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November's Secret

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It started off as a small suggestion. Just a helpful idea. Advice.

 

Yuko had blurted it out while she tried to console Yuuri. He sat on the floor, in the corner of the supply closer, his little body curled around his knees. He tried to hold the tears back, but they fell in fat droplets from the side of his eyes. He really did try, tried as hard as he could, because he knew how childish he was being. He had to be a big boy. But every time he tried to stop, he was reminded.

 

“It’s okay, Yuuri,” Yuko whispered softly, sitting before him and stroking his arm. “It’s going to be okay.”

 

Yuuri took a moment to glance at her. She smiled gently, but he felt his chest tighten more and pressed his head into the crook of his elbows. He couldn’t stand it. He couldn’t stand his weakness. He wanted to tell her to leave him wallow in his misery, but he also wanted her there for comfort.

 

Yuko tried to continue her comfort through words, “I’m sure it didn’t go as badly as you think, Yuuri. No one was making fun of you.”

 

Yuuri wanted to say that he knew they were, he had seen their faces as he had fallen on the ice, for the sixth time. Those that weren’t wincing with pity were instead laughing at him.

 

“You’re young. You almost landed one of the jumps! They shouldn’t be laughing when they’re too scared to even try. You’re so brave, Yuuri!”

 

He didn’t feel like it. He wanted to tell her to stop. Her words weren’t comforting him. But he knew that sounded rude – she was only trying her best to calm him. And the words were catching in his throat. He was choking on his own breath.

 

He could remember the class’ faces. He had been so sure that he could do a simple jump, not even a spin, just a jump and land it. He’d practiced before when he was alone, and although the landings had always been shaky, he always landed it. Always. And he was so excited to show the teacher, to show the whole class that his hard work was really paying off.

 

But as he stood in the middle of the rink, the pressure got to him. He could feel all of their eyes watching him, waiting, judging, some whispers already settling through them. With every second he waited, the more he became aware of them watching, and the more he became nervous. He felt the energy coursing through him, his body turning cold, the sweat seeping from his pores. His breath was coming out in short bursts. The world spun. But he had something to prove. He had been proud of his achievement, and he wanted to show them all.

 

But he fell. Someone from the audience told him to get up and try again. He couldn’t remember who, but he did what they said despite the pain in his knees. He had steadied himself, gritted his teeth, and tried again. And fell. Again. Again. Again. And Again. By the fourth time, the blood was rushing through him so quickly that he couldn’t hear the crowd anymore. He kept trying because he knew he could do it and because he knew that it would be pathetic to admit defeat now, in front of them.

 

But it was scary.

 

He would have tried more times than six, but the tutor had dragged him from the ice. He took him to the side to check over his injuries. Only a few bruises, the pain already wilting away under the course of adrenaline. The biggest injury was to his pride. When he could hear again, he could hear them all laughing.

 

He’d run from them and found the closest place he could hide, which happened to be the supply closet. Yuko found him there. She didn’t ask what happened. Someone probably already told her.

 

When she noticed that none of her words were reaching him, she sighed and settled down a little more comfortably against the wall. For a while, she listened to his crying, deciding to wait until he had cried it all out.

 

It was surprising how many tears the little boy could store inside of him. But when it did finally begin to simmer, Yuko pulled him into a tight hug.

 

“Were they scary?” she asked, her hand stroking through his black locks.

 

He nodded. He’d never been so scared before. He’d never been the centre of attention. He couldn’t help the nerves. The panic. He didn’t realise how much it would scare him. He hadn’t expected how intense it was.

 

“M-Maybe I…I should stop skating,” he pushed out. If the future meant he had to do this again, stand in front of people again, fail again, then he didn’t want it.

 

“No, you can’t do that!” Yuko gasped. She leaned back to look into his tear-stained face. “Yuuri, you’re too good to just give it up now because of some stupid kids. And you love it! You’d miss it too much.”

 

Yuuri looked down in shame. “I know, but I can’t do that again.”

 

Yuko thought for a moment, pressing her finger to her lips in thought. Yuuri watched her face, seeing the way her eyebrows shot up, her eyes shine, her mouth open when something did strike her. She turned back to him with a wide smile.

 

“You don’t have to face them again! You’re too good to be in that class anyway, and if I tell the tutor that they’re holding you back, I’m sure he wouldn’t mind giving you private lessons.”

 

“But the rink is never free for private lessons. There’s always someone there, always a crowd.”

 

“Is it the attention that’s scaring you?” At his hesitant nod, she asked, “Like you’re feeling too… open? Too vulnerable?”

 

“Yeah?”

 

“Like… Like they’ll always remember. Like whenever they see you, they’ll remember it.” With each word, she became just a little louder, as if she was closing in on something big.

 

“Um, Yeah?” Yuuri though couldn’t see where this was leading.

 

“Then it’s obvious!” She gripped his shoulders, smiling down at him. “Don’t be you.”

 

“What?”

 

“If no one knows it’s you, then they won’t know you’re the one failing. They won’t make fun of you, and you won’t feel like they’re staring at you.” When she noticed he wasn’t catching up, she explained, “If you wear a disguise, then you can become anyone. Build a… character or something. Don’t be Yuuri, be someone else, someone who doesn’t care about people watching. Be confident Yuuri!”

 

“Disguise?” He cocked his head to the side, narrowing his eyes in his confusion. He hadn’t realised that the fear had finally dispersed and that the tears had finally stopped. Instead, his body was beginning to warm again and a spark was beginning to flare inside of him. Excitement, or the beginnings of it.

 

“Yeah! Like… um… a mask? Yes! A mask! You’d look so cool, Yuuri.”

 

“Isn’t that a bit… stupid?” Somewhere in the back of his mind, he knew no mask could hide him. His chubby body would instantly give him away. But there was something appealing about the idea. He had the chance to start over again, to build himself into something he wanted to be, into someone who could do anything in front of an audience without letting their nerves get the best of him. Maybe he had a chance to overcome his anxiety!

 

“Of course it isn’t! And if it helps you, how could it be stupid?”

 

It was enough to cure the slight hesitation inside of him. With a gulp, he nodded his head and gave a small smile. “Okay,” he whispered.

 

***

 

Mask shopping only helped to strengthen the excitement inside of the little boy. They traversed the whole town, looking through shop windows for only the best. Yuuri was ready to accept any, just wanting what it was useful for rather than the design of it. But Yuko was adamant to pick out the perfect one.

 

“This is going to be a part of your new persona,” she had said. “We have to pick out a new face for it. It’s like picking a body part. You have to be sure.”

 

Yuuri still didn’t understand, but he waddled after his best friend with a grin on his face.

 

Eventually, they found what Yuko had been looking for. It was a simple mask, big enough for him to grow into – not that he saw himself wearing it for that long – and simple. It was a simple oval that curved along the edges, enough to cover his face, and made of hard white plastic. Black eyes had been outlined on the front in small circles with a thin film for him to see out, but no one to be able to see his eyes. Along the edges, an intricate, small red pattern had been painted, like a frame. He worried if it was too simple.

 

“It’s like a blank slate,” Yuko said. “Like you. You’ll start out as a blank slate, and then you’ll build yourself into what you want to be, using this.”

 

To go with it, they bought a simple black hoodie. Yuko explained that if he wanted to really hide himself, he could pull the hood over his hair, hiding it away and making it less likely that he was going to be noticed. Yuuri accepted it gratefully.

 

He spent that night on his bed, looking down at the mask in his hands, imaging the confidence it would bring him. He could hide himself. He could become anyone he wanted. He didn’t have to be Yuuri Katsuki if he didn’t want to, and he really didn’t want to. He didn’t have to be scared of failing anymore or anyone recognising him when he did. He didn’t have to face the laughs, the reminders, the pity! He hugged it closer to him, squealing just a little, a smile tugging at his lips.

 

Nothing could destroy his excitement. Not even his next class.

 

He sat in the empty changing rooms, tying his skates, his mask at his side, his hoodie already comfortably around him. He had done as Yuko suggested and taken himself out of his class, looking for personal lessons instead. And just as he had feared, the weekend brought out families to the rink. He would not be alone. People would see him fail.

 

He found his eyes lingering on the mask. He knew somewhere, even in his young mind, that this was a defining moment in his life. If he put it on, then he was changing something within him. He was telling the world that he wasn’t happy as himself, that he had to hide as someone else to be happy. He did like himself. He liked being Yuuri. But he also hated himself when he failed. He hated the shame it brought him, the tears he couldn’t stop. He knew that they didn’t mean too much, not in the long run, but in those moments it was hard not to dwell on the negative feelings. It was hard to love yourself when one little failure reminded you of weaknesses that you hated. Putting on the mask would help him develop the confidence he was lacking, a trait he so desperately wanted.  

 

And if he didn’t put it on, then he would overcome them himself someday. Maybe. But if he did, it would take too long, and all his failures would be there for everyone to see, to see only him and his mistakes. He didn’t think he had the patience to wait, and he couldn’t take the pain that he would have to endure to get to confidence.

 

Wearing the mask was a short cut of sorts. Taking a short cut wasn’t bad, was it?

 

He secured the mask on, sighing when he felt the weight against his skin. He took a moment to appreciate it and to see if it really fit. The first thing he noticed was how easy it was for him to actually see; the film in front of the eyes was clear on his end, and the sides of the holes were surprisingly spacious, allowing him even his peripheral vision, if a little bit dimmed. The second thing he noticed was that he could breathe pretty well, even with the plastic pressing against his nose and mouth. It pushed the air over his neck, tickling it ever so slightly. He traced his fingertips over the mask, the smooth texture surprising him. He found that he liked it. He liked it a lot.

 

Already he could feel his nerves beginning to melt away. But not quite yet, not completely. He pulled the hoodie over his head, bringing it to rest just at the top of the mask, and suddenly he didn’t feel like Yuuri anymore. He was someone new. No. Not someone new.

 

He was someone yet to be created.  

 

A warmth spread through his chest and he felt fuelled, energy coursing through him. All he wanted was to storm out into rink and prove himself – to build a new character and to show everyone that he could do this even if they didn’t know it was him. He stood and marched his way to the doors, holding his head high with every step.

 

As he stepped out into the rink, he noticed the families, the people, the noise, the bright lights. There were only a few people, hardly any really, but enough that it would have already begun to scare Yuuri. And yet as he glanced around, he found that he wasn’t feeling that familiar emotion. It burned low inside of him, easily contained. Even as the people stilled and their chatter died down when they noticed him, he didn’t shy away from the attention.

 

The rink was quiet as he made his way towards the ice. Every set of eyes were following his movement. His steps echoed in the large building. He counted them all. Three families, two of four and one of three. There was a couple in along the farthest edge. Two friends about to step on. His tutor. And they were all watching him.

 

Surprisingly, his confidence didn’t die as he leaned to take off the guards to his blades and stepped out onto the ice. It almost faltered, just slightly, when he came close to his tutor and saw the confusion on his face.

 

Of course he knew who he was. His tutor knew who he would be teaching today, and so he saw Yuuri under the mask. Just as Yuko would know, and his family too after he told them his plan the night before. They were supportive, but didn’t understand. They didn’t think it was going to be something he would stick to. But his tutor had always been encouraging, despite Yuuri’s failures and flaws, and when Yuuri thought about how he didn’t mind the man knowing, his confidence flared back to life.

 

After the initial shock, his tutor asked, “Can you see properly out of it?”

 

Yuuri gave a big nod.

 

“Can you breathe?”

 

“Just like before.”

 

“Think you can skate with it?”

 

Yuuri hesitated before he answered. “Yes.” In fact, he was pretty sure that once he secured his new persona, he could skate better than he was ever able to before. He could overcome his anxieties, and he could do what Yuuri lacked. He didn’t have to limit himself.

 

With the assurance, his tutor gave him a wide smile. “Then let’s get to it.”

 

***

 

He never expected the mask to work so well. He pushed himself harder in the practice. He jumped, attempted single rotations, and landed them. At first, they were still shaky, but as his confidence built, he began to land them properly. Not perfect, but the best foundation that he had ever been able to achieve before.

 

Even with countless gazes still glued to his back.

 

He didn’t feel so nervous anymore. He could actually focus on his skating and ignore the attention. Even their whispers weren’t enough to shake his confidence and he felt his pride swell within him. Maybe he could actually do it. Maybe he could actually enjoy skating without people judging him when he failed!

 

After little over an hour, he stood before his tutor, the sweat pouring from him, with the biggest smile that he had ever worn. Though it was hidden behind the mask, he knew his tutor could see his happiness in his body language. He wanted to continue. He felt like he could prove it to the world now. He wanted to get better and better and better again, to wipe away every mistake Yuuri Katsuki had ever made, replace them with the achievements of his new personality. No one would be able to laugh, not when he was the best.

 

“You did amazing today,” the tutor complimented, halting himself before he added Yuuri’s name without thinking. He ruffled the top of the boy’s head. “Keep at it like that, and you’ll be able to do some amazing things.”

 

He hadn’t even noticed that Yuko was watching. As he stepped off of the ice, she tackled him with a bone crushing hug.

 

“Oh my God, you were brilliant!” she gasped. “You were beautiful, better than I’ve ever seen you before.”

 

“It works,” he whispered, looking up into her face as if she was a goddess. He should start listening to Yuko some more, he decided. If she came up with ideas like this, who knew what they could do.

 

“It really does.” She pulled him in for a tighter hug again, lifting him from the floor. “You were a force to reckon with. Can you imagine what your new confidence and some proper training could do? You could become the best in the world.”

 

Yuuri grinned as the happiness flowed through his veins. It was addicting, this euphoria. It tingled at the tips of his fingers and the bottom of his toes, his knees almost buckling from the pressure and his heart soaring at heights he never thought possible. He couldn’t stop the smiles that were pulling at his lips, not even if he tried. He couldn’t remember being so happy.

 

***

 

It was why he continued with the lessons, never once forgetting his mask or hoodie. And soon enough, the lessons were becoming training sessions. They took up all of his free time (all that hadn’t been taken by ballet and Minako). Hours upon hours piled together, time flowing by at such a speed.

 

He’d started something of a reputation throughout the town. Often he would find his training sessions were gathering audiences. They would wait on the rink side and watch the young boy, clad in his hoodie and mask. There were a few of course who knew who he was, though they didn’t let on. But most came to try and figure it out. Rumours spread. Some children claimed it was them.

 

Yuuri found he didn’t care. He dedicated his thoughts to skating.

 

Sometimes though, when he was alone in the dressing room, the mask sitting next to him, he did think about how far he had come. Only a year had passed since he bought the mask. Not a lot of time. And yet it felt like a lifetime and a flash of a second, all at once. Skating quickly became what he lived for, and he knew he wouldn’t have become so dedicated had it not been for Yuko’s idea. It gave him a confidence that he would never have found otherwise. Yuuri Katsuki, just a small, nervous, anxious, weak boy would have given up before now. This new persona, it had given him everything.

 

And that was how he found himself doing something that Yuuri Katsuki never would have.

 

He entered a competition.

Chapter Text

“Are you going to use your real name?”

 

Yuuri glanced up at Yuko, his hands pausing half-way through tying his laces. “My real name?”

 

“Yeah, for the competition,” she elaborated. She stood over him, her hands crossed before her chest, her foot tapping against the tiled floor. In the last year, she had grown taller, hitting a growth spurt suddenly and now she towered over him. She often liked to tease him about it, followed by a comment that she knew he would get his someday too.

 

“Oh,” Yuuri breathed. He glanced down again at his skates, seeing the vision waver a little without his glasses. He was a little too young to have contacts yet, and there was no space under the mask for him to wear his glasses. He’d steadily grown used to the way the world blurred. He glanced back at the mask by his side. Even after a year, it still looked new, as if he and Yuko had just bought it. There were a few little marks, hidden underneath the pattern around the edge, from where he had fallen on the ice and it had hit the ground. “I didn’t think about that,” he said. Now though, now it was prominent in his thoughts. Could he use his name? Or would that destroy the fragile persona he had gathered? Would it make wearing the mask useless, if he just skated with his name anyway?

 

“What name did you put on the forms?”

 

“I… I haven’t submitted them yet. My tutor was going to hand them in after the practice today.”

 

“Good! Then enough time to change the name. If you want to of course.”

 

Yuuri glanced up at her again. Did he want to? He found the answer coming to him quickly. Yes. If he had come this far to create someone so unlike himself, then a name would breathe more life into it. He couldn’t just half-ass the whole development. He gave a firm nod. “But what name?”

 

“Well, the person you’ve created is confident, strong, can do anything. So we need to think of a good, strong name!”

 

The pressure was suddenly mounting. A new name. A new name. Not just a first name, but a surname. Yuuri could feel his mouth drying out, his heart thumping. A whole new name. The pressure was mounting. It was like giving a name to a real person. He couldn’t just change this halfway through the competition. It had to be perfect.

 

Sensing his nerves, Yuko sat next to him and suggested, “How about we just come up with a first name to begin with, and then find a surname that sounds good with it?”

 

Yuuri nodded. “Okay.”

 

“I’m going to throw some names out, and you tell me if you like them.” At his reluctant nod, she said, “You’ve made this whole new person, and you know them just as well as you know yourself. I’m sure that one name will just fit, and you won’t understand why. Something will just… sing, you know?”

 

No, he didn’t know, and he wasn’t too sure. But he shrugged.

 

“Yuki?”

 

He shook his head. “It’s a little too close to mine, don’t you think?”

 

“That’s right. Um. Hiro?”

 

A no.

 

“Kaito?”

 

No.

 

“Haruto?”

 

No.

 

“Haru. Yusei. Eita. Ryo. Kosuke. Ryuzaki. Takeru.”

 

No. No. No. No. Yuuri stopped her before she could continue, already feeling as if this was going nowhere. But she was insistent, she continued to fire off name as quickly as she could, pushing away Yuuri’s small, chubby hands as he tried to shut her mouth. She saw it as a game. He saw it as embarrassing.

 

Before too long though, Yuuri’s tutor ventured into the dressing room. He asked why Yuuri hadn’t come out yet, if there was something wrong. Yuuri quickly did his laces up tightly and placed the mask on again, rushing to continue with the practice.

 

“I’ll keep thinking of names until you finish,” Yuko promised.

 

Names rattled inside his mind as he practiced. His tutor had him doing a few more jumps, trying for double rotations this time. Yuuri welcomed the challenge, feeling the nerves leave him with each successful landing. A few not so perfect, close to unbalancing him, but he was learning. Soon, he felt the confidence that only the mask could bring him coursing through him, lifting his limbs as if they had a life of their own. He felt as light as a feather. He felt like he could do anything.

 

It thumped inside of him, like music, rushing with his blood. It sung and it spoke beautiful words into his ears. It made promises – promises he felt like he could accomplish. For the first time in his life, Yuuri felt like he could be better.

 

With it, it brought courage. The fear was pushed away, and his mind was filled with names and promises and dares. As he picked up speed ready for a jump, an idea struck. He sped up more. He readied himself. He felt his heart give one solid beat before he kicked his pick into the ice and let himself soar.

 

He hadn’t attempted it before. He hadn’t even thought of trying, and his tutor didn’t think he was ready for it. And yet, now, in a course of what was probably only a second or two, he felt he was. He counted the rotations, passing the world in a blur, feeling the time extend until it was like the universe was timeless, stationary. Like time didn’t matter.

 

Weightless. He was flying. Without fear. And when he needed to come down, he readied himself with a calm breath, doing it just the way he was taught, and touched down on the ice with only a slight shake. He kicked out his leg to balance himself and once he found his centre, he glided to a halt. It was only then that he noticed his breathing was coming out in pants and his legs were just a little sore from the strain.

 

He turned to his tutor and opened his arms, a gesture that screamed ‘Did you see that?’.

 

See him he did. The tutor was frozen on the spot, watching the little boy with an open mouth and wide eyes.

 

For a split second, Yuuri wondered if he had done something wrong. His tutor hadn’t said it was alright to attempt a triple yet, but he felt he was ready. A triple wasn’t too much, right? He hadn’t tried a quad, that would have been stupid. And he was sure he didn’t look elegant, or beautiful, not like the skaters that Yuko loved to watch. But it was his first time.

 

He lowered his arms, feeling the anxiety settle in again. “Did I do something wrong?”

 

It seemed to snap the man out of his surprise. He rubbed his eyes and blinked them awake, then skated closer to the boy. He had a small smile on his lips as he looked down. “No, not at all. I was just surprised!” He patted Yuuri’s shoulder and gave a bigger smile, as if he could barely hide it. “You’ve come so far! You wouldn’t have tried it before. This is really working, huh?”

 

Yuuri gave a hesitant nod. “I feel like…” He stopped, some memories rising once again. “I feel like I could do that in front of a class and not fall this time. Like the attention wouldn’t scare me.”

 

“That’s brilliant. And how do you feel about the competition?”

 

“Good. Excited.” And he found that he spoke the truth. There were some nerves, of course there were, no one was ever immune to it but it was less prominent. He could feel the excitement growing at the thought of being able to actually stand in front of an audience, to be able to overwrite the failures of Yuuri Katsuki. He could prove to the world that he could actually ice skate, that he loved what he did and he was proud of it. “Oh!” he gasped, remembering. “Yuko says that I should make a name for myself, not my real one. Can I change my name on the form before you hand it in?”

 

His tutor’s smile slipped for just a second before it was replaced by something that looked suspiciously fake. But to Yuuri’s young mind, he didn’t notice. “Of course, do you have an idea?”

 

Yuuri shook his head. “No, nothing seems to fit.”

 

“You’ll come across something. Don’t worry. And when you do, it’ll be perfect.”

 

***

 

They found it accidentally. Yuuri was in one of his ballet classes after school with Minako, practicing his stretches on the barre. Yuko was sitting on the floor, watching, throwing names into the air.

 

Her lips stumbled over one absentmindedly, but something about it had Yuuri stalling. He told her to go back, recite it, feel the sound of it again in the open air. It sent shivers down his spine and he knew it was the one. He didn’t know why, it was simple, no real meaning behind it, but if his persona was a real person he could see the name fitting so well.

 

In her excitement, Yuko then decided to throw out surnames. It was found quickly, and soon they had a full name to play with, to create a person around, to flesh out into a whole new human being.

 

Minako watched from the doorway. She had already expressed that she didn’t understand the need, but had admitted soon after too that she didn’t have the anxiety that Yuuri did. How he went about conquering it was his choice. And as long as he was the same old Yuuri without the mask, then it didn’t matter. She clapped her hands together, startling the two young ones, and announced, “Right, Yuuri, as good as this is, you’re only halfway through your stretches!”

 

The boy groaned and continued his exercises, feeling the strain in his muscles. He loved his ballet, he did, and he loved how flexible it had made him for his skating. He had been able to achieve some brilliant moves that people his age had yet to learn because of it. But he didn’t like it so much during practice, when Minako pushed him above and beyond to achieve his goals.

 

***

 

The first thing Yuuri did when he finished his practice was head towards the Ice Castle, the name rushing through his head, flaring a little more to life with every thought and he grew more and more sure. He stomped into the office, throwing the door open, and proclaimed it for his tutor to hear.

 

“It’s my name!” he cheered, Yuko close at his heels with her own wide grin and pink cheeks. “And it’s perfect.”

 

***

 

It was the first step. Unsure, Yuuri followed his tutor, the mask already in place, his hoodie pulled up tightly over his head. The nerves were steadily growing. This wasn’t what he was meant to be feeling. He wasn’t nervous Yuuri right now, he was meant to be someone else.

 

He heard the gasps, the whispers, and saw the odd looks people cast his way. He wasn’t surprised. He’d have reacted the same had he been in their place. But he wanted to wince and turn away when he felt their gazes, their attention. Their glances tingled over his skin, setting his heart into an unsteady rhythm.

 

He felt a touch on his shoulder.

 

“You alright?”

 

Yuuri looked up to his tutor. He was giving the boy a wide, gentle smile. His eyes were sparkling under the florescent lights above, and the shadow cast over one side of his face paled the other half further. It was easy to see the wrinkles now. The man was not old, only middle-aged, but his hairline was beginning to recede. The crow’s feet at the side of his eyes were deep. His eyes held a wisdom that Yuuri could only imagine. Too a young one like him, his tutor was an old man, just without the humpback, the beard and the walking stick. He didn’t know why he was taking notice though. He didn’t know why it was important.

 

At his silence, his tutor stopped him and knelt down to his level, keeping his hand on Yuuri’s shoulder. Yuuri had never noticed how much taller the man was before. “Listen, Yu-” The man stopped himself, shook his head, and corrected in a whisper, “Listen, Ren. This is your first competition. We’re out of Hasetsu. No one knows who you are. You’re a blank slate, ready to be created into anything you want to be.”

 

Yuuri gasped. New. The stares around him, they weren’t familiar. They weren’t the stares of judgement, they were of curiosity, wonder of who would be under the mask. They didn’t know. And Yuuri could be anyone he wanted to be under it, anything in their gazes. Their attentions could be moulded into awe.

 

“You ready to prove to them just who you are?”

 

“Yes,” Yuuri whispered, finding the word sticking in his throat.

 

His tutor smiled widely and stood back up. “Good. Because they’re ready to see you.”

 

Yuuri followed his tutor as they headed towards the changing rooms then, his head held high. The nerves were still running deep, but they were slowly dying down until he could feel the familiar flare of confidence settling under his skin. It only grew, even as he was surrounded by other competitors in the changing room, watching as he laced his skates up, whispering behind his back.

 

He found he didn’t care about what they were thinking. Let the wonder what he was, who he was, how weird he was when he looked like this. But he had been practicing so much in his time, he was ready to blow them away and prove to them all that this was his love, that he wasn’t scared anymore. The desire made him thrum with energy that desperately wanted to be released. He stepped out into the rink and with a word of encouragement from his tutor, he took off the guards and joined the others for a warm up on the ice.

 

As the audience were getting comfortable in their seats, the commentators readying themselves before their microphones, he could hear the buzz of their words in the air. He didn’t look around, but he could feel their stares on him, the weird one that didn’t show his face, the only kid that seemed to be wearing a hoodie. Others were wearing beautiful costumes, bright with sparkles and form fitting. Yuuri had never had the confidence to wear something like that before, though he used to want to. Yuko had suggested that they find a hoodie that he could glue glitter or gems onto. Instead, for his first competition, Yuuri went for a simple ensemble of sequined trousers, and then his plain hoodie.

 

It wasn’t beautiful, or elegant, or what skaters might consider traditional. If he joined more competitions, then perhaps he would find something that could be a more permanent article. But right now, with the small crowd looking on, his hoodie more than enough to catch their attentions, he didn’t need anything else.

 

Soon, the warm up was over. Yuuri had avoided doing his jumps in the warm up, deciding that he should work more on his muscles and little aspects of his step sequence. Despite his new-found confidence, his jumps were still his weakest point. He tended to think too much about when during the actual act, and sometimes missed his landing because of it. But that didn’t matter. As long as his nerves weren’t getting in the way, he could learn to get better.

                                                                                                                                                                                    

The first skater went. He watched from the side, his eyes completely trained on the young boy. He was good. As the music started, it was easy to see the emotion poured into the program, the love, the fun, the time dedicated to it. But the boy fell on one of his jumps. A double axel, and he had landed awkwardly on his blade. He slid across the floor, but with gritted teeth rushed up and continued the routine, finishing in time with the music.

 

Despite his failure, the boy smiled brightly at the cheering crowd.

 

Yuuri watched on in amazement. He didn’t understand why the boy was so happy. Why wasn’t be embarrassed? Ashamed? He had fallen in front of so many people. And the audience weren’t laughing. The only word that came to Yuuri’s mind when he watched was ‘brave’. Yuuri admired him for it, seeing a quality in the boy that he himself didn’t have though had always wanted. He would never be able to stand up after falling in front of so many, and he would not have smiled about it. He would not have been able to look up, knowing that all the attention was on him, all the eyes, the pity. How did he do it?

 

Suddenly, it was his turn. He stepped onto the ice and took his place in the middle of the rink. The lights shone above him, flaring against the white of the surface of the ice below him. He gazed down, his arms pulled in, pose ready. The rink hushed.

 

He took one deep breath. The nerves were nearly gone. Yuuri wasn’t here. That anxious boy had been left at home, hiding in his room. No, this was Ren. Ren stood in the middle like this. And he wasn’t shying away from the attention, instead he basked in it, demanded it. Look at me, he thought, and witness what I’ve become, what I can become. A new persona for you all to see. For you all to admire. Someone Yuuri had always lacked the courage to be.

 

His name rang over the speakers above.

 

And next up, we have Ren Himura…”

 

The announcer was saying more, but Yuuri wasn’t listening. He liked the way that his name echoed in the space, engraving itself into all of their memories – because they would remember him. They would remember this performance. They would remember Ren.

 

Now it was too far to turn back. As the announcer died away and the music began, he allowed himself to get lost in his persona, into Ren, and moved his body with muscle-memory derived from hours upon hours of practicing the same program.

 

His step sequence was always flawless. Having trained as a ballet dancer before his love of ice skating, he was used to timings and music and feeling the notes through his body. It was as if the only way he could express his emotions was this way. He could hear the silence, feel the attentions of them all, and it amped up his confidence. He threw himself into it with determination.

 

As the first jump came up, a triple lutz, he couldn’t find the nerves he was so used to. Yuuri used to always worry in the seconds before a jump, his mind replaying a failure over and over again until he hesitated and slipped. But Ren didn’t. He moved with precision, a calm speed, nothing but assurance filling him. As he jumped, flying through the air, the breeze whizzing past, he knew he had done it. The landing was anything but shaky. It was sure, sturdy, and beautiful. He couldn’t help but smile under his mask as he skated into the second half. One more jump. A simple routine. One that completely relied on emotion.

 

He had hesitated once, a question of if he wanted to take his mask. When his tutor told him that his emotions were his strong suit, that they would base his programs around it, he’d been a little scared. Yuuri showed a lot of his emotions through his face. He was an open book as many liked to call him. He feared that having a mask would destroy his biggest winning aspect. So he and his tutor had spent a whole week dedicated to teaching him how to show more through his body; how the flick of a wrist could show he was happy, how a swipe of his arm showed how he was angry, how a turn of his leg showed the world that he was upset. Body language, and he would show the world his emotions through it.

 

The time passed too quickly. He found himself at the end of his routine, the music thrumming to its end, his body twisting into its last pose before he stilled.

 

There was a short bubble of stunned silence before the audience burst into an eruption of cheers. Yuuri basked in it. He never knew that attention could make him feel like this, this loved, this accepted before. Why hadn’t he done this ages ago? There was a camera clicking to his right, the flash illuminating the slight darkness every few seconds. The announcers on the speakers were commending him, saying how beautiful it had been.

 

Already, Yuuri was wondering what other competitions he could try.

 

***

 

“Look, isn’t he beautiful?” Yuko gasped, pressing her face to the surface of the television screen. “Look at his hair, the way he moves, his costumes! Viktor Nikiforov is amazing.”

 

Yuuri would have looked, but the girl was in the way and he didn’t have the heart to push her to the side. Even if it was his own home.

 

“He has confidence just oozing out of him, right, Yuuri?”

 

“Sure,” Yuuri replied, taking another spoonful of the soup before him.

 

“You’re not even paying attention,” Yuko whined.

 

Yuuri looked up, and for the first time he could actually see the screen. At first, there was nothing special. As much as he loved ice skating, he didn’t follow the sport as well as Yuko did. He never had the desire to compete before he found his persona, and especially not nationally or internationally. Otherwise, the sport didn’t appeal to him if it wasn’t him participating. But upon second glance, the screen caught his attention. It was bright, colourful, and a boy was the centre focus.

 

And he was beautiful.

 

He had long flowing silver hair, tied tightly into a tail behind his head. His costume was dark and glamorous, form fitting with gleaming gems stitched into the fabric. But the thing that caught Yuuri’s attentions was the boy’s face. It was pale, smooth, with bright blue eyes, a straight nose, high cheek bones and full lips. His expressions were breath-taking. With just a flutter of his eyelashes, he could change the emotion. With a twitch of his lips, he could tell a story. With one glance, he could stop any heart. He wore his emotions on his face more than anyone else Yuuri had ever come across, and yet the confidence he was emitting was higher than even he himself when he was wearing his mask. He didn’t understand how he could be like that while being so vulnerable as well.

 

He was everything that Yuuri wished he could be.

 

His program was stunning. With every jump, every step, he demanded attention the audience were enraptured. Yuuri was too, and he sat in front of the screen with Yuko, captivated.

 

But he felt everything crash around him when the program finished and the music filtered away. The boy was walking off of the ice. It was too soon. Yuuri wanted it all to happen again, to relive it again and again, to see those features once more.

 

“I want to be like that,” he muttered, not able to stop the words from coming out.

 

“Well, if you continue the way you are, who knows? Maybe you’ll get to skate on the same ice as him one day.”

 

Yuko had said it as a throwaway comment. All of her suggestions seemed to start off like that.

 

Before Yuuri knew it, he was hoping that he would get the chance. He wanted to see this boy in person and see how he managed to keep away the anxiety and the nerves. He wanted to ask him, face to face, how he could be so vulnerable, so open to the world. If he made a mistake, everyone would know exactly who he was. How could he perform so amazingly with that in mind? How had his nerves not destroyed him?

 

He promised himself that he would one day ask him, or at least be close enough to see how he worked it out.

 

A few years, a poodle named after his new idol, a growth spurt and a reputation later, Yuuri found himself facing the Junior Grand Prix Finals.

 

He’d finally grown into his mask, feeling the way it curved around his face in a perfect fit, and found a costume designer that would incorporate a loose hood in any costume for him to wear. In his time, he had also learned how to perfect his confidence, to hone it in certain areas of his routines that would accentuate his stories and his emotion. He was well known for his stories now, the way his body expressed the words without needing to speak them, and there were many out there who wondered how someone masked could show so much feeling.

 

The reputation surrounding Ren Himura was great. It extended all over the world, building up a storm with every competition he took a part in. Who was Ren Himura? Why wear a mask? What did he look like underneath it?

 

Curiosity was a great thing.

 

From just a small suggestion on Yuko’s part, it had grown into a person, a personality, into a part of Yuuri himself. It had started out as a way of coping with his anxiety, and in a way it still was – he knew he wouldn’t be able to handle the attention any more now without it than he used to. But now it was more than even that. In the eye of the world, Ren Himura was a real person. Yuuri Katsuki wasn’t. Ren was flesh and blood, a skating star, beautiful in his movements, filled with easy confidence. Ren was destined for great things, and there were already bets on just how big he was going to get. Some were already saying that he could win the Junior Grand Prix Final, and there were a rare few that were already comparing him to the greats, even Viktor himself.

 

But curiosity was also a dangerous thing.

 

He had a few people trying to yank his hood down or his mask off when they could. The hood wasn’t a problem. He had plain black hair, nothing too significant, but he made sure that the mask was never to come off. The strings were replaced with a clasp. It had yet to come off in front of any cameras, despite how many people had tried. And the curiosity only seemed to grow with every article that was written about him.

 

He stood off to the side, his tutor sat with him, as they waited for his turn. The nerves, as always, were pushed down. Instead, he vibrated with excitement. He couldn’t wait to be out on the ice, dancing with everything he had.

 

His costume shone in the artificial light, drawing everyone’s gazes to him. His hood was pulled up tightly over his head, resting over the top of the white mask. He breathed against the plastic, counting them one by one and the time between them.

 

“Up next for the Short Program is Ren Himura-”

 

Upon hearing his persona’s name, Yuuri stood. He threw off his jacket and stepped onto the ice. The audience stilled and shushed as the lights shone on his spot. He soaked it all in, allowed himself another breath, before he heard the music strum in the air.

 

He wasn’t afraid anymore.

Chapter Text

Yuuri wasn’t sure when it was that he became the centre of attention.

 

He supposed it was after he won the Junior Grand Prix Final. There was an eruption of media attention, cameras flashing in his face, journalists demanding interviews, other skaters trying to get close so that they could learn more about him, the internet going wild with theories on just who he was.

 

It was quickly found out that his name was a persona. The world searched for him, but there was nothing to tie Yuuri Katsuki to the man that the world saw. The only tie they had was that he was Japanese. And before Yuuri knew it, he was one of the most spoken about ice skaters, just under Viktor Nikiforov himself – the man that Yuuri had still been unable to see. It came close, once or twice, during skating events. But there were so many people, so many cameras, and Yuuri found that his persona didn’t quite stretch that far yet. He was still nervous to speak to his idol, with or without the mask. His admiration for the man had grown and grown over the years, with each performance he gave, settling something deep inside Yuuri’s chest. He would watch with bated breath and wonder, again and again, how the man could be so vulnerable and yet still so sure of himself.

 

Yuuri had gotten better at being Ren. There were only so many years that he could put off an interview before the media began to throw rumours around as to why he was avoiding it. At the advice of his tutor, he sat down with one, a trusted woman for a small magazine.

 

He remembered her face when he had accepted. He saw the fear in her eyes when she asked a question, knowing that she was not one of the biggest reporters, hardly anyone in the eyes of the skaters, but she tried. Her fear of failure was what drew Yuuri to her, and he accepted her interview. He remembers how wide her eyes were blown as she stood among other reporters, almost not believing that he chose her out of them all. They found a small, quiet room in the arena and Yuuri sat down for his first public interview.

 

She asked some of the usual questions – like how he had found his love for ice skating, what he was expecting out of this season, what he thought of his fellow skaters and so on. There were some personal questions, such as his favourite colour, favourite food, anything more on him that she could get. But Yuuri could see the impatience, the desire to ask for more.

 

“It’s alright,” he told her carefully. “You can ask more, if you want. I’ll let you know if I’m not comfortable answering them.” He was surprised by how steady his voice was. This was some of the reason that he didn’t want to accept an interview; previously it would have been the attention and the pressure to answer perfectly. Yuuri Katsuki didn’t like the pressure. But now it was because he knew what he interviewers were really after. There had always been the same few questions that followed him now – Why did he wear a mask? What did he look like underneath it? The same few time and time again. There were even some theories online, some wild ideas, about who exactly he was – his personal favourite was that he was some sort of monarchy, perhaps not even Japanese at all, that wanted to compete but didn’t want the media attention his status inevitably came with. Then there were some of the smaller ones, such as that he was a victim of a hideous fire as a child, and he used the mask to cover up the burn scars. There were a few that suggested he had no face at all.

 

She looked a little hesitant, as if even she was unprepared to ask such personal questions, despite her job basing its foundations on it. But she gave a firm nod and asked the first, “You are perhaps one of the only skaters on this level that doesn’t seem interested in the media attention. Some have claimed that you use the mask to actually seek it, but then you refuse all interviews and don’t want pictures for magazines or newspapers. Why is that?”

 

Yuuri had to admit that he was a little surprised by the tame question. He expected her to jump straight into the issue of the mask and question that. He answered honestly, “Because I don’t do this for the attention. I love skating. It’s a part of me that I don’t think I could ever be apart from. The media attention isn’t the focus of this for me. I’m lucky that I’m actually good at the sport and that I can continue my love for it on competition level and get paid for it, and I would continue to do it even if the media didn’t know who I was and I was just a name.”

 

“What does skating mean to you?”

 

Yuuri had thought about this for years. “It means confidence to me. It means peace, calmness, a space where I can go when everything else is feeling like too much. If I’ve had a stressful day, or I’m upset, all I need to do is put on my skates and take an hour for myself, to just enjoy it. It clears my head. Every time I’m on the ice, whether that’s in competition or out of it, I feel like I can do anything.”

 

She nodded and wrote something down on her notepad. “And… concerning your mask. I’m sorry, but it’s not a question I can avoid. Is it a statement? Is there something you’re trying to say with it?”

 

Yuuri hadn’t thought of that aspect before. A statement. “What sort of statement?”

 

“Um,” she hesitated, her eyebrows knitting together in thought. “There are people who believe that you’re trying to be anonymous for a statement, coming up with a persona and avoiding media attention for a meaning. They think you’re trying to express that people shouldn’t be interested in the person, but rather their skating, and to build their opinions on that.”

 

Yuuri felt like laughing. That sounded so much better than his own selfish reason. He shook his head, “No, nothing so complex. While a statement like that could do some good, my reasons are a little more selfish.”

 

“Are you willing to tell us?”

 

“No, I’m sorry. I’m not ready to say anything so personal.” Not only that, but it would completely undermine what it was that he was trying to conquer. If he went so far as to tell people that he was avoiding his own failures, then they would look out more for them, and the mask would be useless. He wasn’t ready for the world to discover his mystery yet.

 

Her face dropped a little, but she nodded and didn’t press. That is something that Yuuri could admire.

 

With a smile she couldn’t see, he said, “But if one day I am, you would be the first one for the interview.”

 

Her eyes lit up. A dusting of pink lined her cheeks, and he could see the scenario playing through her mind. If in years from now, when Yuuri was ready to settle down, a career of mystery behind him, he would sit before her as he was now and answer all of her questions. Perhaps he would even allow a camera. The grand reveal of his face to the world.

 

But he wasn’t ready. The idea might have sparked excitement in her, but it only made the anxiety grow within him. Maybe one day, when the thought didn’t make him so scared, he would. When he was ready to retire, or when he was surer of himself. But not before. It would destroy all of his hard work, years of building himself, and could cost him his love.

 

The interview continued, but many of the questions were ones that Yuuri wasn’t ready to answer. It came to a close and they shook hands before they went their separate ways.

 

***

 

The year that Yuuri was going to make his senior debut, he had to take the season off. They had been practicing and he was being pushed as hard as he could be to reach a level he thought was good enough. It took a while. His step sequence was beautiful, something he perfected early on. But, despite the power his mask gave him, his jumps were still in need of work.

 

The quads were harder than he had expected them to be. He underestimated the precision needed, the speed, the rotations, the exact landing – and yet there was no better feeling than when he did land one perfectly. Not every time. Sometimes he touched the ice, but he was always quick to get back up. He tried harder and harder with each passing day to be able to say he was proud of how far he had come. One day, he was going to be in the Senior Grand Prix Final, and he was going to see Viktor and get the chance to speak with him. But before that, he needed to actually get there.

 

The question of his readiness was not the thing that held him back for a season though. As they were preparing, something went horribly wrong.

 

His tutor was driving back. He’d been visiting family an hour away for the day and was heading back in the early morning to make it for another full day of training. It was cold and windy. There were weather warnings. The road was slippery with surface water. Even some patches of ice. Black ice.

 

Yuuri waited in the ice rink, warming himself up, just as his tutor had told him over the phone to do. It wouldn’t be long before he arrived, and Yuuri wanted to make sure that his muscles were properly stretched and ready for a gruelling day of training. He thought for a moment about what this season would mean. There would be many in the senior division that were waiting for him. There was pressure for him to perform as brilliantly as he had before, but this time there were so many older skaters that had years of experience. He wondered if he would pale in comparison. Perhaps this time his mask wouldn’t work and he wouldn’t be able to slip into his persona of Ren Himura. And yet the thought didn’t worry him. It was still working now, it would work later, he assured. Yes, he would be with people who oozed confidence, who knew the competition like the back of their hands, that wouldn’t see him as much of a threat. But that didn’t matter because he loved what he did. If he failed, he would only lose Ren’s reputation, not Yuuri’s. No one knew him.

 

His tutor was late. He was never late. Perhaps the traffic had been bad. But as the hours rolled by, Yuuri became more and more worried. Yuko was there, assuring him that everything was going to be alright. But he wasn’t so sure. The wind was whipping outside. It looked dangerous.

 

He tried calling the man. It went straight to voice mail. Yuko said he wouldn’t pick up if he was driving. But his family was only an hour away, why would he still be driving? Perhaps his car wouldn’t start. Maybe his phone was dead. Anything could have gone wrong, Yuko said.

 

Yuuri agreed. Anything could have gone wrong. But the scenarios going through his head were darker than Yuko’s.

 

His tutor never made it to the training session. It was late in the day, just as Yuuri was packing to head home with the intention to call the police or perhaps find his family number to see if he was still away, that someone found him. A police man was standing in front of the Ice Castle. He asked if Yuuri was the man’s student, and when Yuuri nodded he saw the police man’s face fall. He took a while to give the news that Yuuri was dreading.

 

“I’m sorry, but Sato-san was found a few hours ago. His car was buffeted by the wind and we believe he hit a patch of ice or surface water and he collided with a tree. He’s in critical condition in the hospital.” He hesitated again, his eyes glancing away from Yuuri just for a second before he turned it back on the boy, pity shining so plainly. “I think you should go and see him, to say your goodbyes.”

 

He didn’t listen to anymore. He was watching the man’s face, seeing his lips move, and on some level he knew he was asking questions. What they were, he wasn’t sure. He felt like he was calm on the outside. His knees weren’t buckling. His hands were at his sides, unclenched. He wasn’t crying. But on the inside, he was a wreck. His heart was hammering against his chest, he felt his throat clenching around his words, and he felt sick. He wanted to scream. The man that had made him into everything he was now, the one who had accepted his strange need to wear masks, who had accompanied him to every competition, supported him, helped him grow, was dying.

 

Yuuri saw himself as a fragile house, built on fragile pillars. Each pillar was someone he loved, someone who helped him be who he was. They supported him, both physically and mentally. They were everything to him, and he wished he had enough love to show them all just how much they meant. But once one crumbled, he could feel himself fall.

 

Yuko was beside him, giving him a tight side-hug. She didn’t seem too worried that he wasn’t hugging back. Her face was resting in the crook of his collarbone and he could feel her tears dampening his clothes. She was shaking.

 

He didn’t even think of it twice. He pulled out of the competitions that were coming up without an explanation. He wanted to spend time with his tutor while he could, to comfort him and to make sure the man knew just how much he had done for Yuuri.

 

Somehow, the world found out anyway.

 

There were articles the next day, all with the lines of how Ren Himura pulled out of this season because his coach had been in a fatal car crash. Some were overwhelmed with positive words and hopes that the man would pull through. Others were critical, with the message that Ren shouldn’t have pulled out when his career was on the line.

 

Yuuri didn’t read any of them. He pushed his phone away when his eyes happened to glance over the news. Instead, he switched it off and slumped in the chair. His tutor was lying on the crisp white bed before him, hooked up to every machine there was, his chest rising slowly up and down, an oxygen mask over his mouth. On the other side of the bed, the man’s family were speaking to a doctor.

 

Yuuri watched the man’s face. His tutor was sleeping. The wrinkles on his forehead were more pronounced now as he reached his sixties. But in sleep, the wrinkles around his mouth were nearly gone. His skin was pale and almost translucent in his sickness. His breathing was shallow. As much as Yuuri tried to pretend that the man was alright, it was clear he wasn’t.

 

He came every day and sat before the bed for hours just to see how he was. Often times, his family would be there too. And every single time, the man was asleep. Yuuri knew he’d never see him awake again.

 

There was a commotion outside the door. Yuuri turned just in his chair to see the door open ever so slightly before someone shut it forcefully. There were raised voices outside. A stomp of a foot. A click of a camera. Then silence. The doctor entered the room.

 

“They’re trying harder every day,” she commented.

 

Yuuri felt his heart clench. It was his fault. If he hadn’t been in the media attention so much, his tutor and his family could have a quiet day to see their loved one. Instead, journalists were gathering outside the hospital doors just to see a glimpse of him every day with the idea that maybe in this time of need, Yuuri might forget his disguise. He felt sick thinking about how selfish they could be. Some even asked the family before him if they had seen him. They denied it. More out of respect for their loved one than Yuuri himself. But he thanked them anyway.

 

Some tried to disguise themselves as doctors just to get in. Others as janitors, some as other patients. Luckily, all of their plans had been seen through before the damage to his reputation could fall. In this moment though, the only thing that was keeping Yuuri going was that one day he was going to return to competition, out of respect for this man and what he had helped build. It was the only reason why he didn’t just let the media see.

 

Every time he needed to get away, Yuuri would run to the dance studio and see Minako, then dance away all of his frustrations and the excess energy he wasn’t burning off skating. Minako didn’t push him, didn’t make any reference until one night. The worry must have become too much.

 

“Are you alright?” she asked into the cool air.

 

Yuuri looked up at her before he wiped the sweat from his brow. “Yeah, I’m fine.”

 

She didn’t look convinced. “Have you spoken to anyone about it?”

 

“I don’t need to.”

 

Minako narrowed her eyes. “Mari told me she hears you in your room crying sometimes, you know. You’re avoiding your family. You’re not eating properly.”

 

Yuuri sighed. Of course his family had noticed. He tried to give them the smile he knew they knew was fake, but he couldn’t stop it when they looked at him with such concern. He wanted to assure them that he was going to be fine, because he knew he was going to be – it would just take time, and right now it hurt too much to talk about. He wanted to avoid it until it was overwhelming him. He didn’t know how else to deal with it.

 

“I need to be on a diet anyway-”

 

“That’s not dieting, Yuuri, that’s reckless. You need to eat. You’re going to run yourself into the ground if you’re not careful.”

 

“I am being careful-”

 

“No you’re not!”

The force in her voice had Yuuri reeling. He flinched backwards, pressing himself up against the wall and looking at Minako with wide, startled eyes. He’d seen Minako angry before, and he’d seen her being quite bossy – she was a brilliant dancer and the dedication and discipline it took to get there was prominent inside of her. But he’d never seen her like this before, filled with rage, as if a storm was finally being released.

 

“I’ve seen you scared before, Yuuri,” she said, a little calmer this time after his reaction. “I’ve seen you panic. I’ve seen you cry and worry and retreat into yourself. But that’s always been when you’ve worried about yourself. This is the first major loss you’re going through, and you don’t know how to deal with it, so you’re avoiding everything about it outside of actually visiting him and you’re not caring for yourself in the process. You don’t know how to handle the emotions inside of you right now, and that’s why you need to talk about it before this damages you too much.”

 

Yuuri wanted to say something, to fight back and argue that he was fine. But the lies were hardly coming out. He wanted to assure everyone he was fine. He didn’t want anyone to worry, because the guilt would be too much. He didn’t want to have that attention. There must have been something in his face, because Minako engulfed him in a tight hug and smoothed his hair. For the first time, he felt himself let go and cried into Minako’s shoulder. He was wracked with sobs, his body shaking, and he almost fell to the floor if it hadn’t been for her holding him.

 

He’d known sadness before. He’d cried before. He’d been scared before.

 

But it never felt like this.

 

For the first time, he was scared for someone else. He was worried he would never get to talk to him again, never get to hear his voice, to see him move, see his eyes, practice with him, show him the moves he learned. He’d never see him beside the rink in competitions, never wait at the kiss and cry with him to wait for the results. He’d never be able to show him how he’d perfected some jumps, the pride he had when he got better. He wouldn’t be able to show him anything.

 

By the time he stopped crying, he had a headache and wanted to sleep for a week. He thanked Minako for a shoulder to cry on and she reluctantly let him go home. He assured her he would be fine, and this time he sounded more genuine.

 

He always felt just a little better after crying. It was like he was finally releasing the emotions that had bottled themselves up.

 

He took off his shoes when he got through the door of his home. His mother was waiting, called forth by the sound of the door opening, and she gave him a small understanding smile.

 

“We’ve just sat down for dinner, Yuuri. Would you like to join us?”

 

He wanted to say no at first. It had become a habit to. But he saw the hopeful sheen in her eyes, and his stomach rumbled at the mention of food.

 

“Yes, I would like that,” he muttered and couldn’t help his own smile when his mother beamed at him.

 

The other pillars in his life were still standing, Yuuri thought. He would be fine. He’d just have to wait.

 

***

 

Six months later, it was time to make a choice.

 

The family, Yuuri and Yuko stood around the bed as the doctor said something. No one was listening. The air was heavy with tension. Someone was already crying. As the doctor turned a switch, they watched the man on the bed stop breathing.

 

***

 

For a long time, Yuuri wondered what he should do. No coach, no tutor, no one but himself, he wondered if he should pull from skating altogether. He’d lost some of his love for it, a burning reminder, bittersweet, of what was gone. He curled on his bed, holding Vicchan tightly to him. The curtains were closed. The lights inside were off, and the darkness loomed around him.

 

The media were still hounding him. News broke out of the death, and the response was a mix. A few were sending condolences to the young skater, while others were only questioning his return. With each word he read, he became more and more angry that this was all they cared about. How could they not feel sad about someone who had tragically lost their life, in just a second’s loss of control? How could they not see beyond competitive skating? How could they not think of his family and what they must have been going through?

 

A knock on his door interrupted his thoughts.

 

“Yuuri? Someone’s here to see you.”

 

He lifted his head from where he had been smothered by Vicchan’s fur. “Who is it, Mari?”

“Dunno. Says he’s here to see you about coaching?”

 

Yuuri shot up. He couldn’t help but feel intrigued. There had been a few times where his tutor wanted to talk about his coaching. Yuuri could almost hear his voice in his ear now. He was getting old, he had said, and he wasn’t sure how much longer he could follow Yuuri around, from country to country, or still be able to help him train. He certainly couldn’t stay with him through his entire career. Just before the accident, he’d told Yuuri he was coming up with a Plan B of sorts, finding a close friend of his to coach Yuuri. Nothing had been set in stone or agreed upon and so Yuuri’d forgotten.

 

“Coming,” he called. He tidied himself up a little by putting on some proper clothes other than his pyjamas, and then stepped out from his dark room. Mari stood on the other side of the door, a gentle smile around the cigarette in her mouth. “What does he look like?” Yuuri asked.

 

“Big man, dresses well, strong features, one hell of a chin,” she chuckled.

 

Yuuri couldn’t help but smile at the comment. The description didn’t ring any bells. “And what about coaching? What did he say?”

 

She shrugged. “Not much. I don’t pretend to know what they’re talking about half the time. But he said he knew your tutor, was a good friend.”

 

Yuuri nodded. “Right.”

 

They reached the guest dining room. This time of year, it was quite empty and in the vast space, a lone figure sat at one of the low tables. He was wearing a purple suit, and his long dark brown hair was pulling up into a tight tail at the back of his head.  As he turned, Yuuri’s eyes fell onto his chin. Mari’s comment rang endlessly in his mind.

 

The man stood and offered a hand. “Hello, Yuuri, I’m sorry for your loss.”

 

Yuuri took it and shook, switching to English immediately. “You as well. I heard you were good friends.” He sat opposite the man and found he was not quite able to meet his eye.

 

“We were. How have you been dealing with it?”

 

He shrugged. “As well as I can.” Eager to avoid the subject, Yuuri asked, “What can I do for you, Mr..?”

 

“Just call me Celestino,” the man smiled. “We often spoke about you.”

 

Yuuri’s glance shot up, connecting immediately with the man. A shiver ran up his spine at the implication. He didn’t know what to ask first, the questions forming in his mind but not quite making their way through his mouth. He could only ask, “Does that mean…?”

 

Celestino was careful with his wording, sensing the fear radiating off of the young man before him. “Yes, I know who you are. But don’t worry,” he rushed to say, “I won’t tell anyone. He told me in good faith, with the hopes that once he retired, I would be able to take you in and coach you, and in order to do that I would need to know who you were.”

 

Yuuri twitched, fiddling with his fingers under the table. “And what else did he say?”

 

“Not much else. He said that if I wanted to know more, to ask you in person.”

 

The fear calmed a little in Yuuri. “Oh,” was all he said.

 

“But I won’t ask anything if you’re not comfortable with it.”

 

“I’m sorry,” Yuuri muttered.

 

Celestino gave him a wide smile and Yuuri found it incredibly reassuring. There was something so warm about the man, something that he could already trust. “You don’t need to apologise. I promise you though, regardless of what you choose, I won’t let anyone know.”

 

“Thank you, I…. that’s all I ask.”

 

“Take your time deciding. You don’t have to come back until you’re ready, even if that’s a long time from now.”

 

Yuuri found himself giving a big smile, something genuine, and he suddenly felt like the pressure was finally easing off. He found he already liked this man, and on some level, he knew he already had his answer. But not yet. He wasn’t ready just yet.

 

***

 

It wasn’t until he was nineteen that he decided it was time to return. He was ready, his love for the sport returning tenfold, and an eagerness to finally make his senior debut. With Celestino by his side, he made the announcement.

 

And the world exploded.

 

The media, which had been dormant on his activities for quite some time, erupted into article upon article, interviews with other skaters, pictures of him – or rather Ren – circulating every social media, thousands and thousands of reposts, his name in the news, videos of his past achievements linked all over the place. For a long time, it seemed to be the only thing the world was talking about. He had been famous for the mask before, but now it seemed to have escalated into something of a legend. It was as if his absence had only helped to strengthen the mystery. Everyone was anticipating his return.

 

Yuuri trained hard in Detroit with Celestino, having moved there on his nineteenth birthday to start his training and to prepare for the upcoming season. He tried harder than he had before because now he had something to prove. He had someone besides himself to make proud of his performance. In his time there and under the watchful eye of his new coach, he blossomed into a force to be reckoned with. He couldn’t wait for his first performance. He couldn’t wait to wow the world with what he had become.

 

Let them all see just what I’ve been doing, he thought. Let them see what my late tutor made, what he started, his legacy. He wanted to show the world that the memory of the man would live on forever. It would be his first season back since the man’s death, and he wanted to dedicate everything he would do to it. Somewhere, his tutor’s family would be watching. He wanted to make them proud of what their loved one did. They had both devoted so many hours into something that they both saw as worthy of their lives' ambitions. He wanted them to see how amazing their loved one was.

 

It wasn’t just about him anymore.

Chapter Text

After his long absence, Yuuri had to start over again, from the very bottom.

 

Now nineteen, he had grown some, filled out and gained the muscle to show, now worthy of being the upcoming storm the media saw him as. The costumes fit better this time, hugging his form in ways he had only wished for before.

 

The mask was the strangest part of his return. After the last few years of not wearing it, he’d forgotten the feeling. As he placed it on his face, clasping it tightly behind him, he took a moment to savour it. The pressure was nostalgic, the feeling of the plastic on either side of his face, his breath deflected back towards him, the strange vision. It all brought back so many fond and miserable memories. It almost felt like a life time ago that he had set it down next to him and left it there, not to be touched again until he was ready. Yuuri Katsuki was back, full force, the anxiety returning with it. But now, as the mask settled against his skin, he felt Ren Himura returning to him. Like an old friend.

 

He could almost hear the audience outside the changing rooms. They were loud, reverberating across the walls. Yuuri listened to their voices. The announcers were warming up, reading the names again. When it fell on his, the crowd cheered loudly. For just a second, Yuuri wondered if he should have kept quiet about his return to the sport. But he had come this far. He could do this.  

 

Upon the announcement of his reappearance, tickets for the qualifying competition sold out within seconds. Just a small competition, hardly worthy of expensive tickets, devoted fans and world-wide media attention, and yet that was what appeared when his name was attached.

 

After a calming breath, Yuuri stepped out into the rink.

 

There was a stunned silence for a second as the cameras found him and his image blew up on the wide screens above. As all gazes fell onto the mask, taking in his changing body after years of being gone, the room burst into cheers and calls. Reporters rushed to stand beside him and took pictures, the light almost blinding him. The flashes were everywhere. But he straightened himself and walked past them. Some shoved microphones into his face and demanded their questions be answered. He kept quiet and continued on his way with his back straight.

 

Yuuri went to sit on the same bench that the other skaters were at, and he couldn’t help but feel a little upset when they turned to stare at him, shocked, as if they hadn’t expected someone like him to sit anywhere near them. As if he deserved more. As if they were below him. He gave them a quick nod, a smile that he forgot no one could see, and turned to watch the empty ice.

 

One, a young boy of perhaps sixteen, made an attempt that no one dared. He moved a little closer and extended his hand, with a muttered, “Hello.”

 

Yuuri turned back and clasped the hand, giving it a firm hand shake before he replied, “Hello. Good luck today.” His voice was deeper than it had been before, and though he hadn’t accepted many interviews in his time, his voice was still all over the internet from when he did speak, there for some of the most interested and curious to analyse. But that had been before he hit the peak of his puberty. Now it was more solid, firm and shallow.

 

The boy gave a bright smile and eager to keep up conversation said, “Thank you! And I know it’s been a few years, but I’m sorry about what happened with your coach… I hope you don’t mind my saying.”

 

It had been a few years since. It was true what they said, time did heal old wounds. The scar would always be there, and sometimes it went deeper, but it healed. At the mention of the accident, Yuuri didn’t feel the need to curl into himself anymore. He gave another hidden smile, and said, “Thank you, and I don’t mind. It’s really nice of you to say.” He had learned how to express his emotions not just through his body, but through his voice as well. He mimicked the intonations he needed, assuring the boy that he was not lying, that it really was alright to mention, and he felt his chest clench when he saw the relief on the boy’s face.

 

“I’m so glad you came back.” The boy clapped a hand over his mouth, as if he couldn’t believe he had said it. He looked away, seemingly ashamed of his adoration.

 

Yuuri’s eyebrows knitted together and he felt the need to comfort the poor boy. He knew what it was like to adore someone. Even in his years of absence, he watched every competition, and most of the time he found himself with Yuko, their faces glued to the screen every time Viktor performed. The years had only helped that admiration to grow. Sometimes he too felt ashamed of the intensity of his feelings, not knowing what his idol would think if he knew. But he also never expected himself to be a recipient of the same admiration from others. He only wanted to skate, and yet here was someone who clearly idolised him. He didn’t like the boy being ashamed of something he couldn’t help.

 

“Thank you,” he said. He said nothing more until the boy turned around, and when Yuuri knew he had his attention again, he continued, “I didn’t think I was. I wasn’t ready for a long time. Thank you for waiting and thank you for believing in me, even when I didn’t.”

 

The boy was clearly shocked by his words. He opened his mouth to say something, but the words were caught in his throat. A dusting of pink lined his cheeks and he couldn’t look away. The other boys were watching with wide eyes. He knew what they were thinking. For years, Ren Himura had been infamous for barely speaking, and when he did it was rarely something about himself or how he was feeling.

 

Some thought it was because he wanted to keep the mystery going. Others thought it was because he just didn’t want to speak to people about something personal, seeing it as unprofessional. But it wasn’t anything like that. For the longest time, Yuuri found it hard to be himself, and that extended to things he liked and felt. He didn’t want to give himself over to someone completely, didn’t want the world to see him as a real person, because then he would be vulnerable. They’d see that he isn’t confident. They’d see his faults. And while he didn’t mind that too much because there was nothing that tied him with Yuuri Katsuki, it didn’t mean that he was immune. He wasn’t a good actor. Whatever faults in personality that Ren Himura had, Yuuri Katsuki had. If he opened himself in an interview and the world tore it apart, it wouldn’t be just an attack on Ren but on Yuuri himself too. He wasn’t ready for that. And he still wasn’t. But he had grown, he had experienced loss, he was ready to reveal himself just a little bit. And if that meant it calmed people like the boy before him, ones who reminded him of himself, then it could be done.

 

The voice over the intercoms announced the warming up period. Yuuri stood first and stepped out into the view of the crowd, already feeling their pressure. But, like before, he wasn’t scared. He was ready and he was excited. He was going to prove to everyone that his late tutor had done amazing things, that his current coach was brilliant, and that he loved this sport with every fibre of his being.

 

When it came to his short program, the rink was eerily quiet. The click of the cameras, the rustle of the crowd, the breathing on the intercoms were the only sounds. Until Yuuri’s music strummed into the air. This year, he had handpicked his music himself, something he used to be nervous of doing. They were quiet at the start, filled to the brim with negative emotions until in the middle, they built up until they hit a crescendo, filling the room with strong notes and a clear message – I can pick myself up out of a dark place. He skated with everything he had, remembering the little tricks, the flick of the wrists, the position of the arms, a subtle angle of his head to evoke emotions that he couldn’t express through his face. He lost himself to the music and the program he and Celestino had spent weeks creating. He lost himself in the emotion and the feeling of the whole world watching his growth. And somewhere along the way, he just lost himself completely. His thoughts turned blank. His movements were fluid and almost as if they were on someone else. The music sounded far away as well as trapped in a bubble with him, both at the same time.

 

When he came back to himself, he was in his last position, his arms spread wide and facing the judges. He was breathing hard. His mask was catching his breaths. For one peaceful moment, not a figure stirred and there were no camera flashes. Just a moment of pure stillness.

 

Until it broke. The crowds stood and their thunderous claps echoed loudly in the room. There were whistles, some screams, a few words that were hidden under the noise. Reporters and journalists rushed to the barriers and took as many photos as their cameras could hold. The judges were scribbling away on their notes. The other boys were a mix of emotions – some looking miserable because they knew that they couldn’t follow that, while others, including the sixteen year old boy, looked at him with almost teary eyes and gave him the biggest grin their lips could manage.

 

It hadn’t been the best. Yuuri could already see that from a dull throb in one of his ankles that he hadn’t landed a jump right. He wasn’t perfect. But in that moment, he knew he didn’t have to be.

 

His scores were high, not high enough to beat a record, only close. But he was alright with that. He was going to keep his best for when he was at the Grand Prix Final, to end his senior debut with a bang and hopefully gain the attention of the one man he wanted to look at him.

 

He stayed to watch and encourage the other boys, especially the ones who seemed a little downtrodden after his performance. He cheered loudly for each one. And when they finished, he gave them a big thumbs up. It did seem to lift their spirits.

 

He stood at the top of the podium with his gold medal, his back straight, posture perfect. While no one could see beneath his mask, he cast his gaze upwards, up to the lights and beyond, and hoped that his tutor was watching. He dedicated his gold medal to the man.

 

The reporters were waiting outside when he left with Celestino. He had his old black hoodie zipped over his costume against the cold evening breeze, his hands in the warm lining of the pockets. He jumped when the first recorder was shoved in his face.

 

“Ren Himura, any words on what you think what this season will turn out like?” asked the first.

 

Others rushed, halting his and his coach’s movement.

 

“Any words for the senior skaters? Any warnings for the best?”

 

“How does it feel to be back?”

 

“Are you aiming for the gold for the Grand Prix this year?”

 

“Why that particular piece of music?”

 

“Does it feel strange to be back with a different coach?”

 

“How do you think your previous coach would feel?”

 

Celestino wrapped an arm around his shoulder and pushed some of the reporters away, shouting a firm “No comment” before he rushed them through the crowd. When they were in the taxi, ready to head to the hotel, the man asked if he was alright.

 

“I’m fine,” Yuuri assured, and he found that he was. He held the gold medal up and eyed the sheen. He’d left his Junior Grand Prix gold medal at home, still in his room with Vicchan watching over. He’d wanted to bring it with him at first, but found that it was best left behind, in the town that the man who had helped him win it rested. He vowed to get another to join it soon. “The first step done,” he laughed.

 

***

 

Yuuri continued to storm through the competitions, right through the Cup of China and the Rostelecom Cup, with the same wave of enthusiasm and winning gold in all. It all passed too much in a blur for him to remember in detail though, almost seemingly as if it wasn’t real. He’d had to pinch himself more than once to assure himself that it was.

 

It wasn’t until the lead up to the Grand Prix Final that time started to slow down. Celestino and he arrived a little earlier than the other skaters and checked into the hotel. It gave Yuuri a chance to get used to the city around him. It also gave him time to be a little less limiting to where he could go without his mask.

 

In the dead of night, when it was yet another night he couldn’t quite sleep, he slipped on some jeans before he decided to take a quick walk.

 

The reporters had yet to get the news that Ren Himura had arrived early, and they assumed he would arrive with the rest. It gave him a freedom he found he really needed to the lead up of one of the most important competitions of his life, just under the World Championships coming up just a few months after. The nerves were rattling around him and he grew worried again – the same worry he had from years ago. He was about to face skaters who had experience by the bucket load, and even the few who were the same age as him had years of being this high up. But he hadn’t. He had chosen to take a few years off, and sometimes he did regret it. Sometimes he did wonder where he would be had he only taken the one season off.

 

The hotel was quiet. Every window he passed, he would gaze outside and see nothing but darkness. There were a few street lights on, illuminating the emptiness. The breeze was blowing through the trees. The moon, bright and high in the sky, was almost hidden behind a thick cloud.

 

He found himself thinking of the people in the rooms around him. Many were families – Yuuri had seen them when they checked in yesterday. He’d seen some of the children running in the lobby. One in particular, a little girl who had run around with a tired and almost broken teddy bear, had come up to him and asked what his name was in heavily accented English.

 

He’d bent down, giving her a small smile, and said, “My name is Yuuri Katsuki. And yours?” He hadn’t worn the mask then, and no one bothered to cast a look in his direction, not knowing who he was.

 

“That’s a weird name. I’m called Natasha Borov.” She raised the teddy for Yuuri to see. “And he’s Wiggles!”

 

Yuuri laughed and shook the paw of the teddy. “Hello Sir Wiggles, and it’s nice to meet you Natasha. What are you and your family here for?”

 

“We’ve come to see my grandparents,” she replied. “Granny isn’t well.”

 

“Oh, I’m sorry to hear that.”

 

For a moment, the girl looked away and pressed the teddy to her face. Her shoulder shook, just the tiniest bit, before she looked up again and gave a big smile. “It’s okay! She says she’s going to be fine!”

 

Strength. It was what he could see in those big, shining eyes, even when a film of tears covered but didn’t fall. Yuuri was slightly taken aback by the expression. So young, and yet she knew what it was like to go through something like this and how to deal with it. And she was talking about it. Even if it was to a complete stranger, she was talking about her troubles. Yuuri knew that it was something he’d wanted to do, especially during the troubling time a few years back. But he was never strong enough to be able to do it.

 

Her parents called her away and Yuuri was left with a sense of loss. The child had reminded her so much of the persona he had created, of the person he wanted to be. Once again, he was struck with the question of how people could be so sure of themselves in their emotions and their actions. How they could be so open and vulnerable and feel comfortable with it?

 

He thought about it again as he walked through the empty halls.

 

He pulled out his phone to glance at the time. Nearly three in the morning. A thought passed through his mind, and within a second he found himself typing out a quick message.

 

Can’t sleep.

 

He pocketed the phone, knowing the reply wouldn’t be coming immediately. Even with the time difference, Phichit would be awake but doing other things.

 

He thought of the other boy for a second. Theirs was a new friendship, found after Celestino had announced that he was going to be coaching another young and promising figure skater. At first, Yuuri wasn’t too sure. It wasn’t that he didn’t want to share his coach, but it was the fear that, with all of their time being spent together training, it would be revealed who he was to the young skater. He didn’t know the boy, and he worried that with his love for social media that he would let it slip.

 

After half a year, Phichit proved to be the complete opposite. Though his obsession with media platforms was unrivalled by anyone else, he also knew when to keep a secret. Yuuri had trained for a little while with the mask on, but as he grew closer and closer to Phichit, he decided that he was going to tell him – sped up of course because Phichit had accidentally happened upon Yuuri when he had come out of the shower after one of their most gruelling training sessions.

 

Embarrassed and worried that the reveal would destroy the friendship they had going, he admitted to it all. He admitted why he was wearing the mask, how it helped him, and what his real name was. It took a few hours, during which Yuuri had cried a little, refused to look his friend in the eye and begged for him never to tell. But when he was done, Phichit drew him into a tight hug and promised to keep the secret.

 

That was how Yuuri found himself with a new pillar, helping to support the area that had been left crumbling. True to his word, Phichit never told anyone. He didn’t ask too many questions. And he treated Yuuri like he had before. And when Yuuri first messed up a jump in their training session and Yuuri could feel the gazes of Phichit and Celestino watching him, he expected the worst. He felt so ashamed. His failures were racking up again. This time he didn’t have his mask, his persona, Ren to hide behind. He curled on the ice, face down, expecting to hear their laughs echoing off of the ice.

 

But instead he felt someone tugging him close and smoothing a hand over his hair. At first he tried to fight it, thinking it was a pitying gesture. Instead, Phichit calmed him and gave him ways he could improve his landing. Then he told Yuuri to get up and try it again. And again and again until Yuuri could be proud of the jump. Celestino had recorded the jump and showed it to him, pointing out the problem and told Yuuri to try again too.

 

Yuuri stood, ready for another, and though the shame was still shivering up his spine, he did try again and took the constructive criticism to heart. This time he landed it, and he had landed it as Yuuri Katsuki.

 

It was then that he knew he had done the right thing in telling Phichit and not shying away from Celestino when he had admitted to knowing everything.

 

His phone buzzed in his pocket. He took it out to see a message from his good friend.

 

Nervous?

 

One word, and yet all of the connotations behind it had Yuuri smiling. His friend knew him so well already. Perhaps this could be the friend that brought him out of his shell, had him speaking when he was feeling upset or down. Yuko had tried, Minako to some extent, Mari as well, but there was a difference between them and Phichit. Yuuri didn’t want to speak to people that had been through an experience with him, when they had seen him at his lowest, because he felt like they would have more cause to judge him – though he knew they never would. But with Phichit, he had to be forced to explain everything just to create the right context. Phichit helped him talk through things, because he needed explaining. And that was what Yuuri needed.

 

He typed back, None of the other skaters are here yet. I think they should be coming tomorrow, and with them a load of journalists. I’m going to have to wear my mask at every moment.

 

He’d become so used to being able to walk around freely. And he loved his mask, he really did, and he loved what it did for him, but it got tiring. When he started this, he never expected people go get so invested in someone who disguised their identity. Of course, he should have. No one sees a man with a mask, a hood, a fake name and overlooks it or thinks it’s normal. It’s a mystery that people want to solve. Yuuri could understand that, had it been the other way around and it was someone else. But it wasn’t. It was him. And sometimes he just wanted to be Yuuri Katsuki. Sometimes he wanted to relax and just lay in bed all day without his mask, and without the fear that someone might steal a key to get in.

 

That too, but I was thinking of the other reason you’re nervous.

 

Yuuri read the message, again and again and in confusion, wrote back asking what Phichit meant. He knew that sometimes he did worry about more than one thing, and sometimes those things jumbled into one big mess of anxiety for him. It was hard to piece them apart and figure out exactly what it was that was effecting him.

 

A certain skater is going to be arriving tomorrow as well. It’s going to be the first time you’ll be so close to him.

 

Ah, that was it. Upon reading the message, Yuuri felt his heart hammer against his rib cage. That was what he had somehow forgotten. He rested against the wall and took a deep breath. How had he forgotten that? How could it have possibly slipped his mind?

 

Viktor Nikiforov himself was going to be in the same hotel, just a little way from him, perhaps even on the same floor. The legend himself, his idol, the skating king, right there. For years he had promised that he was going to meet Viktor. And yet here it was, perhaps less than twenty four hours until it was going to happen, and he was panicking.

 

Oh god, what do I do? What if he doesn’t know who I am? What if I make an ass of myself in front of him? Or he doesn’t like me? What if he turns out to be a horrible human being?

 

He held the phone close to his chest as he made his way quietly back to his room, finding his movements sluggish. He looked at every number on every door as he passed, wondering if that was going to be the room his idol would be staying in soon.

 

Yuuri, calm down. Of course he’s going to know who you are, who doesn’t? You won’t make an ass of yourself, you’ll have the mask on. I haven’t heard anything about him being horrible, and why wouldn’t he like you?

 

Yuuri knew he was just being an anxious mess. All of the scenarios running through his head were completely hypothetical, and the meeting would probably be lacklustre compared to what he was imagining. Maybe the man was even boring to talk to. Maybe nothing would come of it. Anything could happen. And that was what scared Yuuri. He didn’t like not knowing what was waiting around the corner.

 

Okay, he typed. But what do I say to him?

 

Why not what you’ve been wanting to ask him for years now?

 

Yuuri’s eyes grew wide behind his glasses and he almost collapsed against the wall. To come right out and ask him such personal questions? That couldn’t be done. And what if they were in public? What if they were surrounded by reporters and other skaters? No, that was just be embarrassing. And what if he asked and Viktor didn’t understand? Or, worse, he did understand but didn’t see why the question was so important? What if he shot it down or didn’t answer? What if all these years of anticipation meant nothing?

 

I can’t do that! It’s way too personal to spring it on him right away!

 

Then when are you thinking of asking it?

 

I don’t know… maybe when we’re better acquainted?

 

Then you need to get there first. So start with small talk, say hi. Greet him, tell him how great he is, then tell him you named a dog after him.

 

Yuuri felt his cheeks flush. No, he definitely couldn’t do that. Small talk perhaps, but the rest was just embarrassing. He could practically hear Phichit laughing on the other end and waiting for his reply so that he could tease him further. As he opened his door, he felt the heavy weight of sleep beginning to settle onto his eyelids. He yawned wide, closed the door behind him and began to settle back into bed. Perhaps now he could retreat into sleep.  

 

You’re no help. I’m going to bed.

 

Keep me posted! If you do anything stupid in front of him, tell Celestino to record it. Night!

 

***

 

 

The commotion outside in the hall woke Yuuri up from his deep slumber. He grumbled, finding it hard to drag himself to reach his glasses on the bedside table before he listened to whatever was happening outside his door.

 

There were what seemed like dozens of voices, a few bangs on the wall, and clicks of cameras. Someone was shouting something in another language. There was a bang on his door then, though he was pretty sure it was accidental.

 

Too curious, he went to stand slowly, seeing the world blur around him and the floor shift, still trying to connect with his cloudy mind. When he was certain that his balance was going to be alright and that he was awake enough to pay attention to anything, he adjusted his shorts and top before he went to reach for the door.

 

He cursed to himself when he realised he was about to make the biggest mistake ever. He went to slip on his mask, securing it tightly behind his head, before he opened the door.

 

The lights blinded him for a second. Then he noticed the figures before his door. They wore dark clothes and held cameras in their hands. They weren’t angled towards him, but rather at something further down the hall. One was being pushed against the wall in the crowd. They were shouting questions, their voices mixing together to make one loud cloud of noise.

 

Yuuri pushed to peer around his door.

 

The action brought him to their attentions, and they turned to then take photos of him, but seemingly torn between him and whatever else that was holding their gazes in the hall.

 

And Yuuri couldn’t blame them.

 

The other skaters had finally arrived, clad in only the most expensive things that they could wear. Between them was a pile of luggage that the hotel staff were helping to take to their rooms. But that wasn’t what caught Yuuri’s attention.

 

The skater at the forefront of them all, speaking to one of the reporters, was Viktor Nikiforov. He grinned at the cameras, waved at the families that came to see the commotion, and basked in their attentions. But as the seconds ticked on, it became apparent that the skater’s media attention was being drawn somewhere else.

 

Yuuri found himself looking at each skater in turn, their own gazes regarding him from where only his head and the top half of his body was peeking out from behind the door frame.

 

And when Viktor turned to see him, when their eyes locked, Yuuri was thankful that he was wearing his mask. He knew he would have collapsed at the sight of those sharp blue eyes without some sort of assurance. He gripped the door frame tightly in his hands as Viktor turned his body towards him, throwing his full attention on the boy, and smiled more widely than any photo Yuuri had seen of him.

 

And Yuuri couldn’t help but stare. The man’s skin was flawless, his hair shone silver under the lights and looked soft to the touch, his eyes drew Yuuri in until he felt like he was drowning and the overall presence of the man was intoxicating. He felt like he couldn’t breathe, as if all the air around him had been taken by him. Yuuri’s chest ached and he wondered if it was like this for everyone meeting their idol. Viktor had been on Yuuri’s thoughts for many years now, sometimes the sole attention of his mind. He’d been a guide during Yuuri’s darkest times, and some contribution to the man he was now.

 

“Ren!”  Viktor called, his accent heavy, raising his arms wide above his head.

 

The name snapped Yuuri out of his trance. He gave one small gasp, probably too quiet for anyone to hear. And, despite the confidence that his persona gave him, he retreated into his room and closed the door. It gave a click as it locked automatically.

 

He rushed to his bed, listening to the knocks on the door by the reporters, and fished out his phone from under his pillow. He started to feel guilty at having almost closed the door in the man’s face.

 

Phichit, he’s out in the hall. He knows who I am! I just shut the door on him! What do I do?

Chapter Text

He sat on the bed, swaddled in covers and listened to the voices. The panic was rising like bile in this throat.

 

After about ten minutes, the reporters were starting to leave, pushed away by some of the security guards. Everything turned quiet. The hall was empty once again, and Yuuri could almost convince himself that he had had a weird dream and he was only just waking up. But then he heard another pair of feet shuffling over the carpet and the door next to his, originally an uninhabited room until this morning, opened and closed.

 

So no, it hadn’t been a dream. Yuuri had just been less than ten feet away from his idol, and rather than be normal and reply when he had called out, most likely to greet a fellow skater, he’d closed the door and locked it. That was their first interaction. That was how he had met his idol.

 

He was just thankful that the mask had hidden his flaring cheeks.

 

Phichit hadn’t replied yet. He was probably asleep. Useless. Yuuri contemplated what he should do now. Viktor was on his level, his floor, almost in the room right opposite him! After that rude introduction, what should he do now? Could he go to practice this morning and apologise? Would that be enough? The nerves were rattling his brain.

 

To distract himself, he quickly changed into his clothes, picking them out carefully. He decided on his favourite pair of trousers, with enough space for his flexibility, and his softest training top. Once done, he didn’t know what else to do.

 

Thankfully, a knock distracted him from his thoughts. He quickly replaced the mask on his head before he opened it.

 

Celestino looked well rested. He frowned though when he saw the slump in Yuuri’s form. “Didn’t sleep well?”

 

Yuuri shook his head. “Between the nerves and the noise this morning, it was a long night.”

 

“You alright to practice today?”

 

Yuuri cocked his head to the side. “Would you give me the day off if I said I wasn’t?”

 

Celestino smirked and crossed his arms. “No. Now get ready, we’re heading to the rink early to get some practice in before it gets crowded.” He glanced at the other doors, all tightly shut and locked. “It’s going to be a fun-filled day.”

 

Yuuri obeyed, grabbing his training bag and pulling on a large hoodie before he locked the door and followed his coach.

 

Surprisingly, there were only a few reporters outside the hotel. Yuuri suspected that they had been warned or possibly bribed, just to leave the skaters alone in the run up to a major competition. Whoever had done it, Yuuri thanked them from the bottom of hisheart. His emotions were in turmoil enough as it was, and he didn’t need a badly timed question to make him feel worse.

 

As Celestino had mentioned, the rink was quiet save the few cleaning staff, a few fans waiting for skaters outside, and the workers at the front desk. He found it oddly comforting, knowing that he could have some peace and quiet, a moment to really prepare himself, before the chaos he knew was going to come.

 

As he laced his skates in the empty changing room, he sang to himself quietly. He didn’t know what song it was, but it had been strumming on the radio in the taxi and the first few lines of the chorus were stuck in his head, swirling around and around continuously. The chancing rooms were bigger than he had expected, much bigger than he’d seen in other rinks before. All to himself, it seemed too large. As he cast his gaze around, he began to imagine the other skaters here, bustling around and perhaps were a body of nerves as he was. Maybe one of them would be stretching against that wall. Maybe another would be sat on that bench and practicing their breathing. Perhaps another would be waiting by the door, eager to get out.

 

And he wondered where he would be. In among these athletes, the stars of the sport, the best of the best, how would he be? Did they have a ritual before they went out to perform? Maybe they would have a group ritual that he wouldn’t know, wouldn’t be a part of.

 

Yuuri knew that these skaters knew each other well, having competed against one another often. He was new. He was the fresh meat, and he felt that already this morning, in the hall. They had all been chatting together, before the cameras, and when they turned their eyes on him he felt like a little kid compared. Many weren’t much older than he, but he could already feel a vast difference in their experiences. He wondered if his being new would already separate him from them.

 

Celestino was the only other person out by the ice when he left the changing rooms. He pushed himself from where he had been leaning on the barrier, and stepped towards Yuuri.

 

“Is there a particular part of the programme that you want to practice today?” At Yuuri’s shake, he asked, “And what about anything you want to practice before anyone else comes? I’d say we have a good half an hour to an hour before anyone starts arriving.”

 

There were a few things. Yuuri, despite his persona’s confidence, still found the jumps a little harder to do than the step sequence or the presentation. He hadn’t fallen for quite a time, but they weren’t fluid, weren’t made to look effortless yet. They weren’t at the level he wanted them to be.

 

“I’ll do a few jumps,” he replied. “The hour probably won’t make a difference but I still want to see if I can perfect them.”

 

Celestino smiled at his determination. “Right, want to try quads first or triples?”

 

“Quads.” Even if his answer was a little too quick, too eager, Yuuri didn’t regret it. He was in the big league now, the highest, with the best, he needed to be like them. He stepped out onto the ice, already feeling the calm inside him bloom, before he began to warm up.

 

He lost himself quickly to the routine, his emotions souring high as he jumped into the air. The breeze blew around his clothes, whipping the hood from his head every so often. By the fifth quad, his muscles were beginning to burn from the strain. But he ignored it, knowing he could still go, right until his muscles gave out and his legs wobbled. And by the eleventh, he still was not satisfied. Not once had he fallen, and the landings had been steady, but still not effortless, still not how his competitors skated. They made it look as easy as breathing. He wanted to achieve that.

 

As he was going ready for another, the sweat pouring from the pores in his forehead, he heard the squeak of the door to the rink. He stopped and his head snapped to look behind him. The first skater had arrived.

 

In his preparation to return, Yuuri had studied up on all of the skaters that would be competing this year. Mainly out of curiosity, though Celestino had said it would be a good idea to familiarise himself with their strengths and weaknesses. It was how he knew who it was that walked through the door.

 

Christophe Giacometti always liked to make an entrance. The doors slammed against the sides, thrown open by a powerful force, and in came the Swiss, strutting with an entourage made of his coach and a few other faces. He was speaking to someone over his shoulder, a wide smile on his face and winking once someone made a comment. As he turned back around, he noticed Yuuri standing in the middle of the ice and his eyes widened.

 

“My, my,” he said, loud enough for his voice to echo through the room. “Aren’t you an early riser, little one?”

 

Yuuri wasn’t sure what to say, so he said nothing at all. He’d seen Chris perform over the years, and he had to admit the Swiss was incredible, if sometimes a little uncomfortable to watch. Always coming in second to Viktor, and yet he seemed content with the competition rather than bitter as Yuuri expected him to be. He’d always wondered what Chris was like in person, if his personality was a persona like his own, an attitude for the media, but seeing him now Yuuri knew it was very much just how the man was. He could tell from the flare surrounding Chris, the flick of his wrist when he raised it, the way he cocked out his hip, rested his hand on his side. It was very much real. Yuuri wasn’t sure how to act in front of such a blatant, confident and sure man.

 

“You look positively knackered,” Chris said a little louder, his accent clearing a little to make sure his words didn’t mix. “The sweat is just pouring off of you!”

 

Suddenly conscious, Yuuri wiped away as much as he could from the top of his head and his neck.

 

Chris took off his guards and stepped onto the ice, all the while his eyes still resting on Yuuri and every movement he made. When he was close enough, he held out his hand and greeted, “I’m Christophe Giacometti, pleasure to meet you.” He bowed just slightly, still looking up, when Yuuri’s hand gripped his.

