Attempt 1: Phichit Chulanont
"Sara," said Mila carefully. "Has it ever struck you that your brother is a little...weird?"
Sara, who had just had to spend twenty minutes on an international call to Florence reassuring Mickey that she had arrived in Barcelona safely, tilted her head to stare at Mila in surprise.
"Mickey?" said Sara. "Isn't he just a normal big brother?"
"I have a big brother, and...no," said Mila. "I mean I'm not saying I believe the rumours..."
"The rumours?" said Sara, making her eyes even wider. Mila laughed awkwardly and didn't answer. "Oh," said Sara, pursing her lips into an innocent pout, "You mean that we're fucking?"
Mila coughed. "Yeah. I mean you're obviously not! Just..."
"They're not true," said Sara. It was important to make these things clear. "I did offer once but he said no." Mila's horrified expression was remarkably similar to the one Mickey had worn. "I didn't mean it! I just wanted to see what he'd do."
Mila stared at her some more and then burst out laughing. She patted Sara on the shoulder. "Ok I take it back, you're both weird."
Sara stuck out her tongue. "You've known me for this long and you only just figured it out?"
"Yeah, but there's weird and there's..." Mila paused, obviously unable to think of any way to describe Sara's relationship with Mickey that wouldn't sound offensive. Sara wasn't offended, though, she knew how they looked from the outside. "I'm just glad you're travelling without him this time."
"Trust me, I am too," said Sara. "I love Mickey with all my heart, and he just wants to protect me but...ugh! I told him we needed to be more independent, and he's trying, but...there's a long way to go. Especially at home, we're always under each others feet in the house and at training. I think he forgets I have to live my own life beyond all that. God knows what he'll do when I start dating."
"Sara," said Mila seriously. "Please tell me you've dated before."
"No," said Sara, voice laden with sorrow. "I am twenty two years old and I have never had a boyfriend. Because of my stupid brother."
"That is a tragedy," said Mila. "I am not going to stand for it. The moment we arrive at the hotel I am finding you a hot guy and I am getting you laid."
"Mila, that's very sweet, but getting laid is easy. What I want is to not have to sneak around behind my brother's back, you know?"
"What you need," said Mila, "is a brother who isn't a creepy…"
"Mila." She knew Sara didn't like it when she put Mickey down, even if Sara couldn't argue with a lot of her criticisms.
"Fine, fine," said Mila. "But if you ever need me to rough him up a little, I'm up for it. Anyway." Mila leaned in close. She smelled a little sweaty after the long flight from Russia, but she had a nice deodorant on, something floral. The combination of smells reminded Sara of Mila just after a skate, when she was flushed and triumphant. "You've been having secret hookups? Anyone I know?"
Sara leaned even closer to whisper into Mila's ear. The taxi driver didn't seem to speak much English but you never knew, did you? "Well, I hooked up with Chris a few times."
"Christophe Giacometti? Before or after his thing with Victor?"
"During, I think? Chris was very clear about not being interested in a relationship. Which was fine by me, he was fun but...eh. I need someone a little steadier, who can stand up to Mickey if he gets weird about us dating."
Mila let out a low whistle. "Steady, huh? Doesn't sound like any of the guys I know."
"Exactly." Sara sighed and slid backwards in her seat.
It was funny how every city was different, but the view near the airport was always the same. Warehouses and railway lines flitted by the window looking exactly like the ones she'd seen in Moscow and Osaka. The signs were in Spanish now, not Russian or Japanese, but the meanings never changed. After all, it was all aimed at the same people, the tourists and traders and competitors like her, travelling the world for different reasons but always seeing the same view.
As they travelled away from the airport the view changed: parks and palm trees along a glittering harbour, followed by busy streets and old buildings that reminded her of home. Barcelona, the real Barcelona, looked like it would be a fun place to visit.
She wondered if Max had gotten to the hotel yet. She'd sent him ahead with some of her luggage while she wrangled Mickey over the phone. He was probably relaxing in the bar with the other coaches, enjoying only having one Crispino to deal with this time instead of two. It would be good to have his full attention for the final.
"What about me?" said Mila, as they left the city and started heading into the boring outskirts full of hotels and shopping centres. Nearly there now.
Sara looked at her in surprise. What had they been talking about again?
"I could pretend to be your girlfriend," said Mila, looking out the window. "Help Mickey get used to the idea before you find someone you really like."
What a sweetheart Mila was. Sara laughed. "I thought you only dated big beefy guys with lots of muscles." Having met a couple of Mila's ex boyfriends, Sara was sure the muscles had to be the appealing factor. She hadn't seen much to like about their personalities.
"You have muscles!" said Mila, turning around to poke Sara in the stomach. Sara giggled, and slapped her hand away. She'd never really thought about dating girls, none had ever expressed any interest and she was constantly being paid attention to by guys, so why bother? She hadn't thought about going on fake dates either. But maybe both could be kind of fun. Sara looked at Mila's smiling face, and thought about how much she enjoyed hanging out with her. She wouldn't let Mickey intimidate her. But unfortunately...
"Thanks," she said, "I really appreciate you offering. But Mickey would probably just think it was cute we were such 'close friends'. He only gets weird about guys."
"Awww, you're breaking my heart!" said Mila. She did a good impression of a swoon for someone restrained by a seat belt, lolling her head back and looking sidewise at Sara. "But why not actually a get a girlfriend then? Or don't you like girls that way?"
"Because he shouldn't get to control me!" said Sara angrily. "The whole point is to force him to get over himself, not fly under the radar. And...I don't know! I haven't had much chance to figure out who I like! But I've never had a girl steal my heart."
"Ohhhh," said Mila with a knowing expression. "So a guy has stolen your heart?"
Sara felt herself blushing. "Does it matter? While Mickey is acting so jealous, anyone I might like gets scared off. And he won't stop acting jealous until I've been dating for a while and he's gotten used to it. So.... I will stay single forever!"
"Pfft. I doubt that," said Mila. "And...oh hey, there's the hotel!"
Sara craned her neck to see ahead. "That big glittery building?"
"No, the one next to it," said Mila.
"Aw." The glittery one was pretty.
But this was it. She was at the final. In a few days everything would be done, and she would be returning home with gold, or silver, or maybe nothing at all.
As they got closer to the hotel Sara could make out a multicoloured mass of fans milling around the entrance, hoping for a view of their favourite skaters.
One girl gasped as they exited the taxi. "Are you Mila Babicheva?"
Sara felt a mixture of pride and annoyance. Ok, yes, Mila was amazing, and the third ranked women's skater in the world. But didn't the fourth ranked women's skater in the world deserve a little hero worship too?
"In the flesh," said Mila, doing a graceful little bow.
"Oh my goodness!" said the girl, almost bouncing with excitement. "Is Yuri there?"
"He's in a different taxi," said Mila, managing to keep her smile. "They probably got caught in traffic."
"Oh," said the girl sadly, as she turned away. "Thanks." She rejoined the mass of cat eared fans holding "Yuri Plisetsky" signs and went back to staring at the carpark entrance hopefully.
"You're welcome," muttered Mila.
"What is it about that boy," said Sara, maybe a little relieved that Mila was as ignored as she was. "Mickey and I have fans but we don't have an army."
"He is very pretty," said Mila. "Especially from a distance, when you can't actually hear what he's saying."
Sara gave her a reassuring pat on the back. "Well you're prettier and less annoying. But I guess this way we don't have to fight our way to the door."
The hotel lobby wasn't as crowded as the entrance, and they didn't have to line up too long to check in. Apparently this hotel had a pool on the roof, though she couldn't imagine anyone wanting to brave the December weather to swim in it.
"What do you think of Phichit?" said Mila, who'd checked in first and was waiting for Sara to be done. "Datewise, that is."
"He's nice, I guess," said Sara, "Why?"
"Hey Phichit," called out Mila, "Do you want to go on a date with Sara?"
Sara looked in the direction Mila had shouted, and there he was, checking his phone in a chair hidden behind a luggage cart. He looked up at Mila's shout, and when she waved him over he jumped up and ran towards them.
Sara didn't know Phichit very well, but watching him move...he did have a nice arse.
"What was that?" he said. "I couldn't quite hear you."
"I asked if you wanted to go on a date with Sara," said Mila sunnily.
He smiled sunnily back, first at Mila and then at Sara. "Surely Sara can ask me for herself?" He obviously thought Mila was teasing him, but he didn't seem to find the idea too terrible.
Sara didn't think it was so terrible either. Phichit was cute, and seemed nice. He was talented too, they could probably learn from each other. The reason she'd never considered him before was that she wasn't into nice, and she couldn't imagine ever being with him seriously. She wanted a boyfriend who made her heart race. But Phichit would be pleasant enough company for a few dates before they all flew back home. "Ok, then," she said. "Do you want to go on a date?"
His smile got a little sharper. "Are you just doing this to mess with your brother? Or do you actually like me?"
Damn. Smart as well as talented. He'd be a good catch for some woman who wasn't her. Sara had to look away in embarrassment. "I don't...dislike you..."
Phichit laughed. "Then sorry, but no thanks. I don't dislike you either, but I think we can both do better than that, yeah?"
"Maybe," said Sara darkly. She watched him walk away and then kicked her feet against the desk. "Well that was a waste of time."
"Pfft," said Mila. "We're just getting started!"
Attempt 2: Seung-gil Lee
They ended up flopped on the bed in Mila's room. Sara felt a little weird being here without Mickey. Usually she'd be in their shared room, discussing their routines and talking about their day. Hanging with Mila was great too, but it lacked that sense of familiarity. It wasn't worse, just different.
