He is five years old when he stumbles out onto the ice and goes sliding ten feet, and suddenly his whole world changes.
"Hm?" comes her response, followed almost immediately by, "Yuri! Be careful!"
She sounds frantic, as though she's scared, but Yuri cannot imagine why anyone would be scared of this. He's still sliding across the frozen-over pond, breath misting behind him in a long stream as he laughs, spinning, legs akimbo, until he loses balance and falls backward with a thump. Then he gets right back up and wobbles into another slide, laughing uproariously.
"Look at that!" Grandfather says as Yuri slides back over to the edge of the lake, before falling forward into the snowbank. "He's got his father's instincts, clearly. He'll be a hockey player some day, I'm sure."
"God, I hope not," she answers tightly. "Yuri, please—"
"This is the best!" Yuri screams, so loudly that everyone in the village can hear him, likely. His mother flinches, but his grandfather bellows laughter.
"Let him be, Anna," Grandfather says. "These old bones need a rest after all that walking, anyway."
"Sit, sit, sit."
Yuri screams again, this time just because he can, and topples headfirst into another snowdrift encircling the pond.
"He even loves the falling," she says wearily, setting down the bag of groceries they'd bought next to her on the bench they both sit down on. "The boy's immune to pain."
"More evidence that he's his father's son, as far as I'm concerned."
Yuri is too busy wobbling around the ice to notice the sudden tension between them, too distracted to see the way she fusses with her threadbare shawl, the way he sighs and drums his fingers on his knee.
"Anna," he begins, but she interjects.
"I can't talk about him right now," she says. "At least not in front of Yuratchka."
"All right," he says. "All right, but Anna, but we can't keep it from him forever. He's going to start asking questions. How long can we keep lying?"
"Perhaps he'll forget him altogether," she whispers. "We should be so lucky."
"There are some things about him worth remembering, aren't there?"
She doesn't answer, but her hands tremble as she watches her son fall face-first onto the ice, then get right back up as though he hadn't even noticed.
When the silence between them grows too long, he puts his hand on her back. She leans onto his shoulder. Yuri screams and laughs and falls over and laughs even more.
He is eight when his mother and grandfather scrape together what little money they have to spare and buy him his first pair of ice skates. Yuri feels like he can't breathe.
"Happy birthday, Yura," she says with a smile, and despite the fact that the nearest ice is almost a half-mile away, he immediately kicks off his cat-shaped slippers to try them on. "We got a special deal with Gregor who owns the shop. If you take good care of them, we can trade them in for a larger pair whenever they get too small."
They are shiny and sleek and white and the prettiest things Yuri has ever owned. Although they're about a half-size too large for him, he is convinced that they are perfect.
"I can't believe it," he says wonderingly. Then, "There are so many laces." He's still not very good with laces.
"I'll lace them for you," Grandfather chuckles. Yuri beams at him. "But not in the house."
He stands up immediately, heart in his throat. "Can we go down to the pond?" he asks. "It froze over last week, didn't it?"
Grandfather opens his mouth, but hesitates. He looks back at his daughter, who smiles bravely. "Of course we can, kotyonok."
"Anna, maybe I should take him," Grandfather says.
"And miss my boy's first time on ice skates? Never."
As if to prove a point she didn't make, she rises out of her armchair. At once, she sways and topples forward onto the floor of the living room, bringing down the end table next to her with a great clatter of wood and metal.
Grandfather dives for her, managing to catch her just before her head strikes the side of the brick fireplace.
"I'm okay," she says at once, sounding breathless. "I'm okay, I'm all right. Just – just a little lightheaded—"
"Sit back down, Anna," Grandfather answers gravely, helping her up with two hands around her elbows. Yuri toes out of his skates and shakily lifts the endtable up off the floor.
"I said I'm fine," his mother says halfheartedly.
"You're not going anywhere until you can stand without falling," he answers severely. "Yuratchka, go make your mother some hot tea."