 

Yuuri coughed, finding his voice, “It’s a pleasure to meet you. I am Ren Himura.” The name still felt a little foreign on his lips, while even after all of these years, he hadn’t often said it himself. He was used to hearing it on the intercom, or typed up on articles, or news broadcasters saying it. But not so much himself, not when so many knew it already.

 

Standing up again, Chris tilted his head to the side and gave a slow wink. “Yes, I know who you are. I must say, it’s brilliant to have you back.”

 

Yuuri scratched the back of his neck. Had it not been for the mask, he would not have been able to keep the eye contact going with the man before him. His presence was overwhelming. Yuuri felt like he wanted to soak it up, to gather just even a drop of it to further his own development and mask his anxiety. Once again, he wondered how this man could be so open, so vulnerable, and be alright with it. Was Yuuri the only skater that struggled with anxiety?

 

“Thank you,” he replied, surprised by how strong his voice sounded. “It took a while, but I’m finally ready to make my senior debut.”

 

“And what a way to start it!” Chris chuckled. “There is a lot of pressure on you to perform well for it.”

 

Somewhere in the back of his mind, Yuuri Katsuki was reeling from the words. He was suffering, crushed under the weight of expectation, worried that he had made a name that he would never ever be able to live up to. But that was in passing. At the forefront, Ren Himura was standing and he gave a slow nod, not feeling an ounce of pressure from the statement.

 

“I’m not sure if I’ll be able to satisfy that pressure, but I’ll try my best.” Noticing that their hands were still together, Yuuri let his drop. If Chris thought it odd, he didn’t say anything.

 

“Nonsense! You’ve gone above and beyond the expectations of you so far. I expect many surprises from you for this season, and the rest.” And then, suddenly, in only a second, Chris’ smile turned sombre and he leaned in. “But in all honesty, I am happy to see you come back. No one would have blamed you if you hadn’t, or wanted to take more time to heal.”

 

And just like that, Yuuri found himself liking the Swiss man. He relaxed in his presence, gave a smile he knew the other man wouldn’t see, and said softly, “Thank you, but I wasn’t pushed to come back. I took my time. I healed. And I’m ready now.”

 

Something flashed in the man’s eyes as he narrowed them, his gaze crossing every inch of the mask as if it would tell him something. Then, apparently satisfied with what he had found, he leaned back and returned to his cheery, if a little overwhelming, self. “That’s brilliant. In that case, I look forward to seeing you at your best.” He went to take a step, ready to skate away and resume with his own practice, after he said, “This is going to be a very interesting season with you here now. Be prepared, this isn’t like the Junior Championships.”

 

***

 

Steadily, other skaters began to arrive in the next half an hour. Yuuri and Celestino stuck to their area of the rink, a corner on the right side, where they practiced some of Yuuri’s easier technical elements, some being his splits and spins.

 

Another three skaters had come, almost everyone for the Gran Prix Final. All but one. Viktor had yet to show, though it was still early morning. Perhaps he had a favourite time to turn up, or perhaps preferred to arrive late and stay later in the hopes he’d get some of the rink to himself. Either way, Yuuri concentrated on his own practices.

 

It did prove to be quite hard. Even among other skaters, Yuuri would often find the attention on him. Not as hounding as fans or reporters, but he would see from the corner of his eye, someone would be turned towards him, or still watching as he practiced. They had the respect to turn away when he looked, but it still unsettled him – not enough that he couldn’t concentrate on his practice. But it felt odd. He thought that among these people, the ones who were bigger and better than he, that he would become lost in them, nothing special compared. It must have just been curiosity. It was the first time he had been in the same room as them, after all, and his reputation did follow him.

 

After an hour or so, the doors opened once more, and who should stroll through than the biggest of them all.

 

He wore his plain black sunglasses, a steaming coffee in hand, his hair gelled perfectly for his fringe to flare just slightly at the end. He took a sip before he leaned against the barrier and glanced at them all. Chris skated over and they began to talk, laughing and never a halt in their conversation, just like old friends.

 

Yuuri turned away, trying not to stare. But it was hard. Staring at Chris had been like a pull, but with Viktor, it seemed like so much more. The man was over half of the rink away and on the other side, and yet Yuuri could feel his presence behind him. He could almost hear the lull of his voice through the cool air. He threw himself into the routine to try and distract himself.

 

He didn’t try anymore jumps, knew that they wouldn’t be landed properly when he was concerned about those around him. He stretched a few more times, making sure that his muscles were ready for the second half of their practice, before he skated to the edge, to where his coach was, and eagerly accepted a bottle of water handed to him.

 

“How does it feel?” Celestino asked quietly. “Being surrounded by all of these people, ones that you’ve looked up to for years now?”

 

“Odd,” Yuuri replied honestly. “But good.”

 

“Do you feel like you deserve to be here, with them?”

 

Yuuri had to hesitate for a while. He knew he was good at the sport, not perfect, but good. Yuko had once said that the emotion he poured into the routines made them even better, and often times skaters would be too absorbed by the technical elements to do what he could. Yuuri, for a long time, didn’t think that what he did was enough. But over the years, even as he took a long break, he steadily became aware that he was good, that he did deserve where he was. But he was also aware of how he got there. Had it not been for that suggestion years ago, he knew he wouldn’t have come close. He had the ability, but his mental insecurities held him back.

 

He’d told Yuko how much her suggestion had saved him. It might have started out as something that could be passed off as a phase, one that he would drop in a few weeks, months, maybe a few years, but he knew even when he was small that it was going to be something he would stick to. It gave him a chance to grow into himself, and to be the person who deserved to be here, with these people.  

 

He gave a firm nod. “Maybe not deserving enough to win, but to be here? Yes.” And he was going to prove it when it came to the Final.

 

His coach clapped a hand onto his shoulder. “Good. Because yes, they may be good, and I know they’ve been doing this longer than you, but you’re the one they should be scared of. Everyone saw you in the Junior Grand Prix. They saw the storm you started, and you’ve only grown since then. You’re going to be the young newcomer that reminds these old men that they can’t slack.”

 

Yuuri laughed and nodded. “Right.”

 

***

 

 

It was a long day of practice. His muscles were already sore, his bones weak, and he wanted to fall into his bed and sleep right up to the competition. They left a little earlier than all the others, having already arrived earlier in the morning anyway, and as they left through the main doors, Chris called out from the ice and waved them goodbye. Not wanting to be rude, Yuuri waved back but was too tired to turn and look at him properly.

 

They had a quick meal in the restaurant of the hotel before they retreated to their rooms. Celestino wanted to make it early to the rink again the next day, and Yuuri wanted to make sure to have a good chunk of sleep before he needed to wake at a god forsaken time.

 

He slipped off his mask, dropped it on the bed, and fell asleep as soon as he hit the pillow.

 

***

 

Despite how tired he was though, he woke in the middle of the night again and could not fall asleep. He grumbled as he got up, cursing the two nights in a row. He rubbed the sleep away from his face before he attempted to stand.

 

After a trip to the toilet, he stood in the middle of his room and looked around in the darkness. He could try to sleep again, but he knew he wouldn’t, and in all honestly he was feeling hungry. Being kept to a tight diet and then having a full day of burning all of the calories, it didn’t satisfy his still growing body.

 

However, there was no food in his room. To avoid snacking, Celestino had taken anything that could be eaten from his room and either binned it or kept it as a reward for when Yuuri perfected a jump or won something. Yuuri tried to avoid how that made it sound like he was a pet.

 

Slipping his mask on and zipping up his big hoodie, he ventured out of his room. The hall was quiet again. It was dark outside the windows. Beyond the doors, the rooms were still. Yuuri hugged his hoodie closer again, taking comfort in the warmth. He glanced up at the blipping cameras in the corner of the hall before he rushed to the lifts.

 

There was one woman at reception when he got there. She seemed a little sleepy as she flipped through a magazine, her head resting in her hand. She sat up in attention when his footsteps echoed.

 

“Hello, sir,” she greeted, only a little surprised when she saw his mask. “Is there anything I can do for you?”

 

Yuuri walked up to the desk, biting his lip. “Um, I’m just a little hungry. Is there anything around here I can eat? Any shops still open?”

 

“What sort of thing are you looking for?” Her voice was chipper, a little too loud for Yuuri’s still sleep-deprived ears. Her smile was too fake. Practiced.

 

Anything my coach won’t get angry with me for, he thought to himself. “Just… something healthy. Nothing really fast or too sugary, I guess.”

 

“Of course, sir. There’s a twenty-four hour shop just at the end of the street, they stock anything you can think of.”

 

He was pretty sure that was a lie. Would he be able to find katsudon there? He was willing to bet that no, there wouldn’t be anything like that there. Instead, he nodded, thanked the woman and went out to brave the cold night.

 

As he stepped outside, he wondered if he had made a mistake. Though there were no reporters outside, there were a few late night walkers. He pulled the hood as far as he could over his face to cover the mask. He shouldn’t have put it on, he thought. True it had saved him from if someone was watching the cameras, or if one of the other skaters had decided that yes they wanted a late night walk as well, but not everyone knew who he was, or more what the person with the mask was. Not everyone was a fan of ice-skating, and to those, he probably looked quite intimidating. He hoped whoever was working at the shop knew he didn’t mean any threat.

 

It was warm inside the shop, and empty. Save him and the person at the till – a middle-aged man, resting against the counter and scrolling through his phone – there was no one else there. Yuuri turned away before the man glanced up though, now all too aware of the mask on his face. How did he appear less threatening?

 

He rushed to the back immediately, where they kept their frozen goods. As long as he went for say a healthy pasta bowl or something, Celestino wouldn’t be too mad, would he? And he was going to burn it off tomorrow at practice anyway. With that in mind, he quickly gathered a small pasta bowl and a bottle of water.

 

As he thought, the man looked a little frightened when he went up to pay. Yuuri placed the items down and quickly gathered the change in his pocket.

 

For a minute, the man was quiet, scanning the items before his curiosity got the best of him. “Say, what’s the mask for?”

 

Blunt, Yuuri thought. He must not have acted too threatening for the man to hesitate at such a forward question. He answered, “It’s… I have some problems,” he simply said. “I have to wear it in public.” Celestino had said that if a reporter asked such a straight forward question and demanded an answer, and Yuuri was not in a position to be able to get away, to keep it simple and say that there was a problem. Most of the time, they would assume he meant physically, as if there was something wrong with his face. They would stop asking for more. Most of the time. There were some that wanted extra.

 

“Oh,” the man replied, but looked more at ease. “Here is your purchase.”

 

“Thank you.” He left to brace himself against the cold air again, and as the waft of the food hit his nose, his stomach rumbled. He wanted to open it now and eat it, despite it being frozen. As he stepped into the lobby, the woman gave him another fake smile.

 

“If there is anything you would like to microwave, we have one there, beside the kitchen,” she said.

 

Yuuri nodded his head and thanked her, momentarily forgetting that he didn’t actually have one in his room. He stepped before the microwave, placed it in and waited. Only five minutes, and yet his stomach was aching for it and with each passing second, the smell of it was filling the air, trapping itself between his skin and the mask. His mouth began to water.

 

Finally, after an agonising amount of time, it clicked to the end and the beeping was shrill in his ears. He covered his hands with the sleeves of his hoodie and fished out his food, inhaling the beautiful aroma. He thanked the receptionist once again before he began to ascend the stairs.

 

Halfway up, it became too much. He tore the small plastic fork attached to the top of the package, peeled away the film and tilted his mask back, just enough for his mouth to be accessed.

 

The first mouthful was heaven. Warmth filled his cold body, and his stomach gurgled happily at the prospect of more food. It wasn’t brilliant, it wasn’t the best he’d ever had, and it certainly wasn’t the best there ever was, but in that moment, it was everything he needed. He hummed around the fork full.

 

Before he managed to get to the end of the staircase and through the door, it swung open, startling him into almost dropping his new fork-full of pasta. He swallowed it down, steadied his grip on the food, then looked up at the one that was the cause of the near-loss of food.

 

Of course it had to be Viktor, because apparently it wasn’t just Yuuri that liked to go for late night walks around the hotel. And, because he knew how crummy his luck was, it all made sense.

 

They stared at one another, and Yuuri saw Viktor’s eyes travelling down to the bottom of his face, where his mouth was still on display. He tipped his head forward slightly, allowing the mask to fall back into place, and looked back up. He was not prepared to see the smirk on Viktor’s face, as he was not prepared to hear the chuckle that left those same perfect lips.

 

“Late night snack?” he asked, his voice still a little scratchy from sleep.

 

“Uh.” Yuuri looked down at his food, to the still balancing pasta on the fork, the steam rising from the bowl, and gave a slow nod. “Yeah. I couldn’t sleep and got hungry.” He was all too aware of his own accent increasing ten-fold, a result from his lack of sleep. Don’t run away this time, he told himself. In all honestly, the food was the only thing holding him to that. Perhaps this was a second chance.

 

“Looks good.”

 

“It is.” Yuuri couldn’t help but feel as if he was caught doing something bad, and it didn’t help that the man was more elevated than him, stood atop a few more steps and looking down. And his presence, much like Chris’, was heavy and slightly overwhelming. Here was the legend, right in front of him, watching Yuuri sneak a bowl of pasta at three in the morning. This was not how he wanted to be seen, not by anyone. Perhaps he should run away.

 

“Is there a shop that is still open?”

 

“Yeah, it’s just down the-” Before he could finish his sentence, he was being spun around to face down stairs again, and an arm was looping itself through his, elbow to elbow.

 

“Good, you must show me! I am hungry too now.”

 

“It’s easy to find-”

 

“Then it won’t take long,” Viktor assured him with a wide smile.

 

That confidence, that self-esteem again. So sure of himself. Never hesitating. Yuuri found himself staring at the side of Viktor’s face, too aware of where their arms touched, and though the clothes were still in the way he could feel Viktor’s warmth. He found his throat constricting, stopping him from saying anything more.

 

The receptionist looked a little confused this time, seeing Yuuri pass again, but once her eyes fell on Viktor, she sat up properly and asked if he needed anything, a pink dusting on her cheeks and her fake smile far too wide. Viktor stopped them, flashed his own bright smile, and thanked her before he dragged Yuuri back out into the cold. Yuuri couldn’t hold the shiver.

 

“You can continue eating, if you want,” Viktor commented.

 

Yuuri was a little hesitant because while it was alright to reveal a little of his face alone, he wasn’t sure if Viktor was the type to then push it all of the way off – not that he wanted to accuse him, but he didn’t know the man. But his belly growled again, and he sighed as he pushed the mask as much as he was comfortable with and enough to eat, before getting another fork full and bringing it to his mouth. It had lost some of its heavenly taste now that he was too distracted by Viktor beside him.

 

“I have yet to finally meet you, Ren.” Viktor smiled warmly, turning his head to look at Yuuri, who was just a few inches shorter. “I’ve been patiently waiting for your senior debut.”

 

Yuuri’s fork almost missed his mouth. He took a moment to take a bite before he answered, “Thank you. It took a while, but I’m here.”

 

There must have been something in his voice, or the way he said it, because Viktor stopped them from walking and his smile was gone. He looked serious, too serious, and Yuuri found he didn’t like it. “I didn’t mean to say it as if you should have rushed, I’m sorry. I meant that I’m glad that you did decide to come back.”

 

“Oh.” Yuuri hadn’t thought he was pushing, hadn’t thought anything of it really. All his mind was focusing on was not dropping his food and the fact that the Viktor Nikiforov was walking with him and that their arms were linked. He would need to tell Phichit this. The boy was going to explode. And Yuko. Or maybe not. She would fly here to see for herself. “It’s alright, I didn’t take it like that.”

 

Viktor was searching his face, or the little he could see, and with a nod he turned them to continue walking and his smile slipped back. “I’ve been excited to be able to skate against you. You’re wonderful. Your skating is… breath-taking.”

 

Once again, Yuuri almost choked. His idol was telling him that he was breath-taking? Had the man not looked in a mirror? “Thank you,” he mumbled, pressing another mouthful of food into his mouth before he said something stupid. But at the shop, he quickly swallowed and said, “Uh, we’re passing it.”

 

“We can go in on the way back.”

 

Yuuri looked up at the man, a frown on his lips. “On the way back?” He had to inhale deeply when the Russian man turned to him, the brightest smile he had ever seen on anyone, his blue eyes sparkling in the low light of the street lamps.

 

“Yes! When I cannot sleep, there’s nothing like a nice walk at night to get me tired again.” At Yuuri’s hesitation, he assured, “I know this city well, and it’ll only be a short walk. But I’m interested in getting to know a fellow competitor, especially one as mysterious as you. And I find your voice soothing. Let’s get to know each other!”

 

It wasn’t like Yuuri could refuse that offer.

Chapter Text

Yuuri was trying not to panic.

 

With the food finished, he had nothing to distract him from how close Viktor was to his side, or how beautiful his voice was against his ear, or how the warmth on Viktor’s side of his body was intoxicating. The mask was barely doing anything to contain the excitement and the fear.

 

“Ren, are you listening?”

 

Yuuri jumped and gave a quick nod. “Sorry, yes.”

 

Viktor raised one eyebrow and smirked before he said, “You seem a little skittish. Are you alright?”

 

Yuuri looked away from Viktor’s face, finding himself with a clearer mind when they weren’t looking at one another. “Yes, I’m fine,” he said, surprised by how steady his voice sounded. “I’m just a little nervous. This is my first major competition in the senior division. I don’t know what to expect.” Your arm is touching me and I’m trying not to think how beautiful you are, so much more than on the screen. Your presence is awe-inspiring, and even here, right now, without any cameras, you’re vulnerable but confident in yourself. I don’t understand it and I don’t have the courage yet to ask.

 

Viktor chuckled and it was Yuuri’s favourite sound in the world. “It’s not very different.”

 

“But you’re all so amazing, I could never compare,” Yuuri found himself whispering before he could stop. He shook his head and mentally punished himself, forcing Yuuri to hide and trying to tug Ren back up. This was Viktor. He was king. He had no time for people who weren’t sure of themselves, not this high up in their career. Before the other man could say anything, he added, “It’s weird when everyone is older than you too. I got used to being the oldest.”

 

Viktor regarded him for a moment and Yuuri turned to look at something in the opposite direction. He knew he had said something wrong. Viktor was quiet.

 

But it seemed that whatever Viktor had been thinking of saying wasn’t important enough, so he changed the subject. “Could I ask a personal question?”

 

Yuuri thought he knew what was coming. But he gave a nod and permission, “Of course.”

 

“You do well in interviews, and avoid the answer when someone asks, but I do want to ask it once, even if you say you’d rather not answer.” Viktor stopped them above a bridge. The river below sparkled under the moonlight, and the breeze was soft against their skin. “Many people come into this profession with the love of their sport, but the attention gets to be a lot. Somewhere along the way, they realise they can get famous doing this.”

 

Surprised by the unfamiliar lead up to a question, Yuuri turned from glancing at the water to look up at his idol, glued to the image of the man’s short hair fluttering softly against his face. But he didn’t like the intensity in the man’s eyes, the sudden coldness, the thin line of his lips. And then it hit  Yuuri why this was so striking. This expression was filled with emotion, more so than any expression Yuuri had ever seen on the man.

 

Viktor continued, “And their love for the sport fades into greed. They look to get better for the world, not for themselves. Their reasons for starting are lost. They only know what fame brings them.”

 

Yuuri could feel his heart beating heavily against his chest, this time turned sour at the accusation. He took a deep breath and asked, “You think I’m hiding myself for fame?” He should have taken more offence at it, and it should have hurt that someone he looked up to thought so little of him, but that was Yuuri thinking. With his calm mind, Ren’s thoughts, he could see from Viktor’s side. He understood.

 

The Russian shrugged. “I don’t know. But you always hide your reason.”

 

Yuuri had heard many theories before, and he knew that some of the bitter skating fans accused him of these things too. Sometimes he wondered if it was a bid to make him come out and admit the real reason. He took a deep breath and said, “No, that’s not the reason.”

 

There must have been something in his voice, a truth that rang in his words, because the tension that Yuuri hadn’t seen in the man before eased from his frame. The coldness was gone, replaced by a softer expression.

 

Yuuri wrung his hands behind his back, not comfortable for the man before him to see the small nerves when he was the only one feeling them. He was brave, he thought to himself. He was able to do anything. Viktor was just another person, right? And he was real, a person, not the untouchable deity Yuuri had come to think of him as for years. But he didn’t like the accusation – he didn’t like that Viktor would think of him as someone greedy like that. He wanted to correct it. “Um,” he began, taking a steady breath. “It’s more… personal.” But he didn’t want to tell him. His reasons were his own, and he was going to keep them until he was ready – he wasn’t ready yet, not even for someone like Viktor. “The reason I wear this is for me, not for anyone else.” He hoped that that was enough to explain for the moment.

 

Viktor said nothing. His gaze flickered over Yuuri’s mask, but he seemed more intent on listening to the indentations in his voice. Just as Yuuri began to get nervous, Viktor’s face broke out into a massive grin once more and none of the hesitation or the apprehension was left. He gripped Yuuri’s arm tighter again and pulled them to continue their stroll.

 

“That’s good to hear. I had been wondering what kind of man you were.”

 

While I was thinking about you, my idol, and how much I wanted to meet you, you were wondering if I was doing all of this for attention? Yuuri, despite knowing it was because of Viktor’s love of his sport that he wanted to defend it, couldn’t help but feel a little hurt the more he thought about it. While he couldn’t say exactly why he was doing this, he wanted to assure the older man that he really was just doing this because of himself, because he was weak, because he could never be like him. Because he got nervous in front of a crowd, while Viktor seemed to bask in it.

 

That thought alone struck hard. His chest clenched, and while Viktor began to talk idly about their programs, about the one he had seen Yuuri win with years ago, Yuuri felt his vision swimming. The man he looked up to thought so little of him? His breathing was coming out in little sharp bursts. It was so cold. His skin was crawling.

 

Is that how the world saw him? Surprisingly, that didn’t hurt him as much.

 

They stopped again. He could feel Viktor turning to him. There was a hand on his other shoulder. A steady voice rang through.

 

“Ren?”

 

The world became a little clearer again. He looked up into the Russian’s concerned face. Even that expression was beautiful.

 

“Are you alright?”

 

Yuuri sighed. The anxiety, the panic, it wasn’t meant to be coming back, not while he was Ren. “Do you… Do you think I’m… That I’m…?” His voice was cracking. He cleared his throat and tried again. “I’m not doing this for the attention.” It wasn’t working. He still sounded pathetic. He looked away from Viktor to instead stare down at their feet. It wasn’t nearly as bad as if his face was open and vulnerable. Yuuri Katsuki would have been a quivering wreck by now. But it still shouldn’t have been happening.

 

“Did I say something wrong?”

 

Yuuri looked up at Viktor again at his tone, noticing the worry lacing it again. Viktor’s eyebrows were drawn together. Yuuri had to admire the expression, wondering, not for the first time, how he could be so open and not feel ashamed.

 

“No,” Yuuri assured, finding his voice spilling out without his permission. “Not that, I just… I’ve always looked up to you and I don’t want you to think I’m only in this for the fame when I really love what I do.” He stopped himself before he could get any more embarrassing. Not for the first time again, he found himself thanking his past self for the decision on the mask. At least Viktor didn’t see his embarrassment, his blushing cheeks, the pale skin or the tears gathering at the corner of his eyes.

 

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to be so accusing,” Viktor muttered. He was about to say more, but sighed and rubbed the back of his neck with his free hand. “I don’t seem to be saying anything right tonight.”

 

Yuuri found himself staring at the man’s face. So open. So real. He was nothing like the Viktor he had seen on the screen for years, and yet everything like him. It was as if the cameras only ever caught his confidence, but never the worry, the concentration, the hesitation, the softer parts of the legend. The parts that Yuuri was seeing right now. It made his admiration for the man only grow. Viktor could be such a well-rounded person, with a depth in his personality that was so beautiful. Yuuri watched his movements carefully, like the way that Viktor glanced to the side when he was unsure of what to say, or the way he tilted his head when he was thinking, or the curl of his fingers when he was speaking about something he liked. He’d need to incorporate those into Ren, somehow.

 

Viktor looked back at him and gave him another gleaming smile, the concern slipping from his features. “Let’s start again.” He let go of Yuuri, not noticing the way Yuuri shivered at the cold that replaced the warmth, and gave a slight bow. “Lovely to meet you, Mr…?”

 

Yuuri felt himself chuckle before the moment clicked in his mind. He gave a quick bow of his head before greeting, “Himura, but you may call me Ren.”

 

“Splendid, Ren, a beautiful name. My name is Viktor Nikiforov – a mouthful, I know, but I’m sure you can handle it.”

 

Before Yuuri could jest back, he froze to watch Viktor reach for his hand. As their skin touched, he felt currents run through his veins, and he almost choked on his breath when he watched Viktor bring his knuckles to his lips. A light kiss was placed on the skin, Viktor’s eyes boring into Yuuri.

 

Yuuri stopped breathing all together, his heart hammering faster than he had ever felt it go before. They were suspended in the moment for only a second, and yet it felt like a lifetime. Yuuri engrained this memory into his mind forever, the way Viktor’s lips shone under the streetlight, the way his eyes danced as if he knew exactly what it was he was doing to Yuuri, the way his silver hair looked so soft to the touch.

 

Above all, the way his lips felt on his skin.

 

He gulped and thanked his mask for the hundredth for its security and protection against the storm that was raging against it, the redness of his face and his wide eyes. None of them beautiful, but at least Viktor didn’t have to see.

 

All too soon, the moment was broken when Viktor stood up and let Yuuri’s arm drop lamely to his side. He braced his elbow out, however, waiting for Yuuri to take it.

 

“Would you like to come for a walk with me, Ren?”

 

Yuuri felt the nerves leave him again. The worry that his idol saw him as something so horrible fell away. He gave the man a big grin, though he couldn’t see, and slipped his arm into the crook of Viktor’s. The warmth was back, and he took a moment to appreciate it. For only a moment, he thought that it was dangerous that Viktor could make him feel emotions that the mask should have been protecting him from.

 

“I would love to,” Yuuri replied.

 

“Do you come here often?”

 

Too taken aback, Yuuri turned to stare at Viktor, a gasp leaving his lips. Viktor simply winked at him and left it at that, then continued to ask Yuuri about his favourite things. Yuuri’s replies were automatic, still too stunned by what had happened.

 

Yuuri wasn’t experienced when it came to romance, especially not something as humiliating as flirting, though he was sure this was something like it. But he needed to figure out if that was just Viktor, or if he meant something by it. It was too much to think about. He couldn’t come up with an answer, and he knew he would be thinking about it for hours to come.

 

***

 

They set back towards the hotel soon after, in the midst of talking about what they liked and disliked. Even in the short time they had been speaking, Yuuri couldn’t get used to the presence of the man beside him. He was just as big, as powerful, as brilliant as Yuuri had come to think of him as in the years he had idolised him.

 

After their misunderstanding and confrontation, they fell into an easy conversation, and Yuuri found himself smiling more than he ever had before. But all too soon, the weariness of sleep decided to creep on him. His yawn was loud enough for Viktor to hear, no matter how much Yuuri tried to hide it behind the mask.

 

“I suppose it’s getting late,” Viktor muttered, stifling his own yawn. “And we have another busy day of training tomorrow.”

 

“Mmhmm,” Yuuri agreed, not sure what else he could say. He wanted to stay talking to Viktor until the sun came up, but his body told him it wouldn’t be a good idea. If he wanted to train the quads for his programmes tomorrow, he would need the sleep.

 

And yet Viktor had proven to be something more than Yuuri had expected, greater than his own public images – if that was possible. Regardless of what the man thought of him, Yuuri only found he liked the Russian more. As the thought hit him, he took a deep breath and let it out again slowly. Viktor was still competition, he reminded himself, and the greatest competition of them all. He couldn’t lose sight of his goal.

 

He’d decided on waiting to ask Viktor his questions once he got to know the man more, and preferably after the Grand Prix Final was done. He wanted to prove to Viktor that he was worthy of his attention. He wanted to prove to be a competitor before he asked anything that made him seem too vulnerable. Asking how the man was so confident, so held together, could be so open seemed weak even to his own ears. And it gave him time to observe Viktor, to see if he could pull the answers himself while watching him perform in the flesh.

 

As Yuuri found himself before his own room again, a thought struck him. He looked up into Viktor’s face and asked, “But didn’t you want to get food?”

 

The man shrugged and gave a stifled yawn. “It’s too late now. If I eat now, I won’t sleep.”

 

“Oh okay,” Yuuri muttered. He felt a little worried then, that he had kept Viktor up. He needed his sleep if he was going to maintain his reputation, and Yuuri was concerned that his training tomorrow might be effected. He should have insisted that Viktor sleep. Yuuri was used to little sleep, but he doubted the Russian was – not with how amazing he looked. “Well goodnight,” he bid before he went to reach for the door.

 

“Ren,” Viktor stopped him.

 

Yuuri paused for a moment before he turned back. “Yes?”

 

In the low light and the quiet, Viktor looked brilliant. His features were soft, the smile small but warm. And his eyes were crinkled to look like little half-moons, sparkling as they bored into Yuuri. The low light cupped his cheeks and darkened his outlines, drawing in Yuuri’s gaze. The Japanese felt his heart soar. The man was beautiful, no matter how many times it still surprised Yuuri.

 

“Thank you for keeping me company,” Viktor whispered, stepping a little closer to him. “It was lovely to finally be able to speak to you.”

 

“Yeah, same.” Yuuri slapped a hand against the top of his mask, sighing and correcting, “I mean, yes, it was good to speak to you too. I mean, I’ve been wanting to for ages, because you’re brilliant and-” He stopped himself before he said anything more. “I’m sorry, I must just be tired.”

 

Viktor didn’t look insulted though. Instead, his smile grew a little bit, and Yuuri couldn’t help but compare this one to the ones he had seen countless times on television. It had never struck him before, but this one seemed… genuine, warmer, as if he couldn’t help it. Yuuri never thought about it before now. He never wondered what that smile meant.

 

“See you tomorrow at training?” Viktor asked.

 

Yuuri gave a short nod. “Yes. I’ll see you there too. Goodnight.”

 

Just as Yuuri was disappearing behind the door, he heard Viktor say, “Goodnight, Ren. Sweet dreams.”

 

Yuuri stood against the locked door for a second, listening to Viktor’s feet disappear down the hall and into his own room. Only then could he breathe properly. He quickly took out his phone, sending a quick text to both Yuko and Phichit, updating them on what had happened and what they had talked about, before he stepped forward, slipped the mask off, and collapsed to bed. As soon as he hit the pillow, he began to drift to sleep. He didn’t even wake as his phone began to buzz incessantly.

 

***

 

He’d never felt as groggy as he did when he woke the next morning. His alarm rang loudly in the silent room, waking him from a dream of eating the biggest bowl of katsudon he had ever seen. He dragged himself out and rested himself at the end of the bed, taking a moment to wake up.

 

His head felt as if it was filled with cotton wool. His muscles were slow, heavy, and his eyes were barely able to stay open.

 

It was too early, he decided. It should have been the law that no one got up earlier than ten in the morning. Resigned to his fate, he began to change and get ready.

 

Celestino and he arrived earlier than the others again. He set to practicing his quads, taking advantage of the space before everyone else arrived. Celestino seemed harder today, seeing the way that Yuuri was falling asleep with every pause he gave. He got Yuuri to keep going, to use all of the energy he had, to throw everything into what he was doing before his body became too tired. Yuuri didn’t argue, seeing the logic, but it didn’t mean he liked it  

 

Before long, other skaters began to trickle in, bright and awake from the extra sleep.

 

Yuuri was leaning in the corner of the rink, the sweat pouring from his forehead. He was breathing heavily, his lungs on fire, his legs sore from the jumps. But he was happy. He’d managed to land some of the hardest quads, ones he faltered on before, and had attempted combinations. With every success, his confidence was growing and he was sure that his comeback was going to be something great.

 

“Ren!”

 

Yuuri turned at the call of his name, seeing Chris on the other side of the rink, just entering through the door. Beside him, Viktor was standing. Yuuri almost laughed at the image – both were wearing thick sunglasses, bags slung over their shoulders, and smirks on their lips. They waved when his attention fell on them.

 

“Bright and early once again, hmm?” Chris called.

 

His voice stopped the other skaters in the rink. Their gazes turned to Yuuri, resting on the edge, holding himself up by the barrier. Yuuri sighed when his eyes fell on Viktor – he wasn’t sure how, but the man looked brilliant still, no bags under his eyes, his skin still soft and healthy, standing as if he had slept through the whole night. How did he do it?

 

“Yep,” he called back. “It’s nice to have some peace and quiet.”

 

Chris laughed. “Trying to say something?”

Yuuri was lost for a second, before he realised the connotations of his own words. He squeaked and began to shake his head and hands, eager to rush to take back his words. “No, no! I didn’t mean that you were loud or distracting, I just mean that everything is distracting! I just wanted to be alone. I’m sorry!”

 

Chris’ laugh rang through the rink, singing like bells bouncing off of the ice. He assured, “I joke, Ren. I took no offence.” He tilted his head to the side and gave a quick wink. “I know how distracting I can be.”

 

Yuuri gulped away the shock. What was it with all the senior skaters being so confident and open? Or beautiful? How were any of them really human?

 

“Chris, leave the poor boy alone,” Viktor said. He dropped his bag and began to lace up his own skates. Yuuri couldn’t stop staring at his hands, the long slim fingers, so elegant in their glide to tie them tightly. “Let him get his training in.”

 

Chris looked Yuuri up and down, taking in the slump of his shoulders, the heavy breathing, and commented, “I think he needs a good break. Ren, come here!”

 

Yuuri cast a wary look towards Celestino, but the man gave him a grin and nodded his head. With curiosity lining his thoughts, Yuuri skated towards the Swiss man. “Yes?” he asked once he was close enough.

 

Chris grabbed him from the side, with his arm around Yuuri’s shoulders, and brought the man closer to him but careful not to smother the younger man. “Feeling at all nervous, Ren?” Chris asked. “Let big brother Chris ease your nerves.”

 

Yuuri looked away when the comment was accompanied by another wink. The blush was furious against his cheeks, hidden away from prying eyes. He gave a short small laugh, unsure on how to approach the situation. Was Chris always this… flirty? Were all of the skaters like this? No one was nearly this blunt from his home town.

 

“Um,” he attempted, “a little nervous, but I think I’m more excited.”

 

Chris turned him so that he was crushed to his front, his head resting against the other’s chest. He could feel Chris’ heartbeat, calm against his ear. “That’s good! I’ve seen many break down from the nerves on their first trip to the Grand Prix Final. But you’ve been through this once before, in the Junior rounds. We’ll need to look out for you!”

 

Yuuri felt the mask work its magic. His first instinct was to tell them that he wasn’t anything like them – he doubted he would win, not against these legends. But that wasn’t Ren. Ren was a force to reckon with, and his confidence was something else. So Yuuri looked up into the Swiss’ face, tilting his head at the challenge, and said with a steady voice, “Yeah, otherwise I might be taking your crown, old man.”

 

Chris blanked at first. So taken aback by the challenge, his eyes widened and he lost some of his smirk. It crossed Yuuri’s mind that the man must not have been challenged often. But as the words sunk in, Chris gave the biggest smirk he could and narrowed his eyes. “Viktor! We have a feisty one here.”

 

Yuuri pulled himself from his hold and made to go back onto the ice, intent with continuing his training. Before he skated off, he turned to look over his shoulder at the two skaters. “I’m just warning you two not to underestimate me.” He left before he could see their faces, but he could feel their eyes boring into his back as he skated back towards his coach.

 

Inside, he was reeling from what he had said. Yuuri Katsuki was embarrassed and regretful, demanding that their words be taken back. But Ren Himura was walking away with a strut, the challenge hanging in the air. Ren wanted his senior debut to be one of the biggest there ever was, and for it he hoped that Chris and Viktor would try their hardest against him. Go big or go home, as Yuko had told him before he moved to America. If he was going to use this mask to its full advantage, then he was going to try and win.

 

As he got close to Celestino, his coach grinned and raised one thick eyebrow. “Why do I get the feeling you’re already making enemies?”

 

“I’m not sure enemies,” Yuuri replied. “But I am keeping them on their toes.”

 

He gave a deep belly laugh, throwing his head back. “Good, they need that,” he approved. When he looked back at Yuuri, his eyes glanced over his mask. “I’m surprised, it’s not what you’d usually do.”

 

Yuuri shrugged, suddenly bashful. “Well, the mask works.” And it surprised him every time when it did. He had always been weak mentally – never quite having a hold on it, no control and letting it dictate everything he ever did. But now, he could turn that around and make his mental state one of the strongest things about him. With a simple plastic mask. Something so small to others meant so much to him.

 

“Well, let’s work more of its magic. I want you to practice your quads again.”

 

Yuuri stumbled slightly beside the barrier. “What?”

 

Celestino still had that stupid smirk on his face. He tilted his head to the side, a challenging gleam in his eyes. “Ren isn’t scared, is he?”

 

Yuuri stuttered just a little, the fear of doing something so career making in front of such experienced skaters – not just one, but several, one of which being Viktor himself – was bubbling up. But Yuuri took a deep breath, pushed the thought down, and listened to the voice in his head that said he could do it. He hadn’t fallen on a quad in the last few months of his practice, this shouldn’t be anything different. In fact, if anyone was going to judge him on it, it would be his coach, right? That was his job! With that thought in mind, Yuuri nodded his head and took his stance on his own little area of the rink.

 

Surprisingly, the negative thoughts didn’t return. Even as he felt the eyes of the other skaters on him. He calmed himself and focused everything on his own routine. He never noticed the others stopping to watch. He didn’t notice Chris and Viktor leaning against the barrier, their eyes perhaps the most focused on him than others, the way that other coaches around the edges judged his every breath. The only sound he could hear was his own heart-beat, his own slicing skates against the ice, his own coach giving praise.

 

He slipped back into how he felt those few days in the Junior Grand Prix. He never remembered the audience. He didn’t remember the voices of the commentators. He didn’t remember the other skaters. He only remembered his own emotions and how they screamed as he skated his routine. For just a few minutes, he was in his own world. No. He was his own world. He was what he needed.

 

He was himself.

 

For the first time in a long time, that thought didn’t frighten him.

 

***

 

He skyped Phichit as soon as he got to his room. Throwing on his leisure clothes, placing his mask on the bed side, he called his best friend. As if he had been waiting, Phichit connected on the second ring.

 

“Yuuri!”

 

“Phichit!” Yuuri shouted back, the smile on his face pulling. He could not have been able to get rid of it, not even if he wanted to. He placed his glasses on the tip of his nose and smiled down at the screen. His best friend’s voice was nostalgic and reminded him of how much he missed the boy.

 

“I missed you!” Phichit shouted, pressing his face closer to the screen.

 

“I called you last night.” Yuuri shook his head, and yet he had to admit that having a friend say that they missed him made him feel brilliant. Like he was needed. Loved.

 

Phichit rolled his eyes. “Too long. So, tell me everything!”

 

“What do you want to know?”

 

“Everything! I said everything!”

 

“Well, practice went well today. I’m really getting better at my quads. I can do like eight in a row now without getting too tired-”

 

He stopped when he noticed the way his best friend was looking at him; with crossed arms and narrowed eyes, as if Yuuri had done something wrong. Before he could ask, Phichit explained, “Not that, though that’s amazing. Your monster stamina never fails to both impress me and scare me. But I woke up this morning to a text from you, about something last night?”

 

Yuuri rubbed the back of his neck. “Ah, yeah, that. I… kind of forgot I told you.”

 

“What happened? And if you don’t start telling me now I am going to get on a plane and demand it from you in person.”

 

“Well, I just went to get some food in the middle of the night,” Yuuri began to explain, looking at the corner of the screen, anywhere away from Phichit’s wide eyes. “And on my way back, I sort of ran into him? Or, more like, he opened the door and almost made me drop my food-”

 

“Please tell me you dropped it on him.”

 

Yuuri turned to his best friend, blinking away the confusion before he said, “No, why?”

 

“Because that would have been hilarious.”

 

Blushing furiously, Yuuri shook his hands before the screen. “No! That would have been so embarrassing!”

 

“Whatever, just carry on!”

 

“He asked where I got the food, and I was going to tell him but he just linked our arms and dragged me back out of the hotel, saying I could show him in person. Instead though, he walked us right passed it and said we should go for a walk.”

 

“To talk? Oooh, get in there, Yuuri! How did it go?”

 

Yuuri couldn’t stop the bubble of a giggle breaking from his throat at the enthusiasm in his best friend’s voice. But it faltered when he said, “It was alright at first. But then he got a bit serious and wanted to know why I was wearing a mask.” Phichit’s face became a little dangerous then, his expression dark, and before he could think the worst, Yuuri shook his head and said, “He didn’t make me take it off or anything! You know how he’s pretty serious about ice skating. He thought I was doing it just to get attention and that I wasn’t taking the sport seriously.”

 

Phichit calmed a little then, smiling again as he said, “Oh, okay, that makes a bit more sense. And I can see where he would get that idea.”

 

“Exactly, and once I cleared with him that that wasn’t why, that it was more personal, he dropped it and didn’t ask anything more about it.”

 

“Gentlemanly!”

 

Yuuri raised his hand to scratch his nose, covering the light blush that lingered on his cheeks. “Yeah, I suppose.”

 

“Yuuri, you’re blushing.”

 

Yuuri turned away from the screen with the pretence of grabbing something that had fallen onto the floor. “No, I’m not!”

 

“Did he say something or just being in his presence makes you blush like this?”

 

“I told you what he said in the text last night-”

 

“But it’s not the same as hearing it from you!” Phichit whined. “And you’re always so vague, Yuuri!”

 

Before he could psyche himself out, Yuuri coughed and rushed to say, “He may have kissed my hand.” It was too quiet, barely audible to his ears, and he doubted that Phichit could hear it over skype. And yet he underestimated him, his best friend who was always interested in some gossip, even over the faulty connections of skype.

 

There was a stunned silence for the longest time. Yuuri looked up to his best friend, to see the Thai skater sat still before the computer, blinking slowly as if the words were still registering. Once they had, his eyes widened and energy was almost visible as it coursed through him. He grabbed his own laptop and brought it to his face until only his eyes were visible on Yuuri’s screen.

 

“WHAT.”

 

Yuuri flinched at the volume.

 

“Tell. Me. Everything! And how dare you leave this so late to tell me!”

 

“Geez, Phichit, sometimes you scare me!”

 

“Just shut up and tell me every little detail!”

 

So Yuuri did. He told him everything. Every little detail, as was asked, and more. He was a little reluctant to admit some of the feelings he’d felt, but with a little push from his friend he was spilling them out as if a barrier had been broken. He told Phichit in detail of how he had felt when Viktor kissed his hand. He said how he remembered the feeling on his skin, trailing his fingers across his knuckles at the memory.

 

He also admitted his fears. In his time of following the legend, Yuuri knew how flirty Viktor Nikiforov was. He’d seen in numerous interviews, in photo shoots and his skating itself how much Viktor loved to bask in the attention, how much he loved to flirt with those around him. The wink was now a permanent feature. Just as Chris did, Viktor knew what his fan base wanted. What Yuuri felt was like what thousands of others felt. It wasn’t special to Viktor. But it was special to Yuuri.

 

And yet the thought didn’t make him feel sad. He knew he was a very sensitive person, and his emotions never came in drabbles but as a full wave. What he felt, he felt strongly. He used to think it was weakness. But his emotions weren’t always negative – the love he had for his family, for his friends, it was endless and made him incredibly happy. When he was determined, he could feel the fire. The euphoria was always addicting. While the sadness was always deep and deafening, the bright emotions balanced it out.

 

He’d steadily grown to love his extreme emotions. It took a while, but with every new thing he obsessed, with every fierce emotion, with every bated breath, he learned to appreciate how much it made Yuuri himself.

 

And if Viktor couldn’t see that, if he lumped everyone’s emotions together, then that was his loss. Yuuri still couldn’t believe that he was here, with some of the biggest skaters that he had admired since he was a child.

 

He wasn’t a mere fan. He was bigger than that. He was a man filled to the brim with strong emotions, and it had taken him this far. And he was going to make sure that those emotions took him right to the pedestal.

Chapter Text

The third day of training was hard. Celestino pushed him at his program, to do it over and over and over again until everything was perfect.

 

But there was a vast difference between their definitions of ‘perfect’.

 

While Yuuri thought his jumps were perfect, Celestino judged that it wasn’t high enough, or enough speed, or the landing wasn’t balanced, and so on. He pushed Yuuri to attempt some with an arm raised, and when that didn’t seem enough, he pushed Yuuri to raise two. They stopped when it became clear that Yuuri was quickly losing his balance and energy.

 

By the time lunch rolled around, Yuuri wasn’t able to walk without his knees buckling. He sat on the café chair, his muscles screaming, as he waited for Celestino to come back with their food. When the weight seemed to be too much, he sighed and leaned forward, resting his face against the table, the mask cushioning some of the blow.

 

He allowed the sounds of the café wash over him. During their training, it wasn’t open to the public. But the staff were still ambling about, looking for just a glimpse of the skaters. He’d heard them muttering and giggling as he walked in. He did his best to ignore them, but it was hard when his sense of hearing was so good.

 

“I don’t think he’s getting up again any time soon.”

 

Yuuri’s head snapped back up as a scream bubbled in his throat. Viktor and Chris sat opposite him, already with their own food before them, watching as if he was their entertainment. Yuuri pressed a hand to his beating heart and willed it to slow down.

 

“You look tired,” Viktor commented, his welcoming smile faltering just a little, almost like concern.

 

Yuuri sat up properly and rubbed his arms, a shiver running through him at the sound of the Russian’s voice. “I didn’t sleep properly,” he replied. “And my coach has decided that today is dedicated to nothing but jumps, apparently. I was not prepared.” He gave what he hoped was a light chuckle, but it came out as strained.

 

“You need to get some food into you,” Chris said, popping a little of his into his own mouth and licking his fingers to finish it off.

 

“Yeah, Celestino is getting some for us now.”

 

“Do you never sleep well? The other night wasn’t a one off?” Viktor asked, leaning forwards and his eye catching on every movement Yuuri made.

 

Chris raised one eyebrow and asked, “The other night?” His voice dripped with curiosity.

 

Deciding to ignore it, Yuuri replied to Viktor instead, “Not really. Sleep and I never really get along.” He didn’t really know why that was. He loved to sleep, and yet he could never quite slip into it as others did. He didn’t remember sleeping through the whole night, it had been that long. Minako made the comment that sleep could sometimes be disturbed by anxious thoughts. Yuuri thought that was enough to explain it.

 

“That’s not good. Sleep is important.” Viktor’s voice trailed off as he placed his hand on his chin and thought for a moment. Chris and Yuuri waited for something, but when it became clear that he wasn’t going to continue, Chris turned back to Yuuri.

 

“So, the other night?” he asked again with a knowing smirk.

 

Yuuri was trying to figure out what to say when Celestino finally arrived, two trays in his hands. He placed Yuuri’s before him before he sat down in the seat opposite Chris. He made a greeting towards the others before he turned back to Yuuri.

 

“Phichit wants you to ring him as soon as you’re done,” his coach said.

 

“I just skyped him last night.”

 

Celestino laughed. “He’s texted me to demand another one.”

 

“Did he say why?”

 

His coach shrugged. “He did say but I didn’t understand.” He took a pause to eat a little of his own food before he said, “I think he gets nervous when you’re away competing. He wants to make sure you’re alright.”

 

Yuuri’s heart warmed. It had been a hard conversation, admitting to the young Thai skater that his anxiety was deep, overwhelming and terrifying. He’d admitted to his best friend his worries and his reasons for the mask. He’d stressed the whole time that Phichit would see him as fragile and something to protect. Instead, he found comfort. When Phichit checked up on him, it didn’t feel as if it was suffocating. It felt reassuring.

 

It was one of the reasons he was thankful that, in hindsight, he told the other skater who he was and why he did what he did. He needed support. He wasn’t ashamed to admit that. He hadn’t been one to be able to do things by himself – he was too unsure of himself. And he always needed someone to confide in, whether that was to tell them how he was feeling, or just to have someone close for comfort. Phichit had proven to be one of the best supporters he ever had.

 

He gave his coach a quick nod. “Okay.” He found himself wishing he was in his hotel room now, sitting comfortably on his bed, his laptop before him and his best friend’s voice ringing through his speakers. Just anything to be off of his feet right now.

 

At his groan, Chris chuckled, “Don’t you think you’re overworking him a little today?”

 

Yuuri had momentarily forgotten where he was. He always had that habit – spacing out. His head snapped up to the two skaters before him again, and his calmed heart began to beat harder. While they were not looking at him, he took the moment – and the secrecy his mask provided – to really explore their features.

 

Both were stunning in their own way. Chris had some of the most beautiful eyes that Yuuri had ever seen, on any gender. And though his hair was flamboyant and bright, Yuuri knew that even a dull brown would not be able to mute the attraction of the Swiss. The most striking thing to Yuuri was how the man held himself. Much like Viktor, confidence ebbed from his being – not arrogance, but surety of himself. It was clear in the way he never slumped, looked everyone in the eye, the high head, the open body language and his eagerness to share his thoughts.

 

Viktor’s expression of his confidence was different, however. He assumed that people were watching him and he held himself in such a way that they would always see his feelings. He often looked down at the person, his eyelashes blinking against his cheeks, a side smirk, a walk that glided as if he flew. Yuuri didn’t see him as a man that would spite his fans, he loved them dearly. But the man also knew where he was, and how they saw him. He loved them, but he was also above them, and it was never worth remembering every single one as he didn’t think it would be needed. Not arrogance, again not to be confused with the base impression – but instead, a confidence in himself. He knew that his blue eyes were ones that people dreamed of, that his soft hair demanded to be touched, that his very disposition reeled people in.

 

Both men were stunning. Beautiful. Gorgeous. They were not plain like Yuuri.

 

He found himself fiddling with his fingers, his eyes cast down at the food in front of him. It was true that the mask gave him the confidence that he craved – but there were different kinds of confidence. It gave him surety in his skills, in his sport, in his performance. It gave him a drive to perfect his art and do better. But it never did anything for how he perceived himself as a person.

 

He still saw himself as the plain boy, with uninteresting black hair, common brown eyes, cheeks that might have still been a little too round from his fluctuating weight. He was average height. He was not slim, and not big now that he was training again. Average. There was nothing memorable about him. He knew too that if he had been able to overcome his anxiety and still competed without the mask and persona, he’d have been lost in a sea of skaters; he would not be in the spotlight as he was now. He would be nothing special. Not like these men before him.

 

The thought struck something inside of him. He took a deep breath and tried to push the thoughts away. They hadn’t hit so hard for a long time.

 

“…right?”

 

He became aware of the eyes on him and the voice beside him. He looked back up to his coach, a questioning tilt of his head saying everything he needed.

 

Celestino rolled his eyes. “I said you can take anything I throw at you, right?”

 

“Oh,” Yuuri replied, his feelings taking a sharp turn upwards at the compliment. He looked back to his food, a small smile behind his mask, as he picked up his fork. “Yeah, I guess.” He carefully pulled the mask back slightly, just enough for him to get to his food before he took a bite. He ignored the look Chris was giving him, a shocked expression as if he never expected to see Yuuri eating at all. He hummed when the first bite hit his tongue. He hadn’t realised how hungry he was.

 

“You guess?” Celestino leaned against the table, looking at the Russian and the Swiss man right in the eye and demanding their attention. “You should have seen how hard he trained after years of absence. Leading up to this season, the only skating he did was when he had some spare time. I pushed him as hard as I could to get him back up to the level he was when he won the Junior Grand Prix.”

 

Yuuri chocked a little on the food as he remembered the first few months of his training. It really had been gruelling, close to being called hell. He hadn’t believed how much of his flexibility had been lost, or how hard it was to get the muscle memory of the step sequences and jumps back. Celestino had not held back, however, pushing him as hard as he could without Yuuri getting hurt. He appreciated it now, but at the time he wondered if he should continue. Perhaps his love for the sport wasn’t worth it. And yet it had been. When he was back at his peak, with more to give than before, his love rushed back as hard as it had been before. When he didn’t have to concentrate too much on his programmes, it felt freeing.

 

“I push him,” his coach continued, “because I know he can take it. I demand something, and Ren here gives me more than that. His determination is something brilliant.”

 

Yuuri’s cheeks flushed at the compliment.

 

“And it’s why you two should be worried. Your years of effortlessly reaching the gold and silver are drawing to a close.”

 

Yuuri wanted to throw his food at his coach. Celestino had said to not go making enemies. And there was a difference in promising that he would make it to the podium, and saying he would take their solid golds and silvers! He almost slunk under the table when the men around him began to chuckle.

 

***

 

The day before the competition proved to be one of the hardest that Yuuri had ever gone through, both in training and how his nerves ran wild.

 

Being the only skater out on the ice, Yuuri had the whole rink to practice with, which only seemed to spur his coach into pushing him harder with each passing minute. The skaters had been allocated times for when they could practice in the empty rink as last minute preparation or to iron out anything they felt they hadn’t perfected yet. Yuuri’s was first, early in the morning.

 

He rested his hands on his knees as he stood in the middle of the ice, leaning all of his weight onto them as he took a moment to breathe. More jumps. Jump for this and jumps for that and jumping high, low, speed, rotations, positions, going over and over again inside his head. The sweat was pouring from his skin.

 

“Take a break here,” his coach called.

 

Yuuri almost felt tempted. He wiped away the sweat from his neck and made to go for the edge, but something inside of him rung loudly, reminding him of thoughts that often vanished in his training. He knew why he was doing this. He remembered what he was telling the world. He glanced up at Celestino as he was mid-way through slicking his hair backwards. For the briefest moment, his vision flickered.

 

It wasn’t Celestino that waited by the barrier any longer. Instead, it was his old tutor, with his laughter lines, his thin, wispy hair, his gleaming smile. He was leaning against the barrier, a bottle of water in his hands, just as he was always prepared with. He was waving Yuuri back, telling him not to push himself too hard. Yuuri could almost hear his voice now. It sounded so clear.

 

But the memory only lasted a second. Celestino was back, his expression faltering when he noticed the hesitation in Yuuri’s frame. He asked something. Yuuri didn’t hear.

 

He was reminded too much of what it was he was missing and what he was proving. It had been years since he recalled his tutor so vividly. He should have been here, in front of him, with him, watching just how far he had come. They used to talk about what they would do once Yuuri made it this far. He used to threaten jokingly that he would tell Viktor of Yuuri’s obsession over the man.

 

“No,” he whispered. Clearing his throat, he replied to his coach, “No, I want to continue. I can continue. We only have an hour left of our slot. I need to push myself if I’m going to make it to the podium.” Because he was going to. He was going to do everything he could to make sure he got there. He was going to make his tutor proud. It was what he was worth and what he deserved.

 

Celestino looked reluctantly to let Yuuri continue, but he saw the determination in Yuuri, the way that the young skater took a deep breath and readied his beginning position. With an “Okay,” he pressed the play on the music and let Yuuri lose himself in the music.

 

Each time Yuuri skated his program, it felt like the first time. And when he truly lost himself in the dance, he found himself the happiest he had ever felt before. The world blurred, the music became embedded in his soul, his worries were a distant memory. He returned to his base emotions. He could breathe without being scared of something taking it away.

 

And with each programme he skated, he fell more in love with the magic it held. It was why he could never completely understand fans of skating – he loved to watch it himself, but he knew what it felt like to glide over the ice like that. He knew how beautiful it was. He knew how much it became his meaning of life. He loved to watch the sport because he knew how intoxicating it was.

 

It was what he ran to when he was lost. It was his saviour. It was what kept him feeling young. It held so much of his love. He was surprised, each and every time he took to the ice, how much of his love it really held.

 

So he skated his heart out for the last hour he could. And for that short time, he forgot he was preparing for a competition.

 

A skater he hadn’t known the name of but had seen around was preparing for the slot after his when he entered the changing room. The nameless skater gave him a greeting nod, one of which Yuuri returned, before he passed to take to the ice.

 

In the next hour, Yuuri found himself sitting in his room, more than a little bored. He’d quickly skyped Yuko, who had been more than a little sleep at the time difference, but it had been lovely to speak with his close friend after such a long time. She’d been updating him on everything.

 

“Yuuri, you should see the whole town!” she had said. “They have posters of you everywhere! Everyone is so, so proud of you. I mean, sure hardly anyone knows who you are, but you came out of Hasetsu, and hardly anything comes out of Hasetsu. The only thing we have going for us is the castle.”

 

At first, Yuuri blushed at the idea that there were posters of him around the town. But he reminded himself that they were of Ren, not Yuuri. There was nothing to be ashamed of or shy about, right? It still felt surreal however. As weird as it felt being in the media attention, it felt weirder still to know that people he knew, people he grew up with, were proud of his accomplishments and spurring him on. Perhaps they didn’t know who he was, but it was still support for him.

 

After a little bit more conversation, Yuuri pushed Yuko to sleep and he was left with nothing to do. Phichit would be sleeping, and he hadn’t really anyone else he could talk to. Instead, he decided to watch one of the several complimentary films that the hotel had to offer. Celestino had commented that it would calm down the anxieties that were slowly growing in preparation for the competition tomorrow.

 

Tomorrow. The Grand Prix Final. His senior debut. In front of the whole world. With his town watching. His parents watching. Yuko watching. Minako watching. So many eyes. And among such skilled skaters who could win medals effortlessly. Tomorrow.

 

He took a deep breath and willed the thoughts away. It was hard, but he could just about do it. So he played one of the films on the list and sat back in his bed, swaddled in blankets.

 

But just as he was getting into it, there was a knock on the door.

 

He narrowed his eyes at the object, reminding himself that Celestino had retreated to his own room to make last-minute preparations and to shower. Perhaps it was one of the other skaters?

 

At the second knock, he got up to investigate. First though, he looked through the peep hole in the door. It was hard for his blurred vision to adjust, but he noticed a man in the hotel uniform. He had his hands behind his back, already a practiced smile on his lips in readiness for the door to open.

 

Yuuri quickly clasped the mask around his head before he opened it.

 

Once he had, he noticed three things.

 

One, that he recognised the man. For a second, he couldn’t remember where. It reminded him of a face he could see in a sea of faces, hidden, unfamiliar yet somehow a little, lost amongst them all but the scar on his forehead was enough to cause some notice. His mind clicked with the memory of seeing him outside in a crowd of fans and journalists.

 

Two, that he man’s practiced smile turned to a grin as the door opened. The grin was unsettling. His eyes turned cold. He was staring far too hard.

 

Three, that the man’s hands where quickly whipping from around his back. One was empty but reaching up towards Yuuri’s chest, while the other held a small, disposable camera.

 

Yuuri didn’t have time to react before the man grabbed his top and threw him out of the room. He cried out when his back hit the wall on the other side of the hall, the wind from his lungs pushed out. As the man stepped forward to grab the back of his mask, however, Yuuri had more time to react. He kicked at the man’s hand, missing it narrowly but buying himself time as he stepped back to get away from Yuuri.

 

He took the time to gather himself and jump up, just as the man to come around and grab the back of his top. Yuuri thrashed hard as he found himself being pulled to the man’s chest, locked against his frame, as the man’s other hand made another break towards the clasp.

 

No one was in the hall. Yuuri spotted the camera in the corner, blinking red, watching, but it couldn’t do much good right now. The bang against the wall hadn’t called anyone out either. So he tried shouting at the top of his lungs.

 

But it wasn’t going to call anyone in time. The only people close to him were Viktor and Chris, and they were out preparing for their own slots. Celestino was at the end of the hall, and if he heard, he still wouldn’t get here in time. So Yuuri decided to take it into his own hands.

 

He kicked at the man’s shins, connecting the blow and sending the man toppling forwards and letting Yuuri go. Yuuri made sure the clasp was secure before he rushed off down the hall.

 

But of course, as luck would have it, just as Yuuri reached his coach’s door, he heard the rattle of the lock as he tried to open it. He heard the shower running. Of course. Of course Celestino would decide on this time to have a shower. Why had he not showered later?

 

The man was up again, charging down the hall. Yuuri wasted no time in running as quickly as he could away.

 

Yuuri quickly thought about what he could do. He’d left his phone in his room, as well as his shoes. He wouldn’t be able to go outside. He couldn’t call anyone. But the reporter would back off if they were in the middle of a lobby, right? If people saw Yuuri in distress, running from someone, they’d intervene and it would make the man back off, right? With quick thinking, he decided that was the best bet he had.

 

He threw open the stairway doors, narrowly avoiding a couple holding hands. He apologised as he rushed passed them, feeling just a little guilty at having used them as a shield against his attacker.

 

The attacker was fast. As Yuuri descended the stairs, the man used the momentum of the stairway barriers to pull himself closer. But Yuuri was faster. Having trained for hours in a day, and almost every day for years, he was much fitter than the man. Whatever distance the man gained, Yuuri pushed himself to widen it again.

 

His heart raced harder and harder against his chest. His mind was swimming with adrenaline. He rushed down the stairs. He skipped a few at a time, yet they almost seemed endless.

 

He knew that some reporters would be hell-bent on finding out his secrets sooner or later – most had been respectful when he was in the Junior Championships. But he hadn’t come across one that physically attacked him to achieve it. He’d been warned, by his tutor, Celestino, Phichit, Yuko, Minako, his own parents and more. Journalists could be manic in their pursuit of a good story.

 

But it was the first time this had happened to him.

 

Yuuri crashed through the lobby doors, making a big shout to call the attention towards himself before he even noticed how busy the lobby was.

 

The late checkers, eager to be settled before their early rise for the competition tomorrow, were lined before the reception to Yuuri’s right. Luggage surrounded them. To his left were the main doors. Before those, the ushers and other staff were helping with the bags and further inquiries. Beyond the man doors, journalists waiting to catch a glimpse of the skaters coming to and from their practice.

 

The noise was loud. There were children screaming with boredom. Tired parents demanding to be quicker, wanting nothing more than to be in their rooms right now. Staff were firmly instructing the customers to stay to one side and not to block the lobby with their bags. It was almost deafening compared to the quiet stairwell.

 

But it all stopped when Yuuri’s shouts cut through the air. The bang of the doors hitting the walls were like a bomb, and all eyes snapped towards them.

 

Yuuri took the moment to glance over his shoulder. The man was further away. But that was until Yuuri tripped over someone’s coat and fell flat on the floor. As his body hit the marble floor, his head spun and his wrists ached from the impact. Before he could get up, he felt someone grab his shoulder, hard enough for their fingers to dig in, and spin him around.

 

The reporter straddled him, pinning him down to the cold floor. He was aware of people shouting. There were slams. Clicks. Bright lights from behind him. But he was too occupied with thrashing, trying to buck the man off, for his mind to connect what was happening.

 

He felt a hand press into his stomach, too much pressure, pain, and a need to retch against the force rose. The other hand grabbed his hair tightly in a clenched fist and pulled his head back.

 

He was finding it hard to breathe. His chest was tight. His throat was closing from the angle his head was forced into. He thrashed harder as the man’s hand on his stomach flashed forward to push at his mask, just enough for it to slip over his chin. With a cry, Yuuri lashed harder.

 

But the man was big. His weight on Yuuri was crushing him. Dots flashed before his eyes. He was so scared.

 

Then it was gone.

 

He could breathe again. His scalp hurt, but his hair was free. His chest rose as far as it could to take deep gulps of air, and his stomach wasn’t being crushed. He coughed some of the bile that was rushing through his throat and quickly pulled his mask back down.

 

Once he was sure he was alright, he turned to look over and see that the man had been wrestled to the floor by three strangers. Three men, one big and clearly a body-builder, one staff member Yuuri thought might have been an usher, and a father if the teddy still clutched in his hands was anything to go by. They pinned the man to the floor, hands behind his back and his head pressed to the carpet.

 

Yuuri only had a moment to take it in before a woman was standing before him, offering him her hand. He accepted it gratefully and was pulled up to stand.

 

The world whizzed around him. He held the side of his head and took a moment to gain his balance back before he thanked the woman.

 

She gave him a grin as an answer.

 

Yuuri wanted to say more – at this point, he wasn’t sure what he wanted to say, but his mouth opened in readiness – but a microphone being shoved into his face stopped him. Reporters were asking him questions. Cameras were flashing. Too many voices in his ear. He began to cower into himself.

 

Thankfully, someone took him away from them. The woman who had pulled him up clutched his arm and took him towards the staff room behind the reception. She was shouting something at the reporters, then turned towards the staff. Yuuri was too busy concentrating on how to not fall over his own feet to take everything in.

 

The sounds almost seemed to die completely as they closed the staff room door. He settled on one of the seats and leaned forwards, pressing his head into his hands. He still felt sick. His stomach was trying to throw something up – not that there was anything there. He had yet to have lunch, and his breakfast had been hours ago.

 

“Are you alright?” she asked.

 

He glanced up and gave her what he hoped was a steady voice, “Yeah, I’m fine. Just… surprised, really.”

 

She gave him an understanding smile. “The police have been called. You’ll have to make a statement and you can press charges if you want to.”

 

“Oh,” Yuuri replied. Did he have to? Could he not let Celestino decide on that?

 

“Want me to call your coach?”

 

He found himself nodding. “Yes, please. I tried knocking on his door, but I think he was in the shower.”

 

“Then we’ll keep calling.”

 

“Thank you.” The adrenaline was beginning to wear off quickly and his body was left feeling cold, his skin breaking out into bumps. He shook his knee to keep a little warm and just for something to do. The woman was trying to ask him questions to keep him distracted, but they weren’t working. Yuuri wanted his coach down quickly. He wanted something familiar. He was still so scared and it was hurting.

 

It only took a few minutes before the door was thrown open and Celestino was there, his hair still soaking wet, clad in a rushed wardrobe throw-on, just a shirt and some lounge trousers, socks and no shoes. As soon as he saw Yuuri, he rushed over to the boy and hugged him close.

 

“Are you okay?” he asked, his voice uncharacteristically low.

 

“Yeah, just shaken,” Yuuri replied. “Do I really have to give a statement?”

 

“Yes, but I’ll be there with you. And what do you want to do about him? Want to press charges?”

 

Yuuri found himself shaking his head. “No. I don’t want him near me, but I don’t want to press charges.” It would be too much, too many things to do for it. Yuuri didn’t think he needed to give the effort.

 

Celestino, instead of trying to urge Yuuri to do differently, just nodded and said, “This will ruin his career enough anyway.”

 

It wasn’t long until the police arrived. They asked Yuuri the questions, surveyed the tapes on the floor and the lobby, and advised that Yuuri stay in his room for the remainder of the day. Yuuri was all too eager to retreat back to his room.

 

Somehow, Phichit found out. Of course. He skyped Yuuri almost as soon as they were in the room, and Celestino sat on the chair beside the television for the call.

 

“Yuuri! Are you alright?” his friend asked, pressing his face to the screen. He looked tired, and it was dark in his room – their room, Yuuri reminded himself. His hair stood on ends, defying gravity, as if he had just been dragged from bed.

 

Yuuri slipped off the mask and gave him a weak smile. “Yeah, I’m alright now that I’ve had time to calm down.”

 

“Want me to come fly out to see you?”

 

Tough touched by the gesture, Yuuri shook his head. “I’m fine. You have to practice. You’ve got qualifiers.”

 

“Yeah but-”

 

“But nothing, I’m fine, Phichit.”

 

“How about tomorrow? You sure you’re fine for tomorrow?”

 

“Yep, and you can watch tomorrow to see just how fine I am,” Yuuri chuckled. He did feel nervous, and perhaps a little more nervous now that he could already feel some of his muscles aching. But with a proper stretch he would be ready, he assured himself.

 

Phichit laughed and gave him a wide smile. “There’s that determination.”

 

They spoke a little bit more before Phichit needed to leave. Yuuri bid his friend a goodbye before he settled into the bed, wanting the comfort of the covers.

 

“It’s already hit the news,” Celestino informed him from behind his phone.

 

Yuuri glanced over, feeling his stomach drop. “It has?”

 

“Yes. From numerous sources. If you want, I can try my best to keep some of it away, but I can’t guarantee anything.”

 

Yuuri shook his head and yawned. With the adrenaline gone, his body was already shutting down. He was tired. He could barely keep his eyes open and his body wanted nothing more than to snuggle into the bed and let himself fall. “Everyone knows about it already,” Yuuri muttered. “It won’t stop it now.” He wondered how this would effect tomorrow. How would everyone look at him? What would the commentators say? Seeing how close it had gotten to him being revealed, would more reporters try it tomorrow?

 

He slipped further into the bed, the worry not enough to slow his descent into sleep. He tried to stay awake, he really did, but it was getting harder and harder with each second. It was still light outside. He needed to stay awake. He needed to stay… awake. He needed to…

 

“It’s alright, Yuuri, go to sleep. You’ve had a long day, and you’ll have a longer one tomorrow.”

 

It was all he needed, a quiet assurance from his coach, before he found himself losing to sleep completely.

Chapter Text

On some level, he was aware of voices and knocking on his door. There were whispers. Footsteps wandering around his room. He thought there was only one set, though he couldn’t be sure. Everything seemed as if he was in a bubble, and sounds on the outside hardly needed his attention. He pulled the covers further over his head and settled back into the bed.

 

He wasn’t sure how much time had passed, but when he woke up it was beginning to get dark outside. Celestino was sitting beside his bed, the television set on a low volume, images flashing brightly. Yuuri sat up and rubbed his eyes.

 

It was as he stretched that he noticed the damage. His ribs were aching, probably bruised, his stomach felt a little weak, the muscles were sore, and his neck felt as if he had slight whiplash. None of it was too painful, and he’d gone through more pain during practice before, but it was how he got them that worried him. His memories flared back, and he remembered his fear, the panic. Not because his face was nearly revealed, but because of the lengths someone would go to – to actually hurt him – to achieve it.

 

He remembered the look in the man’s eyes. He remembered the strength in his limbs. He remembered the weight as he pinned Yuuri to the ground. When it all came crashing to him, he leaned forwards, feeling suddenly very dizzy, and rested his head in his hands.

 

The news was going to reach his parents, if it hadn’t already. He reached for his phone on the bedside table, aware of his coach watching his every move, and found seven missed calls from his parents, four from his sister, three from Yuko, one from Minako, and a few more from others. Yuuri quickly sent a text to his sister, Yuko and Minako, assuring them that he was fine, that he had been sleeping and he’d explain in greater detail later. Once done, he called his parents and waited for them to answer.

 

As if they had been waiting beside the phone, they picked up on the first ring.

 

Yuuri!” his mother gasped, her voice almost breaking with her dread. “Yuuri, are you alright? The internet isn’t explaining properly and-”

 

“I’m okay, really,” he assured in the most soothing tone he could muster. “It was just scary. I’m not hurt. And I’m sorry, I was asleep and didn’t hear the phone ring.”

 

Don’t worry, Yuuri, your coach picked up and told us. I’m still worried about you, though. Are you sure you’ll be alright for tomorrow? No one will blame you if you back out, you know-”

 

“No, I’m going to stick to it. I’m really alright, mum. I’m okay. Something like this won’t stop me.”

 

If you’re sure, honey, but don’t push yourself.”

 

“Okay.” He was nineteen, nearly twenty. He lived away from home. In the eyes of the world, he was a young adult and was old enough to marry in some countries, old enough to drink in others, old enough to adopt, to drive, to have sex, to move out by himself, to take on responsibilities. He was competing in a competition that drew world-wide attention. He was in the media enough. To the world, he was an adult. But he didn’t feel like it. Hearing his mother’s voice on the line, so far away from him, it brought back the child inside. He wanted nothing more than to curl in on himself and cry to his mother over the phone. He wanted her there to comfort him, to cuddle him close and whisper how things were going to be alright. Everything was going to be alright.

 

But he was an adult. He chose this lifestyle. He chose to be hidden, and though he didn’t know it was going to cause this much of a stir, he had to deal with it. Not alone, never alone, but he couldn’t fall back on people so much. He had to be strong.

 

“I’m really okay,” he assured her, holding the phone tightly to his ear. “Tell dad I’m fine too, and Mari, and Yuko and Minako and anyone else asking. Tell them to watch me tomorrow, see just how fine I am, and see me take to the podium.” He laughed. He wasn’t sure where the confidence was coming from, his mask was at his side and Ren was far away. But he remembered the way Viktor spoke, the assurance in his words, how he said them, and he mimicked it. Fake it until you make it, a motto he based everything on.

 

It took a while to finally comfort his mother enough that she was willing to say goodbye. He promised her everything, close enough to the world, over and over that he would be alright. When she finally gave in, Yuuri took a breath he hadn’t known he’d been holding.

 

As soon as her voice stopped, Yuuri already missed it. Once he finished with this season, he thought, he was going to go home and visit them and Vicchan. This season had been rough, and he wanted nothing more than to be somewhere familiar, with familiar things and familiar people.  

 

Celestino switched the television off when the call finished.

 

“It’s evening,” he informed. “Do you want anything to eat? I could call room service.”

 

His stomach still felt raw from the pressure the man had pressed on it. He felt slightly sick. But going without food wasn’t a good idea. He gave a nod and looked through the menu that sat beside the bed. Nothing appealed to him, the names flying over his head as if they meant nothing. It took a while to concentrate on the swimming words enough to decide.

 

Before Yuuri had chosen, there was a knock on the door.

 

Celestino rushed to answer. He peeped the door open slightly, just enough for him to see outside but hiding Yuuri from view. Rushed words were passed. Celestino was getting angry. There was a hiss behind his words. When the person on the other side said something, Celestino gave one glance towards Yuuri, a muttered, “I’ll be back in a minute,” before he rushed outside and closed the door.

 

Yuuri wasn’t stupid. He knew what was happening. Someone wanted to come in and see him – who it was, he didn’t know. He hoped it wasn’t another journalist. He had had enough of them for the moment. Or for his lifetime.

 

He listened to the hushed words from behind the door. In the silence, he tried to focus on them and see if one was known to him. But they weren’t. He couldn’t place the sounds, the hiss in them distorting it. So instead he listened to the footsteps as they shuffled. They shouted about something, a quick bark of a word, before there was silence. A second passed before Celestino came in again, closing the door behind him.

 

Yuuri asked, “What was it?” As the cool air of the room hit him, he snuggled back into the bed. He was growing tired again. In the back of his mind, he wondered if there was something wrong. It was only evening. He shouldn’t be feeling sleepy again, and if he went to sleep now he would be awake in the middle of the night. He really should stay up, but it was getting harder the more he resisted.

 

“Nothing you need to worry over,” Celestino assured him. “If you’re feeling tired, Yuuri, you need to sleep.”

 

“It’s too early to sleep.” His words came out muffled. His eyelids were slipping.

 

“Your body needs it. You haven’t been getting a lot of rest recently. After the stress, it’s finally crashing. Just sleep, you’ll feel better about it tomorrow. I’ll order food, so if you wake later, it’ll be there for you.”

 

Yuuri was about to argue, but before he could form the sentence in his mind, he was gone, the world around him fading to black again.

 

***

 

The nerves were getting to him. He felt it jittering, soaring through his blood stream. He shook his leg as he sat beside the rink and held the chair underneath him in a vice like grip. Celestino was sat next to him, a constant and familiar presence, not saying anything but never needing to. He rubbed his shoulder against Yuuri’s every so often, smiled down at him.

 

The stands were steadily filling. Hundreds and hundreds of people were lining the chairs, a sea of colour and swerving forms. Their voices were mixing into a cloud of noise, until it was the only thing that could be heard. There were a few skaters warming up on the ice. The commentators were readying themselves at their seats. Staff were settling around the rink, carefully placed in their predetermined spots.  

 

It was big. It was bright. It was terrifying.

 

Yuuri hadn’t competed at such a big scale competition in a while, four years to be exact. He’d forgotten what it was like to be nearing the end of a season, where all of the expectations were finally coming to a head, concluding, about to materialise into a medal if you were lucky. Everything was leading up to this. Yuuri forgot the pressure.

 

What had happened the day before didn’t help matters. Already, a large bruise was growing on his ribs, one of his knees and his stomach had finger marks, bruising in a cluster of dots, on the surface. Nothing ached too much but it was the mental aspect, the fear, the worry that there would be more. Security had been amped up just for him and once he entered the building there was always one guard following.

 

He’d seen some of the other skaters, ones he hadn’t spoken to much, look at him from the corner of their eyes. He’d overheard someone in the changing rooms say they wished people hadn’t intervened and that his secret was finally revealed. They joked about finishing the job themselves. The journalists outside had tried to ask him about it as he arrived that morning.

 

He felt sick. This day was meant to be about his skating. Solely skating. About his skill, his return, his drive to reach the podium, not about the stupidity of one of the journalists. This wasn’t about his choices, this was about his future.

 

He tried to convince himself of that fact, again and again he reminded himself of it. But it was hard to remember when he saw the news online, the questions pushed at him, and that no one was giving him space.  

 

Sometimes he thought everything would be so much better if he didn’t feel things so much. His emotions were strong. He never had a mild reaction to anything. Sometimes, he wondered why he had to feel anything at all.

 

Before his mind could follow down those paths, he was interrupted.

 

Chris was suddenly sitting beside him, on the other side from Celestino. He didn’t have the flirty smirk that Yuuri had become accustomed to. Instead, he took both of Yuuri’s hands into his own, stared into his eyes and asked, “Is there anything you would like me to do?”

 

Taken aback by how strange the question was, Yuuri opened his mouth and gaped, unable to form any words.

 

“Do you have bruises? I have a cream that helps with that. Any sore muscles? Aches and pains?” Chris elaborated. “If you’re feeling anxious, I have relaxation techniques that can help. I know empty rooms around here that you could take to have a moment to yourself. Do you want to talk about anything? Need me to hurt anyone for you?”

 

“No! No, no, no, it’s okay,” Yuuri rushed to say. “I’m alright! I have some bruises, that’s all. Nothing that will hinder me.”

 

Once he was sure that Yuuri was alright, Chris leaned back and rubbed a hand over his face. “The audacity that man had to attack someone outside of their very room, in a busy hotel, in the middle of a city, in daylight, and before a major competition.”

 

Yuuri wasn’t sure Chris was looking for a reply, so he didn’t give one. Instead he watched the man’s face, seeing the flicker of something darker underneath the concerned surface. Yuuri was thankful for the man’s comfort and wanted to voice that, but when he wanted to express it, Chris turned his gentle gaze onto Yuuri.

 

“Are you going to be alright to skate?”

 

Yuuri nodded. “Yeah, I’m pretty sure.”

 

Chris gave a smirk, one smaller than his normal, a little softer, but his words held the tease he usually loved to exude, “Good, because you need to make good on that promise you gave me and Viktor.”

 

As if beckoned by the call of his name, the Russian made stepped out from the walkway between the changing rooms and the rink. He cast a glance over the training figures, his face impassive. But once his eyes fell on Yuuri and Chris, his expression burst to life, his eyes widening and his eyebrows knitting together in worry..

 

Yuuri took his hands from Chris, gripped them tightly in his lap and looked down at his intertwined fingers. He found it nearly impossible to look at the two skaters when they looked at him. They never had to deal with media physically attacking them. They held the journalists in their hands, tied tightly around their little fingers. With little actions, a wink here, a smile there, they controlled them. Yuuri made a note of watching them the next time they were being interviewed and wondered if he could incorporate that into Ren.

 

Viktor’s legs stepped into his frame. With a deep breath, Yuuri reminded himself that Ren wasn’t scared, he didn’t find it hard to look at other skaters in the eye. With that in mind, Yuuri slowly trailed his gaze up Viktor, taking in his costume as he went.

 

He knew he used the word too much, but Viktor was beautiful again. His costume sparkled and dazzled, drawing everyone’s eye. With well-placed gems, bright but limited colours and the way it hugged his form, it was gorgeous. And yet the costume didn’t outshine the man himself. The flecks of blue in the costume brought out his eyes, the green complimented his hair, and the way that the black trousers hugged his legs accentuated just how long they were. The gloves on his hands, accessorised with tiny gems, drew attention to the fluidity he moved his arms with. The popped white collar showed off his long neck and gave a teasing view of his collarbones. The costume was stunning, but he made it beautiful.

 

Yuuri thought of his own costume – a pair of black trousers, made eye-catching with the sparkling material, and a blouse that was sewn with blocks of dark blue and light blue. The black collar followed the line of his buttons until it disappeared, tucked into his trousers. Simple. Something he had thought was lovely until he stepped in front of other skaters and saw their outfits. He felt underdressed. Now, seeing how the costume complimented Viktor, Yuuri knew for sure his own paled in comparison.

 

The thought was only in his mind for a second, barely there, before he saw the expression on the man’s face. Viktor’s eyebrows were drawn even more tightly together, his bright blue eyes gazing over Yuuri’s face, his mouth open as if he didn’t know what to say. When his eyes caught the slight bruise that was colouring just under Yuuri’s collar, something darker than even Chris’ gaze flashed. It was gone in a second, but Yuuri saw the way it dulled his eyes, how it deepened the tension around them.

 

Yuuri felt himself reassure the man, knowing what was on his mind, “I’m alright. Really.” His voice broke a little, and he cursed himself for it when he noticed Viktor narrow his eyes. He rushed to say, “Just some bruises. I can still do it. I can still beat you and Chris.”

 

Viktor’s eyes grew big from the comment. But it seemed to do its job, as he then gave a grin, though still a little hesitant, before he said, “We’ll see about that.”

 

And see they did.

 

Before Yuuri was ready, the competition began. A nameless skater Yuuri recognised was first, but Yuuri wasn’t watching. His eyes kept glancing over at Chris and Viktor as they laced up their skates. They didn’t ask anything more about what had happened, probably knowing that it would bring needless nerves to Yuuri just before the competition. Instead, they became more clingy, pulling him close when he was near them, talking to him even when the topics were useless, and stood between him and the media photographers that stood just a few hundred yards to their right.

 

It was programmed so that Yuuri was last. He would get to see all the other skaters before he had to go and show the world he was fine, that he was ready to return. Yuuri Katsuki was worried about that. How could he try his best after seeing the greats perform their amazing routines? How could he compete with that? But Ren Himura was rising up behind the mask. He revelled in the challenge and wanted to see them skate with confidence, only to be crushed once he stepped out. After all, the higher they were, the greater the fall.

 

So when Chris was on, Yuuri watched with rapt attention.

 

Chris stood in his starting pose and the world around them grew low. The music strummed through the air. Quiet. Melodic. Different from how Chris had been doing his programmes for some years now. He drew all eyes to him as he skated sensually and slow, unable to keep his hands off of himself, and yet it was his expression that kept the most attention. It was as if Chris was lost in his own world, never looking at the audience but looking through them, at the ice, down at himself. It was as if he was skating for only him.

 

Barely a minute into the short programme and Yuuri knew the competition this year was going to be fierce. The nerves inside of him were quickly transforming into excitement as Ren rose to the surface. With each flawless jump, spin and step sequence from Chris, Ren Himura was contemplating how to ramp up his own programme. He couldn’t rely on his facial expression, so he would need to show his love through his body.

 

What if he placed his hand on his shoulder for the first sequence? he thought. What if he rose his head in the first spin? What if he reached to the crowd after his first quad? All the ideas were running through his head too quickly, and he could already feel the music sing through him.

 

He was excited. He was so motivated. Yuuri didn’t really know what motivation was. But Ren was made of it.

 

When Chris finished, his scores were high, nearly breaking his own record. Then it was Viktor’s turn.

 

That was when Yuuri heard true silence.

 

He’d seen the man skate numerous times, but on the television and through training - never in competition. The spotlights fell on him. The crowd were quiet, almost as if they weren’t there at all. The seconds before the music strummed, it was as if time itself meant nothing. Silent. Still. And Yuuri’s heart stopped with it.

 

When the music started, Viktor slowly skated out of his starting position. It wasn’t sensual like Chris’, but something more… Yuuri couldn’t place it. There was a tinge of sadness. But underneath that, there was something freeing.

 

And then the music sped up. Viktor took his sadness and turned it into something harder. Not anger, but there was something seething in the way his fluid movements were sharp and the way he snapped his head to the side, as if he was arguing with someone that they couldn’t see. It was mesmerising. Viktor’s expression was perfected.

 

Yuuri watched as if there was nothing else he could do. He watched the flick of his wrist, the words that the man was displaying with his movements, the story rising as if it was being read to them all. He watched it and took notes of everything. He needed all of this to go into his persona if he was going to beat them.

 

When Viktor stopped - his ending pose curled in on himself, almost shielding his head with his circled arms - the crowd erupted into deafening applause. Yuuri was one of those, clapping his hands together until they hurt.

 

How was he to compete with that? The question didn’t bring the nerves as he expected. Instead, they brought inspiration. How could he make his own programme better, to be like that? What could he do better? The thought shocked him.

 

He never underestimated the power the mask gave him. It gave him a persona to hide behind when he wasn’t confident. Because Yuuri worried too much. Ren was the person Yuuri wanted to be when he was out on the ice, someone he could be without changing himself completely. He could still be Yuuri, but he could be someone else when he wanted to be as well. Just a suggestion made years ago, and yet here he was. Near the top still with some way to go.

 

But that’s what amazed him – as he stood there, watching Viktor wave at the crowd and accept the flowers being thrown at him, Yuuri realised just how far he had come. Yuuri Katsuki never would have made it here. But with one suggestion, here he was. And he wasn’t scared. He actually couldn’t wait to be out on the ice, in front of all the attention.

 

It was something he never expected to feel.

 

His persona’s name was called out and he passed Viktor as he stepped onto the ice.

 

Running on his high, Yuuri titled his head to look at the older man and said, “That was beautiful, you’re beautiful.” The honesty surprised even him, and he saw the way it surprised Viktor too, his eyes wide and blinking away the shock. Before he could say anything, Yuuri stepped onto the ice and glided to the middle of the rink.

 

He could feel all of their eyes on him. Even as Viktor’s scores were called out, brilliantly high and already placing him first on the leader board, Yuuri drowned in his persona. The spotlights fell onto him. He immersed himself in their attention.

 

Then it was his turn.

 

The rink calmed again. There was silence once more. Yuuri didn’t see it as overbearing, but as a promise. He was going to break that silence. He was going to make the crowd cheer like no one had ever cheered before.

 

He lost himself when the music started. The world fell away and he pulled every emotion he had ever felt before from his being.

 

His programme was with the theme of return. In his short programme, he wanted everyone to see the story of when he fell, what he felt when he had to take a step back from his love to take care of someone close to him and to heal. He pulled the desperation from himself. He showed the crowd the helplessness that devoured him, watching his tutor lying before him.