"I'm committed to this wingman thing now," said Mila. "I am getting you a date before the end of the final if it kills me. I'm here and Mickey isn't, it's perfect. "
"And if you die that's one less competitor," said Sara. "So I suppose it's a win for me either way."
"Ha," said Mila. She got up and poked through the minibar to dig out a little bottle of wine before propping herself up on the pillows to drink it. "So, let's consider our options. Yurio's too young, right?"
"Ew, yes. 18 plus only, thanks. And no-one too far over thirty, either." She'd have her pick of middle aged coaches if her tastes went that way but...no.
"What about Otabek?"
"Eh...a little more over 18 if possible. Put him in the 'maybe' pile."
"Ok, then," said Mila. She tapped her finger on her chin, thoughtful. "You probably don't want to get in the middle of whatever's going on with Yurio and Victor... What about Emil? You guys are friends, right?"
"Of course. But I'm pretty sure he just wants to be friends, he always looks so surprised when Mickey gets jealous. Anyway, he's back in the Czech Republic."
"Urrrgh," said Mila, banging her head backwards into the pillow. "This is tough."
"Yes it is," said Sara, patting Mila on the leg. "But I appreciate having your help."
"Maybe I'm going about this backwards. You said there was someone you liked?"
"I didn't say that!" Mila just raised her eyebrows and stared at her. Sara gave in after about 2 seconds. "Ok, fine. Seung-gil. He's so hot. Just imagine all that control finally breaking and him being a mess at your feet." Sara had imagined it repeatedly.
"Wow, you've actually gotten him to talk to you?" Mila looked impressed.
"No," she wailed. "He always blows me off. But there's a sexy beast hiding in there, I just know it."
"Have you tried calling him?" said Mila. "Maybe he's lonely now he's all alone in Korea. I've got his number if you need it."
Sara grabbed Mila's hands and kissed them. "OH MY GOD YES."
Sara stole what was left of Mila's wine and listened to the long series of tones as the phone connected to Korea. Her phone bill this month was going to be astronomical.
When Seung-gil finally answered, his voice was muzzy with sleep, making it even sexier than normal. It belatedly occurred to Sara that it must be something like 6am in Seoul. "Who is this?" he asked, grumpily. As if he ever said anything any other way.
"Sara Crispino," she said, trying to sound sexy herself.
She was rewarded with silence and then a curt "Why are you calling me?"
"To...to say hi?"
"Hi," he said. "Bye." And then he hung up.
Sara threw the phone onto the bed in frustration. "Bastard."
"Yeah! Screw him!" said Mila, which made Sara feel a little better. And really, did she want to date someone who seemed to actively dislike her?
She went to take another drink from the little wine bottle but was frustrated to find that it was empty. "I'm going to to the bar to get more wine," she said.
"Sounds like a plan," said Mila.
Attempt 3: Christophe Giacometti
"I told you I don't do relationships," said Chris, barely bothering to raise his head from the table. She'd found him drinking alone in a dark corner of the bar and decided she might as well give him a shot. Her chances weren't looking great. "Last year was fun but I'm not in the mood right now."
"It wouldn't mean anything," said Sara. "We'd just pretend to be dating long enough for Mickey to get over himself." Chris was gorgeous, and great for one night stands, but she wanted at least a little romance in any relationship she had for real.
"So the exact kind of relationship hassle I want to avoid," said Chris, looking up at her, "Minus any of the fun parts. No thank you." He took a sip of something brown and pungent. "Contrary to popular opinion, I have better things to do with my time than be a prop in the relationship drama of every skater I happened to fuck one time." He glared at his glass like it had personally insulted him.
"Um. Are you ok?" said Sara.
"I'm fine," said Chris, sitting up and gesturing with his glass. "Sto bene. It's the rest of you I worry about. Am I the only one who cares about skating?"
"I care about skating!" said Sara defensively. "But that doesn't mean I can't care about people too!"
"I care about people plenty!" said Chris. "That's why it frustrates me when they do stupid things like retire for no reason." He pointed a finger at Sara. "You're not going to retire are you?"
"Absolutely not," said Sara. "One reason I need some space from Mickey is that we're limiting each other as skaters. "
"Ah," said Chris, giving her a smile. He leaned back in his chair and tilted his head, looking at her through his eyelashes. "And see, now you almost have me tempted. I'm glad someone has their priorities straight." He tilted his glass towards her in a lazy toast. "I'd like to see what kind of skating you can do when you're not held back."
"So would I," said Sara.
Attempt 4: Otabek Altin
It was a little lonely waking up by herself, especially with a bit of a hangover. But once Sara walked down to breakfast she stopped feeling so alone. The hotel restaurant was full of familiar faces, people she'd known for years, and it wasn't long before she noticed Mila waving her over to sit with her and the Russian ballet coach Lilia.
Mostly it was Mila and Sara dominating the conversation, but Lilia made the effort to be friendly while Mila was gone lining up for more food. For a certain definition of friendly. "How long has it been since you had proper ballet training?" she demanded.
"It's been a few years," admitted Sara. "Michele and I studied at the Florence Dance Centre, but I mostly concentrated on jazz and ballroom dancing."
"Jazz," said Lilia, dismissively. "I should have known. You should consider ballet again, you're beautiful but you're not reaching your full potential. I have a friend in Milan, Olga..."
"Lilia, don't help the competition!" said Mila, sitting down with a plate piled high with fruit. "And don't coach us at breakfast. It's too early."
"Pfft," said Lilia. "Meals are the only times when you young people sit still. And while we are speaking of ballet training: you should know, Mila, now that Yurio is reaching his full potential I think this season I will make you my next project."
"Do I get a choice about that?" said Mila.
Lilia smiled. "No."
Watching Mila move on the ice, Sara had to agree with Lilia about Mila's potential. She had precision and strength even when she was only practicing.
Sara had been watching Mila grow as a skater for years, and she was just getting better. It had been no surprise when Mila did better than Sara at the Rostelecom Cup. Neither of them had managed to grab gold at Worlds but maybe the Grand Prix would be different. Sara wanted the gold for herself, but it might not be so bad if it was Mila who beat her. Of course, it would be even better to win gold and see Mila next to her with silver.
"Sara? Are you ok?"
Sara felt a tap on her shoulder and looked back to see the muscular form of Kaede Watanabe. Had Sara been standing still for that long? If she didn't get her head in the game it was Kaede who'd be winning gold again, just like she had at Worlds. Sara gave Kaede an apologetic wave. "Sorry, I was just thinking. I'll get out of your way."
Kaede shrugged and skated away, smooth as an otter in water, and started bending and twisting into impossible looking spins. Sara wasn't going to win this without a fight.
Barcelona was just as fun as Sara had thought it would be. One minute it would be reminding her of home and then the next it would do something strange and amazing. It would have been fun to share the city with Mickey, whose reactions would have been similar to hers. But there was also something special about seeing it through Mila's eyes, being able to explain the things she recognised and sharing the excitement of those experiences which were new to them both.
They rambled through the medieval part of the city, shopping at little markets and looking at the remains of an old Roman town in the catacombs of a museum. It was hardly the first time Sara had seen Roman ruins, but she enjoyed seeing how excited Mila got about them.
Then they found a pretty old hotel with a rooftop garden terrace and tried to find some suitable snacks. The limited menu was made up for by the wonderful view out over the city.
"So what are your predictions for tomorrow?" said Sara, spearing an olive. "I'll win the women's singles, of course, and I think J.J. will get the men's. I'm not sure about ice dance. Maybe Zhang Min and Wang Lei?"
"Me for women's," said Mila. "Obviously. And Yurio for men's. J.J. is heading for a fall. As for dance…I'd like to say Anja and Dmitry but you're probably right about Zhang Min and Wang Lei. Though I remember you thinking David and Rin had no chance at pairs."
"They were so bad at Worlds! I guess they've gotten better at working together."
"Mmm," said Mila. She looked out at the city below them, bustling with people and life.
"Must be weird, having to work with someone else," she said. "I mean I work with Yakov, but in the end...it's just me and the ice."
"Right," said Sara. "Mickey and I did pairs when we were children, and practice was fun, but competitions were terrible. I always got angry at him if we didn't win. And he'd get angry at himself, which was worse."
"Yuck," said Mila. "Though I still feel pretty guilty when I lose." She made little patterns in the brine with her toothpick. "I don't want to disappoint Yakov or my parents or...usually there's other women representing Russia in singles, you know?"
"No, I have no idea what that must be like," said Sara, drily. She was far from the only female skater in Italy, but she was the only one who'd had a hope of making an international final. Max did his best, but she'd sometimes wondered how much better she might be doing with the kind of coaches they had in Russia. Mickey would never agree to it though.
"Ha, yeah, sorry for whining," said Mila. "It's just that when you're following in the footsteps of the great Victor Nikiforov anything but 5 consecutive gold medals and a world record feels like a loss, you know? I can barely manage a quad flip consistently."
"Quads are overrated," said Sara, her certainty bolstered by the fact that she'd never landed any at all. "Victor Nikiforov wouldn't make it to nationals if he had to be judged by women's standards. And in ten years Victor will be wishing he'd achieved all the things you will have done. Six consecutive medals! Maybe seven!"
"So you'll let me win then?" teased Mila.
