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Katsudon

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“Iberia Airlines flight 2725 with service between Barcelona and Madrid is now boarding. Please ensure you have all personal belongings before boarding the aircraft.”

Step One: Make the tonkatsu. Sprinkle pork loin cutlets with salt and pepper on both sides. Dust with an even coating of flour.

Hiroko closes her eyes as the kitchen fills with the nut-warm scent of sesame oil. The inn has been a hubbub of activity since Yuuri stood on the podium with a silver medal around his neck, but all she hears is the pop of the oil and the hiss of the steam. Even at this late hour, there’s still a dozen happy people in the main room drunk on sake and wine and beer. None of them complain that the television has been permanently set on whatever channel broadcasts figure skating. It’s possible that no one has stopped celebrating in the last forty-eight hours.

Hiroko can’t stop smiling. Future smiles lodge in her throat, waiting for their turn. It aches to breathe through them, but Hiroko doesn’t mind. It reminds her of childbirth: what it was like to endure pain, knowing that on the other side of the pain, there’s a new beginning waiting.

The noise from the dining room floods into the kitchen in a quick burst when Toshiya comes in, only to be muffled a moment later when the door shuts behind him. Toshiya leans against the counter with a deep, relieved sigh – no doubt relishing the relative quiet. Running the inn is difficult with only the two of them, but Hiroko refuses to regret sending Mari to Barcelona with Yuuri. The memory of Yuuri’s return the year before is still too fresh in her mind.

Hiroko comes out of the kitchen at a run – but seeing the stranger on her doorstep, where she’d expected to see the 17-year-old she’d sent away, she skids to a stop at arm’s length.

Yuuri’s shoulders slump, his entire body folding in on itself as he stands uncertain in the genkan. He wears an oversized coat and a hat pulled down over his ears, and his glasses fog over in the relative warmth of the inn. Hiroko can’t see his eyes and with a pang realizes that if she passed this man in the street, she might not recognize him as her own son.

“Look who I’ve brought home!” sings Minako. Hiroko ignores the irony of Minako bringing Yuuri home, and instead looks at him, all her emotions in turmoil.

Excitement, confusion, anger… love.

This man isn’t the boy she sent away five years before. The confidence he’d once worn like a little boy trying on his father’s clothes is long gone. Now Yuuri wears misery like a comfortable old sweater. His eyes, slowly appearing as the fog dissipates from his glasses, don’t shine with the anticipation of new adventures. They’re dull and full of regret. He can barely meet his mother’s gaze as he tries desperately to make himself smaller, unworthy of notice, uninteresting.

Yuuri is home!

That’s not Yuuri.

What has he done to himself?

Oh, my baby…

Every emotion she’s felt over the last five years evaporates in the face of her son’s obvious pain, and all that is left is the aching child in front of her and the memory of a baby, small and perfect, nuzzling against her for comfort.

She smiles at the child she no longer recognizes, shakes off the apologies she’s long since accepted, and feeds him katsudon because it’s the only thing she can do for him. Anything to bring her son back to her. Anything to make his smile appear again, strong and confident and sure, instead of the wavering, watery memory this person offers.

Hiroko dredges the pork cutlets with flour. She never wants to see that un-smile on Yuuri’s face again. If that means sending Mari with him to every competition he has, surrounding him in Barcelona and beyond with the people who love him at the expense of Toshiya and herself, that is what Hiroko will do.

Toshiya bursts into the kitchen, already rattling off new orders. “Three chicken, two flatfish, two squid – ah. Tonkatsu already?”

“They’re boarding their first flight now,” says Hiroko as she works.

Toshiya chuckles. “First flight. They won’t arrive until tomorrow!”

He reaches for one of the fried squid that rest from their dip in the hot oil. Hiroko smacks his hand away without ever missing a beat as she continues to dredge the pork cutlets. “Tonkatsu tastes better the next day.”

He kisses her temple, one hand light on her shoulder. He smells like the onsen: sulfur and salt. She catches a whiff of the beer he’s been serving – and undoubtedly drinking, too. “Yuuri didn’t win gold, so I hope you’re making that for Victor!”

“You’ve been drinking,” sings Hiroko.

“A little! To keep company!” protests Toshiya. Hiroko laughs. He’s probably telling the truth. Everyone wants a drink at Yu-topia today. It will be worse when Yuuri and Victor return – and Victor does not have Toshiya’s stamina for all that he claims Russians drink vodka with their mother’s milk.

Hiroko kneels on the tatami mats, surrounded by family, hands on her knees. Yuuri skates on the other side of the world, and Hiroko watches him on the television, smiling smiling smiling. She doesn’t listen to the commentary – all she hears is the music, all she sees is the program that she knows so well. Watching Yuuri perform them is like slipping into the onsen after a long day. The smile never falters.