 

Yuuri hadn’t known death before that, not of a pet or a relative. Death was a foreign concept, reserved for classmates that liked to compete on who lost the closest family member. He remembered a few having to take days off of school to heal, some more so. He remembered some losing pets. He remembered their tears. He used to wonder what it would feel like to lose someone, but it never clicked. He could never understand the hole it left, how crushing the feeling was.

 

Now he knew. He knew what it was like to fear for someone else. He never knew before that it was possible to cry until you ran out of tears. He thought it was an exaggeration that the heart hurt. There was a hole that was never replaced or fixed.

 

But he now learned that you could heal. Like a scar, it would always be there, but it closed up. It didn’t get easier, and it never left completely, but you learned to adapt. You came out greater.

 

Yuuri pushed all of those memories and thoughts into his programme. He spun and glided, making sure his movements were as fluid as water, opening his body out to express everything he had ever felt. He touched his hands over his body, showing the invisible scars his body had endured. He drew attention to his mask with his finger-tips trailing over the plastic, showing them all the face that they could not see.

 

He showed how he cried, slumped as he glided. He showed them how he took his years to heal, opening up into a spin. But most of all, he showed them that he was returning better than ever, and he showed them with a quad Salchow. Flawless. Not even a foot out of place, no shaky knees, just effortless.

 

And Yuuri couldn’t help but grin at the achievement. He’d finally made it graceful. He’d finally made himself feel like he belonged here.

 

As the routing drew to a close, the music dying down into an orchestral drum, Yuuri slowed down his pace. He hummed quietly to himself along with the music. He came to himself again, and was aware of where he was. He pulled his arms into himself and spun in the middle of the rink, in the middle of their attention, and in the last few seconds opened them up to raise to the sky.

 

It made him flinch when the crowd and the commentators cheered. It was louder here, in front of them all once the music died down. He remembered a little of what it was like in the Junior Grand Prix, but this was different.

 

This held more expectation, and he had delivered, even destroyed their ideas.

 

It was the first time he had flowers thrown to him. Many were blue, matching his costume, and he bent and picked some up as he breathed heavily. His grin was impossible to hold back, and a few tears leaked from his eyes under the pressure.

 

Celestino gave him a bone-crushing hug once he stepped off of the ice.

 

He hoped everyone he knew watched it. If there were doubts, he hoped he proved to them he was more than fine. Above all, he hoped he made them all proud.

 

He and his coach sat on the Kiss and Cry, waiting for the results. It was then that the nerves were returning. What if he felt during the performance wasn’t what the crowd felt? What if he’d done something wrong when he lost himself? What if the combination jump didn’t actually look as effortless as he felt it had?

 

But he didn’t need to worry for long.

 

He’d beaten his own personal best, and appeared second on the score board, only five points under Viktor himself.

 

Yuuri’s heart stopped for what seemed like the hundredth time that day. He choked on his sobbing as he cried. He shook his hands, unsure on how to hold them, as he stared at the screen. He felt like asking the judges if they had made some sort of mistake. He couldn’t have done that well. He was only nineteen! I was his first time here! He must have read them wrong. He didn’t have his glasses.

 

But Celestino was hugging him again, tighter almost, and Yuuri knew that what he was seeing wasn’t an illusion. He knew it wasn’t the final scores, he still had the free skate tomorrow, but if he did it this well once then he could do it again.

 

He caught Chris and Viktor standing not far off on the side of the rink, their expressions comedic. Their mouths were gaping open, their eyes unable to leave Yuuri. Yuuri couldn’t stop the chuckle that bubbled up through his throat.

 

He proved it to them all. He was here, with the best, and he proved to them all that he deserved it. He made it. If he did it again, he might make it to the podium and be able to stand there with Chris and Viktor. It was all he ever wanted.

 

He made a note to thank Yuko endlessly once he returned to the hotel.

 

***

 

Yuuri wasn’t expecting how busy it got after the competition. He wanted to talk to other skaters, congratulate them on their achievements, but the media were standing between them all like walls. They refused to let them leave, not until at least ten questions were answered.

 

Celestino stood behind him, guarding from anyone that might try something like the night before. Yuuri flinched whenever the lights blinked in front of him, or when a microphone was shoved into his face. All voices dissolved into one and he found himself asking them to repeat multiple questions.

 

“How does it feel?” was a common question. Yuuri answered honestly, telling them that it was a euphoric feeling, as if he was flying. It still hadn’t clicked though. He doubted it ever would.

 

They asked if he would be able to deliver another emotive performance tomorrow, and he told them all he hoped he could and that he planned to. A few asked on his theme, about return, and how much it meant to him.

 

None asked about the attack. Yuuri was surprised. He suspected someone, or more than one person, had spoken to them and he couldn’t help his chest bursting in gratitude.

 

When they finally released him, he and his coach left to return to the hotel. Almost as soon as he entered his room, he was bombarded with calls and texts from family and friends.

 

He took a moment to appreciate them, to feel joy in how he had made them all proud. He’d dreamed of this day, long before even the class that had changed his life. As he fell time and time again in front of his class mates, he dreamed of showing them all he could do it. Despite their negativity. Of course they wouldn’t know it was him now under the mask, but perhaps one day they would.

 

He called his parents first, and soon found himself on speaker phone with his parents, his sister, Minako, Yuko and her boyfriend. They were all shouting and screaming their praises, and Yuuri sat back with a grin as he listened.

 

He hoped he could feel like this forever.

 

***

 

Despite the exhaustion of speaking to loved ones, including Phichit who had made him stay up for hours on the phone, talking about the achievement, Yuuri could not sleep. The energy was still coursing through him. Every time he closed his eyes, he remembered the way that he soared as he skated, the way the audience blurred together.

 

He decided he was going to take a walk again.

 

He pulled his hoodie over his head, covering the first part of the mask, and hugged it close. It looked cold outside and he didn’t want to catch something.

 

When he was stood in front of the lobby door, he did hesitate. It was late, dark, and the streets were almost empty. If someone wanted to attack him again, he had little hope of being able to call for help.

 

But it looked beautiful outside. The street lights were dimmed, the moonlight providing more than enough in the dark. The streets looked almost haunting. The cold weather was rising like mist, sparkling every time it hit the lights. Yuuri loved late night walks too much to be afraid of what could happen.

 

So he strolled out with his head held high, revelling in the feeling of the biting cold hitting his warm frame. There was something about the night that always drew him in – perhaps it was the quiet, the calmness of the world when everyone was asleep. Or perhaps it was the way that night seemed to be timeless, with no reason to watch the clock, no waiting, no working, no need to worry over it. Or maybe it was the way it hid things – something that Yuuri could sympathise with.

 

Whatever it was, Yuuri knew he preferred it to the chaos of the day.

 

The moon hung high above the sky, peeking behind the tall buildings. The trees lining the streets swayed in the light breeze. There was soft music coming from somewhere, classical, just a low thrum through the air.

 

When he was alone, standing above a bridge he had passed numerous times in his short visit, he allowed himself to think. He watched the water swirl down below, calming, its noise soothing to his noisy mind. He thought about what would happen in a few hours.

 

Less than twelve hours from now, he would see if his effort finally was rewarded. To see if he would make it to the podium, standing proud with a medal hanging from his neck, just like he promised so many people. Or would he fail? Would something go wrong, and he’d end up at the very bottom? He felt like it was a possibility – whenever he was running on a high, something came along to knock him down. Life was all about balance after all. The thought did strike something inside of him, but only for a second.

 

Because that thought paled in comparison to what he had done that day. He was second, just under Viktor, in his very first Senior Grand Prix. He knew that wasn’t something small. He’d beaten Chris in his short programme, and if that didn’t continue into the free skate then that was alright, because he’d done it once. He could do it again.

 

He grinned under the mask, overwhelmed with happiness. He had forgotten what it felt like to be skating competitively, in the middle of the attention, with brilliant people. He’d forgotten what it felt like to see his name on the board, to see how his hours of training were rewarded. Above all, he’d forgotten how good it felt to be lost in what he was doing, and to show people that he loved everything he could do. He wanted people to see how good it felt.

 

There were many things that Yuuri loved in his life, and many things that he was happy about. But skating was something that brought pure joy to him, and he wanted everyone to see that.

 

Seeing himself just under Viktor today on the board, it sparked something within him. He wanted to be on that podium. He wanted to be with the greats, no matter where it was. He wanted to wave at the cameras, medals shining under the spotlights, the crowd cheering endlessly, and his family and friends watching. And for once, he thought he could actually do it. Not just a promise to himself, but it was a realistic goal. There was a vast difference in believing something could happen, and actually knowing it could.

 

Nothing was going to drag him down.

 

***

 

His heart was hammering against his chest, a mix of anticipation and excitement. He wasn’t sure which one he felt the most.

 

He sat beside Celestino, watching the first familiar skater taking to the ice. If someone asked how he had been that morning, preparing for the second half of the competition, he wouldn’t be able to answer. The morning had sped by so quickly, in such a blur, that he didn’t remember it, not until he had the chance to sit down. By then, the competition was already starting.

 

He’d been aware at some point that some journalists asked him questions. He didn’t remember his answers though, but if he had said anything stupid his coach would’ve taken him away. After that, he was aware of changing into his costume, this time a sparkling mix of red and black, and lacing up his skates. He remembered little bits of conversations with Celestino, encouragement and reminders of his routine, but other than that, there was nothing.

 

The lights dimmed. The nameless skater took position. Yuuri watched carefully.

 

This time, Yuuri was second in the running. With only the first person for him to compare to, he reminded himself that he needed to be extra careful this time. He needed to make this one better than yesterday, to lose himself more, push himself, perfect everything. And then, once he was done, he’d need to wait and watch the other four.

 

All too soon, the first skater was done. Yuuri hadn’t been paying attention and he cursed at himself for it. He’d need to be better. Lose yourself, he thought, just pretend this is training. Training was when he performed his best.

 

He glided out to the middle of the ice and took a moment to glance around before his programme began. The judges were waiting eagerly, pencils in hand, and the commentators were already making notes. The camera men and women were readying their equipment, training it right on him. The lights swerved to him. The faces of the audience blurred into one then. He looked down at the ice, took a deep breath, and readied his starting position.

 

He placed his right leg behind his left, curled his right arm to rest against his chest, while his other raised to cup one side of his face. With closed eyes, his face raised, he began.

 

The music this time started quickly. This had been the programme he most struggled with. It was quick paced, right off the bat, and needed a lot of stamina to maintain. Luckily, it was what Yuuri was well known for. With a lot of complex step sequences and spins that disturbed balance, it would gain a lot of presentation scores. And then there were the jumps.

 

Many of his had been pushed to the second half to raise technical points. He’d tried it, time and time again, and knew his stamina could maintain just enough to achieve it. Not many tried it in their senior debut. Some of even the most practiced skaters, the most experience, tried it. It was why Yuuri was ready to jump at the opportunity.

 

He lost himself as he skated, keeping his limbs going at a steady pace, feeling the sweat already pouring down his neck. His heart was hammering, faster and faster, threatening to break out. His ribs ached form their bruising but he could barely feel it. All he felt right now was the exhilaration. His body moved as if it was someone else controlling it.

 

He attempted his first jump, a quad, and landed it. Not effortless. Something about the way he landed made his leg shake a little. But the landing was still solid, and he doubted that it was enough for any of the judges to deduct points for.

 

Only a slight misstep. An accident. But it would have completely derailed Yuuri Katsuki. He’d have become a bundle of nerves and would overthink the rest, missing cues, stumbling and missing jumps, under rotating some. But Yuuri wasn’t here. It wasn’t his name that was being chanted, not his name that was written on posters, not his name being said over the intercom. This was Ren Himura, and Ren took the stumble as a challenge. Ren wanted to make the next one even better.

 

So when it came to the second quad, he went further than even he himself expected. What should have been a quad, turned into a quad combination with a triple. Yuuri skated out of it, surprised at himself, but realised that it had been effortless. Again. He’d done it. And from the shock on the commentator’s tongue, he knew he surprised them all. He was keeping the audience on their toes.

 

Wasn’t that what Viktor always wanted to do? To surprise the audience? He came back, season after season, with something completely different from the other. When the skating world expected something from the Russian, he did something different. Not opposite, because opposite was still predictable.

 

Yuuri liked to draw things from other skaters, or people he knew, and incorporate them into his persona. Ren, the person he wanted to be, was an embodiment of what aspects he wanted of those around him. Yuuri liked to pick Ren apart and try and figure out where certain aspects of him had come from.

 

He was steadily finding out what parts of Viktor were in Ren.

 

As the routine drew to a close, all of his jumps having gone almost perfectly with only little hiccups, his presentation just as good as he could get it, Yuuri heard his music slowly drifting into a soft lull. What was a fact paced song became something like a fairy tale as he flew on the ice. The tone changed, he slowed his pace and allowed himself to glide.

 

Before he had even reached his finishing position, the crowd were cheering. Some were on their feet. The commentators were praising him. He stopped, his arms raised wide, his legs behind one another. The music faded. He took deep breaths.

 

And time passed in a blur again. He found himself sitting once again with Celestino, not knowing how he had moved from the ice into the Kiss and Cry. They waited with bated breaths on the results.

 

He knew he shouldn’t have been as excited as he was when his name shot up to the first position. Four other skaters had yet to do their performances. But he was extremely happy with his score, and could not stop himself from cheering as his coach gathered him in his arms and raised him high.

 

The other four skaters had yet to compete, one being the world champion, another being a close second, and yet his score was, as the commentators announced, hard to beat.

 

There was a real chance he could win.

 

 ***

 

Another two nameless skaters rose and performed, their names falling behind Yuuri’s on the board. The commentators were saying something. But Yuuri was too busy watching Chris take to the ice to listen. They were cheering about something, Yuuri thinking they were cheering for Chris.

 

Until Celestino pointed it out.

 

“Ren, are you listening?” he asked.

 

Yuuri tore himself from the image of Chris preparing his first position. He glanced up at his coach, a questioning tilt to his head. “Listening?”

 

“To the commentators?” Celestino asked with a chuckle.

 

Yuuri shook his head. “No.” He tried to listen, but it seemed they had moved on to talking about Chris now. As the music strummed, Chris started, sensually gliding his hands over the outlines of his body.

 

“They were talking about you.”

 

“Oh?” Yuuri was quickly losing interest. He just wanted to see the others skate. He was getting lost in the dream-like feeling of being here, to see the skaters, to be one of them.

 

“Yes, about how you’re guaranteed a spot on the podium and a medal.”

 

It took a few moments for Yuuri to process the words. They replayed in his mind, not really meaning anything, but with each time he repeated them, it started to make sense. And once all the words clicked, he felt the energy buzz through his body. His head snapped towards Celestino, who was giving him a massive grin. “What?” he asked.

 

“Three skaters have been and you’re above them. Regardless of what happens now, you’re guaranteed a medal.”

 

Yuuri had to repeat them again. His eyes spun towards the leader board, his name still at the top. A medal. He was going to get a medal. Whatever colour, he was going to have it, hanging from his neck, resting against his chest. It was going to be there, finally, after so many years since his leaving. Since the last time he had won one.

 

He wasn’t sure what he was feeling, honestly. The excitement and happiness were too much, so big that he didn’t know how to describe it. It was more than happiness. There wasn’t a word for it. But he was also upset. The person who had gotten him here wasn’t here to see it.

 

As Chris skated, Yuuri watched. He was going to be on the podium with that man. And even as Yuuri watched Chris’ name overtake his when he was done, he didn’t care. He’d been amazed he reached the podium at all.

 

When Viktor took to the ice, Yuuri already knew which medal he was taking home. Bronze was acceptable, respectable, and it was more than Yuuri had ever expected. He would be more than happy to receive it.

 

Viktor’s programme was melodic, longing, reaching as if he wanted someone to dance with him. He kept reaching for someone invisible in the crowd, reaching for a different person every time. But he wasn’t gazing towards them. Instead, he was keeping his gaze to himself. Every time he reached, his eyes would watch his own hand. Every time he spun, he closed them. Every time he jumped, he looked to the sky.

 

It was beautiful. Of course it was. Yuuri didn’t expect anything less, nor did anyone else watching in the building. Yuuri observed all of his mannerisms, wondering how Ren could adopt them. If he already had so much of Viktor in his persona, what could a little more do?

 

Viktor’s name shot to the top and once the competition drew to a close, Yuuri could see how close he had been to beating the best.

 

He was only fifteen full points below Viktor, two below Chris. A little more practice and Yuuri could do it. Perhaps even as soon as next year if he tried hard and practiced enough.

 

The commentators said as much, earning a giggle from the crowd when they mentioned it would keep the greats on their toes.

 

As Yuuri stepped onto the lower level of the podium, he almost slipped. The amazement had gotten to his head. He couldn’t stop grinning.

 

The music started. Cameras were clicking and flashing before him, voices were mixing. Yuuri gasped as his medal was placed around his neck. The weight was euphoric. The bronze shone brightly. Overwhelmed with feelings, he watched as the medals were placed on Chris and Viktor.

 

Viktor gave him a gorgeous smile from where he was standing above Yuuri, said something that Yuuri was sure was a congratulations then lifted his medal and kissed the gold. The clicking of the cameras increased and Yuuri couldn’t tear his eyes away from the scene, even if he had wanted to.

 

Yuuri didn’t think he’d ever forget this moment, not for as long as he breathed.

Chapter Text

They were all so much better. They were all so practiced, so sociable, so much of what Yuuri wanted to be.

 

The statement kept spinning in his head as he glanced around the brightly lit wide space, with high ceilings, beautiful windows that kept the darkness outside at bay, golden in the hue. People were crowded in their own little groups throughout the room, their chatter rising above them all. They seem so confident. They all knew each other.

 

Yuuri tugged at the loose suit he wore. When he’d looked in the mirror in his hotel room, he felt as if he was over dressed, but being in this room, seeing how beautiful people looked, how well picked their outfits were and how well it brought out their amazing physiques, Yuuri felt underdressed in his old suit and plain tie. The only thing allowing him to stand out was his mask, and even then not many people seemed to want to come and talk to him. He stood in the corner, taking steady breaths. Ren would have wanted to go and talk to people, but this was where Yuuri came out. Being confident out on the ice, with something familiar, was easy compared to standing in a room of strangers.

 

The bronze medal hung from his neck. The weight soon seemed invisible once he got used to it, but every now and then the shine caught his eye and he still couldn’t believe it, believe what he had achieved. He’d stood on the podium. He had been on the same stage as Viktor was. After years of questioning if he was good enough, spending hours upon hours perfecting his persona, creating Ren into someone who was very real to him, he was finally here.

 

But this banquet was intimidating. It was unfamiliar. He found the fear coming back.

 

It was why he stood beside the drinks table, champagne flute in hand, barely taking sips. He wasn’t a big drinker. He hadn’t been invited to a lot of parties by class mates, and therefore hadn’t seen much of a reason to take up the habit. It was too bubbly, he thought as he took another sip. It burned his throat, and no matter how much he tried to convince himself that the fruity taste was nice, or that if he didn’t drink then he would have nothing to distract himself from how alone he was, he still felt out of place. How did people enjoy drinking?

 

Celestino had gone to talk to some of the other coaches and sponsors. He encouraged Yuuri to talk to other skaters, even ones that had been brought from the Junior Grand Prix. They’d been brought to see the next level, some of the seniors, and to make connections. Yuuri thought he might have a better time talking to them, but stopped trying when he noticed how some of them looked at him as if he was intimidating them. He didn’t understand it, but he didn’t push. So he kept sipping by himself, looking for some sort of familiar face that might accept him.

 

He found none.

 

They were all strangers. With that thought in mind, Yuuri took another sip and found that his flute had been finished. Not eager to stand with nothing to do, he took another and stood in his place again.

 

He felt tempted to text Phichit, but he felt rude doing that at such an important event, despite not needing to talk to anyone. The journalists had been and gone, gathering their answers before they were satisfied, so Yuuri didn’t even have them to talk to. What a low point.

 

Everyone knew each other. No one was alone. It was in these moments that Yuuri wondered if taking more than one season off was a good choice. Sure he might not have been ready, but he wouldn’t be feeling alone like this.

 

He thought of going back to his room, but Celestino would be angry with that. He took another sip. Maybe he could adopt some of Ren’s attitude, gather it from the ice and bring it to social situations. He could bring his confidence here, right? He could talk to people. Yuuri was good at talking to people - when they tried with him too, otherwise it was impossible.

 

He noticed his flute was finished again. With a pop of his tongue, he realised that the bubbling of the alcohol wasn’t nearly as annoying as before, and the more he drank, the better it got. He took another flute, drinking an immediate sip. His fingers were tingling.

 

“Congratulations.”

 

Yuuri spun a little too quickly. The world blurred – he wasn’t sure if that was his lack of glasses or the alcohol.

 

Viktor had appeared out of nowhere, his gleaming gold medal dangling from his own neck. Yuuri took notice of how bright it was, but there was a sparkle in Viktor’s eyes that stole all of his attention.

 

It took a while before Yuuri realised he should be speaking too. He rubbed the back of his neck, ignoring that Viktor was watching the movement, and said, “Uh, thanks, you too. You did brilliantly.”

 

Used to the praise, Viktor gave a grin and let it roll over him. He leaned against the same wall Yuuri was. “Bronze, at your first Senior Grand Prix, and after four years off. That’s incredible.”

 

Not used to the praise, Yuuri shrugged, thanked the man and congratulated him on another gold, and replayed the words in his head. He was more than happy with the medal, but it wasn’t incredible. Viktor had done better his first senior season – now that was incredible.

 

“The way you act on the ice is completely different from off it.”

 

Yuuri’s gaze snapped towards the Russian, seeing Viktor’s surveying him with curiosity.

 

He looked away again. “Oh, is it?” He wasn’t sure why that unnerved him. Maybe because if someone noticed it, he felt like his hard work would unravel. He couldn’t be Ren all the time, and he didn’t want to be. He liked being Yuuri too, because Yuuri was the biggest part of him. It was only a matter of time before someone noticed that they weren’t the same person, but two in one body. Yuuri worried that he would lose Ren, he thought, to some degree if anyone noticed. He knew he was being stupid thinking about it, but he relied on his persona too much now for him to lose it.

 

“You do,” Viktor said. He took a sip of his drink, and feeling suddenly parched Yuuri took a gulp of his own. “It’s fascinating.”

 

He said nothing more, and the silence was making Yuuri curious. He turned to look at Viktor, flinching when he saw the other man regarding him. Ren rose slightly, almost daring him to challenge Viktor, to ask what the main point was. But Yuuri pushed him down and kept his silence. He took another gulp.

 

“Many people have different coping mechanisms,” Viktor continued. “I know of some skaters that have to go on massive shopping sprees the day before they perform to calm themselves down.”

 

It was getting too close. Yuuri suddenly felt ashamed. Of course Viktor never needed a coping mechanism, he didn’t need something like that. He was perfect as was. But he was getting too close to Yuuri’s secret, and if he got closer still, perhaps he’d see the persona, and see the things he had taken from Viktor over years to create Ren. Would he be disgusted? Yuuri wasn’t sure if there was anything disgusting about it, but it would be weird, right?

 

“I feel more confident out on the ice than I do off of it,” Yuuri found himself saying, trying to give an explanation before any conclusion could be taken. “There, I can lose myself and I don’t have to… I don’t have to be me. I can ignore everyone. I can do something I love. Off of it, nothing distracts me. I’m reminded of things I don’t have, what I’m not. And I never was good at talking to people as it is. I don’t like the attention.” He found the words spilling out before he could stop them, as if a dam had been broken. He didn’t want to do this, not in front of Viktor. So he reigned in whatever else he was going to say and he waited. And Viktor said something that Yuuri never expected.

 

“I can understand that.”

 

Yuuri took a moment to really drink in what was happening. They were alone in the corner of the room, no one really paying them much attention despite the medals that shone on their chests. With just a few words, an observation here, and Yuuri found himself spilling things that he didn’t ever want to. And instead of laughing at him or ignoring him, Viktor was meeting him. Admitting things too. Saying he understood.

 

“You can?”

 

“Yes, I can. Skating isn’t exactly a forgiving world. It’s harsh, critics can be cruel, the media horrible, and other skaters can become some of the worst enemies you ever come across. But the sport itself, the very feeling of flying on the ice, is addictive. It’s enough to make and break a person.”

 

It must have been something in his face, or perhaps even his voice. Whatever it was, Yuuri realised something – he wasn’t the only one making a persona. Viktor was giving him a smile that Yuuri had never seen before. It was bright, it reached his eyes, it poured out emotion as if Viktor could barely contain it. He did realise it was meant to be comforting, but Yuuri saw further than that.

 

It had taken him a while, but Yuuri began to connect the dots. The Viktor he had admired over the years always had the same expression – at first glance, it looked happy. Perhaps the expression at the start of his career had been, but not later. The posters in Yuuri’s room showed the same smile, the same deep eyes. They weren’t cold, but they weren’t warm. It was polite. Practiced. Hidden.

 

The smile he saw Viktor sport when it came to people he liked, such as Chris, was completely different. It was wide, it sparkled, it reached until he could barely open his eyes and his cheeks hurt. Those smiles he shared with Chris were different every time, with different emotions, different thoughts flittering through his mind. Not one was ever the same.

 

The smiles he gave Yuuri were somewhere in between. Yuuri wasn’t sure how he had noticed it, not when journalists, who were paid to observe, had never seen it before. He supposed it was because he was used to faking a persona. Maybe it was because he was used to it. He could see now, as plain as day, that Viktor wasn’t the confident man Yuuri had seen him as. Or, perhaps that wasn’t the way of saying it. Viktor was confident. He had it oozing from him. But it was as if the confidence he put on when he performed was acted.

 

Just like Yuuri’s own. With that thought, Yuuri considered maybe that was why Viktor saw his own difference.

 

His eyes flickered over Viktor’s face, trying to delve further into his trail of thought, knowing there was so much more about the person before him. Yuuri had always been observant, sometimes a curse when he didn’t need it. But as he stared at the Russian, he knew that this was as far as he could see. He didn’t know Viktor, not enough to start making assumptions about just why Viktor used different smiles. And Yuuri didn’t want to make assumptions, not when he knew he didn’t want people making them of his own situation.

 

Without being able to stop himself, Yuuri asked, “How do you deal with it?”

 

“Just keep surprising everyone,” Viktor said, his gaze still boring right into Yuuri’s mask. “Keep them guessing. Concentrate on the ice, keep it interesting, and you build yourself a shield.”

 

Yuuri pondered over the words for a moment as he took another sip, finishing his flute. He grabbed for another, and shivered as he felt the liquid courage ebb through him. He was relaxing. He felt energetic. He wanted to do something. The air was getting heavy and Yuuri never liked to stay on a heavy subject for too long, not when it could lead to anxiety attacks or ruin a mood. Distraction was key, and he had perfected the art long ago. He chugged down the flute, feeling it bubble at the back of his throat from the speed of his drinking, and placed that one down.

 

At Viktor’s curious gaze, Yuuri took his flute, downed that too and as he placed it down next to his empty ones, said, “It’s nice to know these things about you, Viktor.” His voice was strong, strange to his own ears, and he knew that if Ren could talk through him he would sound like this. “I don’t know a lot of skaters, not after my long absence, and it gets hard sometimes. But this is a good night, we’ve both won medals. Maybe we should celebrate.”

 

Viktor tilted his head, and a slight smirk pulled at one side of his mouth. “Celebrate?”

 

Yuuri pointed at the open space behind them, where numerous important people stood and spoke, some dancing to the music that quietly thrummed through the air. “Let’s dance. You and me. Celebrate.” Having done ballet and ice skating since a young age, Yuuri felt that dance was now heavily embedded inside his soul. Music spoke to him, any kind. It made him want to move his body, to express his stress, worries, happiness and thoughts through the form. With the alcohol coursing through him, that need was increased tenfold.

 

For a moment, from Viktor’s hesitancy, Yuuri wondered if he had said the wrong thing.

 

But then Viktor broke out into a grin, bright and wide and reached his sparkling eyes, and pushed himself from the wall. Grabbing Yuuri’s arm, he pulled him until they were in the very centre of the space. In the centre of attention.

 

Viktor took hold of their hands and raised it to have beside them, while his other took place at Yuuri’s hip. Yuuri, made confident by a mix of champagne and Ren, took the hint and placed his on Viktor’s shoulder. The music was quiet. It strummed overhead, notes barely there for those who didn’t listen. But once concentrated on, it rang loudly until everything else melted away.

 

They started slowly at first, a slow waltz through the centre of the space, ignoring some of the photos being taken or the whispers from sponsors. Instead, Yuuri giggled when he was dipped, or when he placed a foot wrong, or when Viktor moved a little too suddenly for him to keep up.

 

Viktor was a good dancer. Yuuri almost asked if he had taken up ballet as well, but the question was halted as Viktor dipped him again. Yuuri found himself looking at the crowd gathering around them upside down. He felt their stares, heard their words, wondered what they thought, but somewhere in the blur of tipsiness, he found he didn’t care. Let them think what they wanted to think. Ren could take it. Ren was his own shield, with bullet-proof skin and words blew off of him like dust. Yuuri was safe inside Ren. Yuuri didn’t have to worry.

 

The world spun as he was brought back up to face the Russian’s glistening eyes.

 

Bluer than anything Yuuri had ever seen. They sparkled, endless, like the summer morning sky. Around that, Viktor’s expression was free, with little smiling lines in the corners of his eyes, his eyebrows drawn up in laugher, his wide smile crinkling the bottom of his nose. There was a slight flush against his cheeks, showing off his high cheek bones. His perfectly swept hair was starting to fall in their dancing.

 

As he spun, he noticed that more of the alcohol was taking its toll. He was grinning like an idiot, not that anyone could see. And he was sure there was a blush deepening on his cheeks. He wasn’t feeling the cold as much as he was before. His hands and feet were tingling, and something was rushing to his head. He couldn’t concentrate and his eyes took a moment to catch up when he turned his head.

 

And yet it gave him a confidence that he often found only on the ice. It was coursing through him, as if he was completely Ren, and he found he didn’t understand why he was always so anxious. Everything was fine. Who cared what people thought?

 

Taken by his newfound courage, he readied himself for the climax of the music. He could feel it vibrate through his body, urging him, and as the last notes struck, Yuuri circled his arm around Viktor’s waist while the other cupped the back of his head, and he dipped the taller man.

 

Viktor was stunned. He could see in the way his mouth gaped open and his eyes widened. But he allowed it to happen, and as they stood still, Viktor looking up at Yuuri as he was dipped and Yuuri looking down from above, Viktor broke into a grin.

 

Yuuri couldn’t contain his giggles. He didn’t understand what was so funny, but they kept bubbling up from his throat.

 

They stayed, suspended like this, for what seemed like forever. But neither seemed to want to break the feeling. But then Yuuri’s arms began to ache. With strength, he pulled Viktor back to his feet. Yuuri wondered what to do now, and it seemed Viktor wanted to say something, but as a newer song strummed, this one faster paced, Yuuri got an idea. He grabbed Viktor’s hands and took him to where there was more space.

 

Yuuri loved to dance. He loved the soft music, the slow tones, the calmness that came with a lot of ballet pieces. But he also loved the fast paced, deeper passionate notes that came with more intense dances. Yuuri urged Viktor to join him in a salsa, grinning when he noticed that the man knew this style too.

 

They ended on a high. Yuuri had spun and spun Viktor as fast as they could go, until the ceiling was the floor and the walls weren’t there anymore. There were beads of sweat sliding down his mask, and somewhere along the way he lost his blazer. He had a faint memory of taking it off mid-spin somewhere, but when he looked around the room he couldn’t see where it could’ve gone.

 

There was more dipping, but fast ones, close to the ground, a true test of strength and timing. Yuuri came close to dropping Viktor one too many times, more out of the thrill of seeing the terror on the man’s face than because he had misjudged it. In retaliation, Viktor lifted Yuuri up when he was least expecting it, until Yuuri could do nothing than be victim to Viktor’s dancing.

 

And as the songs finished, when it was clear that the night might be running to a close, when Yuuri was gradually returning to sober and the buzz was fading, they found themselves in the corner of the room, talking about nothing.

 

Yuuri wasn’t sure how the topic came about, but he was fishing out his phone and showing the Russian skater his dog.

 

“He’s a poodle!” Viktor gasped, rushing to gather his own phone. “Just like mine.”

 

Yuuri didn’t want to let the other know that he knew what his dog was, what the name of it was, and that he had gotten his own because of him. Instead, he said, “Oh? Crazy!”

 

“What’s his name?”

 

“Uh,” Yuuri muttered, thinking of another name he could give, quickly. When nothing came, he said, “Vicchan.” But Viktor didn’t seem to know the nickname. Instead of the disgusted or concerned glances, Viktor smiled wide and said it was a good name. It was, Yuuri agreed. A good, strong name.  

 

Viktor scrolled through his phone before he showed Yuuri his own dog. His poodle seemed a little bigger than Vicchan from the photo, and a little darker in colour, but the same bright eyes and happy expression, not to mention the same lolling tongue.

 

“He’s gorgeous,” Yuuri said, taking the phone and looking at the picture. It hadn’t been taken long ago, if the time stamp on the top was anything to go by. The fluffy form was sitting on a sofa, and underneath the fur was a pair of human legs, the rest of the figure hidden away. But Yuuri knew who those belonged to.

 

“He’s called Makkachin,” Viktor said. “He’s getting a little old now though. Prefers a lot more cuddles than he does walks.”

 

“Mine’s not too old yet, but he likes to pretend he’s still a puppy,” Yuuri laughed, handing the phone back. He scrolled through his own phone, finding a picture of Vicchan face down in some snow, so deep that only his back end and his tail were above the white. When he showed Viktor, he laughed and took Yuuri’s phone to get a better view. Yuuri’s heart stammered.

 

“He’s so much like Makkachin!” Viktor commented.

 

Yuuri wasn’t sure why, but something inside of him warmed at the comment. Vicchan was such a big part of his life, often there when Yuuri needed someone the most, that hearing the very man that had inspired him to get a puppy compliment him made Yuuri beam.

 

“Why did you decide to get a dog?” Viktor asked, still scrolling through Yuuri’s phone to look at the puppy pictures.

 

Yuuri couldn’t say the exact reason, but he could give another one that was close to the truth. “I do have friends, and they’re always there for me, but sometimes when I needed them the most they had other things to do. Not in a horrible way, but they had lives and I couldn’t depend on them for everything. So I got a puppy to keep me company.”

 

Viktor nodded. “Me too. Where I grew up could be such a big place, and lonely for someone by themselves.”

 

Yuuri took in the words. Anything he could learn more about Viktor was interesting to him. And as he picked apart those words, mixed with the lingering alcohol in his system, he was a little slow in remembering that he didn’t just have photos of Vicchan on his phone. Some were of him too, with Phichit, or Yuko, some of his dance classes or ones that had been sent to him. Without his mask.

 

He’d forgotten until Viktor scrolled to one of him and Phichit, smiling to the camera, in the middle of their home rink in Detroit. It had been taken right before training, the start of this season. Phichit wanted to take it to commemorate Yuuri’s grand return.

 

Yuuri’s heart leapt to his throat as the picture came to view. He snagged the phone away, frightening the other man, and switched it off before he pushed it into his pocket again.

 

Had he seen? He knew he had been quick taking it away, but it had been there, in a flash, and Viktor might have caught something. He daren’t look up. With a hand to the back of his neck, his eyes cast down to the floor below, he said, “Sorry, I frightened you.”

 

For the longest moment, there wasn’t anything said. Yuuri didn’t know what to do with that. He was worried he ruined the mood completely. The pause was heavy. He looked back up to Viktor and could barely take his eyes away when he saw the steady smile on the Russian’s lips. It wasn’t mocking. It wasn’t triumphant. It was calming. Reassuring.

 

“Don’t worry,” Viktor said, his voice strong but almost a whisper, and there was something in it that made Yuuri slump in ease. “I didn’t see anything, Ren.”

 

“I’m sorry.”

 

Viktor shrugged. “You don’t want to say, and you don’t want me to see. It’s fine. It’s your secret, and I’m not going to push you for it.”

 

Yuuri nodded. He wasn’t sure what to say though. He suddenly felt sober again, the near reveal leaving his heart a hammering mess. He wasn’t ready for anyone to find out yet, much less his idol. The more he spoke with Viktor, the more he was sure that the man wouldn’t ridicule him or make fun of him for his choices. But Yuuri hadn’t had the chance to gather everything he wanted to know about Viktor yet, and he certainly wasn’t ready to be Yuuri in front of him. Not yet. He was sure Viktor wouldn’t treat Yuuri any different from Ren, but Yuuri would be different in front of Viktor.

 

“What sort of shampoo do you use for Vicchan? I use this one, and it used to work at the start, but now whenever Makkachin runs into mud, it’s not getting it all out.” Viktor scrolled through his phone and showed Yuuri a picture of a dog shampoo bottle.

 

For a moment, Yuuri was lost, unsure on what was happening. But then it dawned on him. Viktor was changing subjects. Was it because he saw how uncomfortable it made Yuuri feel? When he looked back up to the man, he saw Viktor urging him to reply. Yuuri was filled with ease again. He pulled out his phone again, careful to make sure the photo didn’t pop up again, and typed the name out into the search engine to show Viktor the results.

 

“I use this one,” Yuuri said. “It took me a while to find it, but it’s really good. They should have some in Russia, it’s not a Japanese company.”

 

They continued on like that for a while, speaking of their dogs, finding more than enough to occupy their time on the topic. With swapped stories of their canine companions, ranging from when Vicchan had dragged little Yuuri all across the garden when he was younger, to when Makkachin had stained every piece of furniture in Viktor’s home with mud, they found time passing quickly. Before they knew it, the banquet was finishing.

 

***

 

The hour was late. The suit on Yuuri was beginning to get on his nerves and he wanted to do nothing more than slip into his pyjamas and into bed.

 

They had to wait around and see to all of the guests, accepting their congratulations before they were allowed to retire. Celestino, as he had done the whole night, was talking to another coach, leaving Yuuri to guess what he should do next. Before he could, an arm was placed around his shoulders. He followed the arm until he came across Chris’ face, which was far too close for him to be comfortable with.

 

“I have yet had the chance to congratulate you myself,” The Swiss man commented.

 

He was quite a bit taller than Yuuri. Yuuri knew he had a few more years of growth before he stopped completely, and he hoped that one day he would be able to look Chris in the eyes at the same height. Perhaps then he wouldn’t feel so young, so childish in front of the older skaters. Because he saw the way Chris looked at him, as if congratulating a child. Not disrespecting Yuuri, quite the opposite, and not in a way that he would underestimate him, but as something to comfort. He saw something vulnerable, young, something to take under his wing. Yuuri had seen enough of that look in his time to see it in others.

 

And it was oddly comforting. Yuuri found he didn’t hate it and didn’t feel belittled by it. Odd he thought, especially when he hated those looks from others.

 

“Thank you, and congratulations to you too,” Yuuri replied.

 

“I must admit,” Chris said, clicking his tongue to the roof of his mouth. “I was worried for a second there that maybe you’d take my silver streak.”

 

Yuuri couldn’t help but smile at the compliment, because he could see in the way Chris’ face opened so completely that he had been genuine. He wanted to say that the better person had beaten to the silver, but Ren rose again. Yuuri gave a cheeky grin, not that Chris could see, and said, “Well, you’ll have to keep that worry for Worlds.”

 

It seemed Chris was more prepared this time for Ren’s challenges. He gave his own grin and said, “I welcome such competition. And with both of us reaching for the gold, Viktor will have to be careful.”

 

As if his name called him, Viktor stepped forwards with a smile, clearly not having heard what they said. Yuuri and Chris turned their gaze to the man, and under the look, Viktor faltered in his smile while he asked what they had been talking about. 

 

Chris stood up properly, placed his hands on his hips and replied, “Nothing much, don’t worry your pretty little greying head.”

 

Viktor glared and was about to speak, his mouth gaping open, before Chris interrupted him to continue.

 

“We were just commenting on how you should be worried. Ren has proven how much potential he has, and I will break this silver streak of mine. Sooner rather than later, you might find your throne usurped.” As his coach called him, Chris turned with a wave over his shoulder and the parting words, “Just a healthy warning! And Ren, don’t lose sight of our goal.”

 

Yuuri didn’t watch him walk away. Instead he turned to look at Viktor, who still seemed a little down at the hair colour comment. To cheer him, Yuuri tried to give him a big smile, only just remembering the man couldn’t see. Instead, he decided to show through his body language. He tilted his head and brought his shoulders up, almost as if he was laughing. For a moment, he thought Viktor might take it the wrong way, but when Viktor broke out into a smile, he knew he hadn’t.

 

Despite Yuuri screaming in his mind to shut up, he found Ren’s confidence pulsing through and saying, “I don’t think your hair is grey, more platinum. And the colour suits you.”

 

Viktor’s hand went to his hair, and Yuuri watched as his fingers glided through the soft strands. Though he said nothing about the comment, it seemed to please him. “When do you leave?” he asked, bringing his hand back to his side.

 

For a moment, Yuuri was confused by the question. Celestino looked as if he was soon to be finished with the conversation he was in, his body turned towards Yuuri. All around them, the late-night staff were beginning to clean the mess, brushing away the rubbish to the side and setting the tables and chairs away. Guests were leaving, mingling beside the doors as they gathered their coats. Cars were revving outside, following the road back to their homes. The clock on the wall was striking. It was incredibly late.

 

He was about to tell Viktor that he would probably be leaving for the hotel soon, but then it struck him. The real question. A little of the confidence was faltering as he realised it. “Tomorrow, or, more like today. Our flight is in the late morning.” The words came out slowly. Yuuri wasn’t prepared for how much it hurt him to think – and he mentally cursed at himself. He’d just celebrated a podium win, bronze, in his first ever senior Grand Prix Final. He shouldn’t have been feeling down to return to the real world. But he was. Because the celebration had been so memorable, so brilliant, it felt like it was crashing to an end. Just for the moment, he reminded himself. Come Worlds, and the next Grand Prix Final, everything would happen again.

 

He was too busy in his own world, trying to label his feelings, to see the expression fall on Viktor’s face. When he did finally look back up, Viktor had schooled his features back into a smaller smile.

 

“What about you?” Yuuri asked.

 

“I’m staying for a few days.”

 

“Oh,” Yuuri muttered, unsure what to say. What did they do here? Does he wish Viktor luck in training? Or on his journey? Did they shake hands? Was there some goodbye ritual?

 

Viktor beat him to it. The Russian man stepped forwards until he was almost in Yuuri’s personal space, gave him a small but bright smile, and said, “In that case, it’s best for you to head to sleep now, get as much as you can before your flight. See you at Worlds?”

 

So a normal goodbye then? Yuuri could do that, that wasn’t so hard. He gave a firm nod, feeling it lift his spirits a little, and said, “Yes, see you at Worlds. Good luck in training.”

 

Viktor looked as if he was going to say something, but faltered. Instead, he wrapped his arms around Yuuri and brought him closer into a tight hug that had Yuuri flailing internally. It was warm, a little wobbly as they both waited for the alcohol to leave their system, and perfect.

 

The thought hit Yuuri like a tidal wave. Perfect. Yuuri wasn’t a big hugger, not always touchy-feely unless he knew the person well, and yet everyone around him always seemed to be huggy people. He’d had to grow used to hugs, to closeness with people he didn’t know completely, especially in America. And in his time, Yuuri had received and given a lot of hugs. So far, the best had been his mother’s, warm, soft, and felt like home. Others came close, but none were near perfect.

 

Until this. Yuuri’s arms circled Viktor’s waist, and he felt the weight of the other man’s arms on his shoulders. He raised his head so that he was resting on a shoulder, his mask jutting a little at his chin, and they stayed still for a while. Viktor’s face was near his neck, their ears almost touching. It was perfect. They fit perfectly. It was soft. It was warm. It was more than comforting.

 

It must have only lasted a few seconds, but Yuuri would have guessed longer. Time didn’t still, nothing so romantic, nothing so strange. But his thoughts ran at a mile a minute and time wasn’t real in his mind. When Viktor pulled away, Yuuri pulled away too, not wanting to seem too eager.

 

Celestino called his name. It was time to go.

 

Yuuri turned away, but turned back to look Viktor in the face and bid, “Bye. See you soon.”

 

Viktor raised his hand in a wave. “Bye, Ren.”

 

Yuuri didn’t remember much after that, only little bits, like Celestino warning him not to drink too much again, that he hadn’t known Yuuri could dance like that or how surprised he was to see how close Yuuri and Viktor were. They came in flashes of memory.

 

He lay in his bed, coming back to himself, changed in his pyjamas and staring at the ceiling. There was something bugging at him, at the back of his mind, and his chest was swelling with emotions. Nearing twenty, he knew that in the eyes of the world he would soon be considered an adult. But he didn’t feel like it. Yuuri’s experience in real emotions was unbalanced, an expert in some and inexperienced in others.

 

Yuuri had never been in a relationship before, and before Viktor, he’d never admired someone before. He used to worry if meeting the man would kill those fires, if he differed so much from the public image. Yuuri found he did. Viktor’s personality was similar, but it was as if the public only ever saw a tiny bit of Viktor. There was so much more of the man, and Yuuri knew he’d only seen a little bit. And he was already enamoured.

 

As inexperienced as he was though, Yuuri knew himself well, and he knew what his emotions usually led to. Yuuri Katsuki would be getting scared about now, recognising the signs of where this was going, and try to back off in order to stop it. Because all he’d seen in his life, love, in the majority, didn’t mean forever. It brought pain. It hurt. It created confusion and broken prides. The only love he’d seen that didn’t end that way was his parents’. But Ren Himura was different. Ren was confident, prideful, willing to tackle a challenge head on. Ren wasn’t scared and wanted to see where things were going to go, as if nothing could ever hurt him.

 

As inexperienced as Yuuri was, he knew himself well. Almost too well. And he knew Ren. He knew the two versions of himself completely. So he pushed Ren down, only a little, keeping some of his confidence for when he would next see Viktor, but keeping Yuuri around so that he was careful. Balance it out. Confident but careful.

 

Because he knew what was admiration now could turn to love. And that was the last thing Yuuri wanted.

Chapter Text

Yuuri trained for the lead up to Worlds with a goal in mind.

 

Bronze had been brilliant to achieve. The medal held a place of honour in his room back in Detroit, gleaming still under the florescent lights. It brought out the pride in his family, his friends and his country. The internet had gone insane after his win, his persona’s name in bold on every newspaper, article, video and story. Pictures of him on the podium, beside Viktor and Chris, flooded the web and Yuuri had spent a whole night flitting through them, hardly able to believe it. There was finally a photo that had both him and Viktor in it, without having been photoshopped. And they both held medals. He had a medal.

 

The thought never seemed to lose its surprise.

 

But as the time came closer and closer to Worlds, Ren Himura began to get jittery. Yuuri hadn’t been in a competition since the Grand Prix Final, and he was itching to perform in front of a crowd again, to show the confidence he had battled to gain. Months of preparation burned down to the sole purpose of gaining another medal. Yuuri would be happy to gain another bronze, but Ren wanted more. They’d gotten the third place once, now there was only upwards to go.

 

With that in mind, Yuuri pushed himself in every training session, right up until he was satisfied. Every first step he took on the ice, he could feel Ren take over with ease. The desire burned inside of his mind, and he only had one goal in mind.

 

Who would he usurp this time? Chris or Viktor? Ren was itching to say Viktor, but would be satisfied with just Chris.

 

Celestino commended him on the drive he had gained, saying that winning a medal had brought something out of him. Yuuri couldn’t agree more.

 

Now twenty, Yuuri had finally left his teenage years, some of the hardest he had ever experienced. He wanted to make this decade some of the best years he had ever lived, because he knew he would have retired come the end of it.

 

He didn’t want to think about that, because he didn’t want to think about what retiring would mean. Would he finish with a room full of medals? Would he know what he wanted to do after it? It had been such a big part of his life for so long, he wasn’t sure what else he could do. By the end, would he be happy with himself? Would he need the mask, or would he grow out of his anxiety? Would he, by the end of his career, show the world just who he was, as they so wanted? Or would he forever remain a mystery? They were questions he didn’t want to think too much about, not right now. Because though he was young, and retiring from his career didn’t mean the end of his life, at the times he did think about it, it really felt like it was.

 

So he set his thoughts in the near future, with the idea of Worlds, his very first, and buzzed with excitement for it.

 

He was going to be under the bright lights again. He was going to be Ren Himura, where nothing could cut through his thick skin, and he could show the world just how skilled he could be without worry.

 

The excitement wasn’t anything compared to when he and Celestino were on the plane though, flying out to the World Championship location. It became real then. He was going to see the other skaters then.

 

It struck him suddenly, that thought. He was used to being around skaters, of course he was. Celestino coached others, like Phichit. But they weren’t at the same competitive level yet. Yuuri missed seeing Viktor, Chris, and even the ones he never knew the names of or ever interacted with. He wanted to see their confidence, their surety, their beautiful skills, their brilliant expressions. He missed their conversations, and how they all seemed to click so easily to begin with. Yuuri forgot all about himself when he was with them.

 

As always, they were early at the hotel. Celestino had, this time, gotten them both one room, just in case someone tried anything again. Yuuri said he didn’t mind, but regretted it the first night when Celestino did nothing but snore. But he doubted he would have slept anyway. The excitement was building. He couldn’t wait to see the other skaters the next day, to see familiar faces that both calmed him and brought out emotions from his depth.

 

It didn’t seem he needed to wait too long. Early in the morning, there was a knock on the door. Celestino had risen and was in their shared en suite, showering for the day. Yuuri stumbled out of bed, placing on his mask and opened the door with a grumble.

 

He didn’t have time to figure out who it was before he was tackled into a hug. Flashes of memory and panic rose, remembering the attacker from several months before. He flailed for a second before he recognised the embrace and melted into it, despite his best wishes.

 

He was warm, as always, and fit so well. His silver hair was tickling his skin through the eye holes and along Yuuri’s neck. He smelled sweet, cologne, but also of a tinge of sweat that accompanied a long flight. It only lasted a second before Viktor leaned back, his hands still placed on Yuuri’s shoulders.

 

Yuuri’s gaze quickly scanned over the man’s features. There were slight bags under his eyes, barely visible until Yuuri was close, his hair hardly brushed, and clothes rumpled. Yuuri grinned beneath the mask upon seeing the Russian man.

 

“I missed you!” Viktor said, his own grin blinding Yuuri.

 

Before he could talk himself out of it, Yuuri said, “And I’ve missed you too.” Because he had. It was addicting, speaking to someone you had admired for such a long time, based your whole persona on. Every time Ren surfaced, he was reminded of Viktor.

 

Viktor seemed pleased upon hearing it. He smiled deeper, until his eyes were little crescent moons, shining brightly in the low light of the morning. “This time,” he began, “we’re not on the same level, unfortunately.”

 

Distracted by the whites of the man’s teeth, it took a moment for Yuuri to catch up with what he meant. “Level?”

 

“I’m upstairs, one level above,” Viktor clarified.

 

“Oh, you mean floors.” It struck him a little that he wouldn’t see the man opposite him, not that it had come to much use last time. “Unfortunate.”

 

“Do you know if Chris has arrived yet?”

 

Yuuri shook his head. “I didn’t know any other skater had arrived until you,” Yuuri replied.

 

Viktor took out his phone. “He messaged me saying he would be here by the time I got here.”

 

“Maybe he’s getting breakfast?”

 

Yuuri wished he hadn’t said it, because as soon as he did, Viktor’s eyes widened with an idea, and he knew exactly where he was going. Yuuri braced himself against the door frame, ready for when Viktor grabbed his arm and tried to pull him into the hall.

 

“Let’s go see!” Viktor chimed.

 

Yuuri held on tightly, halting their movement. “Not yet! I need to dress, and get ready-”

 

“No one will care.”

 

“I care! And I need to tell my coach where I’m going, or he’ll think I was attacked again.”

 

Viktor huffed and brought them back into the room, closing the door with a click behind him. “Alright, then leave a note? Chris eats quickly.”

 

“Okay.” Yuuri turned to quickly write a note before he took out some clothes to change. As he bundled his pyjama top in his hands, ready to bring it over his head, he stopped. He looked at Viktor over his shoulder and asked, “Mind if you turn around? I don’t like people watching me while I change.”

 

Viktor seemed about ready to argue against it for one reason or another, but with a shrug he turned to look at the door.

 

Yuuri changed quickly and almost as soon as he was done, Viktor pulled him from the room and they were rushing through the halls, down to the dining room.

 

Chris wasn’t there when they arrived. Yuuri was going to suggest where they could look, but Viktor pushed Yuuri into a chair and was already placing a menu in his hands.

 

“What are you doing?” Yuuri asked, looking over the menu at the man.

 

Viktor’s eyes were scanning over all of the foods, flitting so quickly Yuuri had to wonder how he was reading at all. “I’m starving.”

 

You always seem to be when we meet, Yuuri thought. “Yeah, I could use some breakfast.” He pretended to read the words, but they were swimming before his vision. His gaze kept flitting to the man before him, and he found himself still not believing he was still on speaking terms with his idol. That he had danced with him only months before. That Viktor had said he missed him. It was like a fantasy come true, eating breakfast together in the early morning.

 

He took a moment to appreciate Viktor, see the way he hadn’t changed. Still a little childlike when he looked over the menu, Yuuri couldn’t help but smile. Yuuri noticed how he himself had grown in their absence, and he creeped closer and closer to the height of Viktor. The growth spurt had been a little late in coming, but with it, it took a little of the late puppy fat around Yuuri’s middle, something he was more than happy about.

 

Viktor would be twenty four now, Yuuri thought. At the idea, he rubbed the back of his neck, embarrassed by how much he knew about the man sitting before him. It seemed as if he never aged. Had Viktor not cut his long hair that he sported years ago in his teens, Yuuri wouldn’t be able to see a difference. He seemed ageless.

 

“What are you getting?”

 

Viktor’s voice took him out of his trance. He mumbled, “Huh?”

 

Viktor simply smiled. “What do you want?”

 

“Oh, um.” Yuuri looked down at the menu again. “I’ll probably just go for some toast or something. I don’t like big breakfasts.”

 

Viktor looked about ready to argue, and he knew what it was going to be. Celestino always said to eat a big breakfast before a day of training, but Yuuri hated to work on a full stomach. It made him too queasy. Viktor didn’t push though, instead he told the waiter their orders before he placed the menu down again and asked, “How’s Vicchan?”

 

For a moment, Yuuri thought he was asking after himself, until he realised. “Oh, yeah, Vicchan’s doing well. Eating everything he can get to.” He asked his parents to update him regularly about what was happening to his dog. Almost as soon as he got it, he felt a strong attachment, and it had only grown as time moved on. “How’s Makkachin?”

 

“Getting old, but still as wild as he used to be.” Speaking of his dog, Viktor looked down at the table, a gentle smile gracing his lips, his eyes sparkling with love. His expression was soft, touched faintly by the light, and spoke volumes. Yuuri found himself wanting to see that expression more.

 

“Did the shampoo help?”

 

Viktor’s eyes snapped up and he groaned, “You have no idea how much. It was a true godsend!”

 

Before they could say more, Chris appeared out of nowhere, dragging a seat to sit on the side of their table. He gave them both a grin in greeting. “The podium trio, back together to battle again,” he said.

 

Viktor gave him a smirk as he leaned back in the chair, hands resting behind his head. “Ready for another year of silver, Chris?”

 

Chris leaned forwards and rested his head in the palm of his right hand, blinking his long lashes. “I warn you, this could be the year I push you to silver.”

 

“No, I plan to win gold for a few consecutive years to come.”

 

Yuuri leaned back and watched their easy conversation, not wondering for the first time what it would have been like to be with then in the seasons he had decided to take out. If he had pushed himself to only miss one, could he be sat here throwing easy lines at them too? Would he feel more comfortable, less in awe? Would he perhaps have had a higher medal by now? Yuuri tried to shake the thoughts out of his head, knowing that they were straying down the wrong road. He knew he had done the right thing in taking the amount of seasons off as he did, taking the time to heal. If he pushed himself, he could have caused more harm than good. But hindsight was a cruel thing. It made him think things, regret things, forget things that contributed so much to a past decision.

 

He made himself think of something else instead. What would it have been like if he decided not to return at all? He was here, sitting ready to have breakfast with people he admired, one of which he had followed obsessively for years. He wouldn’t be experiencing this otherwise, not if he had decided he didn’t want to return. He could be thankful for that, right? But anxiety didn’t listen to reason.

 

Sensing the coming worry, he pushed Yuuri Katsuki down and dragged Ren Himura up, feeling a little out of practice after the months out of the media and the company of other skaters. Ren watched the two interact with his own ease, knowing he had a place here, and he could push himself in further as the time went by. After all, none on the table had any desire to retire any time soon. They only had time to get closer. Because Ren wanted that, to become close, not just to have a medal. A medal was brilliant, but it didn’t hold much of its magic when there was no one to celebrate with.

 

“I don’t think that counts,” Viktor huffed, his voice once again bringing Yuuri out of a trance. “No one even knew where you got it.”

 

Chris shrugged in reply and gave a slow wink. “I only bring it out at parties.”

 

Yuuri wasn’t sure what they were talking about, but he smiled and nodded along with it, pretending he did in case one asked. After all, he didn’t want to admit that he hadn’t been listening, and the reason he hadn’t was because he was thinking about them and his desire to grow closer to them.

 

Before long, their breakfast arrived, Yuuri’s toast and Viktor’s plate of food, ranging from toast, to bacon, sausages, eggs and more. Chris picked on Viktor’s, taking a fork and quickly snapping a piece of bacon before Viktor could smack his hand away.

 

Time moved too quickly. Before Yuuri knew it, they’d all finished and it was time for training. He was trying to figure out a way to say goodbye to them, looking for something that was familiar but not too familiar with them, fearing he wasn’t close enough yet. But he needn’t have worried. He found himself travelling to the rink with them and their coaches, Celestino encouraging the interaction with everything he had.

 

And Yuuri couldn’t help but feel good about it.

 

 

***

 

For the first time, Yuuri was invited to spend some time with the other skaters after training. Viktor and Chris told him that they, as well as a few other skaters, were going to go drinking as a celebration. At first, Yuuri wasn’t too sure. He couldn’t be hungover for tomorrow, but Celestino encouraged him. Just a few drinks, he said. You never go out, you never socialise, it’s good for you. Yuuri wasn’t so sure, but Ren wanted it, he wanted the companionship he had been missing in his competitive skating career. Being close with Phichit was one thing, but the younger skater wasn’t in the senior division yet, it got lonely.

 

Yuuri stood in front of his wardrobe, wondering what it was he should wear. Not expecting to do anything but training in his time, he hadn’t brought anything but loose training clothes, his costumes and leisure wear for when he was in his room. He began to panic.

 

People often wore nice things for when they were going out, right? He could get away with a plain black top, but he had no jeans, no nice shoes, no nice trousers, nothing to accessorise. Did he have a nice watch? No, he didn’t bring one. He didn’t have anything. Should he wear something that would go with his mask, make that an accessory? But he didn’t have anything!

 

Celestino came to the rescue. He rushed to a shop close to the hotel, bought some nice jeans, a plain red T-shirt, and some black shoes. All nothing spectacular, but he said his mask would draw enough attention, and could pull the whole thing together well enough.

 

Yuuri looked at himself in the mirror once done, a little embarrassed by how the top and the jeans hugged his form. A little of his love handles squished at the top, and he continuously pulled down the top to try and cover them. Regardless of how many hours he spent training, the fat from around his stomach and thighs never seemed to want to go.

 

All too soon, he was ready.

 

He took a deep breath, thought about how fine this was going to be. He was Ren Himura, not Yuuri Katsuki. Ren wanted a few drinks, just a few, and wanted to socialise. Ren was sick of sitting in the room with nothing but the complimentary films and series to occupy his time. Yuuri’s comfort space was no longer Ren’s. He sighed. It was difficult having two personalities, he thought.

 

Phichit sent him a quick good luck message and Celestino waved him off from the room, and Yuuri found himself alone in the middle of the hallway. He took another deep breath, allowing it to fill every space in his lungs, and imagined the stress leaving his body as he breathed it out. Yuuri went with it, and with his hands in his pockets, a jacket slung over his shoulder, he felt Ren completely take over.

 

Ren wanted him to practically skip down the hallway in excitement, so ready to finally be allowed time to roam and be free. He found himself wanting to take a sip of alcohol already, wanted to feel the burn as it slipped down his throat, the sparks it set off inside of his veins. He wanted the added confidence that the liquid brought, the easy conversation and the joy. Yuuri knew he shouldn’t have relied on alcohol to do it, that with the mask and alcohol he wasn’t dealing with his self-confidence issues the right way, but it was a shortcut. He could learnt to gain it naturally another way and at another time. The world he lived in demanded too much of it and too quickly for him to be comfortable with.

 

Viktor, Chris and a few other skaters were waiting in the lobby. The time had been set for eight, and Yuuri, never wanting to be the last to arrive, arrived five minutes early. And yet, despite his time, he seemed to be the last one. He didn’t let their gazes scare him as they turned towards him. Instead, Ren tilted his head, gave the biggest smile he could though they couldn’t see, and waved.

 

“Ren, you ready?” Viktor asked, stepping forward to meet Yuuri.

 

He nodded. “Yep, ready for some fun. Are we going to wander around, or do we have something in mind?” The ease in which the conversation rolled off of his tongue always surprised him. Sometimes, it scared him how well-crafted and built Ren was.

 

“There’s a bar we have in mind, it’s not too far from here,” Viktor replied.

 

Chris stepped in before Viktor could continue, raising Yuuri’s hand and stroking the skin on the back with his thumb. He gave a smirk and looked into the eyes of the mask, almost close enough to see Yuuri’s own. “You look stunning tonight,” he complimented, his gaze scanning over the top. “Just the right fit.”

 

Yuuri wanted to run screaming. He didn’t get compliments. He could probably count the amount he had ever had on one hand, and most had been from friends he knew had to. Yuuri wasn’t good with them, always muttering a quick thank you before he wanted to rush off out of embarrassment. But Ren welcomed them, greedily reeling them in because he knew he was stunning, because he knew how to walk, how the ice had carved out his grace, and some of his fans had made it known on numerous social media platforms of what they wanted to do to him – of course, Yuuri didn’t go looking, but Phichit found it hilarious how much of a blush it brought out in Yuuri when he sent it to his nervous friend. Phichit, Yuuri decided, was the devil himself.

 

“Thank you,” Yuuri replied, amazed how his voice didn’t crack once. The words left as if he hadn’t any control over them, Ren now completely in control. “They’re a bit too simple though, don’t you think?”

 

Encouraged, Chris stood up, letting go of Yuuri’s hand, and tilted his head to the side. “Quite the opposite, simple can be just as dazzling as anything intricate. Red is your colour. Really shows off your physique.”

 

Yuuri hadn’t thought much about the colour before, thinking it too bold to wear out. He preferred to stick to dulled colours, or darks like blues or greys. He hated drawing attention to himself, and red was like a flashing beacon. But his colour? Ren wasn’t the only one happy with the compliment, and at the back of his mind Yuuri wondered if he should incorporate more into his wardrobe.

 

Viktor stepped in, raising one eyebrow at his friend and a smile gracing his lips. “Really, Chris? You’ve not even had anything to drink yet and you’re flirting with everything that moves.”

 

“Like you can talk!” Chris gasped, but he allowed himself to be pulled away by one of the other skaters. Before he was at the front of the group, he turned to say over his shoulder, “And not with everything that moves. Ren deserves it, he looks fantastic. You can’t tell me you haven’t noticed.” Before he could continue, the skater holding him pulled him to begin walking out of the lobby.

 

Viktor was at his side, looping their arms together. “Don’t mind Chris.”

 

Yuuri shrugged, content with allowing himself to be dragged by Viktor out of the hotel. “He’s really not that bad.”

 

Viktor cast a warning glance at him, eyes wide and fearful. “You haven’t seen him drunk. You probably won’t see it tonight, with practice and all tomorrow. But after Worlds? Be prepared. It isn’t so much flirting as it is groping.”

 

“Oh,” Yuuri chuckled, both at the comment and at the expression on the Russian man’s face. “It sounds like you’ve seen it a lot.”

 

Viktor gave one nod, his eyes glazing over as if some terrifying flashback was playing before him. “Too many times.”

 

Unable to contain himself, Yuuri rolled his head back slightly and laughed, feeling it bubble out easily. Strange, he thought again. The sound seemed to snap Viktor from his thought, because the man looked down at Yuuri, a smirk returning.

 

“No, really, you don’t understand,” Viktor laughed. “Just you wait.”

 

They really had been telling the truth when they said the bar was close. After only five minutes of walking, they reached it. It had an old feel, with painted wood outside the door, split windows, and a stage in the corner where a couple were performing. The woman, tall and pale with bright red hair, played the fiddle while the man, small and slightly round with short blond hair, sat on a stool and sang, strumming his acoustic guitar. They tapped their feet to the music, rousing the audience into a familiar cover, their smiles infectious.

 

Yuuri always found himself influenced by others, and smiled when he noticed their beaming grins. The music hit his chest, and he almost felt compelled to sing with them all, despite not knowing all the words.

 

A group in the middle of the audience were dancing, spinning their partners around, dipping them, twirling them until the space grew and grew and more bodies followed their dance. The lighting was low, with some dimply lit lamps on the side of the walls, a spotlight on the crowd and the bar, with high tables and booths at the back, waiters almost dancing between tables.

 

It was as if the world outside fell away. Yuuri immediately felt euphoric, the experience touching every bit of his soul, and he found he wanted to stay here forever. Anything he might have been worrying about was long gone.

 

The group was led to one of the booths at the back, but with a perfect view of the performing couple on the other side of the room. Viktor slipped in besides Yuuri, while Chris sat on the other side, huddled in together. The other skaters, ones Yuuri knew he needed to actually be introduced to, sat before them, one already rising again to get drinks. He asked their orders, and Yuuri, not often one for drinking, asked to have what they were having.

 

The other skaters were talking about something, but Yuuri was content to listen to the music, allowing it to flow over him, happy with the events of the night already. And, before he knew it, a glass of something that seemed just like a lemonade was placed in front of him. He didn’t ask what it was, deciding to push his mask just enough to sip at the drink. He felt compelled to ask the man if it was alcohol at all, not tasting it, but as he went to ask, he felt it burning his throat.

 

Right, he thought, so it was one that didn’t taste too much like alcohol. He would need to be careful with that, he decided.

 

Soon enough, the other skaters commanded his attention with needless questions, ranging from his favourite movie to what he liked to do in his spare time. Being the baby of the group, both the youngest one and the one that they had barely spoken to, all of their questions and their attention were focused on him. Yuuri was more than happy to talk to them, encouraged by the lack of awkward pause.

 

His drink was finished, he had another before him, and the couple singing moved onto a faster paced song. He sipped the drink and answered their questions, giving some of his own stories of growing up when they contributed their own.

 

As the time slipped by, Yuuri found himself easing. These people were kind, and they strayed away from the topic of skating, knowing that it could bring stress and that it was tiresome to talk about it when that was their whole life, spending hours training, thinking about competitions. It did get sickening after a while.

 

Yuuri listened to all of their words, laughing and nodding, and before he could recognise it, he was slightly tipsy. The alcohol in his drink was getting less and less easy to notice, and the dull light was blurring in his eyes. Just a nice buzz, he thought, a beautiful state of mind to be in, and with that he chased more of his drink.

 

He wasn’t alone. The others drank as much, but Yuuri knew he was a lightweight, and these people were probably heavy drinkers. They didn’t seem affected yet. Eager to show himself as an adult too, especially now that he was finally out of his teens, he drank more.

 

By the time the room was spinning and the couple singing were changing songs too quickly, Yuuri knew that perhaps he had drunk too much. But the others seemed eager to continue to push nameless drinks in his hands, and Yuuri, for some stupid reason, thought that he could trust himself in their care. They drank a lot, right? They would know when he had had enough.

 

But the liquid was quickly rushing to his bladder, and he escaped to the toilet before he could burst. On his way back, in his drunken mind, he decided he didn’t want to sit down.

 

“Your drink is waiting for you,” Chris said, pushing it towards where he stood, his eyes drooping just slightly.

 

“But I don’t want to sit down,” Yuuri argued. He turned to where Viktor was regarding him, a dusting of pink on his pale cheeks. Remembering the last time they had both been a little tipsy, Yuuri reached out his hand and commanded, “Dance with me.” He wasn’t sure what the song was at the moment, just knew that it was something he could dance to.

 

Viktor didn’t need much encouraging. He gave a firm nod and took Yuuri’s hand, allowing the younger man to lead him towards the dancing audience.

 

It wasn’t something that they could waltz to, nor was it something that they could spin to – a dance that they were both comfortable with. But Yuuri didn’t let that deter him. Drunk Yuuri was making a show, and it was the first time he wondered if there was a drunk Ren, or if Ren was just drunk Yuuri. The thought hurt his head, so instead he began to dance.

 

Bodies were brushing against him. The temperature was rising, and he felt a sheen of sweat over his skin, clinging to his top. Viktor was close, his heat burning. In the confined space, they sometimes touched, and with each accidental brush, Yuuri wanted to chase it.

 

Somewhere, at the back of his mind, the corner that Yuuri hid in, he wondered what that meant. He was always an affectionate person, if a little reserved sometimes. He liked to touch people, to be close to them, to have the comfort of their close proximity. He liked giving hugs – he had to, since Yuko would never allow him to escape from one. But this didn’t feel like affection, not like he was trying to hunt hugs from the older man. This felt different, and he couldn’t understand why. He knew it must have been the alcohol, that the buzz was halting his ability to think properly, but he couldn’t push the thought aside.

 

But it looked like Viktor could give good hugs. He was just the right height, and Yuuri could already see how well his arms would fit around the Russian’s waist. He almost gave in to the desire, to push his face in the crook of the other man’s neck and just sway to the beat. But he was also aware of how the man was looking at him while he danced. He followed all of Yuuri’s movements, and Yuuri found he liked the attention. He didn’t want to break that for a hug.

 

The man was kind, and had gone out of his way to make Yuuri feel like he was welcome. All of the skaters knew each other and Yuuri was new. If they wanted, they could easily push him out, or just accept him out of only politeness. But they wanted him near. Viktor had done everything to make Yuuri feel like he was a part of them, and Yuuri could never thank him enough for it.

 

Thinking too much, the part of him that was Ren complained. Don’t think, it said. Just feel. Dance. Enjoy the attention. Thinking was needless.

 

He listened and danced his energy away, occasionally glancing up at Viktor and smiling. Viktor couldn’t see it, but he seemed to know when Yuuri was looking at him because he would break out into a gleaming grin. And, despite the other bodies pressing in on them, the confined space, the numerous voices raising with the heat, Yuuri felt like it was only them.

 

The man on stage was strumming his acoustic guitar, his soft voice clear through the air. The fiddle was powerful, almost compelling Yuuri to dance to the beat. It lay trapped in their bubble, the dark light illuminating Viktor’s features, and Yuuri found himself wishing to stay like this forever.

 

***

 

But all things come to an end.

 

For Yuuri, there were several reasons why the night ended. At the late hour, their favourite pubs were beginning to close. Then there was the looming idea that they all needed to be up and training the next day. And, finally, that some had had too much to drink.

 

Yuuri being the one that couldn’t handle it as well.

 

He was vaguely aware of someone beside him, his arm hanging from their shoulders, supporting him. The world was spinning, and there was a pressure inside his head that he couldn’t get rid of. His stomach sloshed with alcohol, bubbling inside, pressing on his bladder. He needed to sleep, shower, eat, drink water. Not in that order, though he wasn’t sure what order he really wanted.

 

Time passed quickly, and he heard voices bidding farewell. Somewhere, someone said his name, and he made a mutter of a goodbye before he was hauled away.

 

There were a few more steps before they stopped. Yuuri looked up to find them in a hall, one of the hotel’s many. Following the light, he looked up to see Viktor’s face next to his, his own eyes a little fizzy from drink.

 

Noticing the attention, Viktor asked, “Ren, which room are you in?”

 

Yuuri didn’t remember answering, but he must have because suddenly they were before his room. Viktor took his keycard from his pocket and shuffled themselves in.

 

The room was dark, but the light from the hall filtered in to show Celestino sleeping in a lump on the twin bed. Viktor halted, worried he had woken the coach, but when the big man snored, he sighed and carried Yuuri to the free bed.

 

Yuuri groaned when he was gently laid down, his head hitting the pillow. Viktor filled a cup of water and pushed the mask slightly back to reveal only his mouth, encouraging Yuuri to drink.

 

Yuuri drank it down as fast as he could, despite Viktor urging him to drink slowly, and wiped the excess from the sides of his mouth. In his drunken stupor, the mask was annoying him. He was about to push it completely off, but something was stopping it. In his blurred vision, he saw Viktor’s concerned face, his palm pressed to the surface of the plastic.

 

Yuuri hissed something, trying to push it off again.

 

“Don’t do anything you’ll regret,” Viktor pushed, pressing the water to his lips again with his free hand. “Have some more water, and then go to sleep, okay? You can take the mask off once you’re alone.”

 

Yuuri stopped trying to push it from his face then, content to put up with the annoyance on his face. As he settled on top of his covers, watching Viktor get a cup of water for himself, Yuuri felt himself slip back into trains of thought he didn’t want to go down.

 

Viktor came back with another cup for Yuuri, and was sat down beside him, ready to give him more, when Yuuri raised a hand to cup his cheek. Viktor, surprised, froze with his eyes wide and mouth slightly agape.

 

“I don’t understand,” Yuuri whispered. He pressed his mask back in place so that he could see Viktor through the holes properly, wanting to see every expression that passed those beautiful features. He saw the way Viktor’s eyebrows knitted together, the intensity in his stare when the words hit home. He saw the way he bit the corner of his mouth, so open in his confusion. “I don’t understand,” Yuuri repeated.

                                                       

“You don’t understand what, Ren?” Viktor’s eyes flashed to the coach in the other bed. Thank god the man was a heavy sleeper.

 

Yuuri fanned his fingers out, allowing his finger tips to feel the skin under his touch. Viktor’s cheek was smooth and soft, barely a bump to ripple under his finger prints. Yuuri’s own skin was much bumpier, a result of teenage spots years ago. Now gone, and pale enough to blend with all of his skin, they didn’t show enough for him to be self-conscious about them, but he still thought about them and compared his skin to gods like Viktor. Some people had the best genetics.

 

Viktor cupped the back of Yuuri’s hand with his own, and asked again, “What do you not understand, Ren?”

 

For the first time, Yuuri wondered what it would sound like, his real name on those lips. Sometimes he wished he could be himself in Viktor’s presence, as if his anxiety was a fleeting thought, something that never rose like a monster from the darkest depths of his being. But the answer was simple, Viktor wouldn’t be saying his real name, not any time soon, because his anxiety was very real, very much a monster, and it ate away at him.

 

Viktor looked ready to ask again, a little more pressing this time, but Yuuri beat him to it. “I don’t understand how you can be so open,” he admitted, feeling the words lodge in his throat. Yuuri inside of him was screaming, demanding to know why Ren was letting such personal questions out when they both agreed that it would be asked later, when they knew Viktor properly, and not because he was drunk and feeling a little lonely. But Yuuri’s voice at the back of his mind wasn’t loud enough to drown out Ren’s curiosity, so he continued. “I don’t understand how you can be so open, to let the world see how you feel, to not be worried when you fail in front of so many people.”

 

It seemed to take a while before Viktor understood what he was saying, and his features softened. “Is that what you’re scared of, Ren?”

 

Yuuri have a pathetic nod, feeling tears pressing at the corner of his eyes. “I used to fail a lot,” he whispered. “I was so scared. They kept looking at me. It followed me everywhere. With my name, they remembered me and everything I had done w-wrong. They only remembered those.” He was aware that he was babbling, but he didn’t know how to concentrate and express it properly. He remembered hiding in the storage closet, worried and curled in on himself. “I couldn’t go back out there and see their faces. How can you be so open?” He curled in again, feeling his stomach churn and his face scrunched up when the flood of emotions came to the front of his mind. He wasn’t explaining it right, he didn’t know how. Viktor must think he was an idiot.

 

As he tried to take his hand away, suddenly wanting to be alone, he felt the Russian hold his hand tightly and not allowing Yuuri to take it back.

 

Yuuri looked back up, surprised to see not pity or disgust in the man’s face, but determination and something softer. He leaned forwards, bringing Yuuri’s hand down to be handled in both of his, and not once did he look away from Yuuri’s mask.

 

“Is that why you wear it?”

 

Feeling the beginning of a sob punch its way through his throat, he quoted Yuko, “If no one knows it’s you, then they won’t know you’re the one failing. Start out as a blank slate, and then build yourself into what you want to be.” He gulped around the words, feeling his chest constrict. It was hard to admit, even drunk, to the person who was never failed because of his own insecurities. “I don’t understand how you can be so open, with everyone looking at you, seeing you, when the risk is so h-high. It’s a long way to fall.” When his own words hit, he rushed to say, “Not that I think you’ll ever fall! I mean me. I always fall.”

 

Viktor looked down suddenly, his stunning blue eyes wide at the confession. He looked like he wanted to say something, but was finding it hard to piece the words together.

 

“But I know you’re not completely open,” Yuuri muttered, feeling a little intrusive if he admitted what he was going to say next. “Now that I’ve seen your real smile, I know the fake one you wear in public too. I guess there are different sorts of masks.”

 

Yuuri watched as Viktor’s face opened completely, the slight fear and guilt that marked those features, the way he glanced away for just a split second before he came back to Yuuri’s eyes. The grip he had on the Japanese’s hand tightened only a fraction. But Yuuri noticed them all, every little twitch, because he had to and because this was Viktor, the man he could spend eternity watching.

 

“But that’s just the media,” he continued. “With people you’re close to, you’re so open. You let them see you, the good, the bad, the strengths, weakness and everything in between. You’re so open and kind and welcoming and beautiful. Why can’t I be that?” Finally, the sobs were burning, tearing through his throat until hot tears were running down his cheeks. “Ren is everything I need. I’ve created him from the bottom up, knowing who I am, who I’m not and who I want to be. But I’m always behind, watching, seeing how good Ren is and knowing that even my own persona is better than me. Sometimes I feel like Ren isn’t even a part of me anymore.”

 

As the tears slipped under his mask, dripping from his chin, he watched Viktor bite his lips, his eyes narrowing as they shone. Viktor pulled Yuuri up by his hand and once he was sat up enough, engulfed him in a tight hug, trying to cover the whole of the quivering boy as well as he could. Yuuri cried quietly in the man’s shoulder, uncomfortable with the mask pressing the sticky tears back onto his skin.

 

“How can you be so open and not worry what it’ll bring? If you do something wrong, everyone knows it’s you and you’ll have that following for the rest of your life. How can you be so confident in yourself? Why can’t I be?” Yuuri was aware of how it started to sound like an accusation. He really didn’t mean for it to be like that, but he felt like he was being cornered by his own emotions. He wanted to demand Viktor, give him some advice, give him the secret, tell him how the anxiety could finally be squashed down until it was more of an ant than a monster. “I don’t understand. I don’t know what to do.”

 

“It’s okay, Ren, it’s going to be okay,” Viktor soothed, repeating the phrase over and over again, smoothing Yuuri’s back.

 

Yuuri wasn’t sure how long they stayed like that, but he knew that after a while his tears were finally filtering off. He gripped Viktor tighter to him for the comfort, feeling sleepy now that the worry had finally disappeared. Ren felt better asking the man, even if they hadn’t gotten a proper answer, while Yuuri lay quivering in the corner, unable to process everything.

 

He must have fallen asleep, because Yuuri didn’t remember anything afterwards. The was only aware of waking up to a dark room, lying under the quilt with the mask still in place, and a headache that almost split open his skull.

 

He eyed the cup of water on the bedside table, and tried to recall what happened the night before. He felt the stickiness on his cheeks, aware he had been crying, but not remembering why. The last thing he remembered was dancing.

 

Viktor looked a little worried when he saw Yuuri at practice, and Yuuri wondered if it was because he saw how bad the hangover was effecting him. He assured the man that it was alright, it would go after he trained a little. He thought it odd when Viktor asked what he remembered of last night.

 

“I remember drinking, and dancing,” Yuuri replied. “But I don’t remember much after. I don’t even remember getting back to the hotel.” With a start, Yuuri asked, “Why? Did I do something?” He knew what drunk Yuuri could get like. Phichit had far too much fun reminding him often.

 

Viktor shook his head. “No, no,” he assured Yuuri with a nervous laugh. “I was just wondering how much you remembered. You seemed pretty out of it when I walked you to your room.”

 

Yuuri’s cheeks flushed at the thought. “I didn’t say anything weird, did I?”

Viktor gave him a gentle smile, warm and reassuring. It took Yuuri’s breath away. “No, you didn’t say anything weird at all.”

 

***

Yuuri was panicking again.

 

He was locked in the bathroom, leaning over the sinks as he washed his face. It was dripping from his skin, cooling the heat. But his lungs could barely take in breath.

 

He could hear the crowd outside. They were cheering in the stands as the commentators announced the inevitable start of the championships. There was music strumming from the speakers outside. His persona’s name was called in the list of skaters.

 

He should have been ready, really. Worlds was so much bigger than the Grand Prix, and so many more people were watching. So many more skaters to compete against. So much more expectations.

 

Ren could handle it. Yuuri could not.

 

He wasn’t sure what had brought it on, but something made both of his personalities conflict. Ren wasn’t in complete control. To get away from the rising panic, Yuuri had escaped to the bathroom and taken the mask off to wash his face. As soon as it was off though, Ren was unreachable and the panic was catching in his chest.

 

He knew it must have been the pressure of his first World Championship. It was bigger and better and more than he ever expected or had seen on television. Too much. Too many faces. It had taken a lot longer for his anxiety to set in, but here it was.

 

Yuko had called and said his parents were hosting a party for everyone to see in the onsen. There would be a few who would know it was him, but many of the guests just knew it was in celebration for a Japanese figure skater making it this high. His posters, Ren clad in his mask, had been hung from every corner of the dining room. The television, a massive screen that his parents had hired out for the special occasion, almost took most of the wall. They were already settling down to see it. They were all so excited.

 

Before the panic could escalate, he decided to take a deep breath, allowing it to leave him. He imagined the stress and the pressure escaping with it, a coping mechanism that he had found online. It made him feel more relaxed for a few seconds, until the memory of why he was so worried surfaced again.

 

He needed to become Ren. He needed to find a way to become his persona when he didn’t have the mask handy. Just in case. And it would help him maybe one day learn how to be confident without its help. But it seemed like an impossible dream right now, when his hand was itching to grab the plastic and mould it against his face once more. It had become more than a coping mechanism for his anxiety, and more a part of him, an addiction. He knew the warning signs. He knew it had gone too far now, with putting the stress of competition on top of his unhealthy ritual.

 

He continued to breathe carefully, leaning over the sink, concentrating everything on relaxing himself.

 

But then the bathroom door opened. His eyes snapped up into the mirror, seeing a familiar strike of platinum hair peeking from around the door.

 

The breath caught inside of Yuuri, freezing all of his muscles, and the panic rose and rose until his heart hammered against his chest. He’d locked the door. At least, he thought he had right? He was sure he had. But the man had been able to come in so easily.

 

Viktor hadn’t noticed him yet. He was fiddling with making sure the door didn’t close too loudly, then turned to lock it himself. He was humming something under his breath, and bobbing his head a little with it. Yuuri knew he should have taken this time to grab his mask and quickly place it, but the movement would catch the Russian man’s attention.

 

Viktor would see him anyway. He would see Yuuri’s face in the mirror. Their eyes would connect and he’d see Yuuri’s plain features, his dull eyes, his round cheeks, his pale lips. Viktor would see the fear in his expression, and he would remember it when Yuuri failed. He would look at Yuuri with pity, like the people had in his class. The mystery would be ruined, and Yuuri would have nothing to fall back on. Nothing to hide behind.

 

Viktor seemed to move in slow motion as Yuuri watched. His eyes glanced from the floor, finally noticing someone was with him, and instead of immediately going to the mirror, his gaze snapped to the mask on the counter. He blinked, looking at it as if trying to remember where he had seen it before.

 

Yuuri gave a small gasp, one he was sure Viktor heard, knowing it was only a few seconds before Viktor would see his face and it would be all ruined.

 

But Viktor didn’t look up at the mirror. Something inside his mind clicked upon hearing the gasp and his eyes widened, still staring at the mask, recognition flickering through his gaze. Then he spun around as fast as he could, his back turned to Yuuri, his eyes trained on the back of the door.

 

“I’m sorry! I didn’t know you were in here,” he apologised, raising a hand to wave, knowing Yuuri would be able to see it in the mirror. “I didn’t see anything. Do you want me to leave?”

 

Yuuri quickly wiped his face clean and replaced his mask on. The second time Viktor had come close to seeing Yuuri. He needed to be more careful, far more careful. “No, don’t worry, it’s alright. I thought I locked it.” The close call, amazingly, had calmed some of his panic, giving way for Ren to come back and take control. There was something fluttering in his chest.

 

Viktor was quiet for a moment, still facing the door, before he asked, “Are you alright?”

 

Yuuri couldn’t help but feel the weight of the words. He knew, Yuuri thought. Viktor knew why he was in here. “Did you feel this nervous before your first Worlds?”

 

Viktor chuckled, his shoulders bobbing with the action. “I don’t think nervous is the word. Terrified? Yeah, more terrified.”

 

Yuuri knew he shouldn’t have felt better hearing that, but he did. In his mind, Viktor was the strongest skater there was, with no need to feel scared because he was perfection. He didn’t have the worry of failing, of being the laughing stock in front of millions of people. But hearing that even the legend himself felt like this, it made the fluttering in his chest strengthen. It made Yuuri lightly gasp behind his mask, his breath deflected back, touching his lips.

 

“It’s going to be okay, Ren,” Viktor assured. “Have you got the mask on?” When Yuuri said he did, Viktor turned around again, his smile bright and warm. He stepped forward and brought Yuuri to his chest, hugging him tightly and soothing away the tension in his shoulders. “It’s okay. Everyone is always nervous. But you’ve trained for this. Pretend it’s like every other training session we’ve had for the past week.”

 

“Okay,” Yuuri replied meekly, slowly raising his arms to circle around Viktor’s waist. Was this what it was like to hug Viktor? Was it this warm, this comforting, this easy to get lost in it? He smelled wonderful. It eased the panic off like it was nothing. Just as Viktor was going to pull away, Yuuri found himself rushing to say, “Thank you for not looking.”

 

Viktor stilled for a moment, then squeezed him tightly. “Now let’s go out there and win some medals.”