"I'm going to crush you like a bug," said Sara. "Most of the time. But there's a lot of gold medals for me to win over the next ten years, with the Grand Prix, Worlds, the Olympics...I'm sure you can manage to beat me to six. If you work really hard."
Mila threw an olive at her.
"Hey is that Otabek?" said Mila. "You should go ask him out!"
"Shut up," said Sara.
"No, it is him. Hey, and Yurio! HEY YURIO!" Mila shouted and waved.
There was no response. Sara could see them now, a heavyset brunette and a tiny blonde, definitely Yurio and Otabek and definitely showing no signs of stopping.
"Little shit," muttered Mila. "Hold my bags." She shoved her shopping at Sara and then sprinted towards them.
They had no idea what was coming for them. Yurio was nearly bowled over onto the ground when the much larger Mila threw herself at him and wrapped her arms around him like an octopus.
"I SAID HELLO, YURIO," she shouted into his ear. "I GUESS YOU DIDN'T HEAR ME."
"Baba," muttered Yurio, irritably. That was his charming nickname for Mila, which apparently meant old hag. "I didn't reply because that's not my name." Hypocritical little brat.
"Hello Otabek," said Mila, smiling at him while showing no signs of climbing off Yurio. "Been having fun?"
Sara finally caught up to them, her hands weighed down with bags. "Hey," she said. Otabek and Yurio gave her matching vague nods of welcome. God save her from teenage boys.
"So, Otabek," said Mila, getting off Yurio's back but still holding onto his arm like he might try to make a break for it. "Sara has a question for you."
Fucking Mila thought Sara fondly.
"Mmm?" said Otabek. Teenager or not, he was pretty cute. And he had that unattainable grumpy quality that was apparently Sara's thing. She couldn't imagine forming any real connection with someone so emotionally adolescent, but he'd be pretty wallpaper for a few fake dates.
"Want to go on a date?" asked Sara, pretty sure he'd say no. Otabek was nearly as stand-offish as Seung-gil. Come to think of it, she was surprised to see him willing to spend time with anyone, let alone someone as obnoxious as Yuri Plisetsky. But there was no accounting for taste.
"No," said Otabek.
Geeze, he didn't have to be so blunt.
"What the fuck," said Yurio, glaring at Sara like she was the one who'd done something wrong. "You can't hit on him, you gross old bag!"
"Yurio!" said Mila. "Don't talk like that to Sara!"
"Yeah!' said Sara. "I can hit on who I like! And I'm not old, you little brat."
"Go fuck your..."
"Yurio," said Otabek, sounding almost sad. Magically, this caused the boy to shut up for five seconds. Which was good, because he'd looked like he was about to say something that would make Sara punch him.
"What?" Yurio pouted.
"So...you think it's wrong for people to date with a large age gap?" said Otabek.
Yurio looked up at Otabek. Otabek looked back. Yurio went slowly pink.
"Um," said Yurio. "Not...always?"
Otabek looked to the side. "That's good," he said.
It was so adorable Sara almost stopped feeling offended.
"Did you see that?" she snickered, turning to Mila. But Mila didn't seem to think it was adorable. She looked furious.
Mila stepped towards Otabek and asked him something very pointed in Russian. Her voice was low and ominous, and Otabek took a step back despite his intimidating breadth. Sara had never seen Mila angry before: grumpy or irritated, sure, but not consumed with rage. Sara was usually the volatile one. And she didn't understand what was making Mila so angry now. But by God Mila was magnificant. She radiated fury like a god of war, her red hair glowing in the afternoon sunlight like fire as she battered Otabek with sharp words, punctuating each one with a poke of her finger into his chest.
Otabek put his hands up in denial and blushed, defending himself in a heated tones against Mila's accusations of...what?
Yurio shouted back an angrier defence, putting himself between Mila and Otabek and using all of the few Russian swearwords Sara recognised and presumably a bunch more. Soon the three of them were all shouting at once, hands gesturing wildly. It almost looked like they might come to blows.
"Hey!" said Sara. When no-one stopped she dropped the shopping on the ground, grabbed Mila by the shoulders, and pulled her away from the other two. She started waving her hands in front of their faces until they paid attention to her at last. "Listen to me! What's going on?"
"This bitch is sticking her nose in where it isn't wanted," said Yurio. How dare he refer to Mila that way!
"I'm just trying to look out for you!" said Mila. "I know what it's like having some older guy take advantage, ok? You think you're old enough to take care of yourself but you're not."
She did? Oh no, poor Mila. But that was the past, and Sara had to deal with the here and now.
"We're friends," said Yurio. "Just because you fall into bed with every hot guy who..." Yurio stopped, having presumably realised he'd just described Otabek as hot. He went even pinker and his voice got higher and louder. "This is stupid!," he shouted. "You're stupid! Fuck you!" He stormed off.
"Yurio!" shouted Otabek but Yurio just started walking away faster. Otabek paused to glare daggers at Mila and then went to chase after his 'friend'. Sara watched them go. Hopefully they'd work it out.
"Can you believe that?" said Mila. She still looked angry, but the fire had gone from her eyes without someone to direct it at.
"No," said Sara. "I can't believe it. I thought you weren't that stupid!"
Mila stared at her. "What?"
"You're behaving just like Mickey!" said Sara. "Do you have any reason to think Otabek is a creep?"
"He's 18!" said Mila, like that explained everything.
"Yeah, and I'm 22, and you thought it was ok for me to hit on him."
"Yeah but you're...it's different!" said Mila. "Look, I remember being 15, ok? You weren't dating at that age, you don't know what it's like. And Yakov tries, but he's just a coach, and there's so many creeps around...someone's got to watch out for Yurio."
Sara sighed. "Because he's like a little brother to you."
"Yeah," said Mila. "He is. A really annoying one, but..." She let out a frustrated groan. "But I'm not being like Mickey, I swear. I'm not saying he can't date anyone. I'm not even saying he can't date Otabek, I don't get to decide that. I just...I worry."
Sara put her arm around Mila's side and gave her a squeeze. "And I'm sure he appreciates it. Deep, deep down."
"Deeeeep down," said Mila. "He's going to be so pissy the next time I see him."
"Well, maybe trust him a little. He's not a kid any more."
"Hmm. Maybe." Mila reached for her half of the shopping and then leaned back on Sara. "But if Altin steps out of line I'm cutting off his feet."
"I'll bring the hack saw," said Sara, kissing Mila on the forehead.
"I'm just saying," said Mila. "Boys are disgusting."
"Yeah," said Sara, rubbing circles into Mila's back. "I'm sorry you had to go through...whatever you went through when you were Yurio's age. Maybe I'm lucky I had Mickey to protect me."
"No," said Mila, moving to look Sara in the eye. "That was disgusting too! You don't protect someone by controlling them!" She slumped her shoulders. "Ugh. I don't know. Maybe there's no way for being a teenager not to suck."
Sara didn't really think of Mila as a teenager, certainly not like Yurio or Kaede. But technically...that's what she was. Even if she was more mature than Sara most of the time. Maybe Mila would have everything figured out by the time she was Sara's age. Maybe then she could explain it to Sara.
"You'll be a mature adult like me one day," said Sara. "And then life becomes simple and easy."
Mila laughed and leaned her head on Sara's shoulder. "Sounds nice."
Attempt 5: Emil Nekola
Sara needed a distraction. She decided to try ringing Seung-Gil again, it would be evening in Seoul right now, maybe he'd be more mellow. She'd just pressed call when she heard her name being spoken. She looked up.
What the fuck.
"Why are you here, Mickey?" she spat. "I'm the one who made it into the final!"
And maybe that was a little cruel, but...why was he here? And was that Emil??
"I'm standing guard to make sure the hyenas don't touch you!" said Mickey, like it was obvious. Not even here to support her skating! Here to 'protect' her from the hordes of men she was apparently beating off with a stick! She could kill him.
"Let's go to a club after this," said Emil, like this was a happy reunion between siblings and friends. And then Mila shifted over to give them room, and so Sara was going to be stuck with them for the rest of the Men's short program. Unbelievable.
When they'd finally sat down and shut up, Sara looked down at her phone. It had rung out with no answer.
Given the things people said about her and Mickey, Sara tried not to listen too much to gossip. But there was definitely something going on between Yuuri Katsuki and his coach. Mila said she wasn't close enough to Victor for him to tell her anything, but you didn't have to know either of them well personally to have seen the looks and touches, let alone the kiss. There was speculation online that they'd been together in secret since last year's Grand Prix, and having seen them at the banquet Sara thought that was quite possible. She tried not to get involved in the speculation but thought it was all rather romantic.
She stared down at the two of them, by the ice's edge. There was a glint of gold. "Why the matching rings?" she mused out loud.
"Lucky!" said Mickey. "I wish I had one with Sara!"
Sara resisted the urge to smack her brother on the head with her phone. This was getting ridiculous, she had to do something. But it would have to wait.
Mila felt a thump behind her head: Yurio's feet, because he couldn't even sit on a chair like a regular person. She noted that he'd chosen to sit behind Sara and Victor, nearly as far from Mila as possible.
"Congratulations," said Sara. "Your program was beautiful. Nearly as beautiful as seeing how proud Mila was watching."
Mila had been a happily sobbing mess. Sara had come close to crying herself. Yurio might be a brat in person, but he'd been an angel on the ice. Normally she found men's skating ugly, with it's emphasis on endurance and difficult jumps, but Yurio had somehow made even the quad flip seem like a natural expression of his soul, and he'd twisted elegantly into spins and spirals any female skater would be proud of.
