And a child that's born on a Christmas day,
Is bonny and blithe and good and gay.
(See the end of the chapter for more notes.)
It's a cold night – of course it is, it's winter and Yakov's lucky the snow has started to let up. He really doesn't have any reason to be out walking in it, except that maybe it will help clear his head after a long day and get his mind off of missing Lilia, who is currently far away in Paris. The quiet is nice, at least; there's nothing quite like a snow-covered park, the ground glinting in the glow from the lights and the full moon illuminating everything so that it's almost as bright as day.
He has to pause to adjust his hat when a strong breeze tries to lift it from his head, and perhaps that's the only reason he notices something strange in the corner of his eye when he looks up again. There's a shadow under an evergreen tree, and it's dark enough there and far enough away that Yakov has to stare to try and figure out what it is. An animal? A lost coat propped up on the snow? But then it moves slightly and turns, and he realizes that it's a child.
There's no reason at all for a child to be out so late on a night like this, especially alone. Yakov frowns and starts to stomp his way over, calling out. He attracts the child's attention – it's definitely a kid, maybe six or seven years old – who stares at him but doesn't reply or even get up. As Yakov draws closer, he realizes that the kid (a boy, he thinks) isn't even dressed for the weather; he has on a long-sleeved shirt, but no coat or anything else. He must be freezing!
Yakov hurries over. "Where are your parents?" he asks, and the boy tips his head back as Yakov kneels next to him, but doesn't answer. "Where are you from? What's your name?" He revises his estimate of the boy's age down a year or two – he's small – and starts to undo his scarf. "Aren't you cold? Did you lose your coat?" Does he have hypothermia? Did he start pulling off his winter clothes because he felt hot? Is that why he isn't talking? But he looks fairly alert – he's watching Yakov quite closely – and although he's pale, he doesn't look blue, as far as Yakov can tell in this lighting. He's not even shivering.
No reply, though, until he wraps his scarf around the boy's neck. The boy touches it – no gloves, either – and smiles at him. Then he says something Yakov can't understand at all. He doesn't even recognize the language.
"Do you speak Russian? English?" He tries a couple of others, but the boy only says more words in that unfamiliar language. It sounds strange, lyrical and with odd combinations of sounds.
Well. Understandable or not, he can't very well leave a young child to die of exposure. "Can you walk?" he asks, and the same as before, there's no answer. He stands up and takes the boy's hand instead, helps him stand as well. He does so stiffly, but after shaking his legs out, he seems fine. He takes a clumsy step when Yakov tugs him along.
And then on his next step, he trips over himself and falls into fresh snow. He laughs and makes no move to get up; Yakov sighs and starts to unbutton his coat. Looking around for any other clue to the boy's identity or what he's doing here, he notices something else that's odd: the snow in the area that the boy was sitting in is tamped down in a rough circle next to the tree. But there's only one set of footprints leading to that circle, and those are from Yakov coming over to investigate. There's not even the depression of old footprints being filled in by the snow, and it hasn't been snowing that heavily for the past few hours now.
There should be some hint as to how the boy got to the middle of the park. Surely he didn't simply drop out of the sky. He can't have been sitting here for hours and hours, unnoticed, either, if he isn't frozen half to death. If he only recently lost his outerwear, there's no sign of it anywhere nearby; on the other hand, if he's been without it for a while, then again, how is he not hypothermic?
He doesn't know what to make of it. But there's something more important to take care of right now.
Yakov finishes unbuttoning his coat and tosses it around the boy's shoulders. It practically swallows him, and the boy clutches at it and smiles more widely at Yakov. He doesn't seem distressed at all. When Yakov picks him up, he reaches for his neck and looks around, says something again, like he's excited about his newfound height.
Yakov tromps back to his previous path. In the moonlight, the boy's hair is shining like it's silver, and his eyes are wide and striking. He's round-cheeked, looking happy and well-fed. Surely someone misses him?
The boy finishes looking around and snuggles into his shoulder. Yakov has the sudden urge to take him home and keep him. It's an absurd thought; the boy's not his, of course he can't just take him, and even if he could, Lilia isn't here and she doesn't much like young children, and Yakov isn't that attached to them. He has no idea where the thought came from.
A gust of wind nearly blows his hat off once more. Yakov shifts the boy's weight so he can push it back on. The boy laughs, reaching for the dancing snowflakes with one tiny hand.
Yakov can't remember where the nearest police station is. It's cold without his coat. The apartment is close. Looking at the boy, he can't help but suddenly think that surely it won't hurt to warm him up a bit and wrap him in something that isn't Yakov's own coat before he calls the police to report a lost child.
It's not a long walk, and it's good to get inside, out of the wind and snow. The boy peers around curiously when Yakov carries him into the kitchen and untangles him from the coat and scarf. Even in this light, his hair is silver – not pale blond, and not grey – and it's very fine, the boy's overgrown haircut catching the air as he swivels his head back and forth. When Yakov puts him down, he follows him around the room. Between his odd hair and the way he walks, like he's only just learned how his legs move, catching himself on Yakov or the cabinets every few steps, Yakov wonders if he's ill. He's no expert on small children, but one as old as this boy looks to be should know how to walk properly.
He feels about half a second of unease before the boy pushes into his side again. He's so cold where he presses against Yakov's hand. However he got under that tree, however it is that he doesn't seem bothered by how low his temperature is, bringing him out of the weather outside was the right thing to do.
Yakov puts some water on to heat. "What's your name?" he asks as he waits for it to boil, though he knows the boy won't understand. He kneels down, points at himself, and says his own name slowly to give the boy an idea of what he means.
The boy stares for a moment, then lights up and points at his face. "Vic-tor," he says, and then again with more confidence.
"Victor, hm?" Victor nods several times and beams at him. Yakov finds himself smiling back before he stands up. There's a blanket on the couch in the other room; he fetches it, then wrangles Victor into a chair and finishes wrapping him up just as the water starts to bubble.
Yakov makes overly-sweet tea for Victor and reheats some soup for both of them. Victor likes the tea, once it's cooled down a bit, but he has trouble with the spoon when he tries to eat his soup. It's like his fingers don't work right, either, sometimes bending the wrong way to keep the spoon in his hand. He improves after the first few minutes of trying and then watching Yakov eat, but he ends up drinking most of the soup right from the bowl.
Something in the back of Yakov's head wants to fetch more blankets, tuck Victor in for the night, and let him stay until the morning before dealing with him further. Nonsense, of course. Victor needs to go back to his parents. Or if they're the ones who left him there, then somebody else who can take care of him. The sooner Yakov reports him, the sooner that will happen. He rubs at his face while Victor slurps his tea; why is he getting so attached so quickly? It's not as though he particularly regrets not having children or anything like that. Maybe he simply misses Lilia more than he thought.
When they're done eating, he puts the dishes in the sink. Victor grabs at his hand again, and maybe that helps, or maybe being warmer does, because his walking is steadier now, though his fingers are very cold.
Making the phone call is no easy task. As soon as he sits down to do so, Victor scrambles up on the sofa after him, and then into his lap before Yakov can stop him. It's not just his hands; his entire body is still chilly, enough so that Yakov can feel it through his clothes when Victor snuggles into him. It makes him pause, but Victor doesn't seem upset by it. Perhaps he's still warming up. He picks the blanket up from where it was dropped near his feet and drapes it back over Victor's shoulders.
Victor is smiling at him again. It's very distracting. Yakov gives up on moving him and then needs three attempts to dial the correct number; he keeps forgetting which digit he's on when Victor says something in that unknown language of his or pulls at his shoulder, and keeps looking at him with that cheerful grin on his face.
On the phone, he is told that nobody has reported a child of Victor's description to be missing and that someone will be over to pick him up. It's a long wait, and Yakov is thankful that Victor is apparently easy to entertain; he is fascinated by the splashing of the water when Yakov goes to wash their dishes, to the point that Yakov drags a chair over so he can stand and watch instead of trying to climb on the counter. It's as though he has never seen someone wash a bowl before, or maybe he just likes water.
Yakov makes more tea. Victor keeps dropping the blanket, and eventually Yakov folds it up and puts it back on the couch. It's too late at night for to try to force a wriggling child to sit still underneath it, even if it's for his own good.
The person who eventually shows up at the door is a young man, shivering in his snow-covered clothes and attempting to look official despite it. He takes notes on everything Yakov has to say about where he found Victor – which isn't much, and which he already told to the person on the phone. Then the officer attempts to wring more information out of Victor himself. "What's your name?" he asks, crouching in front of Victor, his voice going higher and slower. Victor blinks at him and doesn't respond.
"I told you, he doesn't understand Russian."
The officer has the same idea as Yakov, pointing at himself and saying his name. This time, Victor says, "Victor!" with great confidence, then suddenly stands up straighter. "Victor," he repeats, then adds, "Ni-ki-for-ov." He says it like he's been taught to say it, not like it's his name. The officer frowns and jots something down.
All of his other attempts to get something further from him fail. If Victor can name any of his relatives or where he's from, he doesn't understand the requests to do so; when the officer tries to get him to draw the place he came from, Victor does draw something. It might even be a place, but the lines are far too wobbly to tell what anything is, and he keeps getting distracted by the way the pen moves and the way he can make it click.
"Well," the officer says, looking at the mess on the paper, "we'll see if we can find some record of him. For tonight, would you be willing to let him stay here?"
"I was told you would be taking care of him," Yakov snaps. He tries not to raise his voice too much, so as not to scare Victor, but he is tired and the request is ridiculous.
"Of course," the officer says, looking confused himself at what he just said. "Right." He pauses, watching Victor, who they have left scribbling away at a new piece of paper. He makes an unhappy noise – the first Yakov has heard from him – as the pen clatters from his stiff fingers and rolls away across the floor. Yakov hands it back to him, and Victor snatches it with a few happy sounds that may or may not be words. He kicks at the floor and starts drawing again. "I could send someone in the morning," the officer tentatively suggests, his voice gone distant. "It's very late."
So it is. Surely nobody wants to come take Victor away at this hour. Surely Victor should already be asleep. All Yakov has to do is put him to bed and then feed him breakfast in the morning. Something in him doesn't quite want to give Victor away just yet. It's only one night.
Victor turns his paper around and glances up at Yakov before he begins drawing once more. He looks content.
"As long as they get here early," Yakov reluctantly concedes. He has students to teach; he can't be stuck watching some strange boy, even one as charming as Victor.
The officer nods, stares at Victor for a few moments longer, then shakes his head several times. He asks by what time Yakov will need someone to come in the morning and promises that Victor will be picked up by then.
Victor gives the pen back and sits back to admire his drawing, which is a mess of shapes and what might be childish stick figures if viewed from the correct angle. The officer suddenly seems to be in a hurry to put on his coat and leave.
When he is gone, Yakov pulls out some spare blankets and makes up the couch into a nice little bed. Victor watches him do so, his eyes wide, and when Yakov is finished, climbs under the covers happily enough with some encouragement.
Laying there, he stares at Yakov.
"Go to sleep," Yakov says. Shouldn't a boy his age be tired by now? He's fed and warm and in bed. Is there something else he needs? When Victor just continues to look at him, Yakov sighs and gets up to turn off the lights, ready to head to bed himself.
Victor slips out and goes to follow him around. Yakov takes him back to the couch. "Sleep," he says, more firmly than before, and this time he sits and waits until Victor has closed his eyes before he stands up.
Just as he turns the lights off, he hears the distinctive thump of feet on the floor, and a moment later, Victor is holding on to his shirt. "Yakov?" His inflection is odd, and his voice plaintive.
Yakov is too exhausted to keep trying. He gives up and lets Victor tail him as he gets ready for bed, lets Victor climb into bed with him. Victor burrows into Lilia's pillow and, as far as Yakov can tell, is asleep within five seconds. He doesn't understand why there's such a difference – though it's possible he's just used to sleeping with his parents and not on his own – until Victor, perhaps not quite all the way asleep yet, shifts closer to him a few minutes later.
Victor is freezing. His body is radiating cold instead of warmth like it should be, as though he hasn't warmed up at all since coming inside. No wonder he wants to be near Yakov, even if just for the body heat. Is he sick, or still recovering from being outside without winter clothes on? How long was he out there, and why hasn't he been acting like he needs to get warm?
Yakov has no answers, but he can draw the blankets further up over Victor's shoulders. Victor blinks his eyes open, gives Yakov a sleepy look, and then snuggles back into the pillow. Yakov can't help but brush some of his hair out of his face before he pulls his hand away.
It's been a long time since he's had anyone but Lilia sharing his bed, and with Victor it's cold despite the covers, but Yakov is somehow comfortable anyway. He thinks of how in the morning he'll make a breakfast that's hot and hearty, easy for Victor to eat even with the difficulty he seems to have with his hands. And after that....
After that, he'll go teach his students and pick Lilia up from the airport. Thinking of the part in-between, of Victor being taken away to either return to his family or go to a children's house, is strikingly unpleasant, even though Victor can't stay here.
Victor turns over in his sleep, wriggles deeper under the blankets until they cover him up to his eyes. He breathes a happy-sounding sigh and settles down again. It might be less chilly than it was a few minutes ago. Yakov makes himself close his own eyes and go to sleep, already.
In the morning, he manages to get up without waking Victor, and has nearly finished making a quick breakfast when Victor appears in the doorway, rubbing sleepily at his eyes, his hair a fluffy mess. Yakov herds him into a chair and takes a moment to smooth down his hair.
Their breakfast is hot, milky porridge, with jam on top for Victor and accompanied by a cup of coffee for Yakov. Victor seems to like it well enough – again, it takes him a few minutes to figure out the spoon, and he ends up holding it in an upside-down fist, turning his wrist at an odd angle to jam it into his mouth. It works, at least; he's not getting food all over himself or the table. He eats slowly, and scrapes the bowl for the last bits when he's finished.
"Are you still hungry?" There isn't time to cook anything else, though Yakov could certainly find him some bread or fruit. Victor just smiles at him and plops his spoon back into his mouth. Maybe he likes the food? Though it was nothing special.
Yakov shuts his eyes to drain the last of his coffee, only to open them again when he hears a scraping noise. Victor is dragging the chair he was sitting on just a moment ago. Puzzled, Yakov watches as he pulls it all the way over to the sink, comes back to get his dishes, and then clambers on to the chair to dump them in the sink. He even reaches over to turn on the water, though he then gets distracted by sticking his hands in the flow without bothering to push up his long sleeves.
"Here," Yakov says, coming over. "Like this." He washes most of the dishes for him, then lets him try with one of the spoons. Watching him work to wash it – using his whole palm to mash the sponge into the metal – is oddly charming. Victor manages to get it clean and hands it to Yakov with another grin. Yakov can't help but smile back at him.
Maybe he does this with his parents. Four or five is old enough to try helping with simple cleaning tasks, isn't it?
He's just handing a towel to Victor after drying his own hands when there's a knock on the door.
When Yakov answers it (Victor trailing after him again, towel forgotten and hands still wet), he sees a woman dressed sharp and neat, looking picture-perfect despite the flurries Yakov glimpsed through the dark windows earlier. She looks, a little bit, like Lilia might have if she had ended up as a grade-school teacher instead of a ballet dancer, which is something of a terrifying thought.
They talk for a couple of minutes, but Yakov's mind isn't on what they're saying at all; it's taken up by Victor, who is standing next to him and watching the whole exchange curiously, no comprehension at all on his face. Yakov can't tell him that this woman is going to help take care of him until, hopefully, they find where he came from. For all Victor knows, Yakov will be abandoning him for yet another stranger.
But there's nothing to do for it. The woman reaches out to take Victor's hand, and he lets her, but when she tries to tug him along, he digs his heels in and pulls away, steps back to grab at Yakov's arm. He says something short. Probably no.
"You have to go with her," Yakov says, even knowing it's useless, and he tries to pry Victor off, which doesn't work at all. When the woman grabs Victor's shoulder and tries to pull him again, he only clings harder, shakes his head, says that word again. He gives Yakov a pleading look.
A strange guilt floods Yakov's heart. He has an urge to wrap his arm around Victor and tell the woman that no, he can care for him after all. Even though he can't. Yakov steels himself with the knowledge that he doesn't know the first thing about looking after children, and even further with imagining the look on Lilia's face if she comes home to find a strange child in their apartment. She would never agree to it.
As Victor continues to fend off the woman's attempts to take his arm, Yakov swears under his breath. He picks Victor up, making him squeak, and dumps him in the woman's arms. There. Even surprised, she catches him easily enough. Victor's eyes go wide. For a moment, he just stares at Yakov, and Yakov thinks that maybe this will work, this will be the end of it and Victor will go away and Yakov will be left with some odd memories and perhaps a lingering sense of guilt over putting that expression on Victor's face.
Then Victor starts to – squirm isn't the right word for it. It's too forceful. A few seconds later, when the woman is still holding on to him (albeit with obvious difficulty), he screams at the top of his lungs.
Yakov flinches. The woman drops him, clearly startled. Victor hits the ground, bounces up, and goes to hide behind Yakov, whimpering.
Suddenly, he has a pounding headache. This is why Yakov doesn't work with small children, he thinks. All of his students are at least old enough to not throw screaming fits on the ice. And then he thinks again about how Victor doesn't understand what they say, how he must have no idea what's going on, must only know that Yakov rescued him and fed him and this woman is trying to take him away from that. He must be terrified.
Yakov half-turns and lets Victor press his face into his side, puts a hand on the back of his head automatically. He's shaking, like he should have been when he was out in the cold. The woman is staring at him, frowning, looking much more tired than she did a minute ago, and like she also now has a headache.
"I don't suppose," she says, something strange to her voice, "that you've ever thought about becoming a foster parent?"
"My wife is out of town," Yakov snaps.
"I could bring the paperwork at a better time," she says, and then she looks confused, and then she tries to grab Victor again. She succeeds in pulling him maybe a handful of centimeters before he breaks away and reaches for Yakov once more.
Both of them look at Victor. After a few seconds, Victor looks up at Yakov, his blue eyes huge in his face, on the verge of tears, and something in Yakov's head starts shouting keep him keep him keep him.
He can't. He can't. Yakov has nowhere else to take him while he's at the rink. When she gets home, Lilia won't stand for it. Surely Victor should be looked after by someone who has experience with children beyond teaching them how to skate like gold medalists.
He tell himself these things again as Victor makes a soft, unhappy sound and tugs on his sleeve. Taking Victor in is not the reasonable thing to do. He turns to the woman and takes a deep breath.
Yakov ends up being twenty minutes late to the rink. He has a heavy feeling in his stomach when he enters. He glares at his oldest student, hoping to ward her off before she asks him why he's late, and he doesn't quite succeed.
"Coach," she says, "is that your nephew?" She leans over the side of the rink to wave at Victor, who uses the hand which isn't holding on to Yakov's to wave back at her with a bright smile. "He's so cute!"
Yes. Yes he is. That doesn't stop Yakov from wondering what he's doing, or what he's going to do with Victor all day, or what on Earth he's going to tell Lilia.
Prompted by a nonny: Gen or Victuuri fic where Victor is secretly (part) alien/fairy/demon/government experiment/other non-human entity. (Basically anything besides an animal shifter.)
The first parts of this were posted in rougher form on FFA. Thanks to everyone who commented about how cute, creepy, or mysterious bb!Victor was. You guys are the best enablers ♡ I estimate from what I've written so far and what I've outlined that this will be about eight chapters when finished, but that count may change.
Yakov takes Victor to work. Lilia comes home.
At least Victor is charismatic even if he can barely speak; nobody seems that interested in determining how, exactly, he's related to Yakov or why he's here when they can be cooing over him as they pass by. Victor, in turn, imitates their greetings in a clumsy accent, which gets him even more attention.
That is, until Yakov reminds everyone, loudly and forcefully, that they are here to skate, not to fuss over Victor. Even if he is very cute, especially in his new coat (the main reason why they were late, because if Victor is staying then he needs proper winter clothes, and if he isn't, hell, Yakov can afford to buy a coat for a little boy).
He still doesn't know exactly what to do with Victor. Before he figures it out, Yakov takes his eyes off of him for what seems like only a few seconds while he talks with one of his students. But then his student perks her head up and looks away, then whirls and shouts, "Hey, be careful!" And what is it but Victor trying to climb on the ice with everyone else.
Yakov hurries over to pick Victor off the ice before he can fall and hurt himself, or get in anyone's way. "No," he scolds in his firmest voice, the one that usually makes even his more headstrong students at least think about listening to him. Hopefully, he'll pick that word up quickly. In the meantime, Yakov has to do something with him before he wanders off again.
The solution ends up being to plonk him where he can watch the skaters. Yakov is afraid that he'll get bored eventually, like he's sure children do, but every time he looks over, Victor is still there, watching the skaters move with complete fascination.
Victor shows more energy at lunch; he keeps wanting to get up and bounce around, and Yakov has to keep hauling him in so he can feed Victor some of his meal. Wondering if the burst of activity means that Victor won't sit so still for afternoon practice, Yakov acquires a pen and a pad of paper. Children like to draw, don't they? Victor seemed to enjoy it last night.
More people come to say hello to Victor in the afternoon, to the point where he starts repeating the word back to them with better pronunciation. Still with his odd accent, which a couple of people comment on, but nobody asks too many questions. When people aren't talking to him, Victor does draw, between looking at the skaters. Yakov keeps an eye on him, but he seems content.
By the end of the day, the paper is covered with shaky figures. Some might be people; some have four legs and long ears. One page has been turned into a childish landscape. If any of them hold clues to where Victor came from, Yakov can't tell. The landscape is bunch of – well, he thinks they are tree shapes. The people could be anyone. He isn't even sure if the four-legged figures are supposed to be dogs or cats or pigs.
There is just enough time before Lilia's plane is scheduled to land to take Victor home, feed him a quick dinner, and put him to bed on the couch again. This time, Yakov makes sure to sit there with him for a while until Victor is actually asleep. He doesn't wake when Yakov carefully stands up and slips quietly across the room, and though he pauses after locking the door, he doesn't hear anything through it. No footsteps, no crying, no Victor calling out his name.
He has to wait a while at the airport – Lilia's plane is late, perhaps because of the snow that has started to fall again, thick and fluffy white flakes that stick to everything. When she does appear, she looks as beautiful and put-together as ever, unruffled by her travels. Something in her shoulders loosens the slightest bit when Yakov takes her bag and walks beside her.
On the ride back home, he reaches over to hold her hand. She looks a little surprised – they haven't held hands in a long while – but says nothing, only turns her hand to lace their fingers together. "How was Paris?" he asks, and it's good to hear her voice, a bit dry from the plane, steady and sharp. It's very good to see her again, to feel her hand in his, and he really did miss her more than usual this time; something in him feels more settled now that she's here.
