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Crowned in Glory

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Lilia has always enjoyed working with hair. She has a talent for it, one of her many, honed by years of practice and a good eye for aesthetics. She has fond memories of doing up her older sister's hair for fancy occasions, braids and buns and perfectly-pinned curls, and showing younger ballerinas how to make even the most difficult hair stay in place for the length of a long performance. She has had fewer opportunities for it as time goes on, after the other dancers learned how to do their own hair and her sister moved to another city, but on the odd occasion, she still enjoys it.

When Yakov brings her his latest protégé, Victor Nikiforov, for ballet lessons, Lilia finds him a pleasing student. Despite Yakov's grumbling that Victor is prone to ignoring directions, he obeys her often enough, and he doesn't complain much and moves with a natural grace. There is much to improve upon – there always is – but in time, Victor will become more flexible, more strong, more elegant.

There is one flaw, however, that she cannot look past and must correct immediately when it presents itself.

Victor is growing out his hair, and once it falls past his shoulders, simply pulling it back is no longer acceptable to her. She tells him sternly that it must be put up, as with any long-haired student; he looks up at her with his large blue eyes and asks her how.

"Let me show you," she says. She seats him in front of one of the mirrors and instructs him as she puts it up. His hair is smooth and fine, easy to work with as she combs it back, twists it into a small bun, and secures it with a couple of hair pins (not, she is careful to point out, bobby pins, and then has to show him the difference). Victor holds still, not squirming about like she has seen other children do.

He looks older, sharper, without loose strands falling around his face, but the sunny smile he gives her in the mirror is the same as ever.

He comes to his lesson early, the next time, complaining that he can't get it right, so she shows him again, aware of the intensity of his gaze on her hands in the mirror, though surely he can't see much from this angle. After that day, though, he more or less has it, and starts arriving with his hair put up properly.

When she first sees him on the ice, working through the choreography Yakov asked her to put together, the difference is surprising. He makes a very good dancer, but not a truly great one; when skating, however, his movements are gorgeous. His love for the ice shines through every motion, his fingers arched more delicately, his face more expressive, everything more polished than in the dance studio.

The first time she accompanies him and Yakov to a competition, she is tasked with keeping him company before he skates, as Yakov has another student to deal with. There is something that bothers her about his appearance, though, and after checking the time, she decides to fix it. "Come here," she tells him, and reaches for her bag.

Victor has simply pulled his hair back in a low ponytail, which doesn't suit his costume or his routine at all. She works quickly; she makes a braid along each side of his head and combines them at the back with the rest of his hair to make a looser braid. Victor's face lights up when he sees himself in the pocket mirror she hands him. "Wow," he says, turning his head and following the braids with one hand. "Thank you!"

He beams at her, too, and gives her a brief hug. Thankfully, he is promptly distracted by Yakov's return and goes to cling to him, instead, until it is his turn on the ice. He skates with all his confidence and artistry and love for the ice, outshining every competitor. He is already a beautiful child, with his large eyes and long hair and attractive cheekbones he is sure to grow into, but out there he is more lovely than anything.

In the end, he wins by a healthy margin, but she is glad to see that this doesn't temper his desire to improve himself in their next lesson.

She assigns herself the task of doing his hair for competitions, as he isn't yet able to do anything very complicated himself, and Yakov – Yakov is good at taking down hair, not putting it up. (Lilia still remembers the night of their wedding – a simple ceremony, but she put time into her hair anyway, something more than her usual ballet bun. Yakov had touched it gently, when they were alone in their bed, and asked if he could take it down, and when she told him to he did so with all due haste—

He hasn't done that, lately.)

She always considers what will work best with the rest of his performance, a last detail on top of all the other refinements he has spent months working in. Sometimes it's something simple enough that he could have done it himself, like pulling the top section back, or a high ponytail with loose strands carefully combed to frame his face. Other times, she braids in ribbons, braids in crowns – he looks particularly stunning when she braids only the top of his hair in a crown and lets the rest cascade over his shoulders and down his back. Either way, he sits patiently while she works, sometimes making pleased hums or shivering slightly when she tugs and combs his hair. (He also works out that he should reserve his hugs for Yakov after the first time she gently shoves him off and tells him not to.)

It becomes a backstage ritual, something that belongs only to the two of them – not to the audience, and not to Yakov. She enjoys the task, and the quiet nostalgia it elicits of her teenage years.

This lasts for years, as Victor lets his hair grow to his elbows, his waist, his hips, only cutting a few centimeters here and there to trim it, until one day he comes to their lesson with it cropped all the way up to his ears. It's shorter than she's ever seen it. She does not comment on it. He keeps touching it at spare moments, like he isn't used to it, or like he's waiting for her to ask about it, but she doesn't. The haircut suits him well enough.

There is nothing to replace their silent time at competitions except for silences that Victor fills with light chatter as he stretches, which isn't the same at all. Perhaps it doesn't matter, though; she and Yakov are speaking of separating. She may miss having Victor for a student, but there are other pupils out there, and she knows that working together will be off the table for both her and Yakov afterward, at least for a while.

Still, at what might be the last competition she accompanies him to, Victor brings her his comb with a sheepish grin. "I know it's not the same as before, but I can't get it to lay right," he says, plopping down next to her. "You can fix it, right?"

"Of course I can," she says, and she does.