"It was everything I could have hoped," said Mila, softly. Her eyes were still a little red. "I'm so happy for you, Yurio."
"Me too," said Yuuri. He looked nearly as proud as Mila, Sara hadn't realised the two were close.
"You're amazing!" said Emil, with enthusiasm. She was pretty sure he'd never even spoken to Yurio before, he was just that kind of guy.
"Yeah," said Mickey, with no enthusiasm at all. He had trouble not feeling jealous when other male skaters did better than him, and it didn't help that Yurio was so young.
"I'm not happy," said Victor, pouting. "Breaking that record was really hard! You could have at least waited a few more years, Yurio."
"Shut up, I'm trying to watch," muttered Yurio, but he didn't manage to quite hide his smile. Sara was happy for him too, breaking a world record at 15 was amazing. She did wonder, though, how much more of a shadow Mila felt across her back now. It was one thing to be outshone by an older skater with the same coach, it was something else to be outshone by a younger one.
Yurio was right, though, they should be watching, not chatting. Otabek was certainly proving himself someone to watch, his jumps were determined and flawless. I need to be like that thought Sara.
"Otabek wasn't very memorable in the past," she said. "He's completely different now."
She heard a short intake of breath from behind her. Yurio didn't speak for a moment, like he was thinking it over. "Yeah, well, you lot shouldn't underestimate him," he said at last, smugly. "He's going to kick the pig's ass back to Japan."
"We'll see," said Victor.
"Hey, I saw you sitting with Yuuri Katsuki, do you know him?"
"Kind of," said Sara. I have other things on my mind right now, Kaede, she thought. Alisa Heikkinen was doing a gorgeous crossfoot spin on the screen in front of them. Her program probably wasn't going to win, but she was doing better than Sara had expected.
Kaede leaned in closer, eyebrows drawn. "Then can you tell me: Is he an asshole, or just shy? Because he never says anything back when I try to talk to him, and it's starting to piss me off. We're Japan's top skaters, does he think he's better than me because I'm not skating men's?"
Sara thought back to everything she knew about Yuuri Katsuki. "I'd say he's...80% shy, 10% asshole, 10% weirdo."
"More than 10% weirdo," said Mila, leaning over to grin at Sara. "Have you seen him and Victor?"
"Urgh, yeah, sleeping with your coach is gross," said Kaede.
"I don't know," said Sara. "I might if my coach looked like that."
"Noo, Sara, don't do it," moaned Mila. "Victor is one hundred percent weird asshole."
"Maybe I'm into that," said Sara, just to see the disgusted look on Mila's face.
"Ewww," Kaede squeaked out a high laugh. "Anyway. Yuuri Katsuki doesn't hate me, he's just an awkward wierdo. That's good to know, thanks. Maybe I'll try speaking to him again when he wins gold."
"Ha!" said Mila.
And then they cheerfully distracted each other with nationalistic posturing until it was time to for Sara to go out onto the ice.
Max gave her hands a squeeze as she stood at the edge of the ice. "You can do this, Sara," he said, with a big smile under his dinky little beard. She gave him a smile and squeezed back. She could see Mickey in the stands next to Emil, both waving their hands in the air, and had to admit her brother's presence made her feel a little more confident. It was good to know that someone was entirely focussed on her and nobody else.
Mila gave Sara an enthusiastic wave from behind the rink board, and Sara smiled back. Sara recognised some skaters from other events in the stands: Victor and Yurio here for Mila, David and Rin here for Kaede, others just here to cheer on their friends or to fill in time. There were plenty of Italians, too, waving the home flag and shouting encouragements across the ice. Everyone was watching.
She tried not to think about J.J., how he'd gone from "Most likely to achieve gold, a quad axel, and/or a world record" to a stumbling mess in last place. She wasn't going to crash under pressure. She was going to fly.
Sara didn't have Mila's jumps, or Kaede's spins, or Eun-Seo's musicality. But she had her combinations, and her artistry, and above all the will to succeed.
If only she wasn't stuck with such a stupid program.
The music started up and she got into position. I am a beautiful shepherdess sheltering from the rain she thought. Which is lovely and romantic and not stupid.
Triple Lutz-Triple Loop. Double footed landing, shit. Keep going. Nobody else can land that combination at all, you're still doing well.
The idea had seemed really cute when Mickey suggested it. Matching songs from the same movie, her playing the innocent maiden and him playing the knight. Matching programs, too, that when viewed together almost formed a single dance.
Except Mickey hadn't made it to the final, had he? So she was dancing it alone. Alone, and annoyed that she'd ever agreed to such an anodyne piece in the first place.
She swayed, hands to her heart, trying to look delicate and forlorn as she headed into the next combination. She landed it cleanly, and carried on.
She felt herself tiring as she whirled herself into the final spin. Nearly there, Sara. Stay strong.
As she spun to a stop and raised her arms into the final pose, Sara looked up and saw Mila waving at her from the stands. Sara grinned and bowed.
"You did great," said Max. "A little bit off on the second triple loop, but..."
"You were spectacular!" said Mickey. "Better than anyone else!"
"Thanks," she said. "But shush. They're about to announce my score."
The three of them sat in silence and watched as the score came up on the screen: 78.63. Good, but not a guaranteed win, not with Mila, Eun-Seo and Kaede yet to skate.
Max gave her shoulder a squeeze. "Not bad!"
"Yeah," she said, smiling through her frustration. She'd really wanted to be better than not bad.
But soon she was too caught up in watching Mila to care about her own score any more.
Yurio may have broken the world record, but he had only nearly made Sara cry. Within less than a minute of starting her short program, Mila had succeeded.
Sara had seen the routine before, many times. She'd even seen the ballet it came from. But until now it had never truly affected her. Mila was a brilliant skater, and Sara loved watching her, but despite Yakov's best efforts she tended to rely more on strength than expression.
But now...now Mila was all emotion. She searched the ice, spinning and spiralling, reaching out with empty hands into a cold and uncaring universe. Every time her dream was within her grasp she somehow lost it again, her back bent with sorrow, she looked like she might almost collapse to the ice at any moment.
Whatever she was looking for, Sara wanted it too. Wanted to find it, and share it, wanted to see Mila's face light up in happiness. But she could only watch, as tears fell down her face.
Mila's every movement spoke of yearning, every gesture was perfect and beautiful and sad. But never weak: her jumps and spins were all completely controlled and forceful. When she stumbled, she got right back up again, and never lost her momentum for a second.
She deserves to win more than I do thought Sara, as Mila left the ice and the spell broke. It was a terrible thought, and she shook her head to get rid of it. Mila would be horrified if Sara approached the free skate with anything less than complete determination and certainty. Mila deserves to win right now, Sara corrected herself, so to be worthy of beating her I'll have to become even better.
Sara passed Eun-Seo and her coach as she made her way up to the stands. Eun-Seo's program had gone so badly Sara had just stood and watched in horror, but she tried not to let that horror show on her face now.
"Hey," she said. "Want a hug?"
"No," sniffed Eun-Seo, "But thanks for offering."
"Here's to doing better tomorrow, yeah?"
Eun-Seo offered her a wobbly smile. "Yeah."
She found Mila sitting with Victor and Yuuri again. "Sara!" said Mila. "You were fantastic! That triple triple was breathtaking!"
"Your combinations are pretty good," said Victor, "but you need to work on your landings." Yuuri hissed at him and Mila whacked him on the knee, but he was right.
"Who cares about that?" said Sara, skipping down the stairs to thump into the chair next to her friend. "Did you see Mila?" She grabbed Mila's hands. "My god, those triple axels, and the way you moved...you made me cry it was so beautiful!"
"She was amazing," said Victor. He smiled at Mila proudly and she giggled and covered her face. She was adorable.
"Stop iiiit," said Mila.
"What was your favourite part, Victor," said Sara, cuddling closer to Mila. It felt nice. "Mine was when she fluttered through that layback spin like she was flying."
"I'm trying to watch!" said Mila.
"Then you should take down your hands," said Victor. "You just missed Kaede trying for a quadruple Salchow."
Sara looked down. Kaede was flowing backwards across the ice now, her expression serene. Sara was sorry to have missed seeing her jump.
Mila's hands fell. "Did she make it ?" Mila was one of the few female skaters who'd managed quads in competition, not that it ever did her much good with the judges.
"Barely," said Yuuri. "She can do better, she landed one perfectly at the 2013 Juniors."
So he had been watching. Good.
Kaede's ambition didn't serve her so well in the second half of her program, though she was graceful as ever she stumbled a few times from exhaustion and near the end almost crashed into the wall. But she was still definitely going to win.
"You should go congratulate her," said Sara.
"What?" Yuuri blinked at her owlishly through his big dorky glasses. How did this guy manage to be so sexy on the ice and such a goober off of it?
"Kaede. You should go tell her she did well. I'm sure she'd like to hear it."
"Why?" said Yuuri. "Because we're both from Japan? We haven't really spoken before." He ducked down his head like a turtle and mumbled into his jacket. "It seems kind of arrogant to think she'd want to meet me."
"She's a teenage girl a long way from home, and you're the top male skater from her country," said Victor. "Sara's right, be nice."
Heh thought Sarah. Praise from the great Viktor Nikiforov! I bet Mickey's never gotten that.
But of course when she saw Mickey again he was only concerned about the fact that she'd been sitting with Victor and Yuuri and not him. "Did they try anything?" he asked. "I was so worried when I couldn't see you!"
