on Mila’s arm.  It’s- Mila could get used to this. She wants to get used to it.

She can hear raised voices when Sara goes into the hotel room, muffled through the wood of the door. She pretends not to notice.

 

iii.

“I see you’ve been spending time with that Italian skater,” Victor says, apropos of nothing. He’s truly the worst sometimes, like someone’s interfering aunt with a wine problem.

“One night,” she corrects, but Victor talks over her completely. “Am I not enough for you anymore, Babi?I thought what we had was special. You wound me.”

“I cannot believe you are a grown man.”

He drapes himself over the barrier. “Our eternal love,” he moans.

“I will lock you inside a storage cupboard,” she says threateningly. “No one will ever find you again.”

Victor fixes her with a haughty look. “Please stop underestimating the devotion of my adoring fans.”

“How did you even know?” she asks, reverting back to the original topic. “About me and Sara?”

“So she’s Sara now,” Victor teases, but relents. “She posted a picture of the two of you on Instagram. I can’t believe you took a selfie with someone that wasn’t me. You’re cold, Mila.”

“Yeah, yeah, suck it up,” Mila says, but she’s already on her phone, looking for Mila’s account. Vitya says something doubtlessly melodramatic and flounces off to somewhere; perhaps to practice flicking his hair in a particular way, or smouldering his eyes. She has no idea how anyone falls for his shit.

Sara-crispino has hundreds of thousands of followers. Most of her pictures are obscure: her cat, a view of the sunset, her brother, her brother, her brother. True to Victor’s word, the second most recent is a picture of the two of them, Sara’s arm around Mila’s shoulder, the both of them pink with the cold. Night out with this rising star!!! Let’s show Canada how skating’s done #MilaBabicheva¸ she’d captioned. Mila doesn’t have any picture of them to post in response.

Instead, she opens Twitter, and searches for Sara’s account.

@milababicheva: @s_crispino you better cheer for me in france or i’m blocking you

There’s no reply until Mila is in her shitty little apartment, the scratchy blanket her mother made her strewn over her knees and a ridiculous late-night movie on the television. The window is open so she can smoke without Victor sussing her out the next time he unceremoniously invites himself over.

@s_crispino: @milababicheva That would be against my principles #DoIEvenKnowYou

@milababicheva: @s_crispino now we all know jealousy is a sin

@s_crispino: @milababicheva Wishful thinking is so sad :(

Mila blows out smoke and thinks, oh, and smiles.

* * *

 Sara finds her just before Mila goes onto the ice for her Free Skate. She won’t win, she knows, because she flunked one of her jumps in the short program, and that almost doesn’t matter when Sara melts out of the crowd to hold on to her so tight that Mila almost can’t breathe (she doesn’t know if it’s Mila’s embrace that is vice-tight or a betrayal of her body).

“Good luck, sweetheart,” Sara whispers, her face buried in Mila’s shoulder.

Mila links her hands behind Sara’s back. This close, Sara smells of vanilla and coconut, and her hair is wonderfully soft against Mila’s cheek.

She thinks of the light in Sara’s eyes when Mila spun her on the ice in Mississauga as she sinks into her opening position, left arm braced above her head and the muscles of her legs coiled. Deadly, Yakov had said in approval, and Mila had smiled delightedly because Yakov is never approving, not even with Victor, only now she wants to be more than that. Mila performs her routine flawlessly, her performance impassioned in a way that she had never mastered in all her hours of practice, and Sara’s smile when Mila clambers from the ice is bright, bright bright.

They head out after the medal ceremony, after the endless hours of interviews and well done’s. Sara’s brother catches up to them as they head out of the doors, slamming his foot to halt the door closing.

“Where are you going?” he asks- voice calm but eyes spitting like lava. He doesn’t even glance at Mila, and she clutches at the strings of her duffel with narrowed eyes.

Sara swivels, the lines of her body taut and cautious. “Mila has never been to Paris,” she says, as if it explains something. “She’s my friend.”

Michele spits something in Italian, and Sara sighs, raising her hand against her brother’s onslaught. “You can cope without me for one night,” she tells him, and takes Mila by the elbow.

