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• 2018 • Hasetsu • Mila •

Living in Hasetsu was fine, Mila supposed, but even after a year, it still didn’t feel like home.

It hadn’t been as bad as she’d feared, but the language gap persisted, and while Yuuko was nice and Minako and Lilia were far less intimidating than expected, Yuuko was incredibly busy with the kids and Minako and Lilia were (still) so wrapped up in each other that even being at a dinner table with them felt like eating alone sometimes.

So she skated, and vented to Sara in messaging, and hassled the boys, and took college courses online, and tried to ignore the creeping isolation between events.

It had been strange competing for Russia in the Olympics. The other athletes on the Russian team were downright hostile, but she didn’t have the option of competing for Japan, which would never feel as much like home as it did for the boys, and the idea of not going to be with her larger skating family or the best party in four years felt intolerable.

So she went, and she won, and felt nauseatingly conflicted watching her flag rise, but put on her show face and pretended it was all fine. Sara’s eyes kept flicking sideways to check on her, and afterward Sara’s arm around her shoulder for the group medal photo was a solid, grounding weight that helped settle her in her skin.

And then the afterparty, where she promised Mickey to “protect” his sister if he would just back the fuck off already, but by the time she’d had enough drinks to chase away the lingering funk, Sara was even drunker, and the night slid by in a haze of dancing that didn’t feel much like dancing after a while, especially when they collapsed together into Sara’s bed in the village in a blur of skin and laughing messy kisses.

Not Mila’s bed. The Italian women’s team would be far more understanding than the Russian team. They were drunk, but not that drunk.

Then back to work for the team event and a not-entirely surprising loss to the Japanese team. Mila had been skating with all of them in Hasetsu for weeks, not just the men, and the extra training had paid off for the pairs skaters and ice dancers. Russia didn’t even medal: without their three top skaters from the men’s division, they’d had to pull from skaters who hadn’t even made the Grand Prix series yet, and it showed. Mila had come in second to Sara in the short and won the free, but with Mickey pulling in a distant 8th in the short and 10th in the free, Italy didn’t have a chance, either. The adorable Japanese girl who took 3rd in both added enough with Victor and Yuuri’s scores and good showings by the pairs skaters and ice dancers to clinch it for Japan. Russia had lost more than their three top men; several other skaters had left for other countries as well, quietly, after Victor’s dramatic omission from the Olympic roster for Russia.

Packing to leave around the closing ceremony, Mila looked at her one gold medal and sighed. She’d be back to Japan, quiet, calm, and lonely as hell, in less than 24 hours.

She was startled as a pair of arms wrapped around her waist, and turned to find Sara.

She grinned. “Where’s your shadow?”

Sara shrugged. “He’s stuck in a meeting with his coach.”

“His coach? I thought you were both with the same…”

Sara shrugged. “I need a change. I just gave notice that I wanted to end the coaching relationship.”

“Before Worlds?” Mila asked.

“It will be official after Worlds. They’re in Italy… But you’re probably skipping, right?” Sara ran a finger along the gold medal sitting on a pile of clothes in Mila’s suitcase.

Mila blinked. “Yeah, I don’t know? I’m pretty sure the boys are going anyway.”

“Come to Italy with me, even if you don’t compete.”

“I…” Mila sighed. “I don’t think I can. There’s publicity stuff, I’m barely going to have time to put my feet on the ice.”

“When will you be back in Japan?” Sara asked.

“I mean, I’m going there first, but then we’re in the States for two days for press, and then back on a plane… I’m not going to have time to breathe until mid-April.” Mila sighed. “I’m so busy, but I’m so, so bored. The skating is challenging, the guys are nice… but…”

“But they’re all paired off,” Sara said.

Mila shrugged. “I don’t feel like I need a boyfriend in order to be, I don’t know, valid or whatever, but I used to have fun when I wasn’t at the rink, and my so-called friends aren’t talking to me since I moved to Japan.”

“I’m talking to you,” Sara said, only a little salty.

“And thank God,” Mila said. “I’d be going out of my mind otherwise.”

“You should stay in Italy,” Sara said.

“Or maybe you should come to Japan,” Mila shot back, teasing.

Sara made a noncommittal noise and didn’t have a chance to answer because a group of Russian women’s hockey players came in, loud and drunk.

• • •  

The weeks after were a whirlwind of travel: PyeongChang to Hasetsu, Hasetsu to New York, New York to Italy, and even Italy involved a ridiculous amount of press and sponsorship time. Sara seemed even more dogged by Mickey than usual.