He still has no idea how he's going to explain Victor to her.
He's not going to interrupt her when she's telling him about her trip, the business part and the leisure part, and when she finishes, they fall into a comfortable silence that he's reluctant to break. But then they're back at their building, and she's stretching out her back while he makes sure they have all her things, and he really should tell her before they reach their apartment and it gets even more awkward to explain.
He clears his throat after they come inside, before they reach their door. "We need to talk about something," he says, and she gives him a curious glance. "Out here."
"Can't it wait until we're inside?" she asks, curling her fingers around her keys. When he shakes his head, she turns fully on her heel, sends him a confused look, and asks, "What is it?"
Yakov sighs and rubs at his forehead. He decides to just tell the store as straightforwardly as he can, eliding over the part that it isn't so much that nobody else can care for Victor so much as it seems that Victor won't have anybody else do so. "I found a lost child in the park yesterday," he starts, and he tries to sum up the rest of it as quickly as possible.
She lets him talk, and then stares at him afterward. "So there is no-one else in the entire city who can take him in? I don't believe it." She starts telling him about how bad of an idea this is (which he already more than understands) and about how she's going to call the police again and insist that someone come take him, really, what was he thinking?
Yakov doesn't know what he's been thinking for the past day, either. He brushes past Lilia to unlock the door, some part of him wondering if she, too, will change her mind when she actually sees Victor. As soon as she's taken her shoes off, Lilia strides ahead into the living room and turns on the light, her spine absolutely straight, and for a moment Yakov thinks she might actually be able to talk sense back into him.
Victor pokes his head out of his nest of blankets, one of them catching on his head and sliding slowly off. Lilia pauses before she's reached the couch, or the phone. Victor looks at Yakov, smiles, looks at her, and says, "Hi," like he learned at the rink earlier.
Lilia doesn't move. Victor yawns – it's a huge yawn, his jaw stretched so wide that he needs both hands to cover his mouth – and flops back down to the couch to snuggle sleepily back into mess he's made of the blankets.
After a long moment, Lilia says, "He may stay the night."
"That's what I said at first, too," Yakov grumbles, a little amazed that Victor's charms have even worked on Lilia. He starts to haul Lilia's suitcase to the bedroom. When she follows, Lilia's footsteps are quieter than before, not so forceful, and she puts out the light behind her.
In their room, Lilia opens her suitcase, stares at the neat arrangement of clothes and everything else in there, and says, "We cannot take in a child." Yakov sits nearby on the bed, watching as she starts to pull things out to put away. "He isn't even related to us." She abruptly puts down the scarf she's holding. Confusion is not an expression that Yakov has seen on her face in a long time; he reaches out to rub her shoulder. "What would we do with him?"
"Take care of him and send him to school?" (And, given who they are, dance lessons and skating lessons. At least Victor looked interested in the skaters at the rink today. Yakov is less sure about what they might do if he isn't inclined towards either.) Put like that, it sounds so abstract. So simple.
"You said he doesn't even speak a language we know. And if they can't find his family, surely he would be better off in a children's home – we both have work and we're always traveling. What can boys his age even do? I have no idea."
Despite her words, and the agitation in her frame, she still looks more confused than anything. Perhaps a bit cross. Yakov can't in the least blame her. "I've been saying all of this to myself all day," Yakov says with a sigh. "He did sit still enough at the rink today. I don't know. The social worker seemed happy enough to fob him off on us." Lilia's hands are fidgeting, almost twitching; she never fidgets. He reaches out to take one. "We haven't decided anything yet. We don't have to decide tonight."
Lilia is frowning now. She slips her hand from Yakov's, picks her scarf back up and immediately sets it down again. She looks towards the door, then to her suitcase, then towards Yakov, and then the door again. "Why," she says slowly, "are we even thinking about this?"
Yakov clears his throat. Maybe he should tell her a bit more of the story than he gave her in the hallway. "This is going to sound strange," he warns her, but he didn't marry Lilia to not listen to her opinions. He lays out the odd things about Victor, especially the charm he displays. "I think it only happens when someone tries to take him away," he adds about that. "When I took him to the rink, a lot of people wanted to fuss over him, but nobody started to act out of the ordinary. And certainly, you aren't the type to be persuaded so easily by a cute child."
"I am not," she says, and she finally takes her scarf back to its proper place. "You make him sound like a fairy."
He shrugs. There's no such thing as fairies or other fantastical creatures. But there's also no such thing as children who are impervious to hypothermia and don't leave footprints in snow, either. "If you can make sense out of it, I'd appreciate it."
"It did," she says, "feel like something changed my mind, when I came in." She pauses. "And yet even knowing that, I still have no desire for someone to come for him."
Yakov sighs. So her, too, then. Lilia purses her lips and continues her unpacking.
If they do end up keeping Victor, he thinks (and it is starting to feel like an inevitability at this point, even though it's only been a day), he might call his sister for advice. She has three children, one almost graduated from university, the other two several years younger. Yakov doesn't know them that well, but they've seemed like good children on the few occasions he's met them. And there have to be books on this. People have managed to raise children for millennia. He and Lilia have both been teachers for years, and their students have all turned out excellently. Victor has so far been a pleasant child when not being threatened with being taken away; he's not too loud and doesn't wander off and he's old enough not to stick random things in his mouth. Or at least Yakov thinks he is.
Perhaps it is doable, though Yakov still feels apprehensive.
"Let us see tomorrow," Lilia finally says.
Yakov is sure that charm or no charm, Lilia's answer will depend on whether she finds Victor tolerable or not. He nods, and together they get ready for bed. Lilia lets down her beautiful dark hair and lets out a long breath when he combs his hand through it, and it is good to have her with him under the covers again.
Lilia cooks in the morning, pancakes that are more delicious than the hasty breakfast of yesterday, but which confuse Victor. He pokes at them, looks at Yakov and Lilia eating theirs, and very slowly picks one folded pancake up. He nibbles at it, then licks the jam on top, before stuffing the whole thing in his mouth. Yakov is a little surprised he doesn't choke. He seems to enjoy it, though, and when he's finally finished chewing, he reaches for the next one without his previous hesitation.
Today, Lilia doesn't have lessons to teach; the plan was for her to take care of some work at home, as well as errands that they haven't gotten around to. Because of that, it makes sense to leave Victor with her rather than taking him to the rink again. Yakov is a little wary of the idea, and he thinks Lilia, is, too, but they don't have anyone else to leave him with.
Victor follows him to the door. "You're staying with Lilia today," Yakov tells him as he tugs his coat on, and Victor looks her way, but clearly hasn't picked up any of the other words in the sentence yet. Yakov pushes him towards Lilia as she hands him his hat. "Stay with Lilia," he says again.
He kisses Lilia on the cheek and manages to get out the door without Victor slipping out behind him. He thinks he might hear whimpering, but there's no screaming, and he has no impulse to turn around and head back in. Outside, he stretches his shoulders for a moment, hands in his pockets, and is relieved to find that Victor is not going to insist on being glued to his side at all times.
His students are the same as ever. Hard-working, driven, a little crazy, but at least only a little, today. One of the younger ones doesn't pay what he tells him any attention at all, or so it feels; the oldest stares at the ceiling while drifting slowly backwards for ten minutes before practicing her short program, in order 'to get in the right frame of mind'. (It works, and nobody's run into her yet, which is the reason he allows it.)
When he has moments to spare, he wonders how Lilia and Victor are doing. If Victor is being sweet and not getting in her way too much, if she finds him agreeable enough to live with. He doesn't feel reasonable at all, but despite himself, he doesn't want Victor to leave, now, and he can't seem to force that feeling away.
It's the strangest thing. He doesn't want to want to keep Victor, and yet he does.
As soon as he gets home, he hears a scrambling noise, and Victor pops up. "Yakov!" he exclaims in that odd accent of his, grin so wide he's showing most of his teeth, and he practically tackles Yakov to the ground trying to hug him. Yakov puts a hand on his shoulder and pats his head until Victor gets tired of it – a long few minutes – and springs away again. He's wearing a new set of clothes, and his eyes are bright.
Lilia has appeared, too, holding one of her teapots. They sit down together with tea, and Victor climbs up next to them to tuck himself into Yakov's side despite his apparent abundance of energy.
"He kept trying to help me with chores and work," Lilia tells him, in a tone that implies she finds this trait of his pleasing, although a minute later she's complaining that she felt like she had to leash him when they went out. Still, Victor is here, and she must have bought him at least one change of clothes while they were out, so Yakov already knows what her answer is going to be. "He wasn't too bothersome, once he found ways to entertain himself, instead of seeking my attention all day," she says, looking at Victor. "I suppose he's cute."
"He is now," Yakov says, watching Victor try to find the best way to jam his head into Yakov's side. "You should have seen the way he screamed when the social worker tried to take him. I think he's decided where he wants to be."
He's still a little reluctant to say their own decision out loud. But after a considering pause, she says, "He may stay. So long as you don't expect me to suddenly become a doting mother."
Yakov snorts. She doesn't need to coo over him. He's seen Lilia be parental enough; once, one of her students stayed with them for a few months when she needed a place to stay, and became ill halfway through. He can remember Lilia taking her student cups of hot tea and braiding her hair for her so it wouldn't get tangled. As long as she helps care for Victor and shows him some affection, that will be enough.
It feels strange to go from trying to figure out how not to keep Victor to accepting that they will. It's like flipping a switch, despite the fact that he's been hoping all day that Lilia would also want to take him in.
Yakov looks at Victor kicking his heels beside him and thinks of how children need years of care, how they will have to make sure he does well in school and teach him Russian – do they have to teach him or will he pick it up on his own? – and English and Lilia will want to add French, and how to behave properly and how to do all the chores he attempted to help Lilia with today. Ballet and figure skating are a given, of course. It's a lot more than simply feeding him and tucking him into bed at night.
Really, what are they getting themselves into, he wonders, but if either of them were the type to back down from a challenge, Lilia wouldn't have taken up ballet and he wouldn't have become a skater. Victor is only one child, and not too young. They will manage somehow, he is sure.
Yakov and Lilia start to get used to having Victor in their home and lives.
They have a lot to do. First of all, Lilia calls the police again and speaks to them for a while in an increasingly firm voice. When she hangs up, she tells him that they still have not found any record of Victor – neither of them is surprised – and that someone will be coming over again.
A young, pale woman knocks on their door later. She seems confused about what, precisely, she is doing, especially after staring at Victor for a full fifteen or twenty seconds without saying anything. Nevertheless, she dutifully fills out some paperwork with them. Yakov is fairly sure that it should take more than a brief visit with a social worker and a few tedious forms to become an official foster parent to a child that doesn't exist yet; Victor's strange charm again, maybe. The woman puts down his age as five, with a birthday at the tail end of last year. She helps them with all of the forms, then gives them a phone number to call in case there are any problems or if they decide on a proper adoption. Her face as she writes the number down is a strange mix of hopeful and resigned; perhaps she doesn't truly expect them to call it to keep Victor, only to return him. As if they could.
But most people don't adopt strange children they find on the street. Better to raise their own. Or adopt a baby, if they couldn't have a child any other way. An infant would be less likely to have something wrong with it, would be easier to explain away, and wouldn't remember where it came from. Not like Victor, but at least he seems very happy with them.
Standard procedure or not, the paperwork gets finished; the woman collects the sheets and walks out with a dazed expression on her face.
Lilia gives Yakov a look, then turns to Victor, who is half-asleep, and frowns.
Second, Yakov finds a place that can take Victor during the day when he and Lilia are busy with their students. At first he thinks that a kindergarten is a kindergarten, but when he actually goes looking, there turns out to be a bewildering variety. There are those which claim to promote artistic ability, those targeted at Jewish children and other minorities, those meant specifically to improve the health of ill children (at least Victor doesn't need one of those), and of course all of them claim to promote healthy development and learning.
At some point, they should probably look into how the school system has changed since he and Lilia went through it. But one step at a time. He picks a place that's convenient for the two of them and which seems nice.
He does need to have an awkward conversation about how no, there is nothing wrong with him, but Victor does not speak Russian at all except for, by now, about five words that aren't names. The ones he has said so far are hello, yes, no, and over the past few days, Lilia has taught him please and thank you, although the exact context in which to use them is something he still needs to learn. Sometimes, he seems to think that if he only says them randomly, it will get him praise and attention.
(He doesn't, Yakov notices, speak in that odd language of his anymore. Just gestures with his hands or stares at them until they either figure it out or manage to get the meaning of what they said across, or until they give up on understanding for the moment. For now, it is still too often the latter, but Victor is learning, and they get better at reading him.)
Initially, he is worried about leaving Victor there all day, thinking that perhaps he will feel abandoned again and Yakov will receive a phone call saying that he must pick him up right away. The first day, he expects clinging, to have to kneel down and try to get across to Victor that he'll be coming back. But Victor goes wide-eyed on seeing the other children; there is a little clinging, but it's not too long before Victor is running over to a group of other little boys.
All goes well; Yakov picks him up after an undisturbed day. Victor gloms onto him with a huge smile, and aside from his lack of Russian, there seem to be no real problems. The other children don't need to speak with him to play many of their games, and though they regard him oddly, Victor doesn't appear to mind.
Then it's shopping for more things he needs – clothes, at the least. Unfortunately, it turns out Lilia was right about him wandering off more than he did before; perhaps Victor now understands somehow that they are going to keep him and thus feels safer, without the need to stick by them all the time. Yakov takes his eyes off of him for what feels like all of two seconds to check a tag and finds that he has drifted away, and it takes some searching to find him stroking the pretty fabrics of long girls' skirts in another section of the store. After that, Yakov tries to keep either a much closer eye or a physical grip on him. He doesn't think that Victor will actually run that far off, but who knows with him.
In fact, as they step out of the store, Victor suddenly swerves away and Yakov has to snatch his hand back. Victor keeps pulling, undeterred by the hold Yakov has on him. At first, Yakov is mystified by what has his attention, until he follows Victor's gaze to the woman walking a dog a few meters up the sidewalk.
Victor jerks his arm again, so hard and sudden that Yakov loses his grip, and runs over. Yakov barely catches him again in time.
"I'm sorry," he tells the woman, whom Victor nearly ran into, and to Victor he says, "No. Don't run off like that." He has to tug him away from the dog, too, towards which he is reaching his free hand. "And if you must, you have to ask if you can pet it." He doesn't want to end up with a screaming Victor at the hospital, trying to console him after a nasty bite.
"Can pet it," Victor echoes, giving the dog another look.
"It's okay," the woman says with a little laugh. "He's friendly." So Yakov grudgingly lets Victor go. Thankfully, he at least has the sense not to full-body hug it like he does with Yakov sometimes. He reaches for the dog slowly, and it lets him stroke its head and shoulders. Victor makes a soft cooing sound and scratches the dog's floppy ears.
"My son does the same thing with strange dogs," the woman says to Yakov. "He thinks that if our dog likes him, so do the strays." She smiles at Victor.
Yakov has to practically drag him away after a few minutes so the woman can get on her way and they can get home.
At home, things go more or less smoothly. The first few mornings are the strangest, if only because Yakov keeps forgetting about Victor until he finds his way into the kitchen to say hello. His hair tends to become a fluffy mess overnight, and it's Lilia who sits him down each day to comb his hair. Yakov can tell from her expression that she enjoys it – at least, when Victor isn't squirming too much.
"Such fine hair," she murmurs to herself one morning, turning a lock in the light. They should probably cut it sometime, if only to even it out. If he'll sit still long enough.
Victor is easy to feed; he happily eats what food they eat, and doesn't even refuse to have the foods that Yakov can remember hating as a child (or in some cases, dislikes even now). They make a bit more than usual – than they used to, rather – and sometimes have to cut it into pieces for him, because while his hands are getting steadier by the day, he still isn't able to handle a knife in any reasonable manner yet.
Victor also turns out to like baths almost too much. Yakov does have to teach him how to wash his hair, but that only takes one session before Victor gets the general idea. He laughs when Yakov scoops water over his hair to rinse it out, then repeats the action himself over and over until water's dripping everywhere.
He doesn't mind if the water grows cold or even freezing. If they let him, he will stay in there for upwards of an hour. As long as he isn't drowning himself in there, they often do let him splash around for a long while after setting it up for him. It's an easy way to get some quiet in the evening: they fill the tub with water that is warm but not hot (he doesn't like it hot and won't get in), and then leave him be. They can make dinner or have tea or get some work done, and for a small amount of time, it's like things have always been, just the two of them, before one of them remembers Victor and goes to pull him out.
They have a side room, small, which mostly serves for reading nowadays. Lilia's student had stayed here years ago; the couch can fold out into a proper bed. Yakov cleans it out a bit, with Victor's 'help', and they set the bed up for him each night. Some nights Victor will go quietly to bed; others, he tries to follow Yakov from the room until he is placated and sleepy enough. Yakov can't figure out the pattern. Maybe it's simply that Victor is more tired some days than others, but then, it always seems like he has a huge amount of energy. So on some nights, Yakov has to spend extra time tucking him in, stroking his hair, maybe murmuring to him about how it is time to go to sleep now, before Victor will close his eyes and snuggle into his pillow and fall asleep.
A couple of weeks into this new experience, an old rinkmate of his happens to stop by the rink, and the two of them take a quick lunch together. "How are the crazy kids these days?" his friend asks. "I try to keep up with the sport when I can, but you know how life gets. They took out the compulsory figures, didn't they?"
"A few years ago. I think one of my students actually cried. She hated the tedium of them."
It's been a long time since they last talked, but the conversation flows easily. At one point, his friend brings up his daughter, lamenting that she's more interested in violin than in skating. It would be a good place to mention Victor, and Yakov lets it slide past. Victor's place in their life doesn't seem quite settled yet. It doesn't feel right to call him their son; he's just Victor.
Yakov still isn't sure how easily other people will believe that he's their son, either. He looks a little like Lilia, in his cheekbones; less so like Yakov, who doesn't have any of the same delicacy in his own face. If they adopt him properly, however that works, they can change his name, and they're a little old to be having children, but not too old. Yakov likes to think he doesn't look like he could only be a grandfather to Victor just yet, despite how some of his students like to tease, and Lilia is a few years younger. It might work.
After his coaching work is done for the day, he finds time to stop in at a bookstore and search through the parenting books. Unfortunately, most of them appear to be about pregnancy and the care of infants and other very small children, rather than kids Victor's age. There's one book that is entirely on treating illness in children. Yakov isn't sure what difference there is between treating a child's fever and an adult's fever, except for a different dose of medicine, and thumbing through the book doesn't help. Looking through all of them just informs him that there are a terrifying number of things that can go wrong in small kids, and that they are lucky to have escaped what seem to be the least pleasant parts of child-raising.
There are are two or three books that seem promising, but he ends up putting them away and going home instead. There, he walks in to find both Lilia and Victor watching a recorded ballet on the television. Lilia sits as primly as ever, her mouth a thin line as she watches a ballerina, obviously not up to her standards, leap and twirl across the stage. Victor is unusually still, sitting close to Lilia but not cuddling against her like he does with Yakov (he's learned not to by now). He's staring at the screen, his eyes following the dancer. Yakov feels some sense of relief on seeing that.
He lets them be and puts a simple soup on to cook. As it simmers, he calls his sister, Irina.
They talk for a few minutes about normal things – work, family – before Yakov tells her the short and simplified version of how he and Lilia have taken in Victor. There's no use in lying to her too much; it's not as though they chat every week, but he doubts she would believe that they've failed to mention a son to her for five years.
There is a silence on her end. "Well," she says finally, "that's unexpected. Is he Lilia's...?" She doesn't manage to fill in a relation.
"No," he says. "No, he's not related to either of us."
More silence. "Not at all? And I thought the two of you didn't want children."
"We didn't." Yakov could have taken or left them – Lilia was more adamant – and he doesn't want to try and explain that they don't want children now so much as they have decided on Victor in particular.
"Alright," she says, sounding confused. He can't blame her. "So you've adopted a little boy. Really." Another pause. "How old is he?"
"About five. We think." He rubs his forehead. "It's a complicated story. We don't know anything about his parents and he doesn't speak much Russian."
"Okay," she says slowly. She has a few more questions, all of them edging into why have you taken this stranger into your home, how do you know there's not something wrong with him. Yakov understands why – if they'd had this phone call in reverse a few months ago, it might have been him trying to pick out her reasons for making such an odd decision – but with what he knows about Victor, it's suddenly grating.
Before she can ask something else, he says, "What advice do you have for raising children?" To the silence on the line, he adds, "Seeing as yours have come up so well."
"Hmph," she says, but it's a cheerful sound, softened by the pride she has in her kids. "That's not the kind of question you can spring on someone out of nowhere," she chides. "It's far too broad. Did you have anything in mind?"
It's hard to come up with much, because really they have had few problems so far, aside from Victor trying to tear off after something more interesting when they take him out. Still, sometimes Yakov worries. That Victor's curiosity will get him burned on a hot pot, or that he'll get into one of the things they've put out of reach and poison himself, or try to climb a bookshelf and fall, or tip it over onto himself. Thankfully, Victor has so far shown no real inclination to do any of those things, but it is surprising how much of Yakov's time is now taken up by him. Remembering to pick Victor up when it's his turn to do so, getting him ready in the mornings, keeping him occupied in the evenings when he demands attention instead of entertaining himself, hoping that the creaks of the building settling are not actually Victor going wandering at night.
They talk for a while longer, and finally, when he has to go, Irina says, "Look, my wife and kids can keep for a weekend. Why don't I come visit? I can bring some of the old things the kids don't need any more. Children's books and so on. Let me meet him."
"If you're sure. It's a long way."
"Only three hours. I want to see this mysterious little boy that apparently made you fall in love with him!"
Maybe then she'll understand, too. Either way, they tentatively set a date, and he hangs up to go deal with the soup.
It's only when he's ladling it out that he realizes that he forgot to ask – if Victor cannot speak Russian, of course he cannot read it, so how are they to use the books? Or are the books to teach him? Do they need to teach him now or do children usually learn in school? In kindergarten, even? Yakov has no idea. He cannot remember a time before he could read.
Victor is bouncier than usual at dinner. He is finally starting to understand spoons, and he keeps dipping his in and out of his soup as he waits for it to cool, humming an off-tune version of what is probably some piece of ballet music, nothing that Yakov can recognize off-hand.
"He would probably do well in lessons now that his limbs are steadier," Lilia says.
Yakov gives him another look. It is true; he is young, but not too young to start learning dance or skating. "As soon as he can understand an instructor," he says, which may not be too far off; Victor picks up new words every day. Perhaps picture books would help with that, at least. "Do you happen to know anything about teaching children to read?"
Lilia gives him a blank look. He explains about Irina coming to visit them. They both watch Victor, who has managed a stable grip on his spoon, triumphantly take a bite without spilling any of his soup.