 

Ren looked up into the older man’s face, his heart still hammering, but this time it felt different. He wasn’t sure how, but the panic was gone. He felt warm, supported, as if the reason he had been worried before wasn’t there anymore. He felt his cheeks flush and his eyes couldn’t look away from the man before him. He wanted to keep thanking Viktor for not taking advantage and looking, to tell him that he had no idea how close he was to revealing everything. Viktor could have seen. He could have pretended it was an accident. But he didn’t. Viktor actually… Viktor actually respected him, and his choices, and he accepted Yuuri.

 

Viktor pulled away and went to unlock the door, throwing a smile over his shoulder. “We better leave soon, otherwise people will begin to wonder what we were doing inside a locked bathroom.” With a quick wink, he was gone.

 

Yuuri wanted to follow, but he stayed rooted to the spot. Even as the door closed, shutting out his view of the other man, all he could see, hear, breathe was Viktor. He could still feel his hug against him, his arms, the need he had inside of himself, the desire to hug him again. His heart was hammering against his chest, faster than it ever had before, and he raised a hand to grip at the material before it.

 

He wasn’t panicking anymore. He felt relaxed, ready, calm. Ren was back. He was ready and to some extent, Yuuri finally agreed.

 

He could still hear Viktor’s voice and it was sending shivers up his spine. His leftover warmth was lingering on his skin, his image still ingrained in Yuuri’s eyes. He always felt like this when Viktor was around.

 

But this time it felt different. The wheels were turning inside of his heart, consuming this thoughts, and he wondered if it was already too late.

Chapter Text

This rink was bigger. The lights were brighter, there were more people sitting in the stands, more cameras, more publicity, more everything.

 

As Yuuri walked out of the walkway that opened up to the rink, he took a moment to calm himself and see everything through Ren’s eyes.

 

Ren wasn’t scared. Ren was never scared, not even when he saw the countless faces that looked back at him. There were voices in the air, too loud for him to make out specific words. He saw a camera crew just a few feet to his right, a reporter stood before it with her microphone. Journalists were taking photos of the skaters that were already scattered around the rink, stretching their muscles. Music filtered through the air on the intercoms, drowned out slightly by the commentators reading out a list of names. A camera was flying overhead on a tight wire.

 

There were posters and signs everywhere, with flags of every country competing. In the stands to his left, a group of Japanese tourists held up dozens of Japanese flags and a few posters of him. When they saw him look their way, they screamed and waved their posters. They all wished him luck and he bowed to them, thanking them with actions when his words could not reach them.  

 

There would be millions tuning in, his family a small fraction of them. This was such a big competition. He hadn’t competed in something so big before. He hadn’t even had the chance to take to the Junior World Championships before he had to retire temporarily.

 

Yuuri continued to panic, but that seemed so far away now. Ren was taking control, and he was calm, excited.

 

He laced up his skates and took to the ice to stretch and warm up. There were skaters he hadn’t seen before, and as he skated passed, he saw the way they looked at him. Merely curious, while come glared as if he was competition.

 

Yuuri had never seen stared at like that before. He’d never really been competition in anyone’s eyes. It made him feel strange.

 

Could he maybe exchange his bronze for something more? Could he take gold or silver away from Chris and Viktor? He wasn’t sure he could, and yet the thought motivated him.

 

All too soon, the warm ups finished. Still, Yuuri felt calm, collected, cool in a way he had never been before. His eye caught Viktor at the side, already talking to the reporter and the camera, his smile wide and talking animatedly.

 

As Yuuri stepped off of the ice, re-placing the guards onto his blades, he decided to try something. He watched as Viktor raised his hand to his side, flicking his wrist at a throw away comment, and Yuuri mimicked. The movement felt quick, expressive. Dropping his hand, he watched Viktor again. The man rolled his head and raised his left shoulder until they touched, looking a little vulnerable but still sure of himself. Yuuri followed, feeling the action draw the attention of some around him. Thinking nothing of it, they continued on. Viktor clasped his hands behind his back, opening himself up for the camera to see. Normally, Yuuri would cross his arms before his chest, wanting to hide. But this time, he copied the Russian. At first it felt weird, as if he was bare at the front, but as Ren made it his own, he felt it bring confidence to his form.

 

Hmm, he thought, what else could he learn from the skaters around him? How could he incorporate their little movements into Ren, so that the next interview could be wrapped around his little finger? He would need to watch some of the interviews Viktor had given to listen to the indentations in his speech and the carefully picked words he gave. There was so much potential, so much more room for Ren to grow.

 

Yuuri sometimes wondered what it would be like in a few years, what Ren would be like. How could he expand on his character? How could he help Yuuri live? What little personalities could he give Ren? Perhaps, in a few years, Ren would become more human than persona. Maybe the lines would blur and Yuuri wouldn’t know who he was anymore. Or maybe it would become blurred for the better, where Ren was no longer his own entity, but completely Yuuri, his confidence no longer just Ren’s.

 

The future was filled with possibilities, and because of Ren, Yuuri didn’t feel so scared about it anymore. It used to be a looming, dark prospect, with little hope of what was around the corner. While his classmates all had their plans set, their goals and their ambitions, with the confidence they needed to gain it, Yuuri always worried that he would be too frightened to chase his dreams. The thoughts of others weighed heavily on him, and anything he ever wanted to be would always be in the middle of attention. It wasn’t a good combination. But now he was here, twenty, with two medals under his belt and potentially a third by the end of the weekend. And who knew? Now that the years were opened to him, who knew what more he could achieve?

 

With that thought in mind, he sat with his coach and watched as the competitions were beginning.

 

There was a string of skaters Yuuri didn’t know, or some that appeared only slightly familiar from his time watching in his seasons off. Some names were new, while others were readying to retire. Others Yuuri knew well, names he had seen flash before his screen for years, faces he saw compete against Chris and Viktor more than once, never really making the podium or taking their spots from them. Each one though, regardless of if they knew Yuuri or not, greeting him with a polite smile and wished him luck. Yuuri replied with the same polite responses, but on the inside he was happy, almost ecstatic to be here – with them.

 

“Warn me before you make any drastic changes to the programme, please,” Celestino chided playfully, knocking his shoulder against the young skater. “I almost had kittens last time.”

 

Yuuri rubbed the back of his neck, feeling a little ashamed. During the time, he felt like it was the right thing to do as he was swept by the current of losing himself. But after he finished, when he had time to think about what the combination jumps had probably done to his coach, he knew it hadn’t been the best choice. Just before, he had been attacked, and the bruises bloomed like decaying flowers on his skin. There was a real chance he wouldn’t land it, and Celestino must have been worried that the sudden choice might have injured him badly, perhaps even permanently. Ren couldn’t save Yuuri from that.

 

“I’m not thinking of changing anything this time around,” Yuuri promised.

 

“You know,” Celestino began, lowering his voice and leaning back against the wall, “I hear Viktor doesn’t listen to his coach either. Yakov, poor thing, has quite the trouble handling him. It’s good to be rebellious, but don’t let Ren incorporate that much rebellion into his personality, okay?” The last comment was made with a smirk and a raised eyebrow.

 

Yuuri dropped his hands, fiddling with his fingers in his lap. So that’s where the trait had come from. Yuuri never rebelled against his coaches, taking their word as truth and not wanting to fail on his own, but Ren always wanted to better them, pushing until he surprised even himself. He’d wondered where that had come from, especially as he didn’t know anyone that was quite like that, but perhaps he did. Perhaps, on some level, he knew that Viktor was more rebellious than he let on, and Ren wanted that. After so many years of being a pushover, Yuuri wanted his persona to finally have his own voice. A chance to cry out whenever Yuuri Katsuki couldn’t.

 

Yuuri nodded. “I’ll reign Ren in,” he joked. Not that he felt he needed to. Once he had proven that he could do it, Celestino got Yuuri to practice combination jumps over and over again in training, then added them not only to his roster but to his programme as well, finding it fit well with the flow.

 

Yuuri couldn’t wait to add more things to the list that he could do. Perhaps by the time he retired, he would be able to surprise the world just like Viktor could.

 

His phone buzzed in his pocket and he fished it out, seeing a text that brightened up his face, pulling a smile that ached.

 

Currently cocooned in a mound of blankets with popcorn in my lap, my hamsters lost in the folds somewhere and the laptop on streaming the competition. Skate your heart out there, Yuuri! Kick those old geezers down a notch!

 

Along with it was an attached picture of Phichit, lost in a dozen blankets, with only his head popping out from the top and a hand reaching out from the top to take the photo. In his lap was a bowl spilling with endless popcorn, some already fallen onto the blanket, a hamster suspiciously sneaking along his leg and eyeing the bowl. A little tail was peeking out from the seam, while a bulge was hidden underneath the blanket beside the laptop, which was perched on a chair before the bed, showing a list of the skaters ready to perform today.

 

Phichit had a beaming smile on his lips and his eyes wide and sparkling. There was already a bit of popcorn stuck in his teeth.

 

Yuuri took a moment to appreciate it, overcome with the gratitude towards his best friend. He sent back a thank you, a quick picture of the rink, and then put his phone away.

 

“Right,” Celestino huffed, lifting himself from the seat. “Time to get ready. You’re on next.”

 

Yuuri’s heart hammered. Already? His gaze lifted to the rink where he saw a skater he only saw as vaguely familiar was coming to a finish of his programme, breathing heavily and his face pouring with sweat. The music above was filtering off slowly, growing softer and softer, but Yuuri could only think of how much of an idiot he was. He hadn’t been paying attention, barely even registered that it was nearly his turn. This was the World Championship for god’s sake and he hadn’t been paying attention!

 

He breathed deeply, following Celestino, and urged Ren to take control. His persona was eager, watching the ice with hungry eyes, even as he felt one of the cameras turn to him to watch him prepare. Ren wanted to be out there, wanted to lose himself, wanted everyone to see just what this meant to him. First Worlds and he wasn’t scared.

 

The skater before him stopped in his finishing pose, drinking in the applause and the commentator’s words as his chest rose and fell heavily. Flowers were being thrown from the stands and he bowed deeply to them all.

 

Yuuri held onto his coach while he removed his guards, breathing in deeply. Thoughts crossed his mind at an inhuman pace, wondering how he could make this better and better. Yuuri was always good at the step sequences, the spins, and bringing the programme alive with emotions. Even with Ren helping with jumps now, it still wasn’t his strongest element. So he knew he needed to bring more emotion, make it expressive, make it beautiful and effortless until no one could look away. Make it pull emotions from the audience, strong and powerful and just as Yuuri felt when he was little, watching the skaters as he was growing up.

 

He stepped out onto the ice, feeling the difference between this and the Grand Prix immediately. Yes, there were more cameras, the space was bigger, more people to be watching. But not only that, just like how their voices and cheers were louder, their silence was even more deafening.

 

As he readied his starting position, the crowd died until the only sound was the commentators, reciting his name and how well he had done in the Grand Prix, drawing attention to the mystery of his mask for anyone who hadn’t known, and the slicing of his skates on the polished ice. Not even the shuffling of people in their seats, or the lone voice of a talkative person, or the clicks of cameras. Strange, Yuuri thought, once the commentator stopped speaking he could almost convince himself that he was back in Ice Castle, skating alone.

 

The music began, filtering through the rink softly, trickling like water into every ear that could listen. Beginning slowly, he had time to really lose himself before he could make a mistake. He pushed all thoughts away from his mind, and felt every little bit of energy flood to his limbs.

 

The first few spins came. He slowly raised his leg up in the air, supported by his hand, and felt the stretch in his muscles, delicious in their familiarity. He basked in the feeling of the wind whistling through his hair, catching between his spread fingers, his mask pressed reassuringly against his face. He concentrated on the sound of the blade against the ice, slipping and sliding, slicing his mark onto it. He may never return to this rink, but it would forever remember him.

 

He opened up into a spread eagle, gliding along the side of the rink, facing the crowd. Their expressions flashed before him, all in awe, spurring him on. The time seemed to go on forever until he needed to ready for his first quad. He found his balance easily, never hesitation, and jumped. He flew, and all too soon he was touching the ice again, the landing firm and almost as if he was made for it. As he skated from his jump, he opened his legs until he was gliding on one bent knee and skate, his other leg stretched out behind him. He trailed his hands down his face, lightly touching his neck and chest as he drew all of the eyes to his mask.

 

Watch me, he thought. Look at what I am, what I have become, what I have come from. Watch my growth. Watch me.

 

He knew that the audience would never completely comprehend, never really know what it was to feel like him. He could explain it all in interviews, express it through his skating as much as he wanted, but no one really knew. And that wasn’t just because no one knew Yuuri Katsuki, but only Ren Himura – that was the majority, but the rest was simple. No one could feel things like he could. No one could feel the music pouring into him like he could. No one could know every little note like he did after hours upon hours of studying and dancing to it. No one knew the meaning like him, no one knew the theme like he did, no one could skate it like he could.

 

Skaters came closer than the audience ever could. Skaters knew the same routine, a piece of music ingrained into themselves so deeply that the memories would show so vividly every time even a note was played. Their emotions could be immortalised in a single piece of music, forever until their deaths, and felt so deeply that it hurt. But skaters could only understand the feeling, never the programmes of others. They saw what was on the outside, understanding that someone amazing was happening in the minds of the skaters out on the ice, knowing that the few minutes they had out on the ice was something worthy of forever for them.

 

So Yuuri knew that only he could make his programme worthy of himself. It was one of the thousands of reasons his pride crumbled under failure, because he knew his programmes were worthy of only the best people that could express them. Each one was specially crafted until it was something so much bigger than a programme, but a memory.

 

Ren made him realise how much importance it held inside him. He wanted the world to see the beautiful programmes as they were, but he wanted to remember the programmes fondly as the years passed by. He wanted to, someday, sit in his old age and remember with a smile of his countless routines, confident that he had skated them to the best of his ability.

 

In the Grand Prix he realised it suddenly, with a rush of nerves as he stood on the podium. Yuuri Katsuki wanted his programmes to be the best they ever could be, and Ren Himura had the confidence to make it so.

 

The single thought was heavily embedded inside him as he skated into the second half of the short programme. With more jumps on this side, he readied himself both mentally and physically. He hadn’t started to feel the strain yet, a good indication that the training had been worth it, but knew that once he finished his skate it would be hard on his muscles.

 

He readied himself for a jump, gulping quickly but never hesitating. He breathed against the mask just to feel his breath deflected back. When the jump came, he felt a slight strain in his leg, not enough to make himself fall, but the landing was slightly wobbly as his knee attempted to give way.

 

He moved on as if it was nothing, and Ren wanted to take the challenge into the next jump. Yuuri stepped back and allowed his personality to fill him with confidence he so craved, overwhelming his desire to curl in on himself at the wobble. But he hadn’t fallen, he reminded himself. Not even touched down. Just a wobble. Only a wobble. Ren didn’t care, not even as he skated into the next jump, determined to make this one even better.

 

The last quad was perfect, landing with such surety that it was as if it was near impossible to land any other way. Overcome with pride, Yuuri raised his arm into the air, fist pumping towards the ceiling as the short minutes came to an end. He stopped in his finishing position, breathing so heavily, tears nearly forming in the corners of his eyes.

 

He didn’t know why he felt so overwhelmed. Perhaps it was because he had thrown himself into the programme, feeling every little movement, allowed every emotion to fill him during it, so vulnerable. Perhaps it was because it was his first Worlds and this cemented that he was actually a good skater and that his Grand Prix hadn’t been a fluke. Or perhaps it was because with every voice he heard, almost drowned among the applause, he was reminded of how much he had to go through to get here. It hadn’t been easy, but he was finally here, and he was doing well, and he was socialising with the greats. Never, in all of his time growing up, did he think he would ever be anywhere close. Always have a plan B, his parents had said, something to fall back on if the first aspiration didn’t work out. They never said it because they expected it to fall, but more for support, because even Yuuri doubted himself. His Plan B was quickly becoming his Plan A until Yuko made her suggestion.

 

Now he was here. Every time he thought it, he could never get over it. He would continue to think it until it came to retirement, whenever that came.

 

He waited at the Kiss and Cry with Celestino, still trying to reign in his own light crying. He tried to hide it from the crowd, but it was hard to when the drops were slipping down to his chin to fall on his chest, for everyone to see. His phone, transferred to Celestino’s pocket, buzzed against his thigh, again and again, and he wondered if it was his mother or Phichit, both having seen his tears on the television.

 

When his scores came, he sobbed harder. His score was high, beating his own personal best by quite a few points. His hands shook, desperate to clutch the sides of his face and pinch himself from his dream but unable to. He ran them through his hair. Murmurs bubbled from his throat as he stared at the score, aware of Celestino shouting something beside him and throwing his arms around Yuuri.

 

The audience were cheering loudly. The commentators were saying something. Yuuri really wanted to pay more attention, but he couldn’t. He knew he had the free skate tomorrow to still do, but he wasn’t able to stop himself from imagining himself on that podium again, wherever it was, standing with his two friends again, the medal gleaming.

 

Chris and Viktor had yet to go, and though Yuuri’s score was at the top for the moment, he knew it wouldn’t be for too long.

 

He was filled with happiness, unable to believe that this season had been so fantastic, programme after programme of only the smallest mistakes. The phone buzzed against his leg continuously as message after message was coming through. He wanted to scream out his emotions, to jump up and cheer with them all, but his muscles were not listening. He sat still, processing the words and the numbers.

 

All too soon, they needed to move from the Kiss and Cry and they returned to the bench, but was stopped by a reporter as they passed.

 

The microphone was shoved into his face, almost slamming into his mask in the eagerness of the reporter.

 

“That was a truly emotive experience, Ren,” he said. “What do you think about when you’re out there performing?”

 

The question brought Ren back to the present with a jolt. He quickly looked at Celestino, the man looking uncomfortable leaving Ren to take a sudden interview. The man was watching the way Yuuri moved, waiting for a cue of if Yuuri wanted to be taken away. Yuuri gently shook his head and turned back to the reporter, feeling only a little nervous but allowing his persona to take that away.

 

“What do I think about?” he repeated the question, rolling the words on his tongue. “I guess… I don’t really think anything, I feel it. If I think too much, I become too aware of what I’m doing and I make more mistakes. If I feel it, just letting my body move the way we practiced, it works out much better.”

 

The reporter nodded, looking as if the answer didn’t mean as much as the actual interview did. “Right. After your podium finish in the Grand Prix, many are wondering if you can repeat your achievement. What do you think?”

 

Yuuri stretched his arms behind his back, intertwining his fingers together. “Nothing is a surety,” he answered. “I would love to be on the podium again, maybe this time higher. But there is really good competition this year, and any one of them could make it.”

 

The reporter shrugged his shoulders. “It’s a surety that Viktor Nikiforov will reach gold though.”

 

Yuuri tilted his head to the side. “No, it’s not. I promise you, I will take it from him one day.” Yuuri Katsuki wanted to scream at that, but Ren Himura was ready to immortalise the promise on television, for all to witness. Sometimes, Yuuri wondered why he let his persona have free reign when it brought more embarrassment.

 

The reporter laughed, looking as if he didn’t believe Yuuri, not one bit. “Okay. After this season, what are your plans?”

 

“To prepare for the next season, most likely. I don’t intent to take any more seasons off from now until retirement, so you’ll be able to harass me as often as you like.” He gave a chuckle, spurred on by the unsure giggle from the reporter. He lowered his tone enough for there to be a slight threat there, for everyone to remember what had happened before the Grand Prix. He wasn’t sure what had happened to the journalist that had attacked him, only knew enough that he had been fired, humiliated and was gone now. Yuuri was sure that whatever he was going through now, the assault would forever be tied to him.

 

“Do you already have any programmes in mind for next year?”

 

“No, I won’t concentrate on those until the end of this season.”

 

“And any thoughts about what the theme for next season might be? Or will you concentrate on that later too?”

 

“I’ve had done ideas during this season, but nothing concrete.” There had been many themes that had risen in his time, branches from his theme this year of return. There had been things like confidence, love and some others, but he hadn’t talked it over with Celestino yet and certainly wasn’t prepared until the end of this season.

 

“Many are wondering if you will ever take the mask off, some bets online gathering thousands. Can we get any confirmation of if you’ll reveal your identity before retirement?”

 

Yuuri should have known that a question like that would appear. No reporter approached him with the intention of a simple interview, never. He gave a soft chuckle and answered, “It’s not something I’m thinking about, really. I’ll see how things go, and perhaps there will be something to look forward to in my last season. But that’s quite a few years off, hopefully.”

 

The reporter’s eyes shone, finally interested. “And if you decide not to show?”

 

“Then no one finds out.” Before he could say more, Celestino butted in, announcing that there was something they needed to do and pulled Yuuri away from the cameras.

 

“Tell Ren to reign it in,” Celestino warned.

 

“Reign what in?”

 

“You were snapping at him, and he saw that and was egging you on. He wanted you to slip and let something go.”

 

Yuuri took a deep breath. He knew that he was always conscious of everything he said, replaying it in his mind to make sure it wasn’t something wrong before he found the courage to say it. But Ren didn’t care, an aspect that sometimes Yuuri wished he had. He’d need to be careful of that trait, give Ren time to think about things before he said them. Otherwise, Celestino was right, he might say something one day that he couldn’t take back.

 

Celestino guided them back to where their things were, sat on the bench overlooking the rink. The man on it now was unfamiliar to Yuuri, dancing with everything he had, but slipped out of a jump and touched the floor. He rose quickly and continued, but Yuuri saw the way he grit his teeth and how the nerves wracked his body.

 

For a moment he saw himself out on the ice, the way the man thought too much about his programme and made little mistakes he shouldn’t have. His heart reached out for the man, knowing just how hard it was to be so scared.

 

“Viktor’s next,” Celestino said. “And after him, Chris. Then it’s the free skate tomorrow.”

 

Yuuri buzzed with excitement, eager to see the others. He wondered how they were feeling after seeing his programme, what they had felt. Did they see him as a real threat now? Or did they still think he would fall to third place, behind them? Had they felt anything at all watching it? He impatiently looked around, trying to spot the two familiar figures somewhere in the crowd of skaters.

 

He spotted them easily. Chris was to his right, almost on the other side of the rink, watching the skater on the ice with rapt attention. He had one hand on his hip, the other touching his lips, his eyes following the skater with a critical eye. He spoke quickly with his coach about something, nodding and shaking his head, his gaze never leaving.

 

Viktor was on his left, speaking to who Yuuri assumed was his coach too, but not looking at the rink. He glanced occasionally, but he also seemed to be having a deeper conversation with his coach. Viktor seemed calm, going so far as to be almost teasing, but the older man was yelling, throwing his arms around the place and trying to step into Viktor’s personal space, pushing their faces close together. As if ignoring him, Viktor turned away from his coach and watched as the skater came to an end, throwing his arms up in a finishing pose and looked as if he just wanted to be off of the ice and hiding somewhere.

 

Viktor moved to go next, taking the guards from his skates.

 

There was something that Yuuri noticed as he watched Viktor. Everyone he had watched, Yuuri always recognised the same nerves wracking their bodies as they stepped onto the ice. He watched them take a deep breath, steadying themselves, mentally reassuring that they had done this many times before and that this was no different. But Viktor didn’t. Viktor stepped out as if there was nothing to be nervous about, eager to leave the rink side and be on the other side of the barrier.

 

As Viktor stood ready, his arms holding himself close, one leg before the other, Yuuri wondered what that meant. Viktor had said as much that the ice was his refuge, just as Yuuri felt, but it was now that he was realising just what the Russian intended. The ice was where he could be himself, and even in the middle of attention he could still pretend he was alone. It was where the laws of society fell away for just a few minutes, where any other thoughts could be pushed away for a short time. Viktor behaved as if stepping off of the ice was the thing to be nervous about.

 

The rink faded into silence as Viktor stood and as his music began to flow, a soft lull strumming to life, he looked up to the ceiling. For just a beat, he did nothing, and then skated into it, catching the breaths of everyone watching with how graceful he was immediately.

 

Yuuri found himself leaning forwards to watch, feeling his heart beating every time Viktor reached out to someone who wasn’t there. There really was something different about watching Viktor in the flesh performing to watching on the television. There was something in the way Viktor moved, something that Yuuri knew he would never be able to incorporate into Ren, that demanded attention and held it so easily.

 

Yuuri gripped the shirt before his chest, his pulse hammering, everything turning blurry as he saw the emotion in Viktor’s performance. It was evident in every glance, every twist of his head, every step he took, that he felt the programme just as much as Yuuri ever did.

 

But there was a split second, just a quick flash, of Viktor’s face morphing from its soft sadness into something more determined, more aggressive, before he was able to school it.

 

Yuuri had only a second to think about it before Viktor did something that surprised them all.

 

The entrance into the jump was a familiar but rare one, and as he stepped into it, the crowd held their breath. Yuuri leapt forwards, holding the barrier, watching as Viktor soured through the air and landed it perfectly, just a hint of grin before he was sucked into the emotion again.

 

But the crowd was stunned into silence, Yuuri even more so, unable to process. The world knew Viktor could do a quad flip, it had been added to his roster many years ago. And yet Viktor didn’t use it much, no one understanding why when it gained him so many points. It had been many seasons since, and here it was. Here it was in all of its glory, and Viktor had continued it like it meant nothing.

 

Yuuri rushed back to his chair, feeling a question bubbling from his chest before he could stop it, “Can you teach me how to do that?”

 

Celestino looked taken aback, glancing from the programme finishing to Yuuri, his eyebrows knitting together. “I…”

 

Yuuri turned back, seeing Viktor stop in his finishing pose, raising his gaze to look up, breathing heavily. For the first time, the commentator was almost at a loss for words. Yuuri was sure the score was going to be high and the judges were probably excited, rushing to finish, eagerness pouring from them.

 

And a high score it was. Viktor and his coach waited at the Kiss and Cry, their eyes rained on the screen before them as it was announced.

 

Viktor went shooting up to the top, above Yuuri’s name, as he always did. It only encouraged Yuri to think of how he could better it, how he could push the legend down. The name on top of his would one day be below, placed on the podium as such, with the gold glittering on Yuuri’s chest. He wanted to rush to the Russian and ask how he had done it, why now, why the short programme instead of the free skate. He had so many questions, but he watched as Viktor, holding a bouquet of bright flowers, was interrogated by the same reporter that had stopped Yuuri – he seemed much more eager with the older man.

 

When Chris took to the ice, the crowd were still buzzing from Viktor’s programme. It took the commentator to hush them all before they began to die down.

 

The clear favourite was known, and therefore the winner was already decided. Everyone believed that Viktor would take another title, for another consecutive year and season, and the only real race now was who would get second.

 

Chris seemed to see that took, because he took to the ice with determination, his eyes narrowed, his movements slightly rigid. For just a moment, Yuuri wondered if he was going to be alright, if the nerves were going to get the best of him.

 

But Chris proved him wrong. Yuuri wasn’t the only one who could lose himself, and Chris and Viktor had spent quite a few years more practicing and competing than Yuuri. They could compose themselves easily, perform despite their feelings beforehand, like the professionals that Yuuri wasn’t.

 

Chris’ step sequence was stunning, his hands trailing over his form as if he couldn’t keep his hands to himself. As he glided on the edge of the rink, gathering speed to attempt his first jump, he blew a few kisses to the group at the front of the audience, all women who held up cut outs of his face and Swiss flags. Screams tore through the air.

 

The music combined with his moves were sultry, catered to an audience that Chris knew well, encouraged by the “we love you”s that were thrown at him every time he skated passed. Sex on legs, as many on the internet liked to call him, following him on social media that had folders upon folders of suggestive photos, coming out of the pool or shower, or changing against a backdrop of a hotel window.

 

There was little that was actually known about the skater though. He didn’t often speak about his past, only where his skating was concerned, and any questions about relationships, current or past, were thrown away with a polite counter. Many people tried, but Yuuri couldn’t blame him, not when his whole persona was based on mystery and avoiding questions.

 

Chris eased in to the ending pose, the music hitting a sudden crescendo, Chris jolting with it. A hard thing to do, stopping so suddenly, and could upset balance. But Chris made it look so easy, throwing a seductive wink over his shoulder towards the commentator and judges.

 

And when his scores came in, they shot above Yuuri’s. His name, blinking under Viktor’s and above Ren’s, seemed at home there. The scores were not very far apart, still for the chance of change tomorrow, though both Chris and Yuuri would need to work very hard to be able to steal the gold from Viktor.

 

As the audience were beginning to file out, Yuuri rushed to find Viktor, compelled to see the other skater without really knowing why.

 

***

 

He found Viktor speaking to a reporter along the hall towards the bathrooms. He was animated in his answers, throwing his arms around and nodding his head until his hair was gently shaken from its gel. The reporter was enamoured with him, taking his words in, unable to look away from the older man’s expressions. Yuuri was about to turn around, embarrassed and not wanting to interrupt them, but just before he was able to get away Viktor called out to him.

 

“Ren!” he shouted. He quickly said something to the reporter before he rushed passed the distance between them. He threw an arm around the shorter one’s shoulders and drew him closer. His face was open, bright and vulnerable as he looked down at Yuuri. “Your short programme was magical!”

 

Yuuri blushed, finding it hard to look at Viktor’s face. The openness always surprised him, a reminder that he himself couldn’t be like that. “Thank you.”

 

“It was like you were making music with your body!”

 

Yuuri grinned and tried to stop his need to fiddle with his fingers out of discomfort. It was as he thought, only other skaters could know how much someone could feel their music while they performed it. Only other skaters that could see the endless hours amount into only a few minutes. But while Yuuri had known that other skaters would notice, he hadn’t expected such a reaction from Viktor himself who, he knew, had more time than to be watching Yuuri’s skate and assessing it in detail. He knew he was good, and even if he doubted himself the world told him otherwise, as did his friends, his coach and the results on the board. But even then, he knew he was nothing compared to the Russian legend, and having Viktor say something so lovely made Yuuri crave more. He quickly threw the thought away as he didn’t want to keep demanding more when he should have been content with what he had.

 

“Thank you,” he repeated, trying to push everything he was feeling into only the two words. Quickly catching himself, he looked up into Viktor’s face and said, “And your performance was breath-taking again! And that quad flip… I-I, I don’t even know what to say. You really surprised everyone!”

 

Viktor’s expression did something strange then, a mix of his mask and something genuine until it looked slightly painful, as if there were two opposing feelings battling themselves out in his mind.

 

“Did you not like it?” Yuuri found himself asking. He turned to look Viktor full on, a little worried when Viktor took a step back and looked elsewhere. “Did something go wrong?”

 

“No, no,” Viktor assured. “It was what I planned.”

 

“Why did you do it?” Yuuri knew he had hit something with the question when Viktor flinched, barely visible but it shook his form.

 

“To surprise the crowd. It’s what I’m known for, no?”

 

His voice didn’t hold the warmth Yuuri had become so familiar with. He didn’t know where the action came from, but decided to blame Ren when he took a deep breath and stepped forwards, grabbing fistfuls of the front of Viktor’s costume and pulled him closer until Viktor had no choice but to look at Yuuri. When Viktor’s eyes widened, unable to look away, Yuuri knew what he was seeing. This close, it was hard not to see into the eyeholes of the mask, to see just a little bit of his dull brown eyes even under the mask’s shadows. Besides his mouth, it was the most the other man had ever seen.

 

Yuuri should have pushed him away when he noticed the way Viktor was staring. He had a mask for a reason, not wanting people to see anything, and though his mouth was fine – needed in fact to eat – and he wasn’t too worried about people seeing that, his eyes were a different story. His eyes held all of his emotions, bare and open for his vulnerability. The eyes were the window to the soul. Beyond that, Yuuri hated his eyes. They were too big for a boy’s, and the colour was uninteresting, dull, common and did nothing for his face. They weren’t like Viktor’s, whose eyes could be stared into for hours, forever.

 

But as he stared back at Viktor, he found he didn’t mind it. Viktor had proven himself this morning, not even trying to look at Yuuri in the mirror in his most vulnerable moment. He could have looked, just a simple glance upwards, and seen everything. He could have said it was an accident, a lapse into temptation just for a second. That was all it took. But as soon as he grasped the situation, not only did he turn around but suggested he could leave to make Yuuri more comfortable.

 

So while Ren knew that Viktor wouldn’t be able to do much with knowing his eye colour anyway, Yuuri knew that he had proved himself to see even this little bit, this most vulnerable part of himself, because he knew Viktor was showing something of just as much importance to him right now.

 

“You don’t have to do something just because people expect it of you!” Yuuri shouted, pushing Viktor until he was pushed against the wall. He wasn’t sure where the feeling was coming from, but again blamed it on Ren. Under his palms, Yuuri could feel the man’s heart beating against his chest, hammering harder and harder with each second. Sure that Viktor wasn’t too shocked, he continued, “Do it for you, not for them. If you wanted to do the jump, then that’s for you, not because you wanted to surprise the audience.”

 

Viktor looked a little too surprised for words, his mouth opening and closing, still looking into Yuuri’s eyes as if it was the only thing he could see.

 

“Don’t be conscious of them, do all of this for you,” Yuuri repeated, hoping the words were being ingrained into the other skater. Because that was all he wanted to see, Viktor enjoying the sport he did. Yuuri loved skating, finding it to be where he could escape and he wanted Viktor, the man he looked up to, to feel the same way. He didn’t know what it was like to be at the top, to be admired so and chased by interviews and fans continuously, but he could imagine the pressure. Yuuri’s own sponsors were kind people, but he had heard some horror stories about Viktor’s, people who held the strong belief that if they weren’t backing the champion, then their money was wasted. Viktor must have been pressured constantly to be the best, and to be the star. To remain in the media, to always be interesting, he had to surprise people.

 

Yuuri thought how lonely that must have been. Many saw him as an unbeatable force, giving up nearly as soon as they were placed in the same competition as him, aiming for silver instead of gold. And without the competition, continuously receiving the gold time and time again, Viktor must have been losing some of his love for it. Because Yuuri knew he would have. He had always had to fight for what he wanted, and sometimes it was too tiring to continue, but he knew that it must have been the same for someone who got it easily without competition.

 

“You don’t need to surprise people,” Yuuri said, trying to find the words in the jumble of his mind. “You don’t always need to be perfect.” Yuuri knew he had said the right thing when Viktor inhaled deeply, nearly a gasp at the words, his body tensing. He was getting close to the problem, he felt. “You don’t need to always be perfect. You can be yourself, and there’s nothing wrong with that.”

 

“And do you believe in those words?” Viktor asked carefully, raising his hands to circle Yuuri’s wrists. “Do you think there’s nothing wrong with being yourself?” His voice was quiet, assuring, not at all accusing. But it felt like it. Yuuri flinched a little, wondering how the question had been turned on him.

 

“This isn’t about me, it’s about you,” he pushed. “I know that the pressure of being the star must get to you, and knowing that a lot of people that admire you admire the champion. But you can be yourself completely and no one would admire you any less. I definitely wouldn’t admire you any less.” He didn’t have time to think about how embarrassing the statement was, Ren pushing down the flailing Yuuri. “Don’t create, perform or change a programme just because you need to stay relevant, or to keep surprising a crowd that you think are growing bored. Do it because you love it, because you want to make yourself proud, because you want to show the world just how far you’ve come. Throw all your emotions into the routine because I guarantee that’s going to be what catches the audience.”

 

Viktor gave a smaller smile, soft and barely there, but Yuuri was caught with how genuine it was. It lit up the tension, a brightness that could be seen in any darkness, something so beautiful that not even a photo could ever catch. “Is that what you do?”

 

Yuuri nodded. “Yes.”

 

Viktor took a deep breath, calming whatever turmoil that there had been inside of him. Yuuri, seeing the way his shoulders slumped as the tension left him, understood that he had only scratched the surface of whatever problem Viktor had been plagued with for years, longer than even Yuuri had been competing. But it was a start. The Russian man only needed the first kick, an assurance from perhaps another skater, for him to take a hold of it and decide to tackle it. Yuuri knew because he needed the same push, often finding it in his own friends and family. He could never get over things himself, and he suspected Viktor was the same.

 

Not wanting to leave the conversation at such a serious tone, Yuuri dropped his hands, surprised that Viktor’s grip on his wrists followed, and said, “You don’t have to worry about the pressure of being at the top for long though.”

 

Viktor raised an eyebrow. “Oh? How so?”

 

“Because I’ll be taking it from you.”

 

The words caught the man by surprise until they clicked and Viktor threw his head back, a loud chuckle bubbling from his chest. Yuuri’s heart skipped a beat at the sound. He stepped back, hearing his name called from around the corner. People were beginning to gather their things, ready to settle in their hotel rooms after a long and trying day. Yuuri couldn’t blame them, his knees were weak and he was ready to collapse at any moment. He wanted to rest in his hotel, order something with Celestino, make calls with his family and friends and sleep for hours upon hours.

 

He stepped away from Viktor, feeling a loss when their skin on skin contact was gone, and said, “I hope I wasn’t too personal,” he rushed as an apology. “And I hope you feel better. It’s just that when people who admire you see you looking down, we can’t help but want to coddle you a little.” He turned away before he could shame himself further, all the while going through the conversation in his mind and flinching at everything he said, and feeling Viktor’s gaze on his back, all the way until he turned the corner.

 

Celestino greeted him there, Yuuri’s phone in his hands. He made a comment about the influx of texts and calls Yuuri had been having, from all sorts of people and ushered him towards the exit.  As they entered the taxi, Celestino made plans of how they were going to celebrate such a fantastic short programme. Yuuri found he couldn’t wait until tomorrow, and not just because he felt like he could skate again with the same intensity. He wanted to see if Viktor had taken his words to heart, and if so, how he was going to skate differently.

 

It was going to be a long night, he knew already, and whatever dreams he had were going to be filled with skating and perhaps a certain Russian skater.

 

***

 

“It’s going to be fine,” Celestino said from where he sat on the bench. His head turned side to side slowly as he watched Yuuri pace before him, the worry clearly etched on his face. “It’s the last bit of the World Championship now, just the free skate to go.”

 

Yuuri paused in his pacing, looking down at his coach as if he had forgotten everything. Catching up quickly, Yuuri shook his head. “I’m not worried about my free skate.” As the words left his lips and continued his pacing, he found that they rung true. It was strange, feeling so completely different from how he had started off yesterday. But he knew he could do the free skate, Ren convinced him that they had practiced it over and over again, perhaps even too many times. But they could do it in their sleep if they wanted to.

 

No, Yuuri’s worries settled a little deeper. He hadn’t seen Viktor this morning yet, and he worried what the man thought after their talk the day before. He hoped his words hadn’t been taken the wrong way, or he became too personal. He hoped he hadn’t crossed some line that he had no business crossing over. Viktor Nikiforov was a world champion, more than once, of course he knew what he was doing, and of course he didn’t need advice from Yuuri, who had only won a bronze so far in his senior career. If anyone was going to need advice, it was Yuuri.

 

Would this tinge their budding friendship? Yuuri hoped not, the thought of the older man hating him burned something foul in his mouth. His heart hammered against his rib cage, frightening him. But Viktor had seemed fine with it before right? But he had a whole night to think about it. What if he thought in those hours that what Yuuri had said was out of line?

 

Or, worse of all, what if the words did hit home and Viktor decided he didn’t want to skate with these feelings he had? What if they got a notice right now that he had pulled from the competition? Or if he was ill? Or came out and flunked his routine?

 

Yuuri stopped and gripped the sides of his head, knowing that letting his anxiety run its course was the best option.

 

Ren, though less calm, was worrying about why the Russian hadn’t turned up yet and so close to when the first competitor was going to take to the ice.

 

“Then what are you worried about?” Celestino asked, but noticed the way that Yuuri’s head snapped up every time someone walked down the walkway from the doors. “I’m sure he’s fine, probably got caught up by fans and paparazzi outside.”

 

“Yeah,” Yuuri agreed, allowing himself to think about that for a moment. He was World Champion, it’s very logical. Everyone would want to know what he was thinking before the competition, and it would be one of the easiest times to grab him.

 

As the commentator announced that those warming up on the ice should step off, Viktor finally entered the rink.

 

Yuuri’s eyes immediately fell on him, observant in the way that Viktor looked tired. Not too much, but he yawned and rubbed at his eyes. Yuuri’s worry increased, wondering if he hadn’t been able to get any sleep because of him. Maybe he should have waited until the end of the competition to say anything. He shouldn’t have impulsively ordered the man as if he had any right to. He should have stayed quiet and –

 

But his worries were for nothing. When the Russian saw Yuuri, his grin was anything but fake, bright and wide, reaching his eyes until his sparkling eyes could barely be seen. He raised a hand high above him and waved at the dumbstruck Japanese boy.

 

Thinking it impolite not to, Yuuri waved back, be it a little more subdued, and wasn’t able to completely come back to himself until Viktor turned away after being called by his coach. They walked off to sit on one of the benches around the rink.

 

“See? He’s fine?” Celestino assured.

 

“Yeah,” Yuuri repeated. He quickly sat down on the bench beside Celestino when his coach ushered him over.

 

“You just need to concentrate on your own programme. How are you feeling?”

 

“Alright,” Yuuri replied. His eyes kept flickering to Viktor every so often, his worry now burning into something like curiosity. He barely had any attention for the competition, not even as the first skater took to the ice.

 

“Are you really feeling alright?”

 

Yuuri turned to his coach. “Yeah,” he said. “Yeah, I’m… actually quite calm.” Ren was covering him, engulfing him in a tight embrace, a familiar confidence that he wore like a shield. Now that he knew what to expect of this much larger competition, he found it didn’t scare even Yuuri nearly as much as it had the day before.

 

Celestino gave him a big smile and clapped a hand onto his shoulder. “Good! We have plenty of time to go over anything you feel worried about though. You’re third from last, Chris to go after you, and Viktor to go last. And then your first World Championships is over.” If anything, it seemed to be Celestino that was getting worried. After a deep breath, he asked, “Is there anything you’re not confident about?”

 

Yuuri took a moment to really roll the question around in his head. Sure now, he shook his head. “No, I’m really okay with everything. After all the hours we’ve spent on it, it’s the last time I get to perform it to my very best.” The thought struck something inside of him. This programme had been worked from scratch, with hours of endless effort on both of their parts to complete it. He forgot what this felt like after four years off. He was finally laying the programme to rest. But more than that, this was going to be the last competition of his first senior season, his senior debut. If that didn’t give him the desire to perfect it, he didn’t know what would.

 

“That’s the spirit.”

 

As the competition kicked off, Yuuri sat back against the wall, watching as the other skaters danced their hearts out. Yuuri though wasn’t paying too much attention, seeing their names, their colours flash across the rink, and then he would think about everything else that weighed on his mind.

 

Chris was to his right, doing stretches against the wall. Viktor was to his left, sitting quietly with his coach and analysing the skaters before them.

 

Yuuri found there was an odd tension in the air, but wasn’t sure if it was self-inflicted or if it settled over everyone. The cameras were whirring around, journalists snapping photos, the audience screaming their praise, the world watching. It was odd how quickly Yuuri had come to think of this as normal.

 

All too soon, it was his turn. His coach wished him luck, but Yuuri found the words hard to listen to. Despite how calm he was, he was back in his bubble, immersed in himself, thinking of only what was to come. He stepped out onto the ice, only dimly aware of his name on the lips of the commentator and the signs of the audience.

 

He stood in the middle of the rink, feeling more than seeing the lights dim and the music begin. It started quickly, pushing him into a passionate dance right off the bat. He breathed deeply, took everything in, allowing his body to skate to the same programme it remembered so easily. Breathe here, it thought. Step there. Spin. Jump. Cater to the crowd. Give it everything.

 

And Yuuri was. He was giving it everything. Ren loved the dull sound of the audience cheering and the ice scraping underneath his trained feet. As he jumped into a flying sit spin, one arm raised, he caught the glimpses of those watching. Colours, melting tightly together, a slur of lines, and yet oddly individual. He could almost see each audience member reacting to him, could see the commentator and the judges at their tables. But most of all, he saw the other skaters.

 

Chris was leaning against the barrier on the far side. A skater Yuuri recognised from their pub visit was sitting at the Kiss and Cry, awaiting his time to move. A few others were cooling down, stretching their tired muscles. Viktor was like a homing beacon against them all though, his sparkling costume nowhere near as radiant as him.

 

Yuuri saw him leaning on the bench, almost falling off of the front. He was smiling, mouth open wide, unable to take his eyes off of Yuuri.

 

Yuuri Katsuki was glad to see that Viktor didn’t hate him for the things he had said, while Ren Himura wanted to prove to the other man that his words were more than just little bits of advice. Ren wanted to show him that he stood by his own words.

 

Yuuri never got to surprise the audience like Viktor did. His mask often surprised them the first time, but that was it. Once they got used to it, Yuuri had nothing left to wow them with. But his career wasn’t based off of it, and therefore he didn’t feel the pressure. Viktor did.

 

Yuuri wondered how Viktor would think if he tried to take his signature move, the quad flip, and use it for his programme. Right here, in front of the audience. Surprise them all and prove to Viktor that you could always do the opposite of the thing they expected of you. The thought thrilled him, and as he entered a quad toe loop, he did contemplate it. But reality was a harsh thing, and he knew that he’d never even tried the jump before. He’d fall, no doubt about it, and he knew he couldn’t give up his first World Championship just for it.

 

Putting the thought at the back of his mind, with the intent to surprise Viktor with it one day, he opened himself into the second half of his programme. As the music strummed a little slower, he glided along the edge, open to the crowd and basking in their attention.

 

It was times like these that he loved skating – as he glided, feeling the light strain of his muscles, the wind whistling around him.

 

The music picked up again, and he turned into a triple toe loop, spun into a combination spin, and scraped himself into his most complicated step sequence of his short career. There were still some years left, he thought, and he knew he could up that complication until it was perfect.

 

His heart was warm in his chest, thumping along to the music, his breathing coming out laboured as the beads of sweat rolled down his skin. His costume, now like a second skin, shone under the lights, catching the eyes of anyone looking.

 

At the peak of his second half, as he skated into his next quad loop, triple toe loop combination, he poured everything he was feeling into the action. He landed safely, feeling he burn of his muscles and lungs, and as the beat thumped high, he clutched at the front of his mask with both hands as if to hide crying, and skated with the move frozen for a little.

 

He heard the audience hush as if they were feeling everything he was giving them. Encouraged, he rose once again, allowing his body to go a little limp, the skating a little laboured, as if everything he felt was weighing him down. When he had their full attention, turned that sadness into determination, making his moves quicker, his spins sharper, his last jump, a quad salchow, harsher. The move made him wobble a little, but only slightly.

 

He already knew he had them in the palm of his hand. Everything he wanted to throw at them, they were eating up. Everything he wanted them to feel, he knew they were feeling intensely.

 

But his thoughts were only on one person. “Watch me,” he whispered under his mask, “and see that you can do the same thing and still have the audience love you.”

 

He opened his arms up in his finishing pose, open for the crowd and the cameras, his chest rising and falling tightly. He barely registered the crowd, his eyes caught by Viktor who sat with an awestruck expression.

 

As a bouquet of flowers landed beside him, he bent to pick it up and sniffed. They were a little overpowering, especially after smelling nothing but the ice and the chemicals used to clean it for hours on end, but he held them close still, finding comfort in their colour.

 

He followed his coach’s beckon off of the ice, placed the guard on his skates, and went to sit at the Kiss and Cry.

 

The longest moment of his life would always be the wait for the scores between the performance and the moment they flashed on screen. In that time, his thoughts would fill with doubt. He had been thinking too much during the routine. What if he missed something? Or, what if it wasn’t as good as he thought it had been?

 

But the numbers flashed before him on screen.

 

He hadn’t beaten his own personal best this time, but it had been close, close enough for the score to be very high and take him to the top of the board. With only two more skaters to go, a podium finish was guaranteed again. This time, Yuuri caught it quickly and hugged the flowers tightly to his chest, feeling the tears already leaking at the corner of his eyes. He doubted he would ever grow tired of it, even if the rest of his career was a wash of bronze and nothing else.

 

Before he really had a chance to think about it though, Chris was stepping onto the ice. There was an odd expression on his face, a little more reserved than he usually held.

 

The music strummed and the lights dimmed again.

 

Yuuri would always think that the programme was hardly given justice in the little fragments that he saw in practice. It always surprised him how much emotion Chris could evoke in a piece. With every eye watching him, he trailed his hands over his body, his eyes closed and his mouth slightly open. His costume, dark with red glitter, drew the eye, but he was the thing that kept their attentions. He knew exactly how to attract their gaze, how to keep it, and how to make them hungry for more.

 

Because while some took the majority of their career to come up with their theme and perfect it, Chris knew early on what was unique to him. There weren’t many figure skaters that could create programmes on sexuality and be able to do it in more than one season, or be able to come back year after year with the same theme but holding completely different emotions. Despite some delving into modelling careers, only Chris could actually look like the act of skating itself was sexual.

 

Yuuri had to admit that at first it had seemed intimidating, and though he had wanted to meet Chris, was worried that the man himself was the typical clichéd sexual predator. Instead, Yuuri had found someone who knew how he was viewed, but was so much more than that. All he had done was care for Yuuri, support him, took him under his wing and Yuuri would forever be grateful for that.

 

It was why he found himself encouraging the other man, jumping up when he saw that Chris had landed with a wobble, bigger than Yuuri’s own. Nothing to shake the man, and he didn’t touch the ice, but it changed his rhythm and he was not able to achieve the triple combination.

 

As he glided passed, Yuuri saw the grimace on his face. He knew that Chris wouldn’t be happy about it. And as he skated into his final pose, he was gritting his teeth, allowing the world to see the frustration in his expression.

 

Yuuri wanted nothing more than to assure him, giving him a little nod that Chris gave a small smile at as they walked passed. Chris went to wait at the Kiss and Cry, and the whole world held its breath, a mix of cheers and sighs exploding when Chris’ name fell beneath Yuuri’s.

 

In that moment, Yuuri wasn’t sure what to feel. The margin was enough that even had Chris landed the jump Yuuri would have still come ahead, and yet he couldn’t help but feel a little guilty at taking Chris’ silver streak. But silver. Silver. He was one more away from gold. Between two greats in his first World Championships.

 

Yuuri felt as if he was on top of the world, and the pressure here was far more than he expected it to be.

 

The crowd hushed as Viktor stood in place. Yuuri found himself standing close to the barrier, unable to stop himself, wanting to be closer as he watched. Viktor looked as he always did, his expression schooled into a melancholy feature.

 

Perhaps Yuuri had been thinking too much. Maybe his words, something that had seemed so big in his mind, was nothing to Viktor. He’d practiced this enough, been in multiple competitions and knew what worked for him. Perhaps he liked the self-inflicted pressure. Perhaps he thrived in it.

 

The music filtered softly through the air, and Viktor floated into his first step sequence, his body moving like water, reaching out to the crowd as if they were everything he ever asked for. He spun his body, one arm raised high, his figure flashing brightly in the middle of the rink. Graceful, practiced, and everything that anyone ever aspired to be.

 

It took until his first jump for Yuuri to notice that something was different. Viktor readied for it, breaking character slightly to look where he was, something he rarely did. Viktor always seemed so sure of everything he was doing, never needing to do something so unprofessional as make sure he was in the right place. And when he jumped, Yuuri was awestruck. The jump was the same as Viktor always did, perfect and landed just as perfectly. But it was his expression that caught Yuuri’s eyes. Yuuri had seen Viktor jump this routine several times, and each time he had seen the man with the same schooled expression, the same character set in his features.

 

This time he jumped with a beaming smile.

 

Yuuri felt his heart give a lurch inside his chest. Viktor never smiled during a jump, not unless it was programmed into his routine. He was a professional, and the jumps he did always seemed so effortless. But now it seemed as if the jump itself was bringing him joy, taking time to really appreciate the act. As if he was back to being a young skater at the beginning of his career again.

 

The commentators were roaring about it, their words not letting up as they noticed Viktor’s expression hold the smile as he skated. His movements from then were more emotive, less calculating. He even laughed as he threw himself into another quad flip, but this time there was an obvious difference.

 

Yuuri could see that to Viktor the world was melting away before him. This programme was his, only for him, open and honest and it was a privilege for the audience to glimpse it. Sometimes, Yuuri knew that the pressure could overtake the feeling of freedom on the ice. It was easy to forget what it felt like to be there, to be dancing on the ice, just for you. It was easy to forget the charm that brought you into the sport at the start. Yuuri never forgot, but that was because of how much he had lost along the way already. It reminded him to think of what he did have.

 

But for people at the top of the game, such as Viktor, he knew it could be easy to lose touch. The love was pushed aside for sponsors, catering to the audience, to keep your coach happy, to make sure the media never tore you apart. What was a love quickly became a job.

 

But Yuuri was watching his words hit home before him, as Viktor skated as if it was the last programme he was ever going to skate. He saw the way the Russian felt the music, taking each beat in stride, feeling everything that passed through the air.

 

And as Viktor skated to the end, his finishing pose curling in on himself, Yuuri knew that silver was the highest he would be getting today.

 

The audience erupted into a standing ovation, their cheers and applause thumping through the air. Countless flowers, tied in a bouquet or single, were thrown until only parts of the ice were visible anymore. Toys and posters settled over those, until it was hard for Viktor to skate off of the ice at all.

 

There was a healthy flush on the skin of his cheeks, his hair lightly tousled. He was grinning. The cameras were going wild, clicking every second that they could catch. They probably had never seen an expression like it on the man’s face before.

 

Yuuri didn’t need to look at the board to know where he was. Celestino hugged him closer, his words nearly a shout as they were pressed into the side of his mask.

 

“A silver, Ren! You did it!”

 

Yuuri could feel tears lightly touching the skin of his neck, and the thought of his coach crying set him rolling too. He felt the tears leaking down his skin before he even knew they were there, and the smile under his mask ached his cheeks. He gripped Celestino closer, unable to form words, only knowing that yes, this was better than bronze, this was unbelievable. This was beautiful.

 

As they stepped onto their podiums, Yuuri finding himself one higher than he had a few months back and on the other side of Viktor, the world watched on. He cast a quick worrying glance towards Chris, who seemed to have gotten over his frustration and mouthed a congratulations at him.

 

“You need to be careful, Viktor,” Chris whispered so that only they could hear. “Ren is going to be going for gold next.”

 

Yuuri bent low as the medal was placed around his neck, seemingly heavier than he remembered but shining even more brightly. Chris’ bronze sparkled as the camera man took a photo.

 

As Viktor bent to receive his gold, he caught Yuuri’s eye.

 

“I look forward to next season,” he told Yuuri. “It’s been a while since I’ve been the one looking up.”

 

As Yuuri stared, he noticed three things.

 

First, the light behind Viktor fell perfectly like a halo around his form, making his hair sparkle and his gold shine brighter than anything Yuuri had ever seen. It smoothed his skin, softened his expression, and made it so that his eyes were one of the only things he could see in detail.

 

Second, while the crowd cheered and the camera man ushered them to look forward, Yuuri could only hear Viktor, could only hear his breathing, his words, his heart.

 

Third and most of all, Yuuri could feel the way his own heart stopped and hammered at the same time, locked in his throat, pausing his breathing. His knees were buckling, almost giving way under his weight. His blood was pumping loudly through his veins.

 

And the realisation crashed down on him so suddenly that he didn’t know what to do but the thing he always did – be scared. Because he knew what was happening, and he had warned himself, warned Yuuri and Ren both against it, and yet here it was.

 

Yuuri had admired Viktor for a long time. It was impossible not to. The man was brilliant, always something that he wanted to be. He was always beautiful and as Yuuri got to know him he knew how true that was. There was so much more to Viktor than the world knew, and he had been nothing but kind, supportive and encouraging to Yuuri, never giving into temptation when Yuuri almost revealed himself. Viktor was so much better than he had ever expected.

 

Yuuri had admired Viktor for a very long time, for nearly as long as he could remember. But he had only knowingly loved the man for a few seconds. Unknowingly, it might have been much longer than that.

 

Chapter Text

The revelation didn’t comfort him. It didn’t settle him, didn’t strengthen him, didn’t give him any hope. He sat alone on his bed, Celestino having gone to speak with the other coaches in the restaurant on the first floor. There was something on the laptop, playing in the darkness, voices shrill through the speakers, but Yuuri wasn’t listening.

 

His heart hadn’t stopped hammering since he had noticed what it held. The medal was still around his neck, resting heavily on chest, and the mask was on the bedside table, face down. For the moment, he didn’t know what to feel about it.

 

Ren was uncharacteristically quiet and Yuuri didn’t seem to have felt it sink in yet. When the penny finally dropped, Yuuri knew what was waiting for him.

 

His phone buzzed beside him. He turned to look numbly at it, his eyes scanning over the blinking screen. Phichit was calling. For some reason, that wasn’t connecting until the light switched off again and it grew quiet.

 

He picked up the phone, holding it to his ear, and was almost surprised that Phichit answered so quickly. He hadn’t even realised he pressed to call his friend back.

 

Yuuri!” Phichit greeted, a hint of worry under his friendly tone. “I’ve been calling you for ages. Why haven’t you picked up?”

 

Why hadn’t he picked up? Honestly, he hadn’t known it was ringing. Hadn’t heard it, or hadn’t noticed it. It was a few hours after the medal ceremony, though Yuuri had only just had the chance to come back after being nabbed by the journalists and the reporters, as well as congratulated by fans and other skaters alike. In that time, Yuuri really had only had the chance to have a quick talk with his parents and accept their congratulations before he was whisked away.

 

“Yuuri, you still there?”

 

The voice brought him back. “Oh, yeah. Sorry.”

 

“Congratulations! I wish I was the first to be able to say it, but I’m saying it now anyway. Yuuri, you did amazing! You stormed that competition, and it’s only going to be a matter of time before you get gold and knock Viktor down a peg-”

 

The name struck something inside of Yuuri. Viktor, the Russian with the gold, the man that Yuuri had known and admired for a while, the man he had steadily grown to know. The man that encouraged him. Helped him. The man who he couldn’t get out of his head.

 

Yuuri?”

 

Yuuri glanced down at his medal. He was so proud of himself, and every time he caught a glimpse of it, he couldn’t help but feel happy. In all the years that he had taken off, he never thought he would see the day that he would get to hold the medal in his hands. But he didn’t have the chance this time to appreciate it as much as he had the bronze, because every time he remembered the medal, he remembered the way that Viktor looked as he stood above him, and what he noticed about himself.

 

Yuuri, you’re worrying me. Aren’t you happy?”

 

“I…” He was, but he was also scared. And now, thinking about it, he found it was starting to consume him. The thoughts he had been keeping at bay were finally flooding in, and Phichit’s voice was both a comfort and a catalyst. “I am,” he replied, his voice a little strained as he admitted weakly, “but Phichit, I don’t know what to do.”

 

There was some shuffling on the other end, and Yuuri knew his friend well enough that he knew Phichit was settling in, finding a comfortable position to be in for what he knew was going to be a long talk. “What’s wrong? Did something happen?” His voice was soft, soothing, already with the promise that he would support Yuuri no matter what. How did he deserve a friend like Phichit?

 

Before he could chicken out, he decided to blurt it all out to his best friend. “I think I’m in love with Viktor Nikiforov.”

 

He waited for his friend to reply, his hands shaking as he held the phone tightly to his ear. The laptop before him flickered to gain his attention, the episode of what it was playing having finished. The room was quiet, but he could still hear his heart thumping almost painfully in his chest.

 

You sound scared,” Phichit replied steadily.

 

The emotions flooded him suddenly, crashing through him like a tsunami, agonisingly pressing on every limb, every breath he took, every thought until there was nothing else. And he was scared. His eyes glanced to his mask, finding that, for the first time in his life, Ren Himura was exactly what he was scared of.

 

“I am,” he admitted.

 

Why?”

 

Yuuri leaned forwards, grabbing the mask to sit it in his lap. Staring down, he felt his throat constrict. Ren had always given him so much comfort, so much confidence, but now he was only worried. Finding the fear easy to place, he explained, “Because I know all this feeling is ever going to bring me is pain.”

 

Patiently, Phichit asked again, “Why is that?”

 

Yuuri knew what his friend was doing. He was getting Yuuri to voice all of his thoughts, not only so he could help, but so that Yuuri himself could get a clear mind. Yuuri’s thoughts were always so jumbled and he wasn’t very good at clearing them himself. “Because,” he started, thinking hard. “Because Viktor won’t ever love me back.” The words brought tears pricking at the corners of his eyes. His chest tightened painfully. He’d only been in love for a few hours and already it was bringing him more pain than he ever expected it to.

 

Why do you think that? You haven’t even given him a chance.”

 

Yuuri trailed the mask with the tips of his fingers. So many memories, so many feelings piled onto the plastic, and here he was piling on more. “Because he doesn’t even know I exist. He only knows Ren, and I’m not Ren.”

 

You are Ren, he is a part of you.”

 

“No, he’s something I made. He’s not me, he’s a fake, a persona. He doesn’t have any of my traits, he’s made of things I’ve taken from others.”

 

Yes, exactly, you made him. He wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for you. And you might not see traits of yours in him, but I see some.”

 

Yuuri curled a little tighter into a ball, breathing deeply, trying to hold back the tears. It hurt. It already hurt so much. He never used to believe that hearts could break, thought it was an exaggeration when people used it. But now he could feel it. He could feel it ripping already. He’d never been in love before. He never thought he would ever find it. Now he wished he never had. “What traits of mine are in him?” he asked.

 

Ren’s love for food, for one. He has his adorable moments. Can dance. ” He said it in a way that Yuuri knew he was counting them off by his fingers. “He’s kind to everyone. Treats everyone fairly. Is a lot of fun to hang out with. And obviously, doesn’t do much with social media.”

 

Yuuri felt the chuckle bubble from his throat at the comment. He wiped away a little of the tears that slipped from his eyes.

 

All of his best qualities, in my opinion, come from you, Yuuri.”

 

Yuuri felt his chuckle melt into tears at the words, said so fondly.

 

It’s going to be okay, Yuuri. Don’t give up so quickly. Who knows what will happen a little while down the road? And Viktor is lucky to have your love. Even if he never finds out he even held it.”

 

Yuuri let the words wash over him, feeling their weight against his skin. He knew what Phichit was saying, because they both knew each other very well. He wasn’t pushing Yuuri to tell, or to even come to terms with his own feelings. He only said to hold hope. It was always something Yuuri found hard to do anyway, hoping for something in the future was optimistic and Yuuri was hardly ever such. But Phichit knew that too. He knew that once Yuuri came to a decision, it was most likely going to conclude with one thing – Yuuri would hold it in, hide his feelings, for as long as he could. Because Viktor didn’t need someone who couldn’t even be themselves loving him.

 

“It already hurts,” he told his best friend, knowing that he could do nothing but already feeling a little better being able to say everything he needed. “It already hurts and I haven’t even spoken to him or seen him properly since I realised.”

 

As much as I want to say just be yourself when it comes to it, just be Yuuri Katsuki, you don’t want to do that, do you?”

 

Yuuri sniffed away some of the runny nose, searching quickly for a tissue. “No, I’m not ready for that. I don’t know if I’ll ever be, but definitely not right now.”

 

Then just be Ren. Ren will know what to do.

 

“Okay.” Because Ren wouldn’t shy away just because he fell in love with someone. He would continue to be himself, continue the relationship, as if nothing had ever happened. Because confidence could give you everything if you had it. “If it’s alright, can we talk about something else? I just… I don’t want to think too much about it right now.”

 

That’s fine, don’t worry. You can talk to me whenever you’re ready.”

 

“If I ever am.”

 

How about we talk then about how amazingly you did, because I haven’t been able to get it off my chest yet and I want to tell you how I nearly got us evicted because I screamed so loud?”

 

Yuuri gave a small smile, feeling the anxiety slipping away as easily as it had come. “Sounds good. But please tell me we weren’t evicted right? I don’t want to come back homeless.”

 

***

 

The celebrations were already beginning. Yuuri could hear the groups readying in their rooms around his own, the cheering in the corridor, the music down below. The banquet after the World Championship was being held in the ballroom on the first floor of the hotel, a fact Yuuri had been happy about before. Now he wasn’t so sure.

 

He wasn’t feeling up to dancing, or drinking, socialising or just looking happy really. Not right now, not when he would need to be in the same room as Viktor. The man hadn’t even done anything wrong.

 

But it seemed as if his choice was decided when Celestino crashed into the room, a new tie packed in plastic over his arm.

 

“I bought you a new tie,” he informed, holding it up for Yuuri’s inspection. “It’s silver, just like your medal.” When he noticed Yuuri sitting in the bed, still in his leisure wear, he asked, “Why aren’t you getting ready?”

 

Not wanting to worry his coach, he moved to stand up. “I just hadn’t realised the time.” He gave the biggest smile he could. Because he was a winner. He’d gotten the silver. One step away from being World Champion. He should be happy. “I’ll go get changed quickly. And thanks for the tie, it’s really nice,” he said as he rushed to the toilet.

 

He clicked the door closed, surprised by the reflection of himself in the mirror before him. He looked tired, worried, upset. This wasn’t how he was supposed to look. This wasn’t the face of a silver medallist. Summoning Ren with everything he had, he pushed Yuuri back.

 

As much as he loved what Phichit had said, and was thankful so much for his friend for saying them, he didn’t believe them. Yuuri felt things too much, and he suffered for it. He wanted to be more in control like Ren was.

 

And Ren rose, submerging Yuuri in quiet water, shielding him from the world. Ren looked at himself in the mirror, his back straight, chin high, eyes sparkling like a winner. Already, Yuuri was feeling better. Safely tucked away, he could pretend his feelings were a figment of his imagination. Because the Yuuri that he saw in the mirror right now, the Yuuri that Ren was controlling, was exactly the person he had always wanted to be.

 

Yuuri changed quickly, suddenly feeling better about going to the banquet. He didn’t need to be nervous, did he? Because it was just some fun. Celebration. Why did feelings need to get in the way of that?

 

Celestino and Yuuri walked in fashionably late, the party already in full swing. His coach excused himself, going to speak to another coach that beckoned him over. Yuuri though watched the people on.

 

It was strange, watching with confidence. Only a few months before, he stood in the corner, lonely and worried about being alone with no one to speak to. Yuuri had found it hard to summon Ren then. Now though, he looked on with the desire to dance. He didn’t feel worried anymore. He was a winner, and he came here to celebrate.

 

He found himself in the centre of the dance floor, among the couples spinning around. He didn’t care about the odd glances he got, or the way his shining silver medal caught all sorts of attention. Instead, he decided to lose himself again, just as he did on the ice, and danced to the music that seemed to want to escape his body somehow.

 

He swayed and dipped, barely registering what moves he was actually doing, his eyes closed and his ears barely picking up anything but the music. The words, whatever they were, weren’t speaking to him. The beat, whatever it was, wasn’t thumping inside of him. But the emotion of the piece, the things only he could hear, they made him lose track of time, lose everything.

 

It was just what he needed.

 

All the needless emotions and feelings he had been feeling up until now weren’t important, even if for just a little while. At the back of his mind, he knew he had to return to it at some point. Yuuri was waiting, as comfortable as he was, and Ren couldn’t hide him forever. Reality was cruel. Emotions were crueller. Life itself was cruellest.

 

He didn’t know how much time had passed, or how many songs he danced through on his own. He’d heard some voices close to him at some point, and he was sure that someone would have tried to talk to him by now. But it didn’t register.

 

What made him finally come back to himself was the feeling of someone palming at his ass. He was shocked back to reality, as if someone had poured cold water all over him, or stunned him with electricity. After his sudden flinch, he turned to see Chris there, his hand still steadily placed on his bum. A flush settled themselves on Chris’ cheek, a nearly empty flute of alcohol in his other hand.

 

When Yuuri noticed him, Chris stepped away, taking his hand back, and stood before Yuuri with a smile. His eyes glanced down quickly at the silver before snapping back up to Yuuri’s mask, a smirk playing on his lips.

 

“When I said to go higher, I meant gold, not silver, Ren,” he said, taking a sip from the flute, just one more away from finishing.

 

Yuuri, still very much surrounded by Ren, titled his head to the side and teased, “No, you said to dethrone the best. I’m just starting with you and finishing with Viktor.” The name sparked something dull inside of him, but it was easier to bear this time. He could easily press it away, as if the name only brought admiration to him, not love.

 

“If that’s the case, I look forward to the Grand Prix Final, or the next World Championships if I get to see that spectacle.” Chris put the finished flute on the tray of a waiter as she walked by. “I don’t even mind if it pushes me down to bronze again.”

 

With a cheeky shrug, Yuuri said, “Maybe you’ll have a new bronze streak.”

 

Chris gave a glare, though there was something sparkling in his large eyes, and a smile was trying to pull at the corners of his mouth. He grabbed a quick flute from another waiter, took a sip, and said, “I sincerely hope that Viktor is getting scared now with you breathing down his neck.”

 

Yuuri gasped, only lightly, feeling the breath against his mask touch his skin. He wasn’t sure where it came from, suddenly, but the image of breathing down Viktor’s neck rose so vividly in his mind. “Right,” he said, pushing the image away. “I’m sure he is.”

 

One of Chris’ sculpted eyebrows rose suddenly, his gaze surveying Yuuri’s mask as if looking for a reaction. When he couldn’t find it, he said, “You cheat. How can I know what you’re thinking when you wear that?”

 

Yuuri chuckled, finding it a nice diversion from where his mind was going. “Why do you think I wear it?”

 

“Because you’re a burn victim? Or some faraway prince? Or you actually have my face?”

 

Yuuri spluttered, “Your face?”

 

“I don’t know, you could be some sort of shapeshifter.”

 

“That’s a new one. Haven’t heard of that before.” He gripped his chest as the thought of it drew more and more laughter from him. “No, I am not a shapeshifter.”

 

“That’s what you want me to think.”

 

A figure stepped beside them. For a second, Yuuri was a little worried that it might be Viktor. He wasn’t ready. But as he turned, he saw someone younger, smaller than even he. The boy, probably about sixteen or younger, was glaring up at him with all of the might his dark blue eyes could muster.

 

“You’re Ren Himura?” the boy asked, tilting his head back until his black hair was out of his face. His gaze scanned quickly over Yuuri’s mask, taking in every little detail.

 

“Uh, yeah,” Yuuri replied. He was about to ask the name of the boy, feeling pushed to greet him as he did his fans. But from the way that the little boy crossed his arms and glared as soon as Yuuri’s persona was confirmed, he knew that it wouldn’t be welcomed. “Why do you ask?”

 

The boy’s eyes glanced down quickly to the silver medal around Yuuri’s neck, and something glimmered in them. Yuuri watched, curious, as he saw the way the boy got lost in the sheen. His eyes flickered over the surface, taking in everything he could.

 

Ren was fine with allowing it to continue, but Chris clicked his fingers before the boy’s face and with a polite smile asked, “And what is it you needed, little boy?”

 

The boy came back to himself, his eyes snapping to the medal around Chris’ neck. With a smirk, he looked up at Chris and said, “A bronze, huh? How does it feel to be knocked down?”

 

Chris stayed polite, not allowing one single flash of agitation to break his form. “It’s nice to change things up. And I lost to a better competitor.”

 

“That’s never going to happen to me.”

 

“To you?” Yuuri asked, the question flinging itself from his lips before he could stop it.

 

The boy’s wide eyes turned back to him. “Yeah, because I’m going to become the best. I’m not going to lose to anyone, they’re going to lose to me.” His eyes flickered once more to the silver dangling from around Yuuri’s neck and back up before he said, “I’m not going to settle as second best either.”

 

On some level, Yuuri felt like he should have been annoyed. But it was near impossible when the boy was having trouble looking up at him at all, or the way that the puppy fat still clung stubbornly to his cheeks. His eyes still held their innocent sheen, bright and ambitious, not yet seen the harsh realities of the world. However, it was also easy to see that the boy, when older, would very much be the bane of a lot of lives.

 

“Oh, really?” Yuuri asked, feeling the need to tease the boy a little. He bent down until they were face to face. “You think you can get gold?” His tone was a little patronising, but Ren thought it was good to show the boy that he couldn’t get everything he wanted. Aim high, always aim high, but don’t become egotistical.

 

The boy flushed in a frustrated pink, dusting his cheeks. “Yes I can get gold! And I can get it a lot faster than you did. I’ll get it at my first Grand Prix Final. And I’ll do it by beating you!”

 

“Ren, I think we have a little challenge here.” Chris stepped forwards and tapped the top of the boy’s thick black hair, quickly snapping his hand away when the boy lashed out. “But he’s still much too young to even attempt it yet.”

 

“I’m not too young! I could do it now.” He took a second to glare at the both of them before he promised, “I’m going to beat you two and Viktor.” He turned to leave, but thought better of it to throw over his shoulder, “And my name is JJ. You’ll need to remember it.” As soon as the words left his lips, followed by a quick smirk and a wink, he rushed off to stand beside the other Junior competitors who stood awkwardly in the corner, sipping at their fruity drinks.

 

“Well, wasn’t that interesting,” Chris clicked, a short laugh bursting from his chest.

 

“Does his name seem familiar to you?” Yuuri asked, trying to wrack his mind over if it did for him. He knew he’d remember a name like that, but it wasn’t coming to him. But he also didn’t keep an eye on the junior division. He found that he didn’t have a lot of time anymore, not with the training, or the meetings with sponsors, or his own time. And it reminded him of a time he would rather move on from.

 

“I think there’s something,” Chris replied, his finger rising to stroke the stubble at the bottom of his chin. “JJ isn’t a common name after all, but I don’t watch the junior division.”

 

“Same.” He wanted to pass it off as nothing, that it was another junior skater that had massive ambitions. But there was something in the confidence in the boy that struck him. He fished out his phone and searched it quickly. “Jean-Jacques Leroy, also known as JJ,” he read out to Chris. “Canadian skater currently in the junior division, gold medallist in the Junior Grand Prix Final and gold medallist in the Junior World Championships. His coaches are his parents Alain Leroy and Nathalie Leroy.”

 

Chris hummed, “So his confidence isn’t unfounded.”

 

“Seems it isn’t,” Yuuri agreed, scrolling through the gallery of photos of the younger boy. “He’s fifteen, his birthday coming up in July.”

 

“So is he coming to the senior division soon or is he waiting?” Chris asked, moving to stand over Yuuri’s shoulder.

 

“I don’t know, it doesn’t say anything.”

 

“Looks like you guys are making friends.”

 

Their heads snapped towards the voice, almost as if they had been caught doing something they shouldn’t have.

 

Viktor stood to the side, one hand in his pocket while the other held a flute to his lips. He raised one eyebrow at their stunned expressions, a smirk playing at his mouth.

 

At the sudden appearance, Yuuri not being ready, he felt Ren cower just a little. Yuuri was brought to the forefront, his panic rising to fill every crevice of his body, thumping loudly in his ears. Viktor looked as beautiful as ever, perhaps more so, with confidence oozing and his hair softer. The light of the banquet shone behind him, falling brightly onto his back, casting shadows over his lines. Yuuri’s heart hammered. It felt like it was breaking again.

 

As soon as the thought struck him, Yuuri pulled Ren back and the mood eased off once more. It was easier to hide Yuuri and lock away his love.

 

Before the other could notice though, Chris took away Viktor’s attention. The Swiss man stepped forwards, placing a hand on Viktor’s shoulder. “Unlike you, we feel it’s important to get to know the junior skaters because who knows? Years down the line, they might be competition.” Chris cast a glance towards where the young teen had scampered off to. “We’ve already been challenged.”

 

“He shows promise,” Yuuri contributed, almost regretting the words as soon as Viktor’s attention was brought back to him.

 

Viktor waved away the comment, not seeming interested enough in the conversation to continue it. Instead, he said, “Congratulations on the silver. You really are gunning for my position, huh?”

 

Calm, Yuuri thought. Just breathe. It’s easy to breathe. In and out. In and out. As he looked at Viktor’s face, his heart speeding, his blood pumping loudly in his ears, he could think of nothing but the love he found he held for the man. He doubted he would ever be able to think of anything again. He pushed everything he could into his face, strengthening it so it wouldn’t crack and give away his shame, “Thanks. I…” Yuuri found it hard to find the words. Silver. He had won silver. He should be happy. He felt Ren rise up completely. “I only have gold missing from my collection now,” he chuckled, tilting his head to the side. “And I have a while now between this and the Grand Prix Final to make sure that becomes a reality.”

 

Viktor gave his own smirk, rising to meet the challenge, as he always did. Because he knew he could face it. Because he wasn’t ever embarrassed. “Then I’ll make sure to train even harder to make sure you have to fight harder.”

 

The thought made Ren soar. Yuuri would never want to win accidentally, or because someone else wasn’t trying their best. But in Ren, that thought was amplified. Ren wanted everyone to push, to be better, to be a real threat, because then the win was so much sweeter. Yuuri didn’t mind that aspect of his persona. Ren rose to such threats, bettered himself for them, everything Yuuri wished he could do but didn’t have the confidence for. Ren made sure that everything Yuuri dreamed of came true.

 

“It’ll make my victory so much better,” he agreed.

 

***

 

Yuuri had drunk some more champagne, found his way around the sponsors, fans and journalists alike, the night wearing thin. There was a slight buzz in his system, but he left it at that, remembering the night before the World Championship that he had gone out with Viktor, Chris and the other skaters, and couldn’t remember much more than drinking and dancing. He hated blank spots, he hated not remembering. Especially as Ren. Yuuri often liked to take off clothes while drunk anyway, a victim to many blackmail photos Phichit had stashed away on his phone, and getting drunk with the mask was dangerous. Luckily, he had woken up with it still on, but the danger still lurked.

 

As the hours wore on, he became increasingly tired. Yuuri wasn’t good at social interactions – it took far too much energy for it to be healthy. And while Ren loved to bask in attention, and loved to talk to people when he could, it seemed even his persona got tired of endless hours of nothing but accepting congratulations, the same questions over and over, and having to stand straight, be perfect, because he was influential to those watching.

 

The word would always hold terror in his mind. Influential. He wasn’t very good at social media, barely ever posting on the accounts that Celestino and Phichit had bullied him into getting. He knew people followed him, knew that it wasn’t a small number and nothing to laugh at, but it didn’t strike him how influential he was to the people who did follow. Fans, other skaters and journalists alike ate up even the little he did post, sometimes just pictures of the ice rink in Detroit, maybe a publicity sentence if he was doing an interview. They all grabbed the little pieces of his life that he did show, because they were curious. But he didn’t know just how much. He never thought that people watched his actions, listened to his every word, mimicked him because they saw him as influential, some role model.

 

He found it both terrifying and funny. Terrifying because he thought he wasn’t anything like that, and doubted that anyone should ever follow his example. Funny because it was exactly what he was doing, mimicking other skaters and influential people and creating more of his persona around them.

 

So he had to be careful with every interaction. And that used up energy, a surprisingly big amount.

 

It was how he found himself on the balcony outside of the banquet hall, overlooking the rich gardens of the venue. The grass shone green under the florescent garden lights, the moon in the sky hanging high. The small pond at the bottom of the gardens, almost out of eye, was shimmering in the light breeze. Tall hedge rows, carefully cut to perfection, looked small on this downwards view, but Yuuri knew they were about three times his height, if not taller. He’d have loved to stroll those gardens. They looked like something out of a dream, or a European film or television series. It was breath-taking.

 

Not to say that the banquet hall itself wasn’t. It shone gold, expensive drapes over every window, heavy wood for the floors and doors, intricate patterns everywhere you looked. But Yuuri hadn’t had time to really enjoy the view, not when so many people had been begging his attention.

 

There were a few others out on the long balcony, a couple hiding in the shadows as they sipped their drinks and chatted the night away, a man who looked like he had a little too much to drink and was leaning on the railings, a photographer taking photos of the gardens, a coach showing a sponsor the view. And then there was him. He’d found the secluded area of the balcony, shadowed slightly away from the banquet lights.

 

It gave him time to think and to allow Ren to calm down too. Yuuri wanted to sleep.

 

He took his phone from his pocket, untouched since the beginning of the banquet, and eyed the message that Phichit had sent him hours before.

 

How come all the other skaters are posting about the banquet and you’re quiet as ever? Why can’t you make Ren as social media crazy as me?

 

Yuuri couldn’t help the easy smile that slipped onto his face. He quickly went on to tags about the banquet, and true enough, it seemed to be filled with photos from unfamiliar skaters, as well as a few from Chris and Viktor, showing off their medals. Yuuri seemed to be the only quiet one.

 

Honestly, Yuuri didn’t really care about the idea of social media. It was a little weird that so many people wanted to know everything that was going on in his life, Celestino even going so far as to express he should do it for the sponsors’ benefits – not that he really understood that. He could give the crazed trait to Ren, as Ren loved the attention as it was, but he forgot. Yuuri forgot that it was such an integral part to his sport.

 

Guessing it wouldn’t really hurt, he switched to his camera and angled it so that his chest was in frame, the medal shining under the moonlight. The bottom half of his mask was in shot, slightly dark in the shadows of the balcony, and his suit – brand new and more expensive than Yuuri wanted to think about – fit well and made him look quiet handsome, as Ren tried to convince. Overall, it wasn’t a bad photo, and he felt the pride, late in blooming, flow through him. He had won, he had silver, he had beaten Chris. Why hadn’t he realised how big of an achievement that was?

 

He knew why, something else had been on his mind, something bigger. Pushing the thought away, he posted the photo with a small caption of ‘guess what I got!’ on every social media he had. That should please Phichit, as well as his followers, coach and sponsors for a while. He quickly closed those down before the likes and comments would come rolling in.

 

There, he replied to his best friend. I’ve posted something. Happy?

 

The reply was almost instant, and he could already hear the excitement flowing through the words. Yes! Oh my god it looks so good on you! Why’s it dark though?

 

I’m outside on the balcony. Talking to everyone got too much.

 

Fair enough. You there with anyone special? ;)

 

Yuuri rolled his eyes and leaned back against the wall, the smile never leaving his lips. No, I’m alone.

 

Aw that’s no fun. I thought Ren was meant to be sociable?

 

It seems even Ren has an end to how sociable he can be. Yuuri looked up as something moved in the corner of his eye. The photographer snapped a quick photo of him in the corner, gave him a quick grin and a bow before he fled back into the hall. Yuuri knew that coming to the banquet was like consent to all the photographers to take shots of everything, but he hoped that that photo wouldn’t be the one posted. He didn’t need people to think Ren liked to linger in dark corners by himself.

 

Well, he did last longer than Yuuri does.

 

Right. What are you even doing up? Isn’t it late there? Don’t you have practice tomorrow?

 

Shhhhhhhhhhhhhh.

 

Yuuri felt the bubble of a chuckle rise from his chest. He could already see his friend, curled up in his bed, ready to sleep, but with something on the laptop and his phone in his hands. While Yuuri was awake often at night because he couldn’t sleep, Phichit was up because he just never even tried to sleep. Yuuri swore the other boy was nocturnal.

 

Hey, don’t take advantage of the fact Celestino isn’t there to order you. Go to sleep.

 

But what if something exciting happens? What if you post something else? I have to be the first to like it!

 

I won’t post anything until you’re awake then.

 

That’s not fair.

 

Go to sleep.

 

There was a short period of silence, Yuuri knew Phichit was taking his time to weigh up the pros and cons. After a while though, the reply did come.

 

Fine, mother. Goodnight.

 

Yuuri send back a goodnight message, then placed his phone back in his pocket, a short conversation with his friend already lifting his spirits and replenishing his energy. The noise from the hall had settled down some, the party thinning at the late hour. Some were heading home, others almost on their way out. But Yuuri knew he would be expected to stay here until every guest had left.

 

Last banquet, it had been so easy, the time flying passed. Not as many sponsors had been interested in him, preferring to speak to the gold and silver medallist, seasoned skaters as well. But now, as he proved his skill, they all sought him out. And last time he had other things to distract him from time, things he didn’t want to think about.

 

However, as if beckoned by the thought, Viktor stepped out into the moonlight from the hall. For just a moment, his silhouette, defined by shadows, clashed beautifully against the dark colours of the night. The banquet hall light cascaded against his back. But that moment passed as Viktor looked around, searching for something.

 

Yuuri didn’t have much time to wonder what it was before their eyes met. The connection made his breathing stop, and he found himself wishing that Viktor hadn’t seen him.

 

But he had. Viktor rushed over, a brisk but steady walking pace, as if he was worried Yuuri would disappear over time. His expression was the most memorable, a smile lacing his lips but worry knitting his eyebrows together.

 

Despite his thoughts, despite the way his heart ached and despite his need to be away from the man for fear of Viktor finding out his affection, he found himself asking, “What’s wrong?” as Viktor got close enough.

 

Viktor’s smile grew at the sound of his voice and the worry disappeared. “Oh, nothing, nothing,” he replied, but when Yuuri titled his head to the side and kept silent, he explained, “Just, I saw your coach leaving with a sponsor and I worried you might have gone earlier. It’s been so hectic this banquet, Worlds’ banquets always are, and we haven’t had a chance to really talk.”

 

“Oh,” Yuuri replied and hated the way it made his heart soar.

 

“Hey, can I borrow your phone?”

 

“Sure, why?” Yuuri asked, handing his phone to Viktor. The other man said nothing for a while, only clicked away at the screen, the smile on his face brighter than before. After only a few seconds, he handed it back. “What did you do?” Yuuri looked at the screen and felt his blood freeze when he saw what Viktor had left on it.

 

It hadn’t really occurred to him, not really, not even before he realised how he felt about the older man. And Yuuri never had the courage to even ask for something like this, even as Ren never thought it. But there it was, Viktor’s number and details in his contacts.

 

“Interesting name,” he whispered, searching for something to distract his brain from where it was going. Because both Ren and Yuuri were both elated, almost hysterical, with the outcome. His eyes scanned over the name, saved by Viktor himself, as Viktor ‘Sexy Beast’ Nikiforov. “I’ll definitely be changing that as soon as I can.”

 

Viktor pursed his lips, pouting. “Aw but why? I personally love the name you’ve given me.”

 

Yuuri gasped, “You put it in like that!”

 

Viktor winked, placing his pointing finger on his chin. “Yeah, but no one else will know that. It’s in your phone after all.” At Yuuri’s frustrated gruff, Viktor laughed and placed both hands behind his back. “And anyway, this way, we can keep in touch.”

 

Yuuri refrained from doing what his body and mind wanted to do - to pull the phone close and hold it against his chest - and instead placed it in his pocket. He was glad that Viktor couldn’t see the blush on his face, but hoped that his hair was enough to cover the blush that reached his ears. “You… you want to keep in touch with me?”

 

“Of course! I can send you loads of pictures of Makkachin.”

 

Yuuri laughed, finding nothing but the truth in his voice when he said, “Yeah, I’d like that.” Despite knowing that every time the name would flash on his phone, it would make him anxious, worried, happy and confused, all at the same time. Or maybe Viktor was being polite. Maybe he wouldn’t message him at all, and this was only the start of a good intention that would fall through.

