"Almost all of our past winners are present," Galina Ulanova said to Lilia Baranovskaya during the Moscow International Ballet competition that they were judging together. "Though it’s such a shame that Minako Okunawa retired from the international community, don’t you think? She was such an exotic breath of air — I don’t think that Korean woman has quite the same radiance, no?"
Lilia took a sip of the complimentary champagne, and then answered, quite dryly, "To be entirely honest, I didn’t know she had retired." It was painfully obvious Minako Okunawa hadn’t come and Lilia couldn’t have missed it.
"But didn’t she take that Carmen role from you? If it were me, I would have followed her career with eagle eyes. And even so, when I heard she was retiring due to health problems, I felt a bit of a thrill. After all, I’m almost thirty years her senior, and I’m still dancing."
"Well," Lilia said, tartly, parrying the blow with a counterattack, "maybe she doesn’t call what you do dancing anymore, like the rest of us."
Galina, instead of taking it personally, laughed. "You’re right," she said. "My best times are behind me. But I didn’t think she would quit after that performance at the Benois de la Danse. She could have aged out gracefully by going into choreography, or terrorising the youth, like the rest of us.“
Galina grinned, as they watched the youth around them giving them a wide, respectful berth. Lilia saluted the young woman who was this year‘s top ballerina with her glass of champagne. It was French champagne, as it had been for the last two times the competition was held — Lilia missed the old Krimskoye Shampanskoye. That was gauche to say, though, and at least the caviar was good.
"I must have missed what happened," Lilia commented. She didn’t comment on the aging-out-gracefully part, although gossips were already speculating over when her own feet would finally give way under her. They hadn’t yet.
"You didn’t miss much," Galina said, and moved her shoulders backwards — the shrug one learned onstage. "One day, she was getting rave reviews about 'The Firebird,' next thing everyone heard about was her retiring from the Royal Dance Academy in Paris — and then nothing. I thought Dimitrev tried contacting her once, but he didn’t managed to reach her. Maybe a contract breach? It is very mysterious, no?"
"It is quite normal to want to retire at that age. A lot of ballerinas do."
Galina sighed. "That is true," she said. "Not a lot of dancers of her calibre, though. And you once said she had potential. I haven’t heard you say that of anyone else since."
"Clearly, I was wrong." Lilia was aware that that came out frosty, but she could not help it. How could she have missed Minako Okunawa’s retirement? Was it during the long months of coaching Yakov’s new prized student, which didn’t help her marriage after all? Had she been otherwise distracted during the period when Yakov declared himself destitute and said he needed all of the income to pay her support in a desperate bid to halt the final divorce proceedings, and she had to spend almost every day with lawyers? Or when Yakov had tried to pretend he wasn’t pushing sixty in a truly misguided attempt to win her back, or in a second attempt at a midlife-crisis, depending on who you asked?
She didn’t remember, didn’t know. And all of the sudden it was vital to know that Minako — who was graceful as an angel and mesmerising to watch, and that was Lilia’s own quote from the magazine 'Voice of Russia'— was doing fine.
"How is your husband, by the way?" Galina asked in that curious way of hers, that was at once both offensive and entirely devoid of guile. Nureyev once called her "entirely absorbed in dance and totally unreceptive to backstage intrigue," but he never had to deal with her pointed questions.
"Good. He’s training the junior figure skating champion," she answered. "The divorce is getting finalised next week, pending imminent disasters."
"Oh! I didn’t hear about that," Galina said. Lilia knew better than to believe her. Staying on top of all pertinent gossip was how Galina had kept out of the way of backstage backstabbing for the last three decades.
Minako, however, bore thinking about.
Minako had swept the ballet world in a storm — had danced herself to success in the Royal Ballet and then taken to international touring like a duck to water. There, Lilia had met her, even before most people suspected, since she came to Russia not a year after to win the Benois de la Danse. Lilia (and Galina, too) had been judging the competition.
Minako was a remarkable talent from a country who hadn’t produced prima ballerinas before, had had an astonishing repertoire. There was one piece Lilia had originally choreographed for a ballerina of her caliber, but during practise Minako had injured her knee and so Lilia had taken it on herself.
Unlike Galina, who retired because of a back injury, Minako had returned to dance the Giselle, but retired soon after anyway. Maybe because of complication with the injury? It didn’t bear thinking about.
Galina was perfectly blunt to the point of rudeness; she snorted, when this year‘s winner in the ballerina category flounced across the dance floor, in the peculiar elastic way of dancers only familiar with classical routines — something that looked entirely out of the ordinary in ballroom dancing. "They do get younger every year, don’t they?"
When Lilia left what was now Yakov's flat on a Tuesday, she had no intention of going to Japan, or heading into the general vicinity of Minako.
Yakov had been exasperating as usual, maybe even more so. They had already divided up their assets, and Lilia's trophy collection had been lying in storage for over a year now, but Lilia figured she owed it to him to at least see him couldn’t help but be familiar with him when she was back in town.
Except then he’d asked her to take another look at Nikiforov’s choreography, and Lilia snapped back.
"It’s only a little bit of work," he said, wheedling, in the way she liked least.
"Another little look at Nikiforov’s work so he can pretend he choreographed his work alone — oh, wait, I remember, that was you. You said Victor choreographed his own work."
"I’m sorry, I said so — you know I am!"
"You’re always sorry afterwards! But then you continue disrespecting what I’m doing, devaluing my work!"
"You know I respect you very much," Yakov said.
"Oh, yes? Then why haven’t you clarified that Victor does not, in fact, do all of his choreography? You say you respect me, but your actions do not show that at all."
"And I am very appreciative of every minute you spend teaching him how to perform, Lilia, it’s not that much work."
"Why don’t you do it yourself then, if it’s so easy? I can’t deal with this any more — I’m going back to Moscow, where people appreciate me," she yelled, grabbed her bag, and went outside to wait for her taxi to the airport.
Even just standing outside, she felt — bad, for letting her temper get the best of her, but not bad enough to go back and apologise for something she meant from the depth of her heart. Yakov was very much not prone to introspection, which might be uncharacteristic for someone working in a field that involved performative expressions of feelings — but in her long years in a similar field, she’d learnt that performers expressing their feelings for all to see were often the most repressed of them all.
She had packed her bags with the intent to take them back Moscow before Yakov had come in and asked her to evaluate Victor’s new performance. Once she had cooled down, she was probably going to call Victor himself, since Yakov’s version of events should always be taken with a grain of salt.
She had already argued the taxi driver down to a quarter of the price he originally quoted, and told herself she wasn’t going to scream no matter which harebrained route he was planning on taking to the airport, when she suddenly realised that she had absolutely nothing planned in her near future. Her marriage had ended, and the Bolshoi wouldn't expect her back for another four months. In fact, her understudy would probably hire an assassin should she try to return before her break was over.
Her itinerary was free for the first time in years, maybe decades. It was a heady feeling.
Out of the window of her taxi, the drab streets of St. Petersburg passed by, in an inimitable mix of stop and dash only Russian taxi drivers could sustain. It was the end of February, and Moscow was going to look much the same, grey, cold, and miserable. Her apartment would be empty.
It was the Russian way to feel miserable; they had plenty of art to prove that.
When she got out of the taxi cab, she stepped into a puddle that seemed to reach all the way to the Baltic.
The Domodedovo airport might have been even more boring and drab than the one in St. Petersburg, and that was saying something: the Pulkovo was regarded as one of the finest post-modern Soviet masterpieces. Lilia wasn’t a fan of post-modernism in architecture, unlike in ballet. It made the drabness of the nine months of freezing cold more drab, and the three months of burning heat unbearable. Sometimes, it felt as if the only season strong enough to withstand Russia was the winter, and wasn’t that a bleak perspective.