The exhibition skate, with the ghost of silver still around Yuuri’s neck, is something else. Her heart aches as she watches her son skate to Victor’s old program. Hiroko can’t remember the music - she never saw Victor skate it originally, but she recognizes Yuuri’s dance for what it is. The longing, the loneliness, the way he looks for someone…

When Victor joins him on the ice, Hiroko forgets to breathe. The smile remains. No one sees the tears resting on her eyelashes. No one looks at her – why should anyone look at her? They are all in awe, their eyes glued to the television. Her tears never fall. Her smile never falters.

She knows then. She knows without a single doubt.

Her eyes are dry now, in the steamy, scent-filled kitchen. If she cries in the night, only Toshiya would be able to say.

“How many are you making?” asks Toshiya as he scoops rice into bowls for the other dishes.

“Enough,” says Hiroko briskly. “Yuuri will be hungry when he arrives.”

“Enough to eat a dozen bowls of katsudon?” teases Toshiya. “Even Victor won’t let him have that many.”

“It’s Vicchan’s win, too,” says Hiroko.

Toshiya pauses for a moment. Hiroko doesn’t look at him. They haven’t talked about the rings, but Hiroko knows that Toshiya saw them, just as she did. Even if they had not, Mari can’t keep a secret, and Minako was never able to lie to Hiroko effectively, not even when they were small children in pigtails.

They haven’t talked about what happens when their children return home.

“Yes,” says Toshiya finally. “I suppose it is.”

The kiss on her cheek lingers. “Toshiya?”

“It smells delicious,” he says, and carries the plates of food out to their guests.

*

“This is your captain speaking; we have started our descent into Madrid, and we hope you have enjoyed your flight today.”

Step Two: Dip the cutlets into beaten egg, and coat with panko. Set aside.

The inn’s customers are demanding, jovial, and happy to spend money. Two days after Yuuri’s success, and finally the familiar arguments over what to watch on the television have begun again. The Grand Prix repeats on one channel, there’s an important sumo match on another channel, and somewhere in the world, someone thinks the weather is fine enough for golfing.

Toshiya is in his element, surrounded by noise and activity. His face is flushed with exertion, but he’s light on his feet as he moves between the dining room and the kitchen. Nothing is forgotten: not a single chopstick, napkin, or sprig of decorative seaweed. Hiroko catches glimpses of his joy in between orders. It never fails to renew the smile on her face.

It’s warm in the kitchen; beads of sweat accumulate on Hiroko’s forehead, and her cheeks grow pink from steam. She doesn’t mind. Perhaps she’ll even sleep well while her son and her daughter and her friend and her Victor fly home instead of the sleeplessness that is more common when her children are not under her roof.

Victor is flying home.

The smiles waiting their turn in her throat threaten to burst through her neck, and she swallows them down, blinking as the steam from the rice coats her glasses.

She doesn’t need to see to coat cutlets in egg and panko. She has made this dish for her family for over thirty years; she’ll make it another thirty, if she’s lucky. She lays the coated cutlets in a row on the plate, two dozen of them, and thinks it should be enough. Victor will eat three bowls easily, and then sometime in the middle of the night, if Hiroko is awake, she’ll hear him clattering in the kitchen as he heats another for a midnight snack with Makkachin at his heels.

Hiroko loves the boy Yuuri has brought into their lives. He is enthusiastic where Yuuri is quiet, demonstrative where Yuuri is controlled. His exuberance, his never-ending passion, his lust for life reminds her of when Yuuri was young and crawled up into her lap to press his small face into the crook of her neck. Sometimes she can still feel the warmth and weight of her son, round and soft, knees pulled up, feet scrabbling for security on her lap. He could tuck himself into her soft curves as if he’d permanently carved himself a place inside her, and was merely reclaiming it.

It’s a better memory than others.

The train platform is busy, hustle and bustle as people disembark and board in turns. Yuuri, not quite eighteen, is patient as Hiroko rests her hand on the curve of his cheek. She studies his face; his eyes dart to the waiting train, anxious to board before it departs but unwilling to dislodge Hiroko’s protracted goodbye.

He’s so young. Part of her wants to wrap her fingers around his wrist and refuse to let him go. There are colleges in Japan. There are coaches. There are skating rinks. Why should he leave for the other side of the world?

“It’s better for him,” Minako tells her with a confidence that Hiroko can’t even feign. They watch as Yuuri boards the train. Hiroko catches glimpses of him through the windows as he makes his way down the car.

Hiroko can’t help but worry. Does he have enough food for the trip? Does he have enough money? Does he have enough of himself, of Hasetsu, stored up in his soul for the time he’s away?

“I know it’s better,” says Hiroko. Her arm is hooked around Minako’s. She knows Minako watches Yuuri as he finds a compartment and settles into his seat. “But he is my son.”

“I know he’s yours,” says Minako, and for the first time, Hiroko hears the catch in Minako’s voice. Minako stares straight ahead at the train, as if unaware of Hiroko now watching her.

Every time Hiroko has said goodbye to her son, Minako has been near.

