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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.”

Chapter Text

Sara "asleep" on Mila's shoulder in the Yu-topia onsen

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Sara fell asleep leaning half on Mila’s shoulder and half on the wall of the pool in the women’s baths of the onsen after dinner.

“Let us know if you need help getting her out,” Minako said to Mila, amused.

Mila glanced at Sara and then shook her head. “It’s fine for now, I’d like to stay in for a little longer.”

“Not too long,” Minako said.

Mila nodded, and closed her eyes. Some internal tension had completely unraveled when Sara had shown up at Minako’s door, and it felt like the last shreds of the dark mood that had been pulling at her for so long were washing away with the hot water.

“They gone?” Sara mumbled in Mila’s ear.

Mila startled and then chuckled. “Yeah, they’re gone. Faker.”

“I mean, I am tired enough to fall asleep on you,” Sara said.

“You kind of have to. If you’re staying with us, your choices of sleeping space are a not very comfortable couch, or my futon,” Mila murmured, wrapping an arm back around Sara’s shoulders.

“I wouldn’t say no to cuddles,” Sara said. “Missed you.”

“You’re the one who went radio silent,” Mila said.

“I had to block you until I was out of his reach, so he wouldn’t see your messages, and then I had my phone off… call it an abundance of caution. I didn’t want him finding me until I was out of the country, and then I was on an airplane and by the time I’d landed I figured I’d rather surprise you.” Sara put her forehead against Mila’s cheek. “Please don’t be mad.”

“I’m not,” Mila said. “It’s just been a hell of a week. Everyone disappeared. I don’t think I make a very good introvert.”

“Lilia said you were doing a really good job of faking it,” Sara said.

“It felt like I was waiting for something,” Mila said. “I just didn’t know what. I’ve… I guess I’ve been lonely for a while. But you’re here. Oh my god. Sara, you’re here. We get to train together!”

“Lilia said lesbians usually wait until the second date to move in together,” Sara said with a sly, shy grin.

Mila snorted. “How many years have we known each other?”

“Five,” Sara said. “But we still haven’t really gone on a date.”

“You had your tongue in my mouth at the Olympics,” Mila said. “And technically this could be construed as a double date, though I’m trying not to think about that too much.”

“Felt good,” Sara mumbled against Mila’s shoulder. “I like your mouth.”

“I’m still not entirely sure I’m gay,” Mila said. “But I’m still open to being persuaded.”

“‘S okay,” Sara said. “I think I’m gay enough for the both of us.”

“I still like dick, like, a lot,” Mila said.

Sara chuckled, forehead still resting in the crook of Mila’s neck.

“What?” Mila asked.

“I brought a selection,” Sara said, and then pulled away, covering her face with her hands. “Oh my god, I’m sorry, I’m tired and I have no filter.”

Mila blushed, startled, and turned around to stare at Sara, then asked, puzzled, “How?”

“Had them delivered right before I left.” Sara grinned, then her smile faltered. “Emil took Mickey on a train trip through Europe. Swapped out his sim card for one that doesn’t work in Europe so he won’t get a signal. Left my old phone at my mother’s place, so if he checks in on wifi it won’t look like I’ve left.”

“There’s no privacy at all at Minako’s,” Mila said, mind whirling.

“If you decide you’re gay enough to try,” Sara said, leaning back against the edge of the pool, “there’s those love hotels that Victor was raving about. But no pressure. I’m here because you’re my friend and I missed you and when I thought about having to leave home, it didn’t make any sense at all to go someplace you weren’t. And I’m 100% done pretending to be anything but who I am. So I’m way, way too tired and gay to pretend I don’t have a crush on you. And you’re so pretty when you blush like that. And I’m really babbling.”

Mila looked down and said, “You’re the most gorgeous human being I’ve ever met.”

“You grew up skating with Victor and you say that? You must be at least a little gay,” Sara said.

“He’s an enormous goofball, and I’ve seen him ignore supermodels who really wanted to get in his pants. He’s also ten years older than I am. And he’s really, really gay. Like ever since he decided that the word applied to him, he’s been on this great mission to outgay every other gay man on the planet.”

“Has anyone explained to him that it’s not a competition?” Sara asked.

“It’s Victor,” Mila said. Then a moment later, “You really think I’m pretty?”

It was Sara’s turn to blush and look down. “You were why I figured out I was probably gay.”

“Kissing you was a lot of fun,” Mila said. “But I was sooo drunk.”

“We could try when you’re not,” Sara said.

Mila turned pinker, and said, “I think… I think I need to be out. Of the onsen.”

She could feel Sara’s eyes on her as she climbed out of the water. They’d seen each other naked dozens of times at competitions, getting ready, but this felt profoundly different.

She glanced back at Sara, standing thigh-deep in the water, and without meaning to, let her gaze trail from the waterline up to Sara’s face.

Sara raised an eyebrow and gave her a half-questioning, half-saucy smirk.

Mila grinned. “Okay, I’m at least a little bit gay for you.”

Sara laughed. Mila blushed and turned to get her towel.  

• • •

There was a delightful frisson between them in the shower, a lingering physical tingle that Mila hadn’t felt since her first crush, at thirteen. They didn’t touch as they rinsed the mineral water of the onsen off their skin, but Mila caught herself looking as Sara closed her eyes to rinse shampoo out of her hair, sitting on a low stool with a hand-held showerhead in her hand.

Sara didn’t even open her eyes as she said, “This is like the least sexy shower ever. I can feel you looking.”

“I’m just amazed that you’re here,” Mila said. “I don’t fucking care how you’re sitting.”

“I don’t know how to do any of this,” Sara said, still rinsing her hair. “I’ve spent so long trying not to set him off, trying to look pretty so people won’t talk, without looking trashy so that he won’t get mad, and I don’t know how not to worry about that.”

Mila handed her the conditioner bottle. “I don’t think anyone ever gets completely away from that. I mean, we’re around cameras all the time. But you don’t need to impress me. I’m already impressed. I’ve been impressed since before I hit seniors.”

“Anything I need to know about staying at Minako’s?” Sara asked, letting the spray hit her stomach while the conditioner set.

“There’s no privacy, but they’re so focused on each other that it doesn’t really matter,” Mila said. “I’m essentially staying in her living room. I’m supposed to roll away the futon during the day, but since Worlds, I… haven’t, really. We won’t see them in the middle of the night, but I think I would probably wait until after the new facility opens to do anything I didn’t want to be walked in on… I haven’t dated since I got here, so it hasn’t been an issue.”

“Social rules?” Sara asked, picking up the spray and letting the conditioner sluice off her head.

Mila leaned against the wall. “I mean, there are lots of them, but people don’t expect Westerners to ‘get it’ most of the time. And the places we are, I mean, I don’t think there’s going to be too much that’s hard to get? You’re pretty aware… Get to know Mari and Yuuko, and they’ll help you out. I’ll help, too, I’ve just been really busy, so I’m probably not as good at it all as I should be by now. People are nice, though.”

They finished and met Minako and Lilia out in the lounge.

• • •

It felt completely natural to climb into bed next to Sara later that evening, and Sara accepted Mila’s extended arm as the invitation it was, settling her now-braided hair against Mila’s shoulder, nose to collarbone.

Mila sighed into Sara’s hair. “Whatever else, this is good, yeah?”

Sara nodded, and Mila giggled involuntarily. “Your nose tickles.”

“Noted,” Sara said, and dropped off to sleep.

• • •

Mila woke the next morning to the sound of laughter and the smell of coffee.

“Please tell me there’s enough coffee for me,” she said.

“Only if you get out of bed, sleepyhead,” Minako called out.

“Is Lilia actually making pancakes?” Mila asked.

“We have pancakes, jam, fish, miso soup, coffee… but only if you get up.”

“I’m up,” Mila said, rolling off the futon and onto her knees. She stared at the bed and then set about rolling it out of the way for the day.

She folded the paper standing screen away, to find Minako and Lilia sitting at the Western-style dining room table Minako had bought as a concession to Lilia’s failing knees. Sara was a few feet away in the small kitchen. “Cappuccino?” she asked.

“God, yes,” Mila said. They usually used a French press for simplicity, but the small espresso maker had been there since she’d moved in, sitting tucked away behind the rice cooker on the counter.

She sat down across from the dragons, and used a pair of chopsticks to tweak a buckwheat pancake onto her plate, and then dropped a spoonful of loquat jam on top. Lilia didn’t even look up from her tablet while she handed across a small bowl of sour cream, and Mila wordlessly took it and spooned some on top of the jam.

“What’s the fish?” Mila asked Minako.

“Honmasu. I just seared it. If you don’t want it, I’ll cook it a little more and flake it into a salad for my lunch.”

“I’ll buy you lunch,” Mila said, making grabby hands at the covered plate.

Minako laughed, and handed the salmon over. “Soup?”

“Can I drop the salmon into it or does it have tofu already?” Mila asked.

“I didn’t put tofu in yours,” Minako said, handing over a small, covered bowl.

“You came to Japan and aren’t eating tofu?” Sara asked as she sat down next to Mila, sliding the cup of cappuccino over.

“I can’t get the hang of it in soup,” Mila said. “Aren’t you eating?”

“I swiped three pancakes as Lilia made them,” Sara said. “We didn’t want to wake you.”

Mila took a long sip of the coffee and sighed as the caffeine hit her system. “I always forget how much I like cappuccino the way you make it.”

Sara grinned. “When I saw the machine and that there was milk and coffee, it felt like things might actually be okay after all.”

“I felt that way the first time Lilia made stroganoff,” Mila said. “Like maybe I wasn’t too far away from home, after all.”

“I still can’t get over the great Madame Baranovskaya making me breakfast,” Sara said.

Lilia looked up, and said to Minako in Russian, «I like this one. We keep her.»  To Sara, she said, “I bring home with me. We don’t always have milk on hand, but I knew you were coming. I lived in Italy for a year. I would not expect an Italian girl to go without her morning latte.”

“Still, thank you,” Sara said. “All of you. I feel like I can breathe again.”

“See if you still thank me once we start your ballet lessons,” Lilia said. “Yuri swears at me about them regularly.”

“It would be an honor,” Sara said.

“See if you still say that after she works on your flexibility,” Mila said.

“Familiarity breeds contempt,” Lilia muttered, returning to the Russian newspaper she’d been reading on her oversized tablet.

“No, I thought I was going to have to give it all up,” Sara said. “Then Victor said he’d coach me, and Minako said she’d help, and now I’m here, and Mickey has no idea where I am, and I can’t remember the last time that happened.”

