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El cisne (The Swan)

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Night, the witching hour. Javi takes pride in not investing in this kind of occultist nonsense, but part of him can’t resist the urge to shrink away and hide. It’s dark, shadows press in on him, the breeze whistles through him in a chilly embrace. Javi shivers. He’s in some kind of park, the cultivated flora sinister under the illumination of a single, flickering lamppost.

 

The lamppost dies. There’s a dull roar, growing louder, so big it can be felt. Javi doesn’t dare look back—he runs.

 

Feet heavy and slow, like he’s skating knee deep in maple syrup—why would he be skating in syrup he doesn't know—but aside from the steady pound, pound, pound of his running shoes, the frenetic thrumming of his own frantic heart in synchrony with his sobbing lungs, Javi runs. Past a great castle of bricks and steel, through a pavilion of cast iron and glass, past the dense leafy corridors of tropical trees flanked by stone dragons and mammoths, crouching in wait. Stars glitter like fairy dust overhead, only to die as they are smothered by the growing dark nipping at Javi’s heels.

 

Javi hurries, he doesn’t have any time left.

 

Javi makes it to the clearing just in time. Without hesitation, he dashes into the water, the lake waves lapping at his ankles. Finally, he turns back and the darkness pulls away, pausing just at the lake’s edge, a specter waiting.

 

A cry so beautiful, it shatters the world. The swan descends, as bright as stars and white as light. It flies over Javi’s head, wings sweeping out dazzling brilliance, a corona of warmth. The dark snarls, but shrinks away from the light, away from the swan’s dance. The swan circles the lake’s fountain, wingbeats soft as clouds and smooth as glass. It dives, spiraling round and round, the circles growing tighter, wings stroking swifter, feathers blurring, glowing brighter and brighter. The waters still, the lake sighs when the swan brushes the surface, webbed feet lighting down to caress the waters below.

 

A burst of light. The waters freeze, locking into a perfect sheet of ice, waiting to be carved. Where the swan stood, only a man remains.

 

Bathed in light and shadow, the man stands stock still on the ice, back turned to Javi. In the half-light, Javi can see the man’s top garbed in pure white, filigreed with gold.

 

A drumbeat. Vibrates the ice like rolling thunder. One arm raised high over his head, like a swan raising its wing to fly, the man holds this pose and listens. Waits.

 

The piercing sound of flutes, sharp enough to split the earth. Javi’s numb with cold, but he can’t take his eyes off the man, who moves across the ice in graceful steps that reverberate with power, the blades of his skates ghosting over the ice in whisper soft edges. The mix of echoing drums, discordant flutes, and vibrating strings converge in haunting symphony as the man flies, leaping into the most perfect quadruple salchow Javi has ever seen.

 

Javi gasps. Startled, the man turns around—

 

Javi jolts awake, greeted by the sounds of chirping birds. He gazes blearily at his alarm clock. Definitely too early for practice. He flops back into his pillow and pulls the covers back over his head.

 

That’s the last time I let Cortney convince me to watch Swan Lake, the Spaniard recalls their Skype date last night, which ended up turning into Cortney wrangling him into viewing tons of ballet and musical clips in her efforts to pick a new program for next season. He yawns hugely before drifting back to sleep again.

**

 

Javi curses under his breath as he dashes through the sliding glass doors of the Cricket Club. He's overslept again (throwing the alarm clock at the wall, however satisfying, did not help with his punctuality), skipped out on breakfast and lunch, and has only a scolding session with Brian to look forward to.

 

"Late~" Elene Gedevanishvili sings across the ice as Javi dumps his gear on the bench and strips off his jacket, moving his arms in quick circles to stretch.

 

"Oh, shush," Javi says, without heat. If he's lucky, he can slip out onto the ice before Brian or one of the other coaches notice.

 

"You should have come early. You missed out on something special," Elene tells him, drawing nearer and carefully stepping off the ice, snapping on her skate guards with practiced ease. She leans towards Javi.

 

"Yeah? And what did I miss out on?" Javi asks, only half interested as he focuses on lacing up his skates.

 

"The world's biggest triple axel." Elene mimes at an unspecified height above her head. "It was this big, pinky swear."

 

Javi gives her a look before shaking his head. "Elene, if you're going to lie, you're going to have to make it believable."