After dinner, Victor is still too full of energy, whining at Yakov when he tries to put him to bed. Where does he get it all from, Yakov wonder sometimes. There are a couple of things that seem to help him wind down, though, baths and tea with Lilia and drawing, but it's too late for two of those, so Yakov pulls out a sheet of scrap paper and a pen (Victor is apt to break pencils too quickly) from an old desk at the side of the room.
Victor grabs for them, and even when he doesn't get them, immediately flops on the floor in preparation of drawing. Better that than trying to imitate the ballet dancers he was watching earlier for the next hour until he's wound himself up giggling as he falls dizzily to the floor. Yakov sits with him and puts the papers down, though he keeps the pen for himself, having just had an idea.
He can't imagine Victor sitting still enough to learn his alphabet, or understanding it even if he would, but while long years of coaching may not have taught Yakov to be a schoolteacher, they have shown him that there can be more than one way of learning. Some students want him to shout critique as often as possible; others do better when he bottles up their more minor faults to give all at once; some need more reassurance of their strong points than others.
He draws a little stick figure and writes Victor's name next to it, then draws two larger ones, one that has a dark circle on its head and one that has a hat, and labels them as well. He can vaguely remember learning to write his name, and it seems like a good starting point for letters. "Which is Lilia?" he asks, and Victor leans forward to tap the stick Lilia. "Good. And me?" Point. "And which is you?"
"Victor," Victor says, and he taps the little one. Yakov ruffles his hair, and it makes him giggle.
"Victor," he repeats, tapping the pen on the picture, and then he circles his name. "This is Victor, too."
No matter what he tries, though, to connect the three of them and their representations and their names, sounding out each letter one by one, Victor only stares at him blankly and sometimes taps the picture at what seems to be random like he's looking for a right answer. Maybe it's too abstract for him.
Yakov is about to give up when Victor snatches up the pen he has just put down and throws it across the room. "No," Yakov snaps. Victor sits back, his cheeks red, eyes crinkling, though he doesn't look about to cry – oh. He looks just like a student in need of a break. He's frustrated. He must not understand what Yakov wants at all.
Yakov sighs and retrieves the pen. He can feel Victor glaring at him as he does so, and once again he wonders what they are doing, why they have taken him in.
But they have. And he can't force Victor to go to bed if he's frustrated and upset. So he goes back and sits with him again. Victor is scowling and looking away from him. But he is also always seeking physical affection, so Yakov puts an arm around him. "It's alright," he says, in what is probably the closest thing he has to a soothing tone. "It's alright." He shoves the used paper to the side and gives the pen to Victor. "Why don't you draw for a bit?"
Victor takes it with a huff, but he seems calmer as he starts scribbling. Maybe trying to teach him to read can wait until his Russian has improved, and until after Yakov has had a chance to ask Irina about it.
Yakov just talks to him, instead. Asks him questions about what he's drawing even if Victor can't understand them. Eventually, Victor sits up and pushes into his side, and gives him back the pen. "Thank you," Yakov says, and he's fairly sure he's been forgiven.
Or: in which Yakov and Lilia try to figure out how to children. If only that bookshop had, as a nonny suggested, So You've Adopted a Weird, Possibly Fey, Child: A Helpful Guide.
Mysterious little Victor gets a little more mysterious.
One afternoon, they take Victor to the park. Lilia says the fresh air will be good for him. Yakov doesn't know that it will, but that's no reason to object. He suspects that she actually wants him to burn off some energy outside and without needing too much supervision. So together they bundle Victor up in proper winter gear and go out.
It's cold and windy, but there are plenty of other children out, though Victor ignores all of them in favor of diving into the snow. Yakov and Lilia clear snow off a bench, hunker down next to each other, and each read a book while Victor runs about to his heart's content. Yakov looks up every other page, and he can see Lilia glancing up from the corner of his eye sometimes. Victor is always fine, running in circles, shoving the snow into piles, all caught up in his own little world, except when someone walks by with a dog and he goes still to watch.
Yakov only closes his book and stands up when he notices that Victor's gloves are gone. He shuffles through the snow; Victor looks up from where he's playing with a dead leaf and waves at him. Maybe Lilia was right. He's smiling, and his cheeks have a healthy flush to them. "Where are your gloves?" he asks.
Another word Victor doesn't know, or maybe he's just forgotten it. Maybe they should start narrating everything they do with him until his language skills catch up. He did pick up several words when Lilia verbally helped walk him through setting the table last week. (He still needs the occasional prompt when he forgets something, but it's surprisingly charming at times to watch him pick out three of everything and carefully arrange them on the table like they taught him.)
Yakov takes off one of his gloves and shows it to him. "Glove." Victor nods and pulls his own pair from his pockets. "Yes, those. Why aren't you wearing them? Put them on."
At Victor's blank look, he kneels down and slides the gloves back on for him. Victor immediately peels one off again. "It's hot."
Victor's hands are, in fact – and contrary to those first few days he lived with them – warm. But Yakov doesn't trust him to remember to replace his gloves if he starts to cool down again. "You'll get sick," he says, reaching for Victor's hand, but Victor jumps up and skips away before he can insist on wearing the glove.
"Hot," Victor repeats, stuffing his gloves back in his pockets, and then he scoops up snow in his hands to blow it out. He laughs at the effect it creates, which is pretty. Yakov sighs and decides to give up on the argument for now.
And then he sees Victor blow across his empty hands. Another cloud of tiny crystals glints in the air for a moment. Yakov blinks; Victor giggles again. Yakov turns to Lilia, and he can tell from her expression that she saw it, too.
Maybe it was the wind blowing snow in the air. Yakov thinks it, but doesn't believe it.
He puts his hands in his pockets and approaches Victor. "Can you do it again?" he asks.
"Again?" Victor blinks his wide eyes, smiles sweetly, and blows across his bare fingers once more. Another batch of little snow crystals appears, drifting slowly in the still air before sinking to the ground. Victor looks at him, obviously hoping for approval.
"Pretty," Yakov says, feeling too much of the chill around them. Nobody else nearby has noticed what Victor did, but wary that they will, Yakov distracts Victor by asking him if he wants to make snow dogs.
"Snow doggy!" Victor brightens like he's just received a present. No wonder; two of his favorite things put together. Not that Yakov's ever made a snow dog (did he even make snow people when he was a child? He can't remember), but it can't be that hard to figure out.
To his surprise, Lilia comes over to help. They don't talk about what happened. Not while trying to carve vague dog shapes from the snow, not while holding each of Victor's hands as he skips down the street home, not while feeding him a hot and hearty dinner. Not until he's in the bath and they are once again alone together.
Lilia makes tea, and they sit with each other, silent for a minute. "It's like a fairy tale," Yakov finally says, feeling ridiculous, but the thought is on repeat in his head. "We're the old childless couple. He's the wondrous child we found in the middle of nowhere." Although they hadn't been wishing for one.
"But what is he?" Lilia wonders, and neither of them has an answer for that. "And what will happen if he does that in front of others? If he already has?"
And why wouldn't he show it off to his new friends at kindergarten? Children might not blink at the idea of another child having magic – it's no more fantastical than their TV programs – but adults? Adults will see something they don't believe, and if Victor insists on proving it, he could become something to study at best and use at worst. Yakov rubs his forehead. They don't know how far Victor's charm goes, or if this new magic of his is good for anything other than blowing tiny ice crystals. They are so many things that they don't know about him.
They talk in low tones for a while, until they notice how long it's been and Yakov goes to pull Victor out of his cold bath. Victor is humming as Yakov helps pat his hair dry, as cheerful as ever.
Yakov takes him into the kitchen when he's as dry as he's going to get for the moment, his silver hair still turned grey with the water left in it. Lilia has made another cup of tea for Victor, though in a sturdy mug rather than the delicate teacups Victor can't be trusted with yet. Victor climbs into his chair and starts to swing his legs, blows on the tea. He's still humming.
Yakov sits next to him, and Lilia across from him. "What you did in the park, earlier," Yakov says slowly. "Can you do it again?"
Victor looks at him, tilts his head, then nods after a moment. He picks up his cup and tips his head down to blow across it, softer than before. For a moment, there's a faint white mist hanging over the cup, and then it settles against the sides and turns into a fog on the ceramic. Victor sets the cup down; the surface of the tea is covered in ice. He pokes a finger down a few times to break the ice's surface and makes a happy sound as he takes a sip.
After getting his attention, Lilia says, "You cannot do that when anyone other than Yakov or myself can see you." Victor blinks at her and doesn't respond. "Making ice like you did just now. You may only do that in front of me or Yakov, or alone. Not in front of your friends, or your teachers, or strangers. Do you understand what I'm telling you?"
Victor's legs stop swinging. His expression is confused. "Cannot make ice," he repeats. "Why? It's bad?"
Yakov frowns at the same time Lilia does. "It's not bad," he says slowly. "But people will think it's strange."
"Strange?" Now Victor is frowning, too, looking back and forth between them. For a moment, Yakov thinks he doesn't understand the word, but then he says, "Not strange. Mama makes ice." Victor glances down, then back at them. "Lilia and Yakov, too." His voice pitches upward, though it's not quite a question.
Lilia shakes her head. "No, we can't make ice."
Victor looks even more confused. "Everyone can," he insists.
"Perhaps where you came from, everyone can. Here, only you can make it."
"Oh," Victor says softly. He pokes at the ice in his drink again. "Why?"
"Because we can't," Yakov says, more shortly than he meant to. He can feel a headache coming on. The more important thing: "You can't let anyone see you doing it."
"Why?" Victor kicks the leg of the table. "Not strange. I'll show them." He looks frustrated, like he wants to say something further but doesn't have the words, despite how much his vocabulary has increased in the past few weeks. He takes another sip of his tea and stares at them over the rim of the cup.
Yakov doesn't know how to make him understand. Lilia might be considering something, but after a few moments, Victor kicks the table again, harder, impatient, still frustrated. So Yakov simplifies. "If the people who think it's strange see that you can make ice, they will try to take you away," he says sharply.
Victor freezes. "No," he whispers, almost too quiet to hear, his eyes gone large.
"There are bad people who will," Lilia says.
"No," Victor says, more loudly. "No," and he drops his cup.
It bounces off the table. Lilia jumps to her feet. The cup clatters against the floor, spilling tea everywhere. Victor doesn't even flinch at the sound, too distracted.
"No," he says in a small voice. He starts to mutter something, curling up on himself, becoming more and more upset. "Won't!"
Trying to calm him down, Yakov reaches for him. He tucks Victor against his chest, strokes his damp hair, says, "Vitya, we don't want anyone to take you away." He wonders if anyone could, given how Victor has charmed everyone into letting him stay here. Still, Victor shakes against him and burrows his head down. "Vitya, it's alright. Shh. Come on, stop shaking so much, you don't have to be scared. Nobody will take you."
Over Victor's head, he can see Lilia picking up the fallen mug – despite the awful noise it made, it isn't broken – and bending down to wipe up the tea with a dishtowel. When she's finished, she folds the towel, giving Victor a look, and then puts the towel down by the sink. She comes over and slowly rests a hand on Victor's thin shoulder. Victor's shivers, which have been slowing, come to a stop at the touch. "You have nothing to worry about, Vitya. You have a gift, and gifts shouldn't be wasted. Some, however, should only be shown off with care. As long as you are careful, and only Yakov and I see you use it, you will be fine."
After a few more moments, Victor pokes his head out. He turns to Lilia and asks, "What is 'gift'?"
Yakov lets Lilia struggle to explain that one for a while before telling Victor that it's time for bed. Victor goes more quietly than usual, and Yakov takes an extra minute to make sure that Victor is properly tucked in, and that he's finished calming down, before leaving the room.
They finish a few household chores, then sit together in the living room – Lilia with another book she keeps writing notes in with a frown, Yakov watching the news. Things feel, more or less, back to normal. Or what is normal now. So they have an odd child. They already knew that. Victor seems to understand, in content if not in reason, that he can't go showing off his ice magic to his friends.
That night, though, when they've just settled into bed, the creaking of the building is sharper than usual. Yakov is putting it up to another snow storm when there's a soft sound from the door behind him. He reluctantly lifts his head from the pillow and turns it enough to see that Victor is trying to sneak in.
He sits up further, attempting not to wake Lilia, but she opens her eyes anyway. "Go to bed," he tells Victor, but Victor of course comes closer instead. "Vitya. Go to sleep. In your own room."
Victor flops against the side of the bed. Surely he has to try to make his eyes look that big. He makes a noise that Yakov can't interpret.
Then, in the way he hasn't since that first night, he starts to climb in. Yakov instantly sits up all the way and tries to tug him off, and Victor begins making that whining noise again, looking pitiful.
After a moment, Yakov realizes, or at least think he realizes, what's going on. "I think we scared him too much earlier," he tells Lilia.
"Bad people," Victor whimpers, which only confirms it.
Lilia sits up, too, takes a look at him, and lays back down. "He can stay on your side of the bed."
"Lilia!" But to be honest, Yakov isn't exactly thrilled with the idea of hauling a protesting Victor back to his bed, then having to sit up with him until he falls asleep, before being able to return to his own bedroom.
Or he could let Victor stay here for one night.
Yakov lets out a breath and gets the covers out from under Victor so he can tuck him in. A moment later, Victor has burrowed under them. "No bad people."
"No, there are no bad people here. They won't come for you if you don't show anyone your ice."
"Mm," Victor says, and like that, he seems to be asleep. He's chilly, but at least not as cold as he was before.
Lilia wraps an arm over him from behind. Victor curls further into his warmth from the front. Yakov repositions himself and thinks that at least they didn't end up with two mysterious ice children. There wouldn't be room in the bed for all of them. (And Lilia would certainly not put up with that, charm or no charm.)
In the morning, he's the last one into the kitchen. Lilia is making pancakes again. The table is set, although the forks and knives aren't in the correct places by all of the plates. Victor is tracing little spirals of frost in the window, which is lit from behind by the streetlights outside, which are muffled by yet another snowfall.
Victor blows over the window, and the whole bottom section of it becomes a mosaic of ice patterns, like blown-up snowflakes, all running into each other. He hums, sounding pleased with himself. He turns to Yakov. "Pretty?"
"Yes," Yakov says. The light on the ice glitters differently every time he moves his head. One shape looks rather like a dog's head seen from the front, and then he gets closer and the whole thing is like a field of flowers. "It's very pretty. Good work." Victor beams. Lilia is almost done cooking, so he gently pushes him over toward the table for breakfast.
Nowadays, Lilia often comes along to his students' competitions, if it doesn't conflict with anything else, since she teaches half his students ballet. And anyway, she likes to travel.
Thus, perhaps it is fortunate that this year she wasn't planning on coming to Euros with him, given that Victor is now with them. Yakov still doesn't know what they're going to do for Worlds. Even if they bought Victor plane tickets – which they can afford – there's the matter of getting through a long flight with a squirming child if they can't get him to sleep through it.
Not to mention what to do with him all day – Yakov has to give his skaters his attention and get them through the competition, and Lilia's students will expect her to be with them, even if she wanted to babysit Victor all day instead. (He doesn't need to ask to know that she doesn't.) And they can't leave Victor alone in a hotel room all day, can they? Here in the apartment, maybe, where he can't get into too much trouble. Not in a foreign country. What if he wandered off? Perhaps in a couple of years, if they checked on him when they could, but then he'll have school.
Maybe if Irina likes Victor and he likes her, he can stay with her next time. He can live with missing a week of kindergarten, unless she really wants to come stay in their apartment. After that... can one get a babysitter for a few days at a time? There must be something like that available. By next season, Victor should be settled in well, and hopefully able to understand that they'll be coming back for him.
Hopefully he can understand that now. Yakov is trying to pack, but Victor has wandered in and forgotten whatever it was that he wanted from him. "What?" he asks, one of his favorite words recently. (Either alone or as what's that?. Taking him grocery shopping a few days ago was an adventure, although at least learning the names of the vegetables made Victor more interested in them.)
"It's called 'packing'," Yakov says, placing another folded shirt in his suitcase. "I'm going on a trip. That means I'll be gone for a few days."
Victor's head jerks up. "Gone?" He grabs Yakov's shirt hem. "Noooo."
"It's only for a few days, and then I'll be back. Besides, Lilia will still be here. She'll take care of you." That should be simple enough for him to understand, but Victor looks up at him with big, round eyes. There's a brief feeling like he should take Victor with him, and then Yakov shakes it off.
"Of course I will. Like I come back after taking you to school. Stop worrying. We're not leaving you alone."
He pats Victor's head; after a few seconds, Victor slowly peels away. And then he decides that he wants to help. It's easier to redirect his energy than to stop him, so Yakov sends him running off for a couple of things and hastens his work at folding clothes. Victor seems to think that he then needs more things to put in his suitcase, and Yakov has to keep telling him no, put them back.
When he leaves for the airport, he stops to tell Victor, "Be good for Lilia until I come home. Don't cause any trouble."
"Come back soon," Victor says. His pronunciation and prosody isn't quite there, but it's getting better.
Lilia kisses his cheek, though it's swift rather than sweet. "We'll be fine," she says. "He's only a child and it's only a few days."
She's right, of course. He doesn't think she'll enjoy having Victor to herself for a few days, exactly, but she can manage. And he needs to make his flight. So he goes.
He doesn't have too much time and energy to miss Lilia, or worry about her and Victor, once his flight lands. There's practice and students, managing minor drama when someone can't find their skates or their lanyard or their makeup, making sure nobody has a breakdown before or after they go to skate (and they're all old enough that during the skate isn't so much of a problem). There's no big trouble, at least. Yakov is always glad when he doesn't have to call an airline that has lost someone's equipment, or take anyone to the hospital.
His oldest student grabs herself a bronze; she can do better, and she knows it, and the disappointment shows on her face when they're away from the crowds and the photographers. It only takes a few sentences for him to help encourage that look into one of determination instead. She's strong, and she has a good pair of programs. "Gold for Worlds," she mutters to herself, looking like she already has a to-do list. Good.
Right before he leaves Copenhagen, on a whim, he buys a postcard that depicts the pretty colored buildings by the water to show Victor when he gets home. It's not until he looks at it again when waiting for the flight home to get in the air that he wonders if Victor will understand how far away this city is, or have any interest in a picture of it. He's probably never been out of Saint Petersburg. Hopefully, he'll at least like looking at it for a moment.
Yakov is tired by the time he gets home. He's barely gotten inside when he hears the sound of little feet running, and there's Victor peering around the corner. It looks like Lilia's taken him in to get that haircut he needed, because his hair lies neater and more even than it did before Yakov left. A moment later, Victor cries out his name and comes flying across the floor. Yakov almost stumbles when Victor full-on tackles him, leaping up to wrap his arms around him.
Those few days were probably longer for him than they were for Yakov. Victor rubs his face into Yakov's shoulder and says his name again, quieter. When Victor doesn't let go, he resigns himself to having to hold him for a few minutes and shifts his grip on Victor so he can at least get the door closed and locked, and when he looks up from that, he can see Lilia. She's standing with her arms crossed.
She looks exhausted.
Yakov nearly groans. "What did he do now?"
"He didn't do anything in particular," she says curtly. She rubs her forehead. "He has had too much energy the past few days. Even kindergarten didn't tire him out. I've hardly had a moment's peace, especially since I couldn't get him to be quiet today."
Victor does seem to be in one of those moods, if the way he's still clinging to Yakov is any indication. And today's a Monday, so if she's had to deal with him like this during the weekend with no school – yes, that would be taxing even for someone who did like small children. Perhaps leaving her alone with Victor wasn't the best idea, but what else was there to do? "I'll see if I can wear him out a bit."
Lilia doesn't relax, exactly, or smile, or anything like that, but he can see something shift in her posture and expression. She comes closer to take his bag. "There's dinner left over for you," she says, "and I have water on for tea."
"Vitya, why don't you go get our cups?" Yakov suggests. Victor nods eagerly and squeezes him harder before letting go. As soon as Yakov puts him down, he dashes off for the kitchen. When Yakov gets there, resigned to unpacking after Victor is asleep, he has clambered up on the counter and is carefully picking out mugs.
Lilia sticks around long enough to make the tea (normal black tea for the two of them, something herbal for Victor because he does not need the caffeine) before taking her mug and striding out. Somewhere down the hall, a door closes with a firm click. Victor hardly seems to notice her leaving, though; he sticks by Yakov as he reheats his dinner and tries to tell him about his day. It's not very comprehensible – Victor's talking too fast to form his words properly, and he still doesn't know enough of them, or the right way to use grammar all of the time – so Yakov tunes him out for a few minutes while pretending to listen.
He remembers the postcard when he sits down and Victor scrambles into the chair next to his. "Stay here," he says, and he's a little surprised that Victor listens. He returns a moment later to find Victor still there, blowing ice into his tea, and he feels less silly about spending a few coins on the postcard when Victor takes it from his hand with both of his.
"Pretty," he says, smiling at it. "Pretty, um." He frowns for a moment, and Yakov takes his thinking time as an opportunity to start eating. He doesn't come up with whatever word he's looking for. Instead, he leans over to get Yakov's attention and points. "What's this?"
Yakov tries to explain about the buildings and the boats in-between bites of food. Eventually, Victor sits back to admire the postcard for a few seconds, or so Yakov thinks until he opens his mouth again. "Go?"
"Hm? Yes, I went there."
"I can go?"
"Do you want to go and see the pretty buildings?" It wouldn't be impossible to take a short trip in the summer. Not to Copenhagen, perhaps. Victor might like someplace he could splash in the water, though. He could ask Lilia if there's anywhere she wants to visit that isn't too far away.
Victor shakes the postcard, and his head. "Go to Mama's home?" He gives Yakov a hopeful look. "Lilia and Yakov, too."
It's a long moment before he knows exactly what to say, when Victor's looking at him like that. All of the questions he hasn't been thinking about recently, the ones they can't answer, come floating back – why Victor was left in the park, what he is, where his parents are. "Where is your mama's home?" he asks.
"Where?" Victor echoes, and then his expression falls into one of concentration, like he's trying to remember, and then it falls further into a frown. He shakes his head.
"You don't know?"
Another shake. Victor puts his postcard on the table and slumps against the surface. It doesn't suit him at all, as much as Yakov appreciates having a few quiet moments to eat his dinner. So after another couple of bites, he says, "If you remember, let us know," but either Victor doesn't understand or he's not listening. He keeps on staring at the opposite wall, head set on his folded arms. Even rubbing his shoulder some doesn't help.
Yakov goes back to his meal. It looks like Victor's already had a bath – his hair is still damp – and no wonder, since it's the most reliable way to get him out of their hair for a while. But that means Yakov can't use that as a way to cheer him up. Well, it's late enough for him to go to bed. Victor follows when Yakov encourages him out of his chair and down the hall, clutching his postcard.