They managed one dinner together, but Mila was rooming with the dragons and Sara was staying at home, 40 miles away.

The stream of texts did not slow, however.

S: Mickey is driving me up a wall.

M: Tell him to stop?

S: Because that totally works. :/

M: sry

It was when the texts stopped abruptly that Mila got concerned, and finally tracked Sara down before the Free Skate.

“You okay?” Mila asked.

“He factory reset my phone when one of the German skaters gave me his number,” Sara said flatly.

Mila’s eyes widened. “Shit.”

“I can’t with him anymore,” Sara said. “He doesn’t even know I’m quitting.”

“Quitting-quitting?” Mila asked.

“I… I don’t know,” Sara said, staring at her sparse, depersonalized phone. “I’m looking at my options. Anything that gets me away from him.”

“Can you restore it from backup?”

Sara shook her head. “He nerfed that before I could.”

“Jesus,” Mila said. “Here.” She took the phone out of Sara’s hands, and texted herself. “There’s one. You should come visit me, you know.”

“Yeah, maybe,” Sara said.

“Oh…” Mila said. “You know, maybe talk to Victor? He had to cut his family off. He might have some ideas.”

“Like I could talk to Victor with Mickey around,” Sara said.

“Hmmm…” Mila entered Victor’s number into the phone, and listed it as “Victoria.”  “Text him. Mickey won’t know the difference. You can set up snapchat later.”

Sara nodded.

• • •

Mila competed but took third, her energy down enough from the whirlwind of travel to hit her PCS and GOE. She smiled up at Sara, standing in the middle with the Italians going bananas for her, and didn’t even mind. The scoring felt… fair enough, and it would make little difference.

After, she said, “I’m proud of you for rising above the bullshit.”

Sara sighed. “I don’t know what I’m going to do next, but I can’t keep dealing with this. I don’t even care about the medal, he already said that he’d helped me ‘focus’ with the phone.”

“Please talk to Victor,” Mila said.

Sara nodded.

• • •

On the plane home, riding on the private jet that often took them to the largest competitions, Mila asked Victor, “How did you cut it off with your parents?”

Victor blinked, frowned, and said, “Are you having trouble with your mama?”

“Not for me,” Mila said. “A friend has a family member who is being creepy as fuck.”

“If you figure it out, tell me,” Yuri said from across the aisle. “I can’t get away from the creepers.”

“I told them that if they contacted me again asking for money, I’d tell the media just how horrible they’d been with what they’d already taken,” Victor said. “And I told them that if that didn’t scare them, one of my private sponsors had offered to find other methods of dealing with them, and that I hadn’t asked what those might be, but that I was sure it probably wouldn’t be pleasant. Oh, and I moved, changed all my contact numbers, and didn’t give them to them.”

“Have you ever had an issue with someone you trained with?” Mila asked.

Minako turned around in her seat behind them, and said, “Is Mickey getting bad with Sara again?”

Mila nodded.

“Give me her number,” Minako said. “Is she better with English or French?”

“Either,” Mila said.

Minako nodded, and with that, the conversation ended.

• • •

After Worlds, Mila didn’t bother getting out of her sweats or out of Minako’s apartment for a solid week. The dragons poked her to do an hour of ballet each day in the studio, but that didn’t really count as leaving.

After a solid week of sloth, Minako finally flopped down next to Mila on the futon and said, “I’m not sure what’s getting you down, but I’m pretty sure that this…” she waved her hand at the futon and wrinkled her nose, “is not helping.”

“Down?” Mila asked.

“Depressed,” Minako said.

“I don’t think… I’m not sad,” Mila said, without looking away from her phone. “It was a long season. I’m recovering.”

Minako leaned her head over to peer at the phone. “Talking to someone?”

Mila shook her head. “Game.”

“And how many hours have you played that game in the past week?”

Mila shrugged.

“You could be anywhere in the world right now,” Minako said. “You’re welcome to stay here, but you aren’t trapped.”

Mila sighed, and turned her phone screen off, setting it down. “Russia is out of the question. My best coaches are here. Most of the people I give a damn about are here. Except that they’re not. Yuri is in Almaty with Otabek for god knows what reason, and I’m worried about them, and Victuuri are on some beach somewhere. Zara went to Moscow and I’m really worried about her, and I haven’t heard from Sara since Worlds, and I’m fucking terrified that Mickey’s done something really stupid, and I can’t help anyone, so yeah, I’m kind of fucking trapped.”

“They’re going to be okay,” Minako said. “Inessa and Max met Zara at the airport. Otabek’s parents hired security for him and for Yuri. Victor is still on his grand tour of the best gay destinations list, so I’m certain that he and Yuuri are just fine. And I have probably talked to Sara more recently than you have. She’s okay.”