Yuuri at age seventeen, a scholarship letter and invitation in his hand, Minako dancing in joy behind him.

Yuuri at age fourteen, skating in his first real competition, Minako’s confidence just a tiny speck in the shine of his eyes.

Yuuri at ten and eight and six, as his love for Minako’s ballet studio slowly changed into love for the ice. Minako hadn’t minded the transfer of his affections; she’d cultivated them, allowing her talented bird the chance to fly away.

Hiroko needs photographs to jog her memory of four-year-old Yuuri: a small boy who runs through the inn with his trains and planes, arms outstretched, vibrant and alive. Yuuri when he was young and sweet; Yuuri when he was still only hers. It’s the memory of Yuuri at seventeen that sits with her best: his brave face unable to hide his youth or nervousness. He smiles with wet eyes as he gives her a last bow through the train’s windows – sad, but filled with joyful anticipation. He presses his open palm against the glass, a silent and still salute goodbye.

 “This is the best thing for him,” Minako repeats, her arm tight around Hiroko’s elbow. Hiroko glances at her again.

“You’re crying,” says Hiroko, amazed.

Minako lets out a squeak. “I am not!” she says, as imperious and stiff as if the words wear pointe shoes. Hiroko lets out a laugh, covers her mouth with her hand. “Only – do you remember the day he followed Mari to ballet class?”

“He was two and thought he was just as big as Mari,” remembers Hiroko, smiling.

“He put on her shoes before she could and refused to give them back!” Minako shakes her head, laughing. “I thought to myself: perhaps Hiro-chan’s son will be a better ballerina than her daughter.”

“I never understood why you didn’t keep him in your studio,” says Hiroko.

Minako gave Yuuri the wings he needs to fly away. Hiroko could resent Minako, so easily.

The train starts to move.

“Perhaps for the same reason you didn’t keep him away from it,” Minako says.

But it is Hiroko who Yuuri will call when his spirit is broken; Hiroko who will send Minako to where she cannot follow. Hiroko could resent Minako.

She’d rather be grateful for her.

When Hiroko turns back to the train, Yuuri is already gone from view.

“He’ll make us so proud,” says Minako.

I’m already proud, Hiroko thinks, and does not say.

It takes Victor’s arrival to bring Hiroko’s son as she remembers him home: vibrant and alive and smiling with every part of his body. Hiroko watched her son change over the summer, into the fall, and now sliding deep into winter. Yuuri’s eyes grow steadily brighter. His steps grow lighter. His entire body surges with energy and hope and joy.

Hiroko knows that Victor’s success has nothing to do with the medals that no longer hang around his neck.

Victor will eat three katsudon, proclaim it vkusno, and kiss Hiroko on the cheek with heartfelt gratitude. Hiroko has made her family katsudon for more than thirty years, and Yuuri may have earned his bowl with silver – but Victor is the person Hiroko wants to feed it to the most.

*

“Thank you for waiting, and we apologize for the delay. Our mechanics have finished their work and we will begin boarding Japan Airlines flight 7088 with direct service from Madrid to Tokyo Narita airport in approximately ten minutes.”

Step Three: Fry the pork cutlets in the sesame oil, turning until golden. Set aside.

The oil in the pan sizzles and sparks. The sound is comforting against the noise from the inn, where the party is in full swing. Hiroko hums to herself as she watches the pork cutlets cook. They’re already a light gold at the edges where the panko cooks in the oil. Orders continue to come in from the dining room: spareribs and gyoza, pancakes with scallions and dipping sauces, pork belly skewers and fried oysters, all meant to soak up the beer and sake Toshiya pours for their guests. The kitchen is full of delicious smells: salt and soy and umami. Hiroko tastes every dish, adds a little of this or that, and in the middle of everything, flips the pork cutlets with ease to cook on the other side.

It’s beautiful, the way oil clings to the panko and catches the light. Bubbles shimmer before they burst. The ring on Yuuri’s finger shimmered in the spotlight, nearly as brightly as his eyes as he and Victor circled each other on the ice. Toshiya has said nothing to her, but Hiroko has known him all her life. He loves their son. He is open and caring and accepting, and Hiroko knows he doesn’t have a discriminatory bone in his body. His entire world is the onsen, his family, and Hasetsu. He tends to forget that other destinations exist for other people.

Hiroko thinks he is not upset because of the rings on their fingers, but because he was not consulted beforehand.

Hiroko loves her husband, but she has eyes. She did not need prior warning. The rings – they soothe her and worry her in equal measures. At least Victor and Yuuri are not children any longer.

She was nineteen, when Toshiya slipped the ring on her finger.

“I wish it was bigger,” says Toshiya, but Hiroko stares at the golden ring, so smooth and bright. It doesn’t seem real that she could wear something so pretty.

“It’s beautiful,” says Hiroko, holding her hand up to the sunlight. Married – with a baby on the way. With an onsen and an inn and a husband.