 

Elene huffs and snatches a tissue from a Pooh tissue box that perched on the bench by her.

 

"Okay, maybe it wasn't that big," she admits as she blows her nose. "But it was still the biggest triple axel I've ever seen. Ever ."

 

"I'll show you the biggest triple axel you've ever seen today," Javi promises her. He stands up, finally finished with his skates. He takes out his sports bottle to take a drink and notices the new tissue box. "Is this yours? Since when were you a fan of Winnie the Pooh?"

 

"Is mine."

 

Javi turns. Yuzuru Hanyu shyly waves before bowing deeply.

 

"Hello, my name is Yuzuru Hanyu. Nice to meet you."

 

Javi drops his sports bottle, water splashing over his skates and spilling onto the floor. Elene shrieks a little and jumps back with a stumble.

 

Javi turns beet red and quickly bends down to reach for the fallen bottle. At the same time, Yuzuru’s already knelt down as well, hand outstretched to help. Before their hands can close in on the bottle, their foreheads meet first and Javi falls back on his butt to minimize the impact.

 

“Ow--shit, I’m sorry, are you okay?” Javi’s forehead is still smarting but honestly, he’s more worried about the damage to Yuzuru, who was so thin, it looked like a strong breeze could knock him over. The Japanese skater, still kneeling but otherwise seems still in one piece, offers Javi his bottle with a hesitant smile.

 

“Thanks.” Javi accepts the bottle, desperately trying to ignore Elene’s snickering in the background. “You sure you’re okay? I have a pretty hard head…”

 

“Is fine,” Yuzuru says, with a bright smile and bows again. “Sorry I hurt you. And big mess. Get towel and clean.”

 

“No, really, it’s fine.” He’s about to point out that the mentioned mess was entirely his fault, but the Japanese skater has already walked off in his skates and comes back with a fluffy towel to mop the spill.

 

“Seriously, you don’t have to do that,” Javi protests, feeling more embarrassed than ever as he grabs a towel of his own to help. He’s still trying to wrap his head around the fact that this crazy Japanese kid had flown across the Pacific Ocean to come train in Toronto. And mop up messes, by the diligent way the kid was tending to the spill. If Javi didn’t know any better, he’d say the kid was trying to polish the floor while he was at it.

 

“Javi, there you are. Don’t think that I didn’t see you sneak in late.” Brian comes striding in, clipboard and pen in hand. “I want to introduce you to--Yuzuru, what are you doing on the floor?”

 

In a blink of an eye, Yuzuru’s already on his feet again, towel clasped behind his back as he gracefully bows again, this time to Brian.

 

“Hello, Mr. Orser,” Yuzuru greets him, speaking slowly, with rehearsed deliberation, his tongue working double-time to make the 'l’s' distinct from the 'r’s'.

 

Javi suppresses a laugh as Brian splutters, obviously unused to the Japanese skater’s formality.

 

“Really, you can just call me Brian,” Brian manages to say. “I might be your coach, but we like to keep things informal around here, if that’s fine with you, Yuzuru?” Yuzuru starts a little, his face scrunching up in concentration before he nods vigorously.

 

“Ok, Brian- coach ,” he says, drawing out the name as if trying to engrave it into his memory.


“Right.” Brian smiles encouragingly. “Let me introduce you--I’m sure you’ve seen each other at competition last season but you probably haven’t been formally introduced--Yuzuru, this is Javier. And Elene. They both competed at Nice last season.”

 

Naturally, there is more bowing from Yuzuru, and Elene giggles when Yuzuru bows again, murmuring something in Japanese when she decides to reply with a curtsy just to see how he’d react. Javi draws the line when Yuzuru calls him, “Mr. Fernandez.”

 

“Oh god, please don’t call me that--Mr. Fernandez is my dad.” Javi makes a face and holds out a hand. It feels a little weird to introduce himself, considering they’ve already met, but it’s the first time they’ve shaken hands. “Nice to meet you, Yuzuru."

 

Yuzu accepts the handshake without hesitation, lips drawn up in a small smile.

 

“Nice to meet you, Javi- err .” It's Yuzuru's turn to make a face when he struggles to draw out the ‘r’ sound properly.