"Da, dedushka," Yuri says miserably, hurrying through into the kitchen, stopping only when he hears his grandfather's voice again, softer, more urgent:
"Anna," he says, "do we need to take you back to Dr. Abramovich?"
"I'm sure it's not so bad as all that," she answers, just as soft but without the urgency. She sounds so tired, and it frightens Yuri for reasons he doesn't really understand. "He said this might be a side-effect, didn't he?"
"Anna, can we please stop pretending that everything is fine? Yuri will figure it out eventually."
Yuri's eyes are burning with tears. Why are things not fine? He thinks back to all the whispered conversations he's heard these past weeks, the word he's only ever heard as a frantic, fearful hiss: cancer. They haven't explained what it is, despite how many times he's asked, but Yuri is already scared of it. In his head he has imagined it as some terrible monster, vampire-like, that drains his mother's life away during the night, little by little.
"I just want to see him ice skate, Papa," she says. "It's all he's talked about for months."
He hears Grandfather sigh, his mother sniff, and Yuri shuffles further into the kitchen, heart heavy and hands shaking.
He is ten when, after years of skating on nothing but the little pond by the playground, he goes to Moscow in Grandfather's beat-up Volkswagen to visit his uncle and he gets to skate on a real ice rink.
Yuri feels like he is flying. He loves his little pond, but it is very little, and feels littler every day. Here, there's so much space. Yuri can go for ages without ever having to slow down.
He spins and jumps and twirls like he sees Victor Nikiforov do on TV, or at least he does it as near as he can. He doesn't even care when he falls – he just gets right back up and keeps going, hair flying, heart thumping against his ribs.
His mother is chatting with an older man on the edge of the rink. As he passes, he hears them talking, and from there he stays in earshot, pretending not to listen.
"—no formal training at all?"
"As though we could afford it," Mother says.
"It's just—" The man shakes his head. He has long gray hair and a hooked nose. "I'm not used to seeing a ten-year-old who can do a double axel without any formal training."
"He watches skating obsessively," she explains, "and the moment the pond freezes over in the winter, he's out there, dawn till dusk."
"He sounds very motivated," the man says.
"He is," Mother answers, and Yuri feels a swell of pride at the smile in her voice. Just because he can, and not because he wants to show off, he lifts one leg and goes into a spin.
When he slows, and when the thrill of it fades and his heartbeat softens in his ears, he tunes back into the conversation.
"—damn crime not to train a natural talent like that, Ms. Plisetsky."
"I appreciate it, Yakov, but like I said, we can't afford it," she says. "I don't know what my brother told you—"
"He told me that I should train him pro bono."
A jolt of adrenaline hits Yuri in the chest. He actually stops skating, blades grinding on the ice, and looks over at them, but they're too involved in their conversation to notice.
"That I should take my salary as a percentage of the winnings he'll inevitably earn once he starts competing," the man, Yakov, continues.
His mother's face is, he's sure, a perfect reflection of his own. She stares at him, open-mouthed and wide-eyed, holding tightly on the shawl covering her now-bald head.
"Yakov," she says, but doesn't seem to know where she'd wanted her sentence to go.
"Ms. Plisetsky," Yakov answers, "I haven't seen a natural ability like his since Nikiforov first stepped onto my ice."
At once, Yuri sprints fro the wall and THUMPS loudly into it. Both of them jump at the suddenness.
"You coach Victor Nikiforov?"
"And just how long have you been eavesdropping?" Yakov barks at him.
"Mama, I want to train!" he says, hands gripping hard at the wall.
"I can live with Uncle Anton, can't I? And you and dedushka can visit me all the time, it's only an hour's drive!"
She sighs. "Yuri, please—"
"I'll do whatever it takes, sir!" Yuri says, looking up at Yakov resolutely. "I'll give you all my winnings for my entire life if I have to! I want to be just like Victor Nikiforov!"