"They're engaged," said Sara. "To each other." Sara had gotten the details from Phichit: Apparently there'd been a big engagement party last night. After Mila whined at Victor about not being invited Yuuri had flailingly tried to paint it as more of an informal gathering with no specific theme, but there was no denying the evidence of the rings.
"They could be bi," said Mickey, stiffly. "That's a thing."
Sara rolled her eyes. If she was going to be stuck with Mickey for the rest of the evening she was going to need a major distraction. Right now any escape from him was a relief. When had she started feeling that way? What could she do to make their relationship a happy one again? "Didn't Emil say something about clubbing?"
"Are you sure, Sara?" said Mickey. "You pushed yourself so hard today...and you were transcendent. You're going to destroy the others tomorrow. But I don't want you to risk your chance at gold by overdoing it tonight."
And the thing was, he was right. In previous years she'd have followed his advice without a second thought. But right now she was so sick of doing what Mickey wanted she was going to do the opposite just on principle.
She looked around for Mila: there she was, over by the entrance, standing with Yakov and Yurio. If Mila's previous complaints about Yakov were any guide, he was probably giving them a lecture, even though Yurio had broken the world record. Maybe Sara and Mickey needed Max to be meaner.
Or maybe they just needed to be better skaters.
She hated that it had come to this, but Mickey had left her no choice. She was going to flirt with Emil.
"Come dance with me," she said.
"Ok!" said Emil, with his usual smile.
"What?!" said Mickey. "Emil, how dare you? I thought we were friends!"
"We are," said Emil. "But dancing is fun."
"He didn't ask me," said Sara. "I asked him! And it's just a dance! Are you seriously saying I'm not allowed to dance with anyone, even with you here to watch?"
"You could dance with Mila," sulked Mickey.
"Sorry," said Mila, sipping on her soda water. "But I'm not going anywhere near that dance floor. I can't believe you guys dragged me out to a club the night before the free skate."
"That's true!" said Mickey. "You should go home and rest too, Sara!"
"I will," said Sara. "Once I have had a dance with Emil."
"I don't know," said Emil. "If it's going to make Mickey feel worried..." Sara felt a little guilty. Emil was a sweet guy, and seemed to be the only man in the world willing to put up with Mickey's moods. But if Mickey couldn't forgive him for dancing with Sara then he didn't deserve Emil as a friend.
"Fine!" said Mickey, sinking down into his seat. "Go dance. But I'll be watching!"
Emil was actually a pretty good dancer. Which wasn't surprising, really, he was a pretty good skater too. He kept a chaste distance from Sara and didn't do anything sexy, but to her surprise he actually put some effort into his moves, twisting acrobatically to the beat. He kept looking over at Mickey to make sure he was doing ok. And miracle of miracles, Mickey actually seemed to approve, or at least he didn't look angry for once.
Had Mickey always been this angry? He'd always been protective, but it felt like he'd only gotten really weird about it over the last few months. Sara used to like it when he scared off guys, because he only did it to guys who deserved it. Not sweeties like Emil. She thought back, trying to figure out when things had gone wrong. She'd started hinting at wanting to date a year or so ago, and that had made Mickey a little touchy, but she'd always felt like he'd back off if she ever found someone she really liked. The first time she could remember Mickey seriously freaking her out had been at Worlds, after they'd had dinner with Emil and the three of them had ended up staying up all night chatting in Sara and Mickey's room. They'd fallen asleep on Mickey's bed, and Sara had woken up to an argument between Mickey and Emil about Emil's apparently evil intentions towards Sara. After that Mickey hadn't wanted Emil and Sara to spend any more time alone together, and had started getting weirder about other guys in general.
It was so unfair. Emil was the most inoffensively sexless guy she'd ever met. He'd never so much as looked at Sara's breasts, and even Phichit had done that. And here he was still trying to make Mickey like him again while Sara just dragged him deeper into their stupid family drama.
"Come on," she said, her enthusiasm for dancing lost. "Let's go sit down."
Mickey watched them sit down in silence and Mila sipped at her drink, watching his reaction.
"Was that so bad?" said Sara.
"I guess not," muttered Mickey. "Thanks for being respectful, Emil."
"Of course," said Emil. "I respect Sara a lot!"
"Don't overdo it," said Mickey. "Let's just leave it at dancing."
Sara slapped her hand on the table. "Why?"
"Because...because he can't be trusted!"
Sara stood and threw hew hands in the air in frustration. "Why not? Who could possibly be more trustworthy than Emil?"
"No-one!" said Mickey.
Sara put her hand on Emil's shoulder. "So I can go on a date with him?"
Mickey shrank back in horror. "No!"
"You don't get to decide that!" said Sara. "What if I was in love with him? Would you still say no? Am I never allowed to find love, Mickey?"
"You're in love with Emil?" said Mickey. He looked like his heart was breaking. She felt like such a jerk.
"I..." Sara wasn't sure what to say. If she said yes she'd be lying to them both and making everything way more awkward. But if she said no she'd never find out what Mickey would do once he was backed into this particular corner.
"Of course you're in love with Emil," said Mickey, not letting her finish. "You're right, no-one could be more trustworthy. No-one would treat you better. He's the sweetest, kindest..." He sniffed, eyes red. Then he balled his hands into fists, and clenched his teeth. "Fine. You have my blessing. I hope you're very happy together."
Emil's face fell. "But Mickey..."
"I said you have my blessing!" said Mickey, tears in his eyes. "Are you going to break Sara's heart? I'll never forgive you if you do!"
Sara let go of Emil and sat back down. "I'm not in love with Emil," she said, with a sigh.
"What?" said Mickey. He looked really upset now. Had she just made everything ten times worse?
Dammit, she was still going to try to salvage something useful out of this mess. "But I do want to go on a date with him. Just to see how I feel."
Mickey glared at her. "So now you're playing with his heart?" Wait, he was angry at her on Emil's behalf? That was a change, but she wasn't sure she liked it.
"It's ok!" said Emil. "I don't mind!"
Mickey turned back to Emil, eyes wide. "So you want to go on a date with Sara?"
Emil looked away, blushing. "Well..."
"I swear," began Mickey, face red, "If you..."
There was a thump, and then Sara felt a splash of something cold against her face. Mila had banged her glass down onto the table, scattering drops of iced water everywhere. "Michele Crispino," she said, standing up to tower over him. "What the hell do you think you're doing?"
"Protecting my sister!" said Mickey, standing up and puffing his chest out. He looked like an overstuffed rooster.
"Protecting her? Ha!" Mila advanced on him, eyes narrowed and teeth bared. "By making her afraid to have male friends? By making a twenty two year old woman have to ask permission to dance? Do you know have any idea how much stress she's under right now? If you can manage not to ruin it for her, she's going to win the Grand Prix gold medal tomorrow, something you've never managed to come even close to. She's been training for this moment for years, and you're going to ruin her last night of preparation by shouting at her and treating her like a child? You don't care about protecting her. You care about protecting yourself! Grow up and get a spine, Crispino, Sara has better things to do than baby you."
Mickey opened and closed his mouth a few times, overcome. Sara had never thought she'd wanted to see her brother brought so low, but Mila's speech filled her heart with pride and affection. That was what it meant to protect someone.
"Um...how about we just....put all this aside," said Emil. "We all want Sara to do her best tomorrow. And Mila, too! So we can just...leave this all until after that. Don't you agree, Mickey?"
And somehow, magically, he did.
But putting it all aside was easier said than done. As J.J. stumbled yet again at the start of his program Sara decided she had better things to do than watch him fail. She needed to talk to Emil before her skate or it would be nagging at her the whole time.
Mickey didn't complain when she pulled Emil aside to talk. She couldn't decide if that was a good sign or a bad one.
"I am so sorry about all this," she said, looking around to make sure no-one was near the quiet corner she'd found. But they were all watching the screens. "I shouldn't have dragged you into it."
"It's ok," said Emil. "I'm fine with whatever you want!"
"That's not fair on you," said Sara. "You get to have an opinion! What do you want?"
"Well..." he said hesitantly. "I do want to make sure you're really not in love with me. Because I, uh..."
"Nooo," said Sara, happy to be able to at least reassure him about that. "Not even a little bit. And I'm sorry Mickey's being such an arse to you about it. Honestly, I don't know why you stay friends with him. Or me, either."
"But you guys are great!" said Emil, his face splitting into an open grin. "You're really fun to talk to!"
"We are?" said Sara.
"Well, Mickey can get a little...overprotective of you," said Emil, "and that can make him less fun. But he's much better when you're not around..." He rubbed his head self consciously. "Haha, that sounded bad! But I flew over to Florence to keep him company while you were away, and it was fantastic! Mickey showed me around, and we watched movies, and I met your parents. They're fantastic too, by the way. And then we went to a vineyard and got really drunk, the wine in Florence is delicious. But I guess you knew that, haha. Anyway, I had a really good time!"
"Oh," said Sarah. "Well, I'm glad you and Mickey had fun. But that doesn't make it ok for him to be horrible to you now!"
"Actually, I uh...think he's overcompensating now because he feels guilty about it? Like he realised he didn't miss you, and that made him freak out, and so he decided he needed to fly over here all of a sudden." He frowned. "Crap, that sounded bad too. We do both really enjoy your company! That's the real reason we're here. To support you!"
Sara pondered Emil. She'd never really thought through how hard he must be working to spend so much time with her and Mickey. "You flew to Florence to keep Mickey company, and then flew from there to Barcelona just to keep him company again?"
"And to see you!" said Emil. "My parents earn a lot of money, and they didn't mind, so I thought why not?"
