Hers was not a voice that she had expected to hear along the crowded streets of Barcelona, but when it reached her ears she recognized the dulcet tones instantly.
Only one person spoke her name that way, consonants rounded by the speaker’s mother tongue, a slight accent that she had never quite overcome and hadn’t wanted to. Lilia turned towards it, just like she had always done in the past, like a sunflower seeking the sun.
“Minako.” It didn’t need to be a question, not even when meeting like this, decades later, unexpected in a country foreign to both of them.
The other woman smiled, tilting her head towards a nearby cafe. Her Russian was slightly stilted from lack of use, but her voice was still backed by the same warm strength she remembered. “I heard this place serves wonderful Spanish hot chocolate. Will you join me?”
The scent of rich chocolate that hung in the air as they entered the bustling chocolatier was indeed heady. A waiter showed them to a table, leaving after Minako ordered hot chocolates and churros for the both of them. Seated now in the well-lit interior of the cafe, Lilia took a silent moment to simply look at this woman who she had not laid eyes on in almost twenty years. Minako, with that unreserved manner of hers, returned the gaze with eyes that cut like crystal.
It brought her back to a time when they had been young ballerinas at eighteen, vying for the lead role in the Bolshoi’s Christmas production.
But that was a time that belonged to a dream of the past. Here was the present, and they both had aged, Lilia more noticeably so, as Westerners often do.
Minako looked – well, not quite exactly the same as before, with the faintest of laugh lines around her eyes that only came with age. She wore her dark brown hair long and loose now, rather than tied up in a bun like Lilia still did. But the way she held herself was familiar, that same grace and magnetism that had always drawn men’s attention like honey, catching their eyes like threads in the wind.
Yet Minako had never been interested in men’s gazes. Her eyes had always sought out Lilia’s and Lilia’s alone, a spark in them warmer than they should have dared.
Lilia remembered a time when Minako had meant whispers in the dark, stolen moments before the curtains rose, kisses that tasted like dark chocolate and champagne. To her, Minako had been joy itself, beauty and passion all rolled in one.
They had loved, yet they could not have been together… had not dared, not in the time they had belonged to – a time when the world had been less open, less accepting.
Minako had returned to Japan after her retirement from professional ballet, to her sleepy little hometown with its hot springs and warm people. She told Lilia of her plans to open a ballet studio, to share the joy of ballet with bright-eyed children.
(“Come with me,” Minako had whispered in the darkness of the night when she thought Lilia had fallen asleep, voice sweet and raw. Lilia hadn’t opened her eyes, not then, and when they dressed the next morning Minako never mentioned it again.)
Lilia had married Yakov under the encouragement of their families. They developed a comfortable relationship of trust and companionship, but it never turned into love. After nine years without children they mutually agreed to separate peacefully, remaining friends but no more.
The waiter returned with their orders then, steaming cups of chocolate the same colour as Minako’s hair.
They had never shared this kind of luxury before, not in the long-gone days of sweat and tears and blistered feet. (Days of dreams and happiness and Minako by her side.)
Another reminder of how time had swept them by.
Lilia didn’t ask the other woman why she was here. She had noted before the grace with which the Japanese skater Yuri Katsuki danced on the ice, subtle hints of a ballet background ingrained in his movements. So you opened your ballet studio after all, she wanted to say, found your bright-eyed young student. What is the sky like, she wanted to ask, in your sleepy little hometown? Do seagulls fly overhead as they do in St Petersburg? Did you find someone to love you, to do what I had not dared?
But the words stayed stuck in her throat.
“Lilia.” A warm hand closed over hers, long fingers tangling. “After the Grand Prix Final, will you come visit Hasetsu?”
(“Come with me,” Minako had whispered.)
She had not dared then. Did she dare now?
Before her fears could sway her once more, Lilia lifted their linked hands to feather a kiss over Minako’s fingertips, fleeting yet filled with promise. It was an impulsivity unlike her, but it was worth seeing Minako’s widened eyes, then the brilliance of her smile.
Decades had passed them by, and now they were in a different time.