The weight of the ring will steady her. It’s not a terrible thing, not with the responsibilities of marriage and motherhood waiting for her. She’s young, and life is black and white. There won’t be time for anything else in her life – not anymore.

“It’s good,” Hiroko tells Toshiya, and means it.

“You don’t mind, marrying me? You could have gone with Minako and kept dancing,” says Toshiya. About the ring, about the onsen, about cooking dinner for the inn every night. It takes the better part of a year before he stops asking every day. By the time Yuuri is born, seven years later, he hardly asks at all.

“I don’t mind,” Hiroko assures him every time without fail. Smiling, smiling, always smiling.

Hiroko lifts the last pork cutlet from the pan and transfers it to the paper which soaks up the oil. She packs them away, still warm, into the refrigerator.

A glance at the clock; they are in the air, flying over Europe and Asia. She imagines the dull roar of the engines which she has never heard. The discomfort of the seats which she has never used. The plane, dark with people sleeping, except for Minako and Mari who laugh and examine each other’s photos. They would shriek with glee when they see something they do not expect.

Nearby, a pair of silver and black heads tip toward each other in their own pool of light. Their whispers are barely audible over the engines. Hands entwined, breath on skin, quiet smiles without words. Promises shine like sharp slivers of light on their fingers.

Hiroko smiles and smiles, her heart fighting for space in her throat, and she begins to clean up the day’s debris.

*

“Ladies and gentlemen, we are beginning our descent into Tokyo Narita Airport. Please fasten your safety belts and return all tray tables and seats to their upright and locked positions.”

Step Four: Mix the dashi, soy sauce, mirin, and sake together. Chop the onions. Prepare the rice.

Hiroko wakes at sunrise. Toshiya snores beside her. Most days a gentle shove will force him to reposition himself and thus end the snoring, but this morning Hiroko breathes by the rhythm of his snores before swinging her legs out of bed.

It’s snowing outside. Hiroko watches the flakes as they turn to drops of water on the windowpane, and the smile that has not left her face all night is renewed.

It was snowing the day Yuuri was born. It was snowing the day Victor arrived. It’s only fitting that snow brings them both home.

It’s the barking that brings her out of the kitchen, and she almost calls out to Vicchan that she’ll let him out in a moment.

But the barks are just different enough that her automatic response is stilled even before she remembers that Vicchan is gone. Curiosity pushes her into the main room of the onsen where Toshiya is explaining to the new arrival how the onsen and inn are arranged.

She recognizes the young man with the silver hair even if Toshiya does not. She has dusted his photographs and posters for the last decade; of course she knows his face, despite the dark circles under his eyes and the travel-weary slump of his shoulders. Toshiya would go on for hours about price structures and payment options while the young man smiles and nods, only half understanding and struggling to hold the large dog pulling on its leash.

Hiroko kneels on the floor and takes the dog by its ears. He even feels the same as Vicchan. “What is this lovely boy’s name?”

“Makkachin,” says Victor Nikiforov. The smile on his face is stale, etched into his skin like he’s forgotten he even wears it.

“Toshiyo, stop talking his ear off and let him go into the onsen! Can’t you see he’s exhausted?” She looks up at Victor. “Makkachin can stay with me. I’m sure he’s hungry, and it’s no trouble at all.”

It glimmers for a moment – a real smile, a glimpse of the man she’s going to adore. The man she knows has come to show her lost son the way home. “I – yes, she probably is. Thank you.”

The kitchen is just as she left it. She turns on the light and gathers her ingredients: eggs, sake, dashi, and onion. It’s too early to begin. They will not arrive until dinner, and there is so much to be done before then. With the inn closed for the night to give the family some privacy, this is the best opportunity they have for the upkeep that never seems to get done when guests are under foot.  They’ll repair the tatami mats in the guest rooms, caulk around the sinks and toilets and tubs. Add a touch of paint here, a freshly washed and ironed curtain there.

For now, this is her priority. She chops the onions, mixes the sauce, double checks that she has enough rice, enough soy, enough of everything her family will want.

“Snowing,” says Toshiya, entering the kitchen as he pulls on his winter coat and hat. “I’ll need to shovel.”

“What a pity it couldn’t wait until tomorrow when there are younger men to do it for you, eh?” Hiroko teases him, and Toshiya laughs.

“They’d sleep through it! I’d still end up shoveling!” He peers at her worktable. “So early?”

“I want to make sure I’m ready,” says Hiroko, and Toshiya chuckles and leans over to kiss her cheek.

“I agree,” he says, understanding completely.

Hiroko loves him, completely.

Yuuri and Victor clatter into the onsen late in the evening after their practice. Their voices are loud and cheerful as they tease each other, full of ramen and skating and each other’s company. They’re less shy with each other every day, utterly oblivious of what the other guests see as they pass through the main room. Half the guests glare, annoyed to be disturbed from their sake and their television; the other half roll their eyes and continue with their conversation, raising their voices in a subtle effort to remind the young ones to keep their noise down.