“We have dinner at nine,” Michele says, to which Sara gives a jaunty wave and an, “If we’re back!” Mila feels his eyes on her back for the whole time that they walk away from the rink.

Sara smiles ruefully. “Sorry about that,” she says, as if her brother is her fault. “He can be- protective.”

“Hm,” Mila says, non-committal. She takes in the unhappy tilt of Sara’s mouth, and starts to talk about the other skaters tonight, the quality of the routines and the one embarrassing ode to the skater’s husband. “I thought I would vomit,” she declares, and doesn’t look down when she feels Sara’s gloved fingers brush against her own. “If you’re going to do that sort of thing, you should do it with class.”

“Love is not all that classy,” Sara says, her voice spiderweb-soft, “It’s messy and embarrassing.”

“I- wouldn’t know,” Mila admits, quiet and awkward, and stares down at her shoes. She’s seventeen, now, a late starter in the Senior ranks, and her chest clenches uncomfortably, ashamed and sad.

Sara stops them, and her mouth is uncharacteristically serious, and she says, “You’re still very young.”

There is no one else on this particular street corner. Mila’s fingers reach out, just a little, until they tangle with Sara’s in her fancy faux-leather gloves for the shortest of moments. It feels electric, and then they’re walking again, a respectable distance between them.

“I know a good bar around here,” Sara says. Her voice betrays nothing. “The drinks aren’t all that cheap though. I suppose I’ll have to buy some for you.”

“My hero,” Mila says, and smiles secretly to herself.

Sara wasn’t lying. The bar is not, in fact, cheap. Mila could buy five drinks back in Volgograd for what these people charge for a single cocktail. It doesn’t seem to matter to Sara, who keels over almost immediately after her first couple of pink somethings.

“I don’t think I can compete with your iron disposition,” Mila laments, downing the rest of her drink. Whiskey, Sara had said in disgust, her nose upturned, you drink like a man-

“Oh, shut up, cara,” Sara tells her, two spots of colour on her cheekbones. “We can’t all be from Russia,” her voice slurring over the name of Mila’s homeland deliciously and Mila- can’t stop staring at her.

“Sara, I’m not going to carry you back to the hotel. I’m going to leave you here.”

Sara gasps and slumps against Mila’s side. The bassline of the song playing reverberates through her body like a pulse. “You wouldn’t,” she says, like it excites her.

“Oh, I would,” Mila tells her, with no real intention of doing it, since she doesn’t really want Sara to get into trouble with her brother on Mila’s account, even if she gets the impression that Michele already hates her guts.

Sara smiles lazily, and her fingers tangle in Mila’s hair. “I’ve always loved red hair,” she mumbles, and tugs gently. Mila’s heart evicts itself from the confines of her chest and thumps in her mouth. “Fiamma.

Eventually they stumble from the bar, and Mila walks them back with Sara draped across her back like an attractive coat, her face smushed into the curve where Mila’s neck meets her shoulder. It takes them twice the time to reach that hotel that it would if Sara would walk by herself: Mila thinks, I’ve never had an evening so wonderful and the roars of the Grand Prix audience feel a hundred thousand miles away.

“I knew you wouldn’t leave me,” Sara says smugly. “You’re sweet, Mila.”

Mila burns with something unnamed. “You, too,” she says, and presses the button to Sara’s floor. It’s long gone midnight, and Michele had said dinner at nine, and if he didn’t hate her before he will do now, as if Michele Crispino’s opinion of her was something Mila genuinely cared about.

Sara hugs her outside the door, warm and trusting and beautiful.

“Goodnight, Mila,” she says, and kisses her cheek. Mila turns on her heel towards the elevators and tonight, there are no raised voices, and if she feels warm all the way to her room it’s not because of the alcohol.

iv.

Mila wasn’t sure if she expected something to change, after that, but it doesn’t, not in any way she can point out. They meet up when their schedules match and Sara will shoot her these looks when she thinks Mila isn’t looking, her heart-shaped mouth soft. There’s a tension, but it never snaps.