 

“Don’t kill yourself, kid. Just call me Javi.”

 

“Javi-errr ,” Yuzuru repeats, his face set in a stubborn pout.

 

Javi can already tell that it was going to be an interesting practice.


**

 

Javi usually takes a while to warm up, sometimes lapping around the ice a few more times than necessary. It’s the beginning of the off-season, and Javi takes the time to just enjoy skating, the relaxed feel of his blades biting edges into the ice, the easy sensation of gliding without a care in the world.

 

Yuzuru snaps Javi out of his serene world with one of his signature triple axel jumps, followed up by a quad toe jump. Elene shrieks with delight, Peter Liebers gapes from the lounge, and all Brian can do is let out a little surprised chuckle while Tracy shakes her head with disbelief. One of the junior skaters hurriedly pulls out her phone to capture the moment when Ernest Pryhitka, one of the assistant coaches, admonishes her with a reminder of the club’s strict no phone photography policy.

 

Not that Yuzuru notices. He’s lost in his own little world he’s created, a realm of perfect triple axels and quad toes. There wasn’t even a need for program music--Yuzuru's jumps alone had a song of their own. Watching him jump after jump stokes a familiar fire in Javi and before the Spanish skater can stop himself, he’s gliding to the center of the ice, right in Yuzuru’s line of sight, and leaps into his favorite jump, the quadruple salchow. Javi lands with a flourish of his arms and pulls to a stop, savoring the rush of adrenaline.

 

When he turns around, he sees Yuzuru staring at him, his eyes wide with wonder.

 

Javi grins.

 

**

 

The next couple of weeks, Javi finds himself arriving to practice on time more often than not, if only to catch a glimpse of Yuzuru. (Tracy and Brian share not-so-secret grins at this.) Yuzuru typically attended the morning sessions and left right before afternoon practice so Javi only usually caught him right when he was leaving the building, pulling his little rolling backpack after him. Even the excitement of a new rinkmate isn’t quite enough to get Javi to switch his afternoon practice schedule around--one couldn’t compete with biology, after all and Javi's circadian rhythm just didn't work with mornings. But sometimes, Javi catches Yuzuru lingering during afternoon practice, watching from behind the giant glass wall in the lounge. It doesn’t take Javi long to figure out that the Japanese skater does this whenever Javi’s scheduled for jumping practice.

 

Javi’s not sure what to make of the Japanese skater’s fascination with his jumps. When Yuzuru had made his request to collect on their bet in Nice, Javi was certain he had misunderstood or misheard.

 

“You want my help in writing a letter to Brian? To ask him to coach you?”

 

Yuzuru nodded solemnly, mouth set in a grim line.

 

Javi scratched his head. Of all of the things he imagined Yuzuru would say, this was not one of them. “Um, wow. Sure. Is it okay if I ask why? You don’t like your coach?”

 

“No!” Yuzuru wrung his gloved hands before punctuating his distress with a burst of Japanese. For a moment, Javi had been afraid he had somehow made the skater cry, but Yuzuru had only scowled, murmured something under his breath, before elaborating. “Nanami- sensei, I like. Very much. Is not why...I don’t….I don’t want to go.” Yuzuru looked up to stare at Javi. “Canada far.” He waved his hand. “Too far. But must go. I must.”

 

“So you like your coach but want to leave her anyway for a new coach thousands of kilometers away,” Javi summarized. “Yeah, that makes total sense.”

 

Yuzuru grimaced. “Need get stronger, better jumps, better skate.” He eyed Javi hungrily. “Need nice quad jump like you.”

 

It is with the same hunger then that lurks in the Japanese skater’s eyes when he watches Javi during jumping practice. Javi’s not sure what he’s expecting to see. A godly quad salchow to match the skater’s pristine triple axel? Unlike Yuzuru’s triple axels, Javi’s quad sals aren’t consistently effortless. In fact, despite landing most of them well in competition, Javi falls on them more often than not during practice. This usually doesn’t bother Javi; falling is just part of practice but with a new set of eyes intently homing in on every jump, every twist of the hip, every swing of the leg, Javi can’t help but feel a little more self-conscious than usual. He can’t very well ask Yuzuru not to watch without sounding like a complete jerk, so he decides to go the indirect route and ask Brian.