A few smile like Hiroko, indulgent and wistful. The air is full of fond memories of past romances, and the feeling lasts until Yuuri and Victor’s voices fade.  

Hiroko looks at Yuuri’s eyes over every meal, sparking with life, and hopes he and Victor will always make as much joyful noise as they can.

It’s quiet in the onsen. There are only a few guests, all of whom will leave before lunch. None of them are very concerned about the snow still blocking the walks. Hiroko busies herself with the mindless tasks that pile up when there is more work than people. As she passes the windows, she looks out to see what sort of progress Toshiya has made on the snow.

He moves with a simple grace, as efficiently and with as much stamina as a man thirty years younger. He lifts the snow shovel, and with an easy flick the slush drops into the snowbank, leaving a black mark on the glittering, icy surface. Over and over, same as he has done for the previous thirty years. Only the color of his hair tells Hiroko that this is Toshiya, fifty-four years old, and not Toshiya at forty… at thirty… at twenty-four, newly married.

Hiroko doesn’t usually have the time to watch. She doesn’t have the time now – there are beds to be made, and rooms to be readied, and food to be prepared.

Toshiya throws the last shovel of snow onto the bank. His return to the house is slower, his muscles no doubt tired from the exertion. Hiroko watches as he knocks the snow from his boots, methodical as always, and toes them off in the genkan before stepping into the house. He glances up at her and smiles.

“Did I do it right?” he teases her. His eyes wrinkle with laughter.

If Hiroko met Toshiya’s eyes, she’d burst into laughter. Instead, she lowers her eyes and heads into the kitchen, where she concentrates on pouring the hot water into the prepared teapot. Toshiya follows her and sits in his chair to wait while she makes their tea. His quiet presence, and the way his smile matches her own, is as warm as if his hands were on her shoulders, as delicate as if he pressed a kiss to her cheek.

The last few days, with just the two of them – Hiroko is almost afraid to admit that she’s rather liked it. They never really had that when they were young, not with Hiroko already pregnant with Mari when they married. The time before her birth sometimes doesn’t seem like it should count. Someday it will be just the two of them, if Mari ever finds someone, gets married, has children and a house and a spouse of her own. Or perhaps Mari will stay with them on the periphery, until they’re both too old to notice. Either possibility has its charms.

Hiroko sets the tray on the table in front of Toshiya. “Sit with me,” he says, and smiling, she does. He pours the tea, and then glances at the clock in the hall. “Not much longer now.”

Hiroko’s heart flutters. The ever-present smile on her face doesn’t falter, though it feels a little tender. “No. Not much longer now.”

*

“Thank you for choosing to fly Peach Aviation. Flight 525 to Fukuoka Airport, now boarding.”

Step Five: Fry the onions in a little bit of oil until golden brown. Add the sliced tonkatsu and the sauce, turning to coat the meat while reheating.

“Hello, Hiroko-san!” calls Yuuko from the front door of the inn. There’s a sharp, excited bark as Makkachin races into the kitchen followed by laughter and the pounding of three sets of feet behind her.

Makkachin skids to a stop, ears flapping and tail wagging furiously. Hiroko lets the tonkatsu continue warming as she bends over and scratches the dog fondly behind her ears.

“Hello, Makkachin,” she says fondly. Makkachin lets out a gentle woof as she sits at Hiroko’s feet, tail brushing the floor.

Axel, Lutz, and Loop scramble onto the tall stools on the other side of the counter. Twenty years ago, it was Mari and Yuuri who ate sat on the stools to eat their afternoon snacks while they did their homework. They would throw sesame sticks and wasabi peas at each other until Hiroko was ready to throw them out on their ears. The triplets are just as boisterous, just as eager to see who can balance a pea on their nose the longest, but instead of fleeting thoughts of drowning them in the onsen, Hiroko’s smiles widen as they giggle.

They are talking over each other – they never stop – and Hiroko thinks that for once, it might not even be about figure skating. Their chatter is familiar, friendly background noise as she reaches for the bowl that Makkachin has claimed as hers.

“I hope Makkachin behaved for you,” Hiroko tells Yuuko. Her hair falls out from her ponytail, and there are lines around her eyes that weren’t there even five years ago, but she’s still as pretty as the day Yuuri shyly introduced her.

“Better than these brats,” says Yuuko fondly as she ruffles Lutz’s hair. “I hope Victor doesn’t mind that we borrowed Makkachin while he’s gone. The girls are desperate for a dog. I think they entertained each other very well.”

“Has Takeshi-kun left for the airport yet?”

“No, he’ll leave in about half an hour, so I can’t stay. There’s a birthday party at the rink this afternoon, but I knew Victor would expect Makkachin to be here when he arrives. This was my only chance to bring her back.” Yuuko bends and scratches Makkachin behind the ears.