 

“And you could send photos of Vicchan! And we could facetime wherever we go, and if we’re ever bored we can talk, get to know each other better-”

 

“You sound eager.” It was a surprise.

 

Viktor’s expression softened, a gentle smile gracing those lips, and it took Yuuri’s breath away. With each and every second Viktor spoke, thought, existed, Yuuri was reminded exactly how he had fallen and why it was inevitable. And why it hurt.

 

Viktor stepped forwards and looked as if he wanted to reach out, but something stopped him. “Of course I am. I really want to get to know you.”

 

No, no you don’t, Yuuri thought, the voice quiet but distinct in his mind. No, you want to know Ren. You don’t want to know Yuuri. Yuuri isn’t what you want, you want someone I’m not. You want Ren. Everyone wants to know Ren. Everyone loves Ren. He replied, “Thank you, I want to know you too.”

 

Because while he knew his love was lost, unrequited, forever to be painful, he knew that perhaps being friends wouldn’t be impossible. Honestly, Yuuri would chase anything he could get when it came to Viktor.

 

“Text me now.”

 

It took a moment for Yuuri to catch up with the request, but when he had, he quickly sent a simple ‘hi’. The text chimed in Viktor’s phone, and it lit up Viktor’s face more than Yuuri could have ever guessed was possible.

 

“Saved! Now I can pester you as much as I want!” Viktor chuckled.

 

“You wouldn’t be pestering me.”

 

“You say that now, but just wait until you’re telling me to shut up.”

 

Yuuri didn’t think that was possible, but instead said, “Okay, I’ll let you know when I’m you’re bothering me.”

 

As something beautiful strummed from the hall, light and breezy, they stilled. Yuuri tried to figure out where he had heard it before, the notes familiar to his love-addled brain. But his thoughts were cut short when Viktor lifted a hand, ready for Yuuri to take.

 

It was all Yuuri could do not to faint at the sight. Those who had occupied the balcony with them before had gone inside, rushed out by the steady breeze. They were alone, the moonlight and the shine of the stars dedicated only to them. If Yuuri could only see Viktor in one way for the rest of his life, this would be what he would forever know – Viktor bathed in moonlight, his grey suit fitting so brilliantly, his hair swaying gently in the brush of the wind, his eyes glittering as if Yuuri was the only thing they ever wanted to see, and the smile that would forever make Yuuri’s heart race.

 

Before he knew it, Ren was making him reach up for the hand. Every noise but the music dulled – the voices inside, the trees rustling, an owl hooting from the garden, none of it existed. Only the breathing of the man before him, his own heartbeat, the music. They were the only things he ever wanted to hear.

 

As they settled into a steady pace, familiar now after how many times they found themselves here, Yuuri found himself thinking something both tragic and beautiful. This, this dance they shared, still young, still starting, he knew already it was going to become a memory he would always fall back on. Yes, they had found themselves dancing many times together by now, all sorts of different dances. But this one, this one meant so much more to Yuuri – not only because it was the first in which he had realised his true feelings, but also because they were alone, unwatched, only a little alcohol coursing through them, and more intimate than Yuuri had known before.

 

Viktor’s hand rested on Yuuri’s hip, his other woven tightly with his. His touch was warm against the night air. Yuuri’s spare hand was placed on the strong shoulder of Viktor’s, feeling he muscle loosen and move under his touch. They were close, almost close enough for their chests to touch, and Yuuri couldn’t find the logic to move his face away from Viktor’s, despite knowing how close they were.

 

Above all, he knew Viktor would be able to see his eyes through the mask. Dull brown, too big, hazy because of his need of glasses.  Nothing special, and yet he couldn’t tear them away. Ren wanted to stare into Viktor’s eyes, to worship the man before him, and his will was stronger. Because it was Ren that Viktor wanted to see.

 

Viktor might never know, but Yuuri treasured this memory. As they gently swayed in their own isolated world, memories of why they were there at all, Yuuri felt his heart ready to burst at the mere sight of the man before him. His skin tingled everywhere they touched, and his breath escaped him when the man tipped him. His lips pulled into a grin when Viktor took the lead, spinning them until they took over the whole balcony, their feet sometimes stepping on one another. Yuuri found himself giggling, his eyes never looking away from Viktor.

 

Happiness and sadness rolled over him in waves. He wanted this moment to last forever, to record it and keep it, from all different angles, to relive it for the rest of his life. As he grew older, he would remember it and know that the first time he ever fell in love was painful, but beautiful too, because he knew whom he loved was the perfect first love. They always said that the first love was the most painful, the most remembered, the biggest you’d ever live – he never used to believe it. But now he more than believed it, he understood it.

 

Overwhelmed with emotions, he found himself wanting to shout them out. But Yuuri was too scared of what Viktor might think or do. He wasn’t ready to let the other know what he thought, and yet the words were bubbling inside his chest. Ren pushed up, thinking of a better compromise. As they settled into a gentle sway, the music dying down, Yuuri whispered in his mother tongue, “Watashi wa anata ga daisukidesu.”

 

Viktor’s smile faltered for a little while as he watched Yuuri’s mask, still steadily leading the dance. It was clear he didn’t understand what the other was saying at all, and wanted to ask why he felt the need to change from English. But there must have been something in Yuuri’s voice, something desperate that didn’t want to have to answer a difficult question.

 

Viktor instead gave him a softer smile, one of the softest Yuuri had ever seen. “Ty vyglyadish' tak krasivo,” he said, the language rolling off of his tongue so easily.

 

“What?” Yuuri asked, his voice barely a whisper, Viktor’s voice as he spoke his native language causing his mind to jumble.

 

Viktor merely smirked. “I’ll tell you what I said if you tell me what you said.”

 

“Oh, I didn’t know I was saying anything,” Yuuri lied. “I’m sorry, I got lost in the moment. I forgot.”

 

Viktor took that moment to surprise Yuuri with a spin. Yuuri yelped but trusted Viktor not to let him go. “Then I won’t tell you what I said!”

 

“That’s not fair!”

 

Viktor merely chuckled as a reply, not so much dancing as spinning and dipping Yuuri all over the balcony, the music lost to them now. And Yuuri found himself loving every second of it, the laughter racing from his chest, joyful tears springing from the sides of his eyes. He fell deeper and deeper in love with the man, and by the end of the night, he knew he was doomed.

 

But for the moment, he couldn’t care less. He loved the way that Viktor held him tightly, guiding him. He loved the way that the balcony was all theirs, only theirs to make memories out of, only theirs to appreciate. He loved the heat radiating off of Viktor, like his own personal sun. He loved the way Viktor set his heart on fire.

 

At the back of his mind, a movie plays, and he knows that this would be the point in which they take this romantic moment and make it into something more. This would be where he leaned into a kiss and Viktor would accept it, and they’d filter off into the next scene where there was nothing but love. But this wasn’t a film, and there were too many things stopping him. The mask would only get in the way, and Viktor would never accept it. And so, instead, Yuuri made himself content with continuing to dance the night away.

Chapter Text

I didn’t think that the character development was very good though, and though the plot was brilliant, it didn’t impact them.

 

Yuuri read over the words, cuddled tightly in the corner of his bed, his muscles aching nicely after a long day of training. After a second of thinking, he replied, I get that, but I personally think they didn’t need to. They were used to such situations before, how would going through it again change their development as characters?

 

The reply was almost instant, and he knew that the man on the other end was just like him, sitting somewhere comfortable, with nothing to distract them but the texts coming through. True, but they hadn’t been through something of that intensity. There should have been something that changed in them.

 

“What are you smiling at?”

 

Yuuri glanced up, seeing Phichit enter the room. He bent low and took his shoes off, then proceeded to take his coat and put it on the hanger behind the door. He was grinning at Yuuri, as if he already knew what the answer was going to be.

 

“Um, just talking to someone.”

 

Phichit’s thick eyebrow rose, a knowing smirk on his lips. He went to sit on the other side of Yuuri’s bed, close enough to Yuuri that he could feel his heat but never touching.

 

“Who?” he pestered.

 

Yuuri kept quiet, quickly typing out a reply before Phichit could interfere.

 

“Is it a certain Russian man?”

 

Yuuri leaned back against his pillows, looking anywhere but his best friend’s face. “And what if it is?”

 

Phichit squealed, “And what are you talking about?”

 

“We’re just talking about a film, nothing interesting. Nothing like what you want us to be talking about.”

 

Phichit moved to lean his head against Yuuri’s thigh, the exhaustion plain to see on his weary face. “If I had it my way, you’d have confessed by now, and Viktor would have whisked you away into a love nest.”

 

Yuuri flinched. “Oh please, Phichit, don’t continue that thought.”

 

He smiled up at Yuuri. “It’s what you deserve though.”

 

Yuuri didn’t say what he was thinking, knowing it sounded too much like a broken record. It had been the same back and forth for months now, where Yuuri would text Victor and Phichit would comment about how Yuuri should confess, or at least give the love a chance, or something. Just something better than they were doing, because he saw the way that Yuuri was getting deeper and deeper into the love, and knew where it was going to go. Right to pain, just as Yuuri was terrified of. And Yuuri would say how he didn’t mind, anything he got from Viktor was good – more than good, brilliant. It was more than he asked for and deserved.

 

And yet Phichit continued, persistent in the idea that Yuuri would see his reason and just, quote, ‘grow some balls and get on with it’.

 

Yuuri didn’t see him doing that, and if some time he did decide, then it definitely wouldn’t be soon. He wasn’t ready, as far from ready as anyone could be.

 

What about the last scene? What did you think of that? Ending satisfying enough? Yuuri asked, finding it so easy to text Viktor now. At the start, Viktor had texted out of the blue, one week after the banquet. Yuuri, in his anxiety, didn’t text back for three days. But when he did find the courage, finally, Viktor didn’t ask, didn’t make a comment. Instead, continued on as if the conversation could move with ease even after so long.

 

As time went on, as the days turned to weeks, then into months, Yuuri anticipated the texts with less anxiety and more joy. They spoke about nothing and everything every day, from their favourite films, to in-depth discussions of politics, right back to how fluffy puppies were blessings to the earth. Every conversation was saved and ingrained in Yuuri’s head, the thought that he was on borrowed time playing at the back of his mind.

 

The reply came only a minute later, I think it was fantastic, but at the same time it felt like a brilliant ending to another movie. They tied loose ends that weren’t even there.

 

I get that, the movie didn’t even make any hint that she was his daughter until the end, Yuuri replied.

 

“Think this’ll be the year?”

 

Yuuri turned his attention back to Phichit, seeing the boy playing on his phone. From just a glimpse, Yuuri saw some social media scrolling.

 

“This is the year for what?” Yuuri asked.

 

“That you’ll take gold from him?”

 

Yuuri thought about it for a moment. He wasn’t sure, honestly. This year, he and Celestino had pushed themselves even harder to find the perfect music, the perfect programme. He wasn’t sure if it was a winner, but he certainly felt like it had been better than last year’s. And now that he knew what was waiting for him in the Grand Prix Finals and Worlds, then he could better himself further.

 

It was only a little while until the Grand Prix Finals now, the calm before the storm. He’d steadily taken podium finishes in the rest of the series, even winning gold at the Four Continents, but he quickly found that it was… well, boring when he didn’t have Chris and Viktor to skate against. No one else seemed to want to get to know him, but instead treated him as someone they couldn’t get close to.

 

Days of exhausting training had gone by, and were to come in the time before the Finals now. He’d only gotten better, in his eyes. He knew he could be a force to reckon with, and he’d love to get a gold to add to his growing collection. Not to mention now that he was in his second season of the senior division, he knew how things went. He could be better.

 

But Phichit and Yuuri had been watching Viktor through the rest of the series, watching his National Competition and his Four Continents. Yuuri himself had done well, gaining podium finishes in every one, even with the gold in his Four Continents, but Viktor had taken gold at everything. He was brilliant, and Yuuri didn’t think this was going to be the year. He didn’t think he was good enough yet.

 

“I don’t know,” he answered. “I mean, you’ve seen Viktor’s programmes. They’re amazing.”

 

“And so are yours. You’ve come so far in only a few months.”

 

“But Viktor has so much more experience, he’s been doing this for years.”

 

“So had Chris before you took silver from him.”

 

True, Yuuri thought. It was true. He couldn’t help but feel excited though at the mention of the other two skaters. While the series so far had been exciting, it wasn’t nearly as exciting as it would have been against Viktor and Chris. He couldn’t wait to be with them, to skate against them, to prove himself again and again in front of them. Or, well, that was Ren talking really, but Yuuri had to agree.

 

Sensing that Yuuri wanted to change the subject, Phichit rolled until he was lying on his stomach. “Well, what are we going to do for your birthday? It’s the big twenty-one! We have to get you drunk.”

 

Yuuri placed his phone away, knowing that this was the type of conversation he would need all of his concentration for. “No, I’m not getting drunk. You know I have terrible blank spots when I drink, and I want to remember my big birthday.”

 

“But it’s tradition! It’s such a big birthday, you have to stick to tradition! Isn’t it like, back luck to not get drunk on your twenty-first birthday?”

 

“Phichit, no.”

 

“Then… just a little drinking?” Phichit stared up at him with puppy eyes, placing his head in his hands. “Come on.”

 

“You won’t even be old enough to drink,” Yuuri reminded him. “So what’s the fun in drinking when I’ll be the only one doing it?”

 

“Then… then we wait until the Grand Prix Final so you can drink with other people!”

 

Yuuri flinched, remembering the last time he had drunk with the skaters. From dancing and to when he woke up in his hotel room, there was a blank spot, a memory he was most likely never going to get back, and the biggest hangover he had to date. It had not been fun trying to train with that. But… but if he only drank a little, perhaps it would be fun? And it brought him a bit of a smile when he remembered that Phichit would be joining him.

 

This had been the year that his best friend made his senior debut. However, he had been beaten in the Four Continents and would not go on for the Grand Prix – something Yuuri had been saddened by immensely. He loved the idea of skating against his best friend.  But perhaps some other year. With no major competitions in the season leading up to the end of the year, Phichit had decided to come with Yuuri – without of course consulting Yuuri and Celestino before making the decision.

 

Though Yuuri had gotten closer to other skaters, two in particular, to know that a familiar face like Phichit would be there made him feel much more comfortable. He wished he had had that last year, but Phichit had been so busy with his own competitions that it was impossible.

 

“You’re really not going to let me off of this, are you?” Yuuri resigned, already ashamed of the little nightmares flashing through his mind.

 

“Nope, I’ll even get Viktor to make you drink too,” Phichit teased. “And you know you can’t say no to him.”

 

“Sometimes, I wonder why I even told you my feelings for him.”

 

“Because,” Phichit replied, looking up at Yuuri through his eyelashes, drawing out the vowels of the word and holding up his fingers, counting them down, “you love me, you know you can’t do this alone, and because you know it’s against the law for you to keep secrets from me.”

 

Yuuri grumbled a response, deciding to lift his phone again and reply to Viktor, finding safety there away from Phichit’s prying eyes.

 

“Still talking to him?”

 

“Yes.”

 

“About movies?”

 

“Yes.”

 

Silence. But only for a second, because Yuuri knew that the younger skater never could keep his mouth shut for more than that. Phichit rolled closer to Yuuri, almost until he was lying completely in the other’s lap. “Can I text something to him?”

 

Yuuri quickly pulled his phone away, snapping it right from the clutches that were moving far too fast. “No,” he said too firmly. “I know what you’re going to do, and you’re not going to ask about movies.”

“Oh come on, I’ll only take it in the direction that you’re too nervous to take it anyway.” He made another attempt at taking the phone.

 

But Yuuri was too quick, almost lurching himself off of the bed in the process. “I really don’t want you to do that!”

 

“But don’t you want to know about what he’d like to do to you? Or his reaction to what you’d like to do to him?”

 

Yuuri squealed and rushed off of the bed, holding the phone tightly to his chest. “No! No way, don’t you dare, Phichit!” He watched carefully as his best friend carefully stalked off of the bed, a deep desire and promise shining bright in his dark eyes. Yuuri took a step back when Phichit took one closer. He needed to make sure that Phichit didn’t take his phone, because he knew well that he would make good on what he was saying.

 

“What about how big he is? I could probably convince him to send a picture too.”

 

Phichit!” Yuuri gasped. “No, none of that!” His face was flaring bright red, right to the tips of his ears. He found himself pressed up against the wall, his back cold against the surface. As Phichit stalked forwards again, Yuuri hid his phone behind his back, ignoring the buzzing as Viktor replied.

 

“What about what he likes then?” Phichit giggled, clearly enjoying this far more than he was meant to be. “I mean, if he likes the same things as you-”

 

No. No taking it there! You’re not having my phone, ever!” The embarrassment was seeping in, because at the mere mention of such things, Yuuri’s mind had become overtaken. He’d never done… things before, but that wasn’t to say he didn’t have desires, or thoughts that ventured towards the subject. He’d been a teenager once, a teenager enamoured with a celebrity. And he had the access to the internet, with handfuls of time to fill. He knew a lot of things, and desired a lot of things, and Phichit – as his best friend and roommate – knew Yuuri did. But that didn’t mean he ever expected anything to come of it. Because it wasn’t.

 

Phichit stopped in the middle of their room and crossed his arms. “Okay, okay, fine,” he said. “I’ll just wait until I see him at the Grand Prix Finals.”

 

Yuuri stared back, a smirk rising in his lips. “Fine, in that case, you’re invitation to join me is revoked.”

 

Phichit gasped, his eyes growing wide as he bellowed, “No, you can’t do that! I want to go Yuuri, please, please? I’m sorry!”

 

“Promise you won’t say anything embarrassing in front of Viktor?” Yuuri couldn’t help but feel powerful, seeing the man who had teased him just seconds earlier now a victim of his own punishment.

 

After some frustration, a lip bit between his lips and narrowed eyes, Phichit roared, “Fine! Fine, whatever. Take all the fun out of it, why don’t you? I’m going to sleep, have fun talking to your boyfriend.”

 

“He’s not my boyfriend.”

 

“Not yet.”

 

***

 

There was something strange and yet brilliant about having Phichit come with him to the Grand Prix Finals. It didn’t hit Yuuri, not even as they sat beside Celestino on the plane, jetting off thousands of miles. It still didn’t hit, not even as Celestino gave Phichit and Yuuri their room key, informing them that he would be in the room beside them. Not even as they settled into their first night, staying up late watching films and eating the food from the mini fridge.

 

It hit in the early morning. As they woke early, pushing themselves to get to training as soon as the rink opened, Yuuri realised that this wasn’t like their normal routine – the routine back in Detroit or the one he and Celestino had made for competitions. This was new, ready to be built.

 

As they stepped into the rink, and as Yuuri tied his skates while Phichit watched on, he realised just how important it was that he had his friend there. It wasn’t like he didn’t know any of the other skaters now, not like his first time, and it wasn’t like his anxiety was still too strong for him, not now that Ren was formed. But it was more. He’d spent the last year alone at competitions, with just Celestino, and Phichit would send messages and pictures of good luck and congratulations.

 

But now he was here. Yuuri would get to see his friend cheer, too see the joy, the nerves, hear the words he had only ever seen over text. He and Phichit had been through a lot, and this wasn’t one of them. It was time to correct it.

 

Yuuri stepped out onto the ice, first skater as always, as Celestino and Phichit watched on.

 

Overwhelmed with joy, Yuuri found it hard to distinguish himself from Ren. The mask pressed nicely against his face, familiar, welcoming, like an old friend. He took a deep breath and let it back out, just to feel it deflect back.

 

There was no music playing. No sound but him breathing. In his mind, he counted down, and then let himself go. The music played in his head, vibrating off of his skull, each and every note memorised so vividly. He danced to it, feeling the moves in his bones, the air whip through his dark hair.

 

The step sequence of his short programme this year was harder than the last, many steps easily leading way to a trip if he wasn’t careful. That was how he had spent much of the first month practicing it, sprawled on the ice with yet another set of bruises from not being able to keep up with the timing and tripping. But as the months wove on, it became easier, easier and easier again, until it was almost as effortless as breathing.

 

It was worth it, because as he glided across the ice, skating shapes into the surface, he knew it looked amazing. If there was anything he and Ren could do, it was step sequences. Not only that though, they could spin. He stepped out of the sequence into a Biellmann spin, something he had been able to perfect only recently, enough for it to look as elegant as Celestino had wanted. It pulled on muscles Yuuri hadn’t even known he had, and yet at the same time it took his breath away. The seats blurred into lines of colours as he spun, abstract, as if he could take off at any moment or spin a hole into the ice. Now wouldn’t that be surprising, he thought. He stepped back into his sequence, ready to practice some of the other moves he had been able to add to his roster this year.

 

His training hadn’t been solely concentrated on adding moves to his roster, but rather getting better at the ones he could already do. At least, that had been Celestino’s intentions at the beginning, especially when it came to jumps. Those, though Ren had the confidence to achieve them, were still his weakest point. But as Yuuri found a lot, Ren wasn’t satisfied with the little he could do. There were only so many moves that you could keep repeating, year after year.

 

So, in the training sessions, Yuuri often found himself readying a move he had tried hundreds of times. Ones he found familiar and assuring though weren’t enough for his persona. As he skated into them, Ren took over and attempted something else, not always landing them perfectly to begin with. At first, Celestino had been angry, wanting Yuuri to warn him so that he could take the necessary precautions and talk it over with him. But soon he realised that while Yuuri was regretful and promised to always let him know what he was going to do, Ren liked to surface at odd times. After years of Yuuri allowing it to happen, it wasn’t going to change now. So instead, they asked Yuuri what he wanted to try, what he would try to achieve in the training, what he would like to add to his roster. Soon enough, they had many moves to pick from.

 

And from them, programmes began to emerge, feeling more complete than they ever had before.

 

As he skated into a triple loop, Yuuri heard his friend shouting something – he wasn’t sure what it was, but it sounded like praise. The voice alone was enough to bring a smile to Yuuri’s face, almost splitting. He felt pride well up at allowing his friend to see him like this.

 

It had been hard cheering up the younger when he hadn’t been able to make it to the Finals. There had been a little guilt as well, knowing that he’d not only managed it twice, but because he’d done it his first time. But Phichit was different from Yuuri. He was open in his moping, and he didn’t dwell on it as long. After a week of Yuuri dedicating everything he could to taking care of his friend, Phichit had perked up and commented that he would try again next year.

 

He skated into his final pose, moving his arms and legs like water, as if he breathed his programme. As if he had been practicing it for most of his life rather than the few months he had.

 

His breathing came out in shallow, hard breaths, pumping his chest like a heartbeat. He only had a moment before there were cheers – not one, as he expected from Phichit, but more. He couldn’t quite count how many, but as he turned, he saw Viktor and his coach, as well as another skater. From the way he was standing so near Viktor, their arms pressed against one another, Yuuri guessed that they knew each other. But there was something oddly familiar with the man’s face. Perhaps he knew him, or knew him as a skater that had been in the senior division before.

 

Yuuri never got used to going long periods of time before seeing Viktor again in the flesh. This time though, it seemed to have more impact. His heart raced faster, not entirely from the training, flashes of conversations they had both shared for months flaring in his mind. For only a second, he wondered if in most he had seemed a little too familiar and Viktor would try to create some distance, but the greeting smile on the Russian’s face told him otherwise. His eyes were just as bright as he remembered, boring into Yuuri’s own.

 

He only had a second to appreciate it, though, because as soon as Phichit noticed that he wasn’t the only spectator, a mischievous grin slowly grew.

 

“Phichit,” he snapped, skating to the barrier. It might have come out a little harsher than he had intended in his haste, but if it surprised Phichit, he didn’t show it. Instead, he shrugged his shoulders innocently, while his eyes shone in a tease.

 

“I wasn’t doing anything!” he defended.

 

“You were thinking something, and that’s enough,” Yuuri replied. Once he had placed his guards, he turned to Viktor, walking away the distance between them. “Hello, Viktor,” he greeted, his voice sweeter than he had given Phichit.

 

Viktor beamed down at him. “Ren!” He stepped forwards, pulling Yuuri into a tight hug that he knew he should have been ready for. It only lasted a second, too quick for Yuuri to really get lost in it. He turned to Phichit, a polite expression gracing his face. “Hello.”

 

“Ah, Viktor, this is my friend Phichit,” he introduced. “He’s a skater too, only just joined the senior division. Phichit, this is Viktor.”

 

Phichit held out a hand, a smirk on one side of his face. “I know who you are. Pleasure.”

 

“So, senior division? Do I have another newcomer to compete against?”

 

Phichit rubbed the back of his neck, looking a little sheepish. “Ah, no, I didn’t get to the Final this year. But you better look out, because the year I do, you’re in trouble.”

 

Viktor chuckled, “I’ll keep that in mind.” He stepped to the side, opening the view to the other skater. The man looked to be about the same age, a soft face and dark hair. “Ren, Phichit, this is Georgi.”

 

Yuuri took the man’s hand, shaking it firmly and asking, “You seem familiar?”

 

The man gave a small smile, “Yes, I skated against Viktor for years, but had to take the last two seasons off because of personal problems and an injury.”

 

“Need to be careful, Georgi, Ren here is a little bit more competition than you were used to before your break,” Viktor said over his shoulder at his friend. “He kicked Chris out of second place at Worlds.”

 

“I saw. Brilliant programmes,” he said.

 

Yuuri felt a little overwhelmed by the praise, but this was where Ren could really shine. He bowed deeply, replying with a head nod in Viktor’s direction, “Thank you, I hope my new programmes are enough to topple this one off this year.”

 

Georgi took Yuuri by surprise, clapping a hand on his shoulder and whispering, “I hope to see it, it’s been a long time coming.”

 

“Georgi! I’d expect that from Chris, but you’re meant to be on my side!”

 

“Sorry,” the other Russian man commented, though he looked anything but. He took his guards off and stepped onto the ice, throwing a smile at them as he went. “I get tired of seeing you bring back the golds all the time. It was time you regained your love for the sport through actual competition!”

 

“He’s so mean,” Viktor whined.

 

Yuuri cast a pointed look at Phichit, to which the Thai skater gasped, and said, “Yeah, friends always seem to be.”

 

“I am lovely,” Phichit defied.

 

“I really don’t think that would be the first words I’d use to describe you. It probably wouldn’t be in the first hundred.”

 

Instead of having the desired effect though, Phichit gleamed at the comment, asking, “Aw, you can think of that many words to describe me?”

 

“Uh, wait-”

 

“I’m taking a picture of the ice rink to put online!”

 

Before Yuuri could say more, Phichit rushed off, camera already in hand and his eyes trained on the empty part of the ice. Yuuri could already see the angles and views playing out in front of Phichit’s eyes, thinking up the best filters and borders that could complement such a single-coloured palate of the ice rink.

 

“Your friend is so-” Viktor began.

 

“Annoying? High-energy? Loud?”

 

“-nice,” he finished.

 

“Wait until you get to know him. And yours seems so-”

 

With a smirk, Viktor interrupted, “Spacey? Also loud? Dramatic?”

 

“-lovely,” Yuuri finished with a laugh, finding it near impossible not to feel cheery at seeing Viktor’s face. He doubted that even in his worst time, that whatever he felt down he would always brighten upon seeing Viktor’s cheer. The man’s expressions were infectious, and after years of mimicking, Yuuri couldn’t help but copy.

 

There was silence for a second as they regarded each other. Viktor looked happy to see him, his smile gentle and his bright blue eyes never looking away from Yuuri. Yuuri couldn’t help but feel euphoric from the thought, and it only escalated when Viktor said something.

 

“It’s really good to see you.”

 

Embarrassed, as if he had been caught out by Viktor, he replied, “We’ve spoken to each other for months.”

 

“Yeah, and while that’s nice, it’s also nice to see your face.” He chuckled, and amended, “Or, well, mask. But to hear your voice too, to see you properly.”

 

“Ah, really?” Yuuri picked at his training clothes. He didn’t think he would ever be able to say how much that alone meant to him, how much those words made him feel. Sometimes, in his darkest moments, he wondered if he was actually in love with Viktor at all, or if he had mistaken it for something else. But it was times like these, especially when he was faced with Viktor’s brilliant presence, that he knew he hadn’t mistaken it and could never. He was hopelessly in love with the other man, and he still didn’t know what to do about it. “Thank you,” he replied. “I feel the same. It’s really good to see you too. I’ve missed you.”

 

One of the many things that Yuuri had come to know about the real Viktor, the parts of him that every interview and media attention seemed to leave out was that the man was very touchy-feely. Yuuri was more than ready when Viktor leaned forwards and pulled him closer, hugging him tightly to his body. Another thing he had learned was just how perfect those hugs were – warm, comforting, screaming safety, and in the time he had learned of his feelings, Yuuri clung to those interactions with everything he had. Because who knew when he’d next get one.

 

“Have you gotten taller?” Viktor asked.

 

“Huh?” As if it would help, Yuuri looked down at himself. He didn’t feel any taller. His growth spurt had been late coming, so late that Yuuri wondered if he was still growing at all. But as he looked up, he noticed that he could hug Viktor and place his chin on the other man’s shoulder comfortably, something he had had to reach up to do before. “I guess I have.”

 

“Please don’t get any taller.”

 

Yuuri laughed at the whine in the other man’s voice and asked, “Why? Worried it’ll give me an advantage in some of the jumps?”

 

“No,” Viktor whispered, hugging Yuuri tighter to him. “You’re the perfect height right now to hug. Any taller and your head won’t slot by mine as well as it does.”

 

Yuuri was a little ashamed at how easily it made his heart race. He swore, Viktor was going to be the death of him. Before, he never understood what people meant when they said that, especially when they said it about someone else, and especially when it came to love. But now he understood too well.

 

“Plus, it’s going to make me feel old. In my eyes, you’re still the young boy who had to always look up to me.”

 

Yuuri laughed again, finding it bubble up so easily, as it always did when it came to Viktor. “Well, you’ll have to get that thought out of your head soon. I’m nearly twenty-one.” Yuuri found himself suddenly propelled back a step, Viktor’s hands clutching at the sides of his arms. At this angle, Yuuri could see what Viktor meant. He didn’t have to look up much anymore.

 

“When’s your birthday?” Viktor asked, a little too firmly.

 

“Uh, November 29th,” Yuuri replied, shooting out the answer as if he was being interrogated.

 

There was a second of silence as Viktor thought it over, counting down the days in his mind. As it finally struck, he gasped and pulled Yuuri closer once again, his nose almost touching Yuuri’s mask. “But that’s only in a few days?”

 

“Yes?”

 

Viktor seemed at a loss of what to say. His eyes snapped around, as if searching for something, but his coach shouted something to him in Russian. When Viktor didn’t reply, his coach screeched it again, and Viktor turned to spit something Russian back. He turned back to Yuuri once he had finished, and insisted, “We have to do something! Twenty-one is important. We can’t celebrate with loads of drinks, we have training, but I’ll think of something!”

 

“No, wait, Viktor, you really don’t have to-”

 

“I want to!” Viktor let go of Yuuri’s arms, rushing over to his coach, and threw over his shoulder, “We’ll celebrate something properly after the Finals!”

 

Yuuri made the plan then and there to never let Phichit and Viktor in the same room alone, because of course one of them would bring up his birthday, and of course they were similar in the way that they would both want to create something big and massive for his birthday. Yuuri would be happy with a small get-together, a little celebration with games or chat or just something low-scale. Phichit, on the other hand, had been talking about the big two one for a while. And now, it seemed, Viktor wanted in on the action.

 

 It seemed that it was just those types he attracted. All of the people he got to know were-

 

He halted that thought as soon as he realised what he was thinking. Chris. Chris was another friend that was the exact same, someone who too would want to make a big spectacle out of it all. A shudder ran through him. Yuuri made himself a promise then to do everything he could to make sure the three would not end up in the same room together alone. In fact, throw Celestino into the mix as well. Who knew what he was planning.

 

As if beckoned, Celestino told him to take to the ice and begin his training again. Yuuri complied, wanting to better himself again and again, Ren rising against the challenge as he saw Viktor practicing jumps on his end. He found himself a model to Phichit’s endless pictures, his friend cheering at how good a picture he had taken.

 

“Oh my god, Ren, I make you look so good!” Phichit shouted.

 

Yuuri ignored the comments, hiding his chuckles beneath his mask, and decided to concentrate on the movements of his skates on the ice. With the music in his mind once more, he trained all of his energy into his practiced programme. He knew this day was just going to fly by.

 

***

 

“I feel like action,” Phichit announced as they arrived at their hotel room. He threw his bag onto the bed, flopping down after it. “Or are you feeling more like a romcom after today?”

 

“After today?” Yuuri asked, carefully placing his own bag down beside the door. Once the door was firmly closed, he slipped his mask off, feeling the cool air hit his face.

 

Phichit cast him a smirk and a wink. “After seeing your loverboy, I mean.”

 

Yuuri blushed deeply and clutched the mask to his face. “N-No! I’m fine with an action, no romcoms!”

 

“If you say so.”

 

They set up the laptop before them, playing one of the complementary action films the hotel provided. Half an hour in, his phone buzzed.

 

“Speaking of loverboy,” Phichit sang.

 

Yuuri decided to elbow his friend as an answer, but true enough, Viktor’s name was the contact that came up.

 

Hey! What are you up to? It read. Yuuri held the phone close, typing out a quick reply as the film played out before him. Phichit was leaning close to him, his head on Yuuri’s shoulder. Yuuri, knowing his friend well, knew that Phichit would have lost interest in the film too, deciding to instead monitor Yuuri’s reply.

 

His suspicions were confirmed when his best friend said, “Make him jealous.”

 

Yuuri furrowed his eyebrows. “Make him jealous?”

 

“Yeah. Clearly he wants your attention, otherwise he wouldn’t be texting you. Say you’re with your best friend, having fun, just the two of us, and how much you’ve missed me. See what he replies.”


“I’m not writing that, Phichit,” Yuuri replied, quickly sending off a quick text of Just watching a film with Phichit, how about you? “We have a good thing going, and I don’t want to ruin it just because I was curious.”

 

“But it wouldn’t be ruining it, it’s just trying to make him jealous,” Phichit pushed. “It’s a good tester to see how he feels about you.”

 

“I already know how he feels about me.”

 

“And what’s that?”

 

“We’re just friends,” Yuuri said, finding it hard to get the words out from the lump in his throat. “He’s really kind and has been so good to me, but that’s it. And I’m not expecting him to give me a chance just because he’s like that.”

 

“I think he feels more than that.”

 

“You’ve only met him today,” Yuuri defended. “And you’re biased. You want him to like me because that would make me happy.” The phone buzzed in his hand, indicating an incoming text message. Viktor was apparently getting ready to go to dinner with Yakov, his coach, and Georgi. Yuuri texted out a quick reply, telling him to have fun and stuff his face with as much expensive food as he could. “But you don’t have to worry, Phichit, I’m happy enough having him as a friend. Having him texting me. Having him just being nice to me. I never expected to even get this far, honestly. I mean, after shutting the door in his face the first time we met, I expected he would ignore me completely. But he didn’t, because he’s nice. He made the effort to get to know me.”

 

“Send him a picture.”

 

Yuuri found his breath lodge in his chest as he tried to make sense of the demand. “What?”

 

Phichit sat up and faced Yuuri, his smile no longer in place. His eyes were serious, dark and intense, a look Yuuri had only seen overcome the boy when he was skating. “It won’t be of your face. Just send him a picture of us watching a film and see how he replies.”

 

“How does that help anything-”

 

“Just trust me, Yuuri, if anyone knows anything about pictures, it’s me,” Phichit declared, the smile rising slightly. “Just trust me. Okay?”

 

As Yuuri thought about it, his answer verging more on the denial, Phichit snapped forward and took the phone from his hands.

 

“Just get in the position I want you to be in, and trust me. I’ll do all the picture taking!”

 

Yuuri resigned himself to being Phichit’s puppet, leaning back against the wall beside the bed. Phichit slotted himself closer on his side, angled the laptop so that it was perfectly playing at the bottom of their feet, and moved Yuuri’s legs until theirs were intertwined. He quickly snapped a picture of their legs before the laptop, the low lighting making the colour of the screen stand out.

 

If there was one thing that Yuuri could say about Phichit, it was that the boy was brilliant at taking photos. The saying was that a photo could speak a thousand words, but he always saw millions in Phichit’s. With what seemed like little effort, Phichit had the whole world captured in a single still shot.

 

“Perfect!” Phichit gasped and sent it off before Yuuri could say anything. “There we go, it looks just like we’re nice and cosy, watching a film together.”

 

“That is what we’re doing.”

 

“Yes, but now Viktor can see it.”

 

They fell back into silence, watching the film as they waited for the reply to come. But with every minute that passed, Yuuri grew increasingly agitated. What if that was a step too far? He knew it wasn’t anything risky, his face was out of it, and it wasn’t like he wasn’t wearing any clothes. But what if Viktor saw the intertwined legs and thought Yuuri was just… well, he didn’t know. That he was being too forward? But he was with Phichit, sending one of him alone would have been more forward right? Or would Viktor see its intensions and think he didn’t want anything to do with him anymore? Just what if? What if everything?

 

But the reply came after five minutes, and Yuuri found his anxiety reaching new levels. He felt the buzz, but didn’t look. What if it was what he feared and Viktor was asking him to delete his number? Or said something weird? There were too many what ifs.

 

“Yuuri, your phone.”

 

“I know.”

 

“Want me to check it first?”

 

Yuuri numbly nodded, handing his phone as his eyes stayed glued to the laptop. There was an explosion on the surface, the screen overtaken by orange and yellows. His heart beat far too quickly.

 

Then he heard Phichit laugh. “Oh, Yuuri, you have nothing to worry about.” He handed the phone back screen down, giving Yuuri the chance to look at his own pace.

 

When Yuuri did look, he felt his cheeks blush brightly.

 

The message read, Aw, cute! I wish I was there too :’(. But that wasn’t the only thing that made Yuuri’s face flush. Attached was a picture, and what a lovely picture it was. Viktor had taken a photo of himself in the hotel room mirror, one that reached the bottom of the floor to the top of the ceiling. In frame, he stood in a fitted three-piece suit, expensive and clearly Italian, with a dark thin tie and a golden pocket square. Expensive leather shoes donned his feet, propped nicely with one leg behind the other. He was winking, a smirk on one side of his face, the other eye looking straight at the camera.

 

“Save it,” Phichit said, almost desperately. “You need to save that to your phone. In fact, better yet, save it as your home screen. Or lock screen. Or both.”

 

“No, Phichit, that’s weird,” Yuuri chastised, all the while thinking how it would look as a poster back in his room in Hasetsu. He replied something quick, ignoring Phichit watching over his shoulder, about how good it looked and to have fun at the dinner, then put his phone away. All the while, he couldn’t help but feel giddy. It really had been a better response than he expected, and to get a picture out of it as well? Well, now wasn’t that brilliant? Yuuri knew that Viktor didn’t know what he was doing to the other man, and if Yuuri had any power he would make sure he never would. But for the moment, he could revel in the excitement.

 

***

 

Yuuri’s birthday fell just before the Grand Prix Final this year, as opposed to in the middle as it had before. It meant he could actually dedicate some time and thought to it, to be able to phone his parents and this year, he could celebrate with Phichit.

 

Yuuri woke up to his birthday with an odd feeling. He grumbled, rousing from the slumber, feeling something heavy on his stomach. He blinked his eyes open, yawning deeply, then jumped out of his skin when he saw a face just inches away from his own.

 

Phichit was sitting on his stomach, a grin reaching every corner of his face as he leaned forwards. As soon as he saw Yuuri was awake, he cheered, “Happy birthday, Yuuri!” From somewhere, he took out a party popper, exploding it until the confetti gently fell onto Yuuri’s face.

 

“Phichit?” Yuuri rolled until he could look at the clock. It was seven in the morning. Yuuri didn’t have trouble usually waking up early, but Celestino had said that because of his birthday, he could get an extra hour of sleep, then go to training the same time as the others usually did. Yuuri planned on spending that extra hour asleep and dreaming of whatever came to mind.

 

Phichit jumped from the bed and began to tug on Yuuri’s arm. “C’mon Yuuri, you have to open the presents I’ve got you! I’ve been hiding them under the bed the whole time we’ve been here, and I’ve been dying to give them to you!”

 

However, clearly Yuuri wasn’t going to be getting the extra hour to himself. He resigned himself to this fact, and rose from the bed. “Okay, okay,” he said, more cheering himself on than assuring his best friend. He rubbed the sleep away from his face, and found a parcel, about the size of his hand, on his lap, two more waiting in Phichit’s arms.

 

Opening them all slowly, he found his best friend had given him a notebook drawn with cartoon katsudons over the cover, new skating guards and, more amazingly, a framed photo of the both of them. It was a recent one, taken when they had gone a weekend trip to explore the area of America around Detroit after Worlds. It had been one of the best weekends of Yuuri’s life.

 

Behind them on the photo, a backdrop of cliffs and a waterfall coloured the horizon. They stood in front, arms around one another’s shoulders, bright smiles on their faces. It was one of his most treasured photos, not only because it was one he actually looked good in, but because while Phichit took many photos of each other all the time, this one was accompanied with bright memories, feelings, something other than a quick camera shot.

 

He hugged it close, feeling the sharp edges of the simple wooden frame and the way his heart beat against the glass.

 

“Phichit, this is beautiful,” he said. He knew he’d need to keep it hidden until they got home, for fear someone might see his face, but that was fine. He could hide it in his bag and then give it a place of honour in his room back in Detroit, to then find its way to Japan whenever he set back home permanently. “Thank you.”

 

Phichit gave him a soft smile. “I know there’s loads of photos of us anyway, but I thought you needed one in a frame, rather than online or in your phone. Especially one without the mask.”

 

“It’s like you knew what I wanted before I even realised it myself,” Yuuri laughed.

 

“Hey, that’s my job as your best friend!” Phichit quickly got rid of the bright red wrapping paper, disposing of it in the bin. “I know Celestino has some things for you. But he said he’ll give them to you later, after training. Speaking of, what do you want to do after training? Want to go out?”

 

Although it was a question, Yuuri knew that it wasn’t meant as one. Going out was already on the cards, already on the schedule according to Phichit. Yuuri wouldn’t be surprised if the whole day had already been planned.

 

“Nothing too hard,” Yuuri begged. “I really can’t afford to get drunk before the Finals.”

 

Phichit waved the comment away. “Yeah, yeah, okay. But still need a drink, it is your twenty-first.”

 

He seemed to like reminding him of that, Yuuri thought.  “Fine,” he gave in. “But like I said, nothing too hard. I have a competition to win.”

 

Phichit beamed and cuddled Yuuri closer. “Yes, you do! If you’re going to win any, it has to be the one I’m at!”

 

“Then hurry up and qualify,” Yuuri pushed, smiling back. “So then you’ll be out there on the same ice as me.”

 

***

 

Twenty – first birthday. It should have been different. In the eyes of the world, Yuuri was a proper adult, able to do a lot of things he never used to be able to. In most countries now he could drink. He was old enough to take charge of his own life, make decisions despite what others thought. And in some cases, Yuuri did feel older. But he’d been going alone to other countries since he was young, his freedom there already. He’d been drinking earlier than most, whether it was with Phichit in their room or a sneaky drink in the ice castle with Yuko.

 

He knew that most people around the world would be spending their day to get ready for the night, the first night of their growing adult life. The night promised drinking, fun, emotions, stories that would be told for years and years. Of course, it wasn’t without its own embarrassment. Then the next day would be spent reminiscing over the memories that they did remember, and then asking around about what happened in the blank spots, all while nursing one of the biggest hangovers that they would ever go through.

 

But this didn’t feel different. After opening the presents, there wasn’t much more to his birthday that Yuuri expected. Phichit mentioned making the day for him, to do the things he wanted to do. But they had training, just like every other day, and it wasn’t like Yuuri didn’t enjoy it. He didn’t want all the attention, didn’t want the other skaters to know, just wanted to get on with the day and enjoy it his own quiet way.

 

Being a November baby meant he often fell on certain celebrations, depending on the country. In some, it was the lead up to Christmas – be it extremely early – or fireworks, or as he found now was the lead up to major competitions. His birthday always fell in on a busy time, so he didn’t often find himself in the middle of a big celebration that centred primarily on him. Of course his family made a big deal, but there was only so much they could do when the inn was so busy. Not that Yuuri minded at all. He’d rather no fuss, just a few exchanges of presents and the knowledge that the ones he loved, loved him back.

 

However, it seemed that Yuuri attracted the people that did want to make a fuss. Yuuri didn’t understand why, but none of his friends seemed to be the same calm personality that he could be. No, instead every single one of them liked being loud and ‘hassle’ was their middle names.

 

Phichit, of course, was perhaps the king of them all.

 

As soon as they entered the rink, the younger skater spotted some of the older skaters, including Chris, Viktor and Georgi leaning against the barrier.

 

Yuuri knew immediately what was happening when he noticed Phichit’s eyes gleam. “No,” he whispered sternly. “Phichit, I swear-”

 

“I’m giving you an opportunity!”

 

“An opportunity for what?” Yuuri hissed. “I don’t need any opportunities!”

 

Phichit gave him a look that said he believed differently. “Oh, you do. And I’m going to make sure that on this very special day, you get a very special opportunity.”

 

As Phichit rushed off, Yuuri reached for him, but he felt the soft slide of the younger’s top material on the tip of his fingertips as he escaped. There was nothing more he could do, and he watched helplessly as Phichit rushed to the group.

 

“What was that about?” Celestino asked, walking level with Yuuri.

 

“Nothing.” At least he wanted it to be nothing. He watched it carefully, saw the three older skaters turn to the smaller one and smile as Phichit waved his announcement, then pointed backwards at Yuuri. Yuuri looked down as he felt another three sets of eyes turn to him. “He’s just making a fuss,” he told his coach.

 

“I didn’t know he was so close to those three.”

 

“He’s not, but Phichit can make friends with anyone.”

 

Celestino chuckled. “He must have been a really troublesome child.” There was a quiet moment, then he said, “Oh, it seems they’re coming over.”

 

“Oh no,” Yuuri muttered. He could hear their footsteps, their chatter, coming closer. Yuuri wanted to cower. He didn’t like the attention. In a split second, he wondered if Ren did. He loved the attention when it was out on the ice, when it came to the competition and ice skating. But did he like it when it came to this? To attention like this? He didn’t know. But he did know that Ren was confident. He looked up, seeing them already so close.

 

Phichit stepped close to him, hugging his arm close, support clearly written in his body language. “It’s Ren’s big birthday!”

 

“Phichit-”

 

“And he doesn’t like too much bother being made about it, but it’s not fair that he doesn’t get a sufficient amount of best wishes from people he’s been competing against for a while now.”

 

As Chris opened his mouth, Yuuri rushed to say, “Really it’s alright, you don’t need to say anything or be forced into it!”

 

But Chris ignored him. He rested his hand on Yuuri’s shoulder, standing on his other side. “Twenty-one, now that’s a big birthday, Ren! I remember mine, don’t you, Viktor? Well, actually I don’t remember a lot of it, but it was a good birthday from what I do. Drank the whole day and night!”

 

“Woke up in a stranger’s house while they were off on holiday, a toilet seat glued to your chest, dead phone after sixty-three missed calls from me, who you lost halfway through the night,” Viktor chuckled. “Yes, what an interesting night.”

 

“Hey, you woke up in a public toilet on yours!”

 

Viktor ignored the comment, and smiled at Yuuri. “Happy birthday! Sorry you have to spend it training though.”

 

Yuuri shrugged. “That’s fine, I don’t mind.”

 

“Hey, I have an idea,” Chris said suddenly, a grin splitting his face. “Ren, get your skates on. Viktor, come here.”

 

Yuuri cast a suspicious look towards Phichit, worried that he had said something when he’d initially gone to talk to him. But his friend shrugged, smiled as if this was too much fun to watch, and dragged Yuuri to a bench to don his skates. Yuuri watched as Chris and Viktor whispered about something close to the barrier, worry lining his stomach with every rushed word they shot behind smiling lips.

 

Don’t worry about it, Yuuri thought as he laced up his skates. He didn’t like surprises, again a reason why he didn’t want his birthday to be made such a fuss of, but there was a thrill that shot up his spine. It seemed that Ren did. Yuuri contemplated for a second where he must have gotten that trait, who he had taken it from. Phichit liked surprises, but he didn’t ever remember incorporating that consciously. After a while, Yuuri just had to admit that Ren had become so filled with layers that sometimes he just couldn’t pick them apart and figure them out.

 

Now wasn’t that ironic? He made Ren with the sole, simple purpose of helping his confidence. Over the years though, he constructed layers upon layers on Ren, carefully placing them, gently forming someone that was just nearly real for him, and now he had become so filled with life inside of his mind he could barely keep up. If he didn’t know Ren so well, he’d have probably been intimidated.

 

Once done, the skates firmly around his feet, he was beckoned by Chris and Viktor. He hesitated for just a second before Phichit pushed him forwards with a gentle urge and a whisper of, “It’s going to be fine. It’s going to be fun.”

 

It wasn’t that, Yuuri was more worried about what ‘it’ was. As he stepped forwards, Chris and Viktor rushed forwards, both grabbing one of Yuuri’s hands. They quickly threw his guards away, and before Yuuri knew it, he was on the ice.

 

At first he wasn’t sure what was happening. It just felt like training, being on the ice with who he knew were his top competitors. But that thought only lasted for a second, up until he noticed that Chris and Viktor hadn’t let go of his hands.

 

“Technically, it’s still training if we’re on the ice,” Chris supplied, as if he had been reading Yuuri’s mind. “So it doesn’t matter how we train, right?”

 

With those parting words, he nodded to Viktor over Yuuri’s shoulder. Yuuri didn’t have time to wonder what was happening before he felt Viktor let go and Chris grip both of his hands. Yuuri was about to ask, the words rising through his throat, when suddenly they were spinning. The white flashed around him, dazzled until they were a blur of lines, the lights flickering through the eyes of his mask. The words and his air lodged in his mouth as he clung to Chris, feeling his balance falter.

 

As soon as he gained it, Chris let go of one hand, changed direction, until Yuuri was spinning around the man alone. Every second, Chris appeared and disappeared from view, his handle on Yuuri’s one hand a reassurance.

 

“Keep your balance,” Chris reminded, and then Yuuri found than his hand was missing. It only took a second for his mind to register that he was spinning across the ice by himself, seeing Chris get further and further away from him, and it only took a second for him to worry what was going to happen.

 

But then there was a gentle touch, a firm build that supported him, and he stopped spinning to see Viktor smiling down at him. Yuuri had again only a second to regain his breath before Viktor took both of his hands and took the lead in gliding them to pick up speed around the outer edge of the rink.

 

In the calmness of it, Yuuri had time to properly think. He saw what they were doing, trying to urge him to dance with them on the ice. Or, well, not so much dancing as throwing him around. Just something fun to do rather than training for his big day. As he looked up to see Viktor grinning, beaming as if the smile itself was dull compared, and as he turned to see Chris steadily waiting in the centre of the ice, a big grin on his own lips, Yuuri’s heart swelled.

 

That was until Viktor said, “I’m going to lift you.”

 

“Wait, what-” Yuuri didn’t have time to finish his sentence before he felt Viktor’s hands move from his own to under his arms, quickly finding their place before he lifted Yuuri high. “Wha!” he shouted as he felt his feet leave the ice, his trust completely placed in Viktor, his balance all over the place.

 

It felt different from the weightless feeling when he jumped. This felt heavier, more worrying. Of course, Viktor seemed to want to make it even more stressful by beginning to spin with Yuuri still in the air.

 

“Whatever you do, don’t drop me!” Yuuri shouted, holding a vice-like grip on Viktor’s arms.

 

Viktor laughed. “I’m not going to drop you.”

 

The lift must have only been a few seconds, and yet it felt like an eternity in Yuuri’s mind. And, though he wouldn’t say it out loud, he had to admit that there was something quite nice about the feeling, about trusting someone else so completely, about… well, if he had to put it simply, being in Viktor’s arms.

 

He let out a deep breath when his skates hit the ice once more, and with given only a second to calm himself before he was being spun back towards Chris. As soon as Chris had a hold on him once more, he dipped Yuuri until his knees bent so deeply and his head was nearly touching the ice.

 

On the outside, Yuuri knew that some of these moves were ones he had seen in pair skating before. However, when he was in the middle of them, it felt more like he was at the mercy of the two men who clearly had the time of their lives teasing him.

 

They continued as such for a while, Yuuri being passed between Chris and Viktor, being spun, dipped and lifted until he didn’t know where he was or what day it was, until everything spiralled into nothing but the sound of their skating and his breathless laughter. And not once did they drop him, not once did he fear that they didn’t have him. He was amazed how much he trusted them, so completely.

 

Somewhere along the way, Phichit joined, donning his own skates and dragging Yuuri away until they were spinning along the ice edge, giggling as the world twirled endlessly. Yuuri could hear Celestino laughing and demanding that they all treat him nicely, that he had a big competition to come out on top of in a few days. He was also aware of hearing Viktor’s coach grumbling something when he felt the play was going on a little too long.

 

There was no finesse to it, no structured grace, no routine per se. A combination of spins and playful leaps. Fun was the one word that came to Yuuri’s mind. Hardly professional, and yet he couldn’t care less. And when it came time to stop, when the other skaters began to filter into the rink for their practice, Yuuri wanted to chase just one little bit more. So he turned the tables, grabbing Chris’ and Viktor’s hands, chuckling when he noticed them grab Phichit’s hands until they formed a circle, and encouraged them all to do one last spin until the circle was twirling so fast it was hard to see who was in control anymore.

 

Twenty one. Yuuri was now twenty one, and he had just spent a good half hour doing something that young children did before they learned to properly construct programmes. He wouldn’t have spent it any other way.

 

***

 

He didn’t know how it happened honestly, but he liked to blame Phichit. It was always Phichit’s fault.

 

After training, they had returned to their hotel room, where Celestino had gifted Yuuri some films, a gift card to a clothing store back in Detroit, and – Yuuri’s personal favourite – a brand new professional Japanese jacket to wear to competitions. It was a plain blue and black, but fit snuggly, had his country flag sewn in, and was so comfortable Yuuri wanted to sleep in it.

 

They had a lovely meal in the restaurant below, then as Yuuri was about to ask Phichit if he wanted to watch a film before they headed to sleep, there was a knock on the door.

 

Phichit had jumped up, ordered Yuuri put his mask back on, and opened the door. And that was how Yuuri found himself here now, on the bed with the laptop flaring before them with a film, snuggled under a blanket with not only Phichit, but Chris on Phichit’s left and Viktor much too close on his right.

 

It really wasn’t how he expected to spend the night of his birthday. He thought the impromptu dancing on ice that morning had been enough, but Phichit was always full of surprises.

 

Phichit had his head leaned on Yuuri’s shoulder, his breathing deepening and Yuuri knew it was only a matter of time before he nodded to sleep. The room was dark, the only light source was the laptop, and Yuuri didn’t know what time it was but he knew it was late. He also knew that Viktor’s body was fitting tightly against his, their sides touching from their shoulders to their ankles, their thighs warm and Viktor’s hand resting close to his knee.

 

Before long, Phichit was breathing deeply, and though Yuuri couldn’t see Chris over Phichit’s head, there was a suspicious and soft snore coming from that direction. As he turned to see if Viktor had fallen asleep as well, he found his face much too close. And Viktor was awake, very awake, awake enough for their eyes to connect.

 

Yuuri didn’t know how he got here, or how it happened, but that didn’t mean he didn’t like it. He liked it very much. He’d never admit it to Phichit though, he was worried the younger one’s ego would explode.

 

“They’re asleep?” Viktor whispered, nodding towards the other two.

 

Yuuri nodded. “Yeah. Phichit’s always like that. Give him a warm place and he’ll fall asleep.”

 

“Chris too. As soon as it’s dark in a room, he’ll fall asleep. You wouldn’t believe how many times he’s fallen asleep when we’ve gone to the cinema.”

 

Yuuri laughed, imaging the man in a dimly lit cinema. The image brought a louder chuckle from his throat, and he quickly slipped his hands under his mask to cover his mouth. Once he was sure it had gone, he took them away.

 

Viktor nudged closer. “Happy birthday.”

 

“You already said that,” Yuuri whispered, grinning. “And it’s late, I doubt it’s still my birthday.”

 

“I know, but I’m saying it anyway.” Viktor gave a quick wink and said, “And you just wait for the banquet. Chris has already said he’s going to get you hammered.”

 

Yuuri sighed. “Phichit’s said so too.” In an attempt to avoid the topic, Yuuri turned on Viktor. “So what is this about you waking up in a public bathroom when it was your twenty-first?”

 

Viktor dragged a hand down his face, groaning, “I was hoping you’d forget about that.”

 

“No, and I want to hear about it.”

 

“Well, it’s… predictable. We drank so much, the last thing I remembered was drinking in a bar with Chris and some others, and trying to climb on stage with the DJ-”

 

What? Did you make it?”

 

“I don’t know, I blacked out then. I remember waking up in a public bathroom, a massive hangover – and I mean, splitting headache, vomit at the back of my throat, missing my shirt, three empty glasses next to me, and a bar stool I think I stole. All I know is that that public bathroom was seven miles from the bar I remember being in, and twelve hours had passed.”

 

Yuuri could barely contain his laughter, needing to push his mask against his mouth just to still it a little. “Oh my god. Where was Chris?”

 

“When he finally answered his phone, I found him in a doorway to an apartment building a block down the road. Everyone else we seemed to have lost somewhere during the night. I think out of five of us, one made it home.” Viktor was watching Yuuri’s eyes through the mask, the way they opened and closed, tiny tears of laughter forming in the corners. “I didn’t get over than hangover for two days.”

 

“As funny as that is, that is not going to happen to me.”

 

Viktor chuckled. “Oh really? From the little I do know about you being drunk, is that you don’t need any convincing to drink more.”

 

“Hey, you’re meant to be responsible. You’re older than me.”

 

“And it’s your twenty-first. Everyone deserves a birthday they don’t remember.”

 

The film before them filtered to the end, giving them a suggestion on what they should watch next. Yuuri leaned forwards and clicked it, knowing that he wouldn’t be sleeping any time soon. Though he knew he should have, he didn’t feel sleepy and, selfishly, he liked having Viktor’s company to himself, cuddled in the dark. At least like this he could convince himself that there was something slightly more than friendship.

 

“The media see you as a professional, polite and responsible skater. How have they not seen pictures of that night?”

 

Viktor rubbed the back of his neck, looking away with slight embarrassment. “Well, my coach is pretty good with handling them. If there’s something he doesn’t want turn up in the media, it doesn’t.”

 

“That’s handy.”

 

They fell into silence then, half watching the film playing before them. Somewhere along the way, Yuuri began to feel tired, his head dipping and his eyes drooping. From the way that Viktor was leaning his head back against the pillow and his eyes were glazing over, Yuuri knew he was feeling the same.

 

Tired Yuuri and Ren never mixed well. Just as drunk Yuuri and Ren never did. Without Yuuri being aware, Ren had free reign to be bold. Ren liked to take advantage. That was how Yuuri found himself turning his body slightly, resting the side of his head against Viktor’s shoulder. He paused for a breath, waiting to see Viktor’s response.

 

He almost exploded with joy when Viktor leaned his own head gently on top, careful to avoid the mask. Encouraged, Yuuri slipped his arm around Viktor’s and hugged it close, curling in a little more, a smile hidden behind his mask.

 

Just as he was drifting off, the film fading out into a murmur, he was aware of Viktor’s fingertips smoothing over the skin of his hand, so close they could have been holding. The touch was gentle, warm and everything Yuuri wanted. Today, he had to admit, had been wonderful, leaving him euphoric for more than one reason – Phichit was here with him, he had received wonderful gifts, had a lovely meal, danced with Chris and Viktor, and was now cuddled with the man who held so much of his love.

 

He fell asleep the happiest he had been for a very long time.

Chapter Text

This Grand Prix Final seemed to be the calmest Yuuri had been to.

 

He narrowed down the reasons to only two – one, being that he had been here before, and that compared to Worlds, this competition seemed a scale smaller. But also, he felt so comfortable in Ren’s skin now, firmly believing that Ren was near perfect in his construction, that Yuuri was safe within him.

 

If anything, he felt excitement as he walked in to see the competition beginning. The cameras were filming, photographs flickering and clicking, flashes of lights filtering through the rink. Commentators’ voices buzzed through the air, and the ice was occupied by skaters trying to warm up. Everything was in full swing and it brought life to Yuuri.

 

They found a bench to sit at, where they placed their things and Yuuri laced up his skates. He eyed up the ice, feeling his muscles screaming for a good warm up. Phichit sat beside him, almost thrumming with excitement.

 

“Oh my god,” Phichit whispered almost desperately, clenching his fists and his eyes flickering over the scene so quickly it caused Yuuri worry. “This is what it’s like? It’s so different from seeing it on TV. It’s so different from even Juniors! The atmosphere is immense!”

 

It had been so long since Juniors for Yuuri that he didn’t really remember the difference. But he nodded along and said, “I need to go and warm up. Make sure you don’t go destroying things.” Before Phichit could make some throwback comment, Yuuri made his way onto the ice, removing his guards and gliding onto it. Immediately, he felt at peace, feeling the steady slide beneath him, holding so many of his hours, so much of his life.

 

He eyed an opening near the right corner and marked it as his. It took him a moment to then notice a familiar face in the spot behind him. Georgi was leaning against the barrier, accepting a quick swig of water from his coach. When he noticed Yuuri, he gave wave and what Yuuri thought was a quick good luck that was drowned out by the voices all around. Yuuri wished the same, and practiced one of the more complex step sequences of his programme.

 

He was amazed at how much he had grown in the last year, seeing how much more complex this Short Programme and Free Skate were in comparison to his return programmes. As more things got added to his roster, he upped the difficulty in his programmes, hoping to create one so flawless that even Viktor would have to concede defeat.

 

At the back of his mind, he wondered where he would have been without the power of his mask. Would he have found some small courage inside of himself to continue his skating? Would he have made it this far? Would he have ever reached the Grand Prix Final? In some small hope, he thought he would have. But he knew himself well. If he had, then the intimidation of the lights, the audience, the noise, it all would have worried him too much. He didn’t have the confidence in himself to not fail. So, while he did have some hope that he could have made it, he knew himself well enough to know that he never would have made it so far. And he never would have been so comfortable.

 

He certainly wouldn’t have come this close to knowing Viktor. There was nothing interesting about Yuuri himself, or if there was then it was shielded under his awkward personality. It would have taken time to know him, time that Viktor didn’t need to waste.

 

Before the thought could depress him, he cast it away and searched for the man. He found Viktor skating on the other side of the rink, lost in his own world as he skated into a triple. Yuuri would always be surprised by how beautiful the man was, even as he wasn’t trying to be.

 

The call to come back was made, and Yuuri sat beside his coach and Phichit, feeling the nerves trying to pierce his confidence. He could take pride in knowing that it failed.

 

The first skater, someone Yuuri didn’t recognise, entered the rink and began their routine. Yuuri didn’t pay too much attention, and instead stood up to do what he had seen Viktor do many times on the television. He began to dance out the programme, the complex step sequence, on solid ground. He knew he had spent hours perfecting it, knew every step like he knew Ren, but there was something different about dancing it without ice.

 

He found that every step was ingrained deeper in his mind, where it wasn’t up to just muscle memory but he really had to think about it. He memorised every breath, every twist of his arm, every time his feet crossed. He was aware at some point one of the cameras turning on him, but he didn’t pay much attention to that either. Instead, he smiled behind his mask, understanding now why Viktor often did this.

 

Soon enough, his name was called. He was third of six, the last three being the people he knew well – Chris, Viktor and Georgi. He heard the cheers, louder than they had been last year, as he skated into the centre of the ice.

 

It had been easy picking out a theme last year. Return, a little clichéd perhaps and definitely what people had expected after his years off. He and Celestino had been careful, constructing programmes that they were sure he could nail. They knew the media would be all over him, and so they dulled the response down a little to figure out how to handle it properly. His costumes hadn’t been as spectacular as others’, most of the emphasis on his mask rather than anything. It was the year of his debut, and the year that Yuuri could take time in finding himself and Ren, gaining the confidence for his senior career.

 

He really had needed that year. He could take time to figure out everything before he jumped head first in. It had possibly been one of the best pieces of advice that Celestino had given. But now Ren was ready, ready to take it up a notch, to show the world just who he was. Just how much he had saved Yuuri.

 

That was why his theme this year was confidence. The theme held so much power inside of him, something he had been struggling with for years. In the break he had taken after the death of his tutor, he used to contemplate the theme, planning it for his last season if he was ever going to come back. It was a strong theme, resonating inside him so deeply, so he wanted to make sure that he was good enough to really portray it. It had taken a few months of thinking after Worlds, many hours sat down with Celestino, until Yuuri realised that he didn’t need to be perfect to skate it.

 

Confidence could be started from nothing, and the journey to gain it was more important than the end goal. Though Yuuri felt he wasn’t confident yet to call it an end goal, knowing he was still very much on the journey, he was assured enough that he could do justice in the theme. Let the world see the journey he was on.

 

But it wasn’t just that. Much of his decision rested on what he had realised after Worlds. He loved Viktor, and yet he wasn’t confident in himself to be able to receive it. He’d never loved anyone before. He wasn’t confident he could love properly, or that Viktor deserved his new emotion. He wasn’t confident that Yuuri was what Viktor liked, or that even Ren was enough. Bottom line, he just wasn’t confident.

 

But he wanted to change that.

 

And a change was what he had begun. His costume had been a little lacklustre in comparison last year. This year, it was magnificent. A friend of Celestino was a designer and she had come up with something more than worthy of the theme. Yuuri didn’t particularly like flamboyant, bright and eye-catching clothing – it seemed Ren was different.

 

His costume this year was bright red, donned in fake black diamonds that sparkled under the florescent lights. Patterns of fishnet sculpted his bottom half, weaving between his thighs and swirling to his ankles. The whole costume was a one-piece, including gloves that faded from the red into a deep dark black, leaving no skin of his hands to the world. In fact, the only skin that could be seen was around his ears, as the costume had a high neck, fading once again into black until it reached the bottom of his chin. His mask, at the suggestion of Phichit, had some of the fake black gems glued to the right side, beginning as a thin line until it grew into a wave over the chin.

 

It certainly wasn’t something Yuuri would wear, but Ren had heard the comments that red was his colour and ran away with it.

 

He raised his arms to the ceiling, basking in the cheers of his fans, already breathing heavily in anticipation. The music started up, and he skated to the thrum.

 

Confidence. It was such a tricky theme – no, word, concept, tricky everything. It meant so much to so many people, and it meant so many things to different minds. He wanted to convey what it meant to him. It was why he picked a piece of music without any lyrics, instead wanting people to see what he was saying in his body and skating alone. It was a hard achievement, but possible. And he wanted to do it better than he had last year.

 

This programme focused primarily on footwork, while pushing many of the jumps into the second half. The step sequences were always his best, and so he would fill them with his confidence, skating so quickly and gracefully he wanted people to wonder how he didn’t fall. But he had, many times in the start, almost so much he doubted he would ever be able to perfect it. It was only in the last month that he could do it over and over without falling, and as he did, his confidence had only grown.

 

Just as his theme suggested.

 

He heard the commentators comment on his movement, the crowd gasp as he spun to skate backwards, so quickly they decided they would need to stop blinking to catch everything. As the music faded into a soft symphony, he took the moment to slide down onto one knee and reach behind him, his hair gliding behind him, his fingertips touching the ice so delicately. And as the music jumped back into its crescendo, he jumped up, readied himself for a jump, and gave them a quad triple combination, not once faltering.

 

He poured every emotion he could that ever surrounded his issues of confidence. He showed them his fear, hiding his mask behind his hands. He showed them his struggle as he mimed a tug on a rope as it pulled at his chest, tugging him into a series of spins until he was dizzy. He showed them his journey and where he hoped it would end, skating a series of jumps that pushed him to the edge of his stamina, of his resolve.

 

And as the music came to its powerful end, he stopped in the middle of the ice, raising his arms as he had in the beginning, opening his body wide for everyone to see. Because he was confident. He wasn’t quite there yet, not yet able to say that Yuuri was too, but he was getting there.

 

Now, however, once the music stopped and the crowd cheered so loudly in the rink, he wished he had had more time to show them the programme. He knew it was called the Short Programme for a reason, but he had really begun to get into it, finding something there that had just been out of reach in all of his practice. All of his emotion had gone into these few minutes, it felt odd that it was over.

 

Phichit was waiting for him at the edge. He was hopping from one foot to the other, his face breaking out into such a bit smile Yuuri wondered if his lips would fall off. Yuuri had barely stepped off of the ice before he was pulled to Phichit and hugged within an inch of his life.

 

Together with Celestino, they walked to the Kiss and Cry to wait for the results.

 

“I don’t like this,” Phichit whispered, clicking his fingers and shaking his leg. “This wait, is it always like this?”

 

Yuuri made himself comfortable on the seat, reaching to place an arm around his friend’s shoulders. He wondered if Phichit was thinking of the same thing, that it would be this tense when waiting for his own results. Yuuri had to admit, it was one of the longest time windows he ever had to go through, especially when he worried if the judges saw what he was feeling in the programme.

 

“It’s fine, it’ll come up in a sec,” he assured.

 

“A second? I feel like ten years have gone by. I’m pretty sure ten years have already been shaved off of my life because of this stress.”

 

Yuuri was close to hugging the younger closer to him – that was, until Phichit made a noise that resembled some sort of dying animal. Yuuri’s gaze snapped to the screen, his heart hammering in his chest as he noticed the result. He’d beaten his personal best of the Short Programme, for a second year in a row. He’d done it again, and not only that, he had beaten it by ten points. Ten full points.

 

Phichit dragged him to stand up, screaming and hugging him, saying what Yuuri thought might have been praise. He wasn’t too sure honestly.

 

Yuuri felt emotions too much. The wave attacked out of nowhere, and he found himself crying once again, a routine that seemed to want to follow all of his programmes. He really needed to stop it, Ren didn’t need to cry in front of cameras. Phichit held him closer, and Yuuri felt the suspicious wetness of tears on his own shoulder.

 

As Georgi followed, skating out into the middle of the ice, Yuuri delved into his own mind, amazed at how much he had grown. He could never thank Yuko enough, that was for sure. He made a mental note to thank her again, though she had insisted that she didn’t need the thanks after every competition. Seeing him grow was enough.

 

“Oh my god,” Yuuri chuckled into Phichit’s shoulder. “I’m so weak.”

 

“And what’s wrong with that?” Phichit asked, rubbing at his eyes. “You did so well, Ren. You did so well, I’m so proud of you. I bet everyone back home is too.”

 

“Best extended birthday ever.”

 

“Hey, don’t say that yet. Say that when you have the gold.”

 

Yuuri laughed, allowing himself to harbour the thought in his mind for a second. It would be nice, standing above them, with a gold to complete the collection of medals. But would it happen? He wasn’t sure, and if it did, he wasn’t sure it would happen this year. Perhaps next season.

 

Before he knew it, they had to move from the Kiss and Cry to make way for Georgi. He wished him luck as they retreated back to their bench. Georgi’s scores settled in, placing him second underneath Yuuri.

 

Yuuri didn’t let his hopes rise too much. There was still Chris and Viktor to go, two of the best in the world. But, once again, Yuuri was guaranteed a place in the top three going into the Free Skate. He squealed internally, the idea still surprising him.

 

As a young boy, he remembered glancing up at the numerous Viktor posters that littered his room. He remembered the wish that started out as a thought inside of his mind, the desire to skate someday on the same ice as Viktor. He had done that now, numerous times, shared a podium with him, come second to only Viktor. He’d danced with him, received his contact information, spoke to him, had dinner with him, had done a lot of things with the man he had once thought he’d never get to meet. Sometimes he wondered when he was going to wake up from the dream and find himself still in that closet in the ice rink, small and fragile, crying from the embarrassment and shame of failing in front of so many people. He’d wake to find that Yuko never suggested a mask, that he hadn’t grown into the skater he was, that he didn’t have medals hanging from his shelf back in Detroit.

 

On dark days, the thought scared him more than he cared to admit. Because he was finally living his dream. Because he didn’t want to know what darkness in his mind wanted to imagine his tutor’s death. And because as much as his love would forever be one-sided, he never regretted finding it. It was the first time he had ever felt this emotion, and he was proud to know he could feel it so deeply.

 

On lighter days, he smiled thinking it, because if he ever found it was a dream, then most of it had been the best moments of his life. Perhaps, if he woke up, it would give him courage to chase it properly. Maybe he would walk out of that closet, determination coursing through him, and he’d storm into the rink and show them just what he was. Maybe he would wake up realising the weight of failure wasn’t so heavy anymore.

 

As Viktor took to the middle of the rink, bathed in the silence of the anticipating audience, Yuuri watched through different eyes. If this was a dream, then he could do anything he wanted. And what he wanted right now was to watch Viktor perform the first programme he had seen in person since his realisation. He wanted to see Viktor as if the man was skating just for him. As if there was a meaning in his moves that was meant for only him. As the music began in the air, filling the silence, Yuuri allowed it to wash powerfully over him. Because he felt things too strongly, but he wanted to feel this until it was embedded deeply into his soul.

 

Unlike Yuuri’s, Viktor’s music had lyrics. Not that Yuuri could understand anyway, he thought he recognised them as Russian. But even with the language barrier, Yuuri could sense the emotion in the piece. It was quiet, yet influential, as if an inner voice rather than a command. There was acoustic guitar somewhere in the mix, a more modern rendition of an older piece. At least, that was what Yuuri thought. He wasn’t very well versed in classical music as it was. As Viktor began to skate, Yuuri recognised the emotion. There was a longing, a reach for something more, a desire Viktor wanted but from the melancholy look on his face, Yuuri suspected he wasn’t getting it.

 

Perhaps it was because he was in love that Yuuri found himself immersed in the piece. He watched every jump, every spin ever step Viktor took on the ice, holding his breath when the emotion became too much. He knew what it was like to long for something, though he knew that what they must have been longing for were two separate things.

 

The song built up into a powerful clash and Viktor reached out to the crowd. Unlike last season, where Viktor seemed as if he was dancing with someone invisible, it seemed this time he was reaching for a real person, someone in the audience. And though his eyes never rested on one place, never flittering as if he was looking for a specific person, there was the insinuation there. Yuuri found himself wishing that he was that person, though he knew at the back of his mind he wasn’t. And Viktor had spent months on this piece, on this theme. It likely wasn’t based on an actual feeling, but something to tug on the heart strings of everyone watching, just as it was doing to Yuuri.

 

Viktor spun into his last pose, reaching his arms up until they cupped close to his face, his gaze looking upwards, almost as if praying for something. And not a moment later, the crowd erupted into a chorus of applause.

 

Yuuri joined, his heart hammering inside of his chest. Phichit jumped up next to him, seeming at a loss of what to say, all of it seemingly overwhelming.

 

“Seeing all of this in p-person,” he stuttered, his voice almost drowned among the crowd. “Seeing these programmes. Grand Prix Final. The seniors are so different. It’s not like I’m used to.”

 

Yuuri, frightened that Phichit was panicking over his choice of moving to the seniors, turned to reassure his friend. And yet, upon the younger’s face was nothing but determination and awe.

 

As they waited for the results, Phichit held Yuuri’s hand so tightly, his knuckles turning white under the pressure. And when Viktor’s name passed his, Phichit sighed heavily.

 

“It’s fine,” he told his friend. “This is only the Short Programme, there’s always tomorrow. The difference isn’t that great.” And it wasn’t. With only three points differing between them, Yuuri still had the hope of chasing the gold.

 

Chris was the last up, immersed in the applause of the crowd as he stood in the middle of the ice. Screams of single women and a few men filled above the cheering, signs of love waving defiantly in the air. But they dulled low as the music filtered through the air.

 

It had become a staple, theme, a pattern for Chris to use his sex appeal in his skating, regardless of what the message was about. But it seemed, nearly as soon as his Short Programme began, that this time was completely different.

 

It began slow, relying on his step sequence, a well-placed foot here and there as he glided across the ice, reaching out as he stared at an empty space. As he picked up speed, he used it to propel himself into a series of spins, only touching his body to be able to gain the much-needed momentum. And as the first jump came, it seemed as if he didn’t have enough speed. The audience held their breath, convinced that the man was going to under rotate or fall as he attempted a quad. But it seemed Chris was brilliant at being able to convince the audience of something that they weren’t seeing, because he managed a quad toe-loop without what seemed like any effort.

 

The music picked up, no lyrics but vocals singing like a rising choir in the background. The strength of the piece surprised Yuuri, and as he watched Chris spin into his second half, he wondered what it was that had brought this out of the other man.

 

At the back of his mind, Yuuri heard Ren say that it was them, their bumping him off of second place that had caused such a reaction. Yuuri wanted to curl in on himself, feeling guilty and upset at it, and yet Ren was proud. To be able to change Chris’ legendary sex appeal into something so opposite, something almost seemingly innocent, now Ren through that it was something brilliant. Chris was changing things up to become a valid competitor, instead of laying back and allowing Ren to win yet another silver, he was changing things up to steal it back.

 

Now, Ren loved a challenge. As he watched the way Chris captured the audience, his big, soft eyes and thick lashes blinking openly, Ren made the promise that tomorrow would be the best programme he had ever skated. Because while he never saw Chris as any less a competitor than Viktor, the man out on the ice was only cementing it further today. Two very competitive skaters, and Ren couldn’t wait to stand beside them again on the podium, hopefully at the very top this time.

 

Chris skated into his combination, a quad loop into a triple toe-loop, almost effortless if it wasn’t for a very slight wobble in his form. Not enough to threaten his balance, and not a single misplaced expression cracked his face. He gave a cheeky grin to the crowd, almost innocent in appearance, before he skated into the haircutter spin, spinning almost too fast for anyone to catch.

 

The music climbed into a tight crescendo, the choir loud and vibrating off of the walls, what seemed hundreds of voices building into something more. And as the music came to a sudden stop, Chris dropped out from his spin, halting his skating and crossing his arms behind his back, his feet tightly together and his face turned towards the judges. If it wasn’t for the sharp rising of his chest, it seemed as if he was meeting a Prince, with his stance.

 

By now, Yuuri thought that the crowd might have burned out their vocal chords from all the cheering. And yet, they cheered and screamed as loudly now as they had for Viktor and Ren, perhaps Chris’ fans making it more so. He skated to the edge with a proud smile, seemingly happy with what he had done.

 

It was a close competition. As Chris’ scores came in, the audiences cheered slowed and died, for what seemed like the first time in all the years they had been a part of it. They fell in between Yuuri’s and Viktor’s, almost right in the middle.

 

The Commentator, stunned, summed it up well, “It seems this doesn’t have a clear outcome. This could very well be anyone’s victory. Tomorrow, ladies and gentlemen, could make history.”

 

***

 

It seemed that the prospect of a change in a victor made the journalists swarm. While Yuuri wanted to go back to the hotel with Phichit, or to see Viktor and Chris and congratulate them both on an amazing routine, he had no time between questions. As soon as he stepped out of the rink and into the lobby of the building, he could not step a foot further.

 

Several microphones were shoved in front of his face, more than he had ever come across before, and question upon question was layered until he couldn’t hear a single voice. As he glanced over their heads, he saw Viktor in the same position, but looking far more comfortable, as did Chris who bathed in the audience attention.

 

When Celestino wavered in, tearing Yuuri away after an adequate amount of questions, they were flooded by fans outside.

 

Yuuri had come across his fair share of fans, almost impossible not to when he was the skater with the mysterious mask over his face. Not to mention he had been on the podium twice now, and that caught fans easily. And while there had been instances where he had been caught outside training, or outside his hotel, it wasn’t often that the fans swarmed him either. It was where the mask came in handy – he could venture out as Yuuri and no one would be the wiser. He wasn’t constantly hounded like Viktor, Chris and other skaters were.

 

Somehow he had managed to avoid them in the previous Grand Prix Final, the previous World Championships, Nationals and other competitions. He suspected Celestino had helped with that. But now, as soon as he stepped away from the media, the fans circled him like predators.

 

Not that he minded. It seemed both him and Ren thought the same – while it felt weird at all that they had fans, they preferred them to the journalists.

 

As soon as they were around him, they began asking for autographs, photographs and some even asking for hugs. Yuuri, not wanting to disappoint anyone, and Ren, loving the attention, conceded to everything.

 

Even as the phone cameras were turned on him, his head and the fans’ heads in frame, he struggled with what expression he should put. He knew they wouldn’t see, and so he could easily put on a straight face, emotionless, and they would never know. And yet that didn’t feel right, because while Yuuri was reeling from the idea that they had fans at all, he wanted to be good to them. He wanted to smile, give them his attention, to show them just how much he cared for them even when they couldn’t see it on his face. Because he did care for them. He might not understand what they saw in him, but he knew that their support was brilliant. Even in his younger days, if he messed a jump up because of inexperience, they never laughed. Fans were loyal and understood the hardships of the sport. They followed him, wished him well, supported him, and for it he wanted to show them how much it meant.

 

So as some were asking questions, such as how he felt about what was going on in the Grand Prix, what he felt the outcome of tomorrow would be, what the other skaters were like, he listened to each and every one. Even as Celestino was beckoning him over, Yuuri made sure that he had spoken to all that he could before he reluctantly left.

 

It was all he thought about, their smiling faces, their gleaming eyes, even as he settled in the hotel room with Phichit that night. The younger boy was talking about his desire to skate on the same ice, the need increasing tenfold now that he had seen the senior Grand Prix Finals. He chatted about how he would reach it next year, sweep right under Yuuri’s feet, as well as Chris’ and Viktor’s, and take the gold from right under all of their noses.

 

Yuuri welcomed it, finding the challenge from his best friend driving him. Slowly, but surely, he was getting to know all of the skaters he would compete against. Who knew, down the road, he might be competing against all of his friends, driving him to really strive for the gold harder than he had ever before. Who knew? Yuuri, years ago, would have worried over it. It was harder to fail in front of people you knew, knowing that every time you saw them after that they would remember it. At least with strangers, they would forget and if they didn’t, well you didn’t need to see them again. Yuuri never liked skating against or with friends, because he knew the pressure was far bigger. Now though, now that he had found his confidence in Ren, he found it only drove him more.

 

All these people he knew, people who supported him, made him into something better. He knew that despite the pressure, it just wouldn’t be the same if he competed against only strangers.

 

As he lay awake at night, staring up at the ceiling, listening to the hussle outside and Phichit’s deep breathing, he thought about tomorrow. There was still a chance he wouldn’t get podium finish. Though he had managed to get medals in all his senior career so far, it was still young, and there never was a guarantee of anything. Currently, he was third, but it was close. Georgi in fourth hadn’t been too far off either. Tomorrow really could change things, and he couldn’t help but feel the anticipation. Lurking beneath that though, excitement bubbled.

 

He was twenty one. At this point, Viktor had already won several medals, including some gold. Yuuri knew it wasn’t fair to compare himself, not when he had taken so long out of the sport, but it was hard not to. He knew the man beneath the legend now, he knew that Viktor didn’t take as much pride in his achievements as some would. Yuuri had wondered more than once if Viktor didn’t because it was a given, because people gave up before they even stepped onto the ice with him. Winning time and time again, when no one really tried to beat you – Yuuri could understand why Viktor didn’t look as nervous or nearly as excited as some of the skaters he had seen.

 

Chris tried. Chris always tried. And he had come close numerous times, but there was just some vast difference between them. It didn’t lie in skill, they were both amazing in their own right, but Viktor just took to the ice as easy as breathing, as if it was the only thing he had. Chris didn’t act like that.

 

And yet here Yuuri was. He wasn’t confident enough to say he could be the one that housed the gap that Chris and Viktor lacked. He wasn’t that skilled, and he would need a lot of experience before he could ever say so. But he knew the same feeling. The ice had been a part of him for so long, heavily embedded even in his persona, that he knew how Viktor felt. He knew how to make the ice his life.

 

And tomorrow he was going to prove it. Last year, he had come close to Viktor, nipping at his heels and pushing him further. He didn’t want to win because Viktor had become complacent. No, now that would be a disappointment. Instead, Yuuri wanted to stand above Viktor with a smirk, knowing that he had gotten there in skill, years’ worth of creating Ren hadn’t been in vain. He wanted to show the older skater just what he was thinking.

 

As the thought spun in his mind, he gasped. Yuuri rarely saw how far he had come in the years he had created Ren. He had only wanted confidence, someone to hide behind. And yet here he was, the mask off, completely Yuuri, and he was already so sure and confident that he was just the thing that could kick Viktor into becoming a better competitor. Past Yuuri would have been appalled. Present Yuuri giggled to himself, hiding the bubbles of laughter behind his hands, trying not to wake up his friend. Present Yuuri knew that he still had a long way to go. But seeing his progress, seeing how far he had come, how much Ren had helped him, it made Yuuri look forward to tomorrow.

 

***

 

It seemed that the Grand Prix Final Free Skate was the most anticipated sport today, numerous news companies filling the rink – even ones who had never been to a skating event before. Overnight, the news that the legendary Viktor Nikiforov, undefeated for years, was close enough to be dethroned, it seemed everyone wanted the viewing figures that the coverage would bring.

 

As he stepped into the rink, Celestino and Phichit at his sides, he found himself the subject of endless flashes, caught in the viewfinders of cameras. The crowd screamed upon seeing him and waved their posters in the air. He heard the commentator announce his name, unfamiliar reports quickly jotting it down as well as their observations.

 

Celestino pushed their way to an empty bench, out of the way of reporters and cameras. They settled down and waited.

 

He would be fourth, fourth to go on, fourth to compete, and by the end of it he would know if he was on the podium. He steeled his resolve, knowing that he had promised himself that he would do the best he had ever done out there. The nerves were beginning to show again. Seeing more people here than normal, cramped in a smaller rink than that of Worlds, he imagined what it would have been like if he had failed. If he fell on the ice, how would he be? How would Ren save him?

 

He banished the thoughts as soon as they rose, pushing the anxiety and the voices down, bringing Ren up to cover for them. Ren was buzzing with excitement. He wanted to be on the ice, show the world his resolve – no, actually, that wasn’t what Ren was thinking. It was a part of it, but Yuuri found that most of his thoughts were settled on the idea of being proving himself to one person only. He wanted to be the only thing in Viktor’s attentions. He wanted the Russian man to only look at him, just as he would be only looking at Viktor when the other was skating.

 

Yuuri barely looked at what was happening, who was skating, as the energy around his body hummed. He was aware of colours on the ice, of beauty, of the sounds of the skates scratching the surface. He was aware of the smell of the cold lingering in the area. He was also aware that as the first two finished, their scores high, Ren had a lot of fighting to do.

