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Mila Babicheva knows that Viktor will make a good coach.

This is why, when Yakov storms purple-faced into the rink one April morning, Mila is only mildly amused.

“The rink will be quieter,” she notes. It won’t be quieter because of a lack of Viktor talking—Viktor doesn’t talk that much. Occasional guidance to her and Yuri Plisetsky, and the occasional incitement of Yuri’s temper. But maybe with Viktor gone, the rest of the skaters can stop gossiping and snarking about him, and Yakov can stop bellowing across the rink at his champion.

“That man doesn’t know the first thing about coaching,” Yakov is huffing. “He doesn’t have any respect for coaching!”

Mila doesn’t know much about Viktor’s respect for coaching, but Viktor is far from clueless. No matter how short his attention span.

After all, it wasn’t her gruff coach who watched her skate figures after hours, offering minor, careless corrections as he stretched at the side of the rink. It wasn’t Yakov who found her crying at fourteen in a rink closet and took her out for syrniki for the first time. Sour, grouchy Yakov didn’t understand sparkly purple skate outfits or wanting to eat your weight in sweets or having crushes on boys.

But Viktor did.


 

“He’s so dumb,” Mila says at fourteen. Viktor cuts her off a huge chunk of his syrniki, drowning in strawberry jam, and plops the dripping bite on her plate. Mila has grown an inch or two in the last few months, and she can afford the sugar. Viktor is trying to land a quad Lutz, and he cannot. “If I knew he was going to be mean, I wouldn’t have blown him a kiss during ballet practice.”

“Sometimes it’s hard to tell who’s worth blowing kisses to.”

Ha,” says Mila. “You don’t have to blow kisses anymore.” Everyone flocks to him. Crowds him. Drowns him. On the rare occasion when they want him to approach, they hike up their shirts—skirts, too, Mila will never understand why women keep trying—unzip their pants, throw sultry winks, with one purpose in mind.

Nobody blows kisses to Viktor.

They think a kiss couldn’t keep his attention. That an innocent little kiss, no contact, can’t mean much at all.

Mila stuffs syrniki in her mouth, looks out at the snow. It’s quiet. It’s quiet, when she’s not talking, because Viktor can be too quiet. Sometimes she thinks that on certain days Viktor’s mouth has a limit, a set amount of words he can say before the effort becomes too great. This is why Viktor doesn’t waste words on false compliments, or apologies for harshness.

He still tosses so many words to the press. That’s the one thing Mila doesn’t understand.

Viktor listens to her complain, empathizes about the boy, only checks his phone twice. The second time, he gestures to the waiter.

“My dog needs to be let out, Milochka,” he explains. Mila gets to meet his dog. Viktor isn't quiet, when he's talking about Makkachin.

Eventually, Mila even gets to dog-sit Makkachin. This is how she knows Viktor trusts her.

“He is a selfish man,” Yakov is saying, on one April morning, and neither she nor Yakov himself believes it.


 

A little known fact: Viktor has not always been a world champion skater, training in St. Petersburg. He hails from somewhere in the north. Very small, and very cold. He has one childhood friend—more of a pen pal, now. Viktor drops off letters at the post office on Tuesdays during his lunch break, because before practice is too early and after practice is too late—the office is closed.

Sometimes Mila walks with him. She’s tired of watching Georgi and Anya not-so-discreetly suck face in the lunchroom. Her boots crunch in the snow as she jumps between Viktor’s long strides, footprints left for her. She knows Yuri will want to come with them next time, despite the sneer that’s ever-present on his face. He doesn’t like to be excluded—won’t let you exclude him.

Viktor leans on the office counter, snowflakes only standing out in the silver strands on his head once they’ve melted, dark and shining. Teasingly, she tells him about Yuri joining them.

“We won’t be coming anymore after this week,” Viktor replies, very simply. “I’m sorry.” At the look on her face, he smiles, real amusement peeking out. “He didn’t die, Milochka.”

She puts a hand over her heart, blows out a breath. “Viktor!” He just buttons back up his long coat. “What happened to him, then?”

“He moved to a different country,” Viktor says, “he got married.” Letters would take too long. They have email, now. Facebook. Viktor can’t cling to romantic things, like letter-writing, when communication is a click away.

Mila likes to people watch. Likes to see them grow. Viktor hasn’t grown into good communication, yet. Maybe this is why he spends his time with his dog, his coach, and a girl nine years his junior that can occasionally make him smile.

“I can’t imagine moving to a different country for my boyfriend,” Mila says, wrinkling her nose.