She dates a hockey player, for a short while. He’s from Izhevsk, and he’s rough at the edges and he tells her he loves her, once, and Mila’s throat closes up in panic and he never says it again after that. It’s about the way he says, it feels like you’re looking through me, and she thinks she might cry when he walks out of her apartment for the last time but the only thing she really feels is empty and grey.

So she calls Sara, picking at a loose thread on the comforter as the phone rings. “Alexander broke up with me,” she says, as soon as it connects.

“Oh, sweetheart,” Sara’s voice says, from a thousand miles away. “He doesn’t know what he’s missing out on.”

There are so many things that Mila wants to say. It’s hard to talk to Sara, but it’s harder to look at her and feel her own choked-up desire wrap itself around her throat. Sara is her friend, she reasons. Mila’s weakness of spirit doesn’t make her brave enough to break her silence because if she’s wrong about this-

She’ll take what she can get.

Sara’s voice is still bubbling in her ear. “He never deserved you anway,” she’s saying, and, “If you wanted, I could come to Russia-”

“Don’t bother,” Mila sighs, and goes to the kitchen to begin frying the onions and garlic for pelmeni. “I knew it was going to end a while ago.”

“He didn’t deserve you,” Sara repeats, obstinately, but it’s the last they speak of him. As Mila cooks she tells Sara about her training for the upcoming Grand Prix, and how Yura reminds her of the brother she hasn’t seen in two years, now, and how Victor has fucked off to a town in Japan with delusions of coach-ly grandeur. Sara tells her that her theme for this season is freedom, and that she thinks Mickey might never learn to live apart from her and it scares her, a little.

“I miss you,” Sara says, suddenly, honestly. Mila’s throat goes tight. “I miss you too,” she replies, spearing one of the doughy balls and not tasting it at all.

* * *

“Have you tried standing in front of her naked?” Victor asks. Mila pulls the blanket up over her face.

“Truly,” she says, “I hate you so much right now. Never speak to me again.”

Victor pats her on the head. “When you reach my age, my sweet child-”

“You mean when I’m old.

“-then you will wish you’d taken my good advice,” Victor continues placidly, and pulls the blanket away from her eyes.

Frowning, Mila says, “We can’t all assault people on national television.”

“In my defence,” Victor says, aggrieved, “he liked it. So you can take your opinion and insert it-”

Mila rests her head in her hands and groans.

“Vitya,” she says pleadingly. “You’re supposed to offer me advice.

Victor looks at her in consideration, and rolls his eyes. “Fine,” he tells her, “but you can’t tell me that all my ideas are shit, or I’m leaving.”

“It’s not my fault so many of your ideas are terrible,” Mila points out, and Victor makes a face.

“Have you tried telling her how you feel?” he asks, which is rich coming from a man who wouldn’t know how to hide his feelings in a pitch-black room. Mila pities Katsuki, she really does.

“No,” she says testily.

Victor grins brightly. “So go to her, and say, you are the prettiest girl in the whole room, and- I don’t know, seduce her with your womanly whiles.”

“I really don’t know how you’ve managed to con anyone into sleeping with your fool self.” Mila pulls her blanket around herself tighter in the hopes of becoming a cocoon and ending this conversation early.

“Yuuri did run away from me,” Victor admits, “repeatedly.”

“A known side effect of getting to know you,” Mila says.

“But,” Victor ploughs on, and fixes her with a beatific smile, “I have the boy, and you don’t have the girl, which makes me infinitely more qualified. So, tell her how you feel.”

Mila stares at her fireplace and frowns. Her fingers twitch, and she itches for a smoke. “Or,” she says slowly, “I never speak to Sara again, restart my life in Scotland, and then I die.”

“That would break Yuri’s heart.”

“Stop giving me more reasons to do it,” Mila says.

“Okay,” Victor says, and pours himself a glass of wine. Mila frowns and says, “It’s three in the afternoon,” and Victor just shrugs and says, “You have to trust in your heart,” because he’s ridiculous.

Whining in the back of her throat, Mila takes the wineglass from Victor’s loose grip and takes a gulp.

“If it helps,” Victor says consolingly, “Yurio would definitely fight the asshole brother for you, if it came to it.”