Sara pulled Emil into a hug. "Mickey and I don't deserve you, Emil," she said. "But I'm glad we have you."
She put her hands on Emil's shoulders and looked him in the eye. He was blushing.
"Let's not go on a date," she said. "Neither of us would enjoy it. But you're a great guy. You'll make the right girl very happy some day."
"...thanks," said Emil.
As they walked back to Mickey, Sara noticed Kaede chatting with Victor and Yuuri in a different part of the stands. At least Sara wasn't a total loss at human relationships. She decided to stick to the plan and not talk to Mickey about Emil until after the free skate.
Unfortunately Mickey had other ideas.
"You know the more I think about it the happier I am with the idea of you dating Emil," he said, patting Emil on the knee. "He's practically family already. If he married you we'd be brothers, wouldn't that be wonderful Emil?"
"In some ways..." said Emil. Poor guy, yesterday he was stuck with Sara as a girlfriend, now suddenly she was his wife.
"You don't need to get me involved to be brothers with Emil," said Sara. "Family can be who you choose, not just how you're born."
"I suppose," said Mickey.
"I'll be whatever you want," said Emil, putting his arm around Mickey. "You're both really important to me, and I, uh...yeah." He laughed awkwardly, but didn't remove his arm. Mickey didn't seem to mind it, though.
"Thanks, Emil." said Mickey. "You are a true friend. I am sorry I ever doubted you. Whatever happens between you and Sara, I will always...uh..." Overcome by this display of manly emotion, Mickey coughed and looked away. Sara was really happy to see the two of them work things out. Mickey needed friends, if he was to ever stop being so dependent on her.
Mickey regained his composure and turned back to Emil. "But if you hurt her I'll kill you," he said, flatly.
Well, there was no point waiting for a miracle.
And then as Yuuri Katsuki broke the world record with a heartbreakingly beautiful performance, Sara had to turn to check the evidence of her ears: Mickey was clapping, eyes damp, genuinely happy to see a rival's success. She smiled, and started clapping even louder. Maybe miracles could happen after all.
"Mila," said Sara, giving her a hug. "I want to thank you for everything. I don't think I'd have made it through this competition without you. And you seem to have actually gotten through to Mickey! It's a miracle!"
"I am really glad to hear it," said Mila. She stepped out of the hug and poked Sara on the nose. "Does that mean you're free for another dating adventure? Got anyone in mind? Any guys back home just waiting to become the new Mr Crispino?"
"No-one jumps out at me," said Sara. "I think for now I'm going to put the whole dating adventure on hold."
"Noo," said Mila, squishing Sara's face. "You're too cute to stay single!"
"Not forever," said Sara. "But I'm going to wait until I find someone I really like, it's not fair to subject anyone else to so much drama. And trust me, when I do find someone, nothing will stop me. If they're tough enough to handle me they can handle Mickey."
"The right one will go through anything for you," said Mila, looking down at the screen. "I'm sure you'll find them. And don't ever let yourself give up."
"Me?" said Sara. "I am stubborn as a mule. Once I set my mind on something nothing can stop me."
"Good," said Mila. She laughed and tapped her covered skates against the floor. "I need a little of that right now myself."
Sara reached for Mila and pulled her into a hug. "You are a magnificent goddess who is about to dazzle us all with her glory. The stars themselves cannot stand in your way."
Mila buried her head into the crook of Sara's neck. "Thank you."
They held each other silently for a while, until Yakov politely coughed to get Mila's attention. It was time.
"Go be magnificent," said Sara.
"I will," said Mila, kissing her on the cheek. And then she let go.
Sara knew that Mila had had to fight every step of the way to make her free program what she wanted it to be. Yakov had thought the music too discordant, her desired choreography too violent. Sara also knew that commentators tended to approve even less: they wanted Mila to be more feminine, less threatening, more delicate.
But Mila was beautiful in her strength, and ferocious in her artistry. From the first jarring note she demanded attention, reaching out her hands as if to claim the entire ice for her own, tilting her hips as she raced forward with a confident energy, light reflecting from her costume in a dazzling glow.
The music soared as she headed into the triple axel. She jumped, and twisted, and spun...spun four times before landing heavily on the ice, her hand skimming the surface for support as she regained her balance.
Sara couldn't believe it.
No-one had done a quad axel before. No-one. Not men, not women, not ever. How long had she been practicing in secret to not only try, but to succeed? Other skaters had claimed to land it in practice, and some had nearly managed it in competition. But Mila had really done it. Not perfectly, but more than well enough to count.
And she'd barely gotten started. Sara watched, heart in her throat, as Mila spun into a death drop, flying almost horizontally through the air before landing in a back sit spin. Watch me, her skating said. I am a force of nature. I know what I want and I am coming to get it.
Sara felt a flush of anger knowing that people had tried to silence this, had told Mila she was making herself unbeautiful by displaying her strength. Sara felt her heart speed up as Mila arched her back and tossed her hair, as her muscles flexed and skin shone. Nothing could be more beautiful.
Mila threw her head back and raised her hands to the sky, pulling them down into fists and closing her eyes as she sped backwards, spinning towards the end.
Mila flew past the rink board and her eyes looked right into the camera. Watching the screen, Sara felt like she'd been burned, like she was being pulled onto the ice by Mila's desire. Because Mila wanted. And if there was any justice in this world she would win.
In that moment Sara realised she wanted too.
Not just success. Not just to perform well, to win points, to bring pride to her country.
She wanted Mila. The knowledge settled on her like a fall of snow. I want that intensity directed at me she thought. I want her to want me, the way she wants to win. More than she wants to win. I want her to want me more than anything.
But Mila didn't like women. And she'd just spent the last few days trying to set Sara up with a boyfriend, hardly the actions of someone who wanted to date Sara herself.
Hell, did Sara even like women? Did she want to kiss Mila? Do more than that?
Her body answered her with a very definite yes. And her heart did too. This was what she had been looking for. This was what she had been fighting for. Someone who respected her, who made her happy, who she could love.
Mila fell to her knees with one aim raised up, her final pose stubbornly defiant. Then she stood, wiped her eyes, and skated off the ice and out of sight.
Sara closed her eyes and reached her hand back. She couldn't have Mila, and she had little hope of attaining gold. All she had left now was her pride.
Her chosen piece was supposed to be about joy, about freedom. But there was no freedom without sacrifice, no joy without risk. She let her movements capture her sorrow, her fear of being trapped, of being alone. She stretched out her fingers and strained her arms down, shackled by worry and regret. She kicked out her legs in a vain attempt to be free.
Sara sped across the ice, picking up speed. Triple axel, double toe, double toe.
She remembered how she'd felt when she'd first practiced this program. She had intended it as a celebration of her connection with Mickey, of the joy they both felt on the ice. She wasn't sure when that connection had started to feel like chains, but she was sure by now that Mickey felt it too. He would never have admitted it, he would have stubbornly held on until the moment of self destruction. But now that she'd proven that she could thrive without him, would he let himself thrive without her?
She kicked up into a fan spiral, then sped on to a triple flip. She had thrived without Mickey, though it had seemed impossible a year ago. She loved him, would always want him to be there as her brother, but she could not rely on him alone. Could not rely on any one person alone. And she didn't have to.
Sara bent back to grasp her leg, spinning, then reached down to gently brush the ice with the tips of her fingers. It felt cold through her gloves, but that just invigorated her.
Mickey was watching, along with Max and Emil, all willing Sara to succeed. There was Kaede and Alisa, too, worrying about their chances. Eun-Seo and Chloe had lost their shot at the podium, but would still be watching and learning. And there, cheering from the kiss and cry, was Mila. Mila, who had always supported Sara without asking for anything in return but her friendship.
Their eyes met. Mila waved and shouted, eyes bright. Sara grinned. She was looking forward to having the chance to congratulate Mila on her amazing achievement. She had always been there for Sara, and Sara would always be there for her, her love joyously and freely given.
Sara gestured out towards the crowd, and to the world beyond. She pulled her hands to her heart and headed into the spiral sequence with a smile.
"A hundred and forty six?! The judges are idiots!"
"It does seem a bit low," said Max. "But your score..."
"They'll probably give me negative numbers, if that's what they think Mila deserved!" said Sara, pointing angrily at the screen. Mila's technical score had been as huge as expected, but she'd been given a ridiculously low number of points for presentation. These judges were crazy.
And then they gave Sara 150.92, barely shy of the record Kaede had set at Worlds. She was...winning?
What if Kaede lost her nerve, like J.J. had? Could Sara possibly get the gold medal? But Kaede didn't deserve that. If Sara won, she wanted it to be because she was the best, not because the others were worse.
Kaede didn't lose her nerve, not entirely. But her skating was subdued and cautious. She had learned her lesson from yesterday, from seeing Mila's score, from her own score yesterday: she might have won, but not by as much as had been expected. The judges at Worlds had been able to see beyond Kaede's stocky physique and aura of strength to reward her artistry and skill. It wasn't clear that the Grand Prix judges were able to do the same. You can be more than this thought Sara, frustrated, as she watched Kaede limit herself to what she thought she had to be. And in this respect the judges apparently agreed with her, giving Kaede a lower score than Sara. Low enough to make up for the difference in their short program scores.
Sara found herself suddenly, impossibly, declared the best women's figure skater in the world. She'd have to defend it at Four Continents, and then again and again until someone beat her. But for now, she had won.