When she arrived at the ostentatious apartment in one of Stalin’s Sisters, she set down her luggage. She could feel the white stucco pressing down on her. It had felt like a satisfying giant fuck-you, to take the apartment Yakov liked best, but now Lilia had to deal with the fact that she didn’t actually like it all that much. Then again, neither had she liked any of their other Moscow residences. One could get used to anything, and what was a slightly ostentatious home in the grand scheme of things? It was an ostentatious home Yakov didn’t have.
She sat down primly on the canapé, stared at the golden leaves decorating the wall around the window.
It was quiet.
There was no way she was going to stay the next months in Moscow, staring at the wall, waiting for— Lilia stood up.
She went to her unpacked luggage sitting next to the door.
Then she picked up the bag with her essentials — passport, clothing and shoes for every eventuality, four different practise leotards, and three ballerinas in different colours, all broken in — and left.
Soon, Lilia sat in the plane on the way to Tokyo, next to a Japanese businessman who seemed to recognise her on some level but was too polite to ask, and was inordinately pleased about leaving Russia. Not because she didn’t like living there — she wouldn’t have quite the same opportunities to do what she did anywhere else — but because it felt like the thrill of freedom, to travel wherever she wanted. The mess of her first years as a ballerina, when she wasn’t allowed to travel out of the country, was long behind her and yet sometimes it lingered.
Lilia had been to Tokyo before, and it looked, from the window of her taxi, to be as cosmopolitan as she remembered. The cab driver was meticulously keeping to traffic regulations, and Lilia had never met a more considerate driver. It gave her goosebumps.
The Tokyo ballet institution however wasn’t worth the ground it was built on.
"We didn’t expect you were coming," the person she spoke with on the phone not 18 hours prior said, when she arrived.
"I did phone ahead," Lilia told her.
The principal choreographer was visibly flustered and hadn’t been expecting her.
This season, the Tokyo Ballet was doing a rendition of one of her prized ballets, the 'Bolero'. The obligatory invitation for the premiere had probably been lost among the staple of invitations Lilia normally received, and she hadn’t bothered to find it. Usually, it was much easier to just show up, and look disdainful and vaguely expectant.
Like now, it was also much more effective. "Just a moment, Baranovskaya-san," the choreographer said, and hurried to find someone above her in the ballet hierarchy.
None of them had spoken to Minako Okunawa in what seemed like years. In order to obtain more in-depth information, Lilia was obliged to sit through the production as if that was what she had come to do.
Even with the VIP treatment, and a place next to a princess of the royal house — as if Lilia wasn’t a communist true and through — it was a waste of her time. While it was supposed to be a homage to her 'Bolero' (and why a Japanese audience would be familiar with a Spanish composition choreographed by a Russian ballerina was anyone’s guess), the ballerina lacked in temperament, and in the inherent attitude of the piece. The performance didn’t lack form, it embodied the form — but the principal dancer wasn’t feeling the music. It felt flat, and there was nothing anyone could do about it, least of all Lilia who had for all of her flaws never failed to put the feeling into her performances.
"And, how do you find it?" the royal whose name was even less interesting than the show on the stage, asked her with an inimitable polite smile.
Lilia didn’t know what exactly her face was expressing, but she said, "Very nice," and that was the only words they exchanged for the length of the interlude.
The production itself was decent enough, but Lilia had hardwired memories of someone else doing better, dancing her vision of the music into a better reality. Had known herself exactly how to dance this, so that it felt intoxicating, that nothing else mattered but the dance. With the Tokyo Ballet’s chosen interpretation as a pas de deux, it didn’t connect in the same way.
Her feet were itching, from the need to show these dancers up. (Maybe also the long flight.)
Lilia could not figure out why they didn’t cast Minako — the piece had been in her repertoire, even if she had never danced in front of a public audience. It had worked well, some might have said better than Lilia’s own. Unlike this one.
At least they could point her towards Minako‘s place of residence, and that was worth the torture of smiling at people who admired her without getting the point.
Minako’s ballet studio was in a tiny village on Kyushu Island, a village which, according to the inflight magazine, subsisted mostly on tourism. Lots of beautiful shrines, and temperate weather in the summers.
The weather seemed awfully similar to the one she had just left, though maybe a tick warmer. Lilia wrapped her Burberry coat tighter, and regretted not wearing boots. Luckily, there was another incredible polite taxi driver to lead her closer to her destination.
In Hatsetsu proper, the taxi driver gave her directions to the address she had been handed by the Tokyo Ballet — they hadn’t given it out frivolously, and she had in fact needed to pretend Minako Okunawa was being considered for a lifetime achievement award — though why she would get a lifetime achievement award after retiring was a mystery the organisation hadn’t stopped to consider. Lilia gingerly stepped onto the stairs that had been pointed out in broken English, and went up to the second story. There, she rang the bell.
A grumpy voice shouted from inside, and then Minako opened her door. She was wearing a close fitting tank-top and low slung sweat pants, both in grey, and was muttering something in Japanese, clearly not aware of her surroundings. She looked — young, Lilia supposed, having expected for some reason, a woman her own age. It was almost noon, though, and Minako looked like she had been sleeping — or nursing a hangover, Lilia wasn’t sure.
Minako blinked. "You aren’t Yuuri," she said, in English. Her voice was raspy. It could have been sleep, Lilia supposed. Or maybe a lifelong smoking habit that destroyed her constitution early.
"No," Lilia answered, instead of saying hello like a normal human being.
"Lilia— excuse me, Madame Baranovskaya," Minako said politely. Then, she seemed to decide that politeness was the wrong approach, and asked, "What the fuck are you doing here?"
"The honorific works better when you don’t follow it up with insults," Lilia said. It was still not quite what she had meant to say, but it was a full sentence more than she had managed before.
"How did you find me?" Minako asked, squinting against the light of sun from the balcony. Hangover, then, Lilia concluded. With maybe a bit of a sleep deprivation for good measure.
"I looked you up on the internet," Lilia said. "Then, the Japanese Ballet Association was very helpful in pointing me your way." When Minako made an effort to close the door on her, she put forward her foot and umbrella, and wedged herself through the door.
Behind her, the door fell shut. Now in the dark, Minako looked better, less like something fresh out of the wringer, and still like she hadn’t aged a bit since her time as the prima ballerina of the Royal Ballet.
"You look good," Lilia said, though it did hurt her soul to admit it.
"Chhe—" Minako said, "Don’t hurt yourself. I know exactly how I look, and it isn’t to the standards of the prima ballerina assoluta."
Lilia didn’t know how to reply to that — had, in fact, come to Hatsetsu to persuade Minako to return to the industry to at least judge some of the young talent at ballet competitions. It was a waste to have her rotting away in obscurity. She could do anything, even work for the Tokyo ballet and Lilia wouldn’t mind (much). "I’m not prima ballerina assoluta any longer. Just, occasionally, I fill in with some programs."
They stared at each other for a while.
Lilia wanted to ask her about her breakdown, wanted to ask her about drinking on a weekday, wanted to ask none of these things, because asking them might mean she cared, and she didn’t. "I heard you quit ballet," she said instead.
Minako laughed. It was a dry, unhappy sound. "No—" she answered. "I couldn’t."
"I see," Lilia said, but didn’t. To all appearances, Minako had vanished from the public eye, not even engaging a publicist.
Minako sighed. Then, she pointed towards her kitchen. "Please," she said. "Sit down. Do you want something to drink?"
Lilia went in, sat down. She vaguely remembered some cultural hang-up about footwear, and took off her heels. She watched Minako open her cabinet doors — she looked limber, and not at all like a debilitating injury prevented her from dancing. Sometimes though, appearances were deceiving.
"I have water and tea," Minako said after a brief perusal of her cupboards.
"Tea, please," Lilia answered, and suddenly felt completely out of her depth. Now that she was here, she had forgotten entirely what her purpose had been in coming. Had she even had a purpose? Or was she just fleeing from her own problems and her own life?