In fact, he perks up slightly as they step in his room, and he tugs on Yakov's sleeve before bounding over to the other wall and holding his postcard to it above his bed. It takes a moment to understand that he must want to put it up, like the pictures in the hallway.
Yakov finds some tape that he doesn't think will harm the wall and tapes it up for him. Victor looks pleased, afterward; he taps the buildings in the picture, and he keeps looking at it even after Yakov gets him to lay down.
As soon as he turns the light out, there's the sound of little feet on the floorboards, and Victor is tugging on his arm. "What is it?" Yakov snaps, his exhaustion taxing his patience.
"Lilia says, um," Victor starts, and he pulls again. "Thank you!"
The sweet tone of his voice does something to Yakov's heart. He's getting soft over a child he didn't even ask for. What is happening to him.
"You're welcome," he says, very seriously, and he can't see Victor's face that well, but he can imagine the smile he must have. And then, when he nudges him – but without being told, thankfully – Victor goes back to his bed. Yakov waits a moment further, listening to the rustling of the covers, before he steps out and closes the door behind him.
He makes himself unpack before he goes to bed himself – as much as he doesn't want to do it now, he'll want to do it even less tomorrow – and falls asleep almost as soon as he's under the blankets. Lilia wakes him when she comes in later, or rather her weight on the bed does. She sighs when he runs a hand through her loose hair, relaxing at the touch, when he kisses her. In his arms, she is warm, and while he might have been too tired to miss her when he was gone, he is glad to be with her now.
"You're a good influence on him," Yakov murmurs. "He remembered to thank me for giving him a postcard."
She makes a quiet huffing sound, as though it would ever do for a child she helped to raise to be anything other than polite. "He is not a bad child. He simply needs to settle down."
Yakov remembers children screaming and chasing each other in the park. No particular scene, just a general memory. He wonders when they grow out of it. A few years? Another thing to ask Irina.
Yakov takes Victor out for an evening. Lilia helps Victor with a lesson.
Yakov gets an idea while reading the paper the next morning, skimming through it before he has to drop Victor off. That day, he goes out when he and his students break for lunch, and successfully obtains tickets. He tries to explain to Victor on picking him up, but he doesn't seem to understand the appeal until Yakov says, "It will be a bit like the ballets you watch with Lilia," and then Victor's face lights up.
"Ballet," Victor repeats. "I like ballet."
"It's not actually ballet," Yakov tries to clarify, but Victor seems to have made up his mind that it is, if the the tune he's humming is any indication. Well, hopefully he won't be too disappointed; the review in the paper did mention a bit of music and dance.
Lilia is already home when they arrive, shut in the study with a pot of tea and one of her favorite delicately-painted china cups. Yakov leaves Victor in the living room and enters the study quietly, making sure that the door doesn't click too loudly behind him when it shuts. Lilia doesn't look up from what she's working on at her desk until Yakov is standing next to her. Today, she doesn't look so tired, or like she has a headache, but she does have an expression that demands peace and quiet for an evening.
"I'm taking Victor out to have dinner and see a children's play," he tells her, sliding his hands along the polished wood of the back of her chair. "We'll be back late."
Her face softens a touch and she nods. "Hm." Her hand curls against her cheek. "It's been too long since we've seen a performance together."
It has been. They've always liked going to the theater – ballet, yes, but also plays and classical concerts and so on. But Yakov can't remember going together in the last few years. It's not that they haven't gone, but it's been Lilia stealing off to New York for a day during a competition, Yakov buying a last-minute opera ticket when stuck a continent away due to weather, not simply going out together like they used to. Yakov misses it, all of a sudden, watching Lilia dress up, discussing it with her afterward, sometimes getting into the fun kind of debate about the details of the production.
They've been busy. Life has been changing, these past few years. It's been easier to spend their nights at home, or if they want a change of pace, to find a nice restaurant for dinner.
"What do you want to see?" he asks. "You pick, and we'll find someone to watch Vitya for an evening."
"I'll see what's running after the season ends," she says. Yakov leans down to kiss her hair, soft, brief, and leaves her to her work.
Yakov takes Victor to a warm little restaurant by the theater and gets them a seat by the window, although it's dark out. Victor seems to like the view anyway, head turning to watch the passers-by strolling by on the tamped-down snow. He can't read the menu, of course – he pokes at it, then ignores it – so Yakov orders for him, something at least vaguely healthy.
He wonders if snow children (or whatever the hell Victor is) are meant to eat like human children. Victor isn't begging them for food and he always eats what they give him, so that much seems fine, but does he have different nutritional needs? Will he be alright when winter ends and summer begins? It irks Yakov to not have answers to any of their questions. He reminds himself that he should take Victor to see a doctor – if he remembers correctly, there's even some sort of adoption requirement around that, if they end up going through with it. Now that he can use his hands and limbs properly, he seems healthy enough, but still. Just in case.
At least Victor looks fine for now. He happily eats his meal, drinks his tea when it's cold, chatters at Yakov in half-formed sentences and ignores most attempts to correct his grammar.
The audience at the play is crowded with other children and their parents. Victor isn't the only one who had trouble sitting still in his seat, squirming to look around, and as long as he stays in it, Yakov doesn't fuss. However, Victor settles down immediately when the performance begins, more than some of the other children do; he leans forward on his hands, perhaps recognizing the basic situation from the videos of ballet he's watched with Lilia.
Yakov is prepared to be bored, but while the play is clearly meant for children, the performance is actually of high quality. It's not something he would ever watch on his own, but since he has to watch it with Victor, he enjoys it for what it is. The children around them seem to love it, and so does Victor, clapping and cheering, and when it's over, Yakov can't get him to shut up about it. "The ballet," Victor keeps saying, until Yakov manages to correct him to, "the play," after which he just lets Victor talk. It's good practice for him.
It's late by the time they get home. Lilia is watching something in the living room, clearly more relaxed than earlier. Victor runs up to her, breathless with excitement, saying, "We saw the play," and trying to explain it to her, dropping the words he must not know.
They give him a couple of minutes before Yakov steers him off toward bed. Of course, he's too excited to lay down, so it's another night where Yakov has to try to calm him down before there's any hope of him sleeping. Sitting on the bed with him helps, as does replying to what he says, and eventually he gets Victor under the covers, although his eyes are still wide open and stuck right on Yakov.
He does go silent for a moment, but then he says, "Mama – um, the mama is like Mama."
The play did feature a mother as one of the main characters; towards the end, she'd lead her son and his friends across a magical forest and safely home. The actress was young and pretty, with long pale braids. Yakov wonders exactly what Victor means. "She was like your mother?" Victor stares, so he rephrases: "She was like your mama."
"Yes." Victor twists to look up at him better.
"Do you only have one, Vitya? What about another mama? A papa?"
Victor shakes his head. "Mama."
"Did – does she look like the mama in the play?"
"Nooo," Victor says, smiling.
"Does she look like Lilia?"
Victor giggles and shakes his head again. "Not like Lilia. Not like...." He drags a hand out from under the covers and waves it in Yakov's direction before snuggling under again. "Pretty."
"You must have a pretty mother, to look like this." Yakov strokes his hair. He can see why Lilia admires it so in the mornings, once it's combed out. "Where did you live with her? What did it look like?" Victor has to remember something about it, if not the name (which might be different in that language of his, anyway), or where it is in relation to here.
"Lots." Victor pauses. Digs his hand out to gesture again, up and down and in bunches, which Yakov can't understand. Are they supposed to be houses, trees, bushes, flowers? "Um. Lots and lots. And snow. And ice. Mama makes ice."
"Like you do."
"Lots of ice. She makes... she makes home. Big home." Victor gestures in a long side-to-side motion; if that's indication, it's an old-fashioned kind of house, rural, nothing like the modern buildings of Saint Petersburg. "Big ice home."
"And just the two of you lived there."
"Mm-hm." Victor curls his arm up to his chin and sighs. "No Yakov. No Lilia. I like Yakov and Lilia."
Yakov almost asks further about his mother, but he can see Victor is starting to lose his smile; if he can't remember where she's from, there's no prospect of seeing her again unless she shows up on their doorstep one day. And who knows what the story of him getting here is. So he runs his hand along Victor's hair until he sighs and tilts his head back into his pillow. "Good night," he says, and Victor only makes a vague, muddied sound in reply.
He makes a note in his schedule about finding Victor a doctor before he forgets, then goes to join Lilia. She relaxes from her straight-backed posture to put her head on his shoulder after a while, and it's like the old days again: quiet, with just the two of them.
He tells her about what Victor said. "Did he mention anything while I was gone?"
"Only a little. We watched a recording of Swan Lake one night, and he was very excited when the cygnets all came on stage. He said it was 'like home'. He wouldn't elaborate further. I suppose it would make sense for ice... fairies," she says, the word coming out reluctantly, "to wear white."
It does. "Do you think his mother will come for him?" Yakov asks, briefly imagining a woman resembling Victor, dressed in feathery, sparkly white like the swans in the ballet, showing up in their doorway. "If she's still alive?" Victor talks of her in present tense, but he's a small child. Death is a hard topic. So are tenses for Victor, sometimes.
"If this were a fairy tale, she might, or it might be a wicked witch, and our answers a test of honesty and true love," Lilia says dryly.
"I suppose if she does, the reasonable thing to do would be to give him back." The thought makes something grow heavy in Yakov's chest, perhaps a bit different from the way it felt when the social worker tried to take him away after that first night. Here they are, tentatively making plans for after Worlds and for during the summer, for ballet lessons and teaching him to read, and while their daily routine hasn't been upset so far, for all they know, Victor's mother will show up on the spring equinox or next winter to demand her son back.
"The reasonable thing," says Lilia. "Not the proper thing."
He glances down at her in surprise. "It wouldn't be proper to return him to his mother?"
"First, I'd ask her how he ended up here."
Ah. Yes. "Well. Of course only if he got himself lost."
"If he wandered here on his own, or perhaps if someone unfairly snatched him away and he was lost that way... but if she neglected him and allowed him to become lost, or abandoned him herself, she really has no business showing up here. Someone who abandons their child once could likely do so again. We have no such plans, so far better for Vitya to be with those who will raise him with grace and strength, not toss him in a snowbank."
(Victor would probably enjoy being tossed into a snowbank. Certainly he tosses himself into them readily enough. Only, when he's done playing in them, he always coming running back over to the two of them.)
"I see," he says. Lilia isn't afraid to back out of commitments and agreements that she no longer finds useful, but she despises when people drop them without giving adequate time or reason. He wonders if a snow fairy mother is any match for Lilia's glares and stern voice, or if she would have the same charm as Victor. If she would charm them into giving him up again. The thought doesn't sit well, especially since they don't know if there's any way to resist it or stop it. Yet another mystery for the pile. Yakov is starting to get tired of them. "I'm not sure Vitya would be happy about it, though. Even if she left him there, I'm not sure he'd understand. He just wants to see her."
"We can figure out how to sooth him if the need ever arises. I think the longest he's been upset so far was an hour, and that was while you were gone. He'll be fine," she says decisively.
It is true that Victor is nearly always in good cheer, but Yakov can still remember the way he shook during the incident about his magic. There's one more question on his mind, though, after talking with Victor. "If he could tell us where his mother is, should we take him there to see her?"
As soon as he's said it, he wishes he hadn't, because he doesn't want to answer it. Not with anything other than only to visit. And perhaps Lilia doesn't, either, because she is quiet, too. He runs a hand down her arm and rubs a thumb over the back of her hand, over and over. The skin there is a little dry, and looser over her fine bones than it was when they got married, but it feels nice to stroke it just the same.
"So far he can't," he finally says, like it's a decision, even though it isn't. There. Decided. He can't, so they won't.
She nods, then rolls to her feet. Yakov is suddenly conscious of the hour. He has to get up to teach a couple of students before school tomorrow. Time for them, too, to head to sleep.
"What was that play about?" Lilia asks as she stretches her arms above her head. "I couldn't make any sense of what he was saying."
Yakov is surprised to come home the next day and find Lilia pushing little pieces of paper around on the kitchen table with Victor.
"And if four more dancers come out on stage, how many are there?" she asks Victor, shifting the papers. When he comes closer and peers over her shoulder, Yakov can see that each one has a little stick-figure ballet dancer on it. He can tell which ones are Lilia's by the straight lines and accurate positions; Victor's are shakier and more creative.
"What are you two doing?"
"One of the teachers said he has difficulty counting beyond five or six."
"Enough for the ballet positions, at least."
A corner of her lip twists up. "So I'm teaching him to count." She watches as Victor taps each paper Lilia put in front of him with his finger. "I didn't realize children needed to be taught that. Surely it should be easy enough once they know the numbers."
"Nine," Victor says.
"No," says Lilia. Victor deflates. "Do you see? One, two, three...."
Yakov wouldn't have thought counting was so hard, either, or that Victor wouldn't know how. Up to ten should be doable for him, at least. They've seen him counting, too – but maybe not beyond five or six, he thinks as he sits down with them. He can remember Victor counting out three plates and forks, or Lilia telling him to fetch a few eggs, but not larger quantities. There hasn't exactly been a need.
Lilia goes through a couple more scenarios with Victor, the pretend dancers sliding across the table like she's trying to work out choreography for a whole company, and then she puts them to the side and laces her hands together. "Can you make an ice crystal?" she asks.
"Make ice," Victor says, and when Lilia nods, he puts his hands against each other. This time, he pulls them apart as he blows, something spinning in the gap between his fingers, and in moments a thin, shining snowflake – but much larger than any natural snowflake, though it has all the beautiful, intricate structure of one – hangs between his hands. He holds it up.
"Lovely," Lilia breathes. Yakov's just as transfixed. "Can you make seven?"
Victor nods and hands the snowflake to Yakov. He takes the crystal gingerly, afraid that it will break – then more firmly, when it nearly slips out of his fingers altogether. Pinching it carefully, he rises to grab a towel so Victor has somewhere to put them without getting the table all wet.
Victor makes six, all of them different – ones with arms and ones that are hexagonal – all of them symmetric, all of them beautiful. Laid out on the towel, he counts them. Pauses. Visibly counts them again. He makes a seventh, star-shaped, and puts it at the bottom. Counts them once more. "Seven?" He doesn't sound sure of himself.
"Is is seven?" Lilia asks. When Victor peers at her, her face doesn't change. When he looks at Yakov, he simply raises an eyebrow. He isn't Clever Hans-ing his way out of the question.
"Seven," Victor says.
"Yes, there's seven. Very good," Lilia says. High praise from her; it makes Victor beam. He takes the star-shaped crystal and holds it out until she takes it, then gives Yakov one of the hexagonal ones, before he picks up one for himself. He bites into it so hard that Yakov winces at the cracking sound the ice makes, clear and sharp.
"Thank you," Lilia says, her voice a little distant. They stare as Victor eats one crystal, then another, with all the enthusiasm he might give a plate of fresh sugar cookies. When he glances up at them, looking confused, Yakov breaks off a little corner of his crystal (he knows that simply biting down on the ice will make his teeth ache from the cold) and sticks it in his mouth.
It tastes like ice and nothing but. He's not sure if he expected otherwise.
Lilia snaps tiny pieces from the arms of hers and sucks on them. Victor seems satisfied either way, and goes back to crunching his way through the rest of the crystals, until they're all gone. "You can go play until dinner," Yakov tells him, and Victor hops off his chair and runs from the room.
Yakov puts his crystal in the sink to melt. Lilia breaks off a few more pieces and does the same.
Well. That was strange. Yakov's tongue is still cold.
"I wonder how much ice he can make at once," Lilia says. She slides the melting remains of her crystal around the bottom of a sink with one elegant finger, before removing her hand.
"Do you think he needs to eat it, or just likes to?" asks Yakov. He can't get the image of Victor stuffing the snowflakes into his mouth out of his head. Victor likes to drink his tea cold, if not full of ice, and he's eaten little handfuls of snow before, but Yakov hasn't seen him eating large chunks like that. Of course, he could always do it in his bath or in bed, when they're not watching.
Lilia shrugs. "I had a roommate one year who liked to eat ice. As far as I know, she was completely human."
Yakov's heard this story. "Didn't she drive you crazy with all the cracking sounds when she bit on it?"
"We weren't roommates for very long, no. That reminds me. An acquaintance recommended a pediatrician to us, so I made him an appointment. It probably won't be very useful, but I'll let you know if they say anything."
He nods. He's not expecting a doctor to give them any revelations; the clean bill of health that he assumes Victor will receive will be useful for whatever it's useful for.
They end up cooking together, mostly since they're both there already. It's been a while since they did this, listening to the radio, Lilia at the stove and fetching ingredients while Yakov, his hands stronger, cuts everything up. It's peaceful, especially without Victor underfoot. They used to cook together all the time when they could, way back when they were first married; it didn't always work out, with their schedules and long hours, but it was a good way to end a day. Lilia pushing him against the counter when something needed to bubble on the stove for ten minutes, or Yakov wrapping his arms around her to watch as she stirred. Learning what each other liked to eat, making something together.
They started making figure skaters together, instead.
Victor comes running when they call for him, and sets the table without prompting. "Vitya," Lilia calls out. "How many utensils are there on the table?"
"The knives and forks and spoons."
Victor counts. "Ten!"
He counts again. Slower, this time. "Nine."
"There you go," Yakov says, running a hand over his hair as he walks past. It's nice to see that Victor keeps trying even when he makes mistakes. Yakov's seen other children start to cry when they fall during skating lessons; he thinks that Victor will laugh and get right back up again to zoom off across the ice.
Updated the predicted chapter count. Might end up as ten, depending on how my outline grows into actual words.
Victor learns something. So do Yakov and Lilia.
The day before Victor's appointment, Lilia gets a sore throat, and it's still hurting the next day, judging by the half-tones she's talking in and the way she drinks three cups of tea between getting up and finishing breakfast. In the interest of not infecting any small children – or having her pick anything else up – they decide Yakov should take Victor to the doctor instead. It's a tight fit with the rest of his schedule, but he manages.
"What?" asks Victor as they wait, his legs swinging in the chair that's too big for him.
"Hm?" He's not pointing at anything.
"What's this?" Victor asks, looking at him.
"We're at the doctor's. They're going to look at you and make sure you're healthy."
"It means you're not sick."
Yakov drops his face into his hand. He's not sure how to break out of that circular definition in a way that Victor will understand. "It's... for example. Lilia says it hurts to talk today, doesn't she? That's because she's sick. There are lots of ways to be sick, but it means something in you doesn't work right, and you have to rest until it does." There. That's the best he can do.
Victor gives him a dubious look, but at least he doesn't keep asking. He practices counting on his fingers, instead, then grabs at Yakov's to count to twenty on them. He can say the words in the right order, at least; it seems that he only has trouble connecting them to real-world quantities.
The pediatrician is a tired-looking woman who, nevertheless, puts on a bright smile for Victor and talks to him in a high-pitched voice. Victor still seems to be confused, but he smiles back nevertheless.
Victor is a little small for his age – or the age the social worker pegged him at, anyway – but that seems to be fine on its own. The first thing she really concentrates on is Victor's hair. "Grey hair in children is very unusual," she says, as though Yakov doesn't know that already. "It could be a sign of a nutritional deficiency." She frowns slightly as she glances at him; Yakov has put her under the impression that Victor is a relative he's just taken in, but he can't tell her that yes, that's a possibility, when it isn't.
"Couldn't he have been born with it?" Yakov asks, because he's pretty sure this line of thought is a waste of time. Victor's hair is strange because he's a snow child or an ice fairy, or whatever he is.
The doctor only concedes that it may be congenital after poking at Victor for a bit and asking Yakov more hard-to-answer questions. Seeing as Victor does not appear to be anemic, or tired, or apparently ill in any other way, she tells Yakov to bring him in if he starts acting sickly, then says, "It might also be a form of albinism. If that's the case, he needs to stay out of the sun, and he could have vision problems." Well, Yakov doesn't know what albinism looks like, exactly, but it's true that Victor is very pale. Although he doesn't seem to have any problems with spotting things he wants to run off towards to investigate.
The second thing that concerns her is Victor's body temperature, which is abnormally low. "He's always this cold," Yakov tells her. "It doesn't bother him."
"Hm," she says. Victor is swinging his feet again, looking around the room, clearly bored. Yakov has to pull him back when he tries to jump off the exam table. "A body temperature this low is quite unusual," she says. "It can be a sign of long-term illness where the body can't regulate itself. He really isn't shivering, though...."
They get past that as well, and besides his reflexes being a bit slow, he seems to be otherwise healthy. The doctor tells him, again, to watch out for Victor acting tired, or unable to do things he should be able to do, or otherwise unusual. Yakov nods and doesn't ask if eating giant pieces of ice or sitting around in cold baths is unusual.
Then there's just the matter of vaccines; Yakov doesn't know whether Victor actually needs them, but he'll probably need the records, at least, even if he can't catch pertussis himself. The nurse who administers them moves quickly and efficiently, and doesn't stop to explain anything to Victor. "It will hurt a little, but it will be over in a moment," Yakov says.
Victor looks up at him just before the nurse sticks the needle in his arm. Yakov can't remember anyone being allowed to fuss too much over shots as a child – they had to get them, so why make a nuisance over a little pain – but Victor? Victor shrieks and tries to lunge away from the nurse's firm grip on his arm.
"Hush," the nurse says, before readying a second needle.
Yakov has to grab hold of Victor to keep him from flailing off the table. "Sit still for just a few seconds," he says. Even as he says it, there's a twitch of something regretful, like he should stop the nurse, but no. That's not happening. Victor can deal with a couple of shots, and he'll probably forget all about it in an hour, anyway.
They get Victor to suffer through a few more shots, and afterward, Yakov lets him spend a couple of moments with his face buried in his shirt, until he realizes it's over. (Well, for the moment. But Yakov isn't about to tell him that he'll need to come back for more some day.)
It's a relief to get outside again. Victor is still upset, dragging his feet as Yakov tugs him along by the hand. He cheers up a little when they cut through a park on the way home; he looks out at the snow, well-trampled by playing children and dogs, but he comes along with Yakov without trying to tear off in another direction.
"Look," Yakov says when he spots a dog on a distant path. (He never knew there were so many dogs in the city; he never noticed them so easily before Victor starting perking up at every one.) He can feel Victor getting distracted from his upset without even looking at him.
"Doggie! Can go?"
"No, Vitya. It's too far. We need to go shopping on the way home."
"Aww." But they do happen to pass by another dog on the way out of the park; Yakov lets Victor pull him over this time. "Hi," Victor says, eyes clearly on the dog and not its nervous owner, who shortens his dog's leash. "Can pet it?"