“How media-silent do we need to be?” Mila asked.

Minako pulled her own notebook computer over and brought up her email. A moment later, she said, “Not very. The consulate got back to me, and said they’d put an alert on his name. If he comes, he will be denied entry. If you want, one of us can tell him that.”

“Is there any way to make it be the ISU telling him?” Mila asked. “He doesn’t seem to take women very seriously.”

“Did your coach help you leave?” Lilia asked Sara.

Sara looked down and nodded. “He was understanding. He had been telling me for years that I didn’t have to put up with it. He didn’t quite get that it didn’t matter if I put up with it or not until he saw the bruises on my wrists at Worlds. I thought he was going to kill Mickey on the spot.”

“Then let’s have his coach talk to him,” Lilia said.

“I can talk to Ciao… Cialdini about it, too,” Minako said, with a tiny glance at Lilia. “He might have some ideas as well. I think the ISU might require formal action in order to get involved, and you’ve said all along that you don’t want that.”

“I’m not ready to burn my bridges,” Sara said.

Lilia nodded. “Getting the ISU formally involved would be more like bombing your bridges. It’s hard to get a… a nuanced response from big organizations. If the ISU gets involved on a formal level, the media gets involved, and if the media gets involved, you’re not just a target for your brother, but for every asshole in the figure skating world and all of Italy besides. It’s one thing asking them not to assign you at the same events. You’re not competing against each other, so there’s no reason for them not to do that. But asking them to carry the message is like using a grenade to knock on a door.”

Minako started typing into her computer, and after a few minutes, read aloud, “Dear Celestino, I think you’re probably aware of the growing tension between the Crispino twins due to Michele’s inappropriately controlling behavior toward his sister. I’m wondering if you might have some suggestions for breaking it to the boy that his sister has left the country, that he will not be allowed into the country she’s now in, and that any attempt on his part to contact her will be rebuffed.”

“Do we really need him on this?” Mila asked.

“I’ve known Ciao Ciao a long time,” Minako said. “He’s got a better read on the Italian coaching community than I do.”

“We used to skate with him before he moved to the United States,” Sara said.

“It just feels gross that we can’t just take care of this ourselves,” Mila grumbled.

“I could send someone to cut off his balls,” Lilia said. “But I’m pretty sure that’s not what Sara wants. We’re figuring out the best way to apply the kind of pressure he understands. We will teach Sara physical self-defense. We can have bodyguards for her at international events. But what we really want is for him to feel enough pressure from people he sees as authorities that he will stop trying to control her. It is more of a success if he never tries than if she puts him on the ground, no matter how satisfying that might feel to us as observers. So we approach the problem with… subtlety. Nuance.”

Minako said, “I have found that toxic masculinity requires someone starting out where he is, and then using masculine pressure to push him someplace more appropriate. We could come at him like a train, but he would be more likely to dig himself in than to move, even if it breaks him. This way, he might just move on his own. It’s stupid, but…” She shrugged. “At this point, we just need something to derail him. If Sara wanted to take more action, we’d support that, but I get it. He’s her brother. Family is messy. Push too hard in one spot and the whole thing topples over.”

“My mother would never forgive me for putting him in jail,” Sara said.

“I’m surprised she forgives him for laying a hand on you,” Mila said.

“She’s the one who told him to protect me,” Sara said.

Mila winced. “Right.”

They finished eating, and then cleaned up the kitchen. Minako’s email dinged, and she sat down to read.

Dear Minako, lovely to hear from you. I wish it could be under more entertaining circumstances. Phichit was telling me some of what’s been going on, and of course I’d be willing to talk to Mickey. I’m actually travelling to Italy this summer, so if it can wait until May, I could do it in person. If it needs to happen sooner, I think you’ll find Tony sympathetic. He used to worry to me about those two, many times. Oh, and if Sara could call me, I could tell Mickey that I have talked to her myself.

Lilia tapped her fingers together and then said, “Tell him we’ll probably do both. I do not think that Michele will be settling down after only one talking to. I’ve met Antonio several times, I should probably be the one to call him.”

Mila watched as Lilia called up Sara’s coach, and spoke to him in fluent—if rusty—Italian. Lilia seemed to transform, no longer the salty, sly roommate or the dragon ballerina, but into this slick, flirting person who seemed nothing at all like the woman Mila normally saw every day.

Minako seemed amused by the transformation.

“What’s she saying?” Mila asked Sara.

“Mostly just how are you, how are the children, oh, I miss Italy, it is so beautiful, we must get together, that kind of thing,” Sara said.

There was a lull, and then Lilia shifted again and grew more serious.

“She’s explaining that I’m with her, and that I left to get away from Michele, and that we need to explain to Mickey that I’m safe but that he can’t contact me,” Sara said.

Lilia listened for a moment and then handed the phone to Sara.

Sara murmured a greeting and then listened for a long time, murmuring, “Si, si,” every so often. A tear started down her cheek, and Mila wrapped an arm around her silently.

Then she said something longer, which sounded from the tone like an apology, listened for a moment longer, and then handed the phone back to Lilia, who dried it with a soft towel before putting it back to her ear.

Sara turned and wrapped her arms around Mila’s neck and sobbed.

“Was he mean?” Mila asked, patting Sara’s back.

Sara shook her head against Mila’s neck. “He said that he was glad I was safe, delighted that I wasn’t leaving skating, and that he would have rather kept me than Michele, but he understood why I had to go. And that he would miss me. But he is going to let my mother know that I am safe and with people he trusts, and at less risk of harm than I had ever been in Italy, that I didn’t run away to be with a boy, but because Michele was hurting me. And when Mickey comes back, he and Emil are going to sit him down. Emil already told him a little, but he was glad to hear it from me.”

Lilia’s laughter rang through the small apartment before she ended the call. Setting the phone down, she said, “I think he’ll handle your brother and your mother. Maybe don’t make it obvious on social media right away.”

Sara nodded.

• • •

Mila spent the day showing Sara around town, starting with the rink and the construction projects and ending up on the beach.

“It feels like a dream,” Sara said, looking out over the ocean.

“Good dream?” Mila asked.

“I feel like I’ve floated away from reality,” Sara said. “I keep wondering when he’s going to pull me back down to the ground, and how much it’s going to hurt.”

Mila threaded their fingers together. “It’s more like you stepped up out of a pit that he called reality. But he lied. This is the real world.”

“I’m pretty sure Japan is at least partly imaginary,” Sara said.

“Am I?” Mila asked, bumping their shoulders together gently.

Sara turned her head, to find Mila’s face closer than she expected. “I have no idea.”

She closed her eyes, and Mila closed the small remaining distance. “I’m here, now,” she murmured against Sara’s cheek.

“I have no idea how this goes in reality,” Sara said, blushing and ducking her head a little. “All I know is that in a movie, one of us would be a boy and…”

“I’m not a boy,” Mila said, bringing a hand up to touch Sara’s hair. “And boys are usually terrible at this anyway.”

“It was easier, drunk,” Sara said.

Mila pulled back, and reached down to help Sara up. Sara opened her eyes, and a complex series of expressions moved across her face, curiosity and concern, anxiety and excitement. She took Mila’s hand and stood, but didn’t let go.

“I assume the locals won’t care if we hold hands?” Sara asked, leaving her hand in Mila’s.

“There’s literally nothing we could do that would out-weird Victor, Yuuri-san, and Yurio,” Mila said. “Up to and including public drunkenness and nudity.”

“Yurio?” Sara asked.

“Little Yuri. That’s what Mari calls him. And the guys when they’re being rude.” They started walking back up to the sidewalk.

“No, I knew that. I’m having a hard time imagining him being publicly drunk and naked. He’s usually yelling at them about that kind of thing, isn’t he?” Sara entwined her fingers with Mila’s as they walked.

“Ha, no, he doesn’t get drunk, he just runs through town shouting obscenities at the top of his lungs when they do it. I honestly think it’s more jarring to the locals when he does that then when Victor gets naked and starts yelling in public about how much he loves Yuuri-san.”

“That’s happened more than once, I take it?” Sara asked.

“It’s Victor,” Mila said. “The locals love anyone who loves Yuuri, and drunken shenanigans don’t seem quite as surprising to them as sober rudeness. Not that I want to, but it would be really difficult for us to top that.”

Sara grinned. “Could be fun trying…”

Mila gave her a desperate look. “I’ve just been trying to keep my head down, you know?”

“And here I come, barging into your quiet life, turning things upside down and threatening to make spectacles with you,” Sara tossed back, teasing.

Mila stopped suddenly, realization dawning. “Oh, god, please do. I’ve been so bored,” Mila said, grinning.

Sara turned and raised her eyebrows. “What do people do for fun around here?”

Mila laughed. “They work themselves limp on the ice, and then have drunken debacles when they think they can get away with it. I haven’t gotten drunk here, though, we’ve been too busy since my birthday, and I don’t know, the boys have citizenship to fall back on, but they could have kicked me out for underage drinking or something.”

Sara blinked at her. “Oh my god, I forgot you’re a baby.” They resumed walking.

Mila rolled her eyes, hard. “20 is not a baby.”

Sara screwed up her face and hunched over, wobbling her hand over an imaginary cane. She wheezed, “I’m an old, old woman.”

“You’re twenty-three,” Mila said, laughing. “And I can drink now anyway… but…” She blushed.

Sara looked over, interested. “Hm?”

“I’d rather stay sober if…” Mila faltered.

“If…” Sara led.

Looking at the ground, Mila said quietly, “The last time I got drunk with a guy I had a crush on, I ended up doing things that I regretted later. I don’t want to regret you.”

Sara tugged her closer until their shoulders touched, and said back, “If you weren’t worried about your image, I’d kiss you now.”

Mila glanced around. There were a couple of men in the distance, fishing, paying them no attention. She gave Sara’s hand a tug, turning, and Sara looked up at her, surprised, eyes falling shut reflexively as Mila’s lips closed on hers.

They stood there for a long moment, just like that, a still, gentle kiss that warmed them both.

Mila pulled away and brushed the fingers of her free hand over her lips. “I could get used to that.”

Sara snorted. “Just used to it?”

“How many boys have you kissed?” Mila asked, as they started walking again.

“Two,” Sara said. “It’s part of why Mickey freaks out when he sees me with boys. He caught me both times.”

“So do you remember how different their lips are?”