 

As his turn slowly came, the third skater finishing his routine, Yuuri stood to stretch his muscles. Phichit helped, pushing and pulling and stretching everything, just as they used to do in their rink in Detroit.

 

His name was called. The skater before him stepped into the Kiss and Cry, and Yuuri was left to take to the ice.

 

He let the world bathe in his appearance, his costume this time more akin to an angel than anything. It was completely white, the bottoms tight against his legs, something akin to a very short skirt settling on his hips over the trousers. His top was made of sheer white fabric, a teasing hint to the white vest beneath. It sparkled with tiny silver glitter, glued expertly onto the material, and hung over his hands. The collar was high, reaching just under his jaw, a buckle around his throat. It was simple in design, and yet white always seemed to catch attention better than any other colour.

 

It seemed to do the job. The rink settled, the noises dying down, as Yuuri graced his beginning pose. One foot behind the other, his body turned until he was looking down to his right, one arm behind his back and his other curled to cup one side of his mask.

 

The space between his being ready and the music beginning seemed to take eternity. He went through the routine in his head for what seemed the millionth time, remembering everything, every movement, how it felt as he danced his limbs. He let himself glance around, seeing some of the audience, people he recognised as fans, settle on the edge of their seat. Someone squealed in the back, drowned out just as the music began.

 

For his Free Skate, Yuuri hadn’t gone traditional. His music before had been similar in traditional, strumming, calm, building into crescendos. His Short Programme had been the same, but he agreed with Celestino that his Free Skate was going to become completely different. He was going to surprise them all, show that his theme of confidence was exactly that – see how far he had come, and watch him break traditional.

 

Hard electric guitar boomed through the rink. Some of the audience, those who had watched his season leading up to the Grand Prix Finals, wouldn’t be surprised. But for those who reserved their viewing for the Final, they jumped in their seats, more than a few shocked gasps filling the air.

 

As Yuuri stood in place, running his hands over his body, much like Chris had taught him, he smirked behind his mask. He knew the intoxication now, the addiction Viktor held when it came to surprising the audience. He loved their gasps, their views being broken, loved to see their eyes set only on him. Ren, it seemed, loved it even more. The difference was though that he wasn’t putting pressure on himself to constantly be different, to always surprise the audience. This was a nice change, but it wouldn’t become his routine.

 

He skated quickly backwards, aiming for his first triple within the first few seconds of the programme. He stepped in beat with the harsh notes of the song, the thumps that vibrated through all of his being. He felt them shake the ice, compelling his body to move in a way he had been neglecting since the start of his career. He readied himself for a spin, pulling his leg tightly behind him until his skate touched the top of his head.

 

The harsh notes ramped up until everything in the rink was drowned out. He couldn’t see the audience, couldn’t see their reactions, couldn’t hear what the commentator was saying, and yet he knew he held their attentions like he never had before. He’d seen over the course of the lead up to this competition, to the start of the season even, that though he had only skated one season in the senior division, he had already been placed in a genre. He skated a theme that was important to him, and as the first returning season was just that, the first, he had taken it safely. The public now categorised him as someone who skated to safe things. He had picked music that could be danced any way. Though his Free Skate last year had been quick and hard, it wasn’t history making. It was safe.

 

He’d wanted to show the world that while he had won medals with his safety, he could be more than that. His theme this year was confidence. He’d fallen into the category that he had been placed in for his Short Programme for a combination of reasons – first, he didn’t care what they had thought of him as, he wanted to follow the theme and skate what he wanted. Second, it just meant that the Free Skate would be all the more surprising. And lastly, because, he reminded himself, he was only into his second season as a senior skater. It had taken a lot of time over the summer for himself to realise that he didn’t need to change so quickly, didn’t need to step away from safe because people told him. He was still young, he had time.

 

A chorus of instruments rose behind the guitar, rising and rising until he could feel it build inside of his chest. It thumped with his rapid heart. It rose in his ears, until the ocean sang inside, until the bubble around him separated him from the audience.

 

He lost himself completely as he skated. There was only one way to dance to this piece of music, and in limiting himself, he set himself free. He could show them that he didn’t need to be safe, that his safety was a choice, not a necessity. He basked in their attention as they watched his unusually harsh movements, the quick spins, the sharp turns, and yet graceful as he glided over the ice. Speed was key here, to catch the gazes of all that categorized him.

 

With each beat, he turned his body another way, never giving himself enough time to really settle. He’d seen skaters do the same in the years he watched, but not a lot attempted it. It used a lot of stamina and energy, before the second half managed to come. A dangerous risk, but Yuuri knew he had enough to complete it.

 

As the second half rolled in, the music strengthening around him, he turned to prepare for a jump.

 

He’d practiced this one since he had seen it in competition. He’d felt compelled to add it to his roster, a need and desire to copy a man that had helped him rise to what he was now. Ren was a comprised persona of different traits, copying and adding until he drowned in confidence. So, of course, when he saw Viktor inspire the crowd with a quad flip – well, now, if Ren didn’t see that as a challenge, then he didn’t know what was. And if it got Viktor’s attention, wasn’t that all the better?

 

He could almost feel the room stand, sit on the edge of their seats, their collective gasps rising like a cloud as they saw what he was readying himself for.

 

Spot on beat, he jumped, the quad practiced enough that he could make it look almost effortless. Too many times he had fallen on it, almost advised to not place it in this season, but he stuck with it. It was not as well done as Viktor’s, but worthy of quite the point bump as it was.

 

As he landed without a shake, Yuuri skated out with a triumphant smile on his face. It had felt good. No, more than good. He felt euphoric, confidence pulsing through his body, and for a second he could almost feel like Yuuri, as if it all belonged to him. But it wasn’t and it didn’t. Ren made this happen, the confidence was his, the points were his.

 

He couldn’t wait to see what Viktor’s expression was. Would he realise that Yuuri was a big competition now? That he was going to make good on his threats and go for gold? Did he worry? Did it inspire him to do better for his own Free Skate today?

 

The music kept building until it came to a sudden halt, just as he dropped to his knees and skidded to a stop. He rose his arms just as the last note struck, his body open wide for all to see.

 

He was breathing hard. The sweat was pouring from his pores. The constant movement had torn all of his energy from him. He could already feel his muscles shaking, demanding that they go somewhere, sit down, and not move for a very long time. Maybe even sleep. Yes, sleep sounded like a very good idea.

 

In fact, perhaps finishing his programme on his knees had been the worst idea he had come up with. He pulled himself up, hearing the cheers all suffocate the air. Flowers fell all around him, more than he remembered last year, and he waved to the crowd.

 

Phichit was there when he stepped off the ice again. He hugged Yuuri close, holding all of his weight. Together, they hobbled with Celestino to the Kiss and Cry, awaiting the long moments before the points were shown.

 

“Oh my god, Ren, that looked knackering,” Phichit chuckled, urging Yuuri to place his arm around the younger’s shoulder. “But you made it look so… so effortless! I cannot wait to skate against you one day!”

 

Yuuri laughed and hugged his friend closer, finding himself thanking with everything he had that he met someone like Phichit.

 

Soon enough, the scores flashed before on the monitor. No records broken, and no personal bests. But close, so very close, close enough that the score pushed him to the front, guaranteeing a podium finish once more. But not only that. The score was more than just high. It was real competition. Yuuri felt pride swell within his chest.

 

Chris took to the ice, his own music filtering on quickly. As the notes strummed through the air, Yuuri was reminded of a Spanish bar, a distinct European feel to the piece. Chris returned to his tradition and ran hands down his body. He drew their eyes, basking in their attention, but Yuuri realised quickly that it was different than his usual.

 

Yuuri had been to Europe before, for various competitions and on trips with Celestino during his break to get to know the man as a person and a potential coach. He’d been to a few bars where the evening entertainment was traditional dance, varying depending on the country. He’d seen the Italians sharp and floaty dance, the Greek’s energetic dance – but he had also seen the Spanish suggestive dance, where the sexual appeal was more than that. As Chris ran his hands over his body, it was more than sex appeal, it was drawing the gaze of the audience to his movements, not just him.

 

With each twist of his arm, a pull of his hand, each step he took, each glide he skated, there was not a second that was missed among the crowd. He danced as if the emotions, his feelings, his thoughts and everything in between could oh so easily be transferred into his movements. Yuuri knew how hard that was to do, especially as someone who valued so much expression in movements because of the constriction of his mask. He wondered how someone like Chris, who didn’t have the same limitation, managed to pull it off so easily.

 

Chris prepared himself for a combination, quad loop with a triple toe loop, and made it as effortless as breathing. He skated out of it with such grace, and Yuuri wondered how he had ever seen Chris as a lacking competitor against Viktor.

 

The music was fast paced, not nearly as much as Yuuri’s, but the sweat beaded on Chris’ forehead. As he spun, his arms propelling him faster and faster, it was almost easy to see how much energy was going into this routine. But just as Yuuri was beginning to wonder if Chris was going to burn out before the second half, the half Yuuri knew that Chris had put more of his jumps into, the music suddenly slowed down until it seemed like a completely different genre altogether.

 

He glided across the ice looking up, his hands together to caress his face, almost as if he was praying. He knelt down until he was on his knees, spinning so precariously on the tips of his skates. The move required precise balance, and Yuuri couldn’t help but feel his respect for the man grow.

 

The tone now slower, Chris used this momentum to propel himself up and into a quad toe-loop, passing the audience. He winked at the girls in the front, almost hanging over the barrier to see him. They squirmed and squealed, their faces bright red.

 

The music began to fade out. Chris lazily spun into his finishing pose, one foot stretched out to touch the ice on his left, his arms hugging his body close. Before he’d even finished, the screams rose.

 

Yuuri moved from the Kiss and Cry with Phichit and Celestino, congratulating Chris as he passed the older man. Chris gave him a cheeky grin as a response.

 

When Chris’ scores came in, the audience held their breath. Yuuri only just managed to see them, only just saw as his name remained at the top by a margin of two points, before he was tackled by Phichit and Celestino.

 

Another silver. Another silver? He felt the happiness bubble inside of him, unable to believe he had achieved it again. He was one step closer to attaining the gold, so close. Who knew? Maybe next year, maybe Worlds, maybe soon!

 

“Oh my god, Ren,” Phichit babbled, holding Yuuri close. “You did it! Again!”

 

Feeling just the little bit guilty, he cast his eyes to Chris, just close enough to see his expression. He worried he might have upset the older man, but what he saw gave him a smile. Chris was shaking his head, laughing, as if it couldn’t be helped. When their eyes connected, Chris stuck out his tongue and mouthed what Yuuri thought was a promise of Worlds, a new challenge.

 

Before Viktor even took to the ice, he resigned himself to silver. Yuuri knew he shouldn’t have, it was against how he thought the Russian man should be treated. But he was different, he didn’t ever think that gold was an impossible feat. He just thought he wasn’t ready yet, and as Viktor’s music filtered through the air, he reminded himself of that fact.

 

He’d watched Viktor’s Free Skate of this season before, in the competitions leading up to the Final. It was beautiful and perfect, just as they had all come to expect.

 

The music he had picked was a well-known old piece, created in the turn of the century for a budding opera that soon grew in popularity. Forgotten over time, Viktor was bringing it back to the forefront. However, unexpectedly, Viktor had twisted the meaning. The opera centred around tragedy and loss. The music filtered like a sad song, but the lyrics, ambiguous in their meaning, could be interpreted as an underlying love song.

 

Most people, because of the tone of the opera, remembered the piece as a tragedy. It seemed that not only was Viktor bringing it back to the forefront of popular culture, but turning the meaning on its head.

 

He skated with a sombre air, slowly at first, his arms tightly against his body as he hugged himself. But as the music built into a full orchestra, cracking until it rose so high the emotions resounded within everyone watching, he pushed himself faster and faster, circling the rink until he had enough speed to combine a quad lutz with a triple toe-loop, flying through the air as if he had wings to guide him. As the music built, so did his skating. More time was spend on his step sequences, pushing to show all the emotion he could.

 

The music built into something akin to a thunder storm, powerful and strong, and with it, Viktor danced. He moved into a camel spin, hair fluttering around his face, and dropped into a sit spin, gaining speed as the drums thundered harder and harder.

 

Yuuri couldn’t stop watching, movement capturing all of his attention, and he knew that he wasn’t the only one affected so. His heart hammered as he watched Viktor stand, reaching to the crowd as if he wanted to touch someone. The group in the general direction screamed, the cameras flashing, all hoping to get the best picture for what would be the news splashing all over social media.

 

As the lyrics of a love rose, Viktor begins to slow down once more, putting more grace into his spins than speed, allowing the audience to see the light expression on his face as it bathed under the rink lights. The orchestra died down, the piano coming to the forefront, and he stepped in time with each single key.

 

Yuuri could see it in the way he moved, on his face, in every breath he took – he wasn’t sure when it was he noticed, perhaps the same time he noticed that Viktor wasn’t skating for himself anymore. But the emotion of his pieces had been lost somewhere along the way, with his desire of competing and the love of the sport. Yuuri didn’t like thinking it was solely on what he had told the older man that had changed that, but he liked to think that it was the starting catalyst of a long process, to shake the man into thinking for himself. Viktor was strong, Yuuri knew, and he loved to see Viktor gain back the charm that Yuuri had first admired so many years ago.

 

He remembered Yuko first showing him one of the early competitions with Viktor in. He remembered seeing the man’s confidence, going so far as to comment on it with Yuko. He remembered the admiration growing until it consumed him. He remembered as it grew into Ren.

 

His heart swelled when he watched Viktor before him now, seeing him perform in the flesh, and knowing that he had steadily grown to love him. He clutched the front of his chest, the material catching in his fingers.

 

Viktor skated to a steady end, the music fading, putting all of his weight onto one side, his head looking to his right, towards the judges. He had one hand curled around his chest, as if shielding it, while the other was levitating by his side, almost reaching for something. His expression was the most noticeable though – his mouth was slightly open, as if ready to say something, but his eyes clouded as if he was about to cry.

 

Yuuri had seem him skate this during the season, and knew that it was part of the programme. And yet he couldn’t help but feel touched every time he saw those eyes, the way they grew so wide and clouded.

 

Viktor left the rink to attend the Kiss and Cry with his coach. The crowd began to chat away in the waiting time, discussing their favourite parts of the whole competition.

 

They began to clean the ice of the roses and toys that had been thrown on for Viktor. The podium was making its way out of the doors to the hallway. Yuuri eyed the second position, remembering the view very well. He hoped he wouldn’t trip on the way up. He hadn’t before, but the thought always struck him suddenly.

 

“Oh my god.”

 

Yuuri turned to Phichit, shocked by the sudden gasp. He felt Celestino grab his arm, the touch a little too tight and turned to the older man. He was looking in the same direction as Phichit, and Yuuri worried then that something had gone horrible wrong.

 

Someone had collapsed. No, maybe something worse. Maybe some attack. Or maybe there had been a mistake on the screens. Had someone fallen on the ice? Maybe something broke.

 

But it was none of the above. Yuuri turned to where they were looking and his eyes found the screens showing the scores. He had only a second to notice it, only a second to take in the numbers, only a second to see where his name was before it was torn from his view.

 

He found himself standing suddenly, pulled from where he sat by Phichit and Celestino. Someone was screaming, the crowd was making too much noise, the commentator was too shocked to say anything. The cameras, stunned for only a second, turned to him and the flashes were blinding. Phichit was screaming something, but it turned into babble in his excitement. Celestino was muttering the same congratulatory line over and over again, seemingly too shocked to say anything else.

 

Yuuri soon found himself on the floor. Whether he had collapsed, his legs feeling weak from the news, or Phichit had tackled him there in his hug, he didn’t know. But he was on his knees, Phichit tightly attached to him, Celestino following.

 

Yuuri found his own mumbles of thank you’s leaving his lips without his notice. He turned to look at the screen again, knowing there must have been a mistake. They had all read it wrong, clearly.

 

But no. No matter how long he looked at the screen, it didn’t change. His name was right at the top, the difference of only half a point between him and Viktor. He had made the podium again. Just higher than he had expected.

 

When the idea settled in, his chest tightened and he hugged the two beside him closer. A sob wracked his throat. I tried to hold the tears back, but not before he noticed they had already fallen. They slipped down his cheeks, under his mask, sliding down his neck as he mumbled words he didn’t know he was saying.

 

First. First. Number one. Gold.

 

It must have been a dream, right? This couldn’t be happening.

 

***

 

He was still crying even as he went to stand on the podium. He hugged the blue roses to himself tightly, given to him by a fan on the way over, and found himself crying harder again as Viktor and Chris came to stand on either side of him.

 

Chris was laughing, unable to stop the chuckles from bubbling out of his chest every time he glanced at Yuuri and Viktor out of the corner of his eye.

 

Yuuri glanced down at Viktor, ingraining the memory of the view into his mind to remember forever. He expected Viktor to look shocked, maybe a little angry, or politely accepting it. But it wasn’t so. Viktor did look shocked, but pleasantly so, a bigger smile on his face than Yuuri had seen for a while. His sparkling blue eyes stared directly into Yuuri’s mask, his face turned to give him his full attention.

 

“Congratulations,” he said when he noticed Yuuri looking. He laughed, “You really did it. I should have taken your threat more seriously.”

 

Yuuri sobbed harder, his heart about to burst. This didn’t feel right, and yet he could never be happier. There was a difference between promising something or driving for something and actually doing it. He’d thought about standing here a lot, as early as the days before Ren even began. He imagined what it would be like to be number one, an unattainable place at the time. As he began to follow Viktor and Ren had begun his birth as a persona, the dream only grew. As he took seasons off to heal, he wondered if he would ever get the chance again, or if the dream would always just be a dream. As he made his return, he wondered just how far he could go, if he would ever stand on the podium, on any spot, or if he would reach the highest point.

 

As he lived every day of his life, always thinking of this exact view, his drive never faltered but the reality of it had become harder. He’d overcome a lot to be here, and he thought he’d be ready for when it came. But he wasn’t.

 

Ren wouldn’t be crying like this. Ren would be standing proud, confident, smiling and waving and acting as if he belonged here. But Yuuri had been so shocked by the results, so unexpected, that Yuuri had been brought to the front without any warning.

 

He managed to stand and still his crying for a moment as they took photos, but it wracked his frame once more when the medal was placed around his neck. He looked down at it, feeling its weight, feeling such happiness filling him.

 

They were urged down to take a group photo, and Yuuri found himself small between Viktor and Chris. They had their arms on him, Chris’ around his shoulders while Viktor held his around his waist. Someone took his flowers for him to be able to wrap his own around their waists. The pictures were taken, their flashes blinding to his still confused mind trying to catch up. He still couldn’t believe that he was in the middle.

 

Without warning, in the space between photos, Viktor and Chris crushed him, hugging him tightly between them. Their heads rested on the side of his own, careful of his mask, and they whispered congratulations as the tears began again.

 

“You did so well, Ren,” Chris said, his words only loud enough for them. “It’s about time someone knocked Mr. Perfect here off from the top. Make sure you do the same in Worlds, okay?”

 

Viktor laughed. “You really did have the better programmes, and you skated them beautifully. If I’m going to lose to anyone, I’m glad it’s you.”

 

“Hey, what about me?”

 

“No, thanks.”

 

“What do you mean, ‘no thanks’?!”

 

They spoke more, more words that ripped tears from him. He didn’t know how long they stood there, photos being taken as they hugged close and got lost in their own world. He just knew it was a long time. In that time, so many thoughts passed through his mind. The initial shock was one, the idea that he was enough to be here, how much Ren had helped get him here, how close Viktor and Chris were to him, how much he loved the support, what his family and friends would be doing right now and just how happy he was.

 

He also thought about his tutor, about how he owed so much of this to him. He thought of what the man would say or do, or what his expression would be. He thought of the day he had been late to training, only for a police officer to come and deliver bad news. He thought of the pain of seeing the man in the hospital bed, and the hard choice he had watched the man’s family go through. He thought of the pain for four years, his love for the sport lost for a little while. 

 

Above all, he thought about how every choice he had made came to this very moment, so many emotions swirling inside that he didn’t know how to label them. Sad, perhaps, because his tutor was not here to see it. Ecstatic because of a dream realised. Shocked because he never thought it would happen, or not this soon. Confused because he has taken the title from the man he loved, who didn’t even know it. Proud because he knew everyone who mattered in his life was watching on.

 

Perhaps, he thought, he could be more than what his anxiety dictated.

Chapter Text

It was a big change from the first banquet he had attended. This one proved to be the busiest, leaving no time for him to stand in the corner by himself. This time around, as the winner, the champion, first place, the best, all the attention was on him. He spent a lot of the time being dragged around by Celestino to prospective sponsors and current ones, from interview to interview, pictures being taken at every moment, speaking to fans and committee members.

 

He’d barely had time to talk to Phichit, let alone Viktor or Chris. The closest he had come to was a congratulatory comment by Georgi before he was dragged away once more.

 

He thought the beginning of the first banquet was the longest and most awkward, but he had been proven wrong. The hours slipped by so slowly and he wanted nothing more than to take himself off somewhere.

 

But his waiting proved to be worth it. As the darkness settled outside, the clock striking late, the business talk was finally out of the way and he was free to grab a champagne flute – his first of the night – and search for his friends.

 

He found Phichit first, speaking to someone Yuuri didn’t recognise. He was prepared to introduce himself, but Phichit’s attention turned completely on him.

 

“Ren!” he greeted, his voice filled with cheer, if a little slurred. “All the sponsor talk done?”

 

“Have you been drinking?”

 

Phichit cast him a pout, his eyebrows knitting together. “No one’s keeping track anyway, let me have some.”

 

Yuuri took the flute from Phichit’s hands. “I think you’ve had enough. It’s not you that would get in trouble, it’ll be Celestino.”

 

Phichit sighed but accepted the judgement. Or, rather than accepting, it seemed something else had taken his attention. He grabbed Yuuri’s hand and dragged him closer into the ball room, towards the table of food in the corner. “Hey, now that that’s all done, you ready?”

 

“Ready? For what?”

 

His friend rolled his eyes as if it was the most obvious thing in the world. “I promised – no, we all promised that this would be the night we properly celebrate your birthday. And considering your placement today,” he cast a gaze down at the medal around Yuuri’s neck, “I think it’s even more reason to celebrate!”

 

Yuuri looked down at the medal, the gold shining ever so brightly. It blinded him every time he caught a look, reminded of it with every word of congratulations. He couldn’t believe that it was still there, that it was still gold every time he saw it. With every second he looked at it, it became more of a fact. It was real. And it was there. But his thoughts were cut off when he caught up with what his friend was saying. “Wait, no, Phichit, what are you planning?”

 

“You mean, what are we planning?”

 

“We-?”

 

As if called out of thin air, he felt someone slide up beside him, a hand placed under his elbow, and another figure press close to his other side, bumping shoulders. Chris and Viktor walked as if sound was an illusion to them, appearing from nowhere. Yuuri nearly jumped out of his skin.

 

Chris pressed a flute into his hands, urging him to drink it all quickly. Yuuri moved his mask slightly in order to accommodate, almost choking as Chris pressed it up further.

 

“Come on, the night is still young!” Chris eagerly said. “Drink more!”

 

As soon as it was done, Chris pulled another one from what seemed like thin air, urging Yuuri to finish that one too. Not wanting to choke, Yuuri rushed it down, already feeling the tips of his fingers buzzing.

 

“There’s no one else Celestino wants you to see now, is there?” Phichit asked.

 

Yuuri finished the last gulp, wiping away the stream that had slipped from the corner of his mouth. “No, I don’t think so. I think he said I can go and relax.”

 

He didn’t like the grins that came over them all at the information. He stepped back, a little intimidated, knowing their plans couldn’t have been anything good. He let his mask slip down once more, covering his entire face, feeling comfort in the cover Ren gave.

 

“Good!” Phichit gasped. “I told him what we’d be planning, so he shouldn’t be too worried.”

 

“Phichit, what is this plan?” He barely got the answer out of his mouth before he found that the floor was no longer under his feet. He squealed, fighting for balance, but stopped kicking when he felt a press of a pair of hands on his back and behind his knees. He looked up to find Viktor grinning down, carrying him securely in his arms. For just a second, Yuuri felt his heart thump at the image, at the knowledge, and took a moment to appreciate the thought. Until he realised how ridiculous it was.

 

“Time to kidnap the prince,” Viktor chuckled, a smirk in the corner of his lips.

 

“Wait, what?” Yuuri threw his arms around the Russian man’s neck as they began to move, preoccupied too much by the thought of falling to feel embarrassement. “Where are we going?” he demanded, watching as the crowds of people blurred passed him as they moved. People were looking, giggling and hiding their words behind their well-placed hands. There was a whoop somewhere in the back of the crowd. It wasn’t until they reached the ball room doors that he realised they were leaving it. He asked again, more forcefully, “Where are we going?”

 

“Relax,” Phichit giggled. “Can’t celebrate a birthday properly in there, can we?”

 

“Phichit!”

 

They rushed through the corridors, quiet with only the sighting of a few waiters between the ball room and the kitchen. After that, the halls were empty but for them. His grip on Viktor tightened, not wanting to fall, and they all stayed suspiciously quiet as Chris and Phichit cast quick giggles and glances to one another.

 

The air outside was cool against his skin, chasing away the warmth he had found inside. It drew more of his attention to how warm Viktor was beside him, his chest pressed to Yuuri’s side. He could almost feel his heart hammering just as quickly as his own, but he thought that must have been his imagination.

 

“It looks good on you,” Viktor whispered, his lips far too close to Yuuri’s ear.

 

“Huh?” Yuuri asked, not understanding. Not until he looked down to where Viktor was looking, seeing the medal resting on his chest. Yes, no matter how much he saw it, he would never get used to it. And here he was, being carried by the person he had stolen it from. “Oh, thank you.”

 

“Your programmes were beautiful. You really deserved it.”

 

Yuuri looked up into Viktor’s face, the fear that the other man was only saying it to be polite shaking him to the core. But Viktor’s face was open, bright, and there was no lie there. Only truth, only a warm smile, brilliant shining eyes, and what Yuuri might have seen as… pride? Was Viktor… proud of him? His grip around Viktor’s neck tightened, a grin pulling from his own lips. “Thank you, yours were beautiful too.”

 

Viktor gave him a wink, stilling Yuuri’s heart for a second. “Just wait until Worlds, I’ll steal it right back.”

 

Ren rose, urging Yuuri to reply, “I won’t make it easy for you.”

 

Viktor chuckled, but before he could reply, they entered a pub.

 

It was different from the one he had been to before, the last time he came drinking with Viktor. This bar was light and spacious, with no live band or singer in the corner. Instead, the music blared through the amplifiers around the room, thumping until the floor shook with the beat. A dance floor to their right, lit up by disco lights, was crowded with people. Beyond that, a stage stood where the DJ danced behind his podium.

 

Viktor gently set him down before he was dragged to the bar to lean over the table. He quickly drew his arms up to avoid the sticky drying alcohol on the wood.

 

“Four shots, please,” Chris asked, leaning beside it, a wink cast towards the pretty waitress. “Vodka.”

 

“Special occasion?” she asked, eyeing up the medals around Chris’, Viktor’s and Yuuri’s necks.

 

“A twenty-first birthday, and three podium winners,” Chris replied. “Do you follow ice skating?”

 

The woman slowly shook her head. “No, sorry. My little sister does though, I’m sure she’ll be insanely jealous of me meeting you.” She set the shots down, careful not to spill, and said, “Congratulations, all of you. I hope you have a good night.”

 

Yuuri shivered when he saw Chris turn towards him, a promise of just that lurking in his eyes. He raised his shot, toasting, “To a night Ren won’t remember,” before he downed it all in one.

 

Yuuri watched as Viktor and Phichit did the same, moved his own mask and copied. It burned as it slid down his throat, mixing with the taste of champagne. At the back of his mind, he knew he shouldn’t have mixed the two. But Ren it seemed didn’t care. Already he felt the champagne beginning to flow through his body, and just as Yuuri knew well, the tipsier he got the harder it became to say no to a drink.

 

More shots came their way, and the more he drank, the easier it was to drink them. Before long, the room was spinning, there was a pleasant buzz at the back of his head, and he couldn’t stop smiling. He gripped on tightly to Phichit, who in turn was getting a little clingy to Yuuri’s side.

 

“Let’s go sit down,” Chris shouted over the disco classics blaring in the air.

 

They searched for a quiet corner, found an empty table and sat down with their drinks. Yuuri couldn’t help but feel ever so slightly disappointed when Viktor went to sit opposite him rather than beside him, but didn’t mind so much when he saw that Viktor’s attention was set solely on him.

 

“Silver looks good on you,” Yuuri returned the compliment, taking the advantage of his mouth being visible to smirk at the older man. He took a sip of his drink and allowed the mask to fall back into place.

 

Chris laughed and smacked a hand against Viktor’s shoulder. “I knew you’d lose your throne one day.”

 

The teasing should have annoyed Viktor, or at least Yuuri expected it, as he would have in anyone’s case. It wasn’t easy being at the top for so long and toppled by someone younger. But instead, Viktor looked pleased. Viktor was such a good man, he thought. Such a good man.

 

“I’ll get it back,” Viktor promised.

 

Phichit leaned forwards, pointing a very wobbly finger in his direction. “Not when I’m in the senior division. You all will have to be careful.”

 

Yuuri pulled his friend in close. “Of course, I’m going to be quaking in my boots.”

 

“You better be!”

 

They continued to drink, watching as the crowd on the dance floor pushed and pulled, getting progressively hotter under the flashing lights. As the alcohol settled into their systems, a drinking game was dared. Unable to think on one thought for too long, they agreed a simple game was in order. A simple game of rock paper scissors. Anyone who lost had to drink. It really shouldn’t have been as fun as it was, but Yuuri soon found himself on a winning streak, having only taken a sip once by the time the others had drank double digits.

 

“That’s not fair!” Phichit declared.

 

“New rule,” Viktor slurred, gripping the table to regain balance. “Everyone against Ren.”

 

“No, that’s not fair,” Yuuri whined.

 

“No, I think it’s perfectly fair. This is the night you’re not meant to remember, and the way we’re going, I don’t think I’ll remember this pub,” Chris argued.

 

“I agree, I’ve downed so much more than you have.” Phichit leaned harder against him, burping out some of the bubbles.

 

Yuuri sighed. “Fine,” he said, the thrill of him against the three too big to deny. “Fine. But don’t go crying if you all lose anyway.”

 

Yuuri never really played the game a lot before. For some reason, it just wasn’t what he and Yuko played, or any of the other kids in his school or his town. He hadn’t done it nearly as much as when he moved to America. And yet he found he had serious luck with it, barely ever losing and he never understood why.

 

So as they got ready, the atmosphere around them promising the most intense game played in history, Yuuri found the thrill caused his heart to hammer until he swore people could see it beating inside of his chest. There was a second of pause as they chose their signals, judgement, until it was shown once again that Yuuri had won.

 

The three groaned as they took a sip of their quickly emptying drinks.

 

“I’m not playing anymore,” Phichit groaned, burping again.

 

“Down your drinks, we’re moving to the next pub!” Viktor announced, dipping his drink so quickly that most of it tipped onto his face. As soon as it was done, he rushed to his feet and grabbed Yuuri’s hand. “C’mon, Ren, let’s go for a walk.”

 

As they rushed, Yuuri dragged behind but not really minding it at all, Phichit and Chris chased behind, crying out, “Wait! You two do know there are two other people here right?”

 

Yuuri couldn’t stop the smile that seemed to have become a permanent feature on his face. He turned his hand so that their fingers were interwoven and tightened his hold. Viktor’s palm was warm, his pulse beating against Yuuri’s wrist. At the movement, Viktor turned to give Yuuri a big gleaming, if not a little wobbly from alcohol, smile as a dusting of pink crossed his cheeks.

 

It was hot in the pub, and the outside cooled off their warm skins. A late night chill was settling in. They breathed out a cloud of visible air. Chris and Phichit settled in behind Viktor and Yuuri, following behind as they wobbled as a group down the pavement.

 

“Yuuri, think you’re going to remember this?” Phichit sang.

 

Yuuri turned, almost tripping over his own feet at the movement. Everything swam before his vision. He thought that the fresh air would help sober him up a little, but it seemed the last few drinks were finally kicking in. “I…” He tried to find the words that he knew were lodged in his head. As he felt Viktor’s hand tighten in his grip, he nodded. “Yep.”

 

“You haven’t had enough drink, clearly,” Chris intercepted, quickly pushing Yuuri, and in turn Viktor, into the closest pub. Again they made their way to the waiter, Chris demanding, “Row of shots. Four. There.” He pointed at the part of the table he wanted them lined, his eyes drooping.

 

Yuuri sat down on one of the nearest stools, holding his head as the world spun. “I think it’s all hitting me,” he admitted. “I probably don’t need more.”

 

“Nonsense,” Viktor replied, downing his before the waiter had even placed it on the table. He picked Yuuri’s up and placed it in his hands, urging him to drink it. “Go, go. Now.”

 

Yuuri cast a look at Chris as he quickly downed it, and Phichit as he gripped the table tightly and found balance as he tipped his own down his throat. Well, he supposed, he wasn’t feeling sick yet, was he? And it was a celebration. Gold. Now, he couldn’t just make this a normal night after that. With that in mind, Ren took over, pushing any ideas that he might have had and poured the burning liquid down his throat. He wasn’t sure what it was, only took comfort in the way it burned his throat and hit his stomach. Before he knew it, another found its way into his hands.

 

“Drink up!”

 

He wasn’t sure who had said it. For all he knew, it could have been the stranger to his side. Perhaps no one even said it at all and it was a figment of his imagination. He didn’t find that too unrealistic. He downed the contents without so much as a second thought.

 

“Here’s a beer, don’t drink it too quickly, it’s not good if you mix it with what you just drank,” Chris advised, placing a pint in his grip.

 

The glass was cool, condensation dripping along the edges and slipping onto his hand. He followed the drops, finding them interesting for no reason. He took a sip, coughing on the bubbles and drinking another to clear his throat. Whatever it was, it was good. He needed to go out with Chris more. The man knew a lot of good alcohol.

 

He eyed the drink in Viktor’s free hand, asking, “Whatcha got?”

 

Viktor took a second to look at his own glass, as if he too didn’t know what he was drinking. After a sip, he said, “Vodka and lemonade.”

 

“Can I try some?”

 

“Sure.” Viktor didn’t let go of the glass as he allowed Yuuri to take a sip, refusing to separate their hands. “Good?”

 

Yuuri coughed a little more, pushing the glass away. “’S good.”

 

Viktor smiled as if it was the best news in the world.

 

Before Yuuri could register just how much that meant to him, someone was taking his drink from his hand and placing it down on the table. Yuuri turned, seeing a very wobbly Phichit. He pulled Yuuri from his seat, giggling when he saw that it separated his and Viktor’s intertwined hands, and declared, “My turn to dance with the golden boy! Viktor, you can’t keep him to yourself!”

 

Yuuri found himself being dragged to the centre of the bar, where the music was loudest and the biggest space for them to dance. No one else was dancing, no specific dance floor for them to occupy, and it was why Yuuri found everyone looking at them as they began to step together in the empty space.

 

Phichit placed his hands on Yuuri’s hips, encouraging Yuuri to place his on Phichit’s shoulders. They stepped close enough for their chests to touch, their faces just inches apart. If he was in the same position with Viktor, Yuuri knew he would have been completely submerged in romantic love, lost in Viktor’s eyes and the idea that this might have meant more. With Phichit, Yuuri could only giggle, seeing the way it made Phichit giggle back, mimicking a lovers’ dance.

 

Playful. Yuuri and Phichit had done many things in their room back in Detroit over the years they knew each other, and waltzing in the middle of the night, to songs they contemplated one day using for a programme, was one of them. There wasn’t an ounce of romantic love between them as had been mistaken before, by other skaters or public fans who had seen how they acted around one another. They may have acted like it sometimes, loving how it riled up those who saw, but there was nothing like it. Yuuri loved Phichit, he really did, but like he loved Yuko, like he loved Mari. Sibling love.  

 

“Call me Mr Wingman Chulanont,” Phichit slurred. He leaned in closer and whispered, “Viktor has barely taken his eyes off of you the whole night.”

 

Yuuri felt tempted to look back, but worried that he would catch Viktor’s eye. Ren however, didn’t care and turned to look. True enough, Viktor was talking to Chris, but his eyes were only on Yuuri. He waved when he saw Yuuri looking, or what might have meant to be a wave.

 

“Told you. T’be fair, ‘m not surprised. Have you seen how good those trousers make you look?”

 

Yuuri looked down, as if that would help. He’d looked at himself in the mirror before the banquet, but there hadn’t been anything brilliant. He wasn’t beautiful, wasn’t awe-inspiring, didn’t fill out clothes like some people did. Well, that wasn’t true. He filled them out wrong sometimes, with the fat around his thighs that refused to go away despite how much he trained.

 

“Do they?” he asked, instead of the ‘no, they don’t’ that he had been meaning to really say.

 

“Hell yeah, boy. I’ve seen Viktor looking not only once, more times than I c’n count.”

 

Yuuri shouldn’t have believed it. Phichit was probably only saying it to be nice, or that he had caught Viktor maybe looking at someone else and thought it was Yuuri. But Yuuri was too drunk to listen to reason, and couldn’t stop the smile that was rising on his lips or the pink that was growing on his cheeks. As the alcohol deepened his lack of resolve, Ren showed himself properly. Well, he thought, if Viktor really was watching, then may as well put on a show. Because if Ren was anything, it was an entertainer.

 

As the music kicked up, fast paced and reminding him of his Free Skate, Yuuri took control. He took Phichit’s right hand, holding it out beside them, gripping his hip as he demanded the lead role. Phichit relinquished it easily, seeing something entertaining to come.

 

He spun Phichit around, drawing every gaze in the bar to them, taking his time to gain it all before the real show. Phichit laughed loudly, bringing in people out in the street in curiosity. Yuuri stepped quickly, back and forth, making sure to stand straight and push out his bum when the dance called for it.

 

He and Phichit had taken many dance classes in university under Celestino’s advice. Everything from waltz, to tango, to the flamenco, to even pole dancing – because nothing trained the core like pole dancing did. And through those classes, Yuuri learned confidence. While Yuuri wasn’t happy with his body, Ren took pride in what he could do with it.

 

Urging Phichit to remember some of the dance routines they had done before, Yuuri helped with the first few steps. He saw the recognition spark in the young skater’s mind and knew he had him. They separated, jumping until two feet were between them, and acted as if the distance was only a mirror.

 

They copied one another’s moves, maintaining eye contract, as they stilled their feet and danced with only the tops of their bodies. Their hands roamed over their bodies, Yuuri making sure to drag a little more of his top up as he trailed his hands along his stomach than Phichit. The lights above them were making the room hot, their breath steaming in front of them. Yuuri’s was catching in his mask, wetting his cheeks. He was glad he hadn’t worn glasses – it would have rendered him completely blind. Contacts were better. Contacts didn’t catch in the plastic of his mask every time he moved.

 

As they bent forwards, feeling the delicious burn the back of his straight legs, Yuuri made sure to push his lower half out a little more, wiggling his hips. He kept eye contact with his mirror image, seeing the glee and the dare inside Phichit’s dark eyes.

 

They rose again, their hands trailing along their thighs, rising along the fabric on their stomachs, up until they crossed them above their heads. Yuuri didn’t look, but he knew that Viktor was watching, could almost feel his gaze burning over his skin. Encouraged by it, he took off his blazer and undid the buttons of his shirt, feeling the cool hit his exposed middle and relished in the way the cold metal of the medal pressed against his hot skin. Phichit went as far as taking off his jacket before he couldn’t stop laughing.

 

Remembering some of the moves from his various dance classes, he rolled his hips slowly to the beat, sticking out his chest, baring it to the cool air that was brought in every time the front door opened. Phichit attempted to copy, but his face was red with laughter, his movements jarred by alcohol.

 

But Yuuri danced on, finding courage, lost in the addiction that was movement. He trailed his hands slowly through his hair, opening up his body, allowing it to move however the music wanted it to go. He felt a bead of sweat roll down his chest, between his nipples, and felt the world spin just a little more. The alcohol – no, the two shots, were finally kicking in. As the song finished, Yuuri secreted himself away completely. Ren was finally in full reign, his confidence oozing from every step, and he was going to make use of it.

 

The next song wasn’t much of a dancing song, so while he bowed to a clapping crowd of boozy onlookers, he thought of how to best it. Phichit took his hand and they made their way back to their table.

 

Yuuri felt his lips tug into a smirk when he saw the dumbstruck expression on their friends’ faces. Chris was looking impressed, winking as he made his way passed. But Yuuri’s gaze was set firmly on Viktor, the man who looked as if he had been caught by lust itself. His mouth was hanging open, his eyes following Yuuri as if he was the only thing he could see.

 

Yuuri liked that look. He liked it a lot.

 

Eager to gain even more of the man’s attention, he passed his own seat and carefully placed himself in Viktor’s lap. Viktor’s hands immediately found purchase on his hips, and Yuuri’s circled his arms around the other’s neck. As he kept eye contact, knowing that Viktor could see his eyes through the holes, he took Viktor’s glass and took another long sip, feeling some of the drops he hadn’t managed to catch slide down his chin, across his throat and down his chest. At first, he cursed himself for the clumsiness, up until he saw the way Viktor’s eyes followed each and every drop as it latched itself onto his feverish skin.

 

He found he had the man wrapped around his finger. Where Yuuri would never have had the confidence to do so, or to go anywhere with it, Ren was thinking of ways he could keep it. He took back his own beer and gulped it all down until it was all finished, burping away the bubbles that rose from his stomach.

 

“And that broke the illusion, just slightly,” Chris chuckled.

 

“Shut up,” Yuuri garbled, turning to the Swiss man. “I could burp for Japan.”

 

Chris raised one eyebrow, clearly finding it fun to tease the younger man. “Oh, really?”

 

“Yep, pass me another beer and I’ll show you.”

 

Chris didn’t need telling twice. Any excuse to keep feeding Yuuri drinks was his aim tonight. He paid for two more, pressing them to Yuuri’s hand and cast him a challenging glance. “Drink one pint in seven seconds and give me the biggest you can manage, and I’ll be the judge.”

 

Yuuri held the beer tightly, worrying that the condensation would make it slip from his shaking hands. He settled himself a little more comfortably in Viktor’s lap by wiggling his hips, ignoring the grunt Viktor let out. “Sev’n seconds?” he confirmed.

 

“Yep, seven seconds.”

 

“You’re on.” Chris gave him a nod, signalling the beginning, and Yuuri tipped the drink slowly, opening up his throat and gulping as much as he could without choking. It was all gone in six, one second to spare for him to place the glass upside down on the table. “Done!” Phichit raised to give him a high five, one Yuuri returned a little too enthusiastically.

 

“I will always be jealous of University students.” Chris pushed the other pint towards Yuuri. “Now drink this one a little more slowly. Don’t want you throwing up all over the place.”

 

Yuuri waved away the comment, taking as big a sip of his new drink as he wanted. His stomach sloshed with alcohol, a fact he found quite hilarious. Perhaps he needed to eat something. He didn’t remember why he needed to, what good it would do, but he remembered Phichit pushing food on him when they had been drinking before. And water. He glanced at his pint, wondering if he should swap it for water, but no, he didn’t want that. Water wasn’t any fun.

 

He felt Chris creep closer. He reached to rest his arm on one of Yuuri’s shoulders, and before him Phichit moved his stool closer.

 

“Where,” Chris began, whispering so quietly, “did you learn to dance like that?”

 

“Dance classes,” he replied before he took another sip. The mask was getting in the way again. He pushed it just a little more up, until nearly his nose was clear, but grunted when Phichit reached out to keep it in place.

 

“Celestino says that learning how to do different dances will help with programmes,” Phichit supplied, keeping his hand on Yuuri’s mask. “Ren’s really good at dancing, any style.”

 

“Wise man, your coach!” Chris paused for a second, closing his eyes as the room spun before his eyes. Once the dizziness was over, he took a sip of his own drink and leaned in closer. “I have a really good idea-”

 

Viktor’s grip on Yuuri’s waist tightened just a fraction, but enough for Yuuri to grunt and still his drinking. Viktor mumbled, “If it’s what I’m thinking, Chris, no.”

 

“Oh, Viktor, don’t tell me you wouldn’t want to see it.”

 

“No, he might hurt something.”

 

Chris chugged down the last dregs of his beer, promising, “Another time then.”

 

Yuuri wanted to ask what it was that they had in mind, but as soon as the words were spoken, they flitted out of one ear and out the other. His drink took more of his attention, and he chugged it down quickly before placing it on the table. He let the mask slip to cover his whole face, seeing the relief on Phichit’s face as he did so.

 

Perhaps all the drinking hadn’t been a good idea – or more so, the mixing of the drinks hadn’t been. The world churned dangerously, and Yuuri closed his eyes as he burrowed into Viktor’s chest, seeking the comforting warmth. But as it passed, he felt more daring. The cold didn’t touch his skin anymore, and Viktor’s hands on his hips had dulled some. There was a buzzing underneath his flesh, a slow reaction in his limbs, the world paused before his eyes. There were black spots along the edges and he felt as if the bubble around him had thickened.

 

In his revelation, he declared, “I’m really drunk.” He wasn’t sure if he had shouted it or whispered, but whatever it was it seemed to draw their attention. Phichit whooped, dragging him to his feet, while the older skaters looked on triumphantly.

 

It was getting too crowded in the bar. Too many people, too many strangers. They were crowding the space he needed to wobble in. He began to set off towards the door, ignoring the yelps of his friends, the rushed words of warnings. He only had eyes for the door. It was dark outside, the streetlights illuminating the cobblestone street. Other groups swayed with the breeze, someone fell in the corner, another person was bent suspiciously beside the bar. Empty drink bottles were littered across the stones, cigarette packages close by. The moon hung behind the buildings, the stars invisible behind artificial light.

 

Yuuri saw a group pass them, two women and a man. They chatted away, giggling and swaying slightly. Yuuri wasn’t sure what it was about them that drew his attention, but as they passed he followed slightly behind them.

 

It should have been cold. He saw some wearing coats, someone to his right had a scarf. But his bare chest didn’t feel it. The alcohol in his blood warmed him.

 

“Ren!” someone called. Phichit came into view, his face flushed and his eyes just a little hazy. “Where’re you headin’?”

 

Yuuri shrugged. “Walking.” He turned to look behind him. Chris was behind him, smirking when he saw Yuuri looking. His eyes were growing hazier as he went, the light pink in his cheeks reaching the corner of his eyes. Other than that, he looked sober. That was, until Yuuri noticed the way he walked. He was tripping slightly over the stones, as if his shoes were just slightly too big for him. Viktor was walking to his left, the drink much more obvious in his face. His eyes were dropping, a silly smile was gracing his expression, accompanied by bright red cheeks. He was a little slower in walking, his limbs slow to react.

 

Yuuri knew he was by far the most drunk, perhaps even the biggest lightweight of the group. Phichit, fearing that police might check his licence and see that he was under age, was drinking slower than them. Chris and Viktor were trained drinkers, and though he knew that they had drunk more than him already, sneaking in shots and champagne, they weren’t lightweights such as he. They might have been verging on drunk, if not there already.

 

But what was wrong with that? He vaguely remembered not wanting to drink too much because he always made a fool of himself. Him and drinking didn’t mix, and to top it off he didn’t remember it the next day. But that didn’t matter, did it? Because this was fun.

 

As they walked, no location really in mind, Phichit took his role as social media king quite literally. Knowing that Yuuri wouldn’t be as lenient as he was right now, he began to take a lot of photos. A lot. Even drunk, Yuuri knew there were many.

 

“Smile, Ren!” Phichit ordered, then proceeded to laugh until he collapsed on the floor at his own joke, also at the fact that Yuuri, having forgotten he had the mask on in the first place, tried hard to achieve the perfect smile.

 

Somewhere along the way, and he didn’t know when it happened, his and Viktor’s hands intertwined again. Not that he was complaining, far from it. He was so far from complaining that he even let Phichit take a photo of that.

 

Yuuri looked around, seeing that the scenery had changed. Beside them was a river, the streetlights dimmed a little more, and a clock tower chimed an early morning to their right. Phichit and Chris were talking about something before them, their arms thrown about animatedly, their voices raising in the dark and quiet. Yuuri looked up to Viktor, almost choking on his own breath when he saw how gorgeous he looked in the dark.

 

At his gasp, Viktor looked down, his movements sluggish. “Yes?”

 

“Why’ve you gotta be so handsome?” Yuuri asked, pushing as much annoyance as he could into his voice. He tripped a little on the stone, bumping into Viktor’s side. “Like seriously, stunning. You’re the reason I just can’t concentrate on anything.”

 

Viktor looked far too proud of that fact. Before he could reply though, they were pulled into yet another pub.

 

This one was much more crowded, an obvious local favourite. They drank more, chugged more, downed more, until Yuuri thought he was going to burst from all of the alcohol. His chest was sticky from the dregs he hadn’t managed to catch, his mask wet at the bottom, and he couldn’t remember where he had placed his jacket.

 

Honestly, he wasn’t sure how long they had spent at that pub. He didn’t remember what he drank, any of the faces they sat beside, or where the bar even was. He doesn’t remember a lot of the pub itself, and it took Phichit reminding him that there was even a third pub as it was. Bad, he knew, but all of his attention was focused on not falling over, and the company he had.

 

Between the pub and making it back to the hotel was another black spot. All he knew was that as they were walking back into the lobby, the night staff jumping at their sudden push through the front doors, he tripped over the carpet and fell flat on his face. Having Viktor’s hand still in his, he dragged the poor man down with him. And Chris decided that jumping on top of them had been the best idea in the world. Phichit didn’t care much for it, instead documenting it with his camera.

 

They giggled and rushed to the lifts, not counting how many times they pressed the wrong one, or tried to enter the wrong room. Yuuri also wasn’t sure how they decided all to go to one room, being Viktor’s, but somehow, finally, they were there.

 

Chris immediately reached for the drinks in the fridge, while Phichit collapsed on the single bed in the corner and fell asleep nearly as soon as his head hit the pillow.

 

Yuuri sat down on the edge of the double bed, knowing he couldn’t stay up for much longer. His legs were giving way and his head was spinning far too quickly. Chris handed him a bottle of water, murmuring something while he wavered that Yuuri had no idea of. He asked for the man to repeat himself, but didn’t make sense of it the second time either.

 

Chris downed his own bottle of water, saying, “F’ture me gonna thank us.” He jabbed a hand in Yuuri’s direction, “Happy birthday.”

 

Was it his birthday? He didn’t even remember. He just nodded and thanked Chris – at least, he hoped he thanked him. Maybe he just said it within his mind. He downed his own water, ignoring the way it bloated his stomach. Honestly, he’d much rather be drinking something harder, but he was also sleepy. Collapsing in bed sounded like a very good idea right now.

 

He went to thank Chris again, just in case he hadn’t the first time, and noticed the man was already on the floor, his head on a pillow and snoring deeply. In his hand, he still clutched the empty water bottle.

 

“He sleeps fast,” Yuuri said, taking far too much time to find the words. Viktor was resting against the headboard, drinking his own water bottle, looking as if his head was too heavy for his body. It didn’t seem the man had heard what he said.

 

A smirk settled on his lips as he thought of something. He wanted the man’s attention. All of it. And Ren had one very good idea.

 

Viktor was almost falling asleep, his head tipped back against the headboard of the bed. His empty water bottle fell from his hands, landing softly on the carpet. Yuuri, hungry for attention, stalked closer, walking on the tips of his feet to avoid any noise. The man before him hadn’t so much as twitched, so Yuuri put his plan into motion.

 

He threw one leg over Viktor and settled himself down until he was straddling the man’s thighs. Viktor jumped, his hands immediately jumping to Yuuri’s waist.

 

“Ren?” he asked.

 

Yuuri slowly placed his arms around Viktor’s neck, leaning down to look into his eyes. He wasn’t sure why, but there was an agitation settling under his skin. Something set his nerves on fire, made him annoyed, and he really didn’t know what. Because he was so happy. Viktor’s eyes were blue, endless, a little hazy but everything Yuuri wanted. His warm hands were under his open shirt, on his cool skin, around the area Yuuri didn’t really like of himself and yet he didn’t care in this moment in time. Their bodies were pressed together, and he didn’t care. He should have been embarrassed, getting off of the other man and apologising. But why? He had his confidence, and what was the use if he was never going to use it?

 

Viktor looked breathless under him, and he watched every move Yuuri made as if he was the only thing in his world. All of his attention, only focused on him. But there was something wrong and he couldn’t place what it was.

 

“Th’nk you,” he muttered, pressing himself closer, until Viktor had to look up at him. He liked seeing this, straddling Viktor, Viktor under him, Viktor covered by him. Just Viktor. He liked just Viktor.

 

Viktor gave him a breath-taking smile. “F’r what?”

 

“Everything,” Yuuri replied. There was so much he wanted to tell Viktor, especially since he had realised his love. There was an endless amount of words he wanted to push out of his mouth, but he never found the order in which to say them. He spoke two languages fluently, English and Japanese, and yet he could never find the right way to say anything in either. So many words, phrases for everything, and yet he couldn’t find words to properly describe how Viktor made him feel. He supposed the closest things were how Viktor made his heart stammer. How he himself made Yuuri confident. He could confide in the man and not feel guilty for it. He wished he could find the right words to tell the man he wanted to spend all night with him, wake up in the mornings together, tell him that he wanted the happiness in their lives to be one another. He wanted the man to know just how much he had done for him, and yet there weren’t enough words for him. They just weren’t good enough.

 

“I haven’t done much,” Viktor whispered, but blushed at the words.

 

“You’ve done everything.” He wished he could tell Viktor his struggle, about his issues with Ren, his confidence, his worries about everything. He wished he could tell Viktor about how he had helped him so much. The words were a jumble in his head. “You could so easily… You could so easily hurt me. But you don’t.”

 

Viktor looked pained. He shook his head, a little too vigorously, almost propelling them both to the side. He gripped tighter onto Yuuri’s hips. “No, I wouldn’t do that. No.”

 

“I know.”

 

“It’s… It’s gonna be okay,” Viktor said, pulling Yuuri closer, until his forehead pressed against the top of the mask. Their eyes were close, though neither of them could focus properly. “No worries. You’re gold.”

 

Yuuri giggled. “’N’ you’re silver.”

 

Viktor chuckled with him, circling his arms until they hugged around Yuuri’s waist. “I’m a winner too.”

 

Yuuri continued to giggle, unsure what it was now that was making him so giddy. It must have just been Viktor. Being this close to the man, he couldn’t help but be happy. “How?”

 

“I get ta spend time with you.”

 

Yuuri groaned, disguising the way his heart hammered violently against his chest by saying, “Cheesy,” drawing out the vowels for far longer than necessary.

 

“No!” Viktor gasped. “Romantic, not cheesy!”

 

The word made butterflies swarm his stomach. He hugged Viktor closer, pressing so tightly until hardly any space was between them. It was silent for a moment as he gazed into Viktor’s eyes, seeing everything he had ever dreamed of there. When he was younger, he’d heard of love many times, seen it played out in his little sleepy town. He’d heard of heartbreaks, of pain, of love that lived and lasted, of frayed love, destructive love, beautiful love and everything in between. He’d sometimes wondered who he would end up loving, someone who held everything about him. He’d had crushes, and he’d appreciated people. But not having experienced love before, he wasn’t sure there was anything more. He thought it was all an exaggeration.

 

And yet here he was, in the lap of the man he loved, the love so painful it felt like it needed to rip from his chest. He could barely contain it, and it hurt so much. It was something he never thought he would ever achieve for himself. He didn’t understand it, that was for sure, and he doubted he ever would. But he wondered why he had ever thought of ignoring it once. How could he do anything but chase this feeling?

 

“I love the way you look at me,” he admitted, his words barely above a whisper but he spent a long time searching for them, just to make sure they were the right ones. He was drunk, and he knew he shouldn’t have been talking about these things in this state. He most likely wouldn’t remember it, and even if he did then he’d regret it. But he wanted to get the words out desperately, and like Phichit said and as Ren wanted to do, what if it led somewhere? What if, just if, Viktor might have had the same sort of feelings? “Like… Like I’m… worth it.”

 

Another pained expression flitted across the older man’s face. “You’re so much more than worth it, Ren.”

 

And just like that, Yuuri knew what it was that was annoying him. He felt it again, settling at the bottom of his stomach, at the back of his head, against his skin. He pressed a finger to Viktor’s lips, shushing him from saying anything more, not that the man was going to. It didn’t feel right, to be this close, and for Viktor to call him that.

 

“No, don’t call me that.”

 

Viktor’s eyebrows knitted together. “Call you what?”

 

“Ren. I don’t want you to call me Ren Himura, not anymore. It’s not me. It’s not me.” It felt wrong. It felt so wrong. He loved Ren, he really did, but he didn’t want the persona in the middle of what he could have with Viktor. And to get over that, they needed to take it one step at a time, first being the name.

 

Viktor’s eyes lit up, as if he had been waiting for this moment forever. He reached to grab Yuuri’s right hand, peeling it from before his lips, and held it tightly in one of his. “Then what is it you want me to call you?”

 

“I…” He paused. He wanted to be called Yuuri, Yuuri Katsuki. He wanted Viktor to know all of his name, who he was, beyond his persona. And he was so close to saying it, but something made him pause and think. Even drunk, he knew this was a mistake.

 

No, no, it wasn’t a mistake. That was the wrong word for it. He was confident that even sober, he had grown tired of Viktor calling him Ren. He wanted to tell the man his real name, to see if he had the chance, but needed a push. But the mistake lay in the situation. This wasn’t the conversation they should be having drunk.

 

“I don’t know,” he admitted.

 

Viktor looked a little disappointed, but as he noticed the nerves settling in Yuuri’s tense body, he pressed one of his fingers of his free hand on his lips, just as Yuuri had done. “I c’n throw names at you, ‘nd see if those stick?”

 

Yuuri couldn’t help the laugh that bubbled up. It reminded him so much of the time he and Yuko were trying to find out a name for his persona, so many years ago. He nodded his head, whispering “Okay.”

 

“Alexei.”

 

“No.”

 

Viktor bumped his head against Yuuri’s forehead, his smile infectious. “Mark?”

 

Yuuri chuckled. “No.”

 

“Victoria.”

 

“That’s a girl’s name!”

 

“But it matches mine!”

 

Yuuri held Viktor’s hand tightly, bringing it to his chest. He was sure Viktor could feel the beating against his skin, could see it in the way Viktor’s cheeks deepened in a flush. “No, Viktor.”

 

“Phillip.”

 

“Phillip?”

 

“Yes, good strong name.”

 

“No. You’re even worse than Yuko was!”

 

Viktor narrowed his eyes in confusion, but didn’t comment on the strange accusation. Instead he said, “How about Augustus? No, August. No!” He gasped. “November!”

 

Yuuri titled his head to the side, his smile almost splitting his face. “After a month?”

 

“Yeah! Some people are called April, or June! I know an August. I even know a Friday!”

 

“But why November?”

 

“Because so much happens in November.” At Yuuri’s silence, Viktor explained, “Your birthday, we met in a November, it’s November now-”

 

“It’s December now.” At least he thought it was. It was, right? It had been few days since his birthday, the second to last day of the month. He felt the fuzziness of the alcohol slowly seeping away, but it still confused his brain a little. “I’m pretty sure it is, anyway.”

 

“Oh. I still like November though.”  

 

Yuuri felt his chest swell at the thought. “November it is then.” But that still didn’t feel right. He wanted his real name to come from the man, to see Viktor this close as the letters of his name formed those lips. He wanted Yuuri to be the only thing on Viktor’s mind. He leaned forwards, taking Viktor’s face into his cupped hands. If the mask hadn’t been in the way, he knew their lips would have been close. “Ask me for my real name in the morning,” he said. “When I’m sober. I want you to remember it, and I want to be sure.”

 

A compromise, he thought, and it settled well in his mind. If he woke up and decided he didn’t want to, then that was fair enough. If he still had this courage, this push, to say it, then maybe there was a chance this could go further. That maybe Yuuri was enough for the beauty before him.

 

Gently, Viktor said, “Okay. As long as you’re ready.” There was a still few seconds between them then, until Viktor cupped Yuuri’s hands with his own and teased, “Geez, November, you’re just full of secrets, aren’t you?”

 

Huh, Yuuri thought. Now, putting it like that sounded quite nice, better than a body riddled with anxieties and shortcomings. Secrets. As if they were pesky little things, but important too. He found he liked that very much. “You have no idea,” he replied.

 

As the time went on, it became harder for them to stay awake. Their bodies were crashing, the alcohol flushing through their system. They settled in the double bed together, their bodies close under the blankets but not quite touching, as they drifted off to sleep.

 

***

 

He woke up slowly. His body felt heavy, sticky, and a little cold. As he tried to sit up to process the damage, his head screamed out in pain. He lay back down with a groan.

 

He slowly became conscious of things around him. It took a moment for him to open his eyes, the light seeping through the curtains painful. The heavy feeling against his face was his mask, still in place, and pressing painfully against his skin. He carefully moved his head until it was comfortably against the pillow. Something else was pressing painfully into the skin of his chest. Looking down, he saw his gold medal wedged between him and the mattress. He took a deep breath, thankful he hadn’t lost that last night.

 

Last night. What had happened last night? He remembered some of it, coming in drabbles and flashes of memories. He remembered a pub, maybe two. He remembered drinking – a lot of drinking. He remembered being dragged from the banquet. Surprisingly, there was a lot he remembered. But there was also a lot of blank spots. He had bruising along his palms and elbows, as if he had fallen somewhere. There was carpet burn on his skin. He didn’t remember falling. If he had enough energy to move, he knew he’d have found some on his knees as well.

 

Once he had settled some, he glanced around the room. It wasn’t his room, that he was sure of. He noticed Phichit sleeping in the single bed across from him, sleeping in probably the most ungraceful position he had ever seen, his cheek pressed to the bed, body spun until his legs faced the opposite way towards the wall, and his elbow bent above his head. There was drool dripping from the side of his mouth. Yuuri slowly reached for his phone in his pocket, looking to blackmail the boy for once, rather than the other way around.

 

But as he moved, his hand hit something that draped over his waist. That was when he realised that there was something warm and solid against his back, something breathing over his neck. He stilled.

 

Ever so carefully, he turned around. The first thing that caught his eyes was the flash of silver hair, bright and soft in his view. The next, as he continued turning, was the closed eyes and the open mouth, softly snoring against Yuuri’s skin. For a second, Yuuri panicked, but saw Viktor’s clothes on.

 

Which reminded him, why were they sleeping over the covers? Why was Phichit sleeping over the covers? And where was Chris?

 

Yuuri carefully extracted himself from Viktor, shooting down the feeling inside him that wanted desperately to curl back against him, and ignored the way his head thumped with every movement. His mouth was dry, as if he had eaten a mouthful of cotton.

 

Ah, there was Chris, lying on the floor with a pillow hugged tightly to his chest.

 

Yuuri pulled himself back so that he was leaning against the headboard, regretting sitting up almost immediately. A bottle of water, half drunk, was sitting next to him on the table. He took it and gulped half of that down, finding relief in the room-temperature liquid. He almost choked on it however when Viktor grumbled in his sleep, his arm reaching out for where Yuuri had moved to. He found purchase around Yuuri’s waist and used it to pull himself until his head was in Yuuri’s lap.

 

Viktor’s brow furrowed in sleep and Yuuri’s hand shot out, filing through his hair in comfort. Viktor immediately settled. Now, if that wasn’t the cutest thing he had ever seen, Yuuri didn’t know what was.

 

He moved his hand through the soft strands. He’d always wanted to do this, especially when Viktor had had the long hair. Yuuri liked him just as much with short, especially now that he had gotten used to it, but he’d have loved to brush his hands through the long strands. As he stroked, he became more dissatisfied. He trailed his fingers down to touch Viktor’s cheek, stroking the incredibly soft skin there.

 

A flash of memory pierced his painful mind. He remembered something, cupping Viktor’s face with his hands, talking about something important. But he couldn’t remember anything beyond that. Viktor hadn’t looked like it was a bad thing, to be touched by Yuuri. At least, Yuuri hoped his mind wasn’t playing tricks on him.

 

It took another half hour before someone else began to rouse from sleep. Viktor blinked it away, took a moment to realise where he was and looked up. His eyes were hazy, his hair a mess, and a stupid smile pulled at his lips when he saw Yuuri.

 

“Mornin’,” he greeted.

 

“Morning,” Yuuri replied meekly, his voice rough. As Viktor turned, stretching his limbs, Yuuri asked, “Do you not have a headache? A hangover?”

 

“I don’t really have headaches. I only feel tired.”

 

Jealousy swept over him. “Lucky bastard.”

 

“Wow, haven’t heard you swear like that before.”

 

“I’m too tired, and have a headache, I don’t want to bother with being polite.” As if to prove it more, Yuuri slumped, almost slipping down the bed as he did so. Viktor chuckled at the act, sitting up to be level with Yuuri.

 

There was a moment of stillness for a second, a time in which Yuuri watched as Viktor’s smile slipped slightly, pausing as he rubbed his eyes, as if he was trying to remember something or working out what to say.

 

“What is it?” Yuuri asked.

 

Viktor turned quietly. Before he answered, he allowed his eyes to roam over Yuuri’s mask. Even once he opened his mouth, he took a few seconds before he asked, “How much of last night do you remember?”

 

Yuuri really didn’t like the sound of that. He tensed, looking away from Viktor. “Not much,” he admitted. “Why, did I say something weird?”

 

He jumped when he felt Viktor’s hand cup the side of his mask, pulling his face towards Viktor. He was surprised to see nothing like ridicule there, nothing like shame, no judgement. If anything, there was a careful, soft pause, a gentle caress on the side of his face.

 

“It wasn’t weird, nothing you could say would be weird,” he whispered. Quickly, he glanced to see if Chris and Phichit were still asleep. He took Yuuri’s hands into his own and continued, “You asked me to do something when you were sober-”

 

A whole bunch of requests flitted through his mind, all making him groan. He should never drink again – no, correction, he should never drink and be within fifty feet of Viktor again. In fact, he’d ask Phichit to take his phone when they next drank, just to be on the safe side.

 

“It’s okay,” Viktor pushed. “You don’t have to feel pressured at all to do it, okay? You were drunk, so was I, so you don’t have to do it if you don’t want to. I won’t pressure you, alright?”

 

He pushed himself to remember, but it was hurting his head more. “How come you remember and I don’t?”

 

Viktor gave a soft chuckle. “Because you’re just incredibly susceptible to getting blank spots.”

 

Yuuri grumbled, “What did I ask you to do?” It was going to be embarrassing. It was going to be sexual, wasn’t it? Or maybe he begged Viktor to love him back. Oh, who knew what he would have said with his drink riddled mind? Ren only made it worse too. Sometimes, confidence wasn’t the best thing. It had taken him a long time to realise that.

 

He already knew what was coming. Viktor was going to tell him, he was going to be ashamed, and he was going to ask Yuuri to stop or that they shouldn’t talk again or – well, anything. There were so many things that could go wrong. He thought it was safe to drink and spend time with Viktor, but apparently he was going to be proven exactly how wrong that was.

 

Sensing Yuuri’s tension, Viktor hesitated. But he held Yuuri’s eyes and said, “You asked me to remind you, when you’re sober, to tell me your name. Your real name.”

 

His heart stopped in his chest. “What?”

 

“I called you Ren, and you didn’t want me to call you that anymore. But you didn’t want to tell me your real name, because you wanted to be sure.”

 

Oh god, what had he done? Why had he done it? No, he knew exactly why he had done it. He’d dreamed it, of telling Viktor, of letting the man knew everything he was, starting simply with his name. He’d juggled with the idea of allowing Viktor a chance, just as Phichit had pressed, but was always held back. Because Yuuri Katsuki was nothing like Ren Himura. Because it was like letting Viktor get to know a completely different person, and he might not like who he was.

 

Viktor’s grip on Yuuri tightened. “You don’t have to tell me. You don’t have to feel pressured. We already came up with a name for you instead of Ren anyway.”

 

The words brought Yuuri out of his panic. When he turned to look at Viktor, he calmed down, seeing nothing but a warm and teasing smile on the other man’s lips. “We did?” Was this what they were talking about in his memory? When he held Viktor’s head in his hands, were these the words that passed between them?

 

Viktor pressed closer, until their shoulders touched. “Yep! We decided I’d call you November instead.”

 

The ridiculous idea made Yuuri bark a laugh. He shut up quickly, glancing at Chris and Phichit to make sure they were asleep. A month. They settled on a name for a month? Really? He looked back into Viktor’s eyes, finding himself far calmer now that the panic had faded away. “Why November?”

 

“Because so many good things happen in November,” Viktor said. “Your birthday, for one. It was the month we met too.”

 

Yuuri couldn’t help the smile that pulled at his lips. Viktor had settled on the month, all because it centred around him and them? Love was a strange thing. Yuuri grew to learn that every single day he was around Viktor. Love made some of the simplest things seem massive, when they really weren’t.

 

With that in mind, Yuuri really gave the idea some thought. It was a name, something so important to him, a layer under his persona that he really didn’t show a lot of people. A name that Viktor could easily destroy him with, because he could be letting him under his confidence, ready to see the anxiety underneath. With his name would come his reason, and eventually his face too. With his name, the mask was removed, his persona gone, Ren no longer a real person.

 

But Viktor had proven himself, hadn’t he? Viktor could have seen his face in the bathroom before, so easily. He could have taken the mask off when they slept beside one another. He could have taken his phone and looked through his pictures. He could even have asked Phichit. Of course Viktor knew that Ren Himura was a fake name, just as the world did. In their digging, people found that no records for such a man existed. But as long as his real name was invisible, then so was he. He was untouchable. Did he trust Viktor enough to give him the power to shatter that?

 

“You make everything okay,” he whispered, glancing down at their hands, clutching at one another. Viktor’s hands were slightly thinner than his own, his fingers longer. They were elegant in a way that Yuuri would never be. “You’ve been so nice to me, and you’ve never made the attempt of finding out who I really was, though I know the curiosity must have been unbearable at times. Though of course, I won’t ever forget your accusations when I first met you,” he added with a sly teasing smile.

 

He didn’t see Viktor’s face, but he heard the groan, the shame seeping out. “I’m sorry about that-”

 

“I know, you were being protective of your sport.” Yuuri paused, deciding to reach out and draw patterns over Viktor’s forearm with his finger-tips. He took a deep breath, one he found that brought relief to his starved lungs. He hadn’t even noticed he’d been holding his breath. The decision was at the back of his mind, and he knew what he wanted to do. He had known it for a very long time, but his worries, as always, held him back. Yuuri wasn’t often one to put himself in other people’s hands, but he had done it a lot lately. By putting his secret in the hands of people like Celestino, Phichit, his parents, Mari and Yuko, he was always running the risk of something coming out. But he trusted them – he trusted them with everything he had, and he trusted Viktor just as much.

 

The reason he was much more reluctant though was the intimacy that came with it and the worry that it might affect what came next. In opening himself like this, he opened himself to a true chance at what Yuuri hoped would lead to a relationship. A relationship where he was Yuuri Katsuki and not Ren Himura.

 

He gathered the little bit of courage he had, pushed on by Ren, and looked up at Viktor. “No,” he said, his voice quiet but firm. “I’m going to tell you.”

 

“You don’t have to-”

 

“As long as you promise you won’t look for me, or call me it in public, I’ll tell you. I’m not ready to show you my face, okay?”

 

Viktor gave a firm nod. “Anything you’re willing to give me, I am more than happy with.”

 

And that alone, that sentence, seemed to make Yuuri’s mind for him. He leaned forwards so that he sat on his knees, willed away the pain in his head, and cupped Viktor’s face in his hands as he remembered. He gazed into Viktor’s eyes, eager to see the man’s expression when he finally told him, and he warmed when he felt Viktor cup his hands over Yuuri’s.

 

“Yuuri Katsuki. My name is Yuuri Katsuki.”

 

Viktor’s eyes widened and gleamed, the illusion almost brightening the blue. There was a second of surprise, as if he didn’t expect Yuuri to really say it, but as soon as the words faded in the air, a brilliant smile grew on his face.

 

“Yuuri,” Viktor repeated almost in a whisper. “Yuuri Katsuki.”

 

He would never be able to describe the feeling of having his name, his real name, spoken so softly from the man he loved. It sparked something inside of him, causing his heart to hammer harder than it had ever before. His hands shook on Viktor’s cheeks. His body warmed. There were tears that formed at the corner of his eyes.

 

Viktor spoke it as if it was something precious. That was how Yuuri knew he had made the right choice.

Chapter Text

Yuuri knew better than most what it meant to give a piece of yourself to someone in a show of trust.

 

He’d hidden himself away, curled under layer upon layer, until the persona around him walked and talked for him. What was meant to start as a disguise to create confidence soon became a very piece of his being, until it got harder to distinguish between them. Everything Ren did, he did it to protect Yuuri. Everything Yuuri did, he did it to push Ren further.

 

Every time he opened Ren up to show himself, Yuuri was trusting someone with not just his secret, but his feelings, his thoughts, his life. He was giving them power as a form of trust. As he had done with Celestino and Phichit, Yuuri found it easier to show himself as Yuuri before they got too attached to Ren, before they could get close enough to only one. It was why it was so hard telling Viktor his real name. It was also why it was such a bigger risk.

 

For years, Viktor had known only Ren Himura. Everyone knew that there was someone underneath that, under the mask and the fake name, but no one knew the real extent of that disguise. Yuuri saw as Viktor got closer to Ren, and as Yuuri wanted to get closer as himself, the worry that Viktor would reject him because he wasn’t Ren kept rising. But he also knew there would never be a chance to go further if he didn’t take this one step, face this one risk.

 

He was sure Viktor would never understand the importance of such a decision. He would never know the anxiety that accompanied it, the days afterwards worrying if he had made the right choice. He never worried the man was going to tell his secret to the world, but he was worried that the man would want Ren, would see the mess that Yuuri was and want to go back. He also worried about failure, that now that his idol knew who he was, he had nowhere to hide if something went wrong. And, though he hadn’t shown Viktor his face yet, his name was the first stepping stone. With his name, the layers were slowly peeling away. No, Viktor would never understand just how important this was to Yuuri.

 

But, without knowing, Viktor drove those worries away. In the space between the Grand Prix Final and the World Championship, when they had had to travel back to their own home rinks, they had stayed in contact. Yuuri had been happy with texts, but the other man seemed keen on hearing his voice.

 

And every single time Yuuri answered the phone to hear Viktor greet him with his own name, a breathless and joyous “Yuuri!”, he was warmed from his very core. Viktor tried everything he could to get to his centre, beyond Ren and to where Yuuri was hiding. He wanted to know Yuuri’s favourite things, what he thought about TV programmes, films, what he wanted to do later in life. He didn’t ask how Ren was doing, what Ren was thinking of for next season, how he was in the countdown to Worlds. No, every conversation consisted of mundane things and his real name repeated over and over, as if Viktor couldn’t get enough of it.

 

It clenched his heart and he was reminded again and again that he had made the right choice, that maybe there really was a chance that he could be with Viktor. He even found himself entertaining the idea of showing the man his real face.

 

He found himself in his home rink’s bathroom, holding his phone tightly to his chest. In the privacy of the cubicle, he removed his mask and waited for the other man to call. They had fallen into a sort of routine, slinking away for just ten minutes to talk when they could every day.

 

He jumped when his phone began to ring. He greeted with a nervous, “Hello?”

 

Yuuri!”

 

He really should have been used to the sound of his name by now, but he couldn’t help but feel euphoric that his love knew it. “Viktor,” he replied. “Afternoon to you.”

 

And morning to you!” Viktor shuffled a little, fiddling with something on the other end. He grunted, cursing in Russian under his breath.

 

“What are you doing?”

 

Well, I went to the shop to go and get something to eat for tonight, and I don’t know why but Makkachin decided to destroy my living room and now I’m cleaning it up.”

 

Yuuri laughed at the frustration seeping in the man’s voice, and he could already imagine the scene before him. He hadn’t ever met Makkachin, but had seen enough videos and photos to know exactly what expression he would have – head titled, limp ears hanging cutely, whining as if there was nothing wrong.

 

“You can always call me later, it sounds like you have your hands full.”

 

No, no, it’s okay! I like hearing your voice – it’s helping me cope. Hang on, I’ll send a photo of the criminal now.”

 

Yuuri’s phone pinged with a message. Still on call, he quickly tabbed out to view it. Just as he thought, Makkachin was sitting with his head titled to one side, an adorable pout and big black shining eyes that screamed innocence. However, around him were ruined cushions, stuffing torn from them, food spilled onto the plush carpet, mud tracks all over the sofa.  

 

Yuuri brought the call tab back and could barely hold himself from saying, “Aw, he looks so cute!”

 

Yuuuuuurrriiiiiiii!”

 

Yes, Yuuri decided, he really liked Viktor’s voice singing his name. It really hadn’t been a mistake, he didn’t have to worry, didn’t have to think that Viktor only saw Ren. Yuuri had a chance, and for the first time he could see his chance as a very real thing. He wanted to hear Viktor say his name for years to come.

 

***

 

 

He was excited to skate his winning programmes again. Not because he thought that they would give him another gold at Worlds, but because he had become increasingly proud of them after seeing people’s reactions online.

 

He didn’t need their acceptance for him to love them. But he liked to see that the public enjoyed them just as much as he did, their own thoughts and stories on them, how they perceived the things he skated. He knew that they would never understand them like he did, but that didn’t mean that they couldn’t understand it in their own way. He looked over their comments on news articles and from clips that had been uploaded. It took him back to the seasons he had spent off, healing, and searching for clips of Viktor in his own competitive seasons. He never commented, felt much too nervous to, but he had agreed with all of their love and praises. Now, it seemed, he was on the other end of that.

 

He wanted to make his fans proud of their loyalty. He wanted them to see how much they did for him, because while he found it nerve wracking to have fans that relied on him at all, he found their support immense. Like a foundation. Saying he was enough.

 

The World Championships were starting up, and he was in the bathroom getting ready. This time, he had made sure to lock it, checked three times. He had been lucky before. Viktor had been the one to walk in, and because of their mutual respect the man had not given into curiosity. But just as easily, a reporter could have been the one to happen upon the scene and he knew they would not have handled it as well.

 

He was washing his face, spilling cold water against his skin. It was an old routine of his, made from years of nerves and the cool water calmed him. Though he was not as nervous this time around, hadn’t been for a long time, it gave him time to himself and out of the public eye to really think about things. Yuuri spent so much time in his own head, sometimes for the best and sometimes not, but he knew he needed this time to be able to do his best.

 

Phichit stood outside the bathroom, an extra safety precaution, and Yuuri could hear him talking to someone outside. He had been overjoyed when Phichit had said he could come to Worlds with him. He’d had so much fun with the other boy in the Grand Prix that he felt he couldn’t go back to being alone again. He knew he had Celestino, but just having the other boy with him, someone closer in age, made him feel better. Celestino knew this, had seen it, and so had no complaint to bringing Phichit along as long as he didn’t have any other competitions.

 

Yuuri had already received news that his family were staying up late to watch. Yuko and her husband unfortunately couldn’t, not with their girls being so young, but promised to watch the highlights the next day. They made him promise to try his best at getting the gold again.

 

He had the potential to become World Champion. He knew, in contrast, winning the Grand Prix Final wasn’t anything like Worlds. Viktor was still World Champion, had been for a few years running, and the world would see him as a true competitor to the legend once he took gold at such a high competition.

 

That was why Yuuri wanted to take some time to collect himself now. There were more reporters outside in the rink than he had seen before, more noise from the crowds, more cameras flashing than he remembered last time. The potential that Viktor could be pushed off of the podium here, to lose his World Champion title right here, drew all the broadcasters in like bears to honey. They all wanted to be there when history was made. And if it wasn’t, well, it proved it would be a competition to see regardless.

 

Yuuri splashed more water onto his face at the thought, feeling the anxiety trying to push through. But Ren was keeping him safe, exchanging the nerves for excitement, constantly running the image of them at the top of the podium again through his head. World Champion. Now, wasn’t that a nice title to have?

 

He’d felt a little nervous taking the Grand Prix Final Champion from Viktor, but had been warmed to his very core when he saw the reaction from the other man. He had been supportive, even took it as a challenge for next year. Going into Worlds, he felt more compelled to topple the man off of the top spot just to see those eyes watching him again. He could prove he was worthy of that attention, if not as a potential romantic partner then as a competitor.

 

With that in mind, Yuuri left the bathroom after placing his mask back on, joined by Phichit outside of the door.

 

“Feeling alright?” the other asked, stepping level with Yuuri.

 

“Yeah. Yeah, I’m… actually feeling excited. I mean, I did before, but now…” He didn’t know how to explain it, but this excitement felt different. He was finally seen as someone who could be with Viktor, be on the same podium, the one that could break Viktor’s records. The excitement that accompanied the idea that he could prove to them all that he deserved to be by his side was intoxicating. Yuuri had spent his whole life trying to prove his worth and it had amounted to this.

 

Phichit placed a comforting hand on his shoulder and a carefully said, “I get it, it’s alright.”

 

Of course, it anyone was going to understand, it was going to be another skater.

 

The rink was filling up with audience members, some stood finding their seats, while others had been sitting since the doors had been opened. It took a moment for the world to see him, just a second, before all the cameras were turned on him and the audience was cheering. Skaters warming up on the ice turned at the notice, and Yuuri didn’t miss some of the glares of younger competitors as they threw it his way.

 

He knew what that was like. He knew that his admiration for Viktor could have easily turned to jealousy and anger had he been that way inclined. Had he been a bitterer person, he could have been jealous of the way Viktor seemed to easily breathe his programmes and jumps as if he hadn’t dedicated hours upon hours of work into them. And Yuuri knew that if he hadn’t had Ren, it could even more easily have turned out that way. He was still jealous of the way Viktor seemed to jump so effortlessly, but he also used that to better his own. It was easy to hate the ones who won over and over again, especially when it seemed they were unbeatable.

 

As they found Celestino reserving a bench for them, the man stood and greeted them with a smile.

 

“Ren!” he said, bringing him and Phichit into a hug as if he hadn’t just seen them half an hour ago. “Have you seen the response? All of these journalists, cameras, lights! All of the blogs online have been talking about it, your name just as big as Viktor’s!”

 

“Yeah, I’ve looked around a bit.” Worlds was always such a big competition, but it seemed that the competition between him and Viktor had brought out curiosity from people who didn’t even watch the sport. A sense of pride welled up inside him at the thought.

 

“Of course, it doesn’t mean you have to pressure yourself to beat him again, Ren,” Celestino assured, placing both of his hands on Yuuri’s shoulders. “Just have fun, just skate your best, alright?”

 

Of course he felt the pressure. He felt it every time the journalists looked at him, every time his fans called out his name, in every word he saw written down about him. He felt the pressure and it was suffocating. But he built Ren to handle this. Yuuri was safe inside Ren, he reminded himself time and time again. If Ren fell apart at this most crucial moment, then he clearly hadn’t done well enough.

 

“I know,” he replied. “I’ve done it once, I can do it again. But I’m not going to make it my only thought.”

 

Celestino looked relieved. “Good. Just remember you’re more than what the journalists make you.”

 

Yuuri knew how much of a worry he had been for his coach for all these years. He’d probably heard about his background and the start of his obsession with creating a persona from his tutor, a good friend of his. He’d probably not taking it seriously, thinking Yuuri was doing it as a media ploy or that his anxiety wasn’t really that drastic – until he met Yuuri. Yuuri knew that in the four years he spent healing, Celestino had carefully helped him, and in that time his coach had seen how very real his fear was. He’d been encouraging, helped build up the persona, urged Yuuri to continue skating whenever he wanted, took out hours to help him train. He’d been there when Ren wasn’t quite finished yet, had seen the persona slip a few times and seen Yuuri devastated because of it. Yuuri knew that Celestino had worried that when Yuuri did finally make his senior debut, that he wasn’t really ready. Maybe Ren wasn’t fully constructed, or it wasn’t enough. One slip up and Ren was useless. He worried that the anxiety would take over one day.

 

And Yuuri knew that that fear never really went away, not even as he continued winning medals. In fact, Celestino’s fear only grew. Yuuri was so high now – or, more, Ren Himura was. The higher you are, the harder the fall, or as the saying goes. If Yuuri fell from this height, it was going to ruin everything. Yuuri knew that Celestino shouldn’t have to deal with such a mess, especially as he would be the one to deal with it if it came. Not many coaches would stick with Yuuri because of it. It was why Yuuri thanked Celestino for sticking with him – but not just out of duty, it was clear that Celestino liked him as a person and wanted to help him because of it. Yuuri had so many pillars in his life that helped keep him from falling, and he just didn’t know how to thank all of them enough.

 

Everything settled down properly as the competition began. Yuuri watched some of his fellow competitors, appreciating their movements and the raw emotions in their programmes. Some names he remembered from watching for years, others new.  

 

“It’s so big!” Phichit gasped.

 

Yuuri turned, seeing his friend gasping as he glanced around the rink, his eyes flitting between the cameras, the ice, the screens, the numbers, the flags, everything. He knew how overwhelming it could be, remembered his own feelings of the competition when he first saw it all.

 

“Yeah, it is.” He listened more as Phichit continued to whisper his awe, mumbling about how he couldn’t wait to compete on such a big stage, in such a big competition. Yuuri said how he wished to see Phichit here soon.

 

Soon enough, it was Chris’ turn on the ice. Yuuri dedicated all of his attention to the man, sending good thoughts towards him. The music settled in, Chris moved with it, and the audience were enraptured.

 

No matter how many times Yuuri watched it, he was surprised by Chris’ choice of drastic change to his genre. The audience had come to know Chris as one thing, even if he could evolve in that one thing in ways that no one expected. It just proved that the sport was always evolving, and not because of the outside influences but because of the skaters themselves. Those who dedicated their lives to the ice, only they could change its meaning.

 

His change seemed to have caught the audience and the journalists in a way that they had never seen him before. Chris had always been a good skater, but never ventured further than the skater that brought sex appeal. In some eyes, he wasn’t a competitor. Always one cursed to never get higher than silver. And yet here he was, as if an entirely new skater, and the onlookers were lapping it up.

 

Yuuri’s eyes found Chris’ coach, nervously waiting beside the barrier. He was watching Chris carefully, his eyes following his every movement just as every coach did. Yuuri had seen the man before, wandering behind Chris and at training sessions. But he’d never spoken to him. In fact, thinking about it, he had never spoken to Viktor’s and Georgi’s coach. Should he have? Was it respectful to speak to other coaches as Celestino did?