Sara walked as if in a dream through the interviews and congratulations, as she thanked Max and her family and friends, as she tried to articulate feelings she was still just starting to work through. She'd won. She could almost feel the gold medal around her neck, though she'd have to wait until the ceremony to receive it. The silvers and bronzes had been nice, but there was something special about having won the gold.
Even if she wasn't sure she deserved it. She wasn't sure she didn't, either, but the ambiguity made the victory a little sour.
Sara mentioned this to some of the interviewers: "It feels wrong to win the gold when Mila Babicheva made that amazing quadruple axel, and Kaede Watanabe performed so well yesterday.". And they would agree that Mila's achievement was remarkable, that Kaede was very talented, but say that Sara was so much more feminine that it only made sense that she should win. It made Sara want to punch them, to see how feminine they thought she was then. Kaede and Mila smiled through it all and Sara squeezed her arms around them in apology.
But Mila still had plenty of admirers as the the first skater to land a quadruple axel, in the end she was the one stuck still giving interviews while Sara and Kaede were able to escape. Not that Sara was done with congratulations: there was Yurio for men's Senior, Darya for women's Junior, all the records broken and medals won. And then there were the commiserations: a smile for Chris and Phichit, a wave for Anja and Dmitry. Sara was just part of a larger whole.
"I don't know why they keep asking me how I did it," said Mila, when Sara finally managed to drag her away. "I keep saying, it's just like doing a triple axel but you spin more."
"Please tell me you said that to Yurio," said Sara, clapping her hands in glee. She'd tried a quad axel once and nearly broken her ankle.
"Of course," said Mila, grinning. "And Victor. Did you know he's coming back?"
"Wow. I suppose he couldn't stay away. I can understand that, I don't know what I'll do when it's my turn to retire." She wondered what this meant for Yuuri Katsuki though, if he was losing his coach. It did explain the rumours of his retirement, and the strange distance she'd noticed this morning between him and Victor.
"Retire? You've only got one gold medal," said Mila. "If you have to beat me, and I have to beat Victor, and he hasn't retired... we could be stuck here for a while." Yes please, thought Sara.
"You want to stay an old lady on the ice with me?" said Sara. She took Mila's hands and interlaced their fingers, hoping it somehow felt like a romantic gesture and not a friendly one. How did flirting with girls even work? She was going to have to work her way up to anything more unambiguous, assuming she ever found the courage to declare her feelings and risk ruining their friendship.
Mila squeezed Sara's hand, which Sara had no idea how to interpret either. But she still felt loved. "Yeah."
It was time to talk to Mickey.
He'd congratulated her of course, and they'd shared some light conversation over dinner with Emil, but they hadn't really talked since Florence. He'd almost been his old self for the last few hours, the affectionate and supportive brother she'd thought she could rely on. But every now and then he'd look at her or Emil and frown, and she wanted to make sure he truly understood what she needed him to be.
Sara turned to him in the small safe space of her room. Her room, not theirs. Something of her own, a place she controlled and into which he had to be invited instead of entering by right.
Mickey sat down in the chair by the bed and looked at her seriously.
"I owe you an apology", he said.
"You do?" said Sara. "I mean, yes, you do! But what specific thing are you apologising for?"
"Everything," said Mickey. "I've been lying to myself, and it's made me be a terrible brother. I can't control you, Sara! And I can't control love! The more I thought about you and Emil the more I realised..." He tapped his fingers against the arm of the chair. "Are you sure you don't love him?
"Yes," said Sara. "Very sure."
"Then, do you think..." He wiped tears from his eyes. "No! I don't deserve to think of that! What matters is making you happy!" He leaned forward. "Do you want me to introduce you to anyone? Phichit is single, and he seems very kind. Or Christophe, I thought I saw the two of you sharing glances at last year's banquet when he did his...dance. And then I tried to protect you from him! Like a fool! But I can make up for that now. Whatever you want, Sara, just tell me."
"Mickey!" said Sara. "I...thank you. I am glad you realise you were wrong. But I don't need you to help me meet boys any more than I needed you to protect me from them. I am an adult now, I can take care of myself. I just need you to be my friend, and my brother. As an equal."
"Ok," he said. He looked so sheepish she had to laugh.
"Come here," she said, holding open her arms. He threw himself at her chest and she held him close. It felt familiar and right. He was still her brother, and he always would be. He sniffled into her shoulder and she patted his head.
"I'm so proud of you," he said. "I haven't said that enough. I knew you could do it."
"I'm proud of you too," said Mila.
The gold medal sparkled in the coloured lights bathing the podium as Sara wallowed in the cheers of the adoring crowd. She could definitely get used to this feeling, no wonder Victor had come back. And next time she wasn't going to have any doubts, she'd win too decisively for any judge's decision to make a difference.
She smiled at Mila standing beside her, and took her hand. "You deserve this," said Sara.
"What?" said Mila, either in confusion or because she couldn't hear Sara over the cheers of the crowd. But those cheers were nothing to the noise they made when Sara took off her medal and put it over Mila's head.
She could hear the announcer quickly adjusting from a bland spiel to a flailing off-the-cuff commentary as he tried to explain what was happening. Mila looked just as taken aback.
"But it's yours," said Mila. "I can't take it!" She looked so surprised! Sara wanted to kiss her.
"I'll take it," said Kaede. "I'll even swap it with the one from Worlds, if you like."
Mila took the medal off and held it up to the light. "It's not up to me," she said. "It's Sara's medal."
Sara was a little annoyed that her grand romantic gesture had been sidetracked, but she couldn't deny that Kaede had been hard done by. "Maybe we can all share it," she said. "You definitely deserve it too."
Kaede gave her a smile, then reached out and touched the medal lightly with her fingertips. "Such a small thing to cause so much trouble..."
The officials by the podium started making disapproving noises about procedure and the awards ceremony schedule. Sara got the feeling that if they kept insisting on bucking the system things would become increasingly difficult.
She took the medal back from Mila. "I suppose I should hold it in safekeeping for now."
Mila smiled, looking relieved. Kaede gave a resigned sigh took back her hand. "I guess I'll just have to get another one at Four Continents," she said.
"I look forward to it," said Sara.
She put the medal back over her head and felt the comfortable weight settle on her chest. If she was honest with herself, she was happy that she'd gotten to make the gesture of giving it away without having to actually do so. And there was no need to cause any further trouble. She'd made her point.
"That was beautiful!" said Victor, hearts in his eyes. "I wish someone would give me a gold medal."
"You already have at least ten," said Mila. "Now get a room, you two, you're blocking the corridor."
Yuuri made a sudden sound of surprise, like he'd only just realised he'd spent however many minutes straddling his coach on the ground behind the rink edge. He jumped up and gave an apologetic bow. "Sorry! We just...Victor has agreed to be my coach again, as well as competing! And that made me very, um, happy."
"Evidently," said Sara.
"Ahahaha Victorcanwepleasegonow." Victor held out his hand, as if he needed help getting up, and Yuuri took it. They shared a long, significant look.
"So, bye!" said Victor, smiling and waving at Mila and Sara.
"Bye!" said Yuuri. "Give Kaede my best!"
And then they walked quickly, hand in hand, towards the hotel. Well, at least someone had their love life in order.
Mila and Sara were still snickering when they bumped into Yurio, his own gold medal almost lost against the garish colours of his flame-like costume. "Have you seen Victor?" he said.
"He just left with Yuuri," said Mila, giving an exaggerated wink.
"What? Oh, gross. Ew. Fine. I'll talk to him later."
"Congratulations on your medal," said Sara, since apparently it was up to her to be the adult of this conversation.
"Thanks," said Yurio, visibly preening. "Same to you. And congratulations on sticking it to those fucking judges. I'm glad even you can see Mila was robbed. Just like Otabek, did you see that?!"
She had. J.J. had apparently done much better in the part of his program she'd missed, but she still couldn't see how he could possibly have deserved the bronze, not after the mess of his short program.
"I don't deny that the judges were unfair," said Mila, "but...I still think you deserve the gold, Sara. And you are too generous. When I win a gold medal, I'm not sharing it with anyone, even you!"
"It still doesn't seem right to me," said Sara. Although a little part of her wondered: How much was her conviction that Mila deserved to win a result of her love for her? Would she have sacrificed her own success for Mickey if they had been direct competitors? If she had offered him her medal, would he have given it back?
Yurio looked down at his own medal. "Yeah! I should..." His fingers clenched. Yurio had grown on Sara a little, but she was still pretty sure he didn't have it in him to give away his gold medal. "I should go beat up J.J. and make him give his medal to Otabek!"
"You really shouldn't," said Mila. "I know he's your boyfriend..."
"Otabek's not my boyfriend!" said Yurio, blushing furiously. Sara suspected that there was an unspoken "yet" at the end of that sentence, though Yurio himself might not have realised it.
"Hey, I don't disapprove!" said Mila. "But I've seen the cute little looks you guys give each other. He's still too old for you, but as long as he treats you with respect, I won't have to kick his arse."
"Ok, first off," said Yurio, drawing himself up to his full, tiny, height, "Otabek could totally beat you in a fight. If he was going to fight you, which he won't, because he's a gentleman. Second," he tapped his finger on his hand for emphasis, "don't come talking to me about cute little looks when you keep ogling Sara like she isn't just as much too old for you. And third," Yurio put his hands on his hips and jerked his chin up towards Mila like he was about to go into a jump, "Otabek is Not. My. Boyfriend."