Hiroko sets the bowl in its customary place. Makkachin begins to eat, tail still wagging. The girls chatter away, happily oblivious to everything but their own machinations, and Hiroko cards her fingers through Makkachin’s brown curls.

She isn’t really that much like Vicchan, apart from their general appearance. When Vicchan had been a puppy, he’d been so full of life and energy. He’d been in trouble more often than the triplets. The older he got, the more nervous he became. Loud noises, new people, being left alone for too long… none of it sat well with Vicchan. He’d been five years old when Yuuri had left for college, but the worst of it didn’t manifest until the following year. He’d crawl on his belly toward Hiroko, shaking and shivering, tail and legs held close to his body as if he was afraid to reach out for help. He was sweet with the family, but cautious of strangers. The triplets would send him scurrying to Yuuri’s room where he’d crouch under the bed until they left again. He never bit anyone, just shied away and whimpered. Hiroko had loved him desperately because he’d been Yuuri’s.

Makkachin is Victor’s, but she’s wormed her way into Hiroko’s heart in much the same way. Makkachin is older, steadier. She still has spurts of energy – she runs with the boys to the Ice Castle every day, but then she sleeps contently until they’re ready to come home. When she’s at the inn, she follows either Victor or Hiroko, happy to be near them, always pleasant and well-behaved.

Hiroko wishes Vicchan had lived just a little longer. She has no doubt that Makkachin would have been good for him.

“Ooh, are you making katsudon?” asks Yuuko, peering at the ingredients lined up on the counter.

“Yuuri didn’t win!” shouts Lutz.

“Yeah, he got silver, I thought he had to get gold for katsudon!” agrees Loop, also at a shout.

“He did get gold, didn’t you see the rings!” shouts Axel, and the girls burst into laughter.

“Girls!” shouts Yuuko. “That’s enough!”

“Could you flip the tonkatsu, Yuu-chan, please?” says Hiroko, and gives Makkachin another scratch behind the ears. Makkachin’s tail thumps against the floor.

“Mom, we’re going to the onsen!” yells Loop, and the three tumble off the stools and are off.

“Don’t steal any of Yuuri’s socks this time!” Yuuko shouts after them, and then slumps against the counter as soon as they’re gone. “Please don’t tell me I’m going to miss these years. I’m totally happy to work out a trade for the dog, if you want to relive them yourself.”

“I did my time,” says Hiroko, amused. She gives Makkachin one final scratch before standing. The blood rushes to her head.

“…and then we did arabesques all way across the ice, and Coach said they were perfectly in line with each other, and then Yuu-chan did do a triple Salchow, Mom. A TRIPLE SALCHOW! Coach says if I can get my spins as fast as hers, he’s going to choreograph a program for us to skate together if we want to try pairs—"

“Ah,” says Hiroko, trying to hide the smile she knows will embarrass her son. She thinks of the sweet little girl she’s met at the rink, who clearly dotes on Yuuri and is very likely just as responsible for keeping him on the ice as Minako is for introducing him to it. “Do you like skating with Yuu-chan?”

Yuuri makes a face. “I can’t do triple Salchows yet.”

“If Coach thinks you’d be a good pair skater, though—"

Yuuri makes a face. “Mom. I’d have to pick her up. By… holding her… there.” He makes a frantic gesture with his hands, pointing down, as his face goes all red. Hiroko wants to shriek with laughter. “What if I dropped her? What if I clip her head with my skate when we’re spinning? What if—"

Yuuri might protest, but Hiroko sees the way he stammers and flushes whenever Yuuko is near. “Well – she’s a little bit older. If you practice, I’m sure you’ll be as good as she is.”

“I don’t want to be as good as Yuu-chan, though,” exclaims Yuuri. “I want to be as good as Victor Nikiforov!”

There’s a touch on Hiroko’s sleeve. The fabric shifts against her skin.

“Are you all right, Hiroko-san?” asks Yuuko, worried. “It’s very warm in here, let me get you something to drink.”

Her head is clear now. Makkachin sighs and goes to curl up on the blanket where she’s been known to nap in the evenings while Victor and Yuuri are in the onsen. Hiroko can hear the triplets somewhere in the inn. Their cheerful voices mingle with Toshiya’s mock-enraged growls of impatience as he playfully attempts to put them to work.

Yuuko’s eyes are round and worried, her face filled with concern. Her hand is still light on Hiroko’s arm.

Once, Hiroko had watched her skate with Yuuri, double visions across the ice.

They’ll marry one day, she thinks idly, watching her son and his friend laugh as they copy another skater’s winning routine. They’ll run the Ice Castle together, Yuuri will teach small children to skate, and every Saturday night they’ll come to the inn to eat katsudon, surrounded by family.

It’s a pretty dream. The only trouble is that the only other person who shares anything like it is the older boy sitting on the bench next to her, eyes only for Yuuko.

“I’m all right,” says Hiroko. Impulsively, she touches Yuuko’s cheek.