"Um," the owner says. "You really shouldn't, sorry. He's not good with strangers touching him. He might try to bite you."
"Oh." Yakov holds tighter to Victor's hand, but there's no need. Either Victor understands the words, or he understands the way the dog's posture is getting more agitated the longer Victor stares at him. "Bye-bye, doggie."
The joy that was in Victor's voice a moment ago is gone, but he doesn't look unhappy as Yakov takes him down the street. "Good, Vitya," Yakov says. "It's good that you listened."
If he's listening now, he doesn't give any indication. A minute later, he says, "Yakov?"
"How get dog?" When Yakov glances down, he gives him a hopeful expression. "Can get dog?"
Victor would be over the moon if they bought a dog. Yakov can practically see him snuggling with a fluffy one already, or zooming around the park with a small one, letting it smother his face in licks and probably sleeping with it at night, and he would be so happy because dogs are such good things—
—there is no way in hell they could get a dog. They're busy enough taking care of Victor; they couldn't possibly add in a dog as well. Yakov shakes his head and shakes the thought off. He doesn't even like dogs. Lilia prefers cats. A dog would make a mess of the household. Chewing on things, fur everywhere, there's no way. What is he even – he looks at Victor again.
Victor is still giving him that wide-eyed look. It's so innocent. He can't be....
"No," Yakov says.
Victor slumps. Yakov is half-tempted to say something like maybe someday to see him cheer up again, and, well, maybe someday – no. No, if Victor wants a dog, he can wait until he's old enough to handle one by himself.
Yakov shakes his head again. Victor is still frowning at the sidewalk. There's no more of those thoughts.
Maybe he's getting sentimental. Maybe it was Victor. At least it didn't work this time, if it was him. Or maybe it wasn't. Yakov briefly squeezes his eyes shut as they wait to cross a street, and when he opens them, he feels entirely reasonable again. No dog for Victor. Maybe when he's a teenager, if he really, truly wants one then, and can talk them into it, but that's a long time off.
They pick up some medicine for Lilia, since she's already gone through what they had at home, and more coffee and tea. Then they stop at a bakery for bread. Yakov sees the way Victor is curiously peering at the pastries, and thinks, what the hell and buys some with jam in the centers. The occasional morning blini with honey and jam aside, they're hardly spoiling Victor with sweets. He lets Victor carry the bag; he does so with exaggerated care, peeking inside whenever they have to stop like he wants to make sure they're still in there.
Then, finally, they get home. It's been a long day – and Irina's coming in a few days, and Worlds isn't much beyond that, and he has one student worrying over his boots and one worrying over her triples to prepare for competition. It's nice to finally sit down and stop watching over someone – students, Victor – for a while.
Lilia raises an eyebrow when she sees the pastries, but she's certainly not complaining. They eat the dinner she prepared first – nothing complicated, but it's hot, and Yakov appreciates it. Victor picks his pastry into pieces and then spends a long time licking all the sugar off his fingers afterward, and when he's done with that, Lilia makes him wash his hands before he runs off to play before bed.
Yakov does the cleaning afterward, and it's actually quite relaxing. No sound but the murmuring from the next room, and there's not a lot to worry about when wiping down the counter. Not his skaters, not their funding, not the upcoming competition, not Victor's strange mind trick.
It sounds like Lilia's playing counting games with Victor again. Good, then her throat must be feeling better, even if she's not as loud as usual – wait.
Yakov drops the washcloth and goes to peek out into the living room. No, his hearing isn't going quite yet. Lilia isn't teaching Victor to count, she's teaching him—
"Third position," Lilia says, showing Victor. She gently corrects the roundness of Victor's arms when he raises them.
"Starting him off on ballet already?"
"If he's going to imitate the dancers, he may as well start learning how to do so correctly."
Victor drops his arms and bounces over to Yakov, grabs his hand. "Yakov, learn ballet too."
Lilia's smile is small, but it's there. Yakov tells him, "I already learned ballet." Granted, that was – very many years ago. He was never good at it, only okay in comparison to the real talent like Lilia, but it served him well as training for his skating.
"Yakov does ballet?" Victor goes wide-eyed.
"I used to, a long time ago," Yakov says, but that doesn't change Victor's expression. "Here, I'll show you."
"Third position," Lilia repeats, lips curved up, and so Yakov pulls his hand from Victor's grip and shifts his arms and feet. Even all this time later, the position is still familiar, if not so much so as it once was. Lilia moves into it, too, her form beautiful, turnout still better than Yakov's ever was.
Victor looks between them, back and forth. "Lilia is more pretty."
"And that's why she's the one teaching you."
Lilia comes out of the position and takes a step forward to correct Yakov's hands, pressing on his fingers until they bend more elegantly. He never had the fingers of a dancer, not like hers, but she gives a satisfied nod anyway and steps away again. "Like that," she tells Victor, who immediately copies Yakov.
She spends a couple more minutes with Victor, who holds more still and looks more serious than normal, then lets him go back to playing. He immediately twirls off across the floor and manages to fit in his best attempt at a grand jeté before he runs out of space.
"I think he'll do well in proper lessons," Lilia says, obviously pleased. Probably imagining him as older and more graceful already.
Victor would look brilliant on the stage when he grows up. But Yakov wants to see him on the ice, too. If Victor ends up sticking with one or the other, that would be perfect. If he doesn't – they'll live, but ballet and skating are the things that are familiar to them, the things they live and breathe every day. It would be good to have the answers for him, instead of endless questions about what he is and where he came from.
Victor does a clumsy spin and nearly falls into Lilia. "Careful," she chides, putting a hand behind his shoulder to help him balance. He rights himself and tries again. Someday, it could be a pirouette or a pretty upright spin; for now, it's just a playful twist before Victor goes back to playing.
A couple of evenings later, they're cleaning up before Irina arrives the next day – not that their apartment is messy by any means, but that doesn't quell the urge to make it more presentable for company. Even if it's only Yakov's sister, who isn't a neat freak herself.
Victor keeps following them around. They let him help when he tries – like picking up the scattered books that Lilia is putting away and handing them to her. "Thank you," Lilia says absently, frowning down at the titles and then up at the bookshelves. They had an organizational system, once. The French books and the handful of English ones they've picked up are still separated from the Russian ones, but if there's any order, Yakov's forgotten what it is. Did they go by subject, title, or author?
Yakov lets Lilia try to figure that out and tidies up the misplaced debris of everyday life on the other side of the room. They really need to teach Victor to put his gloves away properly, rather than throwing them on the nearest surface when he comes home. Not that Yakov is always in the habit himself. Even Lilia sometimes forgets if she's thinking about something on her way in.
Of course, cleaning only entertains Victor for so long. Yakov glances up when he hears Victor go, "Learn ballet?" He's tugging on Lilia's arm.
"No," Lilia says. "We're busy."
Victor doesn't give up so easily. Yakov assumes that Lilia will tell him to go away if he bugs her for long enough, but a moment later, she whirls on him and snaps, "Stop that."
Her voice is so forceful that Yakov, several meters away, almost jumps in place. Victor makes a startled noise and stumbles back away from her, so quickly that he trips over his own feet and falls to the floor. "Lilia?" Yakov asks – what on Earth could Victor have been doing to grow her ire that quickly? But his voice is drowned out by hers.
"Stop it," Lilia repeats, taking a step forward. "You don't do that to us. Do you understand? You do not ever use that on us." Victor curls up a little at her approach, or maybe because of the glare she's sending towards him. She doesn't look away when Yakov touches her shoulder. "He was trying to change my mind," she says.
Yakov sighs. Ready to pick Victor up so they're not looming over him before settling in for a good lecture, he turns, only for Victor to go, "Stop what?"
"Stop what?" Victor demands, sitting up straighter. "Don't do what?"
"The magic you use to try and make us do something," says Lilia. "The magic you were just using a moment ago."
"What magic?" Victor says. "Stop what?"
Both of them pause. Yakov tries to think of how else to put it while Lilia makes another attempt. He can see both of them growing more frustrated, Victor not understanding, Lilia not being understood, and something suddenly clicks about the way Victor's asking, his posture. He takes Lilia's arm. She breaks her sentence off. "What is it?
"I'm not sure he knows. What I mean," he adds when she gives him a look, "is that I'm not sure he knows that he's doing it."
Lilia slowly turns back to Victor. Victor's face is screwed up, his teeth digging into his lip – he's not that bad at Russian, Yakov thinks, to not be able to piece together what they mean. So he crouches down to Victor's level and asks, "Do you know what magic we're talking about?"
Victor shakes his head.
Out of the corner of his eye, he can see Lilia tuck one hand into her waist and put the other to her forehead. He feels the same sentiment. But just repeating themselves at him isn't going to get him to figure out what they don't want him to do. "When you first came here, you wanted to stay with us, right? Didn't you try to make it so we wanted you to stay, too? Or – when someone tried to take you away. Did you make it so they didn't want to take you?"
Victor stares blankly. He tilts his head. So Yakov tries something else.
"Did your mother ever have trouble when she wanted someone to do something for her? Did she have to ask them? Did anyone say no?"
Victor opens his mouth, then closes it. He looks at the floor, then back up at them. "Someone like Yakov or Lilia?"
"Yes," Lilia says, finally sitting down with the two of them. "People like us."
"Only – only two people. Mama doesn't – doesn't talk. But bring, um." Victor gestures like he's holding a basket, then frowns. "Magic? Not magic." He sounds uncertain himself.
They look at each other. "He doesn't know," says Lilia.
"It's a start. Vitya, just now – you wanted Lilia to teach you more ballet, so you tried to make her want to teach you. Yes, it was magic. You can't do that. Do you understand? It's very bad."
"Bad magic?" Victor looks at Lilia. "But – I, I don't."
"You did," Lilia says.
"Nooo," Victor whines, tears gathering in the corners of his eyes.
Before she can say anything further, Victor is throwing himself at her. Yakov doesn't think he's ever heard her make that kind of noise before, something close to a muffled squawk. He has to fight a sudden laugh at her expression, too, utterly stumped about what to do with the whimpering child now clinging to her.
Her face clearly says, how do I get him off of me, so Yakov reaches over. Between the two of them, they manage to pry Victor away from her to cling to Yakov instead. "Now, what do we say when we do something bad?" Yakov asks Victor.
Victor peeks out from Yakov's shoulder. "Sorry," he whispers.
Lilia nods. Victor sniffles. "Perhaps we'll do ballet tomorrow, or the day after," she says, and Victor relaxes a little at the words.
After a couple of minutes, Yakov manages to peel Victor off and sends him to take a bath. Lilia lifts herself up enough to sit on the couch; Yakov follows her. Neither of them has the joints for sitting on the hard floor for very long any more.
"He didn't manage to compel you," Yakov offers. "He might have tried on me the other day, and that didn't work, either."
"I hope that means we're gaining some resistance to it, then."
For a few minutes, they sit together, stretching their legs. Not saying anything; it doesn't seem like there's much else to say. There's the distant sound of water running, then it stops and there's a faint splash.
There's still things to put away. Lilia's the first to rise again, and she puts on a record so they have something familiar to listen to as they finish tidying up.
When Yakov goes to pull him out of the bath, Victor is unusually quiet. He sits too still as Yakov towels his hair dry. "Bad magic?" he finally asks.
The thing is, Yakov can see uses for it. If anyone tries to take Victor away again – maybe it was Victor who convinced them that they wanted him to stay, but that doesn't make the feeling any less real. If anyone tries to hurt him. (Yakov wouldn't mind being able to 'convince' certain people either, if he's honest. Like to get the government to put more funding back into the sport. He's doing okay for the moment, but training world-class athletes was easier when they didn't have to worry so much about that; a coach Yakov knows had to close her skating school last year for lack of funds.)
"It's not bad in and of itself," he says, trying to choose the words with care. "But you should only use it when you really need to. If someone wants to take you away, or if they want to do bad things to you."
"Bad people," Victor says. "Lilia and Yakov aren't bad people."
Yakov can't help the smile. He responds by ruffling Victor's hair until he giggles and starts to squirm. There, that's better. "So that means?"
"Don't use magic. Not." Victor waves his hands, then makes a tiny spray of ice crystals with one of them. The crystals, fine as powder, melt almost as soon as they touch the floor. "Other magic."
"Yes. The other magic. Making ice is fine."
"I don't know what magic." Victor frowns.
Yakov pats his head one more time. "We'll tell you if you use it," he says. It's like training any student out of a bad habit: he has to make them aware that they have the habit in the first place, remind them every time their form is off, before they can learn to sense it, and then learn to fix it. "You'll learn when you're using it, and then you can stop."
"Okay," says Victor.
"Come on, let's get you to bed. You're going to meet someone new tomorrow, remember? So you need to sleep."
"Yakov's sister." Victor pauses. "What is sister?"
Didn't they teach him that at kindergarten, yet? Or maybe Victor simply hasn't asked, and everyone would have assumed that he knew already. "I'll tell you once you're laying down."
Victor grabs Yakov's hands and stares up at him. Yakov stares back, not sure what he wants. But Victor doesn't say anything, just holds on to him, so after a long moment, Yakov simply guides him out the door and to his room, Victor's hand wrapped around his the whole way.
It's an unusually warm day when Irina arrives, although Yakov has spent most of it inside yelling at his students. His throat's a little sore, actually. He hopes he hasn't caught whatever Lilia had. Still, he made sure to get a little of the weak sunshine peeking through the clouds during lunch, allowed himself to dream of warmer days, only some of which he'll pass in the rink.
He meets Irina outside the apartment building, and though it's been a long while since they last saw each other, she looks hardly changed. Perhaps there's a bit more grey in her short hair. But she still smiles, and she still insists on dragging him into a hug that lasts a beat too long before letting him escape. Still shakes him off when he tries to help with her bag, too. "I swear, you've aged another ten years every time we meet," she teases. "You need students that won't cause you so much stress!"
"There's no such thing," he says as he lets her in the building ahead of himself. "All skaters are crazy. All of them. It doesn't matter what discipline they're in. The only differences is how and how much."
(He's not exactly excepting himself. Sure, he may not have had the same level of disobedience and contrariness, or the strange eating habits, or rituals to ground himself, or any of the other quirks his students come with, but he's here teaching them despite the days they make him want to tear his hair out, isn't he?)
Irina laughs, then quiets as they head up the stairs. He can practically feel the curiosity radiating off of her, so he lets her into the apartment first as well. Neither Lilia nor Victor are visible at first; there's just the sound of something boiling in the kitchen. Irina arrived right around dinnertime, as promised.
Yakov's still getting his shoes off when Victor pokes his head around the corner. "Yakov!" he exclaims, his voice high and bright, but his head cocks at the sight of Irina.
Have they had anybody in the apartment since that last social worker? He can't remember.
He hastens to finish removing his shoes and to put his hat on its hook before he makes a come-here gesture. Victor bounds over to give Yakov a hug, as though he's been gone for longer than a few minutes, but he doesn't quite unglue himself from Yakov's side all the way when it's over. He returns to staring at Irina, who stares back. He doesn't seem to know what to make of her.
Yakov clears his throat. "This is Victor," he says, as though the introduction is really necessary. "Vitya, this is my sister, Irina. You remember, I told you about her." Only a little. But he should remember.
Victor pulls one hand away from clinging to Yakov's jacket in order to wave. "Hello," he says. His accent's gotten better in these last couple of months; the word is clearer and more understandable than the day he spent chirping it to everyone at the rink.
"Hello," Irina says, smiling at him, the pitch of her voice an octave higher than it was a minute ago. She crouches down a bit. Victor watches her, and doesn't move from Yakov's side. "I'm going to be staying for a few days. I've heard a lot about you! Such as some of the things you like. Hm? I brought you a present." She reaches for her bag, and she doesn't have to dig far before she pulls out a little plush dog.
Victor makes the biggest gasp and lets go of Yakov. He pushes on Victor's shoulder blade to encourage him forward.
"It's for you," Irina says, holding it out like she's trying to tempt him closer. It works. Victor comes closer, and he takes the toy with gentle care, immediately cuddling it to his chest and rubbing his face against its head.
And then he looks up at Irina, smiles, and says, "Thank you," in such a sweet voice that Yakov finds himself smiling, too, before he knows he's doing it. Irina coos over him; he can tell her heart is melting already. Victor doesn't need magical charm when he has the natural kind.
There's a bit of a pang in Yakov's chest, though, when he sees Victor carry the toy into the other room, plop down, and start petting it. They haven't really gotten Victor any toys before this. It hadn't even crossed his mind, and possibly not Lilia's, either. Victor has seemed content enough playing with bits of ice, with paper balled up until he can bat it around and pens to draw on it, with the water in his bath, with leaves and sticks and snow when he's outdoors. It seems so obvious that a child should have toys, now.
They catch up for a few minutes in the doorway, talking over the sounds of Lilia finishing dinner and Victor babbling at his new toy. Even as Irina tells him about her own children and their most recent accomplishments, both of them spend more time looking at Victor than at each other. He pets the toy, and stops to look at it, and hugs it, and talks to it like it's an actual dog. He even lets slip a few words that Yakov can't puzzle out, until he realizes that they don't sound like Russian at all. It startles him, hearing that language that Victor knows they don't understand again.
Irina doesn't seem to notice the misplaced words. But she does look fond of him already. She always did love children; he's pretty sure she picked out the names for hers when she was still a teenager, before she even met her future wife.
Lilia makes an appearance to tell Victor to set the table, and then she looks at Irina and gives her a nod of greeting. Irina nods back. They're not friendly, exactly, and they never have been, but they get along well enough not to fight, and that's good enough for Yakov on the odd occasions they see Irina.
They follow Victor into the kitchen. He sets his new toy by his own chair before racing to the dishes, and Yakov sees him count out one, two, three plates before he starts to pick them up. "Vitya," he says. "How many people are there tonight?"
Victor blinks at him. Looks at Lilia, Irina, Yakov, then down at himself. "Four!"
"Then how many places do we need, if everyone gets one?"
Victor brightens and counts out an extra plate. Irina smiles and watches him set the table. "It's good to see that you have him helping out already."
"He enjoys being useful," Lilia says, a touch of pride to her voice as she starts to carry the food over from the stove. The last thing she retrieves is a cup of tea from the fridge, which she sets by Victor's place. Irina, sliding into her seat next to him, raises an eyebrow. It was good thinking, though; this way Victor can have his tea cold without having to use his ice magic.
Victor mostly ignores the adults during dinner. They politely pay attention to each other's life updates, as though Lilia really cares how the niece and nephews she has barely met are doing in school and as though Irina understands anything about the worlds of dance and skating. It is good to see her again, though, to see the warmth in her eyes as she talks about her work and her family, to see that she is doing well. Her life isn't the one he would have chosen, but it suits her.
When they finish eating, Victor wanders off with his new toy, leaving them to talk. "So," Irina finally says, looking at Yakov. "You really have taken him in as your own. And here you kept telling everyone you were never going to have kids until they stopped asking."
"We weren't going to," says Yakov. He can understand her curiosity, but he still wishes she would drop it. "Vitya happened. It was a sudden decision. I thought you'd be happy about a new nephew."
"I am. Still," she says in a low voice, "you must admit, getting a phone call from you out of nowhere and hearing you'd adopted – not a relative but a street child—"
"Vitya is not a street child," Lilia says sharply. "He is perfectly healthy and intelligent."
Irina waves a hand. "Yes, I see that now, but – you're sure there's nothing wrong with him? I mean, he's adorable, don't get me wrong, but that hair of his is—"
"We took him to the doctor," says Yakov. "He's fine. He was probably born with it."
She kicks him gently under the table, the way she used to do when they were children. Yakov shuts up and lets her talk. "I'm just curious as to why you changed your mind about children now. If it was anyone else, I'd be wondering if it was regrets over not having any earlier, but neither of you are the kind to be like that, I don't think."
Yakov trades a look with Lilia. How to explain it, without explaining everything else that Irina doesn't need to know?
"We found him," Lilia says. "He wanted to stay, and it felt more right than giving him to an orphanage when they couldn't find his mother. He likes ballet and he likes the ice. That he is so young is... less than ideal, but he is generally well-behaved." She takes a sip of her tea, deliberate, her gaze fixed on Irina. She doesn't have to say anything like I'm fond of him.
"As long as he's your son and not your student," Irina says, almost absently, and she probably doesn't see the way that Lilia's shoulders stiffen, but she does shrug and sit back when Yakov sighs. "Would you like to see the other things I brought for him? It's not just books."
It's not just books. Victor comes over to see what they're all fussing about as she empties her bag across the couch. Books, and some of the nicer clothes left over from her youngest, and a few more toys. Victor takes to a patterned shirt, tracing the lines of it, and when Yakov helps him into it, he gives him a big smile and goes back to touching the colors.
The books remind him, though. "Do they learn to read in school, or do we have to teach him?" Yakov asks. Lilia's already looking through one of them; Yakov recognizes it as one that was already a hand-me-down from their own parents, an old book about sugar beets. The pages of machines turning the beets into sugar are probably not to Victor's interest, but he takes it from her for the sake of the nostalgia.
"He should be learning at school already," Irina is saying as Yakov flips through the pages. "But it helps if you read to them. Otherwise they won't understand what books are for or why they should want to read. Here." She picks up a far more recent book, something with snow on the cover. "Try this one."
Yakov sits down with it. In seconds, he feels claustrophobic, with Lilia leaning over his shoulder from behind, Victor pushing into his left side and seeking attention, and Irina looming over him from the right to boss him around like she hasn't had a chance to do in ages. She reminds him to go slowly, to turn the book so that Victor can look at the pictures, to follow the text with a finger so Victor can pick up that the letters mean something.
It's very awkward, at first, but after the first couple of pages, Irina shuts up. Victor peers at the drawings and echoes some of Yakov's sentences. When he finishes the story, he closes the book. Irina immediately takes it from him, opens it up, and hands it to Victor. "You should talk to him about the story," she scolds.
Yakov pushes down the irritation he can feel rising. Lilia's hand on his shoulder makes it easier, as does the way that Irina sits down with Victor and goes through the story with him herself.
They leave her to it and put away the things she's brought. There's a shelf in Victor's room that's half-filled with old paper records – they really should sort through those and see what they can get rid of – where they put the books at his height.
When they come back out, Irina has let Victor go back to playing. Victor holds on to his new toy the rest of the evening, playing with it like it's a real dog, even when Lilia calls him for bed. He probably takes it into bed with him to sleep with.
"So how long until you have a puppy, too?" Irina asks, grinning.
"Absolutely not," Yakov says.
Yakov wakes slowly in the morning, the bed so nice to lay in that he lingers for what must be a long time. Outside the blankets, it is chilly; under them, it is warm, and Lilia breathes softly against his neck. It's a day off for both of them, so there's no rush.