"It’s the fancy kind," Minako said, and turned towards her. Lilia couldn’t avert her eyes quickly enough, and so she was caught staring at Minako. "You can’t overbrew it and keep it warm for the next couple of days."
"I know how tea works," Lilia snapped.
Minako didn’t engage, and that was most peculiar about this experience yet — the way that graceful, dazzling Minako Okunawa had turned into this defeated woman wearing worn-out clothes sleeping in until noon.
"What brings you to Japan," Minako asked, instead. But it was still there in all her movements — the way she used the minimal space to its full extent, the way she poured water over tea leaves, the way she turned on pointed feet, the way she stood at rest in ballet positions—
"At the Moscow International Ballet competition, I heard you had retired," Lilia said.
"That was years ago," Minako said, slightly incredulous. "I mean, I retired years ago. How have you only heard — didn’t the competition end five days ago?"
"Yes," Lilia answered, and daintily took a sip of the tea. It was burning hot, but she swallowed anyway and kept a straight face all the way through. This was terrifying.
"Yes to what — the competition?"
"Both. Either. I didn’t know."
Minako looked into her own cup of tea, and swirled the cup in her hand. "Is that supposed to make me feel better? That you didn’t notice your rival didn’t manage to join you as prima ballerina assoluta? That you didn’t realise for some reason—" she broke off.
"There’s no valid excuse," Lilia said, "but I was divorcing my husband."
Minako laughed. If Lilia hadn’t known her, she would have thought it was genuine. "Divorcing a husband," she said, with a wry twist to her mouth.
Suddenly, there was a knock at the door. "Minako-sensei?" a male voice called. "Are you awake?" Lilia didn’t have any idea of what he was saying — but context gave her enough clues to understand the essence.
Minako called out an invitation towards the door, keeping an eye on Lilia.
Lilia couldn’t help but stare back, as the same voice replied in a more timid manner. Then, the door opened. From her vantage point in the kitchen, Lilia couldn’t really s ee the newcomer w hen he came in. She was wondering whether Minako had married herself, if maybe this was the boyfriend coming over to check on her, when the boy — because it was a boy — came into the kitchen.
He hunched his shoulders slightly, straightening up under the sharp look of Lilia, and quite naturally assumed position, feet turned outwards. A danseur.
"And here I thought you turned your back on the ballet world," Lilia couldn’t help but comment. She took another sip of tea to hide her satisfaction, and looked over the boy standing in front of her. He was not tall enough for classical ballet — likely wouldn’t ever be, but a classical education was never a waste.
"Lilia, meet Yuuri," Minako said. "Yuuri, this was one of my ballet teachers."
Lilia choked on the tea. A ballet teacher? The boy — Yuuri bowed to her, making her feel even more like the remnant of an ancient society no longer relevant; even though ballet in Russia had been thoroughly socialised, and besides, she was more than a couple of decades too young to remember Tsarist Russia.
"Nice to meet you, I’m Katsuki Yuuri," the boy said in perfunctory if slightly stilted English.
Lilia arched an eyebrow. "Nice to meet you, too," she said, and then addressed Minako, "Where did you possibly find him?"
"Ahh," Minako sighed. "Yuuri is the son of an old — friend. And you have it wrong. Yuuri isn’t a dancer, he’s a figure skater."
Lilia studied the boy again, the slender build with a core of strength, the way he looked straight through her stare, and didn’t move a muscle, and then said, with heartfelt depth, "What a shame."
For the first time, he twitched, obviously not having expected that. What a coincidence that he would turn out to be the son of Minako’s —friend: judging from the brief hesitation, probably a past lover.
"Lilia’s husband trains figure skaters, too," Minako explained.
"Ex-husband," Lilia corrected. She stepped closer to Yuuri, while Minako rolled her eyes. Without forewarning, she pushed his feet into first position, then grabbed his leg to figure out his agility.
"Her ex-husband trains the Russian junior champion, you know."
Yuuri wobbled, either because he had been balancing on one foot, or because of the unexpected turn in conversation, then grabbed ahold of the chair in front of him. He had an astonishing range of movement.
"Eh, what—" he tried protesting. "Victor Niciforov?"
Lilia took the cue of his open jaw to look further into his mouth. "No cavities," she noted. Then, she let go of his bended leg, and watched as he quite naturally assumed his resting position again. There was something quite captivating about him.
"Terrible form," she said and glanced at a grinning Minako; they both knew that his form was excellent. "I guess with a bit of work it’ll be good enough for figure skating."
"Is your husband really coaching Victor Nikiforov?" Yuuri asked, his eyes wide in disbelief. "Does he really choreograph his programs himself?"
Lilia knew Minako couldn’t have set this up — Lilia hadn’t phoned ahead and there was no chance she could have arranged this kind of grilling beforehand — but she felt the usual twinge of suspicion all the same. "He wishes he could choreograph his programs himself," she said.
Yuuri, who clearly had some kind of [crush] on her husband’s star student, stared at her in obvious awe. "But he said he did," he protested.
Lilia crossed her leg and took another sip of her meanwhile almost cold tea. "He has an innate understanding of how to impress his audience," she allowed. "But he’s far away from doing everything himself. He also has a deep-seated disregard for his own health and safety. Figure skating, like ballet, demands much from developing bodies and it’s very important to know your limits — and recognise them so your body does not give out under you."
"I’ve never choreographed anything," Yuuri said, desolate.
"Are you trying to go into figure skating professionally, then?" Lilia asked, and shot Minako another look. She was leaning against the kitchen counter, her arms across her breasts, and the way her hipbone jutted out between the hem of her top and the string of her pants was distracting, to say the least. Very sloppy.
"Yes," he said with emphasis. He stared at her, as if he expected her to insult or belittle him.
"He’s been looking for a coach."
"Look for someone who coaches for you, and not for your government, then," Lilia said, with a tinge of bitterness.
Minako didn’t look at her, even though that barb had been aimed at Yakov not at her. Yuuri nodded as if she had dispensed grand wisdom. Lilia was close to sighing. She didn’t know why she had come here. Minako was perfectly happy in her new life with a new lover, and no audience that could turn on her at any minute. What was Lilia still doing here?
"You could show her your choreography," Minako suggested to Yuuri.
Yuuri shuffled his feet and looked like he didn't want to show anything to her, let alone an unfinished program.
"She's probably seen quite a lot of choreography in her time." Minako was probably referring to Lilia’s time with Yakov, and wasn’t talking about how Lilia was a has-been, how she should have retired a long time ago, but the words she used had that meaning all the same, and Lilia’s head wasn’t screwed straight, and this was a terrible place to be.
"I have," Lilia allowed. "I'll also say that Victor didn't learn choreography from my former husband."
"You could come to the rink tomorrow," Yuuri offered. He shuffled his feet. Then, he changed to rapid-fire Japanese, and Lilia couldn’t follow. Minako replied the same way, and they continued to hold a conversation excluding her.
Lilia began to study the appartment’s decoration — not a lot of ornaments, plenty of clean lines. The bamboo and the thin sheets of rice paper made it seem entirely foreign, but in a way that was still welcoming and invited touch.
"Lilia?" Minako called her back to the conversation, "Say, how long are you planning to stay? And where will you be staying?"
Lilia blinked, but managed to keep the sinking feeling contained to the inside of her body. She couldn’t believe she had forgotten to book a place to stay overnight. "I never book places before arriving anywhere," she replied with condescending hauteur. "How would I know if they aren’t scamming me at the booking office?" Frantically, her mind searched for memories of the inflight magazine. "I’m here for the hot springs, of course. I’m staying until my next engagement, or when I get bored of the local — sights."
Obviously her story was convincing enough for Minako — but Yuuri looked at her as if he was believing none of it. Lilia glowered at him, and he ducked into the doorway.
"I’ll be leaving, too," Lilia said, and stood up. "It was nice seeing you again, Minako. We should meet up soon, as long as I’ll be staying here." And then she elegantly swept around Minako’s figure skater hiding on the staircase, and left.