 

Wrapped in his thoughts, Yuuri almost missed Chris as he changed one of his quad toe loops into a quad salchow, earning a deafening gasp throughout the rink. Yuuri nearly jumped up when he noticed the very, very slight wobble in the man’s frame upon the landing. But landed it all the same, and skated off with a subtle triumphant expression on his face.

 

Yuuri watched on with pride, a swelling feeling that only a friend could feel, when he saw the way the journalists were enthralled by the performance. He’d seen them discard Chris for years as a competitor that was ‘good but not good enoug’h. They were wrong, they were so wrong.

 

Chris came to the end of his Short Programme, waving in his finishing pose as flowers and plushie hearts were thrown his way. As soon as the programme was finished though, his sex appeal ramped right back up, and he blew kisses to the crowd, melting them into a pile of screaming goo.

 

Viktor was straight after, passing Chris as the Swiss was on his way to the Kiss and Cry. They exchanged quick words, familiar smiles on their faces.

 

As Viktor readied himself on the ice, tugging at his costume sleeves, Chris waited for his scores. When they did come in after a short but tense waiting time, it placed Chris above all else. With Viktor, Yuuri and others left to go, there was still time for change. But Chris smiled happily, congratulated by his coach, and held his head high as if it was the first time he had ever been in this situation.

 

Viktor’s music began. He glided into his programme effortlessly, and the audience were already caught. The journalists went wild, snapping photos at every second, all hoping to gather that one perfect photo that would be on the cover of every magazine and all over the internet. Not a second went by that a flash of the camera or the sound of a shutter occupied the peace in Viktor’s music. And yet, like the professional that he was, it never affected him.

 

Yuuri knew he would never grow tired of watching Viktor skate. He knew also that he wasn’t the only one thinking it. He wasn’t alone in admiring or even loving the man, that there were thousands more, some even here in the stands. There were a lot of things he knew about himself when it came to Viktor, a lot of hard things he had had to learn along the way, many things that didn’t come without their pain. But he also knew that Viktor felt the same about Yuuri’s programmes. Viktor had told him as much in one of their numerous phone conversations that he loved to see Yuuri skate, that it brought him inspiration and a drive. So many compliments had been handed to Yuuri from the other man that sometimes he wondered if Viktor even knew what he did himself, how people saw him. How would Viktor act if it was the other way around - that Yuuri was the legend and Viktor had grown up admiring him? Would it have been the same? Would Viktor have admired him with as much intensity?

 

Yuuri shook his head and watched Viktor skate. There were far too many questions inside his head and many of them would never find answers. He didn’t need to ask them. He just needed to feel, to watch Viktor.

 

Viktor was coming to the end soon, and Yuuri cursed himself for not paying more attention. But sometimes he just became so lost in something that as his thoughts swirled, he couldn’t think of anything else. He leaned forwards in his seat and watched as Viktor performed his last jump, his signature move of the quad flip, a spur of the moment move that Yuuri suspected might have been the accumulation of Chris’ change and his drive to remain World Champion. The audience lapped it up, gasping and screaming, the commentators praising it as being just as flawless as every time Viktor performed it.

 

Unsurprisingly, Viktor’s scores shot him up to the very top. He waved and bowed to the crowd as a sign of thanks, a bouquet of flowers held tightly in his arms.

 

There was one skater between Viktor and Yuuri, a skater Yuuri recognised as one that didn’t make it through to the Free Skate last year. He looked wracked with nerves, taking a moment breathe in before he began.

 

Yuuri saw what he would have become in the man. Though he handled it well, there were a few shakes in his frame, one touch on the ice when he under rotated a quad that should have become a combination. He saw the anxiety, the fear, and yet he admired and respected the man for continuing. Yuuri wasn’t sure what he would have done in his place. He certainly would not have just given up, but he wouldn’t have tried as hard as the man before him was. He wouldn’t have looked so determined.

 

It was for that reason that Yuuri found he couldn’t look away. With each wobble, each jump that just didn’t go right, the man grew more and more fierce, putting everything he could into the step sequences. Yes, Yuuri could see a lot of himself in this man. But this man hadn’t needed a mask to make it this far. He had relied on himself alone, and that was where the differences and similarities verged.

 

His name was called out and he stood up, ready to perform the Short Programme that had won him a gold medal. He could do this. Ren could do this.

 

As he stepped passed the skater that had come before him, Yuuri stilled. The man looked dejected, his head slumped forwards and his back arched. Yuuri’s heart went out to him. Yuuri looked over at him, estimating the man was younger than him, perhaps by a year. That could have so easily been Yuuri.

 

He stopped beside the man, and the movement surprised the other enough to stop too. He glanced up, his eyes wide when he saw just who was stopping, and made a mumbled apology. For what, Yuuri didn’t know what, but he knew he just wanted to help the other.

 

“You did really well,” he said, internally flinching by how patronising it sounded. He hoped it didn’t come across like that. “Confidence isn’t easy to gain, and nerves are… anxiety isn’t easy to live with. It’s amazing that you manage to get out there and skate so well even with it.” He wanted to say more, he wanted to tell the man everything that he himself had heard countless times in his years. He wanted to speak the words he had read in quotes on blogs for years, what his friends had told him, from programmes on TV, from books to films, to inspirational speeches by influential people. He had so many words that he wanted to tell the man, because he knew where he was coming from. And though they weren’t always the answer – it had taken him years to believe them himself – they did lighten the weight. Sometimes, it was just a good thing to know. But his name was called. He didn’t have time, so he settled with, “You are not your anxiety and it is not you. Please take care of yourself.”

 

As he walked off, he felt the man’s eyes following him. He probably shouldn’t have said anything. The other person probably thought him vain or presumptuous. He probably had everything in control, and he wasn’t making anything better. But wasn’t it better to say something than nothing at all? People probably pitied the man. Laughed at him.

 

As Yuuri took to the ice, gliding to the middle, he breathed out. The idea that someone else had been going through the same things as he had, the same thing as he properly feared, it brought out a protective side to him. But he shouldn’t be thinking about this. He cleared his mind and readied his starting pose.

 

He had been so lost in his thoughts and worries for the man before him that he hadn’t noticed the way the audience received him. They were cheering at the top of their lungs, waving their cards and signs and toys in a shock of colour.

 

The commentator spoke his name until it echoed in the rink, throwing out little facts about the man the audience knew as Ren Himura. From Japan. Despite the competitiveness, was good friends with Chris and Viktor. Was only his second season back after a four year break. Liked to draw in his spare time – honestly, he wasn’t sure where they had received that information, but he wasn’t about to correct them.

 

The music chimed in. He found comfort in the way his arms graced the air around him as he touched his body, reaching out into the air, drew the audience in. He found comfort in the way his skates sliced through the ice, the sound hauntingly familiar, balanced so steadily. He found comfort in the air that blew passed him as he jumped in the air, precise and careful.

 

It might have sounded stupid to others, that the very thing that caused his anxiety he chased with everything he had, because the thing that caused his anxiety could also bring him comfort. Two very opposing results for the thing he spent most of his life doing. He supposed that only other skaters would be able to understand, and yet even then most wouldn’t either. Most didn’t suffer as he did with anxiety.

 

The only thing that could cause him so much anxiety was the ice, and the only thing that could bring him just as much confidence was the ice.

 

Putting it in words such as that, he realised that it sounded a little stupid. Or, no, not stupid, more strange. Not many people would understand it. Some might even think of it as a form of addiction, wanting to chase his anxiety because it gave him a thrill. He had seen people say as much online about others before.

 

As he skated, preparing for a jump, he quickly flicked his gaze over the audience. At his speed, he could barely pick out their expressions, nor could he hear anything they might have been chanting over the music. But he did see the signs shaking, he saw the flowers being thrown in the air, and that was enough to encourage him.

 

He jumped to the best of his ability, still striving to make his jumps just as effortless as the others. He wobbled only slightly on his landing however. He cursed himself just slightly. He had been thinking too much again.

 

Soon enough, his programme came to an end. He skated into his last pose, open for the world to see, and proud regardless of the one mistake. Barely a mistake, he reminded himself. There wouldn’t be too many points in deduction.

 

His score came in just below Viktor, one point difference. Going into the Free Skate, if the other skaters after him now didn’t beat him, he would be going in second.

 

***

 

As other skaters began to take to the ice, the competition still in full swing, Yuuri received a call from Yuko. He apologised to Celestino and Phichit, and took himself off to the bowels of the building to receive the call.

 

She picked up on the third ring. “Hello, Yuuri?”

 

“Yuko?” he asked, flinching just slightly. Of course it was Yuko, it was her phone number. “Sorry I didn’t pick up. But you should be sleeping anyway. It’s late there!”

 

Yuko groaned. “I know, tell me about it. But I think you have some of your youngest fans here. They refused to sleep until you’d been on.”

 

Yuuri huffed out a laugh, touched by the sentiment. The last time he had seen Yuko’s triplets, they had only been one. But as he competed, Yuko had sent countless pictures of the three in their growing. Yuko hadn’t planned on telling them exactly who Yuuri was, that he and Ren were even the same person, but it had actually been Yuuri that accidentally told them. They’d been skyping, and he assumed. He knew now how dangerous it was to assume. Yuuri and Yuko had spent a long time trying to convince the three to keep the identity a secret, under the pact that once Yuuri did decide to reveal himself, he would give them warning. They wanted to be the first ones to record it and put it online. Then there was Phichit who wanted the first photo. And he never forgot the promise he made to the female journalist back when he was nineteen of allowing her to be the first to interview him. He had made so many promises.

 

“And what did they think?” Yuuri asked.

 

Amazing, of course. I was afraid they were going to wake up the neighbours with all of their screaming. Seriously Yuuri, you need to stop encouraging their behaviour.”

 

“I don’t!” he chuckled. “It’s your fault for getting them into ice skating.”

 

With their father just as obsessed with it, the blame isn’t just on me.”

 

“They were doomed from the start, clearly.”

 

Yuko gave a quiet giggle. On the other end, Yuuri heard Takeshi’s rough voice call something out. There was a rushed whisper, then Yuko saying, “We’re trying to get them to bed now. They’re only four, Yuuri, and they’re already rebelling against their parents.”

 

“Just imagine them when they’re teenagers.”

 

Oh no,” Yuko groaned, making Yuuri burst out laughing. “No, please, Yuuri, don’t tease me like that. I’ve heard nightmares about one teenager, I’m going to have three!”

 

Yuuri couldn’t imagine having children – at least, not at this stage of his life. He was too young in his opinion, and yet at the age he was already at, Yuko was already a mother of three two year olds. He’d been there when she became pregnant, had helped her all through the hormones, the morning sickness, the growing, the weight gain, the swellings and back pains. Honestly, as hard as some of those months had been, it had helped Yuuri heal in a way of distraction. He had something else to think about other than skating or his tutor’s death. Something else to focus on, and sometimes that was all someone needed. Takeshi had been young too. Both he and Yuko were too young to have children, at least that was what the old ladies of the town said when they had nothing better to do. They were going to be bad parents, they condemned. Young couples never stayed together, and the children were going to suffer for it. Yuuri had seen how it had done the opposite, bringing the couple together and he had seen how happy they were when the girls were born – or more, he saw how happy Yuko was to have the three heavy babies out and her stomach not so extended. Some day, maybe, he thought. But not right now. He could never imagine having children right now. He could always leave that dream to Yuko.

 

He smiled to himself and assured, “You and Takeshi make great parents, and you’ll handle it fine. If the worst comes to the worst, just put on a skating video or something. It’ll distract them.”

 

You’re no help, Yuuri!”

 

“Sorry, sorry.”

 

No, you’re not.”

 

“No, I’m not.”

 

There was another call from Takeshi, a rushed whisper from Yuko, and then she said, “Sorry, Yuuri, I have to go. But you did amazing, the girls, Takeshi and I wish you massive amounts of luck for tomorrow, and win that gold! At least this time we’ll be more prepared and the girls won’t destroy our table in a fit of excitement.”

“Okay, that I’m sorry for.”

 

No you’re not.”

 

Yuuri laughed, “No, I’m really not.”

 

Goodnight, Yuuri!”

 

“Night, Yuko. Say goodnight to the girls and Takeshi too.” After Yuko’s confirmation, Yuuri hung up. It always warmed him to speak to Yuko, her voice taking him back to years and years ago. He remembered that fateful day, the suggestion of the mask, and what would have happened had she not voiced the thought or even thought of it at all.

 

But it was time to return to Celestino and Phichit to watch the rest of the competition. The other skaters this year were talented. He hoped no one would take the spot from him going into the Free Skate, but that was a big possibility with some of the skaters he had seen enter.

 

He turned the corner in the corridor, only to be greeted with someone standing in the middle, blocking his way. He didn’t recognise her, doubted he had ever seen her before, but she lit up when he came into view.

 

She looked pleasant enough, but there was something wrong. She was short, perhaps shorter than him, standing in the middle of the corridor, a notebook in hand and a pen in another. The rest of the hall was quiet and empty save for them, the only sound being the commentators on the speaker system. As she made a quiet gasp, echoed through the hall, he realised what it was that unsettled him.

 

This was the way he had come to find privacy for the call. She had followed and she had waited.

 

Remembering another bad encounter with a journalist, he stepped back a little, his mind running through everything he could do to save himself. He was older now, had taken some self-defence classes as per Celestino’s advice. He was ready, he was taller and he suspected stronger than her. He wouldn’t be caught in the same situation. He cast a quick glance down the corridor he had just come, eager to make sure she didn’t have a bigger, stronger accomplice. No. They were alone.

 

“Ren Himura!” she greeted too cheerily, skipping forwards. She stopped about ten feet in front of him, her curly brown hair bouncing around her face. “Funny meeting you here! Is it a coping mechanism, taking yourself off alone?” As she spoke, she began writing something in her notebook. Her eyes were piercing.

 

“No, I had a call,” he replied. “Sorry, but who are you?”

 

“Me? Oh, I’m Florence Hope, online blogger! Who were you calling?”

 

She spoke the name as if he should have known, but honestly it meant nothing to him. “Online blogger?” he asked instead.

 

“Yep, sort of like a journalist but without the strings, know what I mean?” she giggled, her voice too shrill and high. “I give the people the news they want without the pesky rules.”

 

Rules. He wasn’t sure what the woman meant, but he knew that there was something very wrong with that. He’d heard something about rules back when the last journalist had attacked him, but was too traumatised to really listen. There were consequences for breaking said rules, whatever they were. “What sort of news?”

 

“Well, I specialise in sports. I travel the world to attend competitions like this and record them. We have thousands and thousands of followers, and we enlighten them!”

 

“Right,” he replied, unsure what to say.

 

The woman flipped her hair over her shoulder and continued writing something down. “Say, Ren, how do you feel about the World Championship this season? After winning the Grand Prix Final, it must feel like a new challenge, one to best.”

 

“Uh, yeah, I suppose you could say that.”

 

“And your competition, how do you feel about them?”

 

“The Short Programme isn’t even over yet. I haven’t gotten to see them all, but so far they seem very skilled.”

 

The woman laughed, “But not in comparison to you and Viktor, right?”

 

“They’re still very skilled,” Yuuri pressed. “Anyone would be able to overtake me and Viktor if they put their mind to it.”

 

The woman nodded and gave a slow wink, “Right.”

 

No, Yuuri really didn’t like where this was going. “Look, I need to go back to the competition, so if you don’t mind-”

 

“Okay, okay, I’ll get straight to it then.” She stepped closer again, tilting her head to the side. “So, what’s the real reason behind the mask?” She chewed on her pen as she waited for an answer, her eyes boring straight into Yuuri. There was something wrong about them too.  

 

Yuuri was shocked by the sudden question, stilled in his movement. It had come from nowhere, and yet he should have expected it. Just because he had managed to avoid such questions from journalists so far since the attack didn’t mean that they would stop coming all together. Apparently, his lack of response wasn’t enough.

 

“Are any of the rumours correct?” she asked. She bent low a little, stepping closer. “I don’t see any burns on your neck, so maybe not a burn victim?” She wrote something quickly down. “Maybe you really are a celebrity or a secret monarch. But I don’t remember Japan having a monarch your age. Though, with that mask on, it’s easy to convince people you’re Japanese. You might not be.” She wrote more down. “I don’t see why a celebrity would want to keep it a secret.”

 

“I don’t feel comfortable with this,” he said, his voice a little too weak for his ears. He had been ready for a physical attack, not one so verbal. This felt wrong, like an invasion of privacy.

 

But the woman ignored it, as if he hadn’t said anything at all. “Some think you’re doing it as a publicity stunt, but I don’t see a young child of eleven deciding something so young. Unless of course, you’re that way inclined and have such patience.” She kept writing things down. It was annoying him. “There are rumours that you’re actually a fugitive, and hiding yourself right under the noses of the authorities.”

 

“No, nothing like that. Please, I don’t want to talk about this-”

 

“Are you perhaps a porn star or have been? You wouldn’t be able to continue skating if such a thing were to come out.” Scribble scribble, over and over. “Perhaps you’re on witness protection.”

 

She kept coming closer. She was about four feet away now. Yuuri stepped back to get away, but she kept coming forwards. “Personally, I believe you’re using it as a distraction to gain more points.” She paused, waiting for Yuuri’s reaction.

 

“What?”

 

“I mean, you’re not even that good a skater as it is. Your jumps are amateur, your spins are just above good enough. The only thing you have going for you is the step sequences. However, it’s easy to overlook these matters when the mystery is distracting people’s judgements.”

 

It felt like cold water had been poured on him. He knew he shouldn’t have been listening to the woman, but the shock of her words tore through him. “No,” he said almost desperately. “No, nothing like that. It doesn’t work like that-”

 

“You’ve even got Viktor wrapped around your little finger with your play.”

 

She said it with such venom. He didn’t know why. What had he done to warrant such a reaction? He knew that some were bitter towards him, expecting his reasons for his mask to be attention. He’d read their comments online for years, heard it in interviews, even had to listen to some of his competitors in the locker rooms when he was young. He knew a lot of the responses to his choice of disguise. But no one had been so open about it for so long, he’d almost forgotten how powerful it was.

 

“No, he’s chosen to be a friend, I didn’t do anything-”

 

“Was it your choice? Or both of your coaches’ choices?” she asked, not giving Yuuri nearly enough time to answer. “Your first coach, his name wasn’t very well known at all, so having a student like you could have shot him up right there with the greats. But your current – he’s already pretty well known and a good coach. He doesn’t need this attention to-”

 

“No, no!” Yuuri shouted, pushing his answers forward. He hated people talking about him and taking his ideas the wrong way. He’d been prepared for them when he decided that hiding his identity was what he wanted to do. But that didn’t mean he was going to lie down while his coaches were tarnished as well. “No, it wasn’t their choice, they just ran with it-”

 

“So are you saying that you bullied them into accepting it?”

 

“No, that’s not what I’m saying at all! I-”

 

She scribbled something down quickly, an odd smirk resting on the side of her face. “Ren Himura, twenty-one, loves attention and plays with the emotion of his fellow competitors and coaches. Quite the difference from the way the public see you, don’t you think?”

 

Yuuri scrambled to say something else, but his words weren’t coming fast enough. It was easy to run away if journalists began to use force. He had stamina and speed, he was good. But verbal abuse was always something he fell short with, and something that he couldn’t just teach Ren. He could do interviews, but this was different. This was an attack and he didn’t know how to get out of it.

 

“Are you taking any performance enhancing drugs?”

 

Every time he thought he had a handle on what she was going to say, she turned it on something else. “What?” he asked, stepping back until his back touched the wall. “No, of course not-”

 

“Now, wouldn’t that be some drama?” she giggled, writing something down. “Your stamina has always been a topic of debate, something that even trained professionals are jealous of. Just where does it come from?”

 

Yuuri felt his chest tightening. No rules, he reminded himself. She played by no rules. She didn’t care. She could write anything and it wouldn’t matter if it was the truth or not. He’d known about some news sites that only put out what they thought their readers wanted to see, click-baiting them until they had all of the views they wanted. She could write anything. Anything. It was going to hurt his reputation – to an extent, that wasn’t what he cared about. But it would harm Ren, and he wasn’t sure what he would ever be able to do without Ren. He’d spent so many years perfecting him, being him, that he couldn’t ever imagine losing him. Back to being Yuuri. Just Yuuri.

 

He gripped the material of his costume before his chest. His breaths were hard to come out. He felt heavy. Everything before his eyes were blurring. He could hear her still speaking, could see her getting closer, but everything hurt and he couldn’t focus.

 

He’d known. He should have known. Journalists and reporters hadn’t become easier to handle or more tolerant, he’d just been able to avoid ones like this. He should have known not to be alone. At least with someone attacking him, he knew what they were after. This time, he didn’t know what to do.

 

Someone was touching him. He weakly moved to the side, trying to get away. Arms wrapped around him. It was comforting and everything began to clear.

 

The woman was still before him, but between them were two bodies, shielding her from Yuuri’s view. When he made a chocked sob as he tried to breathe, the arms around him hugged tighter. Without looking up, he knew who it was.

 

“V-Viktor?” The warmth was more than comforting, and the gentle squeeze brought him back from his panic. His heart was still hammering inside of his chest, but he had a chance to calm down. His gaze grazed over the backs of the two men between him and the woman, recognising Georgi easily. Beside him, a shorter, older man stood. Yuuri thought it must have been Yakov, Viktor’s coach.

 

Whispered so quietly so that only they could hear, Viktor said, “It’s okay, Yuuri.”

 

But it sort of wasn’t, he thought. He hadn’t been prepared. Ren was created to combat so many situations, and to a small degree even this. But he hadn’t planned on being alone when it happened, he hadn’t planned such accusations. It was all well and good to give Ren confidence, to teach him what to say when it came to interviews or any interactions that might have caused Yuuri anxiety – but when the interviewer or the accuser barely let him get words out, throwing everything at him, pushing him into the corner, even the most confident person could break down.

 

But it also sort of was, he thought. Because as soon as he heard Viktor whispering his name, hugging him, holding him tightly in comfort, it warmed something inside of him. It calmed his beating heart. It chased away his anxiety and he could feel himself coming down again. He had time to still and find peace, allowing Yuuri to go back into hiding and for Ren to rise again. He melted into Viktor, breathing deeply as the other man rubbed his back.

 

Yakov and Georgi were yelling something, and the girl was yelling back. There were footsteps. He thought there might have been more people coming, but Yuuri wasn’t really paying attention. He burrowed himself further into Viktor, pressing his mask to Viktor’s shoulder, hiding himself away. He should have felt guilty, and thought that Ren wouldn’t act like this. Except he was. Even Ren right now wanted comfort.

 

“Come on, Yuuri, Yakov said he and Georgi are going to deal with it and get your coach for you. Let’s go somewhere to calm you down,” Viktor spoke into his ear.

 

Yuuri followed Viktor blindly, allowing the man to take him somewhere, clinging and not wanting to separate for even a second. He wasn’t sure how far they waked, or really what room they had entered. He was just aware that Viktor had sat him down and was kneeling before him, holding his hands tightly.

 

“Yuuri, it’s okay, we’re alone now. Are you alright?”

 

Yuuri looked down at the man before him, finding the concern in his face heart-warming. Yes, he decided, he really liked Viktor calling him by his real name. He nodded and said, “Yes, I’m actually much better now, thank you.”

 

He’d forgotten what it was like to panic. Ren had been protecting him for so long, encouraging Yuuri to grow stronger because of it, that situations that usually caused him to worry didn’t affect him anymore. He should have been curling into a ball right now, a nervous ball of anxiety, thrumming with panic. But he wasn’t. He’d been close, but he’d come out of it.

 

It didn’t seem to convince Viktor too much though. He asked, “Are you sure?”

 

Yuuri found himself laughing – just a small chuckle, but the look on Viktor’s face was so endearing, and he’d even seen it a few times on Vicchan’s face. “Yes, Viktor. I’m sure.”

 

Viktor took a deep breath and nodded. “Okay. You looked really frightened though, I was worried.”

 

“You can’t even see my face, how did you know?”

 

“Body language. You were shaking, Yuuri. I’ve never seen you like that.”

 

No, Yuuri thought. No one really had, no one but his family, Celestino and Phichit, only the ones who knew how deeply the anxiety touched. He never planned on Viktor seeing him like this either. Ren didn’t shake. He didn’t fear things. And yet, oddly enough, he didn’t worry that Viktor had seen him like this. Because this was Yuuri, and if Yuuri wanted even a little chance with Viktor, then he needed to see everything. Didn’t he? Yuuri had to be willing to show him everything, give Viktor a chance to back out of he wanted to.

 

“What did she say to you?” Viktor asked.

 

“Just… things. Like accusing me, saying I had everyone wrapped around my little finger, doing this for attention. The usual.” Things that he was used to, things he’d read a hundred times and yet from her mouth, dripping with her venom and bitterness, they seemed so much worse. “She also accused me of taking performing enhancement drugs. I didn’t really care, people have made assumptions like that before. But I think she was going to write about it without any facts, just to get readers.”

 

“And it doesn’t matter if there weren’t any facts, the damage would already be done,” Viktor supplied for him.

 

“Yeah,” Yuuri agreed. No rules. Dangerous people to be caught by. He could have lost Ren. The years he had been spending building him up, wasted, the time, the energy, the hope for a future. “I just… I don’t know.”

 

Viktor stroked the skin on the back of his hands. “It’s okay, Yuuri. Yakov is dealing with her. Remember what I said about him?”

 

Yuuri nodded, feeling ease already. “If there’s something he doesn’t want turning up in the media, it won’t. But she was an online blogger, not with any news-”

 

“Just makes it easier for him to ruin her reputation then. Believe me, nothing about this is going anywhere. She can make all the false accusations she wants, it’s not going to do any good.”

 

Yuuri knew that Viktor wouldn’t be able to see it when he gave a small smile, but hoped the other man could feel how grateful he was in his body language. “Thank you, Viktor. I-I didn’t know how to handle it. I wasn’t prepared, I just need to learn-”

 

“You don’t have to learn how to deal with a situation like that. No one should have to.” His eyes glanced down quickly as a thought occurred to him. He quickly took out his phone and said, “Look, I’ll give you Yakov’s number. If something like this happens again, call him and he can deal with it, alright? He’s good at this side of stuff.”

 

Yuuri said, “I don’t have my phone on me. Celestino has it.” He made a gesture towards his costume. “No pockets.”

 

Yuuri didn’t miss the way that Viktor’s eyes travelled over the costume quickly, then glanced back up at Yuuri has if he had to pull them away. Something inside him sparked, but Viktor interrupted, “Oh, well, then I’ll give it to you later. Celestino should have it anyway, they’ve talked often enough. But it’s going to be fine.”

 

“Okay.” He took a deep breath. “But it’s okay now, Viktor, I’m better. I was backed into a corner and I panicked, but I’ve calmed now.” He almost chuckled at the idea that he was reassuring Viktor more than the man was doing for him.

 

“Yuuri,” Viktor muttered, but stopped as if he wasn’t sure what else he wanted to say.

 

Yuuri felt his heart beat, one sharp bump against his chest. He liked his name from Viktor’s mouth so much.

 

Viktor gave him a grin, the concern in his face making way for something more playful. “And I like saying it just as much.”

 

Yuuri was confused for a slight moment, until he realised he must have said it out loud. He flushed and rushed to apologise, the words coming out in a muddled pile of stutters. Viktor simply laughed and pulled him closer into a hug.

 

“You know, I like the name Ren. It’s strong and easily recognisable. But the name Yuuri is just so much more. It’s soft, yet strong, rolls off the tongue. And it’s you. What could be better than that?”

 

Yuuri was sure Viktor didn’t understand what he was saying, or how much it meant to him. There was no way he could, especially since he didn’t know the extent of Yuuri’s reason behind his persona. And yet it was everything he wanted to hear, everything he needed right at that moment. So instead of words, Yuuri hugged Viktor tighter to him, conveying his thanks in every way he could.

 

***

 

The issue was dealt with quietly and quickly. The woman was removed from the premises, her notebook taken and a warning of if even a whiff of something about the competition was seen on her blogs or anything associated with her, there would be legal action. Honestly, Yuuri wasn’t too fussed about what happened to her, and it seemed Viktor wasn’t eager on him knowing too much about it from fear he might panic again.

 

Celestino and Phichit were quick to arrive. Celestino spoke quietly to Yakov, keeping away from them and both throwing their arms about the place. Phichit, however, much like Viktor, refused to let Yuuri go. Viktor was clinging to his right side, his arms wrapped tightly around Yuuri’s right arm. Phichit was clinging to his left, practically trying to clamber upon him.

 

“Yuuri, you’re alright?” Phichit asked for what seemed the hundredth time.

 

Yuuri didn’t grace the question with an answer, having already assured the other a thousand times on top. Had Yuuri not already told Viktor his name, he’d have been a lot more stressed, because while Phichit was careful to make sure that nothing about Yuuri came to light while they were together, it seemed that he reverted back to wanting to call Yuuri his real name when he thought something was wrong. Perhaps to ground Yuuri, remind him of reality and pull him back from any panic. He didn’t know, but it would have been an interesting way for Viktor to find out. He’d told Phichit that Viktor knew now, however, and the boy had been beyond excited, exclaiming that Yuuri was finally giving this a chance and that he didn’t have to be careful around Viktor anymore. If anyone was going to accidentally give him away, Yuuri knew it was Phichit.

 

“Yuuri’s fine, he just needs to calm down,” Viktor assured from around Yuuri’s shoulder.

 

And he’d already told them millions of times that he was calm, that he could go back and watch the rest of the competition. However, none of his words seemed to be reaching them, so he didn’t answer that one either.

 

“We can watch anything you want to when we get back to the hotel, Yuuri,” Phichit said gently.

 

“Can I join?” Viktor asked.

 

“No, it’s my time with Yuuri. You hog him enough.”

 

“But you get to see him in training! I only see him in competitions!”

 

“You constantly text and call him!”

 

“Oh, you know that’s not the same.”

 

If it wasn’t so absurd, having people fighting over him, Yuuri would have laughed. In fact, if it wasn’t so weird having the man that he had admired for years clinging to his side and fighting with a seventeen year old boy, he would have probably cried with laughter. Viktor was twenty five, he reminded himself. Not to mention that the outside world, those who didn’t know Viktor very well, saw him as a professional, a little flirty, and poised. If only they could see him now.

 

Once everything had been done, measures taken and the security of the competition giving the all-clear, the whole day had been done. Yuuri was a little disappointed as he wanted to watch the rest, but he was informed that he was still going into the Free Skate second. The day had been a long one, and Yuuri wanted nothing more than to have a hot shower, perhaps even a bath, and go to sleep.

 

***

 

He was worried that the next day would be just as stressful. He had woken up a little abruptly, pulled from a nightmare of what would have happened had the woman been able to post what she wanted, and yet as he got up to brush his teeth and get ready for the day, he felt suprisingly calm.

 

Phichit asked if he was alright as he got up, asked how his night was and if he thought he’d be fine for today. Yuuri replied that he was more than ready – and he found that they weren’t empty words. Not a lot of people had heard about what happened, only those immediately involved. The situation had been dealt with carefully and quietly, and yet those closest to him worried still. It had been a moment of panic. He knew had he gone through it again, more prepared this time, he could have just walked away and ignored it, got the security himself. And he’d show that to the ones that worried for him. Even after this, he’d gain gold, take the Championship title from Viktor. He’d show them that Ren was strong, and so was Yuuri because of it.

 

It was going to be a long day. He took his time warming up and watched as the first few competitors began. None of them he had had the chance to speak to as of yet, but he watched and wished them well anyway. He could learn some mannerisms from them perhaps, or even step sequences, spins or jumps he hadn’t encountered before. The drive inside of him to mimic burned.

 

Slowly, the time pushed on, and he watched the skaters pass one by one. He played with his fingers as he watched, huffing out regular breaths, careful in his thoughts. He didn’t want to think too much today, had been a victim of his mind for far too many times already. He thought about the themes he saw in all of the skaters, nothing too dangerous, and wondered what that theme meant to him. It was a fun game, one that Phichit decided to join in halfway through.

 

Chris’ name was called. He glided into the middle of the ice, looking calm and collected. There was a pause as he took a breath and the audience prepared, and then it was time. The music began, and Chris with it.

 

He began quickly, capturing the audience almost as soon as he started the programme. All eyes were on him as he demanded it, pulling in their gazes as he touched the exposed skin of his arms. Yuuri watched with the rest of them, always enraptured by Chris – not in the same way that he was with Viktor. Viktor held his love, his admiration, but he could argue that Chris might have held more of his respect. The man was always overlooked despite his numerous podium finishes.

 

Not to mention, while Yuuri and Viktor had their own kinds of fans, loyal and sweet, Chris might have had the loudest and the more outrageous. As Yuri thought it, he looked over to a group of women dressed all in pink, with fluffy scarves, long gloves and massive signs. Yuuri wondered how the people behind dealt with it. They were by far the loudest group, screaming every time Chris came near them at the barrier, and perhaps the closest signs there were to obscene without venturing too far. Overall, Yuuri loved to spot Chris’ fans every competition, finding a lot of entertainment in it.

 

Chris himself said he loved his fans, and loved their outlandish behaviours. He loved that he could incite such emotion from people and disregarded the fact that maybe they were a little too overwhelming. No one wanted to be in a seat next to a group of Chris fans, not with the flailing, the crying and the signs being thrown about everywhere.

 

Chris performed his programme with just as much finesse and grace as he had during the Grand Prix Final, if not more. Yuuri watched on, appreciating it in a way that he knew this would perhaps be the last time he would see it. Chris used the space of the rink with ease, not one part of his programme forced. Yuuri supposed that that was what marked a professional – the little details, things that other skaters and the judges would be able to pick up.

 

Chris finished with a thundering applause, almost drowned out by the screams of the female and some male audience that made up his fans.  Yuuri got ready for his own and passed Chris on the way. The man leaned over and wished him luck, to which Yuuri replied with a thank you and a promise to steal top spot once more.

 

The audience died down as he took his place in the middle of the ice. He reminded himself of his theme, confidence, and that this would be the last time he could skate this, this routine he and Celestino had especially crafted for such a heavy theme. Taking a deep breath, he lost himself to it.

 

The music began, filling the quiet space. He’d heard it so many times before, over and over, hours upon hours in the space of months. Every moment he had spent listening to it filled his head, every feeling he had felt in regard to his theme. It had been the hardest theme he had ever skated to date. It meant so much to him and to other people, and was hard to understand by those who gained confidence easily.

 

He’d seen online some of the responses by fans and watchers. Many had said that it was brave coming out with a theme as such when confidence was such a big part of the sport. Others took it the wrong way and assumed that he had called his theme confidence because he was vain and wanted to draw attention to him having more confidence than most. He’d seen many arguments online between the ones who supported him and the ones who just didn’t understand what it was that Yuuri was getting at. Not that he really minded. He had spent a little while yesterday looking at them online when he and Phichit got back to their room. His friend had urged him to stop, worried that it would cause another panic. Rather, it compelled Yuuri to better skate his programme and make sure there was no doubt as to why he was actually skating it.

 

He skated into a spread eagle, facing the audience and compelling them to watch him, to follow his every movement. He splayed his hands over his mask, drawing attention to the plastic, always reminding the audience of what and who he was. For whatever reason they thought he wore it, it didn’t matter, because he would live forever in their memories. He wouldn’t be easy to forget.

 

He was always nervous going into jumps though, no matter how many times he did them. So as the last jump of his routine came, he took a deeper breath than he ever remembered taking, and pushed everything in to it. He flew through the air, the wind whipping passed his head, and landed with a slight wobble. He might have gone into it with a little too much speed, he criticised, but it wasn’t too bad.

 

He skated into his final position, open to all, satisfied with their attention. He was here, he hadn’t let someone’s words get to him, and he was stronger for it.

 

It was a step in the right direction, and he couldn’t help but feel proud of it.

 

Viktor gave him a firm grip on his shoulder as he passed, a reassuring smile and a gentle gaze. As Viktor took to the ice, Yuuri waited in the Kiss and Cry. In these few minutes, barely any time, it would determine whether Viktor was to become a defeated World Champion, or the defender of his title.

 

And when Yuuri’s scores came through, it only helped to build the tension. The scores were high, nothing record breaking, but hard to beat – even for a legend such as Viktor.

 

Yuuri watched from where he sat, feeling Phichit’s hands grip his right arm like claws, refusing to let go. He felt his heart thump hard against his chest, his breathing coming out in ragged bursts.

 

As Viktor’s Free Skate began, he knew he wasn’t the only one reacting in such a way. The commentators were oddly quiet, rushing their words if they had to speak at all. The audience were some of the most still Yuuri had ever heard or seen. Skaters were leaning on the edges of their seats, mimicking the audience members in their excitement. There was an odd tension in the air, weighing heavily, almost as if a cloud were forming.

 

Yuuri hadn’t been aware before that he even stood a chance of winning, or that he had a very real chance of doing so. He’d ignored it, thought it wasn’t quiet his year yet, and disregarded the points. Looking back, it was part of the reason why he had been unable to reign in his emotions and cried even on the podium. Now aware that he was good enough, he watched with the preparation if it should happen again.

 

Pushed to defend his title, Viktor danced with more determination than before. It was easy to see in the way he took careful breaths before his first combination, adding a double at the end to rack up the points. It was easy to see in the way he pushed more emotion into his expression, pulling in the onlookers until they could look at nothing else. It was also easy to see in the way he command he had on the ice – he took over every space, left his mark on the surface, curling until his were the deepest out there. His skates made the majority of the sound in the room, a lulling repetition of slicing, mesmerising in the silence.

 

Yuuri had always been captivated by the man. Sometimes, he just didn’t know why. There weren’t enough words in any language, nothing that could just capture the essence of Viktor, to be able to describe it. Now that he knew the man, he was beyond captivated. If there were a word for that, it was him. Seeing Viktor skate was beautiful and brought so many emotions from him, but knowing the man now as he did, he was more captivated by his behaviour after his skates, when he stood proudly on the podium with Yuuri somewhere beside him, when the public image sometimes slipped, where he was a combination of the Viktor they knew and the Viktor he knew. There were so many things he wanted to know about Viktor, so many things he had yet to learn, and it was on the podium that it could be achieved. Then they were in each other’s attentions, competitive, fellow sportsmen with the whole world looking on.

 

As the programme continued, Yuuri became more aware of just how today was going to turn out. Viktor added more combinations, including a combination spin, and raised one arm in jumps to higher the difficulty. The programme was flawless, just as they had come to expect from Viktor, and he had raised the bar when it came to competition. He didn’t want to lose his title.

 

As he skated into his last pose, Yuuri knew for sure he hadn’t achieved it. Going into the Free Skate last was quite the advantage, and Yuuri thought about how he wanted to achieve that for next year. Now that he had taken the title from Viktor in the Grand Prix Final, he hungered to take it from Viktor in Worlds too.

 

The scores came in, and just as he had expected, Viktor retained his title as World Champion, Yuuri coming second and Chris third, just as it had been before.

 

Viktor’s fans exclaimed their relief in the crowds, a few groans here and there from some audience members and journalists. As if it was a bad thing. Yuuri didn’t think so at all. He stood on the podium, looking up at Viktor, a place he had stood before. He aimed to be the one on the top next Worlds, looking down at Viktor once more, a sly grin on his face as he took the title from the man.

 

As he bent low to receive the medal, Yuuri smiled behind his mask. Silver, shining brightly around his neck, still a brilliant position. Having seen Viktor rise further beyond to retain a title in answer to competition, and seeing Viktor’s face light up as he received his medal - an expression he hadn’t seen in a very long time - Yuuri vowed that he would keep pushing the other man until his love for the sport and for competition was regained.

 

They smiled and waved at the audience, holding their medals in their hands. Yuuri watched enthralled as Viktor rose his and kissed the gold, an eyebrow raised in Yuuri’s direction. Something burned within the Japanese man, whether an answer to competition or a desire to be the one touching those lips, he didn’t know. He just knew that he was going to give it his all.

 

Confidence is a weird conception. It creates and destroys people, causes problems that have no business being there, and rises empires. Yuuri was still very much on the journey to achieving his, but oddly enough he felt like having a theme such as this had grown him as a person. He’d feared at the beginning that he wasn’t enough to skate something so meaningful. Now he had a hunger residing deep in his belly for it.

Chapter Text

Yuuri loved his sponsors, he really did. It was thanks to them that he got the money that enabled him to continue his lifestyle of ice skating without needing to worry about finding a job to support it. They gave him free merchandise, publicity and support. So of course he loved them, because they made everything possible for him.

 

But he did not love their meetings. He usually left Celestino to it, and his coach was more than happy to. But as Yuuri grew as a sportsman, gaining more medals and getting higher on the podium, as he became a true competition to Viktor and the targets of bigger sponsors, his current ones demanded to see him face to face and engage in a more personal connection. It made for some very, very boring meetings, in which he didn’t even say that much to begin with. Celestino handled it well enough without him, but he was expected to attend. And poor Phichit had been dragged with him.

 

No amount of playing Ren would save him from it either, not when he had nothing to be confident off of. They demanded he be there, and then to be quiet while Celestino agreed contracts between them. Honestly, he suspected it might be because they didn’t want him talking to other sponsors that were prowling the banquet hall.

 

When he and Phichit were finally let go, the banquet was in full swing. Yuuri’s first thought was to unwind with some drinks, champagne as was his banquet favourite, and watch the dancing from the side lines. However, Phichit had different ideas. Without so much as a warning, Phichit grabbed his hand and dragged him into the middle of the dance floor.

 

With some of his extra money from sponsorship, Yuuri had traded his old and worn suit for something newer, something that fit nicely. Celestino, a suit man himself, had accompanied him and helped him and Phichit find new suits for interviews and occasions such as this. Yuuri wanted a nice black suit, nothing too extravagant. Simple, traditional, black. He only got one of those things – black. Celestino had picked out a three-piece suit, donned with embroidery on the waistcoat, threaded in silver – ironically, it matched the medal hanging from his neck. The suit hugged his form, complimenting all of his curves as Phichit had said. He hadn’t looked at the price, didn’t want to. Even if he could afford it, his life style as the son of a small family trying to keep the last hot springs of Hasetsu going  and as a university student warned him against prices with so many zeros. Phichit had gotten himself a dark grey one, looking far older than he was, a three-piece like his with black embroidery along the waist coat. To add to the look, he placed black cufflinks and a silver pocket watch hanging from his breast pocket.

 

“You have to dress like the professional you are,” Celestino had said. “You’ve won gold once, and you repeatedly get a podium spot. You can’t look like a sack of potatoes in an ill-fitting suit.” When Phichit had asked why he needed to get one, more out of curiosity than defiance, Celestino had answered, “And it’s not too early to start dressing like you are going to win too. You might not have made it this year, Phichit, but when you do, you’re going to look like a winner.”

 

They started off slowly in their dancing, swaying to the slow beat. Yuuri’s arms were around Phichit’s waist, Phichit’s over Yuuri’s shoulders, close but not too close. It felt comfortable, and Yuuri was reminded of their many dance classes or practices in their room at University.

 

Phichit was studying Yuuri, his eyes boring into the mask. He looked as though he wanted to say something, and although Yuuri was giving him room to do so, Phichit was glancing around for any prying dancers. Yuuri didn’t like that – didn’t want to know what was on his friend’s mind if his expression was anything to go by.

 

“If you had won Worlds,” Phichit whispered, a suspicious smirk trying to break onto his face, “were you going to tell Viktor?”

 

“Tell him what?” He twisted them around, catching Phichit by surprise.

 

Once he had regained his breath, Phichit clarified, “Tell him that you love him.”

 

Yuuri spluttered, glancing around himself to make sure that no one close had heard it, aware now of Phichit’s caution. “N-No, why did you think that?”

 

“Because it would have been the best time, for you and for the story I would get to tell people for years to come.” When Yuuri tilted his head questioningly, Phichit sighed like it was the most obvious thing in the world. “Come on, it would have been the perfect time! You’d already beaten him in the Grand Prix Finals, proving yourself worthy as a competitor, and you can’t tell me you didn’t see the way he looked at you on the podium. He was overjoyed, and you can’t tell me that that was because someone finally beat him. It was because it was you.”

 

Yuuri spluttered again, shaking his head. He couldn’t believe he was having this conversation with Phichit, not when he told Phichit everything. If he was going to tell Viktor, then Phichit would have been the first to know. But just like the curious and pestering friend he was, he had to put ideas in Yuuri’s head. “No, he’d have done the same if it was Chris.”

 

“He’d have been happy, you’re right, but he wouldn’t look like that,” Phichit pushed. “I wasn’t the only one that saw it, either. Haven’t you been online? Some of the news reporters caught it, as well as the official photographers of the event. It’s started up quite the drama on all of the forums.”

 

“The forums? What?”

 

Phichit rolled his eyes. “Oh my god, if you weren’t so adorable I’d slap you. People online have been saying it’s because he clearly loves you.”

 

Yuuri began to shake his head even before Phichit had said it, knowing it wasn’t true. “Then they’re all wrong, he’s just happy because we’re close. And they shouldn’t be talking about things like that anyway!”

 

“Not close enough, if I had my way, you’d both already be together and I’d have the hotel room to myself while you’re off riding-”

 

Feeling his cheeks flaring, Yuuri pressed a hand to Phichit’s mouth, stopping his words before anyone could overhear. “Phichit, geez, please don’t go there.”

 

Phichit gave him a look, one raised eyebrow and a piercing gaze, before he tore Yuuri’s hand from his mouth. “I’m just saying, he looks at you differently than he does Chris, and don’t even get me started on how much he clung to you last banquet. But that’s not even my point. You’re too scared to tell him because you’re not confident enough, right? I thought that once you won Worlds from him too, you’d finally think you were enough.”

 

Yuuri contemplated the words for a second, feeling his heart beating. He found it did that a lot lately. Perhaps he needed to go to the doctor. But wouldn’t that be nice, the idea of his love being reciprocated? And yes, he knew he’d have more confidence once he was seen as enough, that maybe seeing him win would spark something inside of Viktor. But that was done in films and romance novels. He didn’t live in one of those, nothing ever fell so neatly.

 

Phichit continued, “And you’ve already given him your real name. I honestly never thought you would. A year ago, you were happy enough to just have him as a fellow competitor. Now you’re demanding his attention, and he’s giving more than you even ask for. You’ve given him your name, and let’s be honest, you’re not that far from showing him your face, are you?”

 

“I’m not ready-”

 

“And you don’t have to be, no one is pressuring you, least of all me. You know that. But a year ago I never thought you’d have let it go this far, but here you are. I seriously wondered if you were going to give him more once you saw yourself as enough.”

 

Yuuri knew that Phichit had his interests at heart, despite loving the idea of being the one to tell the story and proud to be a part of it. But Yuuri wasn’t ready. He didn’t know if he ever would be, but what would he have thought if he won gold? Would it be different? Would he have been high on the feeling of winning and admitted everything to Viktor? He wasn’t sure. And that was where the issue lay – he wasn’t sure. He used to be so sure of his feelings, knowing himself in and out, and here he was, hesitating. He was hesitating about pouring his heart out to the man he loved, despite his anxiety. So much risk. It would almost kill him if he was rejected or sneered at, or if the friendship he had going with the man were to end. He didn’t want that to happen. But he had given thought to creatomg a chance. Is that what a chance meant? Could he put everything on the line just for something that might happen? He was hesitating, he wasn’t sure.

 

Just how close was ‘not sure’ to becoming a ‘maybe’, and how close was a ‘maybe’ to a ‘yes’? Oddly enough, the idea didn’t scare him, not as it did when he first found out he was in love. What had changed?

 

“I don’t know, Phichit,” he admitted, his voice quiet as he allowed his friend to sway him further into the middle, finding the biggest space between the dancers. “I really don’t know.”

 

Phichit gave him a gentle smile. “Like I said, no pressure. You don’t ever have to tell him if you don’t want to.” Once he was sure that Yuuri had calmed down just a little, he sighed, “But it would be absolutely amazing, and I want to be the one to tell the world, with pictures of you two kissing. In fact, I want a full backdrop, you two bathed in moonlight, flowers everywhere, maybe some fireworks. I want kids in the background holding more flowers. In fact, why don’t we just go full out and dress you both in white suits, rings on your fingers and an arch with the words ‘I do’ written in the sky?”

 

Yuuri laughed, finding it hard not to as he pictured the scene painted out before him. Of course Phichit would want that, anything to make a good photo opportunity. As much as Phichit loved him, Yuuri knew that the prospect of a beautiful photo would outweigh the actual importance of a wedding day. “You need to stop, Phichit.”

 

“You just pictured it, didn’t you?”

 

“Yes, I did.”

 

“And did you like what you saw?” At Yuuri’s silence, Phichit leaned in closer to whisper into Yuuri’s ear, “Now, imagine what the wedding night would be like.”

 

Yuuri gasped, pulling his upper half away from Phichit, his cheeks flaring into such a bright red he worried that even the mask couldn’t hide. From the way Phichit giggled, his gaze glancing from Yuuri’s neck to his ears, he knew it had reached further than he would have liked.

 

“Like I said, adorable.”

 

“Who is adorable?” a very familiar voice asked.

 

They turned to see Chris standing beside them, his hands in his pockets and a smirk resting on his face. Yuuri suspected he might have heard a little of what was being said, or perhaps just saw the blush on Yuuri’s neck. They stilled in their dancing, pulling apart in the middle of the floor.

 

“Ren is, don’t you think?” Phichit asked, mischief practically ebbing from him.

 

“Oh, more than just adorable,” Chris agreed.

 

Yuuri sighed, once again thinking that yes, he should never have introduced Phichit to any of the skaters. So far, he’d only proved to be an interference. “Okay, let’s stop there,” he said.

 

“I came to claim a dance with the silver medallist, before he gets snapped up by a certain gold medallist,” Chris said, holding out his hand for Yuuri to take.

 

Yuuri was shocked for a moment, thinking back. Had he danced with Chris before, or even properly? Honestly, he didn’t remember. But the man was right, by the end of the night Yuuri would have gone looking for Viktor and most likely stay dancing with him. A few dances with Chris definitely wouldn’t hurt. He took the hand and looked back at Phichit, about to ask if he wanted to wait. But Phichit beat him to it.

 

“I’m going to go to the buffet, because I am beyond starving. If you want to find me, I’ll be there.”

 

As soon as Phichit was off of the dance floor, safely skirting around the dancers who were a little too filled with alcohol and a swaying a little too violently, Chris urged Yuuri to life his free hand and place it on his shoulder while he placed his on Yuuri’s waist. It was a style that Yuuri had done a few times with Viktor, but this felt different. Less intimate, he supposed, less fuelled with an overpowering admiration from himself, less filled with unrequited love. Instead, as they gently began to step and sway, Yuuri found it more than pleasant, an action he hadn’t taken with Chris before – the man he respected so much, even considered a good friend.

 

“You know,” Yuuri began, looking up into Chris’ face, “I don’t think I’ve managed to say it yet, but I’ll say it now – it was a brave thing you did this season, going against what people expected of you.”

 

“Didn’t get be further than a bronze in the Grand Prix Final or the World Championships though did it?” he asked, saying it with a playful smirk rather than spite.

 

“I still respected it, respected you for it,” Yuuri replied, surprised by his own words. He felt like he should have been blushing even a little, because though in his mind he loved to hand out compliments to everyone, when it came to saying them out loud it was embarrassing, like letting everyone know what he was thinking. Something so private. He supposed it was Ren, giving him that eager push, but he wasn’t sure. It was strange. It felt like Yuuri was just as eager to say it as Ren. “I think you really inspired people.”

 

The playfulness in Chris’ face changed into something more gentle, his smile soft, his eyes bright, an expression he rarely saw on the other man. He said, “Thank you, Ren. It really means a lot.”

 

Something felt wrong, and he felt as if he had experienced this before. There was something annoying him about what it was that Chris was saying, and he couldn’t quite place what it was. Something irked him, something that hadn’t quite before, and he felt like it was on the tip of his tongue.

 

At his hesitation, Chris asked, “Ren?”

 

Ah. He got it then, when it was separated from everything else. He’d just been thinking about how much of a good friend Chris was. The man had done nothing but help him, just as Viktor had. He’d been encouraging, supporting, a good sportsman even as Yuuri stole his silver streak not once but many times. He’d shown nothing but praise and excitement, encouraged Yuuri to be better, to aim high, even against someone like Viktor. He glanced around, wondering how close they were to other dancers.

 

Even as Chris kept asking if he was alright, Yuuri continued to eye the area around them. Journalists were still wandering about, asking for photos from people before they were ushered out for the remainder of the banquet. It would look suspicious of he left with Chris, too many rumours passing and too many hungry reporters that might follow and overhear things. So Yuuri calculated, eyeing the space between them and the closest dancers, wondering if a whisper would carry. Under the music, it was likely not to.

 

Chris was looking a little concerned, and Yuuri realised for the first time Chris might have worried because he didn’t know what Yuuri was thinking, couldn’t read the expression off of him to act appropriately. He’d known that that was going to be a major factor when he first donned the mask, and that was why he showed so much of his expression through body language.

 

“I’m fine,” he assured, feeling a tight knot in his chest. He needed to think about it, really think about it, because this was incredibly important to him. But, just like Viktor, Chris had been nothing if not trustworthy. And if he could tell Viktor, he could tell Chris with ease. “I need to tell you something.”

 

Chris narrowed his eyes in confusion. “Do you want to stop dancing and go somewhere to talk?”

 

Yuuri shook his head. “No, no, it’s easier here. The dancers are too distracted and the music will drown it out.”

 

Chris froze for just a second as his mind tried to keep up. Then his lips pulled into a playful smirk again, and he winked. “Oh, now a secret? One you don’t want anyone listening in on? Is it dirty?”

 

Yuuri couldn’t stop the bubble of a chuckle that rose from his chest, the worry dispersing with it. “Get your mind out of the gutter, it’s not like that.”

 

“Aw, I’m a little disappointed now. I thought I was going to finally hear some of your most intimate secrets.”

 

Yuuri paused for a second, and that caught Chris’ attention.

 

“What is it?” he asked.

 

Yuuri looked around again, this time surer that the dancers around them were either too far away or too distracted in their own world. He could barely hear them over the music, so it should be fine, he thought. “I want to tell you my real name,” Yuuri said, and he paused watching as Chris’ eyes widened, mouth gaped open as if he wanted to say something but couldn’t find the words. Before he could, Yuuri continued, “You’ve been so nice, patient, encouraging, supportive, and a really good friend. You could have pushed me, maybe tried to get close and then ask for my name or face, but you didn’t. There were so many things you could have done but didn’t. So I want to tell you my real name.” Yuuri found that the dance, led by Chris, was stuttered a little as he absorbed the words speechlessly.

 

After a few moments, he said, “You know, you don’t have to. I don’t want you to feel pressured-”

 

Yuuri laughed again. “That’s exactly what Viktor said too.”

 

Chris’ eyebrows rose up his forehead. “Viktor knows?”

 

“Yeah, I told him a little while ago.”

 

Chris grinned and rolled his eyes. “I bet the idiot was over the moon with it.”

 

“Well, I’m guessing so, since every chance he gets he says it,” Yuuri replied. Not that he was complaining, not at all. “So, do you want to know?”

 

Chris’ grip on his hand and his waist tightened reassuringly, his gentle smile back. “I would be honoured.”

 

Honoured. Honoured about what the public saw as a simple name, something they’d been trying to find for a while. Honoured about a name that Yuuri never really saw as special, preferring Ren’s name because of its strength and purpose. Honoured about something he used to want to leave behind. The thought made his chest feel tight, his head spin. Honoured. Just like Viktor, Chris knew exactly what to say.

 

Yuuri took just a moment more to make sure that no one was looking, before he leaned in and whispered, “Yuuri Katsuki.” He felt like he wanted to say more, as if just the name wasn’t enough, but as he leaned back, he knew it was just right.

 

Chris looked as if he was rolling the name in his mind, repeating the letters over and over again, his eyes scanning over Yuuri’s mask as if he saw it in a completely different light. Seeing a new person.

 

“Yuuri,” he whispered, testing the name, his voice barely loud enough for even Yuuri to hear.

 

Yuuri was amazed how much power his name held over people. He’d become used to it only being Ren’s, the name that drew the media, collected fans, displayed on billboards and websites until it was recognisable across the globe. Yuuri’s name only had power with his family and close friends, and even that power was only limited to being something familiar, nothing that evoked much emotion. But when he had told Viktor, the man had repeated it as if it was the most precious thing in the world, as if the name held power over himself. He spoke it as if it was going to break under his breath, as if he would soon forget it and wanted to retain it in his memory for as long as he could.

 

Chris spoke it with such warmth, as if he had been waiting for hear it for a very long time, like a friend that had been missing, come back home. He spoke it as if he had been saying it since he first knew Yuuri, as if on some level it was all he had ever known. Not to say he had known Yuuri’s name, but as if it fit Yuuri perfectly and that was what Chris knew. He spoke it with edge, a tiny bit of hesitation, as if saying it would scare Yuuri away. And yet he opened his mouth as if to say it again.

 

“Can’t say I’ll be spot on in pronouncing it the first few times,” Chris muttered.

 

It was a sentence Yuuri didn’t think he’d hear, so it brought out another unstoppable bubble of laughter. “You don’t have to pronounce it perfectly, especially the surname. It’s quite hard.”

 

“Yuuri Katsuki,” Chris muttered again, narrowing his eyes in the attempt.

 

Yuuri smiled, though he knew that the other man wouldn’t be able to see. “Pretty close, you’ll get it in no time.”

 

Chris grinned and took the moment to spin Yuuri around, causing the younger man to gasp as he felt his control leave him. “It’s beautiful,” Chris said. “I can see why Viktor would want to say it at every chance.”

 

“Thank you,” Yuuri said, a light blush on his cheeks. “It… It goes without saying, doesn’t it, that… I still want to keep it a secret?”

 

“No worries, Re… Yuuri,” he corrected himself quietly. “No worries at all. I’ll have you know, I’m pretty good at keeping secrets.” He gave another one of his famous winks as he spun Yuuri again, almost quite literally off of his feet.

 

“Do I want to even know the sort of secrets you know?”

 

Chris laughed, dipping Yuuri until his head was nearly touching the floor. As he brought him back up, he said, “Well, one of them you’d certainly love to know.”

 

Curious, Yuuri asked, “Really? What is that?”

 

Chris shook his head. “Nah, ah! I just told you, I’m good at keeping secrets. And it’s not my secret to tell. When the fool finally decides to tell you, it’ll be his.”

 

“Who tell me what?” Yuuri pressed.

 

“No, no, my lips are sealed shut.” To put emphasis, he made the zipping motion with his hand. “It shan’t be long, I feel, however.” He caps a gentle smile Yuuri’s way before he dipped him the other way, keeping one hand carefully on the back of Yuuri’s head. “It would be nice to see you both happy.”

 

Yuuri was going to ask what he meant as the words filtered through his mind. He tried to make sense of them, wondered what it was about him that Chris knew, or what he was involved with, but Chris glanced over his shoulder as he brought him back up and said, “Well, it looks like Prince Charming is waiting for a turn. I’ll let you go to him, but first, I must thank you.”

 

Yuuri tilted his head. “Thank me? Why?”

 

Chris gave him an eye roll, looking suspiciously like Phichit at that moment. He said, as if it was the most obvious thing in the world, “Thank you for trusting me and sharing such an intimate part of yourself. I’ll take your name to the grave with me if that’s what you want.”

 

“It… It really wasn’t that important,” Yuuri said, though he knew it was a lie. It was so important to him, and yes, it showed he placed a lot of trust in someone if he told them his name, or let them see his face. But that was different. Just because he placed so much importance on it, it didn’t mean that others had to either. And yet Chris was acting as if it was one of the most important things that he had ever been bestowed.

 

Chris glanced around, very careful when he whispered, “Yuuri, it’s a part of you, something you keep from others. You hold it close to your heart, and to allow me to be a part of it, to share it with me… Don’t put yourself down like that, it’s a privilege for me to see you like this.”

 

Honestly, Yuuri might have been close to crying. He nearly was when Viktor had first said his name, saying it as if it meant the world to him, and Chris had always been good with romantic language. Chris was brilliant at expression himself – through words or body, it didn’t matter. His name had meant so much to the two people he trusted enough to tell, and he was so overwhelmed with how accepting they were of Yuuri without Ren. He didn’t think they’d ever be able to understand how much that meant to him, especially not then.

 

“Thank you, Chris,” Yuuri said once he was sure that a sob was pushed down.

 

Chris gave him one last gentle smile before he said, “Now, before I’m physically pushed off or glared at anymore, I’ll pass you on to Viktor.”

 

Yuuri didn’t have much time to say anything before Chris was leading him somewhere, his hands leaving Yuuri’s and then someone else taking his place. Even without looking, even without Chris telling him who he was leading him to, Yuuri would be able to recognise that touch anywhere. No one could ever be mistaken for Viktor, no one. He looked up into bright blue eyes, shining with joy and watching only Yuuri. They stepped in time with the music, falling into the same hold as he had had with Chris, but Yuuri found that while he enjoyed dancing with Chris, he couldn’t ever keep his attention away from Viktor.

 

Before Viktor had much of a chance to say anything, Yuuri told him, “I told Chris my real name.”

Viktor brightened even more. “I was wondering when you would. How did he take it?”

 

“Like… Like it was really important,” Yuuri said, still not really believing it. He had been prepared when he was young, prepared for when he got too close to someone and told them his secrets. He had been prepared for everything to blow up in his face, for his secret to reach the world. He had plans for when that would happen, and Celestino was prepared as well. And while Yuuri liked to imagine that he could be someone who would keep to himself and never tell, he wasn’t like that at all. If he got close to someone, he wanted them to know him, because it was too painful not to show them. It was how he ended up telling Phichit, worried that the younger skater was only friends with him because he was Ren. He wanted to give Yuuri his own chance of making friends, because otherwise it was such a lonely life. And yet here he was, telling three people, and every single one of them had not been a mistake. Strange, he thought. This far in his career, he had expected the world to have known. It’s what he prepared for.

 

“It is important,” Viktor assured him. “It’s the most important thing I’ve ever been given.”

 

“W-What?” Yuuri stuttered, about to fight that, tell him that all of his golds were pretty important, or the money, or the fans presents, or love from others, or just anything but his name, but Viktor must have seen that coming. To silence him, he spun Yuuri around until the air escaped his lungs. Once Viktor finally stopped, Yuuri gasped, “Why does everyone like doing that to me?”

 

“Because you’re adorable.”

 

Yuuri blushed hard, and he was very sure it reached his neck and ears again. He looked down, between them at their feet as he said, “You’ve been talking to Phichit.”

 

“I like your friend, he tells me some very interesting stories.”

 

His heart stopped, his head snapped up, and he asked, “Like what?”

 

“Yuuri, I didn’t know you were such a chemistry genius.”

 

“No, no, wait, that wasn’t me! I swear I didn’t blow up the chemistry wing, that was Phichit!”

 

Viktor’s only reply was a chuckle, a full blown one from the very bottom of his stomach, and dipped Yuuri until their faces were so close, the mask being the only thing between them. As Yuuri breathed, he noticed how just for a second, time stood still. So short, but it stopped. He got a clear look into Viktor’s eyes and Viktor into his before he was pulled back up.

 

“What else did he tell you?” he asked, trying to distract his own wandering mind.

 

“He told me you wanted to battle his hamsters once.”

 

“They chewed the edges of my phone!” Yuuri defended. Of course, of course Phichit wanted to paint Yuuri in a bad light. He liked to think of himself as a brilliant wingman, when all he was doing was giving Viktor some of the most embarrassing material to tease him. “He has three. They all took a corner each then demolished the last one together. I swear they knew what they were doing.”

 

Viktor laughed, spinning Yuuri around gently, swaying him with the soft piano in the air. “And did you win?”

 

Yuuri looked away, grumbling, “Phichit put them away before I could tell them off.”

 

Viktor’s face lit up more, as if that was possible. His cheeks were red from the burn of smiling so much, small tears of laughter in the corner of his eyes, hair falling from his gel in their dance. “You were seriously going to argue with some hamsters?”

 

“They chewed up my phone!”

 

Viktor led him further onto the dance floor, finding the biggest gap for him to spin Yuuri off of his feet, holding him close. He kept looking down at Yuuri, looking into the holes of his mask, never taking his gaze away. And in turn, Yuuri couldn’t either. His gaze flickered from each of Viktor’s eyes, so close he could almost see the reflection of himself in the middle of the Russian’s pupils.

 

“Is this how you discipline Vicchan?”

 

Yuuri groaned, “Don’t get me started on Vicchan. I love him from the very bottom of my heart, but he loves to steal the food from the kitchen. My mum has a lot of trouble with him and has to lock him outside at meal times.” He paused for a second, something melancholy filtering into his system. He said, “I haven’t seen him for three years now. I’ve been so busy with skating I… I haven’t been home in a long time.”

 

Viktor pulled him closer, something Yuuri didn’t think was possible, but now knew how possible it was. He could feel the hard outline of Viktor’s body against his soft one, all muscle under the clothes, lithe and graceful. Their chests breathed together, hearts beating close, pulses racing under their skins. If Yuuri wasn’t wearing a mask, they could have been nose to nose, but instead Viktor was nearly touching plastic. Yuuri felt that loss, wanting the mask gone so he could feel Viktor’s breath on his skin, smell Viktor’s scent from his neck, have the intimacy that his mask deflected. At that thought, Yuuri cast his thoughts to what Phichit had said. To really show Viktor his face, the man he had already trusted with his name.

 

Viktor whispered, so lowly that even this close Yuuri struggled to hear, “Yuuri, don’t ever feel chained to this sport. If you want to go home, go home, spend some time with family. They should never come second.”

 

Yuuri nodded. He knew. He’d known for years. He had made a promise to himself to visit his family within the year of his first leaving, but when the time came it was in the middle of competitions. So he pushed it. And pushed it and pushed it until it had been years. He knew he should have gone back before now, to thank them for the endless support he had gathered from them, but it was so difficult. He’d been so busy. They weren’t second, never would be, to his career. But he wanted to do this to make them proud, and to achieve that he needed to be the best. No free days. No time to see them.

 

Viktor took one of his hands from Yuuri’s and pressed it to the side of Yuuri’s throat, a comforting pressure against his skin. “You don’t need to feel guilty about it. People are busy. Just know that you can go home whenever you want to. You’ve done so much for the ice skating community, they need to give you some perks too.”

 

Yuuri found himself smiling at that. “They do, don’t they?” He let an edge of feigned ego slip in. “They owe me so much.”

 

Playing along, Viktor pulled his hand from Yuuri’s side and used it to whip his fringe off of his face before saying, “Don’t they just? Especially me, I’m not known as the living legend for nothing. I’ve made them.”

 

Yuuri tried to keep a straight face, he really did, but it must have been the tone of Viktor’s voice, or the smug expression, or the words or maybe even everything combined, but something was his ruin. He fell forwards in his laughter, pressing his face into Viktor’s shoulder, the mask pressing into his skin but he didn’t care. He heard Viktor roll with laughter, throwing his arms around Yuuri as if a hug, and together they rocked in the middle of the dance floor.

 

It was so warm as Yuuri clutched to Viktor’s front, reluctant to move away. By now, he was sure that some people had been watching. He could feel it on his back. But he stayed as close to Viktor as he could for as long as he could. He never thought it was possible to fall in even deeper love with the man, until the motion was spinning his head and making him mad. Every word from the man’s mouth made his universe, every expression flared colours in his mind, every interaction reminded Yuuri of why he lived.

 

He could very well imagine himself growing old with the man, beyond their skating years, settling somewhere in Japan or Russia, with dogs galore. He could see himself returning home from work to find Viktor cooking in the kitchen, heavenly smell wafting through the air. He could imagine sneaking up to hug Viktor from behind, his arms weaving around his waist, happiness radiating. He could imagine so many clichéd situations.

 

But he didn’t care. When Viktor was near, his anxiety was pushed down. The monsters that whispered regrets and self-loathing were silenced when he was around. The buzzing in his blood calmed, the tension dissipated, the pressure lifted. Everything stopped. He could think. It might have sounded so simple to someone who didn’t understand, but to him it was something so big.

 

Viktor made everything okay.  

 

Yuuri even flinched at that, knowing just how much of a love-sick thing it was to think. But it was true and he didn’t know how else to say it. For so long, he had put pressure on himself and had pressure put on him. There was stress everywhere he looked, nervous energy flaring through him on a daily basis. He had so many friends and family members that managed to dull it, but not like Viktor. The simplest and best way to describe it was to say Viktor made everything okay.

 

It was part of the reason why love scared him so much. If he did take the risk and Viktor backed away, his peace was gone. Shattered. Eroding away until he was a shell of the person he used to be. He didn’t want to be so dramatic, but it was what it felt like. They always said that the first love was the hardest, and he saw why now people said to try and have it when you’re young. Easier to get over, less time consuming and more to distract you. But no one chose who they fell in love with or when. The heart and the mind conflicted, logic and desire battled until pain was the only answer. There were so many things about love that Yuuri never knew before, but now he did.

 

The music above them slowed down, something more in beat with their tight rocking. Yuuri breathed in Viktor’s scent, pushing away the little voice in his mind that said he was clinging on to the man for far too long. That voice was combated by the way Viktor hugged him tighter, as if he had read what was going through Yuuri’s head. He could feel Viktor’s breath against his neck. The bodies lulled into a slower dance, swaying lazily around them. There was a cool breeze coming in from somewhere, but Yuuri didn’t want to move to locate it.

 

He wasn’t sure how long they stayed like that. Long enough to catch some attention if the whispers around them were anything to go by. He didn’t even care if the photographers were still around to capture it. All he cared about was the warm body in his arms. It was becoming too addicting. He knew he needed to make a decision.

 

He leaned back, just enough to see Viktor’s face. It was only because he was so close that he saw a tiny flash of disappointment in his expression, schooled back into a smile quickly. That seemed to make his decision for him, as well as the way Viktor’s grip tightened on his waist as if he expected Yuuri to step completely away.

 

It could be worth the risk, a new voice was saying in his mind, a voice he liked to think was Ren’s. He could make this leap, because he knew that while he was happy as things were, he wouldn’t be able to stay like this for long. He steeled himself, settled with a thought, promised himself to see this through.

 

“Yuuri?” Viktor asked.

 

Yes, Yuuri decided. The name cemented it, brought his confidence and desire crashing to the very front of his mind. If he was going to cross some line, he needed to back his own decision one hundred percent.

 

“You know,” Yuuri began, speaking the first few words that were coming to him. “I never expected to win against you in the Grand Prix Final. At least, not this early on. I thought it would be some years still. I thought I needed more experience before it happened. It’s why I couldn’t stop crying when I found out I had.”

 

A gentle smile pulled on Viktor’s lips. “You were amazing. I’m not surprised at all.”

 

Yuuri smiled back, giving one small burst of a laugh when he realised Viktor couldn’t see it. “I came to Worlds with a new point of view, and I skated with everything I had to make it happen again. The prospect of taking the title of World Champion from you was so exciting. I thought I’d be disappointed when you won and retained it, but I wasn’t.”

 

Viktor kept his smile still, but his eyebrows knitted together in confusion.

 

“Seeing the Viktor Nikiforov, unbeatable World Champion, living legend, change his routine just to be sure he could beat me? It made me so proud of myself, a feeling I haven’t felt in a long time. I was so happy, and I didn’t mind losing to you.” Viktor made to say something, but Yuuri pressed a finger to the man’s lips. “That doesn’t mean I’m going to just let it happen again though. I’m going to keep pushing you until you can’t go anymore. And while you’re flailing, thinking of ways to keep your title, I’m going to take it. I’m going to stand on top of that podium, the gold hanging from my neck, the title under my name.” He faltered for just a second as he tried to figure out a way to say it, to get everything off of his chest. Phichit had given him the best way and reason to do what he wanted to do, he just needed to seize it. “And when that happens, I want to show you something.”

 

Viktor raised his hand to take Yuuri’s back, his fingers stroking the skin there. He didn’t say anything, just leaned forwards until his forehead was pressed against Yuuri’s mask, until there was hardly any space between their eyes. Yuuri wondered what it looked like from the outside, what others were thinking. But mostly, he was wondering what Viktor was thinking. Wasn’t this intimate? Would he do this with a friend? If this was happening to someone else, Yuuri knew what he would think. But this was his situation, something he was immersed in, and all he ever knew how to do was doubt himself.

 

To distract himself from the way that his heart was ricocheting around his ribcage and the way that the room spun around him, he said, “There’s so much I want to say and show you but I can’t. I’m not ready. But I know when I will be.”

 

Viktor’s grip on his hand tightened as he replied, “You don’t have to push yourself. If you’re never ready, Yuuri, it’s fine.”

 

No, no, he couldn’t convince himself of that. He would be ready when he won Worlds, when he saw himself as an equal to the man he loved. He knew others did, and more so Viktor, but what he saw himself as was arguably more important. And, well, if he never won then he would think of some other way. But he’d decided. He couldn’t think himself out of it now, not when he had told Viktor. He couldn’t push it away.

 

“When I win Worlds,” he repeated aloud. He felt the tension leave his body, as if he had always been waiting for this, waiting to finally make a choice. He hadn’t even done it yet, and yet he was more confident now than he had ever thought before. It was strange, he thought, strange how much Ren had helped him. Just how far he had come. Contemplating telling Viktor he loved him, showing his face, allowing him to know his name – none of it would have even crossed his mind a few years ago. He felt a smirk rise. He could practically feel the way his eyes shone playfully, something he knew Viktor had caught through the eyeholes by the way his own widened. “So get ready, Viktor. Don’t ever take your eyes off of me.”

Chapter Text

He felt like he had more to prove to himself this time around. He’d won one Grand Prix Final, against the legend no les, and cemented himself as a competitor in the eyes of more than just the media and the fans. The world knew him as the man who had been able to beat Viktor, a feat not done since the Russian had been much younger.

 

Yuuri didn’t mind the pressure. It was sometimes suffocating if he thought too much about it, but with it came pride and renewed confidence. His family and friends had told him how amazingly he had done, and for the first time the media actually gave him glowing articles, centred on him and his skill – finally, not something about the mask and only the mask. He’d been able to prove himself in so many eyes, but he had spent a lot of time thinking that he had also proved it to himself. He could do it, and though it had been a surprise, and he hadn’t won Worlds, he knew for a fact now that Viktor wasn’t the unbeatable force that many painted him as. It wasn’t easy to beat Viktor, but Yuuri didn’t want it to be.

 

Yuuri had always been a hard working student, and sometimes Celestino worried about him. His coach made his concerns known, sometimes beating around the bush to say it. Once, as Yuuri pushed himself harder and harder to skate a potential new programme, having already been at the rink for far too many hours, Celestino had become too worried and said it directly. Yuuri, as someone who came from anxiety, had more pressure on him than other skaters. Most of that pressure was put on himself. He placed so much emphasis on what he should be doing, comparing himself to people he wasn’t, scared of his own image, that it became an obsession. Celestino worried that Yuuri would push himself too far.

 

And Yuuri knew he would if he wasn’t careful. But he was being just that, careful and concerned, because he knew that he would lose himself if he wasn’t. He used to shake hands with the dark part of his thoughts, bowed to them, allowed them to take over him before he could allow himself even a breath. But this was different.

 

Somewhere along the way, he knew he had become better – not just in his skill, but in himself. He’d been thinking so much about other people and Ren that he hadn’t noticed the change in Yuuri too. Yuuri was doing his own growth – nothing to the degree of Ren, but he’d been anxious far less these days. On some level he’d like to contribute that to the new emotion he felt – love was strange. He knew that was a big factor, but it wasn’t just that.

 

Time healed old wounds. People outgrew things. Not to say he had outgrown his anxiety, but he had gained experience. He managed to live alone, far away from his family for years, look after himself in university, help Celestino with programmes – he could do so many things now. So why couldn’t he just help himself? Instead of waiting for the anxiety to control him, why couldn’t he control it?

 

He spent a long time between Worlds and the Grand Prix Final thinking about it. As he and Celestino wrestled with new programmes and tried to find a theme that fit just perfectly, it haunted his every waking moment. It was all well and good to think of such things, but he didn’t know how to go about it. Breathing exercises postponed it, didn’t control it. Finding other hobbies only distracted himself from it, like a house away from a storm. He wanted to control it.

 

The first thought that came to him was Ren. Ren had been keeping it at bay for so long, controlling it with his confidence. It would be harder for Yuuri, as not only did he not have confidence but he didn’t have the wherewithal to achieve it yet. He knew he would never be rid of it – something so akin to a monster lurking inside his mind never left. But he could make it smaller, turn it into a pet, into something like a spitting child that you couldn’t help but look down and laugh at.

 

The second thought was to own it. Own his anxiety like it had owned him. To be aware of it, skate everything he could with it on his shoulders, to create themes centred around it. As he thought about that, he talked to Celestino about it. The man had been worried again, because Yuuri pushing himself to perfect and win with programmes centred around such a sensitive subject was sure to make or break him, and breaking sounded much more likely.

 

But as the thought came to him, Yuuri found it appealed to him more and more. He had skated with the theme of confidence the year before. He showed the world the journey he was on, winning gold in the Grand Prix Final and silver in the World Championships. He’d grown from that experience, finding confidence that wasn’t purely fake. Through Ren, he was gaining his own.

 

To skate to the theme of anxiety this year would make everyone aware of his problems. He would be opening himself to the world – true that it wasn’t completely. They wouldn’t know him, wouldn’t know his face, name or past, especially not the struggles he had been going through for years. They wouldn’t know everything, but to skate to the theme of anxiety created the assumption that it was a problem he had. It was like admitting he was a coward to the world. Strangely, while the thought did pierce something inside of him, it didn’t scare him as much as he expected it to.

 

It took some convincing of Celestino for it to finally go through. His coach was reluctant, but he must have seen the determination, the change in Yuuri that assured him even just a little. With hesitation, he accepted the theme and they began programmes out of it.

 

Then came the struggle of the programmes. He wanted to skate routines that did it justice, that spoke to others and not just him. Yuuri wanted to put all of his emotion into his them, these more so than any other year he had been through, more so even than the theme of confidence.

 

It took a long time for him to be happy with them, and a longer time than that to be happy with the outfits. In that time, skaters such as Viktor and Chris had been in contact with him, and before the season really began they were talking about their own themes and what they expected to come out of it. Yuuri kept tight lipped, however, wanting to surprise them. This theme was incredibly close to his heart and he didn’t believe that they would see the importance if he merely spoke about it. They needed to see it, preferably in person, but as they didn’t begin in the same competitions, not even in the same Four Continents, he had to make do with them seeing through live television.

 

Yuuri remembered the way the world reacted to his theme and his programmes when the season began. It was strange, some said, to come from confidence and then the theme turn into anxiety. Shouldn’t it be the other way around? But he didn’t listen. He needed that confidence to skate something like this.

 

The media were picking it apart, some saying that the theme was a ploy to garner attention after his ‘loss’ at Worlds. One, he didn’t lose. Silver was still a win in his books, something he was still incredibly proud of. Of course he would aim higher, but silver was fantastic. Second, they just didn’t understand. Any bad word they could say about him, they pressed. Anxiety had rarely been spoken about in their community, much less expressed in a way they wrote about. His themes were always from his heart, and they seemed to want to tear that down more. Yuuri knew that once their words had hurt him, he had listened too closely, especially after his temporary retirement to care for himself after the death of his tutor. Some of the media had been supportive, while others had condemned him and made bets that he would never return. Now, however, they couldn’t touch him. He had spent a long time figuring things out, but now he knew that their words were dust.

 

On the other hand, however, there were some that were increasingly supportive. A particular news company, small compared to the big fish, praised him for speaking about something that was prominent in most skaters. The idea of anxiety was quashed and crushed because the support of sponsors and public image was more important than mental health. Skaters were there to look pretty and give fans a hobby, not to be stable figures in lives or to speak about issues, some people thought. Yuuri found most of strangers’ support through fans, online and those waiting for him outside of competitions. Their words were overwhelming, many saying how they themselves had debilitating anxiety and had missed opportunities in life because of it. That was when he found a new reason to skate it – if he and Ren could be the figure that encouraged those with anxiety, just as he had needed growing up, then that was reason enough.

 

So as the season wove on, he grew more and more confident about his theme of anxiety. He’d garnered criticism and support alike, and he wore the both like he did his mask, covering him and urging him on. He’d fought to skate this. He was going to see it through to the end.

 

Before he knew it, it was time for the Grand Prix Finals. Celestino and he had arrived early, Phichit in tow once more as he hadn’t qualified once more. He’d come close, very close, but was beaten in the Cup of China by another skater.

 

“Don’t get lazy though just because I’m not on the ice yet,” he had warned Yuuri on the plane. “Just keep going at Viktor and then when I’m there, then you can get scared.”

 

Yuuri had laughed and nodded, comforted by it. He was eager to finally skate against his friend. They had missed each other in the junior division and had yet to skate competitively. Having skated with Phichit in training for many years, he knew his friend was one to look out for.

 

They ate dinner almost as soon as they landed, the jetlag settling in far too early.

 

As if he had known, Viktor texted Yuuri nearly as soon as they had finished. The Russian wasn’t to arrive until the day after.  

 

Over the summer, Viktor’s coach had taken in a new student, a young Russian boy. Though he and Viktor hadn’t had much contact, not with Yakov keeping their time slots seperate, Viktor had caught glimpses and had crossed paths with the other.

 

He’s so small, Yuuri.

 

In turn, there wasn’t a lot Yuuri knew about the new student either, not as when he asked for more Viktor was distracted by another conversation topic or just didn’t know. But Yuuri did know one thing, and that was what Viktor kept repeating, that the young teen was small. That was it. No name, no other description. Just small.

 

Yuuri smiled and texted back, Make sure you don’t step on him then.

 

Yuuri would be lying if he said he wasn’t curious about the new student. While Yakov’s students were notorious for being drama queens (Yuuri didn’t believe that until he really met Viktor, and saw the way Georgi flail after a woman Viktor said was his girlfriend), they were also known as the best. They came to Yakov with raw skill and talent, and the coach honed them into something amazing. So yes, Yuuri was curious about this student, a thirteen year old that had come out of nowhere.

 

He’s fighting with Yakov. The kid’s got guts.

 

Yuuri rolled his eyes. He had seen Viktor fight with his coach many times, and while Viktor respected the older man, he also came out of every fight a winner solely on the fact that he just didn’t listen to his coach. He replied, You mean like you do?

 

The reply was almost instant, Yeah but he’s so small compared.

 

That comment again. Yuuri rolled his eyes once more, almost barking out a laugh. The images of the young student in his mind were blurred, all but for one feature – a very small blurred form. That was it.

 

Before he could reply, Viktor texted again, I can’t wait to see you again, Yuuri! I’ve missed you ^.^

 

Ah, a change of conversation again, never straying for too long on the new boy. Not that Yuuri could really complain, because Viktor was saying how much he missed him. Now, he couldn’t be angry at that, could he? He grinned to himself and replied, Missed you too.

 

At the back of his mind, Yuuri wondered if this would be what it would be like to be in a relationship with the other man, texting to and fro and mentioning how much they missed one another. There were a few things missing, such as kissing and other physically intimate acts, and the fact that Viktor had never seen his face. But like this, with only texting, he could convince himself that this meant more.

 

He took a deep breath. He would find the courage to take the risk one day. He knew he would, and hopefully it would be after a World Champion title. He had a plan, and he knew himself well. Without a plan, without an excuse, he’d get nowhere. So for the moment, he could wait and be patient. Good things always came to people who waited.

 

***

 

The morning of the Grand Prix Final, Yuuri woke from a disturbed sleep, muscles knotting and a nervous energy buzzing under his skin.

 

“You alright?” Phichit asked as he walked out of the bathroom, a towel around his middle as he dried his hair. “Shower’s ready for you if you want it.”

 

Yuuri nodded, rubbing his face. The world was blurry before his bare eyes and he reached to grab his glasses. They felt odd, an unfamiliar presence on the bridge of his nose and his ears. But the world bloomed before him and he found comfort in the cover of the frames. They brought forth memories of childhood, some good, some not so, but warm inside of him. “I’m fine,” he replied, sighing out his nerves. “I’ve done this a few times now, I should be used to it.”

 

Phichit sat on his bed, curling the head towel to rest around his shoulders. “Just because it’s not the first time doesn’t mean you should be completely immune, you know.”

 

Logically, yes, Yuuri knew. But he never saw people like Viktor or Chris wracked with nerves. It was exhausting every time as he waited for competition. He was constantly pulled between excitement and nervous, unsure which one to feel more. He supposed that was Ren’s influence on top of it. At least it wasn’t just the one, just nerves. “I’m going for a shower.”

 

He turned it on until it was near burning his skin, an attempt to stop his pulse from thumping so loudly. His skin bloomed red under the spray and he scrubbed away the sleep on his face. He’d done this in competitions, ones leading up to this. He knew this theme meant a lot to him, but that was why he had to do it perfectly. Not so much for others but for him. He supposed that was why the nerves were slightly higher than normal. It was easy slipping into the emotion of his theme, just as he had felt confident last time.

 

Almost as soon as he was done, sliding into a towel, Celestino knocked on the door and Phichit let him in.

 

Yuuri quickly changed into his costume and pulled on his favourite jacket, his blue and black one. Since receiving it as a birthday gift, it had been used hundreds of time. It was warm against the cold, hugged comfortably, and didn’t make him look too big. Overall, it was perhaps one of his favourite items of clothing ever.

 

Phichit helped gel his hair a certain way, pulling his right side close to his head, and styling the left to have a sort of fringe over his forehead, loose on one side. Yuuri didn’t often style his hair for competitions, but Phichit had been the one to say it would fit his theme this time around. Change, show how he was tackling his anxiety with a new image.

 

The flashes of the cameras were too bright as they exited their car outside of the rink, blinding him as soon as he planted a foot on solid ground. He held his head high though, allowing them to capture all of his best angles. With Celestino and Phichit behind him, he strove towards the front of the building, casting a few glances around at the media and a friendly greeting to some of the fans.

 

His hands in his pockets gripped together tightly. He felt out of place, as he was notorious for avoiding unpredictable media situations since his attack a little while before. Interviews were safe, they were in a controlled environment and often had predictable questions, ones he could study for. Here, however, where energy was running wild and excitement was rolling in droves, it was easy for one of the camera men to lose themselves and want to tear his mask off in front of everyone.

 

Not that it would be easy, of course, but devastating nonetheless.

 

The distance between the car and the front of the building seemed to be the longest he had ever stepped. He would have been much happier taking to the ice with no preparation in front of millions of people than walking that again, and yet he knew he needed to make people like his sponsors happy with his appearance in pictures and articles, a way of showing him off. But he also needed to get used to it for himself, make him as close to a normal skater as he could be.