Sara thought. “Emil wasn’t shaving yet, so not all that different. And Chris is a skin care queen, so he’s pretty soft, but yeah, the stubble is something else.”

“You kissed Chris?” Mila asked. “I thought he was gay.”

“Yeah, he seems pretty flexible,” Sara said. “And it wasn’t much. I kissed him, Mickey yelled, I had to talk him down, nothing came of it.”

“First time for everything,” Mila snorted.

“That’s awful,” Sara said, laughing.

“So what happened with Emil?” Mila asked.

“He kissed me, I turned him down for being too young, Mickey yelled, I yelled at Mickey, they fought, and ended up best friends. Don’t ask me how that works, boys are weird.”

“He’s practically my age,” Mila said, laughing.

“Yeah, but when this all happened, he was 14. And he did it on a dare, which really pissed me off. But he’s okay now. I mean, we’re actually friends now.”

“A dare?” Mila said, laughing.

Sara sighed. “To prove he wasn’t gay.”

Mila coughed. “That’s, er, ironic.”

“Yeah, I’m pretty sure he has a crush on my brother now, but it’s not my problem.”

Mila chuckled, “I actually meant because…” She gestured between them with her free hand.

Sara blinked. “Oh. Oh! Yes. That is… Maybe I’ll explain it to him. Someday. When it doesn’t matter so much.”

Mila sighed. “Yeah, it’s been made pretty clear to me that being gay isn’t really compatible with being on the Russian team. And I still need the Russian team. I don’t have the fallbacks the guys do, and god knows what my mother would say.”

“She seems pretty chill,” Sara said.

Mila shrugged. “She understands me dating hockey players. She understands me going with boys. She can blow that kind of stuff off with, ‘Oh, kids are like that.’ But I don’t know how she feels about me dating girls, because it has literally never come up. And I don’t know what I am, or what I want, and I’m afraid of burning bridges I might still need.”

“Well, it seems like for girls, they literally have to come out and say ‘I’m gay, I only want girls,’ and even then half the time the media glosses it over. I’m not going to say it’s perfectly safe, but I’m pretty sure we could hold hands through every event and not having anyone bat an eye. I could probably kiss you on the ice and they’d just talk about what good friends we are.” Sara grinned. “I’m not going to, but it’s tempting.”

Mila glanced over. “I think at this point I’d be happy just spending time with you in private. Kissing sounds nice. And kissing you is really, really different from the boys I’ve been with. Softer. But hockey boys are really big and aggressive, and they tend to be…”

“Goal-oriented?” Sara guessed.

“In every possible way,” Mila said, laughing. A moment later, she said, puzzled, “So, um, before—what did you mean by a selection?”

It took Sara a moment to catch up to what Mila meant, but once she did, she nearly tripped. When she’d regained her composure, she said, “Different sizes, colors, one of them is purple and sparkly. A couple of them vibrate.”

Mila blushed. “I can’t believe you brought those through customs.”

“I’m pretty sure it’s not the strangest thing they’ve seen,” Sara said. “Most of them aren’t… er… anatomically correct, so they might not have even known. Well, there is one, but…

“Not… okay, now I’m really curious.” Mila said.

“I mean, I just ordered a bunch that seemed really different from each other,” Sara said. “I haven’t tried them out yet.”

“Did you bring lube? Condoms?” Mila asked.

Sara blinked. “Why would I…”

“Toys get kind of dry without help, and the condoms help keep them clean,” Mila said.

“Oh, you’ve already used toys?” Sara asked.

“I would not have survived the past year,” Mila said. “I don’t use condoms on my personal toys, but if there’s a chance of sharing, it’s important to avoid STDs.”

“Well, I’m clean,” Sara said.

“And I tested clean since my last boyfriend,” Mila said, “but it’s still a good habit. Minako will probably sit you down and give you The Talk.”

Sara sighed. “Oh god. Really?”

“It’s not so bad,” Mila said. “I mean, she’s done that with pretty much every one of us, I think.”

“What, do you compare notes?” Sara asked.

“With Victor? Absolutely,” Mila said. “He warned me about The Talk before it happened. And Yuri was yelling about it for days. It’s really not so bad. She’s way, way less embarrassing than it would be with Yakov or Lilia or, god help me, my mother. And she goes into details they won’t, like making things more fun and being emotionally safe.”

They moved on to less fraught topics as they moved away from the beach and down the city streets toward Minako’s.

 Same as the cover but without text, Mila and Sara on the bridge, kissing.

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Chapter Text

 Minako and Lilia in the kitchen

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When they got back, it was late afternoon, and they were still holding hands. They came in the front door, laughing, and found Minako and Lilia putting together dinner in the kitchen.

Minako looked at them, looked at their hands and said, “Is this a thing?”

Mila shrugged a little, and then nodded.

Minako looked at Lilia and said, “Can you finish? I need to sit them down.”

“You already gave me The Talk, though,” Mila said.

“I gave you the straight version,” Minako said. “Now you get the lesbian version.”

“There’s a lesbian version of The Talk?” Sara asked.

“Just because it’s really, really difficult to get knocked up sleeping with girls doesn’t mean there aren’t other potential consequences,” Minako said, drying her hands off and giving Lilia a kiss.

Lilia blushed.

Mila started to say something, and Minako pointed at her and said, “Not a word. The list of people we are willing to kiss in front of, even a tiny bit, is very, very short. Respect the fact that you’re on it.”

Mila closed her mouth.

Minako looked around and said, “My office, in the ballet studio.”

They followed her out and downstairs to the studio and waited for Minako to unlock the door. Once inside, she turned on the lights and crossed to the back of the studio to open the office door. Inside, there was a low futon couch against the far wall, with shelves and cubbies built up and around full of ballet shoes, CDs, and on one wall, a clothes rack hung thick with tutus and costumes. She pulled a hassock over and gestured for them to sit on the futon, then turned to her shelves and pulled several books down. Without looking back at the young women, Minako asked, “How much research have you done?”

Sara said, “Some? Not enough, apparently?”

Minako put a stack of books on the table, opened a large yellow one, and flipped to an anatomical drawing. “See this whole large structure through here?” she said, pointing to the drawing. “That whole thing is the clitoris, not just what’s on the outside.”

They stared at her.

“You do know what a clitoris is,” Minako said flatly.

They both nodded.

“Did you know that it is more than just that bit on the outside?”

Sara shook her head. Mila nodded. “You told me the last time…”

The discussion continued for a while, with Minako going into levels of risk for disease prevention and pregnancy—both were fascinated that it was theoretically possible for pregnancy to happen if a girl had sex with a guy and then with a girlfriend, or if a trans girl was involved, though they were less amused by number of barriers safer sex seemed to require.

“I’m a virgin,” Sara said.

“And Mila is not. She can get tested and have a reasonable certainty, but it’s more than just the big things. For a long time, I got a new yeast infection after every new partner.”

Mila winced.

Minako continued, “Anyway, you’re adults and it’s up to you and you may not even be there yet, but you need to understand what risks you’re taking, and you need to talk about your relationship. Like, if you’re going to be sexually exclusive while you’re dating or not, because that is really critical in helping you decide what kinds of protection you want to use and how careful you need to be. And maybe you’re very careful at the start when you’re figuring things out, and not so much if you decide that you’re going to be exclusive for a while.”

“It’s not like I’ve had a lot of options since I moved here,” Mila said with a self-deprecating laugh.

“Still,” Minako said. “If you’re not as certain as you can be that you are both clean and staying that way, gloves, condoms on toys. Plastic wrap is acceptable for oral sex and rimming, though you can order something designed for the purpose if you want to be more careful. I have a link somewhere.”

“Rimming?” Sara asked.

Mila blushed scarlet as Minako explained, and Sara looked vaguely appalled.

Minako laughed. “It can be fun if everyone’s clean and careful, but the steps to getting really clean can be pretty invasive. If you don’t want me to describe them, I’ll send you a page on the subject. But I keep condoms, lube, gloves, and plastic wrap in the studio bathrooms. There’s also a donation box for money towards restocking. That way I don’t have to know who’s taking things, and my students don’t have to deal with little old ladies at the cash register.”

“You give this talk to all the skaters?” Sara asked.

“Every one of them,” Minako said. “Usually not at the same time, but I know Mila’s been through it once. You can always ask me questions, I have no shame, and I want you kids safe and happy.”

Minako pulled another book down, which went into a variety of sexual techniques, and said, “I’m not going to cover everything in this book, but you’re both living here for now, and so you can look through it at your leisure. Don’t give me that face, this stuff is all less intimidating if you know where everything is and what makes some people feel good. And you need to know that not everything that’s fun for one person is fun for the other, so it’s super important to talk about what you like and don’t like even while you’re trying new things.”

She talked a while longer about the importance of enthusiastic consent at every stage and how to say no without feeling like a spoilsport. And that sometimes it would just be awkward, but that when it came to a choice between awkwardness and trauma, there was really no choice at all.

“How much of this did you learn the hard way?” Mila asked, and then immediately blushed over how personal the question was.

Minako was not fazed. “Most of it,” she said. “You have to remember that our collective understanding of consent is very, very young. The idea that consent isn’t just an absence of refusal, but that it requires an actual positive intention? That’s less than ten years old in widespread use. It seems so fundamentally obvious, but I can’t tell you how many times I ended up having sex because things were hot and heavy and no one asked. When we started asking, the sex actually got better. Less of it, but better. The idea that it’s not okay to fuck someone drunk is tragically recent. When I started being sexually active, the sexual revolution was just ending because of the AIDS crisis, and everyone was scared shitless of this killer disease, so I’ve always been a safety queen, but back then, the attitudes towards sex in general and women in particular were really different. I don’t think Lilia and I had even an inkling that one day we could be married to each other. Even trying to be together nearly lost us everything. And yet it was practically expected that we would sleep with a lot of men, because we were dancers and traveling and that’s what everyone assumed.”

“So Lilia married Yakov?” Mila asked.

“That, you can ask her about,” Minako said. “I mean, obviously she did, and I left, and I dated men for a long time and drank a lot to keep from feeling things. I don’t recommend it.”

“I don’t know if I’d dare,” Mila said.

“She’d tell you,” Minako said. “Probably as a cautionary tale.”