On the way down to the street, Lilia noticed the light of what was now apparent as a ballet studio — big pink letters proclaiming it Minako’s.
She would be back soon.
Lilia managed, with her considerable clout and acting like the diva she was, to book herself a stay at one of the local hot spring inns. It had been recommended by the woman at the tourist information office, who had seemed impressed by Lilia’s language retention skills and her imperious presence.
There were cherry trees surrounding the inn. They had just started to bloom. It was beautiful.
Lilia got bored staring at the cherry blossoms hours into her soak in one of the hot springs. However, she managed to restrain herself from going back to Minako‘s after she had awakened the next morning, and only arrived there in the early afternoon.
"Oh. It’s you again," Minako said, when she opened up the door. She was wearing the same get-up as the day before, if possible even more rumpled looking.
"Do you only own one pair of pants?" Lilia asked, then shook her head. "Never mind — what do you do in the evening?" Then, she reconsidered again. "No, wait— can I borrow your ballet studio for a bit?"
Minako blinked. "That’s not the usual way of asking a favour," she said. "Come in. I need some tea."
Awkwardly, Lilia followed her inside.
"I do have classes to teach, sometimes," Minako said, pouring what only looked vaguely like tea to Lilia into a travel mug.
"What, country hicks who can’t tell first position from second?"
Minako grinned at her. "Like you haven’t ever had to deal with a rich guy’s daughter who believed she was the second coming of Agrippina." She moved towards the back of her apartment, and — with no shame apparent — changed into ironed pants. Her top soon followed, and within five minutes, she looked — not only presentable, but like she had just walked of a runway. Lilia felt every day of her sixty-odd years.
"It pays for this place, anyway," Minako continued, once they were downstairs at the door to the studio.
The studio, now that Lilia could see it in its full glory for the first time, didn’t hold up to the Bolshoi, but it could rival a lot of other dance studios Lilia had danced in. Prominently displayed was Minako’s name and a poster for a figure skating event. In the little corner next to the door stood the Benois de la Danse — abused as a doorstopper. The floors were freshly polished cherry wood, maybe walnut, and the mirrors were sparkling.
"It’ll do," Lilia said.
"High praise," Minako said, and smiled. "Well, I’m off then. Have fun!"
The next few hours, Lilia lost herself in the stretching of her legs which had atrophied sitting in various airplanes. Minako’s studio had the ideal length for the really interesting jumps, too.
Lilia may have overdone training a bit. When Minako came back, her leotard was wet, and she was probably stinking like a horse. Minako didn’t comment, had probably seen worse sights, and yet Lilia felt — embarrassed for lack of a better word. Minako looked flawless and pristine, the same way she had looked when she left her apartment.
"I’m going to meet Yuuri at the rink, today. He wants me to look over his routine, says his coach isn’t very helpful about his posture."
"Yes," Lilia nodded, out of breath, and tried unsticking her leotard. When Minako came closer to help her out of it, a natural instinct born of long practise sessions with other ballerinas, Lilia moved out of the way. "You said. Is he going to mind if I take a look? I’d love to see what you taught him."
"I didn’t—" Minako started to protest. Lilia shot her a look. "—you’re right. I taught him a vast amount of ballet, considering that he was actually interested in figure skating."
"A figure skater has to spend a lot of time off ice," Lilia confirmed. "I remember my husband with his stupid jump machine he’d take everywhere."
"Not separated all that long, huh?" Minako said.
"We’ve been living separately for a longer time than we were married. We didn’t spend all that much time together even then. But—" Lilia sighed, "—we’ve been divorced for about a month now."
"A month?" Minako repeated, and Lilia couldn’t quite understand the emotion behind that word.
"Long overdue," Lilia said, and then she was done changing, and they didn’t say anything until they arrived at the ice rink.
Yuuri was waiting in front, a bag with skates slung over his shoulders. Nobody and nothing else was here but the beautiful scenery of Hasetsu, the old-style Japanese castle just visible over the tree line, and the river flowing into the ocean bay sparkling with sunshine. Suddenly, Lilia was glad to have left Moscow, if only for the difference in perspective.
When they came closer, Yuuri looked as cool as a cucumber. He must have felt some of the awkwardness between the two of them, probably helped along by the silence, since he said earnestly, "You don’t have to watch me skate. I’m nothing special, if you’ve seen Victor Nikiforov skate, and you probably want to see different things on your holiday."
Whenever Yuuri said the name Victor Nikiforov, he said it with a fervour that was bewildering to anyone who hadn’t had a celebrity crush when they were younger. Lilia thought fondly of her own, Agrippina Vaganova.
Minako took the bag he had slung over his shoulders, and ruffled his hair. "Lilia’s here on a rebound. She just divorced her husband, she needs every distraction she can find."
Lilia snorted. "How about you let me judge what I want?" she told him, disregarding anything Minako had said. "I’m very interested in what— Minako has done in the past few years, and something tells me she spent a lot of time on training you."
"She did," Yuuri nodded. "I’m very grateful."
"Yuuri was trying to qualify for the Olympic team this season," Minako said as they walked towards the rink. "He missed qualifications by one spot. The top three spots are already assigned — and Japan gets all three spaces for the Olympic figure skating team, too. He’s the forth national ranking, right now, which isn’t bad, especially for his age, but he’ll only get called if the one of the other skaters drop out of the running." Minako looked like she was contemplating straight-up assassinating his contenders. "But he’ll try winning the Junior Grand Prix next season, won’t you?"
Yuuri smiled tolerantly, and said, "Yes, Minako."
"The Russians don’t have any other Victors running around, do they? Yuuri has the most awful crush on him — I can't tell if it's because he's so pretty, or because he skates so well."
Yuuri turned a deep red, and looked close to sinking into the bowels of the earth, then said something in Japanese.
"No," Lilia answered with a smile. "Yakov’s other student isn’t nearly as pretty."
Minako smiled at Yuuri, and said, "Don't you think someone who wants to help with your performance needs to know every embarrassing bit about you?"
"No," Yuuri said in English. "I think you’re using me to not talk about yourself. How do you know Minako, Lilia-san?"
Out of the corner of her eye, Lilia could see Minako grimacing.
Lilia didn’t really know if Minako had known her before they had been officially introduced at the Moscow International Ballet Competition. Lilia herself usually kept up with the industry gossip, or at least she had back when she was younger, when keeping up with the industry gossip hadn't meant gossip about when she would finally retire for good, or which of her old rivals or fellow principals had debilitating issues with their bodies — ballet was a rigorous mistress.
The day she had first seen Minako dance had been in an off-road production of ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’, and it had been painfully modern. The dancers had all been dressed in shades of brown, the set design was minimal to say the least — but the dancers had been exquisite in their unadulterated rawness, in their immediacy of movement and the lack of distractions from fanciful designs...
The reviews for that particular program had been mixed— between raving about the avant garde arrangement, the gall of the director to reduce such a fanciful production to its bare bones, and the unexpected brilliance of the young, barely-known da ncers, and of Minako, who had danced the principal role.
Lilia hadn't mentioned any of this to Minakolater. It wasn't really her place, as the Russian image of neo-classicism, to praise anyone’s modern interpretation of ballet, but she would remember that performance.
The choreography Lilia had done for Minako, the piece that was incidentally performed at the Tokyo Ballet without either of them, had been based on that performance. Minako had dislocated her knee, well before the premiere, and so the piece had always been attributed to Lilia alone.
"We met at the International Ballet Competition in Moscow," Lilia said. "Minako won a Benois de la Danse."
"What's that?" Yuuri asked.
"The doorstopper I keep in my studio," Minako answered dryly, and went to open the door to the rink.
"It's one of the most prestigious ballet awards achievable," Lilia explained. "I was invited to judge." Minako was holding the door open, and Yuuri was watching her. He nodded, as if that explained much, as if that explained anything at all about their relationship. Their lack of a relationship.