Sara stared at Mila in surprise. Yurio had to be teasing her, right? But Mila didn't look amused. She'd gone very still, and her pale cheeks were high with colour. Sara's heart beat faster. Maybe she wasn't the only one in need of courage. Maybe...
Mila's voice was very small. "I don't..."
"See!" said Yurio, looking like he'd just realised he'd bitten off more than he could chew, "Now you know what it's like!" He looked at Mila with a concerned frown, and then squinted at Sara, like he desperately wished he could read her mind. "Um." His eyes got wider and his teeth clenched in distress. "I'm going to go now, and...I'm going to go!" And then he went.
"Mila, I..." started Sara. But she had run away too.
Sara found her outside, shivering under a leafless tree, hands balled up in her jacket pockets.
"Sorry," sniffed Mila. "You must think I'm being such a kid."
"If hiding from your feelings makes you a child, then I'm one too," said Sara.
Mila looked up at her sharply.
Sara came closer, and took her hands, rubbing warmth into them. "I have to admit I didn't notice until a few days ago, but I..."
Mila's eyes opened wide. "The axel?"
Sara stepped closer. "No," she said, laughing, forcing herself to be brave. "Well, yes and no. It was your intensity. I saw it, and thought, I want that. I want..."
Sara felt Mila's cold hands on her face as Mila pulled her up into a kiss. Mila's eyes were heavy lidded and dark. "Then you have it," she said. "You can have everything."
Mila's lips had been cold, but Sara felt a wave of heat starting at her mouth and sinking lower. Sara leaned up to kiss Mila back, and put her arms around her. Sara had to strain up a little to kiss her. Sara had always admired Mila's statuesque figure, had enjoyed hugging and friendly touches. But this was something new. She ran her hands down Mila's back and felt her shiver, traced the curve of her hips, ran her fingers through her hair. She felt Mila touching her back, by turns passionate and gentle, shameless and shy.
This was everything Sara had ever wanted. She was overcome by the wonderfulness of Mila, her beauty, her kindness, her infectious joy. She never wanted to let her go.
The ended up against a concrete pillar, Sara's legs wrapped around Mila's torso, her skirt hitched up to her waist. Sara groaned out Mila's name as she kissed down Sara's neck.
Mila stopped and rested her head on Sara's shoulder.
"So you really like me?" she said.
"Yes?" said Sara, laughing. She was fairly sure this crossed the line from friendly touching, even between women.
Mila kissed her cheek. "Sorry. I just...I really like you, Sara. It's ok if you don't like me the same way, or as much. But I just..." She sighed and pulled Sara close.
Sara dropped her legs to the ground and reached up to put her hands on Mila's cheeks. They felt cold. "Mila," she said. "Mila. You think I'm some creepy old lady taking advantage of you? I love you! I only realised it a few days ago, but I realised it very strongly. There are not words to express how much I love you. I am going to have to invent new forms of poetry, new forms of skating to get across how I feel." She kissed her lightly on the lips. "But first I am getting you out of the cold. Because I love you. And because I am cold too."
"Ok," said Mila. She laughed and took her hand and they ran for the shelter of the hotel.
As the doors of the hotel closed behind them they stamped their feet and smiled at each other in surprise at how happy they felt.
Sara tried not to think about the fact that in a few days they would be thousands of kilometres away from each other.
"So how long have you been hitting on me while I was too stupid to notice," said Sara, as they headed towards the elevator. "I'm thinking since at least the ride from the airport?"
"Since Juniors," said Mila.
"Mila Babicheva!" said Sara, with a gasp, thinking back to all the "innocent affection" Mila had expressed as a younger girl. "I really am stupid, aren't I? Well, I blame Mickey. He kept making such a fuss about boys, I was too distracted to notice girls."
"Urgh, Mickey," said Mila. "No offence, but if your brother tries to scare me off I might push him under a Zamboni."
Sara snickered. The mental image had some appeal. "I think he's actually learned the error of his ways," she said. "But I will make sure to keep him in line. And..." She turned to push the elevator button and hide her face. "If I am in a different country then it will be harder for him to cause me trouble..."
It was too much, wasn't it? But Sara needed to be apart from Mickey, and she needed to be with Mila. The idea of only seeing her at competitions was unbearable. If Mila wanted more distance, Sara would find somewhere else to go. A Grand Prix gold medal opened a lot of doors. But she would be as close as Mila would let her, from now until forever.
"Sara," said Mila, in a wondering tone. "For someone who just got her first girlfriend you don't fuck around, do you?"
Sara turned back to face her, both hands to the wall. "No. Does that bother you?"
"I'm with you every step," said Mila, and leaned down to kiss her again.
By the time the elevator arrived they were a tangle of limbs and half removed clothing, the ground littered with pins from Sara's collapsing bun.
As the door pinged Sara came back to herself, and felt a moment of embarrassment for exposing herself to whatever poor souls were inside. She straightened her skirt and turned only to be faced with the shocked faces of her brother and Emil.
Mickey's face was bright red. "What...I...."
"Hi Michele," said Mila brightly, stepping inside the elevator and pushing the button for Sara's floor. "We're just going upstairs to fuck." She stopped and looked down at Sara, sounding much less confident. "At least...I mean I don't want to assume. It's ok if you don't..."
"No, no, fucking sounds good," said Sara.
"That's nice," said Mickey, his voice weak.
"It... is?" said Sara. She looked at him more closely. His skin wasn't just pink from embarrassment, there was a red mark on his neck, and his mouth looked a little swollen.
Mickey rubbed his mouth and looked at the floor. "I've recently realised...some things about myself..."
Emil bounced up and gave Sara an unexpected hug, and then gave one to Mila as well. "Mickey and I are engaged!" he said, looking even happier than normal.
"What," said Sara. She'd started to suspect there might be something going on between them, but engaged? That was quite the turn-around.
"It is true," said Mickey, "that I have pledged my undying devotion to Emil." He took Emil's hand and kissed it. "But I am still convinced he will realise how unworthy of him I am. Only once I have made full amends for my mistreatment, once a year has passed and my Emil is still happy with me....then will I allow myself to be united with him in full, if that is still what he wants."
Emil gave Mickey a completely smitten look, like what he'd just said wasn't completely bizarre. Well, at least he seemed happy? And really, it wasn't as if it was all that much stranger than her moving to Russia. In fact the similarity was making her a little uncomfortable.
"Congratulations!" said Sara, because what else was there to be said?
"Thanks!" said Emil. "I guess that will make you my sister now too."
"No, Emil," said Mickey. "You cannot..."
Emil ruffled Mickey's hair. "Yes, yes," he said laughing. "It will make her my sister in a year, if you and I still like each other. But we will." Mickey pouted and Emil rolled his eyes. "And if we don't, well...I think I will still like Sara an awful lot. So she can be my sister anyway, if she wants."
Yesterday two brothers would have sounded like a nightmare, but right now it didn't sound so bad.
Sara leaned over and gave Emil a kiss on the cheek. "Welcome to the family," she said.
He kissed her cheek back. It was nice to be able to do that, and know Mickey wouldn't mind. In fact he seemed quite happy about it.
"Family is important," said Mickey. "But I have perhaps...let my love for my family blind me to other kinds of love." He took Sara's hand. "Sara, I still love you. You will always be my most beloved sister. But..." He bowed his head to Mila. "But if she has chosen you, Mila Babicheva, then I respect that choice. I wish you every happiness."
"Thanks," said Mila, sounding a little bemused.
As the elevator door closed behind them Sara and Mila looked at each other and then burst out laughing.
"You Crispinos really don't do anything by halves, do you?" said Mila.
"No..." said Sara. "But I hope you know I'm not quite as crazy as my brother. Emil seems happy with him, but..." She shook her head.
"But we should maybe leave the marriage talk until we've been dating at least a day?" said Mila.
"At least," said Sara.
She opened the door to her hotel room, feeling her heart race a little as she was reminded why they were here. She'd had men in her room before, but never anyone she really cared about. Not like this.
Sara closed the door behind them and put down her things. She heard the bed squeak as Mila sat down on it, but she wasn't quite ready yet to turn around.
"I think...I think I do have to leave Florence," she said, facing the long mirror in the dark. "I cannot stay in the same city as Mickey, we will just fall into the old patterns again." Sara thought about how her relationship with Mickey had slowly become poison. Things were better now, but they could never get back the simple trust they'd had in the past. The thought of that happening with Mila made Sara feel cold and empty inside. "But I think...think perhaps I need to live alone, for a while. Perhaps Moscow instead of St Petersburg, or..."
Mila came up behind her and put her arms around Sara's stomach. Sara put her hands on top of Mila's, enjoying the sense of connection, how good they looked together in the dim reflection. Mila kissed the top of Sara's head. "Never truly alone," she said. "But I understand. We don't have to rush anything. And you are so generous, you should have a chance to figure out who you are when there is no-one for you to give yourself to. Not even me."
Sara turned to rest her head on Mila's chest and Mila ran her hands over Sara's hair. "Mila, I...I'm not sure I know what love is, without so much giving and taking that it leaves everyone empty. I am older than you, and can be very forceful, if you ever feel...if you ever need..." She felt tears pricking her eyes.
"Sara," said Mila. "Sara, it's ok." Mila's hands on her back were gentle and comforting. "You are not your brother. If things go wrong, I will talk to you, or you will talk to me, and we will fix it. We can figure out what love means for us together."
Sara sniffled and gave Mila a squeeze. "Thank you," she said. It didn't seem like enough, but it was all she could think of to say.
When she leaned up to kiss her, Mila's lips were warm.