Eventually, Lilia wakes, and they pull themselves out from under the covers to face the day. Yakov splashes his face with cold water until he feels properly awake, while Lilia twists her hair up into the bun she always wears even when she's not at the studio.
When she opens the door, there's a light down the hall, and voices. They find Irina with Victor in the kitchen, him standing on a chair at the counter while she fries something on the stove. He jumps down as soon as he sees them. "Good morning," he says, rushing toward them, and Lilia shies away at the sight of his flour-covered hands.
"What are you making?" Yakov asks him.
"Making syrniki!" He holds out his hands. "Make lots!"
"How many?" Lilia is reaching for his messy hair, but Victor claps and runs back before she can do more than touch it.
The table is already set, with four places. Good for him.
"You're a good helper," Irina tells him. Victor grins at her, then sets about counting the little pancakes.
"You didn't have to cook," Yakov says, because he has to.
"It's in exchange for letting me stay," she says. "And he did help." She turns over the last couple of syrniki, the undersides golden and tempting.
They're delicious, fresh and hot, and Victor drowns his in jam once they're cut up for him. He ignores his tea until he's finished eating and it's no longer steaming. The table is quiet; outside, snow is falling, but only a little, and the newspaper promises sunshine later.
Lilia and Victor disappear after the meal, but Irina sticks around to finish her coffee and chat while Yakov cleans. "Have you taken him skating yet?"
"There hasn't been time. He already tried to start learning when I had to take him to the rink one day, though. Walked right out onto the ice."
Irina laughs. "Are you sure he didn't drop from heaven just for the two of you?"
He snorts and turns on the water. "Yes, yes, a little fairy-tale miracle. Will he grow out of the thing where he runs around all day and still has too much energy when it's time to sleep?"
"Just be thankful he shuts up," Irina says. "My oldest was such a chatterbox, it drove me crazy. What's he supposed to be, five? A little small for that, maybe. But yes, he'll grow out of it. Eventually. Doesn't mean he won't grow into something else, though."
When he turns back around, drying his hands, Irina's no longer at the table. She peeking out of the doorway, her face unreadable. There's the sound of Lilia's voice – another miniature lesson in ballet, short enough to hold Victor's attention and keep it from being frustrating for either of them. "Good," he can hear her say. When he comes closer, Irina starts to smile, and peeking out himself reveals that the lesson is over, and Lilia is finally combing through Victor's hair with her fingers, laying the strands down neat and smooth.
"It's nice to see that she has a maternal side," Irina murmurs. "She doesn't seem like the type."
Lilia has always had her softer moments. The harder ones and the passionate ones stand out more, and are more numerous, but they are not the only ones. But those are probably the only ones Irina has seen. They are the only ones most people see, except for the way she sometimes claps with joy in the kiss-and-cry when a student does particularly well.
"She agreed to take him in, too," he reminds her.
"And someday maybe I'll figure out how that happened! Was it those eyes of his? Because I remember that time you came to see me and she wouldn't even let me suggest that she hold the baby. We could barely get you to hold him." They shake their heads at each other. "Anyway. What were the plans for today?"
"Taking him to the park, maybe."
"Let me take him." At his look, she says, "What? It's nice to have a break from the kids once in a while."
"So you can babysit another one?"
"Oh, well, he's different. I'm giving him back after the shine's worn off. Come on, let him charm me for a couple of hours and let me see a little of the city while I'm here. Maybe there's a museum or something we could all go to in the afternoon."
Now it's Yakov's turn to annoy her as they get ready to go out. "He likes to have some time to play by himself in the snow," he says as she pulls her coat on. "If he takes his gloves off, don't try to make him put them back on, it won't work," he says as she wraps her scarf. "If he sees a dog, he's usually sensible, but don't let him run off after it by himself," he says as she pulls her hat over her ears.
"I do actually know how to look after a little boy for a couple of hours," she tells him. "He can't be that different from all other children."
If only she knew.
Victor holds on to his dog toy even as Yakov tries to help him into his coat. "Let go of it," Yakov says. "You can't take it with you. You'll lose it or it'll get dirty."
"No," Victor says, whining, and he holds on tighter when Yakov tries to take it from him.
"Oh, let him keep it," says Irina. "I'll keep an eye on it. If it gets dirty, we can wash it."
They get Victor bundled up, and Irina promises to be back within a few hours. Victor drags his heels when she tries to leave with him, though, giving Yakov a confused look. He's never left without either of them, and the last time someone tried was.... "Come back soon," Yakov says, and Victor brightens with recognition and waves good-bye. Then he leaves without any further fuss.
The apartment is quiet without him. Lilia makes more tea, in her pretty china cups, and there's only the sound of the cups clinking as they drink. No splashing. No little feet running in a different room. Was it always so quiet, before Victor showed up?
They relax for a bit, enjoying a rare day without work where they can rest their throats. They spend an hour going through the paper records in what is now Victor's room, with his postcard on the wall and his books on the shelf. Lilia's drawn dancers are on the desk, ready to be played with like paper dolls until Victor rips them.
Yakov's just gotten used to the silence when the front door opens, the spare key struggling with the lock, and Victor bursts in. "Yakov!" he cries as soon as Yakov comes into his sight, and he runs over to hug him and start babbling about the park and lunch and and and. He's still clutching his toy, too.
He lets him get all his words out. The story still isn't that coherent, but his sentences are slowly making more sense. Yakov gets the gist of it from the healthy pink on Victor's cheeks and the big smile he wears.
Irina takes her time pulling off her outwear, and when Victor has finished his story, she says, "Well, he was a little different from my kids. Never saw any of them shove so much snow in their mouths. He really likes eating it, huh?"
When they leave, all four of them, after lunch, Lilia is more successful in getting Victor to leave the toy behind. He tries to drag them the way of the park again, and when Lilia steers him away, Yakov can just hear her murmuring, "You're using it. Stop."
Victor wears a look of concentration that is too serious on his face for a few seconds, and then he looks up at her. She nods at him, and then at Yakov as well when she sees him watching.
"You two should go out," Irina suggests the next evening, before they have a chance to figure out what they might make for dinner after another day of teaching. "Eat somewhere nice. I can watch him for a few more hours."
She's already been watching him most of the day. But Lilia doesn't seem eager to turn down more free babysitting. She nods and sweeps out of the kitchen to change out of her workaday clothes. (They're perfectly nice clothes. But she likes to dress up when she has the excuse.)
"I think I'll be ready to give him back afterward," Irina says. "Get back to my own tomorrow." She goes to put the kettle on, and there's a pause while she fiddles with it. "Why does he call you by your names?"
"Not 'mom' and 'dad'?"
"He remembers his mother. It's only been a couple of months." And he's not in any hurry to make Victor call them anything else. It's difficult to imagine, and it still doesn't feel right in Yakov's head, having Victor chirp, 'yes, mom' or something like that. Introducing Victor as their son, even if they're acting as his parents in every sense. Maybe in a few months more, it will feel more natural, assuming Victor's real mother still doesn't come for him.
"I see," she says. She pauses again, this time to fiddle with the tea. "So. When are our parents going to learn that they have a new grandson?"
Yakov nearly groans. He's only thought of that fleetingly, around the time he first called Irina about Victor. Neither he nor Lilia sees their family often – though there's phone calls and letters when they remember – so it hasn't been pressing. "I don't know. How do you think we should make him related to Lilia?" Though they'd have to come up with something different if they ever tell someone from her family.
"He does have to be from her side. He's far too skinny for ours." She clicks her tongue. It's true; like Yakov, Irina is robust and stout, and so are their parents. Victor is too delicate-looking for their family. "Give her a beloved cousin who passed away suddenly, leaving her son orphaned? Or you could always tell them the truth."
"They won't understand." They'll ask questions, like Irina did. Yakov's tired of them just from her. "You don't understand."
She watches the kettle. Finally, she says, "No, I don't. My children – they came from one of us or the other. They have a bit of me, or her, in them. We're a part of them and they're ours. I can't imagine someone else's child feeling like that." She glances at him. "Then again, I can hardly imagine going to the Olympics, either. Doing all of those damn scary jumps like you used to."
"I can't imagine," he says, "living in a house next to the woods with a big garden and three children."
"You'd be bored out of your mind," she says, fond. "Did I tell you what I was planning to plant this year?" She has, so she doesn't continue.
They fall back into silence, a more comfortable one. After a minute, he stuffs his hands his pockets and clears his throat. "Worlds is next week," he says.
Irina understands what he's asking before he has the chance to say the words. "You want us to take him? I suppose it'd be nicer for him than a stranger. Though he'd have to miss a few days of school, wouldn't he? We're too far away." Yakov shrugs. "I'll see if my wife's okay with it. Probably, but just in case. And see if our schedules will work out... I'll give you a call. And it's not free, you have to bring us a good souvenir from – where is Worlds?"
"Japan, this year."
"Japan, then." A corner of her mouth twitches up. "Lucky you. Enjoy all of the sushi and noodles and whatever else it is that they eat there. And the, I don't know, the zen gardens."
"We're not there to sightsee." And the flight is going to take forever.
"Yes, yes. Poor you, traveling so much." She pats his shoulder. "Maybe you could bring tea? They make tea in Japan, don't they?"
Lilia reappears. She can manage to look elegant and put-together wearing nothing but a blanket; in her sleek dress, her makeup redone, the few stray hairs stuck back in place, she looks beautiful.
Dinner isn't full-on candles and roses romantic, but they find an old favorite restaurant that's not too busy, and the food is good. They take a very long way home afterward, hands tucked together, talking here and there when they have something to say.
Yakov thinks about Victor, about what they're going to say about him. Maybe Lilia will want to tell the truth; if anyone doesn't understand, it's not their problem. He thinks about Worlds; his students will be fine. Their boots are fine, their blades are fine, their bodies are fine, and if he can do anything about it, their minds will be fine as well. He thinks about Lilia's cheekbones when a streetlight highlights them, and wonders if she's picked out a performance to go to yet. (He asks; she has not.)
The apartment is dark when they step back into it, Irina and Victor both in bed. Yakov presses his lips to Lilia's neck after he unwinds her scarf, heart suddenly full of affection for her. He loves her, of course, always, but after so many years, it's usually a background constant to his life, not something he thinks about or actively feels. It's been a while since he experienced this rush of it that makes him want to hold her.
Lilia lets him kiss her neck again, her cold cheeks, before she tips his head and kisses him properly. She unbuttons her coat, while he unbuttons his, and when they have both shed their outermost layer, he touches her wrist, and she pulls him along by it. Leads him past his sleeping sister, past Victor's room, down to their bedroom, and when they are in their bed, he holds her.
I think this fic is to blame for my discovery of syrniki. (They're so good!)
There really was a Soviet-era children's book about sugar production from beets. You can take a look at it online if you want.
Victor isn't trouble, until he is.
Irina calls to say they can take care of Victor during Worlds. Yakov almost sighs with relief; so, they can leave Victor with someone he knows while both of them are traveling, rather than having to hope he doesn't try to pull mind tricks on a stranger because he thinks they've left him behind forever. It's worth his missing a little school.
It's a long way to Irina's, but it seems only fair for him to make the trip this time, since she made it last week. Lilia keeps trying to explain to Victor that they're both going on a trip while Yakov packs a bag for him. If Victor's paying any attention, though, he doesn't act like it. He's too busy playing with more ice crystals. Hexagons, pentagons, some that only have three faces, some that are as delicate and detailed as lace. Today, he doesn't eat them.
Victor won't stop fidgeting for most of the trip to Irina's place; it's a good thing they aren't taking him on a plane. It's a very, very long flight from here to Japan. Too long for Victor to sleep through it. (Too long for the two of them to sleep through it, unfortunately.)
Irina's house is lovely, though it will be more so once the snow melts. While her garden is still waiting for spring, she has small plants in the windows. She greets them at the door with a big smile for Victor, who peers around like he doesn't understand why they're in someone else's house.
She offers tea and cookies her wife made. Right now, the house is otherwise empty, so he doesn't have to introduce Victor to the rest of her family – everyone else is off at work or school, although it's her day off. There are more children's books on one of the shelves in the living room, the thin spines standing out from the other books. Yakov suspects that Victor might be in for more reading practice. He thinks that Victor still doesn't understand the concept, but he has liked the stories and the pictures in the books they've tried on him so far.
He can't stay for long, so it's only a short time before he's standing in the entrance again. Victor follows, of course. He's always following them around, and, still holding on to that dog toy he loves so much, he tries to get his coat down so someone can help him into it. "You don't need that," Irina says, gently pulling him back. "Only he's leaving, right? You're not going."
Victor looks confused. "Give me a moment with him," says Yakov, and Irina nods and backs away. She disappears into the next room, and he can hear their cups clanking as she takes them back to the kitchen. "We told you, you have to stay here for a few days. We'll be back afterward. We're not leaving you forever."
He shakes his head and grabs at Yakov's coat. "Leave? Come back soon?"
"Yes," Yakov says. "Like when I left on the trip. But this time, both Lilia and I are going on the trip. We can't take you with us, but my sister is a good person who will take care of you. It's just a few days."
Victor stares up at him. Stares. Stares. Yakov starts to wonder if this is a good idea after all. If they really can leave Victor behind. Victor with his big eyes and hands clenching in the fabric of his coat and giving him that look—
"Magic," Yakov says quietly, putting his hand on Victor's head. Victor frowns and squeezes his eyes shut, then peers back up. The feeling isn't gone; Yakov still wants to scoop him up and carry him home. He shakes his head. Victor tries again, and it's gone as though he never felt that way. It's a little strange, actually. "There you go. Good."
Victor still doesn't step away, though. "Want," he starts to say, before stopping himself. "I want... Yakov stays?"
"You want me to stay," Yakov corrects, for all the good it will do. "But I can't, and Lilia can't. I promise we'll be back to take you home soon."
Finally, after another long moment, Victor nods. He lets go of Yakov and looks toward the sounds of Irina taking her time washing the cups. "I like Irina." He looks back at Yakov. "Come back soon," he begs.
"I will. Be good for her." He puts his hat on, lets Victor get one last hug in, and says good-bye to Irina when she pokes her head in. Then he steps out the door, and Victor doesn't try to stop him.
It's a long way back to St. Petersburg, more relaxing without Victor constantly vying for his attention, and he's back just long enough to eat a quick dinner before they head to the airport. His students, this time, are calm as they wait for the flight, teasing each other and splitting an orange. Lilia is quiet, watching the dark windows.
No Victor, for once. They won't have to worry about him for a few days. Maybe it will be a nice little vacation. No trying to keep up with him, no timing his bath so he'll go to sleep without fuss, no trying to figure out what he means when he talks. Yakov just hopes that he doesn't drive Irina's family too crazy. At least they have the garden to let him get some fresh air and sunlight during the day.
There he is, worrying about him after all. They haven't even left Russia yet. Irina's family has far more experience handling small children than Yakov and Lilia do. He'll be fine. They'll be fine.
The flight takes forever. Yakov gets some sleep, wakes up to eat something, dozes for a couple more hours. He reads a bit of a book he brought before he gets bored of it. He stares off into space for a little while, thinking of summer and next season. One of their students bugs him for a minute, before settling back in her seat next to the other one and starting to whisper with him. He tries to read his book again.
When he asks, the flight attendant says there are another five hours left before they land. Lilia doesn't sigh, but he can see the boredom seeping out of her in the way her legs are folded, the way she stares ahead. A couple of rows behind them, a toddler starts screaming. Yakov imagines Victor squirming between them and wonders what he should get Irina in return for watching him.
They do, at some point, get to Japan and to their final destination. From there on, things go smoothly. Their students stay calm; they chat with their competitors and smile at the sweepers. Their male student starts to fiddle with the laces of his skates before the short program, and Yakov has to eventually step in and ask him if there's something actually bothering him about them or if he's psyching himself out.
"I think they're okay," he says, drawing his hands away from the laces.
"Do you think they are or are they?"
He takes a deep breath, sets his feet down, and takes a long moment before he nods. "It's just because I had issues with them last year," he says. "There's nothing wrong with them this time."
"Good." His group needs to get ready for their warm-up. There's no time left for him to be distracted, and Yakov tries to keep him focused as they wait for his turn to skate.
He skates just fine. Not perfectly – he doesn't medal – but he shows his steady improvement over this year and the last few years. Next year, perhaps. Their other skater does better than fine; she skates up to them before the long program with a glimmer in her eyes. "Coach, madam," she says. "I'm going to get gold today if there's anything I can do about it."
Lilia reaches out to adjust her hair slightly, then nods. Yakov claps her on the shoulder. There's nothing else to say as she glides off. She skates like her life depends on it, like she's a dancer proving her worth on a stage, every movement smooth and sure, her balance perfect as she turns into a long spiral that has the crowd clapping. This is the way that she should have been skating all season; he hopes she can carry this into the next. Lilia has to dab at her eyes when she's finished. The student herself doesn't cry until she steps off the ice after the medal ceremony, gold medal around her neck, and bursts into tears.
So much crying at these events. Yakov offers her a tissue and lets her regain her composure.
He doesn't realize that he hasn't been thinking of Victor until they take the students out to a fancy multi-course meal to celebrate. Seeing the pretty dishes with small portions of beautifully-arranged food somehow reminds him of the smaller, cut-up portions they have to put together for Victor. He wonders if Victor is doing okay without them, or if he's giving Irina's family a hard time.
Yakov does end up buying tea, and Lilia helps pick out some pretty Japanese snacks for both them and for Irina's family. There's bread shaped like leaves and filled with some kind of sweet paste, sugar candies shaped like colorful stars, flower-shaped sweets that melt in the mouth.
After another long flight, they arrive back at their apartment. It's very quiet. It should be relaxing and inviting, but it feels empty more than anything. They look at the deserted room, then at each other, and Lilia says, "I'll unpack the bags."
So Yakov goes to pick Victor up, despite how much he just wants to fall into bed and get some real sleep. At least the cold air that hits him while walking up to Irina's house helps to wake him up. He doesn't get all the way to the door before it bursts open and Victor flies out. "Yakov!" he cries, sprinting down the path at full tilt, and this time Yakov does slip and fall when Victor tackles him.
"I – Vitya!" he can hear someone calling. "Are you alright?"
Yakov gingerly props himself up and grunts in response. Looks like he still has those figure skating reflexes. Where is his hat? It only takes a moment to locate. Meanwhile, Victor rubs his face against Yakov's coat and clings so hard it's difficult to walk once they get upright again.
He manages to get Victor to let go once they're inside. "You shouldn't run at people like that," Irina's wife scolds Victor. "You could have hurt him." But Victor doesn't mind her. He seems to care more about getting as much of Yakov's attention as he can right this minute.
The souvenirs are well-received by the whole family. His niece and nephews exclaim over the treats; Irina declares them too pretty to eat before portioning some of them out anyway. Victor picks at the sweets he's given, but mostly he tries to chatter at Yakov. From it, he can gather that Victor probably spent a lot of time running around in the garden, but that's about it, until he says, "I saw Lilia and Yakov!"
"You saw us?"
"We watched the skating with him," one of the kids says. "He liked it a lot, but he got sooo excited when you two were on screen for a few seconds."
"Maybe you'll be on tv with them one day," Irina says, smiling. And perhaps, some day, though it's hard to imagine little Victor being old enough and calm enough to skate competitively. But maybe there will be a time when he can bring tears to Lilia's eyes, and he'll be the one smiling from the center of a podium or a stage. Maybe not. Yakov likes the thought, though. They'll see how he turns out when he grows up.
When they leave, Yakov thanks them again. "I hope he wasn't too much trouble."
"He didn't make me miss the five-year-old stage," says Irina's wife, "but he's a sweet kid. I told him you were coming back this evening and he stayed by the window for hours waiting for you."
Victor, hugging his toy, is beaming up at Yakov while waiting to leave. And smiling. Yakov's pretty sure that he hasn't stopped grinning since tackling him to the ground. It's getting kind of creepy, actually. "We're going home now," he says, and Victor follows him out.
He falls asleep on the trip home. Yakov is thankful when he can take Victor up to the apartment, put him to bed, and then fall into his own. He sleeps well and deeply, and in the morning it feels so normal to eat breakfast with Victor sitting across from them and breathing ice into his tea.
Two days later, it snows. Not terribly unusual at this time of year, though Yakov was hoping it might rain instead. He's ready for winter to be over.
What is unusual is the way the storm captures Victor's attention. He sticks to the window while they make breakfast and has to be pulled away to eat, and he goes right back to staring outside when he comes home from kindergarten. It's strange, but so much about Victor is, and they leave him be.
He stays by the window after dinner, too, cuddling with his dog toy and watching the snowflakes come down hard and fast, falling more heavily than they were earlier in the day.
"Maybe it means it's the last snowfall of the season," Yakov suggests. Now there's a cheery thought. Lilia nods and goes back to her reading.
Yakov retreats to the office to get through some paperwork. Lilia comes by, offering tea, and for a long time after that, it is quiet. He's able to finish most of his work, and he's just stopped to stretch and take a break when Lilia knocks on the door again. "Yasha? Did you put Vitya to bed?"
"No, I've been in here since dinner."
"He's not in his room," she says. "I can't find him."
He frowns with her. There's only so many places he could be, though. "Did he sneak into our bed?"
Victor is not in their room. He hasn't figured out how to draw himself a bath. He's not hiding under his covers. They even search under the beds, behind the curtains, in the kitchen cabinets, but after a good twenty minutes of looking and calling his name, they have to admit that Victor is nowhere in the apartment. There's just his dog toy, left where he was sitting earlier.
He is nowhere in the apartment, and there is a blizzard outside. "Do you think his mother...?" Lilia ventures, the slightest thread of uncertainty in her voice, and Yakov feels a rush of anger at the thought. It would be one thing if she showed up and asked for him back; to simply take him, unbeknownst to them, with no warning, would be....
"He might have wandered off," he says. Victor never has before, but it's possible. Indeed, when they go into the entrance, his coat is gone and the door is unlocked. "I'll go look for him. You stay here in case he comes back."
Lilia purses her lips but pulls out a warm hat for him – the wind would blow off his favorite one – and wraps his scarf as he buttons his coat. "Don't get lost," she says.
Yakov hopes that he will find Victor on his way out of the building, but no such luck, and in the freshly-fallen snow there are few clear footprints. Not a lot of people want to be out in this weather at this time of night. But there is one pair leading away, only a little filled in, and they were made by tiny boots. Yakov is both relieved to have an easy way to find him and puzzled as to why Victor decided to head off into this awful wind.
The air itself is not that cold, but the gusts bite at every bit of unprotected skin as he starts to follow the footprints. Down the sidewalk, one block, two. It's difficult to see very far, between the snow and the wind blowing it into his eyes, but it's not hard to track Victor's path, and before long, Yakov is sure he knows where Victor went, especially when the footprints veer off and disappear into the street.