At the open door, Minako commented, "It wasn’t the only time you were invited to judge," while still holding the door open.
"No," Lilia said, quietly. "I’m kind of a big deal." Minako’s face was indecipherable, and Lilia ached. She wanted to know if Minako had thought of her, not just in these last years, but before, when Minako had still been a big deal herself, not hiding in a little village in Japan, coaching figure skaters not yet out of high school.
Yuuri didn’t say anything to that— didn’t understand the undercurrent of emotions, maybe— and went inside the rink.
Minako looked down, and Lilia followed Yuuri inside the rink. It was empty, apart from a perky young woman maybe a few years older than Yuuri. She introduced herself as Nishigori-san, and was handling some of the equipment.
She and Yuuri had a conversation in Japanese Lilia couldn’t follow, and so she asked Minako about her last performance instead.
"I have been dancing in front of people, since quitting the Royal Ballet." Minako said, in a low voice Lilia had to come close to hear. Either she didn’t want Yuuri to know, or not to interrupt his own conversation. "I’ve danced a few times in front of the royals, some special performances with the Tokyo Ballet, you know, the things you do. It’s not something — I don’t need to be a principal dancer to be fulfilled. I’m alright. You don’t need to worry."
"You don’t seem—" Lilia said, and then stopped. Usually she wasn’t one to respect other people’s sensibilities, but it felt somehow wrong to tell Minako that she didn’t seem satisfi ed by this life. Then again, Lilia herself felt out of touch with the world lately, and she hadn’t quit anything. (Moreover, who said she was worried about Minako?)
Yuuri’s coach had still not arrived when Yuuri had finished stretching.
"I could skate my program from last season," he said. "The new one isn’t really finished yet, and I need to downscale the jumps." Yuuri looked like that would make the program suck. Lilia knew enough about figure skating to not care about downscaled jumps, because they still looked beautiful — sometimes even more beautiful than with the technically very dangerous jumps. Lilia would honestly watch a figure skating programme without any jumps at all, but knew the current guidelines for competing were against that.
They didn’t have any music at the rink. Yet, when Yuuri stepped into the centre and began his programme, there was a beat running through the performance . Lilia flashed back to her recent trip to the Tokyo Ballet, and understood what had been missing — and was all the more impressed with this young skater now.
There was a beat running through his performance, even though nothing kept him to that beat — his jumps paled against the spins and step sequences, but even so — the jumps were tied perfectly into the beat, even though they weren’t at optimum height. And the step sequences — there was a drive to them, a feeling of strength and certainty, a feeling of barely touched-upon passion. On ice, Yuuri had the feet of an angel. His arms were stiff, not bent enough during the jumps — those were very much his weak points, even to Lilia’s much less schooled eyes. But when he lost himself in the routine then, he tilted his head just so, twisted his body in a tight shimmy, arched his neck until his body was a straight line…
"...Did you teach the boy pole dancing?" Lilia asked, scandalised. She recognised that move. She taught Minako that move (for that performance they empathically did not talk about).
Minako cackled. "He has that certain something, doesn’t he?"
He did, sometimes, when the choreography let him shine through the awkwardly put together spins and jumps. It was in the prolonging of a moving arm, in the overstretched arch of his legs, in the looks he gave. It was raw, though. Unpolished. "What was that choreographer thinking?" Lilia breathed.
"Nothing, probably," Minako said. "Japan has a lot of promising figure skaters, and not all get the attention they deserve."
Lilia straightened. The coach was still not here, but at this point Lilia wasn’t sure if he was coming at all. "Why aren’t you choreographing his skating programs, then? You know what he can do," she said, coldly, because everything Minako was going to offer her was going to be an excuse.
And sure enough, when Minako spoke, it was quiet, defeated. "I’ve never choreographed for ballet, how could I do it for figure skating? Yuuri deserves someone better!"
"He hasn’t got any better!" Lilia snapped. "Look at it! It’s only due to his innate charisma, that he managed fourth place at all — it’s a wreck!"
Minako went back to Yuuri, who was finishing on a jump — an astonishing feat of endurance, even for a short programme. "It is a wreck," she said. "But I’m not good at — presentation."
"Bullshit," Lilia said, and surprised herself with how angry she felt about this. "You had hang-ups about going into choreography full-time. Understandable, even if it was — is — ridiculous. You have opinions on what looks right, you know how to put a performance together. It’s obvious, really, which parts are yours and which part are there because the coach said to add them. There are certain parts that lack expression, lack feeling, and that’s not in the parts I recognise. Are you really going to let this poor boy down?"
"I can’t," Minako said. She didn’t look happy. "I’m— retired." And with that word, she encapsulated everything she felt about ballet, about dancing, about Yuuri, now, and it broke Lilia’s heart.
"Fine," she said. "I’ll do it. Yakov has too long been the reigning Russian coach, for how little he thinks about how to stage his skaters."
Minako looked at Yuuri, out on the ice, who wasn’t being given the opportunity to showcase half of his potential — because why should the Japanese Skating Association take a chance on a random newcomer, who might not even survive his transition into the senior devision?
"He was thinking of studying abroad," Minako said, almost to herself. "And you aren’t a qualified skating coach."
"Neither was Yakov, when he started," Lilia replied. "And I’d so love to show him up on the international rink."
"Sure," Minako snorted. "The only reason you ever do something is because you need to show up someone."
Of course it didn’t hurt to have Minako say something like that — it didn’t matter, couldn’t matter. And meanwhile, Yuuri was coming off the ice. He went straight over to the girl standing at the length of the arena.
"That was amazing!" the girl yelled, and Lila could see him shake his head in denial. A confidence problem, maybe? Or the awareness that the program had stuttered, wasn’t fluid, didn’t repeat the eponymous beat throughout?
"It didn’t matter, though, did it? I didn’t win." Lilia could hear Yuuri reply, and that was something she felt in her bones.
"How often does someone advancing from Juniors win the Senior Competition?" the girl replied, and hugged him.
Yuuri grimaced and didn’t reply.
Then, a rather stout young man arrived. Lilia thought for a moment it was the coach, even though he looked awfully young — then again, Minako was closer to her age than Yuuri‘s, and yet she didn’t look it.
Minako frowned. "Coach is late, again?" she muttered, inaudible to anyone but Lilia.
Lilia watched for a few more minutes, as the three people next to the rink began arguing in that inimitable way of the Japanese where it looked like they were apologising to each other constantly. Minako was still frowning beside her.
"Well, that cinches it," Lilia said, and marched forward. "You," she pointed at the girl. "You were handling a CD player before, right? Please bring it here. You," she pointed at the new arrival. "I have no idea who you are, but you can clear the ice. And Yuuri —" she paused, and looked over at him to check if he was paying attention. He had straightened up like a good dancer, but looked shell-shocked enough for this to actually work. "You said you had been working on your new routine? Then you picked the music. Show me," she demanded.
"You can’t just—" Minako protested from somewhere behind her.
Lilia turned around, and said coldly, "Watch me."
The boy shrugged, look ed at the girl — Nishigori Yuuko — and said, "There's actually a PA system inside the rink for competitions? We can play something on there."
Yuuri was rummaging in a side pocket of his skating bag, and triumphantly presented a burnt CD titled Lohengrin.
And lo and behold, when p ut into the player, it produced the most awful music Wagner had ever written.
Sceptically, she looked at Yuuri. "You choose this?" she asked.
Lilia looked helplessly to Minako, who shrugged her shoulders. Then back at Yuuri. "Really?"
The new boy, in the first move she approved of him, poked Yuuri in the back.
"Is it really that bad?" Yuuri asked, flustered.
Lilia looked helplessly to Minako again. "No," she said, without the resolve the question demanded. "You were going for a medieval feel, then? Probably armour, or something, to symbolise your endurance?"