 

“Not that I mind an audience, but do you know why Yuzuru hangs out during jumping practice? I mean, I’m sure he’d want to do the jumps during his jump practice--or am I really that interesting to watch?”

 

“He hasn’t been assigned any jumping practice sessions,” Brian replies.

 

Javi stops dead in his tracks, genuinely shocked.

 

“Really? No jumping practice at all? So for the last two weeks, he’s been doing just skating skills? That’s it?”

 

Brian arches an eyebrow. “‘Just skating skills’, Javi?”

 

Javi clamps his mouth shut and laughs nervously, while frantically praying that Brian is kind enough to not let Tracy have it with him during their next stroking session.

 

“Well, you know what I mean…” Javi coughs. “I just thought, he’s such a good jumper...I thought you’d have him, I dunno, working on a new quad, or something. It’s what he came for.”

 

“How would you know that?” Brian asks suspiciously. When Javi whistles and looks the other way, Brian sighs and lets it go. “He is a good jumper. That’s the problem.”

 

“Not a bad problem to have.”

 

“You would say that,” Brian grumbles, putting down his clipboard.  "The fact that Yuzuru’s gotten this far in competitive skating with his jumps alone is a testament to his natural skill. He’s very talented. Jumping is instinctive to him, just like it is for you.”

 

Javi mock-bows to Brian, who chuckles.

 

“But you know as well as I that there’s more to skating than jumps,” Brian continues. “His spins are good, but they can be better. His skating skills need a lot of work. Skating foundations may be easy to learn, but that doesn’t mean they’re easily mastered. The best skaters know they can always do their basics better. You learned that when you first came here and it’s something Yuzuru will have to learn as well. It's bitter work--he needs patience.”

 

“You sure you got the message across?” Javi asks, glancing at the glass wall. Yuzuru’s still there, his head bent over, his hand flying as he scribbles in what appears to be a thick notebook. Javi wonders what he could possibly be taking notes on. “I think he’s still thinking about the jumps. I know the feeling of wanting to fly but being told no, Brian. It’ll drive anyone crazy.”

 

Brian’s brow knits in frustration.

 

“We’re working on it,” he says, more to himself than to Javi. “He keeps telling us, ‘yes, yes’ but I’m not sure how much he actually understands.”

 

**

 

The next day, Yuzuru shows up an hour late to afternoon practice, dragging his roller suitcase like a wounded animal. He’s out of breath, sweating profusely, face pale as a sheet, and looks as if he’s about to keel over on the spot, but still manages to muster the strength to bow so low that his head is at the same height as his waist.

 

“Sorry, sorry, for late.” Yuzuru murmurs repeatedly, a nervous wreck despite Tracy’s attempts to soothe him. Javi’s never seen Yuzuru look quite this upset. As Yuzuru wrenches open his suitcase to unpack, his Pooh tissue box falls out onto the ground. Javi picks it up and offers it to Yuzuru.

 

“Thank you.” Yuzuru accepts Pooh, giving it a quick, fierce cuddle before placing it in the suitcase. Papers fly out, including a copy of what looks like a subway schedule, with key stops circled in red. Javi studies the schedule before placing it back with Yuzuru’s things.

 

“If you take the subway to York Mills Station, there’s a bus you can catch. It’s a lot quicker.”

 

Yuzuru stares, eyes dark and inscrutable.

 

Javi shrugs. “You’re not the only one to get off on the wrong stop. When I first moved to Toronto, it took me like three months before I could figure out how to get to practice without getting lost.”

 

It was actually closer to five months, but there’s no way in hell that Javi’s going to admit that. Some truths were better left unsaid.

 

**

 

After Brian debriefs everyone on the plan for next week, everyone’s dismissed from practice. Javi, while packing up, glances at his phone on the bench and sees a text from Cortney apologizing for not making it to their planned dinner tonight--she’s got a call to interview with a potential new ice dance partner that can’t be rescheduled. He texts back a quick “np, good luck” with a thumbs up emoticon and sets the phone back down.

 

Javi’s a bit disappointed considering they haven’t seen each other in person since Nice, but understands the urgency Cortney is feeling after leaving her last ice dance partner. Good partners were hard to find and it was unlikely that there would be enough time to train for the next season, even if this ice dance partner happened to be “the one”. Even with good chemistry, it took months and months of practice for partners to gel together to the point they could synchronize on all of their ice dance elements and Cortney was particularly finicky about her partners.