Victor headed towards the park.
Yakov grumbles to himself as he adjusts his scarf and hat to protect himself a bit more and waits for a car to slowly drive by. (To be out driving at night in this kind of visibility – Yakov's thankful he isn't.) What on Earth was that child thinking? Victor may not mind the cold, but to run off for the first time in the middle of the night – he can't understand it. Did he want to play in the snow that badly? Either that, or it was his mother after all, and she doesn't leave footprints. Or she called him out here somehow and is waiting for him at the end of these tracks. Yakov hopes it's just Victor being foolish.
He crosses the street and finds Victor's tracks again a little further down the sidewalk. Indeed, they lead into the park. Yakov puts his head down into the wind and concentrates on the footprints, until he can look up and see a dark little figure standing not far off the path. He's right next to the tree where Yakov found him all those weeks ago, in fact.
Some of the tension unwinds in Yakov's shoulders when he sees that Victor is definitely alone. He starts to stomp his way through the fresh snow over toward him. Halfway there, Victor's head jerks up and he waves. "Yakov!" he calls out, loud enough to be heard over the wind.
"What are you doing?" Yakov demands as soon as he's standing by Victor. Victor's in his coat and boots, but nothing else, and he hasn't even buttoned up his coat properly – only the top two buttons are in place. He still has trouble with buttons sometimes. Yakov bends down to fasten his coat, first, so it isn't flapping about in the wind and leaving Victor exposed to the cold. "It's freezing out, and it's late. You should be in bed, not playing in the park! Come on, we're going home."
He takes Victor's arm, but Victor shakes his head and says, "No." He says it louder and digs his heels in when Yakov tries to pull him along, and then screams it and rips his arm away. Bewildered, Yakov stares down as Victor glares up at him.
"Why?" he asks. It looks like the first step to getting Victor to go home – short of trying to physically drag him, which is not an appealing thought – is going to be understanding why he's acting so strange.
Yakov rubs his face and scuffs at the snow. He can feel his toes starting to get cold. "Why do you think your mother is going to come here?"
"Snow is magic snow."
"Magic snow? It's not...." Oh. No wonder Victor was so fascinated by the storm today, if he could tell that it wasn't a natural blizzard. If he could tell that his mother made it. Actually— "Do you know if your mother is making the snow?"
Victor's expression softens, then falls, and he looks down. "I don't know," he says. "Magic snow. Mama can make lots of snow. But I don't know."
"Can other people use magic to make a lot of snow like this?"
Victor nods. Slowly, reluctantly. "Mama can," he insists.
Oh, Victor. But there's no sign of anything that looks like Victor's mother coming toward them, or any sign that something other than the two of them has been here; all he can see are Victor's little footprints. "Vitya," he starts to say, and no. This isn't the way to do it. Despite the chill creeping beneath his clothes, Yakov settles down to Victor's height in the snow. "Can you look at me?"
Victor does. He's biting his lip, and his bare hands are clenched into fists. He wants to believe that his mother will come for him so badly, doesn't he? And maybe she would, if he came earlier, if he stayed longer, if this is even her snowstorm. But Yakov has a feeling that this isn't. That Victor should have been easy for her to find here if it were.
Yakov is not a gentle person. But he has found, over the years, a voice that almost is. It's the one he uses to deliver the worst of news to his students, like sudden deaths in the family right before competition, or that a fourth opinion won't keep them from needing surgery and months of recovery to skate again. So he tries that on Victor, now. "Vitya, your mother isn't here, is she?"
Victor blinks too rapidly, and Yakov can just hear him sniffle over the wind. But he doesn't start crying. He stares, for a long time, and Yakov waits until he whispers, "No."
"Did you want to go home with her?" Yakov asks. He has a plan in mind for how to move this forward in order to get Victor to calm down, but he's surprised when Victor shakes his head.
"Want to see Mama," he says.
"I don't know where she is," Yakov tells him. "And she's not here." He pauses; Victor doesn't respond. "Let's get you home."
"Go home with Yakov," Victor says, but then repeats himself. "Want to see Mama."
Yakov sighs as he straightens up. It's too cold for this. Victor's being stubborn and the chill is making his back muscles lock up. "We're going home," he says more firmly. Victor sniffles again, but doesn't protest, or look up. Yakov takes his arm and tries to lead him away. Victor refuses to pick his feet up and move.
So he bends down enough to pick Victor up instead. Just like that first night, only he's worried, not lonely, and the weather is worse, and Victor is heavier than he was before. Not cheerful or curious, either. He barely moves at all as Yakov carries him through the park, though at the entrance he has to give in and set Victor down again.
At least this time, when Yakov takes his hand, Victor follows. Slowly, his boots making lines rather than distinct prints in the snow, but he comes along. Yakov reins in an impulse to snap at him as they progress down the block at a snail's pace. He knows it won't help – they can yell at him later about sneaking off like that, but there's nothing to do for it before Victor is back home safe and sound. And if Yakov upsets him any more, he'll probably start to cry.
He lets Victor stop once more at the entrance to their building, even though he wants to get inside and warm his frozen limbs. Victor stares up at the snowflakes, dancing one moment and blowing sideways the next. He's clearly waiting.
But no figure emerges from the storm, and eventually, he slumps and turns to go inside with Yakov.
This chapter outgrew my outline and got split in two, so the total chapter count should be ten.
Victor has questions. Yakov and Lilia have answers to some of them.
Lilia takes one look at Victor after Yakov guides him back into the apartment, and demands, "Where on Earth did you go?"
Victor – Victor, who rushes up to greet Lilia when she's been out for five minutes buying stamps, who is happy to see Yakov come back right away when he's forgotten something – does not look at her. His gaze is set firmly on the floor. "He was trying to find his mother," Yakov explains, which shifts her expression to something less angry, but deepens her frown. Yakov tells her what happened while trying to get his outerwear off, the task made more difficult with his fingers being stiff from the cold.
"You should have told us," Lilia tells Victor. "We would have gone with you. Running off by yourself is dangerous. What if you had gotten lost, or hurt?"
"Come back," Victor mutters. His voice is so quiet that Yakov can barely hear him. "With Mama."
"What if she didn't want to come meet us? What if wanted to take you home with her, and we never knew what happened to you except that you left? That she'd probably taken you—"
"No!" Victor screams, startling them both. He tears his gaze away from the floor and makes odd motions with his hands. "Mama comes meet Yakov and Lilia! Mama doesn't take – come home. Come here."
"Do you know that?" Lilia asks, sharp.
Victor takes a harsh breath in, out. His eyes squint up. Oh no, Yakov thinks – maybe he should ask Lilia to tone it down, as he is only a child – but Victor says, "No," quiet again.
Lilia lets out a breath herself and crouches down. "Come here," she says. "You should be in bed."
There's a long moment of silence where Victor lets Lilia help him with his boots and Yakov finally manages to get his scarf off. Then Victor whispers, "Why?"
"Why, what?" asks Lilia, her voice lower than before.
"Why," Victor starts to say, then stops himself. Yakov can see him swallowing, and he reaches out to run a hand over his hair. Victor kind of turns his head into it, but not like usual.
Lilia puts Victor's boots away. "Why, what?" she prompts again.
Victor's voice rises so quickly that Yakov almost jumps. "Yakov comes back! Lilia comes back! Mama doesn't come back!" He stomps his foot, the sound surprisingly loud considering his size. "Why? Yakov and Lilia go and come back! Mama left! Why – why doesn't Mama come back?"
That's when he bursts into sobs. Great, heaving sobs that make it sound like he can hardly breathe, which shake his frame. He wails and throws himself into Yakov's side.
Yakov puts a hand on the back of his head. If anything, Victor starts to cry harder.
Lost is not a word he would often apply to Lilia, but the look she is giving Victor right now is not one of confidence. Yakov's usually been the one to deal with crying students, after all.
They manage to get Victor into the living room, at least, and sit down on the couch. Lilia gingerly reaches out to stroke Victor's hair, passing her hand slowly over his head, and says nothing. Yakov says nothing, too, because he has no idea what to say. He has plenty of experience with upset students, but this is different. He can't say we'll see about next time or where does it hurt or you'll be fine, because this isn't about a bad score, and he knows why Victor is crying, and Victor is... well, he will be fine, but that's not the issue.
He settles on, "I'm sorry," alongside vague shushing noises. Because Victor shouldn't have to be going through this. His mother – so she did leave him, he isn't lost – and having his hopes up all day while they had no idea that he was waiting for anything, and going to see her without her even come to say hello.
At first, Yakov thinks that Victor, as upset as he is, will cry himself out in a few minutes. It takes a long time for his sobs to even start to abate, though. Around the time he stops shaking, and his sobs have gentled enough that they no longer sound so breathless, Lilia puts her spare hand to her forehead and pinches her eyes shut.
"You can go to bed," Yakov tells her. "I'll wait until he's calmed down."
She nods. When she shifts away, Victor turns his head, a little, but doesn't stop crying, or stop smooshing his face into Yakov's coat. Lilia pauses as she crosses behind the couch, a gentle touch sliding along his shoulder. He looks up at her; she looks at Victor, frowning, her eyebrows drawn together. Before he can ask what she's thinking, though, she moves on.
Yakov sighs and goes back to rubbing Victor's back. As the minutes tick on – he had no idea children could cry for this long – his back starts to act up. He shifts position to relieve the pressure and shifts Victor, who doesn't seem to notice as he continues to cry against him.
The sobs gradually turn into sniffly hiccups, and then just sniffles, and then Victor finally, finally, goes quiet and still against him. For a moment, Yakov even thinks he's cried himself to sleep, if such a thing is actually possible, but then Victor pulls away a few centimeters to scrub at his face. He's not so cute like this, face blotchy and covered in sticky tear trails, eyes downcast.
He takes Victor to wash his face and lets him splash it for much longer than he strictly needs to, then makes sure he gets ready for bed. Victor has to be prodded every step of the way, from brushing his teeth to changing into his night clothes. About the only thing he does on his own is wander back into the living room to pick up his dog toy.
He holds it tight to his chest and presses his face against the fake fur. Then he starts to do the oddest thing: rocking back and forth on his heels, twisting his shoulders back and forth slowly like he's swaying in a breeze. Yakov tries to figure out what the motion is before he gives up. Victor stops it when he comes closer, anyway, in favor of grabbing at his hand.
Yakov doesn't even bother trying to make Victor sleep in his own bed. Lilia turns over when they come into the bedroom. She holds up the blankets while Yakov slips in, and as soon as he is settled, Victor lays down with his head on his shoulder, the dog toy still wrapped in his arms and wedged between them.
He sniffles one more time. And then he goes quiet. Yakov hopes he goes to sleep, but it's difficult to tell before he slips off himself.
Victor in the morning is hardly any more cheerful than he was the night before. He's downright listless; he pokes at his breakfast and has to be cajoled into eating it, and prefers to hold on to his cup of icy tea. He doesn't chatter, and he doesn't really look at them, either.
"I believe we're supposed to punish him," Lilia says over breakfast.
They watch as Victor slowly drags a piece of fruit across his plate, then even more slowly brings it up to his mouth.
"Maybe if he does it again," Yakov says. Partially because he can't imagine Victor learning anything from a punishment now, and partially because it seems too cruel, and partially because he's not sure what a punishment would even look like. Making him stay in his room? They can't lecture him like this, certainly.
Lilia makes a sound of agreement. They get him to eat most of his food, then send him off to go play for a few minutes as they clean before they take him to school. Yakov is relieved to see that he doesn't just sit on the carpet; he does fidget with the dog toy, then makes it walk in circles around himself.
"That mother he wants to see again so badly doesn't deserve him," Lilia says, her irritation evident in the way that she sets the dishes down a little too hard, making them clatter. Yakov winces at the sound.
"She doesn't. I don't think that matters to him, though. She is his mother, whether or not she's a good one." He wonders if she was good, before she abandoned him. He hopes that she was, that Victor's sweetness comes from having someone kind looking after him.
"I think he is strong enough to throw that part of his past away." She glances toward Victor, then amends, "Though he is young, so it may take him longer."
If Victor's mother ever does show up, Yakov thinks that he might let Lilia have the chance to tell her off first. Anger is ugly on most people, but never on her, at least in his eyes, and it wouldn't be the first time he's privately enjoyed seeing her talk over someone who deserves every terrifying second of it.
Today Yakov is the one to pick Victor up after school, and when he arrives, Victor is – not at his usual level of cheer, no, and he's playing quietly by himself, rather than chasing other little kids around like usual. But he's not moping like he was earlier, either.
Even the next day, Victor is too quiet, and eats too slowly, though without needing them to tell him to have his breakfast. Lilia suggests fresh air in the afternoon. Yakov suggests a different park.
Yakov picks him up from kindergarten again. The way that his teacher smiles at Yakov is not the same as usual. "Why don't you show him what you drew today?" she tells Victor, who obediently runs off to fetch it.
It looks like any other kindergartner's drawing of their family, for the most part. There's three stick figures, a tall building that resembles theirs, some zig-zag green shapes that Yakov assumes are supposed to be trees, and clouds in the sky. Victor drew himself with a big smile; Lilia and Yakov, not so much.
The teacher has him tell them about the drawing. Victor points out the various parts – "Lilia, Yakov, me, home, park," – but leaves the one thing that Yakov can't figure out until the end. He hesitates, just for a second, then points to the strange shape below the clouds in the sky. "Mama."
"Why did you draw your mama in the sky?" the teacher asks.
Victor stares at her. Points at it again. "Mama," he says, as though she didn't understand what he said the first time around.
"Did something happen to her?"
Victor shakes his head. "Mama," he repeats, jabbing his finger into the paper. "Mama is here. Not... not here. But like here. I don't know where."
The teacher looks at Yakov. Yakov turns back to Victor, gently moves his hand off the picture, and says, "You should get ready to go. You can show Lilia your drawing when we get home."
"Show Lilia," echoes Victor. He slowly hands the picture to Yakov, then hops off the chair.
"Did something happen to his mother?" the teacher asks, her voice lowered.
Yakov sighs and starts to fold the paper. "His mother is... no longer with us."
"I'm sorry to hear that. He's been acting strangely since yesterday – you know how he is, but we had to push him to play with the other children, not like him at all – so I was wondering. Children his age don't really understand death, but they can still be very upset by it."
Yakov folds the drawing again – there, it should fit in his pocket now – and decides that it's not worth trying to correct her. Victor has managed the first two buttons of his coat on his own and is struggling with the third; he doesn't let Yakov take over that one for him, though once he succeeds, he waits for Yakov to finish buttoning for him.
Thinking of what Lilia said in the morning, Yakov takes him on a longer route home than normal so they can go by a different park. Unfortunately, there are no convenient dogs being walked there to cheer Victor up, but Yakov does get an idea when he sees the little banks and hills of snow near the playground. It's a bit silly. But Victor is a child; it won't be strange if Yakov plays silly games with him once in a while like other people with children do.
"Do you want to try something fun?" he asks. Victor nods and follows him off the path and into the fresh snow. It crunches nicely, and Victor looks a little happier already, using the hand that isn't holding Yakov's to brush the snow around. He laughs for the first time in days when Yakov picks him up by the waist and swings him around in a circle.
When Yakov drops him into the deep snow, Victor rubs at his face as he sits up, shakes the snow out of his hair, then laughs harder. "Again!" He holds his arms out. So Yakov obliges.
Victor's still a little damp from the snow when they get home. Lilia is there – she's just come back herself – and on seeing her, Victor grabs Yakov's arm. "Drawing!"
Yakov pulls the paper from his pocket and hands it to Victor, who promptly takes it to the coffee table to unfold it and show Lilia. "Why is your hair wet?" she asks.
"Played in snow!"
"I see," she says. "Now, what is this?"
Yakov tunes out Victor's second explanation of his picture. He goes into the kitchen to poke through the cabinets and fridge instead, wondering what they should make for dinner. They need to go shopping again; tomorrow, perhaps. It's a weekend, so he can take Victor. Maybe find somewhere else to take him out to as well. With the season over, his students are scattering to ice shows and to vacations and to home. They all need a break, himself included. Then they can worry about next season, about music and choreography and new skills.
The dinner he puts together isn't anything special, but it's good enough. Victor pokes at it, lingering at the table after both of them have finished; it seems the cheer from playing in the snow is wearing off. Still, he finishes all his food eventually.
When he's done, Victor goes up to Lilia, who is sifting through the records, and asks, "Story?"
"If you bring me one of your books, I'll tell you the story."
Victor nods and leaves – usually he likes to run and skip everywhere, but tonight he settles for walking. Yakov takes a couple of minutes to pick up and put things away, and when he comes to the coffee table, the drawing is still there. He means to simply fold it again, but something about the drawing is bothering him, and he ends up staring at it for a minute.
It's Victor's mother. She has a face, and a big smile, and what Yakov thinks is supposed to be hair, but she's not drawn like the rest of them. Not like a stick figure. A little like the clouds above her, wavy lines. Yakov can't make out what Victor was trying to do. So when Victor re-appears, he calls him over. "Why did you draw your mother like this?"
"Mama looks like this," says Victor.
"Like this?" Victor nods. A thought occurs to Yakov. "Not like Lilia, or me?"
"Like I look before," says Victor, and Lilia, still kneeling by the records, sits back on her heels.
"Before?" she asks, cutting in ahead of Yakov.
"Before," Victor repeats.
"Before." Victor pauses. "Before Yakov and Lilia."
Yakov thinks about that first night, the first days. Victor struggling to walk straight. Victor fumbling with his hands. Victor far colder than he is now, even with his low temperature. Maybe even those strange movements he was making the other day. Oh. Oh.
Lilia comes over to look at the picture again, too, but it's a child's drawing; there really is little more to get out of it. "What does she look like?"
"Um," says Victor. And then he puts his book down on the table and starts to flip through it. It's one of the longer ones, a book of illustrated children's stories and fairy tales. He stops at one page and points at the illustration. "Like this. But not... um. A little."
"Not exactly?" asks Yakov. Victor nods. Yakov brushes his hand aside so he can see the picture – it turns out to be a picture of Snegurochka, pink-cheeked, her long coat disappearing into the snow, braids draped over her shoulders as she smiles out of the illustration. This artist has given her a white coat and white hair; if the picture wasn't set at night, she'd almost disappear into the background.
"Mama is more snow. Ice. More...." He raises a hand and waves it back and forth. Yakov hasn't the faintest idea what he means.
"Could she fly, too?" That gets him a blank look, so he rephrases: "Could she be up here?"
"Me, too! But not like this. Only like this." Victor taps his drawing of his mother again.
"Then," asks Lilia, "why is it that you look like us, and not like her?"
Victor bites his lip and chews on it for a moment. "Mama can look... can change. Not long. Not me. Too little. Mama, um, changes me. Before Mama leaves."
"Ah," says Lilia.
Yakov rubs his forehead and keeps staring at the picture. This story only gets stranger. Why didn't his mother leave him with their own kind? Did she not know any others? Are ice fairies – snow people – whatever – so rare? Did she simply not trust them to care for her son? Maybe snow fairies don't adopt abandoned children. Not that humans usually do, either. Or if she does plan to come back some day, maybe she wants him to experience the human world. For some reason. It sounds like fairy-tale logic.
Lilia tells Victor to come over so they can read the book. But he doesn't listen, staring at the picture again himself. And then he slumps against the table, sitting in that w-shape that Lilia is always chiding him for so that he can fold his upper half on the surface. "Why Mama leaves?"
There's a long pause. Lilia nudges Yakov with her knee. "We don't know," he says. What else is there to say? "Did she tell you anything, before she left?"
Victor nods, slow, not looking at them. "Says. Um. Someone comes to help. To take care of me. Then says bye. Like she comes back. I wait and Yakov comes." Victor does manage a little smile there, peeking up at Yakov. "Comes and takes care. But Mama doesn't come back."
Lilia purses her lips. Well. That certainly narrows down the options. Not all the way – they still don't know if she plans to return, if she left him because she didn't want him or because she couldn't care for him. So Yakov picks the least cruel of them. "We don't know why she hasn't come back," he says. "We don't know your mother, remember? But sometimes, parents can't take care of their children, and they have to leave them with other people who can take care of them."
"Mama doesn't want to leave?"
"Probably not," says Yakov. He doesn't want to say anything with too much certainty when they know so little. He doesn't want to crush Victor's heart with something that may not be true, but it's no good getting his hopes up for nothing, either.
"Okay," says Victor. And after a long moment, he looks up at them, then stands and comes around Yakov so he can sit with Lilia. "Story?"
That seems to be that for the evening. Some answers, more questions.
Before Victor goes to bed, Yakov asks if he wants to keep the picture. Victor takes it from him, folded, and Yakov doesn't know where it goes after that. Victor doesn't ask him to put it up on the wall with his postcard.
Even the next day, Victor is quieter than normal, though not so much as the day before. It's starting to get unsettling. Yakov wishes he could just make Victor cheer up. He really must have thought that she would come back to visit him all this time.
At least getting out of the house for a while should do him some good. And Yakov knows of the perfect place to take him. He goes to Victor's room, where he's playing on his bed with his toys, and asks, "Did you want to try skating?"
Victor absolutely lights up. He drops his toys and pounces on Yakov. "Skating? Ice!"
"Then let's get going."
By the time they actually get to the rink, Victor is almost bouncing with excitement. It's a challenge to hold him still while Yakov rents him a pair of skates, though he sits more still when Yakov helps him into them.
It's one thing to see Victor's little boots lined up next to theirs in the entrance to the apartment. It's another to actually lace him into the tiny skates. He's so small; he has a lot of growing to do. A lot of pairs of skates to get through just from growing, if he enjoys it.
"Does it feel okay? It's not too tight?"
"What is tight?" Victor asks.
"Tight is, uh...." Maybe they need to get a children's dictionary. "Do they feel bad?" Victor shakes his head and hops up as soon as Yakov sits back. "Hold on just a moment. Don't go anywhere."
Victor visibly pouts, but stays where he is as Yakov changes into his own skates. He rocks back and forth on the blades, clearly trying to get a feel for them. "Skating?" he asks when Yakov stands up.
"Yes, we can go skate now." He takes Victor's hand, half afraid that he'll try to run off by himself. And Victor does start to tug him along faster as soon as he sees the ice. Yakov holds him back long enough to get on the ice first, then helps Victor on. "Be careful. If you fall, you must not hit your head."
Victor looks down at the ice while he just stands there next to the rink entrance. Then he turns his head up to Yakov, expectant. "How skate?"
"How do we skate," Yakov corrects. The public skating session is quiet – there's only a handful of people out right now, including a couple of people just gliding around the rink and a little girl practicing slow spins in the middle. Maybe he should let Victor have some fun, first. "Here, hold my hands and I'll show you how it feels."