"Yes—" Yuuri answered, visibly relieved, "Coach said it was a good idea."
"It’s a good thing you are looking for a new one then. Did he say anything about — the sense of music?"
"I don’t think so," Yuuri answered slowly.
"Well!" Lilia said. "Are you absolutely set on the music?"
"No?" Yuuri asked.
"Have an opinion, boy! Do you want the music?"
"I’d rather have something else, but Coach said this one was good?"
Lilia stared down at him. Yuuri didn’t budge. "I asked you if you wanted to dance — skate to this music. Do you?"
"No," Yuuri said, resolutely. "I don’t care either way. It doesn’t have a beat, though, and I do better with some kind of beat."
Lilia looked triumphantly at Minako, who shook her head but smiled. "Ahh, now we’re getting somewhere. Do go on. A beat. Something else?"
Yuuri was flustered. "Nothing?" he asked. "I liked that it had a story."
"We can work with that," Lilia said. "Now get on the ice. Did you start with compulsory figures?"
"I started late," Yuuri said. "Compulsory figures weren’t a part of skating competitions when I first performed programs."
"Do me a spin, then."
"Any spin?" Yuuri called from the ice, and Lilia could hear him smiling.
"Impress me," she said, and in a few quick moves, Yuuri gained speed. Then, he turned into the spin — at first, a camel spin, leg extended in the back, and with each further turn, the leg crept up further. Yuuri took a hold of his skate.
"He isn’t wearing gloves," the boy said, worried.
"He’s done this before," the girl reassured him, but she didn’t seem quite certain.
Then, Yuuri’s skate was over his head.
"Well." Lilia was quite satisfied. "A Bielmann spin, very impressive flexibility. How about a Russian split, in honour of my home country?"
There was a barely perceptible stutter in the performance, during which he decided how to transition best, but when he came out of the spin the skates didn’t touch the ice for more than a second, before he spread his leg in the simple jump needed for the Russian split. It was very well done.
"Adequate," Lilia said. "En quatrieme devant." She heard the bewildered whisper, but didn’t connect it to her words until Minako said, "That’s an Ina Bauer in skating terms."
"Of course," Lilia covered up the minor slip.
Yuuri was doing an Ina Bauer, all right — and he bent his head backwards until it was almost upside down. Minako laughed quietly from the side, and commented, "It’s a famous Japanese move, from the 2006 Olympics— the layback Ina Bauer, the Arakawa type."
Lilia watched Yuuri as he crossed the ice at a speed she wouldn’t acquire on her two feet. He was a very impressive skater, who apparently did more flexible positions off the cuff, but was more shaky during jumps.
"I can work with this," she said quietly, almost to herself. Then, "That was good," louder, to Yuuri himself. "I need to make a few calls!"
In the old ISU judging system, he might have gotten more points on performance alone. Jury was out, because they did have a history of ignoring talent if it was more flamboyant than the invisible line drawn, and using only female figure elements would probably have been frowned upon. Either way, she needed to make some calls. Especially coaches who would be a benefit to Yuuri once she was back at the Bolshoi.
Was she going to have to call Yakov? She went outside to contemplate.
The scenery was really awfully pretty, the ocean in the distance glistening in the mid afternoon sun. Minako sidled up to her from behind.
"It is very beautiful here." Lilia said.
Minako looked pained, briefly, and then touched Lilia's elbow at the most sensitive part, right above the tendon. The touch reverberated, not only because people usually didn't touch her. "You aren't going to stay," Minako said.
Lilia let the silence speak for itself. "I’m staying for two, maybe three months. More I can’t promise," she said finally. "I’m going to use your landline, my phone’s international coverage is horrendous, at best."
Yakov didn’t answer his phone. Lilia felt relieved, and then immediately, felt bad about feeling relieved.
Georgi answered instead. He asked if she wanted to leave a message. Lilia didn’t.
Instead, she phoned the other coach whose contact information she had in her phone book — who couldn’t help her, but said that the person most likely to fix jumping issues was Celestino Cialdini. While her ability to speak French fluently was well developed, she didn’t know enough Italian for a phone conversation, so she wrote him an email.
While waiting for a reply, she had one of her husband’s jump training contraptions delivered to Minako’s studio, and consulted several experts on the issue at hand. Then, she went out to eat, and since it was her cheat day, she got some delicious deep-fried things with rice, and stared out into the Sea of Japan.
She came back to the studio with a clearer head, and much less of a need to do — something to Minako, who had assumed a life in obscurity like she needed it to breathe. It was frightening, to Lilia, who didn’t think she had assessed Minako’s character wrongly all those years ago, but couldn’t help but accept the facts as they were. There was no reason at all to think Minako was unhappy, and yet Lilia thought she was, though to all accounts she was always busy with something.
Celestino Cialdini got back to her surprisingly quickly, considering he probably didn’t know her, or of her. He had a lot to say about strengthening the core, and also that he had seen Yuuri skate and if he was contemplating college abroad he would recommend Detroit for its excellent figure skating rinks.
"I found another coach for you," she told Yuuri when he came by to use the studio, and handed him Celestino’s contact info. "You did want to study hotel management internationally, right?"
"How did you—" Yuuri began asking, but once he saw her look he simply said, "Yes, coach!" and went on to do his thing.
Strengthening his core involved a lot of insults. Yuuri didn’t naturally have the kind of jumping strength of a Victor Nikiforov, and he didn’t like working on something he was naturally bad at. He did his routines, of course, a very dedicated young student, but he needed plenty of insults to his character to keep up his drive.
Lilia noticed quickly that he trained better with small goals and without an audience. He was a perfectionist, and didn’t like to bother people with unfinished work.
She felt strangely ironic about the experience, having a similar mindset herself. It was hard work to persua de a perfectionist t hat small imperfections would make a performance that much more beautiful. (Lilia wasn’t sure it worked.)
Once Yuuri had exhausted himself doing dry jumps off the ice in Minako’s ballet studio— there was a small corner dedicated to Yuuri’s work-out paraphernalia, which the tiny ten-year-olds avoided with extreme prejudice — the both of them sat around and played with different skating elements and moves.
Lilia had — reservations, about Yuuri dancing the Bolero. Not any that she ever told him, but a tiny part of her heart insisted that the choreography was hers. It was a tad hypocritical, since she had originally choreographed it for someone else.
"I think it needs something a little bit calmer here," Yuuri said, and went into the step sequence — such a waste that the ISU would only allow two this last season. Sometimes, the ISU didn’t seem to understand what made the sport so enjoyable to watch.
"No," Lilia said. "How about you do a stag jump instead?"
Yuuri grimaced. "But it’s so over the top!"
Lilia side-eyed him. "Are you going to compete in a sequin suit with glitter, or are you interviewing for a salary position? I don’t think so. A stag jump will do nicely. Keep your hands wider. Straighten your spine. I am pushing sixty and I can keep my spine straighter than that."
Yakov called back almost exactly three days later, asking if she had called him.
"No," Lilia said. "I wanted to talk to Georgi. It was something emotional, you wouldn’t understand."
Yakov spluttered, then he found his voice again, "And you didn’t tell me you had a performance in Japan!"
"I don’t," she answered. "I’m visiting friends."
"You don’t have friends!" he said.
Lilia didn’t snap back, and took a deep breath instead. "Was there a point to this conversation, or did you just call to insult me further?"
"I wanted to let you know the transfer went through," Yakov said after a brief pause.
"What transfer?" Lilia asked, perplexed.
"The money, for the choreography assistance," he said.
"What money? Yakov, you know I never needed the money. I wanted the name recognition! It was my brain child, it’s supposed to have my name on it, too."
There was silence on the other end of the telephone. "I’m sorry," Yakov said.
Lilia sighed. "Victor learned well," she said finally. "He managed well on his own, after, too."
"I never wanted you to feel like I was boxing you in," he said, quietly.