She doesn’t tell him, because he’s arrogant enough already, but it does help, in a way.

 

v.

Months pass before she sees Sara again.

Chicago is a city of bitter winter colds, and the enormous metal skyscrapers are snow-dusted at their peaks. The ice arena is spacious and the shouts of the audience and bursts of applause echo in a way that’s something else. In the midst of all the skaters and their coaches, a flash of black catches Mila’s eye and she sees Sara standing some way off. Her outfit is cold and white, and she’s the most wonderful thing that Mila has ever seen, and she wants-

“Good luck out there,” Sara calls across.

Mila’s mouth is dry when she says, “You too,” and her heart patters wildly.

It occurs to her, whilst Sara is hypnotising the audience with her body’s movements, that Sara no longer skates as though she has no reason to be there.

And, much later, when Mila has skated her way to silver, she pulls away from the crowds and hunches up outside, leaning up against the brick wall as her chest sucks in air, before pulling out her pack of cigarettes from her coat pocket and lighting up.

Tell her how you feel, Victor’s voice whispers, like a particularly annoying ghost.

“Mila?” Sara asks. She’s pulled a thick black coat on over her costume but her feet are bare. It’s all Mila notices for a second, her mind stuck on an endless feedback loop, until she looks down at Sara and smiles.

“You’ll catch your death, you idiot,” she says, and Sara snorts, says, “And those things will kill you,” and Mila thinks, this is okay, I can do this.

The wind nips at her cheeks. “Congratulations on the gold,” she says, to make Sara smile, which it does.

“I had to find something to skate for that wasn’t my brother,” she tells Mila, with a secretive smile. “He didn’t take the news very well, but he’ll get over it.”

Mila hums, and couldn’t care less if Michele dropped off a cliff to never be seen again, except that it would probably make Sara upset.

There’s a smirk tugging at Sara’s mouth. Mila can’t imagine what for.

“What was it, then?” she asks. “You know- the thing you were skating for.”

“A person,” is all Sara says. Sara watches her smoke, and says nothing, so Mila sucks the last of the smoke from the stick and grinds the butt to the pavement beneath her foot. “Sorry,” she says by way of explanation. “I know it’s- disgusting, or whatever.”

“No,” Sara says, too-quickly and her face too-close, “I don’t mind.”

Snow falls in a dusting on Sara’s hair and shoulders. Her hand skims the back of Mila’s fingers.

Mila isn’t sure how it happens. She feels like the idea was always there, ticking in the back of her mind, and she finds herself in front of Sara, their noses a scant inch apart. Her palms are sweating, and she’s going to do it anyway. “I’m going to kiss you now,” she confesses, and Sara says, “I thought you’d never ask,” even as the last syllable is swallowed up by Mila’s mouth in a kiss, her tongue dipping into Sara’s mouth. Mila crowds Sara closer to the wall, impossibly, like she’s trying to climb inside her skin, and Sara’s fingers reach to hold onto Mila’s hair as Mila’s hands find a perch on Sara’s waist. Sara makes these small, desperate noises as Mila kisses hungrily along her jaw, and Mila thinks, what was I waiting for, and I couldn’t stop now if the whole of Russia was watching-

Sara exhales against her mouth. “I’ve been waiting for you to do that since the first time we met,” she says.

“Me, too.” Mila traces her fingers down the bulky arms of Sara’s coat. Bites at Sara’s plush lower lip, and pulls back far enough that she can see Sara’s eyes. “Are you sure you’re okay with this?”

“Unbelievably so,” Sara says softly, even though her smile is nervous in the corners. Her heart drum-beats against Mila’s chest. “I haven’t- done this before, though.”

Mila smiles hesitantly. “Me, neither,” she says, because quick fucks in bars don’t count like this does. She bows her head to press a soft kiss to Sara’s temple. “I’m still going to beat you next year,” she promises, and she can feel Sara’s smile against her neck. Sara’s hand finds hers and their fingers tangle, half-numb from the cold.

And so Mila kisses her again, because she can, even though they’re in an alley behind the arena where anyone could see, and Sara isn’t her opponent, or her friend, or anything else but simply – hers.