Yakov, though he still seems peeved at the sudden interruption, softens around the edges at his words.
"Ditya," he says, "if you train as hard as you can, you can be better."
For a few seconds, Yuri stares breathlessly up at him. Better than Victor Nikiforov? That doesn't even seem possible.
His mother makes a weak sound, and when Yuri looks back at her, she is swooning, gripping hold of the wall to keep herself from swooning.
Yakov is able to catch her quick enough, but by the time Yuri races for the door and sprints over to her, she's already sat down on a nearby bench, eyes glassy, thin hands gripping at her shawl.
"Mama," Yuri whispers, falling onto his knees at her feet. "Mama, should I call—?"
"No, no," she says, breathless. "No, kotyonok, I'm fine, I just… the news surprised me, is all."
She's lying, and Yuri can tell. It's the only way he's ever received bad news: through decoding more palatable lies.
"Do you really believe that, Yakov?" Mother asks him, trying very hard to change the subject. "Do you think my little boy could be better than Victor Nikiforov?"
Yakov looks between them, seemingly acknowledging what she doesn't. It's not as though it isn't obvious, with her pale skin and her thin hands and her bald head, to say nothing of her young son tearing up at her feet.
"I really do, Ms. Plisetsky," he says.
She's silent for a while, still looking dazed. Eventually, she turns her bright green eyes down to Yuri, and smiles.
"Well, then," she says. "I suppose we should go talk to Uncle Anton, shouldn't we?"
He's twelve when she dies.
He can tell it's bad when he's pulled out of practice and sees Grandfather standing silently in the lobby, kneading his fraying gray hat between his hands.
He is told to change into his street clothes and come with him. Yuri spends ten silent minutes in the locker room feeling like he's going to throw up, and an unbearable hour in the car feeling like he's going to cry.
When they get to the hospital, Yuri doesn't even recognize the woman on the bed. It's only been a few months since Christmas when he last saw her, but somehow in so short a time his beautiful, radiant mother has transformed into some skeletal specter of death, her face cadaverous, her eyes deep-set.
"There's my kotyonok," she says. "I'm so sorry to pull you out of practice."
Yuri wants to scream at her. Why the hell is she apologizing to him for interrupting practice when she's about to die?
"Why so sad, Yuratchka? Come here."
Legs stiff, he goes to her side. The dilapidated hospital looks nothing like the medical center he went to when he broke his ankle last year; everything is fraying and gray and old.
"It came back, didn't it?" Yuri whispers.
She frowns. Before she can say anything—
"Don't lie to me, Mama," he says. "Not again."
"It came back, kotyonok," she says, putting her hand on his wrist. It feels like ice. "I'm sorry."
"Don't apologize," he hisses, eyes burning. "Stop apologizing."
"Come here, darling."
He'd been trying, but the tears come anyway, spilling down his face. He climbs into bed next to her, curling up against her. There's plenty of space; with all the weight she's lost, she hardly takes up any room at all.
She winds one emaciated arm around his shoulders as Yuri starts to sob into her chest.
"All your life, you've surprised me, Yuratchka," she says as she strokes his hair. "First with your spirit, then with your determination, then with your talent. It feels somehow unfair that the great tragedies of your life should be so ordinary."
"Mama," he sobs.
"Your father drinks himself into a car accident, your mother succumbs to cancer," she says, "it's all so obvious, isn't it?"
"Stop it, Mama, stop talking like this."
"Yura, if there's only one thing you remember about me, about what I want from you, let it be this." She lifts his chin with her fingers and stares unflinchingly into his bloodshot, tear-filled eyes. "Be extraordinary. Be unexpected. Be as brilliant and wonderful and daring as I know you can be."
"Mama," he chokes around the knot in his throat.
"Be anything but obvious, kotyonok," she says, and Yuri collapses onto her again, shattering into pieces.
At some point, he falls asleep like that, crying into his mother's chest. Several hours later, Grandfather shakes him awake and tells him she's dead.