“Okay, so now instead of feeling worried and trapped, I can just feel useless and stupid.”

Minako took a deep breath, let it out slowly, and then another, and said, “Do you know why Yuuri-san went to college?”

“He didn’t know he was going to make it big,” Mila said. “I’m already winning.”

“He wanted to have something more than competitive skating in his life. Everything he was doing for years was wrapped around skating. He said he felt like if he didn’t make it, his life was nothing. I told him to go learn about other things.”

“So, what, I should go away to school?” Mila asked.

“So, you should experience the world as more than a figure skater,” Minako said. “Live a little. Reach out.”

“I don’t know very many people here,” Mila said. “I feel like I used to know how to make friends and be social, and I just don’t know the rules here. I don’t even know where to start. And it’s not like I could go back… they turned their backs on me when I stood up for Zara and for Victor.”

“Maybe when Lilia gets back, we can go do something fun,” Minako said. “I know we’re just a couple of old ladies, but we’ve got some life in us yet.”

Mila rolled her eyes at the “old ladies” crack and then looked around. “Where is she, anyway? You two have been together, like, 24/7 for the past year.”

Minako blushed. “We were apart for a long time. And she’s just… running an errand. She’ll be back, oh, any time now. So you should get up and make yourself presentable, so we can go out when she comes home.”

“Where?” Mila asked.

“At the very least, dinner. My treat. But only if you shower and put on something other than those sweatpants.”

Mila looked down and cringed at the handprints on the sweats. “Yeah, okay.”

• • •

Half an hour later, Mila was pulling her hair up when there was a sharp knock at the door.

Minako hollered, “Can you please get that, Mila?”

Mila sighed, wrapped a tie around a messier-than-planned bun, checked her face from both sides, and then went to answer the door.

When she pulled it open, her jaw dropped.

Standing under the overhang with a rolling duffel, a pilot bag, a backpack and a messenger bag, was a very tired-looking Sara Crispino. Behind her, Lilia stood with another suitcase and a barely suppressed smile.

“So, I’m sorry I didn’t text,” Sara said. “But can I crash with you? I don’t really have anywhere else to go.”

Mila put her hand over her mouth and blinked back tears. She swallowed and tried to catch her breath, then nodded. “Of… Of course. God. Oh, here, let me get… how… I… Minako? Did you do this?” She reached out to take a bag, but Sara just dropped her bags and wrapped her arms around Mila’s waist until Mila hugged back.

When Sara burst into tears, Minako and Lilia took the abandoned bags inside.

Eventually they went back to the front step and managed to nudge the girls into the apartment.

Mila with Sara in her arms

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• • •

“You’re lucky you didn’t come an hour ago,” Mila said, as they sat on Minako’s couch a little while later. “I hadn’t gotten out of my sweats for a week. I was so worried.” Then she blinked. “Oh. That’s why she made me get dressed.”

“I’m sorry, I just… I talked to Victor, and I talked to Minako, and then I went radio silent while I was making arrangements,” Sara said. “We had to get Emil down to distract him so that I could have time to do what I needed to do, and he kept coming over and swiping my phone. I don’t know why it got so much worse, but I couldn’t derail him and I was getting really tired of trying.”

“So what did you do?” Mila asked.

“Got a visa for a long-term stay in Japan,” Sara said. “Moved my money away from the account he had access to. Bought a plane ticket as soon as the new account was set up. I was working on incognito in Chrome so he couldn’t look at my history. He had a fucking keylogger on my computer, but Chris knew a guy who could spoof that. Made it look like I was watching Netflix while I was actually working. Made it seem like you and I were fighting so that he wouldn’t assume I was headed here.”

“Why did he have access to your account?” Mila asked.

“We had a joint account at one point, because it was easier—he would loan me money, I would pay him back, it was simpler that way. But then he started commenting on the activity on my account… you know.”

“He’s probably going to find out you’re here as soon as the media figures it out,” Mila said.

“We’re asking the Japanese consulate to deny him entry, and the ISU not to assign them to the same events wherever possible,” Lilia said. “This would not be the first female skater to be stalked by another skater, but it may be the first time it was a sibling.”

“They’re taking it that seriously?” Mila asked. “I mean, it is serious, I’m just… people always downplay things.”

“The red flag for me,” Minako said, “was that Sara told him in no uncertain terms that she was going to be independent, he seemed to acknowledge that, and then he got progressively worse than he’d ever been over the course of this past year. That he responded to her attempts to set boundaries by doubling down on his emotional abuse…”

“We were worried it was going to get physical,” Lilia said.