“Really? I can’t fathom why. Is this the same one as two weeks ago, or is he new?”

Outside, Mila throws a snowball at him. Noble, Viktor does not throw one back. Two more, and he’s convinced, rubs snow into the crown of her red hair until she shrieks. Sometimes Viktor needs permission, to do these things with you. Sometimes it frightens her, that he doesn’t seem to understand that he’s bought her syrniki after breakups and perfected her triple axel and offered her tissues from his poodle box when she cried in frustration over step sequences, sore muscles. That when he found her with some ballet girls who were bad influences, he convinced her to never try and smoke another cigarette without even raising his voice. That things like that can seem so… small, to him.

Viktor gives and gives and doesn’t expect anything in return, except for you to be your best.

It breaks Mila’s heart, that most people think Viktor too arrogant to want anything of theirs in return, anyway. Viktor wants. He just doesn’t like to ask. So he’s given up on expecting.

“I’m sorry your friend’s leaving,” Mila says. Freezing water is dripping onto her neck from her hair, which is his fault, and she’s still sorry.

“These things happen,” Viktor hums, hands tucked in his pockets. “He wasn’t here to begin with, anyway. I’ll manage by myself. I always do.”

Mila knows. She doesn’t see how it makes much of a difference. “I’ll be your friend,” offers Mila. Very, very quietly.

Viktor still hears her. His hearing is selective, as Yakov knows, and he chooses to listen. “Oh, Milochka,” he says, plastic smile melting just a little. Plastic can still melt and reform, you see. This version of the smile looks a little more real. “I don’t deserve someone so sweet.”

Mila is fifteen, and Viktor is twenty-four. He’s won two World Championships in a row, and she hasn’t made it into the Seniors division yet. She longs to resent him, for thinking her young, but she can’t.

Try as she might, she’ll never be a friend like he needs. Stubbornly, she wishes she were a little older, a little more successful, a little more mature. Mila is fifteen, and Viktor is twenty-four, and he needs someone that isn’t an awkward, puberty-ridden teenage girl.

Strange, that you can be valuable to someone, and still so useless.


 

When Mila is sixteen, she asks a cute ice dancer on a date. This is a mistake, because Mila’s main conquests are hockey boys, who she takes to eat meat and sweeps in circles around on the ice. What is she supposed to do with an ice dancer? It’s a mistake, and she tells Viktor so after practice. (She doesn’t tell Yuri, not yet, because Yuri always rolls his eyes, even as he listens attentively, gags when you mention kissing.) The champion smirks at her, just a little.

“How much does she weigh?”

“Viktor,” Mila scolds, scandalized. Vanity is definitely one of Viktor’s sins, but she didn’t think him the type to discriminate about weight. “I don’t care how much she—“

“Ah, ah, jumping to conclusions, Milochka. Besides, extra to squeeze is never bad in my eyes.”

Hands fluttering, Viktor ushers her to center ice. Mila has watched him skate, every day, for years. His elegance, his power, still never fails to take her by surprise.

“How is your arm strength?”

She puts her hands on her hips. “Low. Yakov says I don’t need it.”

“That’s what you think now,” Viktor says, needlessly enigmatic. Mila loves his surprises. She wants to pinch him, in this moment. “Are you ready?”

She nods, because Mila is always ready, even if she’s not sure what for. Life has too many surprises to miss out on any of them. Up she goes, far too high, and she doesn’t keep herself stiff enough in his arms, too busy laughing. Viktor settles her easily back onto the ice, shakes his head with a flickering smile.

“What was that for?” She gasps, giggling.

“Lifts,” Viktor says, “can be very romantic. Your ice dancer will understand, and she’ll love it, Milochka.”

You love it,” she accuses. “You want to lift a boy. You want a boy to lift you.”

Viktor does not blush. Mila has never seen him blush—not when he’s said embarrassing things, not when he’s been caught by too-nosy reporters in various states of undress, not when he eats ice during quad practice in front of people who are leering at him.

He just blinks and smiles, the strangest little smile. Bright and blank. “I think so, yes.”

Quiet. Mila realizes, all too quickly, that there is no boy to lift him up. Everyone wants to take the ice from Viktor, to be the new king, to push him down, down, down.

Nobody wants to take the ice with Viktor Nikiforov. Nobody wants to hold him close.

“Come,” he says, “I’ll teach you.”

Viktor loves to coach.


It’s April, and Viktor is gone, and Mila knows he’s going to be just fine.