“I don’t even really know if I’m gay,” Mila said. “I mean, Sara’s really hot, and I’m really curious and she’s my friend and I adore her, but I had fun with guys…”

“Okay, look,” Minako said. “Sexual orientation in general is a lot more complicated and nebulous than the labels would imply. I mean, for one thing, there’s romantic attraction, which isn’t always the same as sexual attraction, and neither of those is necessarily involved in an emotional relationship. Plus, a lot of humans will respond to stimulus, so if something feels good, they’ll do it, even if their brains aren’t actively seeking it out. So when I say I slept with guys, I had a lot of fun doing that, even though guys aren’t really what ‘does it’ for me. Heck, what does it for me has a lot more to do with how someone’s touching me than it does with who’s touching me, and other people might be the opposite, where what’s being done to them is a lot less important than who’s doing it.”

She paused, looked at the two young women, and sighed. “And I completely lost you there. Okay, so it’s okay to try things and see if you like them. Try not to get too caught up on the labels. I think technically I’m probably pansexual and demiromantic, which means that I have enjoyed sexual activity with a wide range of people of whatever gender, but I really only get romantically attracted to people I’m already emotionally close to, and even then it’s very limited. Lilia is a lesbian, strongly homosexual and strongly homoromantic.

“Even though she was married?” Sara asked.

“I think the social pressures of the Soviet Union with regards to sports and ballet are probably a subject for another day,” Minako said with a dry laugh.

“She gets along with Yakov,” Mila said, “but it’s always been kind of baffling to me that they were married.”

“I think it was baffling to them,” Minako quipped. “But regardless. The whole point of this is that you’re young, you get to figure this stuff out for yourself. Hopefully you both figure out something that makes you happy, whether or not that ends up with you two being a couple, but it’s really, really important that you go into this understanding where you both are, and having some exit strategy if it’s not working for either of you. Sexual relationships can ruin friendships, or make them stronger. There’s no shame in saying, ‘This isn’t how I want to be with you.’ Rejection hurts, but not as much as faking it.”

“Tell that to the guys I used to date,” Mila said, rolling her eyes.

“Sara isn’t the guys you used to date. You two be honest with each other, even if you’re used to lying to everyone else for survival. Your friendship is too good to let it fail if the sex doesn’t work.” Minako paused, then closed the books and said as she stood up to put them back on the shelf, “Oh, and if you have toys, Sara, use them on yourself before you have Mila use them on you. You’re much less likely to get hurt that way.”

Sara and Mila glanced at each other, and both flushed. Mila said, “We hadn’t really talked about things going in that direction.”

Minako sighed and sat back down. “Look, I know you’ve both been immersed in heterosexual culture since you were born, but neither of you is the ‘guy’ here, unless there’s something I don’t know about your gender, and that’s a whole different conversation. And even so, there’s just no reason whatsoever to get stuck in stupid het conventions about topping and bottoming and giving and receiving. If you’re smart, you’ll try a lot of things and see how you both like them, and you’ll try them in different ways, and it’s not going to look like anything you’ve had before, Mila, and it’s not going to look like how the media portrays it, even for lesbians. Take turns. Mix it up. Don’t get caught up in what anyone else thinks your relationship is supposed to look like. They don’t know. And you won’t know until you try.”

She stood back up and put the books back on her shelf. “You know where the books are. You know where the supplies are. You’re free to ask me questions. I don’t care what you do or don’t do in my house. If we’re out, I’ll text Mila when we’re coming home, so leave your notifications on if you don’t want to be surprised.”

Sara asked, as Minako walked to the door, “Why are you so open about this?”

Minako said over her shoulder, “Because I remember being scared and curious and the people in my life were awful about it and I got into some unnecessarily dangerous situations because I didn’t have a comfortable, safe place to figure things out or anyone to talk to about it. I’m not going to be a parent, but I’ve taken a lot of queer ducklings under my wings, and I’ll do what I can to help you all have what I didn’t, because it would be criminal if you ended up not skating or worse because you didn’t have a safe place to be or a way to get good information.”

“Thank you,” Mila said softly.

Minako shrugged and waved her hand. “Don’t get pregnant, don’t catch a disease, and don’t break anyone’s heart if you can help it. This stuff is supposed to be fun. If you two decide you’re going to be gay for each other for a while, we can sit down again and talk about relationship ground rules.”

“I thought we covered that with the whole monogamy/nonmonogamy thing?” Mila said.

“That’s just the barest minimum of good manners,” Minako said. “Making a relationship work is a completely separate talk.”

• • •

When they came back into the apartment, Lilia was putting out dinner on the table. “I was wondering if I was going to need to send a search party,” she said lightly.

“They had questions,” Minako said. “Including why you married Yakov. I told them they’d have to ask you.”

Lilia looked at Sara and Mila, still holding hands, and said, “Do you really want to know?”

“Only if you don’t mind…” Mila said, hesitant.

Lilia waved a hand dismissively and got out a bottle of white wine. As she opened it, she said, “It’s not some huge mystery.” She took a wine glass out of the cupboard, and then turned and asked, “Mila? Sara? Wine?”

They both nodded.

“Don’t give them more than one glass,” Minako said.

“As if I would, in your house.” Lilia rolled her eyes and pulled out two more glasses, and then a tall water glass, which she filled with ice and seltzer. She handed that to Minako and then poured three fingers of wine into each glass. She put the bottle away before she gave everyone their drinks at the table.

Minako was already serving spoons full of a golden-topped Russian casserole onto their plates.

“It’s chicken and potatoes and cheese and onions and vegetables,” Lilia said to Sara. “It’s the off season.”

“Thank god,” Sara said.

Lilia took a long sip of her wine and said, “I married Yakov to save my career and prove that I was not a lesbian.”

“Plot twist,” Minako said. “She’s totally a lesbian.”

“Did Yakov know?” Mila asked.

Lilia nodded and then took a much longer sip. “He knew everything. I… I think he thought he could persuade me to fall in love with him. But mostly I needed help and he gave it to me. I tried for ten years to be a not-too-terrible wife to him.” She finished the glass. “I was not successful.”

“It wasn’t all you,” Minako said.

Lilia shrugged. “There was a lot of yelling. Mistakes were made on all sides. It was necessary at the time, and recent events have only reinforced how much danger I could have been in had we not followed that path, but it was… difficult. He had different feelings for me than I had for him. That never ends well.”

“You get along well enough now?” Mila said.

“Don’t let him fool you,” Lilia said. “He really struggled when Minako and I revived our relationship. I think he thought maybe… But he is a professional, and he is a stoic Russian man, and despite the yelling, he does not allow emotions to detract from his work, so he works with me. As little as he likes showing it, he is, at heart, kind. Once upon a time, he found me with my heart broken, afraid of losing everything, and offered to be the glue to put my life back together, even though he knew he probably couldn’t keep me, and that I didn’t feel for him what he felt for me. There is a certain nobility in that kind of self-sacrifice, but I’m very glad that such nonsense can be avoided these days.”

Sara sipped her wine and asked Minako, “Do you not drink wine?”

Minako smiled and said, “I spent the better part of 30 years in a bottle because I didn’t see a way to happiness. I haven’t needed it for a while, but it would be too easy to slip into a habit of it. I don’t mind people having a drink around me, but we tend to be very careful of it, because some of our worst fights have involved drinking. I’d rather keep my wits and keep my relationship than say something stupid because of alcohol I don’t need.”

“So I measure my drinks,” Lilia said. “And I put the bottle away before I drink them, and I rarely drink outside the house. I find that having little rules for myself allows me to indulge without overindulging.”

Mila snorted. “The last time I got drunk, I ended up in bed with Sara.”

“Sounds like an argument in favor,” Sara said.

“Except that it’s better for both of you if ending up in bed together isn’t a drunken mistake,” Lilia said. “Mila risks much, and the risk is higher if she is not in control and aware of her environment. She’s too old to adopt and I think getting married for the sake of your career would make you both miserable, no matter how strong the relationship might end up being beyond that. So reasonable discretion is going to be essential if she is to continue to skate for Russia. Maybe you two fall in love, maybe you decide to marry someday, maybe that happens while you’re still skating, probably after. Regardless, as long as Mila is dependent on Russian authority for her ability to skate internationally, getting drunk in public together while you are…”  She waved her hand in the general direction of their joined hands. “It could be disastrous. I’m not saying don’t ever drink, and I’m not saying you should not be together. But don’t be stupid about it. And measure your alcohol.”

“Isn’t that kind of what the boys did?” Mila asked.

“They’d decided they wanted to marry before the state got pissy, and marrying is a large part of why Victor lost the support of the Russian Federation. They took a gamble because it was more important to them to be married than for Victor to skate, because he was, hm, 28 years old at the time and had done what he wanted to do. You’re 20, and it might be another five, ten years before you decide to retire.”

“Whatever happened between you, when you were young,” Sara said. “Was it really so hard?”

“Loving her didn’t feel hard,” Lilia said. “It felt inevitable. Having my job threatened and my lover’s visa revoked nearly broke me. Losing her for so long felt like losing the air from my lungs. I was surprised that I managed so long without it.”

“How did that happen?” Mila asked. “You never said.”

“It was a power play from another ballerina who wanted to see me fail,” Lilia said. “I think the main reason I agreed to marry Yakov was that I wanted to wreck her. And I did. Once I married, she looked like an idiot and no one wanted to work with her. Of course, I was miserable, but at least she did not get what she wanted.”

“She was also pretty racist,” Minako said. “The things she said to me…”

Lilia shuddered. “Enough wallowing in the past. I have had my magnificent career, and now I have my love and my marriage of the heart, rather than my marriage of spite, and she’s still a terrible dancer and a terrible human being, and I have exacted my every revenge for her meddling.”

“You should write a book about it,” Sara said. “It sounds like a movie.”

Minako snorted. “I think we’ll leave the drama to Victor and Yuuri. They’re an excellent smokescreen. We’ve made no effort to hide and the media attention for us has been nonexistent.”

“Don’t you know,” Lilia said around a bite of food, and then swallowed. “We’re just lifelong friends, sharing an apartment because Japan is so expensive.”

“Nevermind that we hold hands in public all the time, at least here,” Minako said.

“Such good friends,” Lilia said. “Don’t you know that women in their fifties can’t possible be interested in sex? We’re a couple of spinster aunts sharing our golden years in sexless dignity.”

Minako spluttered and seltzer came out her nose. Lilia handed her a napkin.

Sara stared in frank fascination. Mila frowned and said, “So when you were hiding and trying not to get caught, you nearly lost everything at the hint of an accusation, and now, when you’re actually married and an obvious couple, no one will believe it?”