As soon as Yakov starts to pull him along the ice, Victor breaks into a huge smile. Maybe even bigger than the one he gave Irina for her present. Yakov has to smile back at him. Of course, it's not long before Victor wants to try moving on his own, and after that it's about three seconds before he trips over his own feet and Yakov has to catch him.
He's used to seeing people fall on the ice, and Victor's so little, it seems unlikely that he'll hurt himself, but Yakov doesn't want to see him fall just yet. He tries to explain to Victor how to do the basic stroking movement, and demonstrates for him. It's difficult to tell if Victor actually understands him, but he watches Yakov's feet closely, then tries to mimic them.
"Stand up straight," Yakov chides when he has to catch Victor again. "Not leaning forward. Like in ballet, remember? You have to stand properly or you'll fall." He puts a hand on Victor's back, sees and feels him straighten, then lets him go to try again.
Victor actually does pretty well for his first time on skates. He isn't like some children, who are terrified to go out without the comfort of buckets to help them balance; he just stops whenever he windmills and manages to catch himself. Well, most of the time, at least. He does eventually overbalance backwards without Yakov close enough to grab him in time.
But he doesn't hit his head. He just shakes it, then his hands, then looks at his feet, frowning.
Yakov shows him how to get up. Victor gets it on his first try and is instantly trying to zoom forward again. Yakov skates beside him, trying to be gentle about correcting him. He's only five, and he's only out here for the first time. It's not like teaching his older students at all.
"You're leaning forward again. You can't glide if you're leaning forward, Vitya. Your weight has to be further back on the skates. Shoulders back."
"What is glide?"
"Like this." And Yakov takes off with one push, balancing on one foot and enjoying the smooth, easy movement. When was the last time he just went skating? Nowadays it's all teaching. But this is why he loved skating so much in the first place: once he learned to move like this, effortless, it was fun. He wants Victor to be able to enjoy this, too.
He can tell that Victor tries to copy him, though his balance is too wobbly to go to one foot. One step at a time.
"Put your feet closer together," he says, circling back around Victor for more corrections. "See, like this." When he comes back, Victor reaches up to tug on his sleeve.
"Show you what?"
"Show, um. Like on TV? Good skating."
"Alright," he says, and they move toward the center of the rink where there's more room. He can't pull off the really fancy tricks – he never learned quads in his day, and he's too old to be doing the harder jumps he used to do any more, even if it would be appropriate to do them in a public session. But Victor seems excited by the simple single jumps and spins, clapping his hands.
"Can I do good skating?" he asks when Yakov starts to lead him around the rink again.
"If you practice hard," Yakov tells him. "And you have to start from the easy things. If you can glide on both feet without falling, then you can learn how to glide on one foot. You can't learn how to jump until you're good at moving around the ice."
Victor nods and pushes forward. Overbalances. Does as Yakov says and bends his knees to catch himself again. When he starts looking tired, Yakov pulls him along the ice for a few more moments, then helps him off.
"Did you have fun?"
"Lots! Lots and lots." Victor beams. Yakov smiles back and pats his head. He's so pleased that Victor liked it.
After that, Yakov briefly considers taking Victor to the library for more children's books – they've gone through most of the ones at home at least once – but decides he doesn't feel like carrying the books through grocery shopping. Victor is happy to help at the store: Yakov can tell him to find this and that, and he remembers his vegetables, what kind of milk they buy.
"He really enjoyed skating," he tells Lilia, later, as she heats butter on the stove. In the living room, Victor is attempting to do an arabesque, although he keeps losing his balance. "Have you found someone worthy of teaching him ballet, yet?"
"I need to talk to them, first, but yes," she says. "Will you be teaching him everything? Or signing him up for lessons?"
"I don't know. Maybe it would be better for him to learn with other children for a while. But he's a quick learner."
The next day, after dinner, Victor comes up to him while Yakov is trying to watch the news. "Go skating again?"
"You should say, 'May we go skating again?'," corrects Lilia, not looking up from her book.
"May we go skating again?"
"And what do we say after making requests?"
Victor leans further in. His eyes are big, his smile small. Yakov watches his shoulders fall when he says, "We can't go skating tonight," and then lift again when he says, "but I think we can go tomorrow. And don't forget you're starting ballet lessons soon."
"Skating and ballet," Victor says. He jumps up on the couch so he can hug Yakov, who pats his shoulder. "I like skating and ballet."
The corner of Lilia's mouth twitches up. Yakov pats his shoulder again, and then he lets go and scrambles away to play by himself. The next time Yakov looks up, he catches Victor trying to spin on the smooth kitchen floor, hands held over his head, arms rounded. He nudges Lilia, who also glances up, and they share a pleased look between themselves.
One more chapter to go! The last part will be an epilogue. See you then!
Yakov, Victor, and Lilia, eleven years later.
Juniors may not attract the same crowds as Seniors, but the audience still claps loudly enough to fill the rink, louder than the last fading notes of The Lilac Fairy.
Out on the ice, Victor wobbles but stays upright, taking his bows with enthusiasm. Next to Yakov, Lilia wipes tears away and goes looking for her handkerchief to dab at her eyes. Yakov might be a little misty-eyed himself. Just a little.
Then Victor turns. Normally, he likes to take his time coming over to the boards, enjoying every second of attention he can get, stopping to pick up flowers. Today, however, he races across the ice, straight for Yakov, and practically leaps at him. Yakov catches him before he really makes it off the ice.
"I did good, right?" Victor asks, breathless, laughing. Yakov can't stop his smile as he pats Victor's back and lets him have a hug.
"Get your skate guards on," he says, and it takes some nudging to get Victor to let go to do so. He plucks a bundle of flowers from the arms of one of the sweepers and smiles over the blooms. His eyes are bright and shining, and no wonder. There's no question of who's going to take gold, not after that performance.
Not that they don't have critique. But neither of them bothers with it at the moment – Victor isn't going to listen at all when he's like this. So they let him enjoy his moment, sitting with him in the kiss-and-cry and making him drink a few sips of water. Victor is grinning so widely it looks like it must hurt, and Lilia keeps trying to smooth down the hairs that have worked their way free of his ponytail. "You were lovely out there," she says, and somehow Victor's grin widens.
It doesn't fade any until the announcer asks for the scores. There's a moment of quiet and anticipation – there's no anxiety to be had over the numbers today, but how high will they go?
When the scores show up, Victor's mouth drops. So do his flowers, bouncing onto the floor. Lilia's the one to pick them up, because Victor is too busy gaping at his new world record, and Yakov is too busy pulling him into his side and squeezing an arm around his shoulders. And then the meaning of his scores hits Victor, and he goes back to grinning. He puts his hands on Yakov's shoulders and laughs.
He's gotten too big to really lift up in celebration any more, but Yakov swings him up anyway to see the look of pure joy that erupts on his face.
"I'm very proud of you," he murmurs, too low for anyone but Victor to hear. Victor beams, then takes his flowers so they can leave the kiss-and-cry.
They get a few minutes backstage while the medal ceremony is set up. A reporter comes by to ask Victor the usual kinds of questions. Yakov's heard these a million times with his other students, and he doesn't pay much attention to what she's saying. Victor can handle how does it feel to set a world record and please tell us your feelings on winning Junior Worlds by himself.
There's more questions at the press conference, afterward – Victor talks about his plans for next season, how he wants to go to the Olympics if he can. Of course he does. He very well might. Younger than Yakov was – too young, almost, but at least they would be there to help keep an eye on him.
Victor handles everything perfectly, just as he's been taught. Even when yet another reporter comes up to them afterward, even though he clearly wants to go rest and celebrate, he turns to her and says yes, he can answer a few last questions for the Russian fans.
Yakov, distracted by Lilia making a suggestion for where to have dinner, doesn't hear the first couple of questions and answers, but he does hear, "What do you think your real parents would say if they saw your skating today?"
His head snaps up. Lilia's lip curls on one side. But Victor keeps smiling. "My real parents were at the side of the rink. I'm sure they watched very closely. And they'll probably have the most criticism for me." He gives a little laugh. "Ah, if you meant to ask about my birth parents, I don't have any comment." He smiles. Smiles. The reporter gets a slightly confused, slightly glazed look to her eye that Yakov recognizes. She thanks him for his time, and then she goes away.
Victor waits until there are no more cameras around to let his smile fall. He makes a face. This sort of thing is why nobody outside their family was supposed to know.
But it was Victor himself who let it slip, last year, talking for some fluff piece. He'd been asked about various aspects of what it was like to train with his parents – if they were harder on him or easier, the separation between training and home life, things like that. "I don't think they're harder or easier on me than on anyone else they work with," he'd said. "Maybe I can get away with more, but that also makes them mad and they yell at me, so I think it evens out... and at home, naturally, we talk about my training situation, but I think that happens for any family of any athlete. It's not like it's the central topic 24/7, and they're not forcing me to skate. I have chores and homework, too, and we do other things together. Really, I'm incredibly lucky to have parents who can coach me and who I'm also very close with. I'm so glad that I was chosen by them."
The person interviewing him had faltered. "Sorry – chosen?"
"Yes, I was adopted." Victor had smiled sweetly. "Did you have any other questions?" And when he'd seen them afterward, he'd huffed and said, "You can't tell me that there's nothing wrong with being adopted and that maybe I shouldn't tell anyone at the same time. People won't understand unless they're told about it."
He'd had something of a point. Anyway, it's not like they can stop him from being open about it. Especially not Victor, who sometimes seems to be trying to learn how to out-stubborn the two of them.
"Did you use your magic on her?" Lilia asks.
"Just a little. To make her think that maybe she should be done asking questions. That's all." Victor glances at her as they exit the building. "That much is okay, right?"
Yakov's not going to complain. They pile into a taxi, and Victor leans into his shoulder and plays with his phone until something makes him sit upright. He puts the phone to his ear. "Auntie! Ahaha, thank you. I didn't know you were watching – oh, I see. What, really?" He pulls it away and tells Yakov, "Auntie says that you cried when I skated. Is that true?" He looks delighted.
Yakov snatches the phone from him so he can tell Irina himself, "I was not crying over him. What are you saying?"
"There were definitely tears in your eyes," she says. "Now give his phone back and let me finish congratulating him. I'm not paying international rates to talk to you."
"You totally were," Victor whispers, and he chatters to Irina for a couple more minutes before finishing the call. Whatever grumpiness he had earlier is now gone; Victor gets on well with most of the family members he's met. He asks if Yakov's parents have written any further about their possible plans to visit Russia in the summer – they haven't – and Yakov gets a few minutes to relax while Victor and Lilia talk about what else they might do when Victor's on summer break. When he's not practicing quads more heavily, at least, now that Yakov will let him use them in competition next year.
At the hotel, Victor collapses into his bed with a sigh, tucking his face into the pillow. "Don't fall asleep yet. We're going out to have dinner," Yakov tells him. Victor sighs, but he loves food, so he sits up, then rolls to his feet to rifle through his suitcase for something better to wear.
Dinner is quiet. Victor may be the most exhausted of them, but it's been a long day for all three of them. At least he seems to enjoy the meal, and when the waiter comes by asking if they want dessert, he perks up when Yakov asks if he wants something.
"I think the beautiful young man who broke the world record may have some chocolate if he wishes," Lilia says.
Victor doesn't complain about his meal plan that often, and they're not nearly as neurotic about it as they could be, but sweets are a rare treat for him during the season. It's a little painful to watch how carefully Victor scrapes his plate clean with his fork. It'll be summer soon, though, and no doubt he'll gorge himself on ice cream, his very favorite sweet of all, and nobody will notice how Victor's portion never seems to melt like everyone else's.
Before that, though, there's the gala, where Victor dazzles again, and then the flight home, which he spends asleep on Yakov's shoulder. Victor brightens when they enter their building and Yakov tells him to go ahead, they'll take care of the suitcases. They can hear him laughing from down the hall as they pull the luggage up to the apartment.
"Makkachin," Victor is cooing, sing-song, half on the ground as Makkachin licks his face, his hands when he tries to fend her off. "Makkachin, come on, let me get up – see, there we go. Did you miss me? I missed you soooo much," and then he slips into his ice fairy language for a few words before he returns to baby-talking in Russian.
Irina had worn such a told-you-so face when she learned that Victor had talked them into getting a dog a couple of years ago. No magic necessary, even. Yakov still isn't a dog person, but Makkachin doesn't shed and rarely barks, and Victor adores her so much that his taking care of her has never been an issue.
(Not that Yakov has ever said so out loud, but as far as big dogs go, she's fairly cute. And there's something to the way that Victor falls asleep with her on the couch at times that makes it impossible for either him or Lilia to disturb them.)
"Put your things away," Lilia says. Victor nods, absently, busy playing with Makkachin's ears, but Yakov does see him taking his suitcase to his room a few minutes later, still chatting with his dog. Afterward, he comes to help with dinner without being told. He's quieter than normal as he blows ice crystals into his drink and stares at them, or maybe he's just gotten all of the excitement out of his system now that the competition is over.
Victor takes Makkachin out after the meal, and Yakov is happy to relax in the silence with Lilia. Well, relax, and check his schedule. There's still Worlds for his older skaters, though thankfully that's just a short trip to Moscow. Victor will no doubt be whining for the next week about how they aren't taking him along – it's too much school for him to miss just to cheer on his rink mates and go to the ballet Lilia wants to see. He misses enough as it is.
He's old enough to handle himself for a week. He'll probably text them fifty times a day as an expression of how much he misses them, but he'll be fine. The other people he works with at the rink know to check on him in case he needs anything. Yakov is even looking forward to having a break from him – Victor as a teenager is much easier to handle than Victor as a five-year-old was, but it will be nice to have some time alone with Lilia again. A few days with just her is different than the occasional evening out with Victor left behind.
Yakov isn't even a little worried. Not at all. Nothing is going to happen.
...maybe he should remind Victor to tell them if anything does go awry. The last time they left him, Victor lost Makkachin for half a day, and Yakov only found out because one of the assistant coaches had mentioned Victor coming into practice crying about her after searching for hours. It's nice that he's growing up and wants to be independent, but he doesn't have to rush.
Victor returns home humming, and Yakov goes into his office for a while. The next time he comes out, Victor and Makkachin have taken over the couch, and Lilia is nowhere to be seen. In bed, maybe. It's not that late, but it's been a long week.
He pauses while coming around the back of the couch. Victor's staring off into space, only very absently petting Makkachin's head. It's unusual to see him like that. He's always doing something – skating, scrolling through social media, playing with Makkachin. He should be doing schoolwork right now, but that can probably wait until tomorrow.
After a moment, Victor twists to look up with him and smiles. "Hi."
"You're thinking about something very important, I see. Next season's programs? How you should listen to your coaches more, I hope?"
Victor laughs, but then it fades. "No," he says, sitting up, moving with care so as not to dislodge Makkachin. He reaches over the couch to hug Yakov around the waist, tight, his head resting against his chest.
Yakov pats his head, puzzled. Goodness knows Victor isn't a stranger to physical affection with the two of them – that hasn't abated in the least since he was a child. But something feels off here. "What's wrong?"
"Nothing's wrong." Victor adjusts his head to make it easier to speak. "It's just." His words start to come out in a rush. "I'm really really happy that it was you who found me. I wasn't joking when I said I was lucky to that reporter, I am, and it's not just because of the ballet or the skating or anything, it's – I'm really happy here."
"Where's this coming from?" Victor can't be that distressed about not coming to Worlds with them.
Victor doesn't let go. "I dreamed about Mama on the plane."
Oh. They haven't talked about Victor's mother in years. There isn't much to talk about, really. He was so young when she left him that he doesn't remember much, from what he's said. It's been eleven years, and she has yet to step back into his life. If she's even still out there.
Yakov puts a hand on Victor's head. Victor keeps talking. "I dreamed that she was at the door. And she looked just like I remembered, and she was so pretty, but something about her scared me. I think she wanted me to come with her. So I was screaming for you and Lilia, but you didn't come – maybe you weren't home – but I woke up." He squeezes tighter. "So I was thinking about that. And I know you didn't want me at first until I magicked you into it, and I know I make you angry sometimes, but—"
It takes some work, but he manages to pull away from Victor. "What are you saying such idiotic things for? We haven't kept you for all this time because of your magic, and it's the nature of children to cause trouble for their parents." Certainly he got lectured enough in his childhood, and Irina even more so. "We didn't adopt you for the gold medals, either, before you start thinking that next."
Victor blinks at him with those wide eyes of his, then folds his arms on the back of the couch and grins. "I love you, too."
"Yes, yes." He ruffles Victor's hair. Sometimes, it still makes him laugh; this time, though, it makes him squawk.
"Yakov! Stop, you're messing up my hair!" Victor tries to smooth it down. It's what he gets for wearing it loose all the time. The light strands that please Lilia so much also tangle too easily for that. Victor runs his fingers through his hair a few times, works out a tangle, and Yakov is about to move on – although he can't remember what he meant to do before talking to Victor – when he speaks up again. "I was also thinking – how much did I ever tell you about her? I don't remember."
"You told us what she looked like. A couple of stories. About the night she left you. I thought you couldn't remember much about her."
"Well, no." Victor's hands let go of his hair, and he leans further into the back of the couch, his gaze going distant again. "But right now, I remembered that she liked humans a lot. Maybe that's why she left me in a human city? We didn't see a lot of others like us. But once or – actually, I think it was twice – we went to some rural house and the people there gave us a few baskets with things. Food, yarn, things like that. Only, I don't think they just did it. I didn't understand it back then, but even though she shape-shifted to look human then, she couldn't speak human languages, and she never talked around them. I mean, maybe they were just superstitious people. But the things I remember she said about them...." Victor shrugs. "She was really nice to me. That's why I was so sad when she never came back. But I don't think she was a very good person. Or is." His mouth twists.
Yakov thinks that at this point, the kinder possibility might be that she can't come back. Here he is, definitely not worried about leaving a much-older Victor for a week, a phone call away and with other adults on hand. To think of leaving him for years, let alone permanently, is too cruel. "Was that why your dream scared you?"
"Maybe. I... if she did show up for real, I... I think I'd want to talk to her. Sometimes I wish she would show up. Even if I don't remember her that well, it still kind of hurts that she never came back, that I never got to show her how happy I am here. Even though I have real parents and even if she's a bad person, I still want to see her again." He peers up at Yakov. "Is that weird?"
"Why should it be? She's your mother." But Victor's eyes have gone a little shiny, so Yakov sighs and opens his arms again. This time, Victor clambers over the couch in order to hug him properly and bury his head in his shoulder. "You're allowed to want to see her, Vitya. Whether it's because you miss her or because you want her to answer all those questions we never figured out. It doesn't have anything to do with us. We already know who has been doing their best to try and raise you properly."
"Even if I mess it up sometimes," Victor jokes. Then his voice goes lower. "I really am happy that she left me where she did, though. If I'd lived with her for forever, or if anyone else had found me, I wouldn't have gotten to know you, or about skating and ballet, or what ice cream tastes like, or ever gone sea-bathing, or gone to so many places. Or gotten Makkachin!" He bursts away from Yakov. "Yakov, can you imagine? Ice fairies don't keep dogs! I'd have been dog-less forever."
"What a tragedy."
"Almost as much of one as you two leaving me behind." He huffs, crossing his arms with an exaggerated movement. "For a whole week! You're going to see Giselle without me. How could you?"
"We're going to be working most of that week," Yakov reminds him. "As should you. Did you get any of your schoolwork done when we were in Sofia?"
"Well...." At Yakov's look, he rocks back on his heels and smiles. "I got my English homework done!"
Victor shouldn't even have English homework. It's a waste of time; his French is at least as good as Lilia's, and his English is better than either of theirs. Possibly better than his teacher's. "Get the rest of it done tomorrow, then."
"Okay," Victor sighs. He leans over the back of the couch. "Makkachin, what are we going to do without them? I know, maybe we can find an old video of Lilia dancing. Or maybe Yakov's old programs are on the internet somewhere! Wouldn't that be fun to watch?"
"Do as you like," he says. He finally continues on to the kitchen. Right, he'd wanted to get some water. He fills a glass and eyes the window. Snow is falling, but only lightly, and it will probably be warm enough tomorrow for the sun to melt it. It's nothing like the storm from that one year. Thank goodness. And thank goodness that Victor has never figured out the trick to it, either, even with his worst full-blown meltdowns and arguments. He can make pretty pieces of ice, and that's it.
He's making them right now, in fact, as Yakov sees when he re-emerges into the living room. He's turning a shiny crystal between his hands, back to cuddling with Makkachin. "I know it's not that late," says Yakov, "but if you go to bed now and get up early enough, we can work on your quads tomorrow."
Victor gasps and jumps up. "Really? Yakov, you're the best dad ever." He crunches the oversized snowflake between his teeth. Yakov winces; he's never gotten used to Victor's ice-eating habit. "Makkachin, let's go to bed." She's a well-trained dog; she hops off the couch and trots down the hallway. Victor pauses on the way to give him one last hug. "That's still okay, right?" he asks.
"Calling you Yakov and Lilia. Instead of mom and dad."
Now that's a question Yakov hasn't heard in years. Not since Victor first noticed that other children didn't call their parents by their names. "Do as you like," he says again. "What you call us doesn't change the reality of the situation."
Victor smiles. "Okay," he says. "Good night!" And then he's down the hall, telling a waiting Makkachin all about how he's going to have a good time perfecting his quad toe loop tomorrow.
Yakov turns off the light and goes to get ready for bed himself. Around him, the apartment is quiet and still, but it's the good kind of quiet, the kind that has people sleeping undisturbed in it, and not the lonely kind. Victor is in his bed, and Lilia is in theirs.
In the morning, Victor has already made breakfast by the time Yakov tears himself from Lilia's arms. He's made coffee, too. And ice ferns on the window, beyond which the sun is shining.
"Don't get too impatient," says Yakov.
"I want to win the Olympics," says Victor.
Yakov blinks at him. Victor may not be Lilia's natural child, but he gets the same determined look in his eyes when he truly wants something. "I just said not to get impatient. Let's get you a gold at Nationals, first." And just as Victor has deflated, he adds, "Then you can have your shot at the Olympics," which brings the pleased expression back to Victor's face.
At seventeen? Crazy child. The ladies can do it, but that's so young for a men's skater.
Well. He is Victor. Being an ice fairy may not give him any special advantage when it comes to dancing on blades, but he does have Yakov and Lilia behind him, and his own stubbornness and talent. They'll see how far all of that can take him.
Thank you so much to everyone who read, kudosed, or commented on this fic. I hope you enjoyed it; I know I enjoyed writing it <3 And if you have any questions remaining, please feel free to ask them.