Lilia was quiet, too. Then she admitted, "You didn’t. I think I boxed myself in."
He sighed. "But you had fun?" he asked.
"I had fun," Lilia said.
After saying goodbye, when she had hung up, she stared at the phone. She felt like she should feel empty, but instead she felt like her life was beginning anew, a strange feeling for feeling so old at the same time.
Lilia danced as much of Yuuri’s program as she was able to catch any harsh transitions that could trip him up when performing.
She spent a lot of time at Minako’s studio, which meant falling back into the forced proximity of ballet dancers using the same practise space. It was awkward in how it wasn’t, how they managed to arrange themselves, how they fit back together.
Lilia had just finished another routine, and was sitting down to drink one of the awful midday protein shakes she took to keep her energy levels up, and Minako came after preparing her studio space for the six-year-olds' classes.
"How’s Yuuri?" Lilia asked.
"He has a confidence problem," Minako commented quietly. It wasn’t a direct answer to the question — from the corners of her eyes Lilia could see him doing pull-ups.
"Doesn't everyone in Japan?" Lila asked unthinkingly, and then wanted to swallow her words.
Minako didn't let herself be provoked, and said, "Even worse than the usual. He gets anxious."
"That doesn't seem like an ideal temperament for a — figure skater," Lilia replied.
"Not about the ice," Minako clarified. "He’s fine on the ice, usually. He hates appearing weak in front of others. Likes to pretend he’s fine, even when he isn’t. It’s very hard to assess if he is actually fine, or just pretending, and his current coach isn’t helping matters. There are a lot of amazing figure skaters in Japan, and unfortunately, Yuuri started quite late with competing. He thinks he’s always behind."
"I’ve seen that with dancers," Lilia said and leaned back on the hardwood until her back touched the cool surface. She had inured herself to let Minako look at her when she had been dancing. Usually, Minako’s gaze didn’t grow quite as heavy as this, though.
"Uhuh," Minako agreed. "Not yourself, of course. Never yourself."
Lilia looked at her from upside down. "I don’t think I know what you are implying," she said. "My parents were dancers themselves. As was most of my immediate family. They just also happened to be political dissidents."
Minako was silent. "I’m sorry," she said finally. "I didn’t know."
"That’s all right," Lilia said, and surprised herself by meaning it. "It’s nothing you need to get upset about. It happened a long time ago. It’s just—"
"I always assume," Minako said.
"Yes," Lilia replied, and then Minako slowly dragged her hand against her cheek. The hand was warm and comforting, even through the heat of the work-out. Maybe even because of the heat.
Lilia swallowed. "What are you doing?" She whispered.
"The choreography for Bolero — that was the most amazing performance I have ever danced to," Minako said. "If there was only one performance I was going to dance for the rest of my life, it would be that one."
Lilia stared, as Minako pulled away quickly, and then yelled at Yuuri for not pulling up to his chin. Minako didn’t come close again for the rest of the day, and Lilia wondered if she had imagined the interlude in a very vivid daydream.
It didn’t help her understand Yuuri more, who didn’t like talking about his problems, and pretended everything was fine when you asked him about those problems.
"Let’s go to the rink and practise this thing on ice," Lilia said, after watching his mounting frustration with the harness and the jumping machine.
Lilia had trained her voice against obstinate danseurs, and it was nothing to shout against the scraping of the ice.
"What are you doing to that routine?" she yelled, "It’s so bland and emotionless! Your skating literally shrivelled up my tear ducts." Yuuri’s spine straightened, the slump in his shoulders eased — it was a pleasure to criticise him.
Then, after a few minutes of watching the skates scrape over the ice, the huffing and puffing of Yuuri — who had an amazing talent of keeping to an internal rhythm, as if he was the only person in the world, as if he was skating to music only he could hear. A jump, but he failed the landing, used his hand on the ice to stabilise his movement, but managed to curve around into the next element, an elaborate step sequence. Lilia, who was usually quite aware of tiny misalignments of movement, couldn’t help but stare. But that didn't preclude him from not extending his arms, not using his full range of movement to convey the feelings of that piece.
"Bend that spine of yours! Are you pushing sixty? I’m pushing sixty and I can bend my spine better than that!"
And every time, "Where are your arms! What are you doing! Are you a limp noodle flopping all over the ice? Put some feeling into that curve! Palms open! Knees bent! Where are your legs? What is your face doing? Pay attention to the beat!"
When he fell, and she kept going, kept pushing, kept him on his feet when he wasn’t too hurt to continue, his satisfaction was palpable.
He would have made a great principal dancer, for anyone, the next Nureyev maybe, but if he wouldn't be, then Lilia would make a hell of a figure skater out of him.
It was late at night, and Lilia had been in the studio dancing the Bolero one more time, instead of the performance she was going to premiere in two more months.
At first, Lilia didn’t realise Minako was watching. It was cathartic, to dance this piece full of feelings. She could put all of her rage and frustrations into her performance, and let something greater emerge.
Minako came in halfway through. Lilia saw her in the reflection of the mirror, but didn’t stop. With each turn, each step that landed exactly when it should, and Minako’s heavy gaze, Lilia felt like she was flying, like she hadn’t aged at all, like every en pointe, every pirouette was just something the human body did, all on its own, and not the difficult work it was.
It was invigorating.
And on the last turn, Lilia lost her footing; fell, fell onto her knees, and not on any of the more breakable bones.
Minako scrambled over, took her hands, even though they hurt the least of all of her body parts. "Are you okay?" she asked.
Lilia, on knees that were probably scraped given how much they hurt, on her knees before Minako, started laughing. "Yes, very," she said, and then she pulled Minako down to her, and kissed her.
Minako surged to meet her, fell to her knees, and still they were kissing, in the secluded ballet studio at night. Lilia didn’t know how to breathe — she had the breath knocked out of her by the dancing, yes, but also by the simple fact that it was Minako with her, here, right now. Minako’s tongue in her mouth was fire, pure passion, like the dance had transcended the feeling into real life, and Lilia couldn’t get enough. Straining forward, almost involuntary following after Minako. Her heart beat against her neck in the same intoxicating beat of the gran tambura, and she gasped into Minako’s mouth.
Somehow her eyes had slid shut. There was a faint salty flavour to the kiss, it tasted like exhaustion, like the pleasure of a well-danced premiere. Minako kissed her like she was trying to prove something, deep and sliding-wet, and Lilia never wanted it to end. Overcome. Arms full. Her whole body was singing. Lilia hummed, and then Minako wrapped an arm around her shoulder, and she couldn’t suppress the yelp of pain.
Immediately, the proceedings stopped. "No, wait," Lilia said, when Minako drew away.
"You’re in pain!" Minako said, appalled.
"Yes, what’s new," Lilia said, as if it was a minor point. "Please keep kissing me."
"You’re in pain," Minako said. "You could do with either a hot or a cold shower. And I don’t know about you, but your outfit’s all right for a first kiss, overcome by passion and everything, but it’s barely acceptable for a second or third."
Lilia snorted, then started giggling.
"Do you want to take a shower first, or do you want to get naked immediately?" Minako asked.
Lilia looked down on her graying leotard, sweated through from the dancing, and asked, plaintively, "How can you find me attractive, right now?"
Minako shrugged. "I always have. I’d let you scream at me during rehearsals, and in my head I’d go 'Why do I let you do this to me?' and then you said, 'Adequate,' in that voice of yours, and I’d forgive you anything."
"Shower first, then," Lilia said. "You are ridiculous."
"And you aren’t? Who came down to Hasetsu to check if I was doing fine?"
Lilia went to shower instead of answering, to keep a sliver of her dignity.
The shower had been freezing cold. Icing her muscles was necessary after the long workout — but it hadn’t cooled any of her desire. It was strange, to have it flare up again after all this time.