Yuuko and Takeshi bring the triplets to the inn every Saturday morning so they can take a dip in the onsen. The girls sit on the high stools in the kitchen while Hiroko makes them lunch. They chatter about school and skating in equal amounts. Loop helps her dish out the rice and Axel loves to measure out the ingredients and Lutz is determined to leave the counter impeccably clean and Hiroko loves the three of them so much it hurts.

Yuuko’s eyes shine. Hiroko smiles, and pats Yuuko’s cheek.

“You’ll come for dinner tonight, won’t you? We’re going to close to guests, I don’t think Yuuri-kun or Vicchan will want strangers around to ogle.”

“Of course,” says Yuuko. She’s still surprised by Hiroko’s touch. “I need to talk to Victor anyway – if he’s returning to competitive skating, he’ll need more practice time—"

Hiroko drops her hand. “Yes,” she agrees, the smile never wavering. “He will.”

*

“Thank you for flying Peach Airlines, and welcome to Fukuoka Airport, or wherever your final destination may be.”

Step Six: pour the egg over the hot katsudon and sprinkle on the green onions. Cook until the egg is slightly less done than preferred. (It will continue cooking as you take it to the table.)

The minutes tick down, each lasting longer than the previous one. Toshiya finds endless things to do while he bustles around the inn. Hiroko watches, smiling with affection, as he glances at the clock and peers out the window to the street.

“They don’t have wings,” she tells him. “They are probably still waiting for their luggage.”

“They landed an hour ago. Takeshi-kun must be on the highway by now,” huffs Toshiya before he goes to dust the alcohol bottles again.

Hiroko chuckles and checks on her children’s bedrooms. Makkachin follows her; he watches patiently from Mari’s doorway as Hiroko straightens the blankets and finds a stray sock on the floor. When Hiroko opens the door to Victor’s room, the dog ambles in and hops up on the bed without hesitation. She turns around twice before settling in for a nap.

Victor’s room is neat and clean. He’s a tidy boy, never even leaves his towel on the back of a chair. Hiroko straightens a picture that doesn’t need straightening and runs her hand over Makkachin’s footprints on the otherwise smooth bedspread. She wonders what Victor’s apartment in Saint Petersburg is like. Surely it cannot possibly be as much him as this temporary room in Hasetsu.

Yuuri’s room has a perpetually disheveled air to it even when every item is in its place. She goes through again anyway, trying to make it look welcome and inviting – and perhaps it does, despite the thrown-together feel. Most of the posters of Victor have long since disappeared, though Hiroko doesn’t think Yuuri has gone so far as to throw them away. Hiroko pulls Yuuri’s bedspread a bit neater, fluffs his pillow a bit higher, and straightens the curtains over his window. Her son’s room is tiny, tucked away in the forgotten back in a corner of the inn.

The view from the window is Hiroko’s favorite. She can see nearly all of Hasetsu stretched out below. In the wintertime, it’s a stark, melodramatic sight. Dark trees, plain without their leaves, are faded ink-marks crawling up to the sky. The snow from that morning has stopped falling, and Hiroko has no doubt that the slush on the streets has turned brown and ugly with travel. From Yuuri’s window, she can see the puffs of snow tucked onto rooftops turning sharp lines of buildings and cars and fences into gracious curves.

The water in Hasetsu Bay is ice-white and blue and grey. It looks larger when it’s cold, or perhaps the city, drained of springtime color, seems to bleed into it. The ships in the water are quick brushes, moving in and out. Hiroko spends too long watching them come and go, content in Yuuri’s cozy little room.

When Yuuri left six years before, Hiroko counted the minutes until his return, never thinking it would be half a decade before she saw him again. Now that he is home, she doesn’t count the minutes until he leaves. If she did, there would come a point where she’d have to stop counting.

Somewhere in the inn, a door slams. For a moment, Hiroko’s heart leaps in her throat, shoving the smiles that have remained lodged there straight out as she gasps with their loss.

Without her backlog of smiles, the tears she’s successfully kept at bay spring to Hiroko’s eyes. She’s not counting down the minutes – but they’re still being counted all the same.

They’re here. They can’t be here. I’m not ready for them to leave.

But Yuuri’s clock shows it’s only a little past four. Even if they had wings, if traffic was light, if all the stars aligned – they won’t be home for another half hour.

Hiroko can feel the minutes tick away.

She still needs to finish preparing the katsudon.

*

“Yuuri!”

Smiling, smiling, smiling. Running out from the kitchen, arms outstretched, and hadn’t she done exactly this a year before? Only that time, Yuuri had worn a sheepish, embarrassed grin, his chin tucked into his coat and hat and scarf.

Now he stands tall. His smile is genuine, and the light in his eyes matches the joy in Hiroko’s heart.

A year ago, guilt and sorrow stopped her before she could even hug him. Now his joy draws her in, and she presses her face against his coat to hear his heart beating.

“Hi, Mom. We’re home.”