Sara looked down.

“What?” Mila said.

“I didn’t just hand over my phone or computer to him,” Sara said. “He grabbed my wrist and took the phone out of my hands. And when he got the computer, he practically sat on me. My mother brushed it off as sibling stuff. Because that’s just how brothers are. But it wasn’t… It wasn’t okay.”

“You’re twenty-three years old,” Lilia said. “He should have outgrown that by the time you two were eleven.”

“He thinks it’s showing his love,” Sara said. “And I feel like I’ve been making excuses for him forever.”

“It’s not your job,” Mila said. “And if a guy tried to show me love by grabbing my phone, I think I would kick him in the balls. I mean, hell, Yuri tried it once out of sheer spite and I laid him on the ground.”

Sara frowned. “He’s my brother. I mean, if it had been any other guy… I think I would have called la polizia. But I don’t think anyone would have forgiven me, and the media storm would have been a nightmare. If I have to hear one more person call me an ungrateful bitch for not appreciating what a fucking wonderfully protective brother I have… Who is he protecting me from? He should fucking protect me from himself.”

“You’re safe now,” Minako said.

“I’m so angry I had to leave in order to feel safe,” Sara said. “But I’m really glad you’re all here.”

“So what about skating?” Mila asked.

“Victor’s taking me on as my coach,” Sara said. “I’ll give it a shot for a year.”

Mila gaped. “Victor? He’s barely allowed to supervise the Yuris. Yakov keeps saying he’s retiring, but I don’t think he’s letting go.”

“I think Yakov is going to be doing a reduced schedule,” Lilia said. “But he loves it here, and being able to keep coaching while not being cold all the time has made retirement less pressing for him. And with Celestino coming, I don’t think you’ll be wanting for coaching staff. Yuuri-san is taking on some of it as well.”

“I heard how the facilities were expanding,” Sara said. “So the coaching staff is, too?”

Minako nodded. “And as soon as they finish remodeling, you won’t even need to stay at my… our apartment if you don’t want to. Yuuri-san’s project is almost done.”

“Have they still not told each other?” Mila asked.

Minako snorted. “They’ve each sworn me to secrecy. You would not believe how hard we’ve had to work to make sure they don’t duplicate each other’s efforts.”

Sara looked confused.

Mila explained. “So a lot of the onsens in the area went out of business, and were for sale. Yuuri-san found one right next to the rink and bought it with some of his sponsorship money, to turn into a place for out-of-town skaters to stay when they’re here for coaching.”

“And Victor bought the one next door, to create a cross-training facility. We’re going to do skating-specific ballet training there, while still keeping this studio open here for my regular ballet students,” Minako said. “It will have gymnastics equipment, trampolines, mats, a couple of studios as well, and it has more pools than the other onsen has, so they can set some up for cold therapy as well as hot, and use the large one for water exercises.”

Lilia said, “That one has a ridiculous little house next to it that he’s doing up as a house for just him and Yuuri.”

“And they don’t know what the other is doing?” Sara asked.

“It’s a surprise,” Minako, Lilia, and Mila all said in unison.

Sara laughed. “That’s… really typical for them, isn’t it?”

Minako rolled her eyes. “Literally everyone in town knows what’s going on except them. They keep grumbling about the construction next door. I had to persuade Yuuri that it would be foolish to put in equipment the Ice Castle will have, and I had to tell Victor that it was a terrible idea to house a bunch of skaters together, that they’d fight all the time.” She gestured wildly as she talked, her voice animated. “All to keep them from building the exact same thing next door. And Yakov flat out refused to let either of them have any say in the remodel of the Ice Castle, to keep them from knowing that it wouldn’t be duplicating either of their efforts. We’ve had to conspire to make sure all the projects finish at the same time.”

“I thought they were out of town?” Sara said.

Minako snorted. “I persuaded each of them separately that a vacation would be perfect, that I’d oversee the finishing touches, and they could come home and show off their surprise.”

“Anyway, there’s lots of space there, but it won’t be ready for another couple weeks,” Mila said.

Sara’s stomach growled.

“Were we ever going to go out to eat?” Mila asked Minako.

“We could,” she said. “But Sara’s probably tired.”

“I think I’m more hungry than tired,” Sara said. “I’m really tired, but I wasn’t eating very much because of the stress.”

“We could head over to Yu-topia for food,” Lilia said. “Give Sara a reason to be happy she’s here.”

“I’m already happy I’m here,” Sara said, “but food would be lovely.”