 

Javi’s halfway to the bus stop when he realizes that he’s left behind his phone. Groaning inwardly, he backpedals and turns around to go back and get it. The club’s closed now but luckily, Brian’s deemed him responsible enough to have a key of his own, though it’s the first time Javi’s had to use it. He quickly sneaks around and unlocks the back door.

 

Javi flips the hallway switch on and walks. As he nears the rink, he’s suddenly aware of the familiar growl of skating blades on ice. He wonders who could be practicing so late after practice. When he sees a familiar lithe silhouette gliding across the ice, he finds himself not surprised at all.

 

Javi’s no coach, but even he can tell that in just two weeks, Tracy’s stroking sessions are already having a noticeable effect on Yuzuru’s skating. Not that Yuzuru’s skating was bad to begin with, but the contrast was startling to see. The Japanese skater’s movements were more precise somehow, smoother, more powerful. He seemed to get a bit more power and speed with fewer strokes. Javi watches quietly, stopping just at the edge of the ice to watch as Yuzuru glides on one foot and leaps into his triple axel only to hurtle out of axis and crash down on the ice. Javi winces. He’s never seen Yuzuru miss his triple axel jump before, from what little he’s seen in practice.

 

The grim truth comes out in the next few minutes when Yuzuru attempts his triple axel, only to overrotate and step out of the landing. He tries the quadruple toe and falls. Another quad toe, followed by a fall. He gives up the quad toe and tries the other jumps. A triple loop, a fall. The triple flip, a step out and then a fall. By the time Yuzuru tries to go for the lutz and falls yet again, Javi can’t watch anymore.

 

Looking around, Javi sees a rack of rental figure skates just behind the receptionist’s desk. Taking great care not to be seen, Javi gets behind the rack and pushes it down as hard as he can. The rack topples over with a resounding thud as skates tumble onto the wooden floor.

 

Yuzuru, half kneeling on the ice, freezes at the racket Javi’s just made. His eyes dart around nervously, face drawn with the realization that perhaps he’s not supposed to be here, practicing dangerous jumps unsupervised in a strange rink that’s not his own. Just as Javi’s hoped, Yuzuru leaves the ice posthaste, removing his skates and taking off in a hurry without a backwards glance.

 

Javi gives himself a quick pat on his back for a good deed done before turning his attention to the mess he’s made with a groan, all the while hoping that he hasn’t broken anything too expensive.

 

**


The following day, while the other senior level skaters gape at the rental skate rack, which has been inexplicably rearranged upside down overnight, (Javi denies everything), Yuzuru comes to afternoon practice ten minutes early, armed with a charmingly polite smile and eyes of attack. The aura of determination only intensifies when he steps out onto the ice to warm up, easing into the new stroking exercises Tracy had shown him this week. No jumps so far, but Javi can see Yuzuru’s eyes flicker to Brian’s office, where he’s having a meeting with the other coaches. Javi wonders if Yuzuru’s crazy enough to break Tracy’s “no jumps” rule right under Tracy's nose. As the Japanese teen skates by him, slashing the ice with adamant vigor, Javi thinks that yes, he was crazy enough.

 

Yuzuru goes for the triple axel, his body blurring in a miniature tornado before he spins off axis and crashes down on the ice. This time, when he looks up, he's looking at Javi, who's standing right in front of him.

 

"You know you don't have to do everything by yourself, right?" English is not Javi's native language but it's the first time in a long while since he's had to really search for the right words. "Brian, Tracy, everyone here's to help. But that's no good, unless you let them--unless you let us help you." 

 

Yuzuru continues to stare.

 

Javi awkwardly clears his throat.

 

"You spin so fast, you were flying," Javi tells him. "But maybe, you could please slow down for the rest of us? So we can catch up?"

 

A small smile flits across Yuzuru's face. 

 

"Slow down, not good training for you," he says. "If want to catch me, need skate fast also." 

 

"You challenging me, Yuzuru?" Javi offers his hand.

 

Yuzuru grins. "Yes, I challenge."

 

He takes Javi's hand.