Minako shrugged, wrinkling her nose because of the soda. “Pretty much. I mean, Russia probably won’t let me back in if they’re paying attention, and Lilia might have a hard time going back to work at the Ballet Academy, but we’ve had so many offers…”

“If my knees were more agreeable, we could be dancing in New York right now,” Lilia said. “But I like what I’m doing now. It is rewarding to create large gains in grace and PCS scores with you skaters, compared to the tiny incremental gains one gets with an elite dancer. And the skaters have less drama.”

That got a laugh from both Mila and Sara.

Minako just said, “Look, never underestimate the capacity of ballet dancers for drama. The higher the level, the more drama. You skaters are sedate in comparison.”

“So, wait, if your visa got revoked…” Mila asked. “How did you get in last year?”

Minako laughed. “My visa got revoked in the Soviet Union. The Russian Federation had forgotten until someone bothered looking it up. I wasn’t sure, which is why I didn’t even try to go to Rostelcom in 2016, or Sochi in 2015. I decided to try again when Yuuri moved there, because if they were letting him in after everything…”

“Wait, weren’t those the skates Yuuri had the hardest time with?” Mila asked.

Minako sighed. “I have been at every one of his events except the ones in Russia, and Japanese Nationals in 2015, because he told me not to come to that one. Don’t think I haven’t noticed the connection.”

“He might not have Victor now if he hadn’t had such a hard time then,” Sara said.”

“Regardless,” Minako said. “The combination of him moving, my worry about him and Lilia… I decided to see if they’d let me in. And they did.”

Lilia smiled. “And I am so very glad.”

• • •

Getting ready for bed side by side felt familiar, easy. Years of locker rooms and the occasional slumber party had smoothed most of the awkwardness away, and they’d avoided broaching any of the subjects of Minako’s talk or the dinnertime conversation since the dragons had retreated to their bedroom after dinner.

Sara yawned as they walked the short distance from the bathroom to the living room, where they pulled the screen open and rolled out the futon onto the tatami mat.

Mila resisted the sympathetic yawn that threatened to echo Sara’s, but as soon as she was distracted, she yawned anyway.

“Tired?” Sara asked.

Mila considered, brow furrowed. “Hm. Today was a lot. But it wasn’t as hard as skating. You must still be tired from your trip.”

“I feel like I could sleep for a week,” Sara said.

Mila chuckled and then paused, kneeling next to the futon. “You know, I dated a guy a few years ago who was, oh, I mean, he was an asshole, for sure, but maybe just too young to get boundaries. We were fifteen and he was all over me, and really clingy. But in a controlling sort of way. And when I finally convinced him that it was over-over, and that he needed to stop trying, I realized that I’d been tense and on guard because of him for several months. And letting down that guard… once I really believed I could, it was easier to sleep, easier to do things. He’d taken up so much of my energy, that once it stopped, I realized how much it had exhausted me. And we were only together for a couple of months, most of which I spent trying to break up with him.”

“I’ve been having to watch my step with Mickey since I was ten,” Sara said.

Mila climbed under the blanket and sheet and said, “Well, I would never want to control you, and you’re safe here. And it’s the off season, at least until the rest of our coaching staff gets back. So I guess if you want to sleep for a week…”

Sara slid in next to her, and they lay on their sides facing each other. “That was… that was a lot today,” Sara said.

Mila snorted and rolled on her back, lacing her fingers behind her head. “It was something. But when I think how awkward and awful my first time was… It would have been good to have someone talk to me the way Minako did, before.”

“Lilia didn’t?” Sara asked.

“She only really got back involved with the skaters when Yura debuted. We weren’t really on those kinds of terms, and you’ll notice that Minako gave the talk.”

“Lilia seems, oh, less scary than she used to, here.” Sara said.

“Her game face is terrifying,” Mila said. “And she has her moments, but living here with them… She’s much more human at home, when the boys aren’t around. Anyway, I don’t think I’d have slept with my first three boyfriends if I’d had Minako’s talk back then.”

“That bad?” Sara asked.

“They just didn’t listen and they didn’t know better. Having my hymen broken by a clueless hockey player was not the most fun I’ve ever had in bed.”

“Did it hurt?” Sara asked.

Mila nodded. “At first. Then it was just sore and wet and weird, and he fell asleep. I think it was six months later before anyone managed to give me an orgasm. I was beginning to think they were a myth.”

“But you like it now?” Sara asked.

Mila rolled on her side. “Orgasms are good, but it’s just… there’s something about being skin to skin with someone and throwing yourself into it. I like making someone lose control that way. I really like losing control that way myself. And once you get used to it, it doesn’t hurt. Minako said that if the guy I was with had known what he was doing, it probably wouldn’t have hurt at all, or not much.”

“I don’t know if I’m ready,” Sara said. “I mean, I want to, but…”

Mila reached over and stroked Sara’s cheek with the backs of her fingers. “You don’t have to justify anything. I’m in no hurry. I’m curious, not desperate. I’m not… I don’t have like, a timetable. I’m just glad you’re here. I’d be glad you were here even if we never did anything at all.”

She found herself with a sudden armful of Sara, who had abruptly scooted over and tucked her head against Mila’s shoulder, arms curled between them.

It took her a moment to realize that Sara was crying. “Hey, it’s okay,” Mila said, pulling Sara close.

“I’m not sad,” Sara said softly against Mila’s neck.

“Relieved?” Mila asked.

Sara nodded.

“Your hair tickles,” Mila said, using her fingers to brush the silky stuff back away from their faces.

“Sorry,” Sara said. “I’m thinking about cutting it. But I don’t know if I can get away with that for skating.”

“You’d look gorgeous no matter what you did to your hair,” Mila said. “I need to trim my undercut.”

Sara slid her hand up to drag through the inch-long hairs at Mila’s nape. “I bet it feels amazing when it’s shorter.” Then she gave a small gasp and said, “Not that it doesn’t feel great now! I mean, I love your hair.”

Mila snorted. “It feels awesome when it’s buzzed. I end up with my fingers on it all the time.”

“Well, I don’t know that I want to go that short,” Sara said. “Maybe a bob?”

“I seriously cannot imagine a hairstyle that would not look good on you,” Mila said, letting her fingers slide through Sara’s hair.

“A mullet,” Sara said.

“You’d find a way to make it sexy,” Mila said. “That’s not a dare, though.”

Sara’s shoulders shook again as she laughed.

Mila pressed her lips to Sara’s forehead, and Sara went still in her arms, a light, anticipatory tension in her limbs as she closed her eyes reflexively.

“I really like holding you,” Mila murmured against Sara’s forehead.

The tension melted away, and Sara felt soft and heavy against her.

“I really like being held,” Sara whispered.

They lay there, quiet, until Sara started to drift, and then she rolled over onto her other side, and Mila did, too, and they slept, back to back.

• • •

The next few days were divided between getting Sara used to Japan (and signing her up for the language classes the Russian skaters had been taking since they’d all relocated to Japan on a more or less permanent basis) and training. Yuuko and her girls were delighted to have Sara at the rink, and by the end of the third day they were following her around like a trail of ducklings.

On the fourth day, Minako invited them down to the construction site, where they got a tour of both buildings.

They walked down from the skating rink, and found their way in through the main parking lot, where three buildings were visible past a large traditional gate.

“Oh, wow,” Mila said to Minako, as they walked to the entrance on small cobbles placed in a lovely mosaic pattern. “The last time I was here, it was… this is amazing.’

Minako smiled. “Yuuri wanted to keep the traditional feel wherever possible.”

“He could afford this?” Sara asked.

“He’s been getting a ton of sponsorships,” Mila said. “I’ve gotten some since I started living here—it’s tricky, though. I have to get permission from the Russian skating federation, and that means turning down the ones who hire the boys because it’s fashionable to piss off Russia.”

“The lady who sold it to him gave him a better price than anyone else would have gotten,” Minako said. “She apologized for not just giving it to him because she was so delighted with what it means to have this school here. For the town.”

She pushed the front door of the largest building open, and they stepped out of their street shoes and into house slippers. Sara watched and did as they did. “Did it take long to get used to taking your shoes off all the time?” she asked Mila.

Mila looked perplexed. “We always have house shoes in Russia. You don’t?”

Sara shook her head.

“It keeps the floors cleaner,” Mila said. “Point the toes towards the door.”

They followed Minako through the traditionally decorated spaces on the ground floor. Sliding partitions and doors opened onto tatami rooms.

“Are all the rooms going to use futons?” Sara asked.

“For those of us who are long-term and already here,” Mila said, “Yuuri asked us what we wanted. I haven’t seen it though.”

“How much is it going to cost to live here?” Sara asked.

Mila blinked. “I know it in rubles and yen, but those won’t… hang on.” She pulled a currency converter app up on her phone and asked, “Euros?”

Sara nodded.

Mila muttered some numbers under her breath in Russian and then said, “About 350 Euros each month for a room like mine. That’s for a private room. He said that dorm spaces would be much less, and two people can share. That’s just for room. Board is separate, and he said he hadn’t figured that out yet.”

“Mari is on it,” Minako said, leading them up the stairs. “At that conversion rate, probably 800 euros total would give you room and board. Keep in mind that the meal plan is going to be designed for competitive skaters. We’ve all been working on making sure her menus will work for what you need. It won’t be fancy, but it will be the right kind of nutritious food.”

Sara nodded. “It’s less than I was paying in Naples.”

“You can stay with me until you get your own room, for sure,” Mila said.

Sara squeezed her hand, and they followed Minako up.

The rooms upstairs weren’t quite finished, but had a very different feel from the traditional first floor. Through one open doorway they could see a large room with dark walls and bold accents. “Yurio and Otabek have one of the suites,” Minako said.

They walked past that and several other rooms in various stages of decoration, to the door at the end of the hall. It was closed. On the door was a placard which read “Mila Babicheva,” with katakana and Cyrillic below. “I haven’t seen it yet,” Mila said.

Minako smiled, and slid the door open. “It was a high priority,” Minako said. “We adore you, but I know you need your own space, so this will be ready for you as soon as the place is certified for occupancy.”

Mila breathed in sharply as she looked in. “It… It looks like home.”

“Your mama sent us pictures of your room,” Minako said. “When you said you didn’t care… I thought maybe you might need a little bit of home.”

Mila walked into the large bedroom, taking in everything. The bones of the room were still Japanese, with the expansive window and wall trim. But the alcove had been filled with shelves and nooks and drawers, and the wide loft bed with the study station underneath was achingly familiar. She ran her fingers along the oiled wood and then asked, wide-eyed, “Did she send this?”