Her smile on his face, not reflected – expanded.

*

Step Seven: Serve the hot katsudon in a bowl over rice. Drizzle with the remaining sauce, and garnish with spring onions.

Everyone tells her to sit down and eat with them. But she can’t. There’s too much to do, too much to carry. She can see the exhaustion in their faces, their relief to finally sit in seats that aren’t hurtling forward at breakneck speed.

The satisfied joy on Minako’s face.

The unabashed pride on Mari.

The excited anticipation of Victor.

The amazed contentment on Yuuri. He startles when she sets the katsudon in front of him, but he smiles up at her, so bright and young. She sees him at all his ages – seventeen and ten and five and two. His eyes are still red from his travel, and dark circles show his need for sleep.

“I didn’t win, Mom.”

“I don’t withhold things you want in exchange for winning gold medals,” says Hiroko. The table erupts into laughter and sputtered protestations. Yuuri’s face is beet-red.

Their rings flash in the light. Victor can’t keep his hands still. He reaches for the sake, he reaches for the rice, he reaches to steal a bite of Yuuri’s katsudon. They wrestle with their chopsticks before Victor gives up only to try to steal some of the katsudon from the triplets without realizing quite how viciously they guard their bowls. After his chopsticks end up embedded in the wall, he stops trying.

Makkachin, after an enthusiastic and ecstatic greeting for Victor, follows Hiroko between the table and the kitchen.

“You’ve stolen my dog’s heart,” Victor tells Hiroko mournfully even as he smiles. “With pork buns.”

“You can win her back. I’ll have some ready in a moment,” Hiroko promises him with a fond pat on Makkachin’s soft topknot. Victor smiles and shakes his head.

It’s later that she overhears the conversation in the garden.

“It isn’t that I didn’t know this was coming,” Toshiya says to Victor. “You and he have been obvious from the beginning, but I would have appreciated a word of warning.”

“It isn’t that I didn’t see this coming,” says Hiroko’s father as he tries to look stern, even as her mother sings lullabies in the background. Hiroko knows he’s already planning how to best spoil the coming baby. “I would have appreciated a different order of events, however.”

“I would have as well,” says Victor wryly. He holds up his hand, looking at the ring. “Yuuri never fails to surprise me.”

Later, Toshiya kisses Hiroko under the cherry blossoms. “I don’t regret the order, not for a moment,” he whispers into her skin, his hands soft on her waist.

Toshiya is speechless for a moment. “Wait… Yuuri? Our Yuuri? Asked you?”

Hiroko, somehow, isn’t surprised at all.

She goes back to the dining room. They’re still eating, still laughing, still sitting around the table sharing stories of Barcelona and Detroit, of long ago pairs competitions and summertime trips to the beach. The triplets slip pork buns split in twos and threes to Makkachin, who gobbles them up. Yuuko is tucked into Takeshi’s side, giggling as Mari tells her a story about a dinner and a series of ever-more ridiculous photos on someone’s phone. Takeshi and Yuuri are already discussing Victor’s strategy for the rest of the season.

Hiroko’s happiness is quieter now. The smiles no longer fight to work their way out. They don’t lodge in her throat – instead they radiate out from every pore.

Victor rejoins them, settling on his knees on the cushion next to Yuuri. He wraps his arms around Yuuri, resting his chin on Yuuri’s shoulder. Yuuri doesn’t stop talking to Takeshi as Victor closes his eyes and presses his face into Yuuri’s neck.

Hiroko sees Yuuri relax. She sees one hand rest on Victor’s arm, their fingers twining together. His head tips, just a bit, to press his chin against Victor’s hair. Yuuri’s ring flashes on the hand he’s still using to gesture to Takeshi, but he never stops talking.

It won’t be long now. Hiroko counts the minutes greedily, determined to savor every one. They will take Makkachin as soon as her papers can be arranged for travel. Hiroko knows Yuuri and Victor won’t be back for a very long time. They’ll want to be together, the three of them.

No one else realizes this. Perhaps even Yuuri doesn’t know that he won’t be in Hasetsu at the end of the year.

Victor knows. Hiroko can see it in the way he looks at all of them as if he’s trying to commit them to memory. Perhaps that’s why he holds Yuuri so tightly instead of joining in the conversation about his future. Hiroko wonders if he’s nervous – if he thinks there is even the slightest possibility that Yuuri would not follow him.

Silly man.

“Hiroko,” says Toshiya, appearing at her elbow. His face is worn and familiar, and he breaks into a smile that doesn’t break her heart. “Surely everything is on the table now? Sit and eat with us.”

Hiroko smiles, because that is what she does. Smiles, smiles, smiles, and there’s an untouched bowl of katsudon waiting for her on the table, where the triplets have been jealously guarding it from foreign invaders, or at least chopsticks that aren’t wielded by Hiroko herself.

“Sit,” says Toshiya again.

“Yes,” says Hiroko, and she sits to eat.