Lilia came out of the bathroom with a towel wrapped around herself, and her damp hair twisted up, where it would stay out of the way. Nothing destroyed the mood more than a stray hair in places it didn’t belong.
Minako was waiting at the bedroom door, playing with some sort of charm. She had taken of her shoes — her bare feet on hardwood floor looked very familiar. They had the same sort of bruises Lilia’s had. She had taken of her coat, but not much else; was sitting there nervous, almost giddy.
She looked up. "Are we—" Minako began, but then lost her thread. Instead of finishing, she stared at Lilia, entranced. "We are doing this, aren’t we?"
Minako came forward, touched the trail of water running down at the side of Lilia’s face. "Are you going to kiss me now?" Lilia said, trying for dryly, but it came out almost plaintive.
"Yes," Minako breathed against her mouth. She inched just a little closer. Lilia shivered, and tried to pretend it was the cold from the shower. Then, Minako was kissing her, soft and gentle, and just as slowly as she had come closer, she withdrew again.
"You are calling that a kiss?" Lilia asked, but embarrassingly, her voice broke in the middle of the sentence.
Minako smirked at her; it was surprisingly hot, but Lilia surprised herself by shivering again. "Just wanted to get the gentle out of the way," she said, and pulled Lilia into the bedroom.
There was another soft touch against her elbow, and then Minako drew her in, kissed her, devoured her almost. Lilia had to close her eyes. Her legs felt gooey, as if soon they would give out under her, she was shaking. The towel, miraculously, was still holding up.
A little steadier, but not steady at all, she reached for Minako.
Minako was kissing the tendon running down her neck, kept nibbling and biting along the neck, and Lilia couldn’t be bothered to stop her, pressed her leg against the seam of Minako’s pants, grounded herself with the rough feel of the towel against her nipples.
She pulled at Minako’s blouse, managed to divest her of the garment — and then Minako was only wearing her slacks. "Where’s your bra?" Lilia asked nonsensically instead of composing odes to the wondrous breasts on display. She managed to find her priorities before Minako replied, though — cupped the breasts, flicked a nipple — watched with a smile as Minako groaned.
Lilia fumbled Minako’s slacks undone; got them open and halfway down her beautiful, beautiful legs. "Beautiful," Lilia whispered against her leg, more words failing her.
Minako said something, muffled by her arm. Lilia looked up, and there she was, hair spread out over the pillow, so fucking gorgeous, entirely naked.
Lilia was quivering. It definitely wasn’t the cold, now. Lilia was hot between her legs, felt invigorated and like anything was possible. Minako was smiling, and then she crooked her leg, pulled; and Lilia, graceful and elegant, fell face first onto her.
Minako’s eyes, impossible wide — and then she was laughing.
Lilia crept up, to where that wonderful sound was coming from, and then mouthed against her —long, slender — neck. "I love your laugh," she said, setting down kisses along the vein. When Minako swallowed, Lili could feel it with her tongue. She bit down, and Minako moaned.
Somehow, Lilia had retained the towel, the terrycloth felt rough on sensitive skin. With her legs pressing together, she felt swollen, wet and aching — and when Minako snaked her hand down, discarded the towel, Lilia moaned.
Minako pressed herself against her knee, panting. Lilia would shatter with just another press against her body — humiliating, too soon. Lilia’s muscles tensed with the effort of keeping back, holding the tide; then, Minako arched of the bed, moaning, just this side of the edge, and Lilia couldn’t concentrate, couldn’t think, and then she fell, shaking, shouting, hands full of Minako.
After a while, Lilia leveraged her weight onto her forearms.
Minako looked up at her, sated.
"Any requests for a second time?" Lilia asked. It was mostly in jest, she didn’t think she was up for anything more athletic right now, but for Minako she could try.
Minako groaned into the pillow. "I don’t think I can move," she admitted. She opened her eyes fully, stared intently at Lilia, and said, "Maybe I can move."
Then, later, after all the second round of kissing and touching had gotten out of the way, they lay silent and naked next to each other, basking in each other’s presence.
"Why didn’t you ever come see it?" Lilia asked, and couldn’t believe her own daring.
"What?" Minako murmured into her pillow.
"The ballet — Bolero. I choreographed it for you, and yet you never came to see the performance."
Minako turned around, looked at her. "You were furious, when you found out I wouldn’t be able to dance. When I fell."
"I was," Lilia admitted. "Your understudy wasn’t — she couldn’t — It's not the easiest to return after a knee injury. I was— it seemed such a waste." There was a pause, then she continued, "You must remember that I danced it myself, in the end."
Minako didn’t say anything. "I think I wasn’t prepared," she said finally. "What it would mean, to see you dancing a role you had made for me. It was—" She paused, looking for words. "Dancing that was the most daring I have ever felt. I came back, afterwards, you remember— but it was never quite like that anymore."
"It wouldn’t have had to mean anything." Lilia said. "It wasn’t like that."
"Oh yes," Minako sighed, almost. "It would have. It was exactly like that. And you were married."
"It wasn’t that kind of marriage. I wish you would have seen it."
"If it counts, I’ve seen videos," Minako murmured. "They were terrible. I can’t believe you danced me like some sort of fire-like sylph. I never was that expressive."
Lilia snorted. Really, what had she expected from Minako? Some sort of romantic adulation? "It was rather excessive, wasn’t it?"
"The lighting choices alone — so over the top. I’m kind of sad all the critics were too intimidated by your soulful stare to write anything scathing."
Lilia had to kiss her again to shut her up.
Lilia left Japan when Yuuri could do every mandatory jump with at least a half-decent chance of catching the beat for his next element, and a more than decent chance of landing any of the triple jumps except for the axel. There were even times when he managed to land a perfect quad flip, although not in front of cameras. He was proud of himself, and Lilia didn’t even want to rub Yakov’s nose into her success story all that often. She would, once Yuuri had taken a World medal from Yakov’s students.
Lilia left Minako’s flat early in the morning. She didn’t wake Minako when she left because she didn’t think she could bear leaving. When she arrived at the taxi she had scheduled to pick her up yesterday, Minako was leaning at the against the bottom turn of the staircase.
"Not saying goodbye?" Minako asked her with raised eyebrows.
"—You were sleeping," Lilia said to her defence. It wasn’t a very good defence, and it deserved Minako’s withering look. She came closer, and couldn’t help but step up until their noses were almost touching, almost indecently close by Japanese standards, as she had learnt. "I’ll be back again soon. Don’t slack on coach duties."
Minako smelled of jasmine tea and the soap Lilia had in her bag, right now. There was a thrill in being close. Lilia tried hard not to say, "I’ll miss you," but the way she’d try to escape this last goodbye was probably answer enough. "I’ll be back," she said instead.
That was also a heady feeling. She would be back. She wouldn’t have to stay wherever she was going forever. She was coming back to this.
"Yes," Minako said. "I’ll come to Russia myself to remind you. And now, Yuuri and I will be accompanying you to the airport because unlike you we’ve been raised by civilised people."
Yuuri waved awkwardly from inside the taxi. Lilia rolled her eyes, and then, on the open street kissed Minako on the mouth. She deserved all the gossip she would get — and she even looked happy about the fact. Lilia lingered, couldn’t help but linger as Minako looked dazed — dazed!— from a simple kiss. She got into the taxi before she ravished her further.
The send-off at the airport was went on too long, Yuuri complained, at length, and hugged her, after first just trying to bow a couple of times. Lilia would maintain later, that it was Minako who had pushed her into the hug.
Lilia didn’t cry, though her eyes were watering.
She did though, later, when Yuuri won the Junior Grand Prix 2011in Beijing almost a year later. And beside that, she only bragged a little bit when he credited her with the choreography in his interview with the press. She sent Yakov an email with the interview attached, and cackled over the roses he sent in apology to the apartment she now shared with Minako. One day, far in the future, she would maybe consider choreographing for one of Yakov’s skaters again, but for now she was satisfied.