Minako nodded. “Your grandfather took it apart piece by piece, and sent it with instructions worthy of Ikea. I ended up playing translator between him and the carpenter on this end.”

The room was larger than her bedroom at home had been, and there was a cozy, overstuffed sofa strategically positioned to look out over the ocean.

“Oh!” Sara said. “We’re right on the sea. When is this going to be ready?”

“The big unveiling is in two weeks,” Minako said. “Want to see Victor’s project?”

“Where’s his and Yuuri’s place?” Sara asked.

“Yuuri picked the little house closest to the beach. Minako said. “Victor wanted to put it at his facility, but we told him it was better to keep their apartment for now, so they could get some space from their work.”

Mila laughed. “He went back and forth over that so many times, and I finally said, ‘You can wait until after the big reveal and then you can ask Yuuri whether he wants to live there or not, and maybe then build an apartment for them if Yuuri does.’”

Sara looked back and forth between the two of them, and then said, “And you’ve been juggling this for how long?”

“Oh god,” Mila said. “Most of a year. It’s just good they’re both so oblivious.”

“So, so oblivious,” Minako said.

They went back downstairs and followed Minako through the ground floor to the side of the building opposite the entrance. They walked past an outdoor tub (“Not a hot spring,” Minako said. “Seawater.”) and through a small garden over bright new mosaic stone paths. At the back of the garden was a gate, and when they opened it, there was an unassuming door in the side of a new building.

“They’re so close, how did they not know?” Sara asked.

“Yuuri never bothered looking at the smaller onsen, and by the time Victor was looking, the large one wasn’t for sale.” Minako shrugged. “It would have been easier on everyone if they’d just talked, but I think the end result is pretty amazing.”

It was clear that while Yuuri’s property had been more hotel than anything else, this had been focused on hot springs.

“Was this even a hotel?” Sara asked, as they entered to find an airy, wide-open space, with the far wall seemingly segmented into partial cubbies where sliding partitions were stacked. There were a few steps down to get into the room.

“Oh, it was,” Minako said. “They had some scandal a few years back and went under before anything else did. It had deteriorated a lot, so Victor basically gutted everything but the baths, retrofitted it to get it up to modern building codes, and rebuilt it to spec. So there’s headroom for jumping practice, lifts, and whatnot, and he put in the highest-tech floor he could get in Japan for the dance floor.”

Once they crossed the room, they saw that each of the partitioned spaces had exercise equipment in it.

“We can break up the space into separate practice spaces,” Minako said. “Or it can be wide open. The partitions actually slide on ceiling tracks to avoid bumps or grooves in the floor.”

“The second floor?” Mila asked.

“Remodeled for the Nishigori family, plus a couple of guest rooms,” Minako said.

The baths were extensive, and Minako pointed out that in addition to the mineral hot springs, there was an ice bath and a salt-water swimming pool.

“They seriously have no idea?” Sara asked.

“None,” Minako said.

“Yuuri was worrying about ‘who the neighbors would be’ before Worlds,” Mila said, laughing.

“Victor has been grumbling for months that he wanted to get the other onsen as well and that it hasn’t been occupied this whole time.” Minako said.

Sara shook her head. “Well, it sounds like it’s going to be fun when they come back. It looks almost finished.”

“It is. We’re putting up the sign early next week, which is why I had to send them out of the country,” Minako said. “There was no way to do that without spoiling the surprise, since we took some liberties with sign placement and wording.”

They walked out past the outdoor pool, and made their way down to a path next to the beach, which they took back to the parking lot.

“The ocean feels familiar,” Sara said, “even though I know it’s not.”

• • •

That night, as they lay together on the futon, Sara said, “I don’t want to invade your space there. I mean, I love being here with you, but I’m… you’ve gone a long time not having your own space.”

Mila looked slightly baffled. “I’ve never had my own space, not really. I was at the dorms in St. Petersburg. This is actually more private, and they’re far more considerate roommates. I don’t mind sharing with you, it would make it so much cheaper for both of us. If you don’t want to share my bed, we can put a futon on the floor—there’s definitely space. If you need to have your own space, that’s something else, but don’t do it on my account. At least not… Not while we’re figuring this thing out. I love having someone to talk to at night.”

Sara gave her a brilliant grin and an enthusiastic smooch. Mila laughed and then kissed Sara back, sweet and lingering.

A minute later, Mila pulled back and said, “And this is good, too.”

“Mmm hmm,” Sara said.

“I…I wouldn’t mind trying something more,” Mila murmured.

Sara blushed and said, “I’m really… I want to. I just don’t… I’ve never…”

Mila laughed. “Every time I’ve been with a guy, it’s been mostly the guy pushing things along. At least at first.”

Sara snorted. “We could go on a long time expecting the other person to make the first move.”

Mila blinked, and then rolled on her back and laughed. “Oh my god.”

“Maybe…” Sara hesitated. “Maybe you could show me some things you like?”

“Anything in particular?” Mila said.

“Maybe not anything that requires toys yet?” Sara said slowly.

Mila looked over at her and smiled. “I can do that.”

“You said you were clean?” Sara asked.

“I always get tested after I break it off with someone,” Mila said, rolling back on her side. “I don’t like wondering. The last guy cheated, so I wanted to make sure.”

“Ouch, I remember,” Sara said. “So I’m comfortable with you touching me, without… I mean, I’m not expecting us to be exclusive but right now…”

“You would definitely know,” Mila said. “I don’t like dishonesty and I wouldn’t ever… You’re my friend first.” She reached out, and ran her fingers down Sara’s bare arm.

Sara shivered, and then turned on her side to echo the gesture. She leaned forward, and Mila met her halfway.

As they kissed, Mila’s hands traveled slowly, fingers light and trailing, fingers, arms, the tender soft skin under Sara’s ears that made Sara take a sharp, shuddering breath. She trailed her fingers back down Sara’s arm.

Sara’s fingers trailed a beat behind, touching the same places on Mila, but when Mila touched her neck, Sara broke their kiss to find the tender point on Mila’s neck with her lips, and hesitantly, her tongue.  

Mila’s light touch became a firm grasp, and she arched her head to the side to give Sara better access.

Her shiver as Sara’s lips brushed her neck got a pleased chuckle from Sara. Mila bit her lip and stretched more. “Yes, there,” she murmured.

They went on that way for a while, exploring the safe places to test each other’s reactions. It was when Mila found a little place behind Sara’s earlobe, almost in her hairline, where the lightest touch had Sara’s hips moving and a low, almost silent moan, that they stripped off their tank tops and underwear and then knelt there for a moment, sitting back on their heels, staring at each other in the scraps of light filtering through the sheer window-coverings from the street.

Mila reached out first, and then hesitated. “Can I touch you?”

Sara whispered back, “Oh my god, please.”

Mila reached out with her fingertips, touching Sara’s neck, letting her fingers trace back and forth along her collarbones, and then trailing down Sara’s sides.

Sara laughed quietly and said, “I was expecting you to touch my breasts.”

Mila gave her a wry look and said, “You said to show you what I liked, and the biggest mistake boys make is to zero in on my tits and forget there’s anything else. I really, really want to touch your boobs, but I don’t want to miss anything, and sometimes other parts are just as fun.”

Sara leaned forward, their lips meeting again, and they ended up belly to belly, breast to naked breast, kneeling on the futon.

It was easy to get lost in it, as Mila’s fingers skated over Sara’s skin. Mila let her hands and her mind wander, as Sara’s motions echoed hers, and their tongues moved gently together.

Mila’s knees started to ache a little, so she said, “Lie down.”

Sara did, looking intrigued as she got comfortable on her back, and Mila chuckled. “It’s just my knees,” she said, settling down half-sitting, half reclining next to Sara.

“Now what?” Sara asked.

Mila trailed a finger along Sara’s jawline, and then down her neck, hesitating just above Sara’s breast, then with Sara’s small nod, tracing a gentle circle around the nipple.

Sara breathed light and fast, eyes wide and fixed on Mila’s face until the swirling finger touched the tip of her nipple. Sara’s eyes closed and she gasped, her breath pausing for a moment, and then coming out in a rough sigh as Mila, encouraged, cupped her breast gently and teased the nipple with her thumb, providing a gentle counterpressure with her fingers.

Mila grinned. “Yes?”

Sara didn’t open her eyes, but nodded.

Mila bent, and let her lips find the other nipple. It was fuller, softer, less hairy than her other lovers, but surprisingly different from her own as well. Sara squeaked quietly at the increase in sensation, her back arching and her breath coming faster. Mila felt a hand at the back of her neck, and opening her eyes, saw Sara’s other hand clenching against the blanket.

Sara managed to gasp, “I… can… see… why… you… like… this…”

Mila dropped the nipple in her mouth and said, “Would you like more?”

Sara chuckled weakly, “There’s more? I feel like I’m about to fly out of my skin already.”

“Can I touch you?” Mila asked.

“Aren’t you already… oh. You mean. Yes, I think so?”

Mila smiled and said, “You should probably be sure.” Without waiting for an answer, she went back to using her tongue to flick across the tip of Sara’s nipple, while her hand worked the other one.

“I’m sure,” Sara said a minute later, her voice unnaturally high, a deep flush creeping across her body.

Mila didn’t stop what she was doing with her mouth, but let her hand trace larger and larger circles, and then wander, feather-light, down over the soft skin of Sara’s belly. Then lower, cupping Sara’s mons with her hand and applying gentle pressure as she curled her fingers down into the damp, arousal-slick folds.

It was startling, how different the geometry felt. Where Mila knew her own clitoris was tucked deep, and that her outer folds covered the inner completely, Sara’s inner labia felt plush and generous and Mila was startled for a moment at the difference.

“Hm?” Sara murmured.

Mila pulled just far enough away to say, “It’s just different from mine. It didn’t occur to me that we might not feel the same.” She leaned her forehead against Sara’s shoulder and traced Sara’s folds lightly, just enough pressure to find…

Sara arched her back again and then pushed up against Mila’s hand as Mila’s finger found the firm nubbin of Sara’s clitoris.

The angle was different, and Mila took a moment to figure out how best to position her hand. “Tell me what feels good,” she said quietly. “I want to learn what works for you.”

“I don’t know yet,” Sara said, as Mila slid a finger further down. “I like it when you touch my clit?”

“Like this?” Mila asked, dragging her fingers alongside, catching the clit between them.

“More on the tip maybe?” Sara said.

Mila shifted a little until she felt Sara shudder at the contact, and worked gradually in a small pattern that circled the tip. Sara’s breath came faster, and Mila shifted back just enough that she could reach Sara’s nipple with her mouth.

It took a little bit of time to figure out how to keep the right amount of pressure when Sara’s hips started grinding, but when Mila did, and everything was just right again, suddenly Sara gasped, her body shaking hard as an orgasm washed over her.

Mila’s hand stilled but didn’t move, and she let go of the nipple until Sara’s breath was less ragged.

“That was… “ Sara sighed. “Usually right around the time it feels the best when I try it myself, I lose control and can’t keep the stimulation right. That was so, so much better.”

Mila laughed. “Can I show you what I like after?”

“I am completely yours,” Sara said.

“You have to tell me if anything hurts at all,” Mila said, and gently slid her hand farther down. “I want to slide a finger in, if that’s okay?”

Sara nodded, and then said, “Yes.”

Mila scooted a little way farther down the bed to get a better angle, and traced the labia back, dipping a finger experimentally inward. It went in easily, and she looked up to see Sara watching her.

Mila watched Sara’s face closely as she gently shifted her finger farther in, and then curled it upward into the soft, spongy tissue. Sara gasped again and her head dropped back.

“God, you can keep… yes, that.” Sara tilted her pelvis up, and Mila grinned and pressed in again, massaging the spot gently, her thumb resting on Sara’s clit.

Sara’s breath was coming short again and she said between breaths, “I think I just realized something.”

“Yeah?” Mila said absently, still focused on what her hand was doing.

“Definitely gay, fuck,” Sara said.

Mila laughed, and worked her thumb and finger at the same time. “You sure?” She leaned up just enough to catch Sara’s nipple again.

Sara came almost instantly.

Mila stilled her hand, let go of the nipple, and said, “I’ll take that as a yes.”

“Let me get my breath,” Sara said. “Then I want to try that on you. I feel like I’ve just been lying here.”

“I mean, I didn’t mind,” Mila said. “It’s new to me, too. It would be challenging, I think, to do that while someone was touching me, too. The first time, especially.”

“How did you learn that?” Sara asked.

“I mean, I have all the parts,” Mila said. “And, like, I think most guys are good at one or two of those things I like. So I thought I’d see if I could try them all?”

“I really, really want to touch you now,” Sara said.

Mila blinked at her.

“Why do you look so surprised?” Sara asked.

“Most guys like, fall asleep right after,” Mila said. “I mean, I don’t, but I wasn’t expecting…”

“I want to. And I’m not sleepy. And stop comparing me to guys,” Sara said.

Mila flushed with embarrassment and said, “Sorry. Oh! you should go pee first,” Mila said.

“That’s weirdly specific.”

“Oh, if I don’t pee right after, I get bladder infections,” Mila said. “Not romantic, but seriously, kidney infections suck.”

“I don’t think I know those words. I know infection… “ Sara said.

With her clean hand, Mila thumbed her phone unlocked, entered the Russian word for kidney into Google Translate, and then said, “Rene?”

“Oh!” Sara said. “That’s blah-der?”

“No, kidney. I ended up with one in New York once. The words stick when they land you in a foreign hospital.”

“I’m going,” Sara said, rolling to her feet. “Do I need to dress?”

“I think it’s fine,” Mila said.

• • •

When Sara returned, she sat down next to Mila, and said, “Do you want me to just do what you did?”

Mila nodded. “You asked me to show you what I liked. If you want to show me what you like, if there’s something else?”

“I think I liked what you did better than I like what I’ve tried,” Sara said sheepishly. “But I’d love to touch you. You’ll tell me if I’m doing it wrong?”

“I’ll especially tell you if you’re doing it right,” Mila said.

“I wish there was a light,” Sara said.

Mila reached over and turned on a small reading lamp.

Sara followed the path that Mila had laid out at first, marveling out loud at how tiny Mila’s nipples were compared to her own, even though their breasts were pretty similar in size.

Mila chuckled. “I was surprised too, at how different we are. I love yours, though.”

“Yours are adorable,” Sara said, ducking her head kissing one.

Mila gasped.

“Oh, but they’re sensitive, aren’t they?” Sara said, grinning and trying again.

At first, Mila couldn’t help comparing, the feel of Sara’s lips, how sometimes her touch was featherlight, sometimes too much, always different. But then she realized Sara was making a path of light kisses down her abdomen, and felt Sara’s grip on her thigh, and said, “You don’t have to… I didn’t…”

Sara looked up at her, and said, “What if I really, really want to?”

Mila blinked, and then said, “By all means. I just… Most of the guys I’ve been with didn’t want to. The others weren’t great at it.”

Sara didn’t quite roll her eyes at that but the wry look on her face was skeptical as she moved down and stroked Mila’s leg until she relaxed. “I want to try.”

Mila gave a small nod and let her knees fall open. “I think I probably look a lot different than you do?”

Sara looked and said, “Oh! I don’t… I mean, I haven’t spent a lot of time looking at mine.”

“The lips on yours feel different?” Mila said. “I don’t have a lot to compare. I was surprised.”

“Good or bad?” Sara asked, absently running her fingers up and down Mila’s inner thigh..

“Oh, neither. I mean, I found your clit, obviously,” Mila said with a chuckle.

“You have to tell me what works,” Sara said.

“Just don’t use your teeth,” Mila said.

“Ha, noted.” Sara stretched out on her belly, propped up on her elbows, and dropped a kiss on Mila’s thigh where her fingers had been a moment before. She glanced up at Mila and said, “Oh, please don’t watch me while I’m figuring this out.”

Mila’s stomach rippled with quiet laughter as she let her head drop back. “Fair...oh!”

Sara had just run her tongue lightly along the folds near Mila’s clit.

“Do I taste okay?” Mila said.

Sara looked up and said, “You just showered at the rink. You taste…It reminds me a little of the ocean? I don’t know. I might have to try again.”

Mila snorted and then gasped, as Sara used her fingers to spread Mila open and then swirled her tongue around the tip of Mila’s exposed clitoris. “More there.”

She stopped comparing Sara to her past lovers a moment later, because Sara’s approach was nothing like anything she’d felt before. She quickly found a pattern with her lips and tongue that had Mila’s toes curling as Mila struggled to keep her hips still.

“God, like that,” Mila panted.

Sara shifted for a moment, to free her other hand, and slipped a finger into Mila’s slick vagina.

“More,” Mila managed to say, and Sara slipped another in next to it, her fingertips curling up into the soft spot behind Mila’s pubic bone.

Mila arched her back and her breath caught, and Sara, encouraged, curled her fingers again, momentarily losing the rhythm she’d set with her tongue to Mila’s bucking hips.

Mila stopped moving and said, “More with your tongue?”

Sara laughed, curled her fingers up to watch Mila squirm, and said, “I need another arm to hold you still.”

Mila’s hand came down to obligingly expose her clitoris, and Sara put her now-free hand on Mila’s hip before returning to the task before her.

A rush of energy ran through Mila from head to the tips of her tingling toes, and her breath came in ragged gasps as the combined stimulation coiled and burned and then burst. She stopped breathing for a moment as her body tightened around the orgasm, pulsing around Sara’s fingers as it rocked through her. The whole time Sara maintained her little circling pattern with tongue and fingers, until Mila’s hand dropped away.

“Too much,” Mila said. “God.”

“Did you come?” Sara asked.

Mila gave a disbelieving laugh, and then said, “Did I… Jesus. Yes. And the thing with the fingers… I haven’t been with someone since I learned about it. And you had a better angle.”

“I liked it when you did it to me,” Sara said.

“God. Most guys just try to make their hand act like a dick, but that… I don’t have the English.”

“Still miss dick?” Sara asked.

Mila snorted. “You could definitely make me forget it. I mean, it’s really different with you. But it’s not, oh, I don’t know. That was probably the best orgasm I’ve had with another person.”

Sara grinned. “You taste like fresh oysters, by the way.”

“I hope you like oysters,” Mila said with a little embarrassed laugh.

Sara dropped a kiss on Mila’s mons.

Mila shivered.

A little later they tiptoed to the shower to get clean, and then made their way back to the futon.

Curling up together felt different, Mila thought. Like some ineffable barrier that had been crumbling for weeks had fallen away completely, with Sara’s skin pressed against hers, Sara’s head against Mila’s shoulder in a way that was rapidly becoming a habit.

Mila pressed a kiss against Sara’s forehead, and was rewarded by a sleepy hand squeezing her hip fondly.


Mila’s breath caught with a sudden surge of emotion. She let it out in a slightly ragged sigh that caught Sara’s attention.

“You okay?” Sara murmured.

Mila nodded, and then said, “Yeah. Just… a little overwhelmed.”

Sara pulled back enough to look up at Mila in the dim light. “Good? Bad?”

Mila’s breath huffed out in a quiet laugh. “Gay,” she said.

“No more dick?” Sara asked impishly.

“I mean, in the abstract it sounds fun,” Mila said. “But I’m… busy. I mean… I think… with you… I’m in.”

“Am I that good a lay? You should probably know I was completely winging it,” Sara said.

“Pfft,” Mila said. “You’re that good a person. I mean, you’re… I want…”

“Hmm?” Sara murmured.

“I want to be your person,” Mila said in a rush.

“I’m not sure what that means?”

“That’s what the three little girls say,” Mila said. “I mean, we could call it girlfriends but I just… I feel like I want to be yours and…”

“I don’t know if I can belong to anyone right now,” Sara said, “But I definitely want to be with you.”

“I can’t… I can’t be public the way the guys are,” Mila said. “I don’t have the resources to risk my skating.”

“I don’t think I need that,” Sara said.  “If anyone on the outside asks, we’re roommates and good friends.”

“Very good friends,” Mila said, tracing Sara’s lips with her fingers.

“I’ve been crazy about you forever,” Sara said, snuggling back down. “I’m not going anywhere.”

“You already came here,” Mila said.

“Twice,” Sara said, smiling into Mila’s shoulder.

Mila laughed out loud, delighted.

Chapter Text


I joined the Shit Bang expecting to do something else for it, and then this fic about Mila and Sara happened. Where talking about Yuuri and Victor is a good place for me to delve into ideas about politics and gender identity, talking about Mila’s journey comes in large part out of my own experience growing up in a conservative place where if you were assigned female and liked men, you really didn’t delve further into it because it wasn’t safe to think about until you were out of that place.

Once upon a time, a woman sat down next to me while I was playing the piano, and said, “Why are all the prettiest girls straight?” It took another three months for me to say to her, “You know how you thought I was straight, and I did too? That might have been a hasty conclusion.” I had literally never examined that part of myself, despite having had god knows how many crushes on how many girls since, well, forever, because I’d had crushes on guys, too, and liked PIV sex.

I don’t know if Mila and Sara end up happily ever after. They’re young. They have a lot of potential stories that I’m probably not going to be the one to tell. But they’re definitely right for each other right now, in this story, and neither of them are straight.

(Does Mickey try to go to Sara? Of course he does. Does he get anywhere? Well, picture a solid phalanx of figure skaters surrounding her, while a herd of coaches take him in another direction. But this particular story is more about Mila and Mila’s journey. I can’t tell all of their everything, much as I wish I had the time. Sara is in a place full of people who have walked away from those who would hurt them, and she is Done with his Bullshit.)

Oh, and I did, once upon a time, give the lesbian sex talk. People are always surprised that there is one, and just… of course there is? Sexuality is complicated and sex can have consequences and I’m a firm believer in informed consent.

Would Minako normally lecture a 22 year old? Knowing that 22 year old had no experience? Yep. When people come out of toxic environments, a lot of times they are really advanced in some areas, and way, way behind in others. There’s often a catching-up process, like a compressed adolescence that got lost in a haze of stress. What the “talk” looks like depends on who it’s being given to. Victor got it over scotch on the rocks, with a laughing conversation where she carefully sussed out whether there were gaps in his understanding about important issues around consent and safe sex. She told him about her bookshelf and he happily perused (probably embarrassing the hell out of Yuuri along the way) and then added to it.

Yuuri ducked out of the talk about a hundred times until she grabbed him by the ear and sat him down before he left for the US and insisted that he cover the basics no matter how sure he was that something like that would never happen to him. And she sat him down again when Victor showed up, by which I mean worked him to exhaustion in the dance studio until his filters were down and he was too tired to move and THEN checked in.

She got better at the talk when she stopped drinking. She got better at a lot of things when she stopped drinking.

On the Shitlist

If you don't know why it's called the Shit Bang, you probably weren't on Tumblr when the Shitlist happened. Let's just say someone got overly excited about the idea of a curated rec list, and decided to create a list of "bad authors" who "people should just block" because they're "not safe". Rather than being a positive, "Hey, these stories don't contain XY and Z problematic stuff!" list, it turned into a hurtful and inappropriate weapon that ended up creating a pretty fantastic reading list if you went down the list of authors you aren’t supposed to read and read their stuff.

So here's the funny thing... we're still not sure why I was on the shitlist. I was angry about it before I knew I was on it, because such things are incredibly toxic to fandoms in general, but even having 100% clarity that such a list was a bad idea and that no one deserved to be blacklisted that way, I still ended up having a panic attack and went into a bad RA/Fibro flare over it, in part because I go out of my way to create the kind of fic I want to read, and I am generally careful about tagging, warning triggers, etc. I'd been mostly avoiding the Otayuri ship, and if you've read this far, you know I've been writing a complete ace/aro Yuri and a grey ace Otabek from the beginning.

So the shitlist did include things like "Yuri calling Victuuri gross" (which he does in my fics) which I think was because that seems homophobic... except if you've read the series, you know that my writing of him is anything but that. Which just highlights the problem of blocking authors based on their tags or specific rigid rules that don't look at concepts like, "Ace/aro sex repulsed character sees all romantic bullshit as gross, but doesn’t see same sex couples as worse than any other type of couple."

The bigger problem is that this list was made under the auspices of “helping survivors avoid triggers,” while ignoring the fact that a significant percentage of everyone people writing problematic stuff are, themselves survivors. And that many survivors, myself included, sometimes use the creative process to work through their feelings about the things they’ve survived. One of the many things I’ve survived is school bullying. I’ve been the school outcast, and while as an adult, I’m pretty independent, being told, “You’re not acceptable, no one should read your stuff,” actually sent me right back into that place.

I’ve heard people say, “Well, then, maybe it’s okay if survivors post this kind of stuff, but no one else.”

There are a couple problems with that. First of all, no one should EVER have to out themselves to be “valid.” Any sentence which starts, “Well, you’re a [member of a non-oppressed group] and you should not say that unless you are a [member of a marginalized group],” is running the risk of forcing someone who is, in fact, marginalized but is in the closet for whatever reason to out themselves or be silenced. So when you say, “Only survivors can write about sexually active teenagers or abuse,” then you’re demanding that all people who write about X share their deepest pain with you or their personal sexual history. And whether or not they’re comfortable sharing that, it’s none of your business and not something you have a right to ask someone writing anything free fiction.

The other problem is that there seems to be some great confusion between the writing of fanfic and the actual hurting of people. Yuri on Ice has been out for less than a year at this writing. All of the pixels it contains are… images. They’re all the same age. None of them are real people, because it’s fiction. No one is confused that they are real people. Representations of them in pictures or in text are all completely fictional, everyone knows they’re fictional. So arguing that Yuri is fifteen and therefore a child and should not only be never sexualized, but NEVER written as older and sexual either (because he’s “a child” and writing about him grown up is sexualizing a child) is an argument whose logical extension would be that no fictional children are ever allowed to grow up, and nothing bad can ever happen to them.

Folks, this is what we have tags for. I don’t know how much people pay attention to the real word, but shit happens to kids. Teenagers have sex. Sometimes terrible things happen to kids, and they grow up and they have to deal with it. Saying we can never write about these things means we’re silencing not only “gross” stuff that seems to glorify abuse, but also people who write about their reality through a lens of fiction in order to communicate something about their own truth without actually laying their whole history bare.

Where do I get off writing about these things? I will share not because I have to, but because maybe if I do, someone else won't feel like they have to. I’m a survivor. My childhood was highly sexualized (mostly because I grew up in the 70s) and my first post puberty sexual contact was at 15 years old. I was not an adult when I lost my virginity, and the age of consent in my state is in fact 18. I don’t feel like any of my post age 15 consensual experiences were traumatizing.

On the other hand, I was sexually assaulted multiple times: at age 9, age 17, age 19. I was raped when I was 18. Of those things, the rape was probably the easiest to come to terms with because we had the words for it and people took it seriously and I was in control of every decision afterwards. Age 9 was less traumatic in some ways than ages 17 and 19, because again, it was taken seriously.

The things that were the absolute hardest to deal with?

Were the ones where people told me that I was overreacting, that it was no big deal, that I shouldn’t bother asking for help because the problem was not that someone had put their hands on personal parts of my body, but that I didn’t have a thick enough skin about it.

I have had several friends be at the center of far more elaborate bullying campaigns, accused of being pedophiles for writing about abuse or just writing about their lives, being accused of being abusers themselves for writing or drawing things far more mild than what happened to them when they were that age or younger.

I have seen people driven into panic attacks and suicidal ideation, not just once, but multiple people, multiple times, and all because someone decided they were the “protector” of “children” and had the right to harass people who did not feel comfortable sharing their histories of truly horrific abuse.

I’ve seen multiple people leave fandoms over this. Good writers, Good artists, hassled until the thing that gave them joy and comfort was just another place trying to hurt them.

You don’t have to like problematic ships. My sister sent me a heads up about a new head-scratcher in another fandom, and I honestly will probably use the blocklist feature on Xkit on Tumblr to eliminate it, and if I see it on AO3, I’ll use the tools I have there to hide it from the listings I see. It’s okay to not want to read something, to ask for tags so you can block it, to want to avoid specific things. I have a HUGE list of things I don’t want to see. I get it. But we cannot and should not be telling other people what not to write.

One of the wisest things said recently on this subject is simply this: it is not worth hurting real, living human beings over fandom and fan works.

As someone with anxiety and many triggers, I run into them all the time, they aren’t fun to deal with, and where I can, I do ask that people have some awareness around me. But I know that I cannot and will not ever create a trigger-free environment. And I cannot treat my triggers as an excuse to bully other people.

When a fanwork contains triggers, it isn’t personal, I can walk away. It might not be fun for a little while, but it’s not lasting. When someone attacks personally? That’s on a whole other level. That can be days of anxiety. It can be losing things that once gave me joy. When someone does that to people I care about? Some of them walk away completely from the places we have in common, in a necessary move to protect themselves from verbal assault. I know I’ve walked away from whole fandoms for less.

The result is anything but safety for survivors.

I know this is not a popular notion, but we cannot police adult spaces into being child-friendly, when they are in no way meant for children. Me finding pornography at the age of five was not the fault of Playboy magazine, it was the fault of people who left it out where I could find it. That was in 1977, long before the Internet existed. There’s a reason that my kids don’t have access to social media or unfettered access to the internet. They will, eventually, but as a parent I don’t see it as the internet’s job to be safe for my kids. Some spaces work very hard to be, and that’s good. My five year old gets to spend time on places like PBSkids, and Amazon FreeTime, where the experience is curated. When he’s 13 it’s going to be another issue, and at 16 a different issue entirely. Regardless, it’s my job, not yours, to protect my kids from the internet.

On that note, here are some of the things I use to improve my Tumblr and AO3 experiences.

  1. I’m using Chrome, so these things are Chrome-centric. My phone is a wasteland, I go in loins girded. (Random aside: If you use Google as your search engine and Chrome as your browser, you can actually get “personal blocklist” from Google and stop sites from returning results in searches. So if there’s a website you never want to see again in your search results, you can do that.)
  2. Tumblr: New Xkit is a total necessity. I honestly don’t understand how people function without it. Once you have it installed, click on the little button up in the upper right on your dashboard, and customize it. I use Blocklist for keyword blocking, Postblock to disappear things I never want to see again for whatever reason, Notificationblock for posts that go viral and take over my activity feed, Anticapitalism to block the ads because the ads are actually sometimes triggery as fuck. Anyway, New Xkit takes the whole tumblr experience and makes it more sensible and better.
  3. AO3. AO3rdr is fantastically useful and will help you streamline your AO3 experience. If you need to block things, this will let you do it.
  4. Closing the tab and walking away. Low tech and useful. Requires no install. Also known as “self care” and “staying in my lane.” See “You don’t have to like the food, you don’t have to eat the food, but we’d rather you didn’t explain why” in the comments section of the food.

I maybe be preaching to the choir, but this has weighed heavy on me this year in a lot of ways. One of the nice things about this whole debacle is finding a lot of other good writers.