 

In comparison, the inside of the building was quiet. There were lines of people standing ready to receive their tickets, but the majority were already in their seats.

 

As he stepped into the rink, the settling audience cried out their delight. He gave some of the closest to him a wave before he went to find a place to sit.

 

There was a strange buzz still underneath his skin, a response to his push out of his comfort zone. He was anxious about this skate, about this competition, and he knew he needed to calm himself before he made a mistake because of it. Aware of that, he settled onto the floor and began to go through his stretches, feeling the burn in his muscles, familiar and on some level pleasurable.

 

He counted the seconds in his mind quietly, pushing away the nerves as he distanced himself from everything happening around him. He heard his name on the intercom but ignored it. One. Two. Three. Swap legs and stretch that one. Count to ten. Slow. Feel the burn, the stretch. Ease out the tension, limber, lithe, relax. Stretch arms behind the head. Take a deep breath, feel it expand, right down to the diaphragm. Explore the body. Feel the blood pulse. Focus on nothing but the body, only the body. Careful. Feel as if the body is releasing every stress from every cell.

 

He cracked his bones, popped his joins, stretched his fingers and toes. After it, he felt much, much better.

 

In the time that he had dedicated himself to stretching, the crowd filled the stands and settled quietly in anticipation. The commentator was going through names, reciting their backstory and past achievements, the cameras checking their filming before they permanently turned live. Same routine, Yuuri reminded himself. Nothing was different from the last few times he had done this. The crowd had likely already seen his programmes as was, and the judges knew what they were expecting. The only difference was that this was the Finals. The end line of the Grand Prix Series before the start of other, bigger competitions.

 

He took to the ice with other skaters, getting in a quick warm up before realising it wasn’t helping. While others around him were practicing their jumps, Yuuri knew that if he did with the amount of things on his mind, he would most likely fall and either hurt himself or worry too much to be peaceful.

 

He knew he was excited about this, couldn’t wait to actually be on the ice and show everyone the things he had spent the summer perfecting and was proud of his programmes. But it was also a theme that no one spoke about, one that was hardly ever even acknowledged. Yuuri was never the first to do anything, much happier being the follower behind a charismatic leader. But when it came to this, he wasn’t happy to wait around for someone else to make the jump and for him to join in after. His theme was important, it needed to be spoken about, and if he had to be the one to bring that to the forefront then so be it.

 

But that didn’t mean he wasn’t nervous for it. Yuuri didn’t like to do things that were unpredictable, delving into the unknown. It was scary and there was never any way of knowing if the risk would ever be worth it. Some could bounce back from a set back like that, but he couldn’t. His anxiety never let him, and he would allow a mistake to plague his mind until it nearly ruined him.

 

As the competition began, Georgi taking to the ice, Yuuri settled in and calmed himself down. He knew he could do this. He’d spent so long perfecting it, and he knew no one would be able to skate it like he did. He and Ren could speak to the world through their skating about issues it never believed in. His eyes watched Georgi skate, following the curve of his step sequences, the fluidity of his jumps. Georgi didn’t falter, his issue was the lower technical score, his base difficulty easier than others. But Yuuri never got the feeling that Georgi was skating to win, but doing it because of the beauty of the actual act and the expression of it.

 

All too soon, Georgi was done, skating into his final pose, a bent arm to salute the crowd, posture straight and a smirk on his lips. The crowd gave their applause, and Yuuri stood beside the barrier to ready himself.

 

He tightened his laces and congratulated Georgi as he passed. As Georgi settled into the Kiss and Cry, Yuuri skated into the middle of the ice.

 

He took a deep breath, aware that he was soon to be the sole objects of every attention in the room once Georgi’s numbers came in. In the time he had to himself, settling on the ice, he calmed himself. He’d done this many times, had done it in competitions leading up to it, but he was also aware that many people didn’t watch the competitions leading up to the Final. Many left it to be surprised.

 

He just wanted to do the theme justice. He wasn’t doing this for attention. He knew that part of the reason he was so scared was because this theme was very much Yuuri, not Ren as it had been last year. Ren’s name was written on the boards, on the articles leading up to this, so not many people would understand. But he did. He was very much Yuuri in this competition, Ren only a security this time around. Ren was taking a back seat while Yuuri got to skate something dear to him, and his persona was there ready to catch him if he fell. It wasn’t like before, he reminded himself. It wouldn’t be like before.

 

Georgi’s scores came in, high in their number. Not unbeatable, but very high and something worth taking pride in. He jumped to the top to wait for five others to attempt to push it down.

 

A few more words from the commentators and it would be his turn. He kept breathing, looking down at the ice, feeling the air expand every inch of his lungs. He could do this – he didn’t know how many times he had repeated those words to himself, but it must have been in the hundreds by now.

 

He heard the commentators say his name and the crowd quietened. Only a matter of seconds.

 

He had carefully picked the costumes this year as well. While Ren liked showy outfits, Yuuri had gone for something more subtle. For his Short Programme, his costume was more akin to a suit than anything, glittering gold on black, with gold lapels, sleeves that cut off and curled around his elbows and golden gloves that followed underneath down to his hands. He’d only settled on two colours this year, dark because Yuuri liked dark, and gold because it was what he hoped to gain. There was not a more important theme to him and his anxiety. He’d reached enough confidence to finally skate to it, and he wanted to prove to not only others but himself that he could win with it.

 

And then his music began. A techno rhythm settled in for a few seconds, creating a beat, before a piano sounded in the background. With it, Yuuri began his programme, skating slowly to the music. Unlike last year, he didn’t rely on speed for skill. He’d done that once, and didn’t want to repeat it despite how well it had done him.

 

He focused this time primarily on dancing to the slower beat, throwing in every emotion he could into the movements skating into a spread eagle around the edges to face the crowd. From their expressions alone he could see who had been watching him and who had only come for the Final. Those who had seen had an odd smile on their face, excitable, waiting for something, as if they all shared a secret. And those who had not seen were watching on the edges of their seats, eyes following him as if they were worried they would miss something.

 

The first few parts of his programme were slow and steady, step sequence relying on grace and his spins relying on flexibility. As the lyrics settled in, he began to move faster, pushed by the beat as it grew and grew.

 

He’d been careful with his music picks this year. The songs for his programmes both had lyrics, something he hadn’t done before. But this year needed it. They spoke about anxiety, the music of his Short Programme speaking about the fears inside his mind and his doubt, how it affected him as a person. Popular among music lovers in the previous year, it was a familiar piece for many.

 

The song faded into the chorus, the only fast paced part of the song, and as a word was repeated four times in the line-up, he used this opportunity to fit in a jump. There was only one in the first half, a quad salchow. As many of his jumps weren’t too difficult besides the first, he had pushed most into the second half to raise the base score. Get the most difficult one out of the way, was his thought, he knew he could do it, had done it many times as Ren. But he was more Yuuri now than he had ever been.

 

As he skated into it, he knew he had made a mistake. He was worrying too much, felt the pressure inside of himself, the doubt that he could do it properly. He was thinking too much. He felt his heart give one lurch as he was flying through the air, pushing himself to do the right amount of rotations. He counted them, but it was hard. He couldn’t pin point a part of the audience to make an accurate judgement, and as he landed he felt his knee give way. He slipped and touched the ice, cold melting through his glove.

 

He was quickly up, not missing a beat of the song. And yet he was thankful that he had the mask in place. He grimaced underneath it, so angry at himself because he hadn’t done it justice. He shouldn’t have slipped up. He’d not done it for a while as Ren.

 

The second half came and he took a deep breath ready for it. It would need a lot of stamina, a skill he knew he had. He could do this, he reminded himself. He could do this.

 

The techno beats increased, piano subtle underneath. A chorus joined, rhythm harsh, lyrics given a strong meaning. He’d failed one jump, he couldn’t do the same in the rest of the programme. He just needed to take a deep breath and be Yuuri. Just be Yuuri. Like practice, no one was watching. And Ren was there, ready to be used whenever he wanted, whenever Yuuri didn’t want to do this anymore.

 

He propelled himself into his next jump, a triple loop to get himself back into things. His frayed confidence jumped back once he jumped it perfectly. No shake. He could do this.

 

The music began to die down, the lyrics the most prominent aspect of the song. The vocals echoed hauntingly as he skated into a spin, reaching into the crowd and drawing their attention. This was more like it, he thought. Take the time to think, to feel the programme he had been skating for months now, the one he was proud to show the world. The first that had Yuuri as the skater.

 

He couldn’t stop the nervous energy that filled his body though as he prepared for another quad, this one a combination. He took a second to clear his mind before he jumped. Right from lift off he knew he had done this one right, though. It felt more graceful, less pushed. He landed it without a problem and skated into a triple toe-loop.

 

As the music began to fade, the piano taking over from the techno, he skated into a combination spin, feeling the air whip through his hair. He had always been good at spins. Yuuri had spent many hours of his practicing them, feeling comfort in the familiarity and loved the way it cleared his head when he worried. For someone who rarely found balance in his life, it was quite ironic that he perfected it in his spins.

 

He skated into his final pose, standing strong and straight with one arm raised, his hand before his mask with splayed fingers. The crowd erupted into cheers and he could hear the commentator singing his praises on the intercom.

 

Though he felt proud, he still felt angry at himself. He had failed one jump, one of the most crucial jumps. His scores really wouldn’t be as high as he hoped because of it, and it only added more pressure to him for the Free Skate the next day.

 

He waited in the Kiss and Cry with his coach and best friend, taking steady breaths, already dreading the scores. He knew he could have done worse. He was quick up and he hadn’t really fallen, only stumbled. He’d done the right amount of rotations too. But he hadn’t faltered in a jump in competitions for so long.

 

When his scores came in, he fell under Georgi. Only by a few points, but he knew it wasn’t going to be good enough to go against Chris and Viktor. Perhaps, he thought, this would be the first time he didn’t go into the Free Skate as one of the top three in a long time. Phichit consoled him, hugging him tightly, telling him the margin was only small. Yuuri knew that, he saw the numbers. He was just angry that he had allowed his own theme to get the better of him.

 

It was a skater he hadn’t spoken to much after him, of which he was thankful for. He felt too emotionally drained to pay too much attention. He watched the skater with little interest, more captured with the moves than he was the actual programme.

 

He didn’t want to look to his right either, already spotting a camera crew for some news station lying in wait for him. But as the skater after him finished, he needed to make way for them and the only way he could go was towards the camera crew.

 

He let himself relax. He’d done interviews before, even Yuuri had done interviews. But he flinched as the first microphone was placed before his face.

 

“It’s been a while since you’ve messed up a jump. How does it feel, Mr Himura?” a female reporter asked.

 

Before he could answer, Celestino cut in, snapping, “He didn’t mess it up, he did the correct amount of rotations and didn’t fall. He touched the ice, but was straight back up and completed the programme.”

 

The reporters ignored him and another pressed his microphone into Yuuri’s face, shouting over the many voices, “There is the risk that you could go into the Free Skate under the top three. Have you exhausted your skill?”

 

The question burned something inside of him. With a steady voice, he replied, silencing Celestino who looked ready to jump to his defence again, “No, not at all. I made one mistake and I will learn from it. If the situation comes where I’m lower going into the Free Skate than I have been for a while, then I’ll push myself harder tomorrow.”

 

“What made you miss the jump?”

 

Yuuri grit his teeth. “I was thinking too much. This year’s theme is incredibly dear me, and I put too much pressure on myself to do it justice.”

 

The crowd of reporters shuffled at the answer, and, as if he had opened a gate with his words, they pushed forwards further, clicking away their cameras, flashing in the empty space.

 

He caught the question, “Why does this theme mean so much to you?” but he wasn’t sure which reporter it had come from. Of all the jumbled questions that came, he viewed that as the most important.

 

“Why does this theme mean so much for me?” he repeated, making sure they knew which one it was he was answering. “I haven’t spoken about it before,” he began, “but I have suffered with anxiety and its problems for many years now. I’ve always been wanting to make a theme of it, but it’s only recently that I’ve felt confident enough to be able to do it justice.” There were a lot more thoughts that came with it, but those were personal.

 

“How do you think the fall is going to affect this theme?”

 

“It’s not going to affect it. As I’ve said, I’m going to learn from it and move onto the Free Skate with just as much determination as I have for the last few themes I’ve skated.” They were pushing closer now, and Yuuri heard Chris’ names being called on the intercom. He tried to turn to watch the older man take to the ice, but more questions were being thrown his way.

 

“Are you worried you might think too much tomorrow again and miss a jump again? How do you feel about the possibility of not being able to gain a podium win for the first time in your senior career?”

 

“Um, no,” Yuuri replied, scratching the bottom of his chin as he turned to witness Chris ready himself in the middle, taking a deep breath before the music began. The crowd quietened, and Chris’ music began to filter through the air. “I’ll feel disappointed if that happens, but there are so many capable and brilliant skaters against me this season. If I don’t make it, then I’ll try harder for the rest of the season.” As he turned to say goodbye and watch Chris’ programme, a microphone was shoved so violently in his face it nearly whacked into his mask. He turned to see who had done it, noticing a smaller female reporter, trying to push her way through.

 

“Concerning your theme of anxiety,” she grunted as she stepped out in front of the crowd, “it’s not been spoken about a lot in sport in general, though a lot of sports celebrities and amateurs are pressured and can develop it. Why do you think that is?”

 

Yuuri was caught by the question. “Why anxiety isn’t often spoken about?” he asked. The woman nodded her head, leaning forwards, her next words smothered by the demands of other reporters. But Yuuri ignored them and turned to the woman, feeling a fire burn in his chest. “You answered your own question. So much pressure is put on sportsmen and woman to be perfect, and it only gets worse the higher you go. If you fail, you lose funding, fans, reputation. Everything you’ve worked so hard for, for so many years, gone because of a normal, human mistake. But god forbid that someone like us should be anxious or anything like human. No one wants to think that the person they look up to as flawed, because what does that say about them as a person? We like to put people on pedestals, and in turn we’re hurting the people we place there.”

 

He turned, casting a glance towards Chris once the reporters had quietened enough to hear his answer. Chris was gliding across the ice, jumping into a quad loop with ease. His purple outfit glittered under the rink lights. His fans clapped in time with the music, thunderous against the walls.

 

Yuuri continued, “Anxiety is a horrible thing. You put so much pressure on yourself to reach the expectations of other people. The higher those expectations, the more it hurts.” It was easier to hide your face so that if you failed, no one would know it was you. The pressure eased. “Anxiety is a sort of taboo topic because if people saw celebrities as people other than deities, they wouldn’t continue to follow. They’d lose interest, they’d make little of the things that person has been through.” He moved to step away when he noticed the second half of Chris’ programme was underway. “Thank you for your questions.” He gave a quick bow before he rushed off back to their bench, his eyes on Chris’s programme as he went. Celestino and Phichit followed behind.

 

Honestly, if asked, he wouldn’t have remembered everything he said to those people. He felt something tense in his chest, the subject of anxiety a touchy one for him, and had said whatever words came to his mind at that moment. He didn’t like how the topic was covered, and it was why he wanted to make it his theme this year. Talk about it, skate it, make it the forefront of people’s thoughts. Keep the world remembering, and maybe something could be done about the stigma.

 

Chris’ routine was different from Yuuri’s. Many of his quads had been placed in the first half of his programme, leaving his spins and step sequences to fill the second half. And he did it well. He spun tightly against the increasing beat, raising out of a spin as the crescendo neared. Drums hammered in the rink, thumping along with the hearts of the thousands watching. With a sudden stop to the music, Chris slipped down onto his knees, leaning back until he lay flat on the floor, breathing hard. The space the music left was filled with endless cheers, screaming above the silence.

 

Yuuri knew how high his score would take him before it came through. With each year, Chris got better, more of a competitor. It was proved again with a brilliant score this Short Programme, propelling him to the top, promising a hard one to beat.

 

After another skater that Yuuri didn’t know well, Viktor came skating on the ice. The crowed stilled, taken in by his colourful costume and his presence that commanded their attention. His outfit was tight, hugging every curve, one of the many reasons Yuuri couldn’t take his eyes off. It was a dark blue one piece, donning silver threat and gems along his shoulders and hips, with a web of light blue velvet winding down his legs and over his forearms. Eye catching in the way that the dark blue brought out both his complexion and the platinum hair, the light blue complimenting his eyes.

 

The music began, piano filling the air, soft keys lulling the crowd. Viktor remained in place both danced with his upper body to the rhythm, hugging his arms close, gyrating his top half around, turning to the beat. As the music escalated into an orchestra, he moved. He took off gently at first, his step sequence a graceful movement until he entered a spread eagle, facing the crowd, and then it sped up.

 

Yuuri watched as he always did, completely enraptured by the beauty. Every single one of Viktor’s programmes were heavily ingrained in his memory, and he could remember exactly where he was, what he was feeling, what day it was if someone asked him, beginning in the Junior Grand Prix Finals that Yuko had shown him so many years ago.

 

There must have been something in the way that the man moved, something beyond graceful, that caught gazes. Perhaps it was his face, so intimate in expression, or the way he seemed to skate for only one person, and it seemed like that person was you. Or perhaps it was the raw skill he had, the way he could skate as if it was like breathing. Whatever it was, it could not be labelled as easily as that.

 

Viktor readied for his first quad, a salchow, steadily skating into it. Yuuri having already messed it up once today, he felt his heart race at the idea of it. But Viktor flew through the air effortlessly, his fringe whipping against the gel, and landed without any problem. Yuuri doubted he could fail a jump. This was Viktor Nikiforov, the living legend, the man that everyone swore that they would beat one day.

 

As the pace of the music rose, getting faster and faster, so did Viktor. He skated backwards at incredibly speed, soaring by in the blink of an eye. Using that momentum, he jumped a combination of a triple loop, double toe-loop and triple toe-loop again, an arm raised in the process. Halfway through the Short Programme and already Yuuri knew what the outcome would be. Viktor would gain another win, his base difficulty higher than others in one programme, and skating it as perfectly as could be done.

 

But that didn’t mean he wasn’t going to try his very hardest for his Free Skate. And come the World Championships, he was going to have made up for his mistake.

 

Viktor sailed into the second half of his programme with a flying sit spin, the slicing of his skates almost deafening to those close by. Sparks of ice shot through the air. Yuuri knew how hard that move was, having practiced it many times, and how much of a weight it was against the knees. But once again, Viktor performed it as if there was no way he could fail it.

 

The commentators were singing their praises for the Russian man, expressing how it was a privilege each year to see the man skate. Surely he would go down in history, they said, as one of the greatest men alive in figure skating. He might have lost his streak last year, but he was going to gain it back. Yuuri couldn’t disagree. He was more inclined to think that he had been unable to keep up his own win, to transform it into a streak, but a fire burned within him when he heard them talk of it as if it was inevitable. He had won last year, he had become equal to someone like Viktor, and he hadn’t won because the other man was injured or having a bad day. He won against Viktor in all his glory. He was going to prove it again come Worlds and take that streak from the man too. And while he was at it, why not beat both of his world records?

 

He narrowed his eyes and smiled under the mask, promising himself. He had a lot riding on Worlds this year, and for once he felt like he wasn’t buckling under the pressure he had set on himself and by the public. He’d won once, he could do it again.

 

Viktor began to slow as the music began to weaken, a lone line sung in another language that Yuuri couldn’t place. In that line, Viktor skated into a combination spin before stopping as the music gradually faded, ending on his finishing pose – one arm raised to the sky as he gazed at the roof, one foot behind the other and the other arm hugging himself. Yuuri saw the cameras training on his expression, open with a hint of a freeing smile.

 

The crowd cheered louder than they had any other skater and probably louder than they would for the rest of the day. Viktor’s scores came in, placing him a high first, as was his place.

 

Yuuri left after a quick photo session with some of the journalists and fans. He went into the Free Skate in fourth place, the competition difficult this year around. One mistake had been costly. He knew tomorrow meant everything.

 

***

 

Yuuri didn’t get much sleep that night. As Phichit snored lightly in his bed, smuggled under thick covers, Yuuri tossed and turned. It was either too hot or too cold if he turned, the nervous energy was buzzing inside of him, and his mind was running at a mile a minute. He didn’t like feeling like this – as if he had returned to being only Yuuri.

 

So he decided to go for a run. He placed the mask on and a hoodie, pulling the hood to cover most of the upper half of his face. He didn’t need to run into any journalists, and though most of them wouldn’t be around at this time of night, there could be some lurking.

 

Coming from a small, sleepy town like Hasetsu, Yuuri wasn’t used to how awake a city could be in the middle of the night. The street lights illuminated the darkness, feigning daylight while the sun was away. An array of people walked by, some in suits, others donned ready for the night activities, others in casual wear as if they were taking a walk like him. What surprised him more though was the amount there were. He was never on a street alone.

 

He missed having a place like the Ice Castle or Minako’s dance studio to be on nights like these. There had been some issues in university concerning the same thing, but as he befriended the people at the training rink and under Celestino’s guidance, he was able to procure a key to go if he needed to train, regardless of the time. He never had long to feel the loss, but he was feeling it tonight.

 

He contemplated ringing someone from home, knowing that they would be up. And busy, they would be very busy. And that was the reason he chose not to, no matter how much he missed their voice or wanted to hear it in his time of need.

 

His lungs lurched for breath in the cold night air as he jogged, feeling the familiar strain on his muscles. Something about jogging had always calmed him down. Perhaps it cleared his head, or perhaps it was just because he did so much of it.

 

He ran only a little while before he decided to return to the hotel. But as he lay down, he knew it hadn’t helped. It had only been a short reprieve, a moment of calm before he lay awake with his thoughts once more. The same problems that had always been invading his mind were making home once more. He lay awake for a few more hours before exhaustion finally caught up with him, and even then it was only a disturbed sleep. The more time he spent worrying, the less he thought he would be able to skate properly tomorrow.

 

***

 

It had been a long time since Yuuri’d been so tired before a competition. It was most likely when he started with Ren, the persona still very shaky and not guaranteed to stick. Not even when he made his return had he slept so little.

 

The flashing lights were too bright on his sleep deprived eyes, his limbs a little too heavy, his words cut short. Celestino kept him away from any reporters seeking interviews for fear that he would snap something and tarnish the reputation he had gained. Not that Yuuri cared at that moment.

 

They settled down on a bench while the competition settled in, the audience filing in slowly and the commentators making their sound checks. It didn’t help to calm Yuuri.

 

Phichit gripped tightly onto his arm, looking more worried than Yuuri had seen him for a while. “It’s going to be okay,” his friend whispered reassuringly. “You’re going to do great. You’ve practiced this for months now, and this means so much to you. You’re going to pull it out of the bag when it means the most to you.”

 

Yuuri wanted to tell him that he had already thought of all of this. He’d lain awake late at night with nothing but this in his mind, so he knew. But he didn’t voice his thoughts. He’d only end up hurting a friend who was trying to console him, no victory there and not what he wanted to do. So he kept silent and allowed Phichit to keep saying things he thought were helping, but he didn’t listen.

 

Yuuri reluctantly rose when they were called to warm up. But as he took a step, Celestino grabbed his hand.

 

“Don’t do any jumps in warm up,” he said.

 

Yuuri gave a quick nod, understanding. He found his spot to warm up and stuck to it, keeping away from others. He practiced most of his spins at first, feeling the weight of his limbs after a bad night’s sleep. He needed to get rid of that before it disturbed his entire routine. He saw the way that some of the audience were watching him, his name spoken over the intercom, and how Chris was eyeing him as he passed and clearly wanted to ask something but wasn’t able to. He didn’t know what he must have looked like to them, but clearly they noticed something was wrong.

 

He didn’t want their attention. He took a deep breath, practiced some of his step sequences, and thought only of his routine. He thought about how much it meant to him, about why he was doing this again, and why he hadn’t allowed Ren to take full reign.

 

They were called to come off of the ice once more and Yuuri sat back on the bench, adjusting his skates, while the first two skaters performed their routines. They were good, he could see that, but he was much too busy thinking about his own routine to worry about theirs.

 

Celestino rested his arm along Yuuri’s shoulders. “If it worries you so much, why not allow Ren to take this?”

 

“Because this is my theme,” he replied. “I’ve come this far, I can do this Grand Prix Final. It’s not like it’s Worlds anyway.”

 

“Regardless of what competition it is, or how big it is, it’s not good to worry yourself this much.”

 

“It’s fine,” Yuuri assured a little too harshly. He repeated a little more calmly, “It’s fine. Once I’m out there, I’ll be able to do it.”

 

Almost as soon as the words were out of his mouth, the man before him finished his programme and was making his way to the Kiss and Cry. It was Yuuri’s turn. He stood and stretched his arms behind his head, taking deep breaths. He could do this, had done it before. This time was no different.

 

He expected to be a little shaky as he stepped onto the ice, but was thankful to find himself sure footed. The audience were cheering at the sight of him, but he didn’t hear it. Around him was a bubble, one he refused to let down. Now more than ever he needed to protect himself, from their stares, his own thoughts, from everything that he ever feared. As he reached the middle of the ice, he took three deep breaths and counted them carefully. He held them in tightly, feeling them fill his lungs. He’d done this many times, he reminded himself. He didn’t need to be frightened. Ren was always there to catch him if he fell.

 

The crowd settled and the commentator spoke his name and reminded them all of his theme. Like a knife, it pierced his skin, reminding him too of what he was standing for.

 

Quietly, for fear it would echo through the air, he told himself, “I can do this.”

 

The waiting between the announcement and when the music began was agonising. He could feel his heart beat with every ticking second, almost could hear an old grandfather clock chiming in the back of his head. A cloud of tension was hanging over him, ready to rain down in pain. Years ago, it would be enough to break him. But that was before Ren Himura. That was before he had fixed himself. He was still in the middle of fixing himself, but if he could do that, he could do anything.

 

The thought struck something inside of him. Yes, if he could fix his own mess, he could do this. He hadn’t spent the best part of his life, coming up to half of it, to waste it all.

 

The room thundered with a clap, one second of a jump, before the clapping continued, accompanied by a drum. It took the audience a second to realise that the music had begun, but Yuuri had heard it so many times. He knew the difference, heard it in the crackle of the speakers that he had become so used to in the months leading up to this. With each clap, a drum complimented behind and Yuuri took steps to begin his skate. It sounded more like a march than a song for the moment, just the thing Yuuri was looking for.

 

To accompany the theme, his outfit styled after the military. His coat, shining green, hung around him, see through along the back to flash the skin beneath. Like his last costume, the sleeves came to his elbows, and underneath his black gloves wove up to his fingertips. The front of the coat was buttoned up to his chin, the collar high and touching his neck and bottom of his mask. Glittering stars mimicking medals were placed on his chest, with chains falling under his arm. One chain, glued to the side of his mask, connected it to a bigger star, a golden star that rested right above his heart. His bottoms were subtle black fitted trousers, glitter glued to the fabric, falling just over his ankles.

 

Military leader, warrior, soldier – whatever it was that you wanted to call the outfit, it had the same meaning. He had fought his way through anxiety to get to this point, and he wanted to show the world exactly that. He was still fighting, but he was willing to fight more and more if it meant he came out on the other side.

 

A few seconds of drums and clapping, the lyrics settled in. The voice was harsh, hissing a little, the words spiteful. It boomed through the air, resounding off of the walls, and Yuuri danced with it, making his moves almost robotic in their jumps to mix with the beat.

 

As the voice shouted a single note, he jumped with it, a triple loop to begin things. The crowd cheered as he landed it, not a single faulty foot, not touching the ice. It only served to help Yuuri’s growing confidence in himself. But not only that, there was something about the song, something about the beat and the message, or the emotions he had poured into it for months – whatever it was, it began to build a fire in Yuuri, just as he had been hoping.

 

The chorus kicked in and with it Yuuri made his step sequence harder, twisting and turning and spinning so suddenly, catching all attentions and keeping it, leave them wondering how he was doing the things he did. As the second half was crashing in, Yuuri readied himself for his first quad. A quad toe-loop, something he had done many times and something he could do again. But as he readied himself for it, he found himself anxious. If he failed again and touched the ice, it would threaten his podium win. However, if he didn’t do it, he would most likely not gain the podium either.

 

He had a split second to make his decision, and make it he did.

 

He corrected himself quickly and jumped into the air, holding his arms tightly to himself and watched as the colour blocks of the audiences flew by so quickly. As he landed, he concentrated everything on it and found himself gliding away perfectly, just as he had done in practices. Exchanging his quad toe-loop for a quad salchow, the same jump that had set him back in the Short Programme, and perfecting it today in front of all was exactly the medicine he needed. The audience roared, and with them the chorus thundered above.

 

The song spoke of believing in oneself and using pain to achieve it. It was far stronger than the song he had used in his Short Programme, but the same message, two sides of the same coin. He’d been soft in his Short Programme and spoken about anxiety as a monster that was overwhelming. Now, he spoke about inner strength and how weaknes could be overcome. Doubt and Strength. It was exactly what Yuuri needed to skate.

 

As the song spoke about doves, being able to fly away from the shackles of anxiety, Yuuri jumped a combination, a quad loop and triple toe loop, the imagery strong for the whole world to see. He skated along the edges as he gained more speed, snapping his head from side to side as the beat demanded. The audience, he saw, were only looking at him. Their gazes followed his every move. He bathed in it.

 

He jumped into a flying sit spin in the middle of the ice, whipping so quickly on one spot that perhaps some would be wondering if he would comically cut a hole into the ice. He rose up and stretched his body, exposing it to the world, allowing them to see his costume. It was perhaps one of his favourites of his career, more so for the meaning than it itself.

 

As the song came to an end, he gave one more quad, a flip that he had added to his roster after watching Viktor do so a few years before. As his finishing jump, he made it stand out, jumping as the instruments crashed into one high note, the vocals holding high above. It left no room for talking, not a single moment for the audience to catch their breath. And as he landed, he had only a second to skate into his final pose, standing tall to the side, with one arm raised towards the judges and his fingers posed like holding a gun. As he stopped, so did the song, so abruptly and catching the attentions of all.

 

There was silence for a second, as if people were coming around from being snapped out of something captivating. Once they had, the air was filled with applause. Yuuri kept his eyes on the stunned judges and the commentators beside them, catching the audience standing behind.

 

His chest rose and fell quickly as he gained his breath. Beneath his mask, he smiled.

 

As the scores came in, he rocketed to the top, but with three more skaters to come, he wasn’t sure how long he would remain there.

 

Georgi was up first, skating steadily against a romantic ballad, a single spotlight illuminating a woman that stood beside his coach. One thing Yuuri had always been captured by with Georgi was his facial expressions, so open and ready for all to see. If there was anyone that was so opposite to Yuuri, it was Georgi. He couldn’t understand how someone could show the world so much of themselves, the even seem in their element to do so. What if the man was having a bad day? Or if something went wrong in his life? Would he be so open in his expression then? To allow everyone to see everything in his weakest moment?

 

But the crowd knew everything about Georgi. Yuuri remembered from his own years in the Junior division when he was watching Viktor – there had been a time where a girl hadn’t turned up for a date, and the Russian man made a whole programme about his feelings. Yuuri knew he felt things too deeply, but sometimes he wondered if he had a competitor in that.

 

Once Georgi was done, stepping off the rink to a crashing applause and a few roses from the romantics of the audiences, Yuuri watched the screen with bated breath.

 

How Georgi had skated was brilliant, as always was, tugging on the heart strings of all. But Yuuri watched as the man fell behind him, only just with a few points, securing Yuuri a podium finish. He sighed out the breath he had been holding. It had been a hard competition this year, one mistake of touching the ice threatening his podium streak. He raised his head to look at Georgi, who looked considerably less upset over the matter. Instead, he hugged the woman closer to him and threw a smile his coach’s way.

 

Chris was the next to step onto the ice, dazzling the crowd with a dark but nearly see through costume, solid around his middle and chest, but shimmering with silver material that peeked through to his skin around his arms and legs. As the crowd settled, Chris took his place in the centre.

 

Trumpets sounded through the air and Chris began. His pacing was quick, graceful, stepping in time with every thump of the drum. His dance resembled the salsa in the way he shook his hips, held his head high, danced with his hands up and looking for a partner.

 

Just as Georgi, the man held so much expression on his face. Yuuri watched it with awe, seeing the smirk on his lips, the way his eyes gleamed and he fluttered his eyelashes. He blew a quick kiss towards the judges, and Yuuri found himself giggling underneath his mask. The audience members around the judges swooned at the sight, fighting over which of them had been the target for such a lustrous scene.

 

Chris always seemed to be the best at picking out songs for himself, Yuuri thought. Chris picked out ones that spoke so openly of him and he commanded them rather than let them command him. He owned that song and he convinced the audience of nothing less. And with it, he created programmes that compleminted him and the music incredibly well. As much as Yuuri loved Viktor, as a person and a competitor, not to mention a past admired figure, Viktor didn’t hold the same feeling. Viktor commanded his programmes incredibly well, but his music always seemed to be the things to command him. He picked them because he knew they were going to be good material for a programme, not because that was exactly what he wanted to skate. At least, not yet, not from what Yuuri had seen.

 

Chris had two quads planned in his routine, on top of two triples, one of which was a combination with a double. Many jumps, most of which were in the first half. Yuuri watched with rapt attention as he watched the first jump, wondering what was going through Chris’ head at that moment.

 

The man had been pushed to bronze for a few competitions now, and while Chris had never said anything negative about it, Yuuri knew that it must have been frustrating to him. He knew he’d have been annoyed, reaching for gold for so many years, only to be pushed back one by a new riser who had little experience in comparison. He must have been looking at the scores and wondered if this was his time to gain it back.

 

Yuuri certainly worried about that when he watched Chris land the jump perfectly, quickly skating out of it and into a 90 degree spin. One down, another quad to go. Yuuri didn’t want to think anything too early – he had already once, resigning himself to the idea that he had not won the Grand Prix Final this time last year, and yet he had. But he knew he hadn’t made it impossible for Chris to surpass him.

 

Into the second half of his Free Skate and Chris had yet to fail anything in his programme, not one faulty landing, no shaky legs, no under rotations. Yuuri was caught between wanting to secure a higher medal, and yet he felt incredibly proud to see Chris skate so well, to fight as hard as he could.

 

The music became harder, the strum of a guitar riling the crowd and pushing Chris to skate faster, to fill some of his routine with spins. As his last quad came up, Yuuri held his breath again, feeling his heart jump in his chest as Chris soured.

 

This jump was quick. Yuuri had a hard time catching the rotations, and all too soon Chris was on the ice, steady footing. He skated into his last pose, dropping to one knee and leaning back with his eyes closed, his arms trailing down his chest. Up to the very last second, he commanded attention, so much that there was a judder through the crowd upon noticing the finish.

 

As Chris’ scores shot above his own, Yuuri sighed, though not feeling as bad as he expected to. One mistake, that was all it had taken, but he had still done it, still won bronze. Once, before he tasted what it was like to win higher, he had been more than happy with that. Not to say that he wasn’t now, but he knew he could do better. This theme deserved better.

 

“You know, Viktor could always really mess up and put Chris in first and you in second,” Phichit comforted.

 

Yuuri gave a small laugh and said, “He could, you’re right.” But it wasn’t likely.

 

As always, the crowd gasped as Viktor stepped onto the ice. The journalists relaxed and took their photos, no threat of the living legend being overthrown again looming over them.

 

Yuuri would never experience the same hush that overcome the crowd as they waited. For other skaters, he felt they did it to be polite. But with Viktor, it was a need, to quiet so that they didn’t miss anything. It was a promise of something breath-taking. Just one little whispered sound could break the fragile illusion and disconnect their feelings, almost ruining it. The only ones allowed to talk were the commentators, and even then it was only to rain praise.

 

Viktor’s costumes were always beautiful, complimenting his figure to the degree of perfection. This Free Skate was no different. His top was something akin to a light blue coat, long sleeved with black threaded swirls along the seams, black gloves donned underneath. The tails of the coat fell down to his knees, fluttering every time he moved. The front was tied together using black string, crisscrossing before his chest and pulling it tighter until it reached the bottom, leaving some of his chest exposed. The collar was popped and black against his fair skin. His bottoms were suit trousers with light blue threat mimicking the same swirls from his sleeves into the seams on the outside of his legs.

 

Viktor became his costume, adopting it as a second skin. Every move he made, every whip of the wind as he skated, seemed almost calculated. It only helped to increase the legend himself. He demanded attention for the works of art he had spent hours and hours creating.

 

Attention was exactly what he got when the music began and he was able to move. He began slowly at first, drawing in all of their gazes, moving so fluidly.

 

No matter how many times he tried to imitate him, Yuuri didn’t think he would be able to copy that grace. Viktor moved in ways that couldn’t be described, ways that old stories spoke of gods walking. Looking back, Yuuri wondered how he would ever have been able to avoid falling for such a man. Especially after finding out what the man was really like underneath his public image – a gentleman, kind, caring, always smiling, and a little bit of a child.

 

Viktor picked a song that had no lyrics, relying on his body to properly portray the emotions. Yuuri watched with everything he had, never taking his eyes off of the other man, feeling his heart hammering against his chest as it always did in the company of Viktor.

 

Coming up to his first quad of the routine, Yuuri held his breath, though he knew Viktor was going to land it. The Russian hadn’t failed in a jump since his early career in public. But that didn’t mean it couldn’t happen. The little voice at the back of Yuuri’s mind didn’t just nag him about his own failure, it expended to others, to people close to him, reminding him that they were only human. Sometimes, he lay awake, thinking about how things could go wrong, how one little mistake could hurt the ones he loved. The closer he got to Viktor, the louder that voice screamed.

 

A quad flip, his signature move, and of course Viktor landed it perfectly despite the raging emotions within Yuuri as he watched on. He spun in the middle, reaching up until his speed was a blaze, his arms reaching for the ceiling. The tails of his costume flew out as he spun, swinging about like the crack of a whip. The blue blurred until he was a block of it with a flash of silver.

 

Coming out of it, he reached for the crowd, as he so often did, drawing them in further and further until they become lost in him. Those who already hadn’t were soon doomed as he tugged on their heart strings. Clutching at his chest, before the organ, he snapped to bow and skated backwards, his face a mix of pain and sadness.

 

Yuuri had watched his programmes from the start of the season in his eagerness for the man as well as what he would be competing against. He had seen this particular part many times, and yet every time it made him wince. There was something so strong in Viktor’s face, something more than the impassive face he put on during some of his programmes only a few years ago. It was so raw. No one could doubt Viktor’s flare as an entertainer, nor his power over the crowds. Those skills would forever accompany his name in history books and records.

 

Yuuri watched every jump, every spin, every step as if he was parched, as if it was the only drink he would ever know. With each programme he watched Viktor give, he wondered if he would be more enraptured by the next, only to find himself more so. There was just something so captivating about the man, and Yuuri would never be able to find exactly what that was.

 

The crowds began to cheer even before Viktor finished. He skated into his last pose, crossing his arms before his chest and leaning back with one leg expended behind him. With his eyes closed, he basked in the applause, breathing hard and yet even that was graceful.

 

Yuuri knew the results then and wasn’t surprised as Viktor’s name rose to the top, as if almost always did. Third was brilliant, he reminded himself. Because it was. Third was respectable, memorable and an achievement to never belittle. But he had come for gold. Not because he had tasted it once and wanted more, but because he wanted this theme to be worthy of one. No one would take it seriously until then.

 

But there was always the World Championships, he reminded himself further as he stepped onto the bottom of the podium. The bronze was placed around his neck, the weight heavy against his chest, and he clutched the bouquet closer to his form. He’d promised himself a lot concerning the upcoming Worlds, and if he was ever going to think himself worthy of all of this, then he needed to make sure they came true.

 

Viktor smiled down at him in between photos, mouthing what Yuuri thought was a congratulations but couldn’t be heard over the cheers and the music blaring up above. Yuuri nodded back, shouting his own congratulations but knowing it was lost.

 

It didn’t matter. He’d get his chance to say things at the banquet.

 

***

 

But every year he forgot how busy the banquets could get. Celestino had dragged him to many meetings with sponsors, assuring some of the stricter that he would aim higher come Worlds.

 

Since beginning his senior career, he’d been steadily making his way to gold. Once he had achieved that, he had just as steadily fallen to bronze once more. In their eyes, they were worried he had used up his good years and Worlds would be the first competition that he would fall off of the podium. Some left it when he promised them a win, others weren’t so sure. It took a lot of negotiating with them on his and Celestino’s behalf to not pull out before they were satisfied. One in particular warned that if he got anything less than a gold, he’d be leaving and joining someone with more promise.

 

Some years ago, Yuuri might have become anxious over it. What people thought of him was important, and he couldn’t avoid it or ignore it as some others did so well. But this was different. He didn’t worry about it so much – it didn’t compare to the pressure he had placed on himself in preparation for Worlds.

 

“We don’t need him,” Celestino assured with a pat on his back when the particular impolite sponsor left. “You have so many other sponsors willing to stick with us through anything. Losing one is fine.” Despite the bite to his reputation, as the untold words went. Yuuri didn’t draw attention to it, and neither did Celestino. “I’ll deal with anymore sponsors. If anyone really wants you, I’ll call for you. For the moment though, go and find Phichit and celebrate. I think he’s over by the food.”

 

Yuuri didn’t need to be told twice. And, just as Celestino had said and Yuuri suspected, Phichit was beside the buffet table. He had his phone in his hands, holding it high above the food, trying to capture that perfect picture.

 

Upon seeing Yuuri make his way over, Phichit’s face lit up. “Ren! Have you seen the food? It looks amazing.”

 

Yuuri titled his head to the side playfully. “And have you actually eaten any of it yet, or just taken photos?”

 

“Well… Okay, it looks amazing, so I’m sure it tastes like it too. But the lighting here is brilliant! Can we get some of these lights for our room?”

 

Yuuri glanced up, seeing low-hanging chandeliers from the high ceiling. Even from this height, the light bulbs looked about the size of his face, let alone the whole structure itself. “Um, I don’t think we’d be able to afford it, Phichit. And do we have the space.”

 

Phichit waved away the comment and continued to take photos, kneeling beside the table to capture it from a different angle. “You should really take a photo and post it too. I’m sure your fans would enjoy it.”

“A picture of food? I don’t see why that would be interesting.”

 

Phichit looked over his shoulder with a raised eyebrow and a smirk. “I’ve seen you drooling over pictures of food on the internet all the time.”

 

Caught, Yuuri rubbed the back of his neck. “Touché. But I’m still not doing it.”

 

“I can do it for you.”

 

“No, really, it’s alright.”

 

Phichit stood again, pressing a finger to his lips in thought. “You’re right. As someone who doesn’t post enough, it wouldn’t be interesting enough for your fans. You need something better. Give me your phone.”

 

Suspicious, but a creature of curiosity all the same, Yuuri did as was told. “Why-?” Before he had a chance to finish the question, Phichit drew him into his side, hugging his shoulder tightly and pressing his cheek to Yuuri’s mask.

 

“Say cheese!” Phichit said.

 

“I-” The camera of his phone clicked and the image of them froze on the screen. Even with only a second to take it, Phichit was still brilliant at capturing moments. Phichit smiled up at the camera with a cheesy grin, his arm strewn across Yuuri’s shoulders. And Yuuri, with his mask hiding his flushed and embarrassed face, looked alright as well. His suit, the same expensive one that Celestino had bought for them a year before, fit well and made him look a little taller. His hair, styled backwards, had not a strand out of place for once. And the bronze shone brightly under the lights of the hall, drawing all the attention of the photo to it.

 

As Yuuri was contemplating the image, Phichit cheered, “Ah, this one is good! I’m going to put it on all of your social media and then I’m going to send it to myself. Your fans are going to go crazy!” Phichit turned to shake his head and Yuuri, pointing a finger at his chest. “They come to my media to ask me to make you post more. If Ren is going to have anything of my personality, I want you to make him media crazy!”

 

“You’ve said that before.”

 

“Only because you don’t do it!” Phichit huffed, as if he already knew it was a lost cause. “I mean, for the sake of people who can’t come to see you live for reasons, wouldn’t it be nice for them to see videos or pictures of you on your media to make up for it?”

 

“Oh, I hadn’t really thought about that.”

 

Phichit cast him a look of ‘obviously you didn’t’.

 

“I’ll think more about it,” Yuuri promised.

 

“You better had, or I will personally hold you hostage and take photos of that just to upload.”

 

Yuuri felt a shiver run up his spine. “I think that’s illegal and the police would have something to say about that.” Yuuri especially worried when his friend turned to look at him over his shoulder, throwing a wink to the Japanese man. “Okay, I don’t know what you mean by that but it’s scaring me.”

 

Phichit was about to answer, but as his mouth gaped, his eyes strayed to another area.

 

“What are you gawking at?”

 

As Yuuri turned, he hard Phichit’s rushed ‘wait’ but didn’t stop. At first, he wasn’t sure what it was that he was looking at, or what it was that Phichit had seen. There were dancing bodies of colour in the middle of the dance floor, groups of chatters, bodies everywhere. But that was one thing about love – it didn’t matter how full the room was, how many things were going on or how many things were in the way, you could always find the object of your affections. Even among the swirling dancers and the static groups, Yuuri could see Viktor on the other side of the room with his golden medal shining brilliantly even from the distance.

 

Viktor was speaking to an older man Yuuri suspected might have been a sponsor, smiling politely, laughing when it was needed and a champagne flute in hand. His expensive Italian suit hugged his form, complimenting every curve, every line, every hard muscle. His hair had been styled perfectly, gelled to hang beside his eye. Yuuri was momentarily stunned, until he saw what it was that Phichit had seen.

 

On Viktor’s arm, a woman clung. She had both of her arms wrapped around his side and she looked up through fluttering eyelashes, makeup perfectly placed, her long dark blonde hair falling in ringlets around her shoulders. Her pale skin shone like his medal under the lights, and her deep blue dress complimented her gorgeous form. Yuuri didn’t need to be close to know that she was beautiful, could see it in the way other men and women stared as they passed, could see it in the way she walked and the way she drank in the attention. She pressed her chest closer to Viktor’s arm, wanting a response and trying harder when there was none.

 

“He’s not even paying any attention, Yuuri,” Phichit whispered, pressing in close to Yuuri’s side. “It’s fine.”

 

But that didn’t stop the swell inside of Yuuri’s chest. Without thinking, his hand rose and clutched at the material before his heart, feeling it seized inside his ribcage. He shouldn’t have known, really. Viktor was a very popular figure skater, had multiple online websites made by fans dedicated to him. He’d been voted best looking amongst athletes, not limited to skating. Everywhere he went, he had fans and journalists and… just everyone falling for him. Yuuri had thought before, knew that he wasn’t the only one that loved the other man. He was one among many.

 

But that didn’t make it any easier to see, to really know.

 

He’d managed to avoid seeing it for years. Though he knew Viktor had people fawning over him, he had yet to see it like this. He wasn’t prepared and it hurt. His hands began to shake, his breathing coming out in short and sharp bursts. His chest hurt. It hurt a lot. He never knew it was possible for a heart to hurt like this. He was learning a lot of things from love.

 

The woman chirruped something, commanding Viktor’s attention. When he looked down, she smiled, her teeth a brilliant white. Viktor smiled back.

 

Yuuri’s chest clenched. Acid was rising up his wind-pipe.

 

“Yuuri-”

 

Phichit might have whispered more, but Yuuri wasn’t listening, not to his words nor to the desperate tone he said them with. He barely felt Phichit tighten a grip on his arm, a touch he hadn’t known was placed. He didn’t listen to anything, not the music above, not the giggles of the dancing girls behind them, not the deafening chatter by the group of sponsors to his right. None of it was sound, just white noise to his empty ears. All he could see was Viktor.

 

He had known Viktor well enough by now to see that the smile Viktor gave wasn’t like the smiles he gave Yuuri. It was polite, a little bored, maybe even to go as far as to say fake. It just wasn’t the smile Yuuri had become accustomed to seeing. Yuuri had observed Viktor enough in his years to then read the atmosphere and see the way that Viktor was leaning away from the woman, that there was no interest there on his half.

 

But that didn’t stop the flare of pain and jealousy that burned throughout him. He’d been lucky. For whatever reason, Viktor hadn’t really had a relationship for a while. Yuuri had been spared that pain, but he also knew that Viktor was a good catch. There would be many opportunities, especially as Viktor grew in age and his responsibility was reduced. Someone like Viktor could find another person easily. So easily. Yuuri realised he didn’t have a lot of time if he wanted to make his move.  

 

He felt himself shaking and it took a moment for him to realise it wasn’t his body making him so but Phichit shoving him.

 

“Ren!” Phichit said a little louder. “Are you okay? Come on, talk to me.”

 

Yuuri wanted to turn to his friend, but he couldn’t tear his eyes away from the scene, from seeing the woman hug Viktor’s arm tighter to her front and Viktor allowing it to happen. He knew what Phichit would look like anyway, the same furrowed-eyebrow-worried that he had seen a few times now when it concerned Yuuri.

 

He wanted to say that he was fine, was always fine, always had to be fine, but instead he found himself saying, “Why does love hurt so much?”

 

As the words left his mouth, they crushed him. He didn’t want to know how he would be feeling if it was instead a woman Viktor was interested in. It was clear to him Viktor didn’t want to be with this woman, and that softened it a little. If Viktor found someone before Yuuri got to him, before he found the real courage to take that risk, how would he feel then if this was how he felt now?

 

Phichit whispered with the deepest sadness, “Oh, Yuuri. I’m sorry. I’m so sorry.”

 

“What is it you’re apologising for?” Yuuri heard Chris ask, swooping in from somewhere. Not even his voice could tear Yuuri’s eyes away from where they were glued against Viktor. There was silence for a moment, a second where Chris must have been gaging the situation and reading the lack of response. Then he said with something akin to pity but softer in his voice, “Oh, I see.”

 

Yuuri wanted to ask if he really did. Did he understand? Did he know everything? Like how Yuuri would lie awake in his room, staring up at the ceiling and around at the posters of Viktor on his walls? Did he know that in his darkest moments, Yuuri would imagine meeting the other man and it brought him the courage to see every day through? Did he know just how much his admiration had turned into love? Or how much it hurt for Yuuri to see the one person he ever loved like this, the first, the hardest, and realise that there might never be a chance? Realise that while he might not be the one for Viktor, Viktor was probably the only one for Yuuri? No, no, Chris didn’t really see.

 

“That’s one of his sponsor’s daughters,” Chris supplied, his information grating on Yuuri’s ears. “They’ve known each other for a few years now, and she always throws herself at him. He always ignores it.”

 

“Why isn’t he interested in her?” Yuuri found himself asking before he could really reign in the words. “She’s beautiful.”

 

“Viktor… he prefers personality before looks. Not to say that he isn’t attracted to how someone looks either, but he would never fall for someone with a vile personality but a beautiful body. He’s not like that.”

 

“And she isn’t as beautiful as she looks?”

 

“No. She’s shallow, self-centred, and is known to throw people away when they’re no use anymore. Viktor would never go for someone like her.”

 

Oddly, it sounded like Chris was trying to console him. He considered that as something he has misheard. Yuuri took a deep, shuddering breath, feeling his lungs expand almost painfully. Once he was sure he was calm enough, he let his hand drop from the front of his shirt to fall loosely at his side.

 

In monotone, he quipped, “With all the people falling at his feet, I’m surprised he hasn’t found the one he’s interested in yet.” Like Yuuri. Because Yuuri wasn’t quite falling at his feet, not physically, but he had been in Viktor’s line of sight for a while. Was he not enough?

 

He was so lost in his own roaring emotions that he missed as Chris said, “I wouldn’t say that. He’s just overly cautious.”

 

As Yuuri watched, the woman began to raise her hand, her palm cupping Viktor’s cheek. She pulled it to her until Viktor was looking at her. She didn’t seem satisfied. She cupped both of his cheeks and brought him down, closer and closer until they were nearly nose to nose. They looked ready to kiss if it wasn’t for Viktor pulling back.

 

Instead of depressing him though, something inside Yuuri burned. A voice at the back of his mind screamed and he felt as if he could breathe fire. He’d read enough to know what this was. Jealousy. Flaring deeply inside of him, providing a voice inside his head that screamed mine, that gave him images of pushing the girl away and claiming those lips for his own. On some level, though, both Ren and Yuuri were battling with this unfamiliar feeling, remaining painfully aware of where they were and what they were doing.

 

“Uh oh,” he heard Phichit mutter.

 

“Yes, go get some,” he heard Chris chuckle.

 

It took him a while to realise what they were talking about, especially as even with all of his fighting, he was still walking towards Viktor. He took steady steps, cutting a straight line through the dancers, his eyes still set firmly on the scene before him.

 

Viktor didn’t see him arrive, but Yuuri saw the way the woman’s smile soured into something ugly when she noticed. His sponsors turned just as he reached them, still as polite as ever, expecting to be introduced. No, Viktor didn’t see him arrive, not until Yuuri reached out and grabbed his thin black silk tie, pulling him to turn towards Yuuri.

 

“Dance with me,” Yuuri demanded, keeping a firm grip on the item. He watched as Viktor’s face morphed from shock into happiness, his eyes clearing, shining brightly, and his smile more real than he had seen just seconds before. At least, Yuuri hoped. Please don’t let him be imagining it.

 

A breathless, “Okay,” was all Yuuri needed before he was dragging the older man towards the dance floor by his tie.

 

They’d danced many times together, many memories Yuuri would forever cherish regardless of the outcome of their relationship. He would look back fondly and remember each song and step as if he was dancing it again. Each had its own emotion. And he knew that before they even stepped on the dance floor that this would be just as well remembered, perhaps not quite as fondly.

 

Once in the middle and sure that Viktor wasn’t going to rush off, he let the tie drop. It lay messily against his chest, above his waist-coat, rumpled at the top and crippling the collar with it. Yuuri looked up at the older man and saw him still smiling, still watching him, waiting for something.

 

Yuuri didn’t often take the lead in things, never the leader, always the follower. He didn’t have the confidence to lead anyone. But this time he felt the jealousy inside him flare so loudly that he wanted it imprint himself onto Viktor until the man would never forget him, command such a reaction, and Viktor was waiting there as if he expected Yuuri to do just that.

 

He took Viktor’s hand roughly in his, guiding it to his hip, resting a little lower than he would have normally allowed as the finger tips danced dangerously close to his behind. He left it there for a moment before he gripped Viktor’s other hand in his own and rested his free hand on Viktor’s shoulder. As a new song began, Yuuri pushed them to begin.

 

He used to let Viktor create their pace in dancing, content to follow and wallow in Viktor’s presence. Now he knew he would not be satisfied with that. The fire inside of himself demanded more.

 

He began them on their rough pace, pushing Viktor forwards and backwards, spinning them until Viktor was gasping with surprise. The Russian man was looking down at him with a slightly open mouth, a flush on his cheeks, his eyes never leaving Yuuri’s from where he could see through the eyeholes of his mask.

 

Looking back, Yuuri knew he should have been embarrassed by his behaviour. He had forced Viktor away from what could have been an important meeting with his sponsors with not a word to them or with any polite question. No, he had demanded a dance, and then dragged the gold medallist, the legend by his tie through half of the hall in the middle of hundreds of people – many of whom were journalists that had not even left yet. But Yuuri had been so riled up, so filled with emotion, that he could do nothing but enrapture Viktor the same way the other man had captured him for so many years. He was finally here, before Viktor, and he wanted everything.

 

As the song changed into something faster paced, Yuuri stopped them, a thought suddenly occurred. Take Viktor’s breath away, his jealousy whispered inside his mind, the same way he’s been doing to you. Make him just as captivated with you as you are of him. Make him think of no one else.

 

The beat was fast. Some of the dancers were leaving the floor, unable to keep up with the pace. But Yuuri had experience in this, as he suspected Viktor did too from his programmes and the way they danced before. He pushed Viktor to copy his quick steps, gyrating their hips, snapping their shoulders, dancing passion. He gave Viktor little freedom in their dance, dictating every step and direction.

 

Strangely, Viktor didn’t seem too worried by his lack of freedom. Instead, he let Yuuri guide him, looking down the slight height difference and smiling so brilliantly.

 

Yuuri watched as their quick matches began to deepen the flush on Viktor’s cheeks, so much prettier than his own, and Viktor’s breath puffed out in their exertion. Yuuri wanted nothing more than to feel that on his skin.

 

The music built and built and built until Yuuri could feel it in his very soul, ramping up his drive, his heart hammering as he pushed Viktor faster and faster. Sweat was beading on his forehead, and he could see it forming on Viktor’s too. Their chests were heaving, and yet Yuuri didn’t let it end. He was still pushing Viktor, commanding his every move, burning this memory into not only his own mind but Viktor’s too.

 

As the music came to its crashing end, Yuuri dripped Viktor suddenly and deeply, their faces close, and relished the sight of Viktor’s wide eyes seeing him and only ever him.

 

“I said don’t ever take your eyes off me, remember?” Yuuri demanded in a low whisper into Viktor’s ear.

 

Yuuri wasn’t sure how long they stayed like that. For all he knew, his arms could have been aching with the weight, or Viktor’s back could have been in pain. Everyone could have been looking. It could have been getting dark outside.

 

All Yuuri cared about was that he finally had Viktor’s full attention set solely on him.

Chapter Text

Yuuri did a lot more than train his programme in the lead up to the World Championship. He trained in other things, enlisting the help of all he could think of to achieve his goal of winning this time.

 

He had a lot riding on this and for the sake of his own emotional future and state, he was going to do everything he could to make sure that the promise to himself was going to be fulfilled.

 

The first obstacle was not the programmes themselves, as he had skated them once before. They achieved high points, though a swap of a jump into a combination could raise the overall scores. His theme was solid, and something that he had been wanting to skate for a while. The internet had flared when he had skated to the theme of anxiety in the Grand Prix Finals. There was a mix of support and some that were more dismissive. Yuuri stuck to reading the supportive ones, finding an array of stories that didn’t venture far from his own. In others, he found himself as inspiration to people, still not able to wrap his head around that concept. After his third place win because of a failed jump, the internet roared with more support than he had seen before.

 

Despite the mixed responses, the theme was not the issue.

 

It was his own mind. He knew that, had known it for a very long time, and was the foundation to the creation of Ren Himura. He’d been strong when skating to the theme of confidence because that was what Ren was made of. He’d taken a risk and allowed Yuuri to take over for the theme of anxiety, and because of it he hadn’t done nearly as well as he could have.

 

It took some months for him to see what it was about that he had missed. Phichit and Celestino had had to help, pointing out that even as Yuuri, just Yuuri, he’d achieved a bronze. It was higher than he had achieved before Ren came along. Compared to the medals he’d been gaining before, it wasn’t much of an achievement. But as Yuuri lay awake at nights, staring at the ceiling, contemplating, he realised it was more of an achievement than anyone could comprehend. He was Yuuri, just Yuuri, and had only failed a jump once, one of the hardest, and still received bronze. He’d gone so long as Yuuri and Ren that he barely noticed when Yuuri was by himself.

 

The realisation had come quite late, but when it did come it hit him like a storm. He could be Yuuri, just Yuuri, only Yuuri, and he could still skate his heartfelt theme and reach the podium. So he trained his mind, beckoned Yuuri to the forefront of all of his training sessions – a feat harder than he ever anticipated – and kept Ren at the back if he should ever need him. With the realisation came confidence in himself, knowing that Ren would catch him but Yuuri had been growing with his persona as well. But, on the other hand, with the realisation came the crippling anxiety. Doubt and fear crept back into his heart and every time he thought he’d made a step forwards, Ren had to come and shield him again.

 

So he trained and trained and trained some more, desperate to create the right balance. He wanted to win gold again, to win it at such a big competition, and this time not just as Ren Himura.

 

As the time for Worlds crept closer and closer, he felt less ready than he had before. He knew that this progression would take perhaps years, that it couldn’t be perfected in only a few months; not even Ren was perfected in such a short time frame. But he kept trying. This was the theme he wanted to win with. This was what he wanted to show the world.

 

Don’t take anxiety lightly, he wanted to tell them. It might be destructive, but it could be overcome with time and determination. To some, it was imaginary, and he wanted to show them that anxiety was as real as any physical ailment. It was what drove him when the day of the World Championship came.

 

His theme really had gained a lot of interest – from the media and fans alike. He noticed it as soon as he stepped into the rink, seeing signs waved in the front rows. Normally, they had Ren’s name plastered on them. This time, he noticed something quite different. A group of twenty had signs with his mask painted on, and with those were mental illnesses labelled in glitter and colour on the cards. Yuuri’s eyes snapped to the pink sign closest, held by a young man of perhaps his same age, with the word ‘Depression’ painted on in blue glitter. Beside him, a young girl of perhaps eighteen or younger waved a sign labelled ‘Bipolar’ in a mix of gold and silver. At the back, a tall man’s sign read ‘Posttraumatic Stress Disorder’ in red highlighter, and with him he was holding the hand of a man whose sign read ‘Eating Disorder’ in black. There were more, all waved before him, from ‘Social Anxiety’ to ‘Autism’, all labelled in colour and glitter, some with glued on stars and ribbons. Before them, on a banner hanging from the edge of the barriers, the words ‘We Are Real’ were coloured in rainbow, each letter different from the other.

 

Yuuri clutched at his heart at the sight, the memories of years of people telling him anxiety wasn’t real, that he was being fussy and weak. Because it couldn’t be seen, mental illnesses were cast away.

 

When they saw him, the group waved their signs violently and smiled down at him, their eyes lighting up as if he was everything that they had been waiting for.

 

Spending months sitting and thinking hadn’t done him much good. It was hard to train oneself to become themselves, especially when they had been spending years walking in someone else’s shoes. But seeing this, seeing what he was doing and that it wasn’t just affecting him, it lit something inside of him.

 

He was doing this for them, he reminded himself. He was doing this for them, for himself, for everyone. And, he thought, he was doing this for a better future, one in which he could be completely himself without feeling ashamed, and be with Viktor as Yuuri, completely Yuuri. Just Yuuri.

 

At the thought of the other man, Yuuri looked around. Viktor was to his right, some way down the rink and speaking to his coach, clad in his bright costume and both with a stern expression. A serious conversation, one that Yuuri couldn’t make the words of. He kept nodding, a ruffle of his fringe to straighten out the gel, a roll of his eyes here and there.

 

Each and every time he looked at the other man, Yuuri was reminded of the power of his own emotions – both in the way that he loved the man, and how much he wanted to be confident in himself to show Yuuri completely. Each movement Viktor made was heavily ingrained in Yuuri’s mind, each breath, every word, his complete being. It pressed inside of him until he felt as if he was ready to burst. This competition, he felt, would be the determining factor of if he could reel it in and control it, or lose it. A lot of pressure set on himself. But, well, it’s what Yuuri knew he could do well.

 

It was all he could think about during the warm up. He watched Viktor carefully, not caring if it was obvious or not, just thinking about the outcome of the next few days. He knew which way he wanted it to go, and Yuuri, despite his shortcomings, could stick to something to the very end.

 

He heard his persona’s name spoken through the air, could feel the countless gazes on his form. There were some who doubted him after his third place during the Grand Prix, his inability to gain gold again since the Grand Prix Final a year ago. Some believed he was waiting, that with a little bit of patience he would rise again and with greater power. Others thought he had run out his luck and that Viktor rose to the small challenge, blown it away like some small dust. He’d been asked about it enough times in his interviews. And he always said the same thing.

 

When they asked if he would ever see gold again, he always replied, “I am fortunate enough to skate against brilliant competitors. I create a challenge and they rise against it. They keep me on my toes, and it makes any position I win worthy. Will I ever see gold again? I hope so. I’d love to stand on the top of the podium again. But if I don’t, I’ll know it was because my competitors are better and they deserve it. I’ve been so lucky to be able to meet and compete against each and every one.”

 

It really was how he felt. He never expected to get this far, let alone become so close to some. Each and every interviewer ate his words up as if it was their last meal and spat them in articles and newspapers for all the world to see. Just a little bit of insight into the mysterious Ren Himura guaranteed their careers, and the interest of the public.

 

It all added to one thing – People wanted to see the competition between Ren and Viktor, labelled as one of the biggest for a long time in the sport of figure skating. If there was anyone who could beat Viktor Nikiforov it was Ren Himura, they whispered. And though some doubted it, some whispering that the Viktor would never lose to someone like Ren, they all secretly wished to see it.

 

Yuuri hadn’t been prepared last time for the win. He hadn’t expected it, almost belittled it as soon as he got the scores. This time he was ready, and he was ready to fight to make sure that gold was strung around his neck again.

 

He felt his heart racing against his chest as he waited for his turn. He watched other skaters from across the world take to the ice, pouring out all of their emotions and energy into just a few minutes’ worth of performance. The crowds roared and jittered in their anticipation, heated words cast from their mouths.

 

The day was going by far too slowly for Yuuri’s liking. He both hated and loved the idea of being on the ice, of getting a second chance of skating the theme he thought worthy of winning. He longed to prove himself and to win, to be in the middle of Viktor’s line of sight, of being the only thing the other man saw.

 

He laughed softly to himself, feeling the breath cast back at him from the plastic of his mask. Getting greedy, wasn’t he? He wanted all of Viktor, everything the other man could give him and more. He clenched his fists at his side and gritted his teeth. Yes, very greedy. But was this not love? Pain, greed, jealousy – it was all the ugly parts of love that were hardly ever spoken of, things he hadn’t come to understand until Viktor came along. Was this how his parents felt towards each other? Or still did? Was this how Yuko and Takeshi felt?

 

Chris’ name was called and Yuuri’s head snapped up just in time to see the older man taking his guards off.

 

There was a steady calm on the other man’s face, a determination in his expression as he gave one last word to his coach before he stepped out onto the ice. Yuuri counted the breaths Chris took on his way to the centre, picking up a calming pattern. The Swiss took one last deeper breath before he settled into his beginning pose.

 

It didn’t matter how many times he watched his friends skate in competition - Each and every time was just as nerve wracking as the other. He knew what it was like to fail, and he wished only the best for those close to him so that they did not have to suffer like that. It would only be worse once Phichit joined, Yuuri thought. He had watched the younger skater in training for years, seen his strengths, weaknesses and ambitions.

 

The music settled in, and with it Chris began. Fluid and graceful, Chris was an incredible competitor, capturing the audience with a wave of an arm and an open expression. It had been a while since Yuuri thought of it, but he did find himself wondering what it would be like to be like that. His face open to the crowd, to the cameras. What sort of expressions would he wear? What would they think? How would it be to finally feel the stares of thousands upon his skin?

 

Chris was brilliant at the pressure of the onlookers. He accepted it, used it to fuel his own skating, and gave everything he could back to them. He skated to emotions that everyone experienced, but was rarely explored in the sport – be it lust, love or in-between. Love was seen as a cheesy theme, something beginners used, or a theme to be made when someone had run out of ideas. Chris never really labelled his themes as love, not wanting to fall into the predetermined category, but there was always a hint of the concept in each and every programme he skated.

 

He showed it in ways as he did now, with heavy lidded eyes, his own hands exploring his body, the way he blew kisses to his adoring fans. Yuuri would never know how Chris did it, but he somehow managed to convince the audience that he was dancing for only them, an invitation spoken through the body. Yuuri doubted that even with all his persona and confidence he could be able to do what Chris did.

 

Yuuri flinched as a particularly loud group of fangirls screamed behind him as Chris gave them a wink and a gleaming smile. Yes, he thought, he would never be able to do what Chris could do.

 

Chris delivered an excellent performance, ramping up some of his difficulty with combinations, changing little things since the Grand Prix Finals. As he jumped a quad loop, both arms raised, the commentators commended him on his bravery. One in particular mentioned that perhaps this would be the year he broke his highest streak of silver. The thought was cast away by the other commentators, but Yuuri couldn’t hold back his own thoughts. Chris was a brilliant skater, and could one day rise above Viktor if others weren’t careful.

 

He skated into the last pose and breathed under the applause of the crowd, his lips tugging into a bright smile.

 

A skater Yuuri hadn’t spoken to before took his place on the ice as Chris was making his way to the Kiss and Cry. Yuuri thought the scores must be high, Chris had done well and hadn’t missed anything – his rotations had been right, his landings clean, his spins graceful, the base difficulty higher than it had been in the Grand Prix Finals when he won silver. So Yuuri knew it was going to be high, but felt his breath leave him when he noticed just how high it was.

 

Chris had very nearly broken his own record, something the man hadn’t been able to do since he set it years before. As the older skater cheered and hugged his coach, Yuuri felt his own heart racing.

 

He mistook it for a moment as nerves. He’d aimed to be able to win this one, and it was hard enough against Viktor, but with Chris nipping at his heels and becoming better and better, he now had two very big competitors. He had a lot riding on this theme and this World Championship. But it only took a moment of him really thinking about it to recognise what it was.

 

Yuuri didn’t really like the pressure of competitions, it was always Ren that thrived in them. And yet, sitting here and seeing the scores come in, his friend taking first place for the moment, it sparked something inside of him. Yuuri didn’t think he had a competitive streak, but he could feel it tugging at him now.

 

Celestino whispered to him before his own turn, “Look, it’s going to be alright. You’re going to do everyone so proud. And I know you’re nervous about the first jump, but it’s going to be fine-”

 

Ah yes, the first jump, the quad salchow he had almost messed up completely and had pushed him back to bronze in the Grand Prix Final. He would be lying if he said he wasn’t nervous about it – it was a jump he hadn’t yet perfected enough to be completely comfortable with. But he had trained hard to at least be a little more confident in it.

 

“No one will blame you if you don’t manage to do it,” his coach continued.

 

No, no one would. His family and friends would be proud of him even if he fell into last place, and though the audience would be disappointed, blame wouldn’t be the word they used. No one would blame him but himself, and he knew he was his hardest critic. He would blame himself, be disappointed in himself, and worry that he had failed those close to him when he knew that they never would be. But that was anxiety.

 

“And I know it’s a big audience-”

 

“It’s fine,” Yuuri found himself interrupting. “I’m alright. I am nervous, but I’m okay. I’m going to do my best to not fail the jump, and then I’m going to do my best to win this competition.”

 

Celestino was stunned for a moment, probably from hearing the conviction in Yuuri’s tone, an attribute that wasn’t often in Yuuri.

 

Phichit, however, leaned forwards with a grin and exclaimed, “That’s the spirit!”

 

Yuuri became a little numb as he got up, Celestino walking him to the edge of the rink. He concentrated on his breathing, dissolved into himself, thought of nothing than how to make this better. Better, better and better again. While he loved his theme and his programmes, there was always room for improvement. How could he make this world worthy?

 

The space between stepping onto the ice and raising into his beginning pose was a blur. His name and the compliments of the commentators was a haze behind a wall of soundproof emotions. The crowd’s cheers were a wash of amassed fading noise. Nothing was reaching him, because he was too busy concentrating on what he could do.

 

The pressure… well, the pressure was never good for Yuuri. Pressure did the exact opposite of what it was meant to do for him – it made him want to curl away in a hidden place, hide in the dark, and wait until people forgot or that even he was forgotten. Pressure was harmful, destructive, and it tore at him from within. But that was exactly why he made sure that Ren thrived on it. Ren ate it up, grew ten feet taller with it, demanding that all eyes and expectations should be on him because he would shatter it. Yuuri didn’t think he was strong enough yet to be alone. Ren was such a big part of him, he couldn’t go back to being just Yuuri yet.

 

It was why he stood in the middle of that rink and called Ren forth – not fully. Ren couldn’t skate this programme like Yuuri could, couldn’t convey just what he wanted to say like Yuuri could. It had taken him a long time to admit it, a concept that seemed impossible to him not long ago. But while Ren knew nothing of anxiety, Yuuri did. All Ren had to do was sit back and protect Yuuri from the pressure. To catch him when he fell. Ren could sit back and watch while Yuuri caught the attention of the world.

 

The music began, strumming through the air, and Yuuri finally felt ten feet tall too. This was familiar to him, a space his anxiety couldn’t reach him. He just needed to be better this time.

 

As he skated into the first step sequence, he already felt stronger. He had been so wracked with nervous energy before he hadn’t found the balance between Ren and Yuuri. He had yet to perfect it, but even these starting seconds cemented his confidence that he could do it. Because they were stronger, he felt more fluid, graceful, and could practically feel all of their eyes on him.

 

The rink was quiet, just the flutter of people moving in their seats and the shakes of the signs. The commentator was quiet, her breathing just filtering through the mic. Yuuri found excitement in that, that he could silence a woman whose job was to speak. Fuelled by the thought, he pushed more of his own emotions into it. Each movement, each throw of his arm, each spin, he propelled himself into with as much emotion as he could convey.

 

Let those who knew of anxiety see. Let them see that everyone could suffer, even the ones you least expected to. And let those who didn’t know of anxiety see too. Let them see that it was real, that it was destructive but could be overcome. Let the world see just what it was like.

 

The music seemed louder this time around. Perhaps because the audience was quieter. Perhaps the bigger space. Perhaps because of how clear Yuuri’s head was this time around. It boomed through the space, the lyrics rattling off the walls, pressing themselves into the minds of all listening and watching. Harsh, battling lyrics, making no subtle messages about what anxiety really was. And with it, Yuuri skated.

 

As the first jump came, he steeled himself. He felt the press of his worries in his chest, but he kept them down. Worry would make him falter again. He’d started so strong, he didn’t want to fail again.

 

For just a second, a voice at the back of his mind compelled him to change it into a quad he knew he could do. Keep it safe, it said. It didn’t sound like Ren at all, not even Yuuri. How could he win if he didn’t take risks? Yes, now that was Ren’s voice.

 

His heart gave one shuddering thought as he prepared, practically feeling the anticipation in the air palpitating, not just from him but form the audience. And he soared. He soared through the air, deciding at the last minute to ramp it up. Raising his right arm and holding the other close, he felt the air whip by his skin through the holes of the fabric of his costume.

 

The time extended, such as it hadn’t done for years. He felt every little movement, every little shift of his limbs. His muscles tensed under the skin, his form hugged by his costume, every inch of surface felt. As he came down, he felt the change in the air. He slowly counted his rotations, watched as the audience blurred again, strips of colours to his hazy eyes. He felt his blade touch the ice and he uncurled, shifting his weight to balance.

 

The landing itself passed faster than the jump. He skated out, his arms raised by his sides, hoping he looked just as graceful and professional as he felt.

 

He didn’t celebrate until he smoothly skated into his next step sequence, the jump gone. When it hit him, that he had done it, completed the jump he had failed just months before, his chest burst with warmth. Something akin to confidence bloomed within him – but this time it felt strange. It took him only seconds to realise why so, and that was because this was Yuuri’s confidence. Something strange and unfamiliar. Something he had only ever tasted from Ren’s perspective.

 

Addictive wasn’t the word. It was compelling, devouring, euphoric, heavenly. And to know that he had gained it himself, that he had been the one to achieve it made it taste all the more sweet.

 

There was a power inside of him that was bursting, an energy that was coursing through his veins. For this moment, he was the very centre of attention, and he wanted to make the most of it.

 

If everyone could have seen his face, they’d see his set expression, his knitted eyebrows, the determination set in his eyes, the hard line of his mouth. There was sweat pouring from his pores, a shine on his skin. If eyes were the window to the soul, the face the house in which it nested, then they’d have seen Yuuri’s radiance and his ambitions.

 

As the Short Programme continued, he only gained in those ambitions, every movement he made a reminder of what he was trying to achieve. He might have heard a group of voices cheering out their love, but it could have also easily been the sound of the rush of blood in his ears.

 

After the daunting first jump, the others seemed effortless. He jumped with ease, going so far as to change one into a combination and cutting some of his step sequence to higher the difficulty. He skated to the beat of the music, the thumps drowning out his thoughts, easy to follow. They echoed off of the ice and thundered with his heart, and the lyrics left no room for any other feeling other than what he was dancing.

 

He was getting lost in it so deeply, feeling like he was finally skating the programme justice. He was doing it for himself, for all the years he had spent unhappy with Yuuri and why he created Ren. He was doing it for the community who suffered with mental health, those who knew the struggle of anxiety. He was doing it for the non-believers, to show them that it needed to be spoken about and addressed. So much feeling had been poured into his programmes and this season.

 

But it was over too soon. His Short Programme was coming to a close, the music building until it stopped. He skated into his final pose, his chest rising and falling, the soundproof bubble around him popping under the stress.

 

There was only a second of silence. One moment of peace for Yuuri to catch up with how much he felt. Then the silence was destroyed as the audience cheered and applauded, their voices mingling so tightly that even the commentator had trouble speaking.

 

Not that he was listening anyway. Of course he cared what they thought. But most of all, he cared that he had finally done it justice, corrected his mistake from the Grand Prix Final and come out fighting. Something he never knew he could do, something he always doubted.

 

Again, the time space between his final pose and when he stepped off of the ice was a blur. Colour flashed as flowers and toys were thrown at him. He managed to catch one, a pillow with the colours of his mask, the same pattern threated in the outline of it. He held it tightly to his chest, his heart beating against it, and followed his coach and best friend to the Kiss and Cry.

 

“I’d be very surprised if you didn’t get close to your own personal best with that,” Celestino commented as they waited for the results. “In fact, I think you’ve beaten it.”

 

Phichit had droplets of tears in the corners of his eyes as his cheeks pinked under the ache of the grin he was giving. His hands were shaking. He looked as if he wanted to hug Yuuri, but was too hopped up on energy to do so.

 

“That was…” Phichit stopped, unable to find the words to express what it was he wanted to say. When he still couldn’t find it after a time of thinking, he shrugged and made a noise at the back of his throat, but Yuuri understood.

 

He gripped one of Phichit’s shaking hands and said, “Aren’t I meant to be the one shaking?”

 

“But you didn’t see it like we did.”

 

Any conversation was cut off as the scores came in. The crowd hushed, the silence deafening, as the numbers were read.

 

Yuuri hadn’t beaten his personal best, a difference of 0.54 between them. But it was a high score all the same, and his name jumped to the very top. Yes, it was early, and only the Short Programme. There was a whole other day for Yuuri to finish. But it was a brilliant score, a hard one to beat all the same. The audience cheered louder.

 

He jumped as Phichit rose and clutched at him, picking him up slightly off the ground. Yuuri would have normally demanded to be put back, but a rush of happiness flooded his system and instead he kicked his dangling legs and hugged Phichit closer, hardly aware of the cameras snapping every moment of it.

 

He’d needed his failed jump and the push back to third to help, he thought. He’d needed that incentive to better himself and to make sure he skated to make it as close to perfect as it could be.

 

The commentator made the reminder that Viktor Nikiforov had yet to go, and yet it was a score that was hard to beat. Perhaps, she said, this would be the year Ren Himura took the World Champion title right from under the legend’s feet.

 

“I hope so!” both Phichit and Celestino bellowed together, making Yuuri smile even brighter.

 

It was another few skaters that took to the ice before it was Viktor’s turn. The Russian waited by the rink side as another skater finished up. His brows were furrowed, his eyes staring at the ice as if he was demanding something of it. As the skater before him stepped off and made his way to the Kiss and Cry, the attention all turned to the man now bending to take off the guards to his blades.

 

Yuuri especially watched him, wondering what was going through the older man’s head. Viktor had yet to look his way, but he didn’t look upset. Instead, perhaps, he looked more thoughtful than anything. Even as Yakov spoke to him, a rushed whisper close enough to the skater, Viktor nodded but didn’t look as though he was really listening.

 

The crowd dimmed down as he took to the ice, watching like hawks as he skated to the centre. The commentators, a rising anticipation making way in their voices, spoke about Viktor, his theme and his progress so far in the competitions leading up to this. He’d swept gold from them all, just as was expected of him. One commented, almost under his breath, if this was the end of that winning streak.

 

Viktor didn’t let the thousands of words get to him. He patiently waited for his music to begin, and as it did he began with power. The commentators stopped and all attention was on the living legend.

 

Yuuri leaned forwards on his seat, gripping the edges with his hands until the white of his knuckles showed through. There was a tension in the air, hanging heavily above them. The cameras were trained on the man skating out on the ice, all wanting to be the ones to capture the moment the legend fell from heaven.

 

But Viktor wasn’t giving up without a fight. He skated out on the ice like he owned it, which he had done for so many years. He’d been the sole dominant skater for so long, to the point where even at his weakest he hadn’t been beaten. Even as the love for his sport left him and he skated without resolve or much emotion, he was unbeatable. But the difference between that and when he was fighting was enrapturing.

 

He skated into everything with a sharp confidence, demanding everything from the audience, willing them to never blink just because they could miss something. As he spun, he captured them. As he jumped, he drew their breaths. As he performed step sequences so complex, he rained down emotions upon them all.

 

He used every inch of the ice in his fight. He skated by the audience, flicking his fringe in their direction, not at all faltered by their squeals of approval. He reached out and commanded their attention, as if anyone would ever be looking anywhere else.

 

As the seconds wore on, Yuuri leaned further and further forwards, his breaths coming out in little sharp bursts. This was what he had always wanted – to skate on the same ice as the other man, to gain his confidence. He received much more than that. Right now, out on the ice, Viktor was fighting harder than he had ever had to before. Because if he didn’t, there was a chance his streak of gold and his title as World Champion could be taken.

 

Yuuri couldn’t believe it. How had he gotten this far? How had it come to this?

 

As it came to the last few seconds of Viktor’s programme, he changed his quad loop into a quad flip, causing a ripple of gasps through the audience. He landed all of his jumps, all quads, as if there had been any worry that he wouldn’t. And as he skated into a spin, twirling into his finishing pose, the question with the audience was if it was good enough.

 

Viktor breathed hard as he finished, taking a moment to stand and bask, collecting his thoughts, before he left the ice. He bent to pick a bouquet before he left, a blue one to match his eyes, and made his way to the Kiss and Cry with his coach.

 

The audience barely spoke as the scores were being tallied. It was only the Short Programme, some thoughts. Even if Viktor falls to second, it didn’t matter because the man would take the Free Skate.

 

As the scores blinked, there was a silent second as they read it over.

 

Yuuri stood, as if it would give him a better view. It took a moment for him to process where his name was, but it was the mix of cheers and gasps through the audience that confirmed it.

 

Going into the Free Skate, Yuuri was first, Viktor second.

 

He’d done his programme justice. He had actually managed to win the Short Programme even after the failed jump only months before. He’d managed to overcome his anxiety, overcome his worry of being more Yuuri than Ren on the ice and win with it. All of those hours, all of those days spend training had come to this.

 

Phichit was hugging him tightly, Celestino was clapping a hand on his shoulder, and Yuuri couldn’t be more proud of himself.

 

He knew he had yet to actually win. He had the Free Skate, and it could all change there. The World Champion title might be close, but it wasn’t yet under his name.

 

But now he had the confidence to make sure it would be.

 

***

 

However, as he was alone that night, he paced his room, the nerves fighting back once the darkness settled in.

 

Phichit lay sleeping in his bed, an arm strewn across his face, his mouth open and snores ripping through the silence.

 

Yuuri wasn’t sure what time it was, knowing it would only upset him more if he knew that right now he should be sleeping, preparing for a long day ahead. He just knew it was late.

 

The moonlight slipped through the window through the thin curtains, painting a square on the floor under Yuuri’s feet. He felt a ball of anxiety ripple inside of him, churning his stomach, pumping his blood until it thundered in his ears. He paced the moonlight.

 

Without Ren’s help, he knew he wouldn’t be anything more than this. It was with help from his persona that he was even able to be Yuuri out on the ice without completely crumbling under the pressure. But now, as Ren slept inside of him, his confidence lacking, Yuuri was in control, and with Yuuri came the anxiety.

 

He took a deep breath and carded his fingers through his hair. The motion pressed his glasses too tightly to the sides of his head, sparking a little bit of pain, but he pressed harder to distract himself from the questions that filtered his mind.

 

He’d made it so far, and he was closer now to becoming World Champion than he had ever been before. He’d been happy about that earlier, but now it daunted him. It was a long way to fall. If he hadn’t been well known by everyone of the skating world before, now he certainly was a familiar name. He had a whole day, a whole Free Skate, to mess up in front of millions of people.

 

“Okay, okay, okay,” he whispered to himself, holing a hand to his heart and clenching it around the material of his top. “It’s going to be okay.”

 

Because it should be. Once he was out there again, he was sure Ren would take over and made sure that the anxiety was kept at bay. It was just for the moment, the worry was temporary. At least, he kept reminding himself of that.

 

The pacing wasn’t helping. If anything, it was getting himself more riled up.

 

It seemed as if the weight of the world was on him. There would be some that expecting his win now, some who felt he had been robbed last year. Some wanted to see Viktor fall just for the drama, while others wanted Yuuri to win simply because they wanted to see a new person take to the top of the podium. Excitement. That was all it boiled down to. And Yuuri couldn’t agree more, it was exciting, and that was why he was terrified.

 

He sat on the edge of his bed, his head in his hands.

 

It wasn’t their pressure that really shook him. It was how close he was to what it would mean if he did win. He’d spent so long hiding. But he’d promised himself that if he won, he would show Viktor his face, tell him he loved him. Phichit had given him a good reason and he knew he couldn’t stay like this forever.

 

He was nervous about it. If he did win, he would tell Viktor everything. But if he did, would he win a competition but lose everything he had with Viktor? Would the man walk away and not want anything to do with him anymore? Phichit seemed inclined to think that the man loved him, or had some form of admiration for him. Perhaps it was Yuuri being oblivious, but he hadn’t seen any signs that could have indicated that. Sure, they were touchy-feely, and perhaps a little closer than other skaters, but that didn’t have to mean one thing, did it? It didn’t have to mean that just because it was what he wanted to come of it.

 

He took another deep breath, counting off the seconds in his head.

 

Perhaps he would decide when the time came. Say, for now, that he was going to do it, but when he stood on the podium maybe he would think otherwise. Maybe he would decide against it, or he would descend that podium with a stronger determination to do so. Who knew? Least of all Yuuri, and these were his own feelings.

 

He sighed and settled himself back into bed, intend on grabbing a few hours before the competition began. He knew he would need it.

 

***

 

Just as it had been before, the rink was busy and bustling with the anticipation of what was to come. The question of who would be taking the gold by the end of the day was on everyone’s lips. Phichit felt the need to inform him that it was all the blogs and forums were talking about, even some big news sites.

 

As it was last year, there were more journalists and fans outside than there had been the day before. The promise of news and drama drew them like flies to honey. He walked by in his blue and black jacket, attempting not to flinch when all of the lights and camera flashes turned on him. Behind him, Celestino and Phichit followed.

 

It was no calmer inside. Fans waiting to be seated squealed as they saw him come in. Some rushed forwards, asking for autographs and some just wanting to talk. Not wanting to disappoint anyone, Yuuri complied and was able to sign a few before Celestino pushed him on.

 

“You alright?” Phichit asked, clinging close to Yuuri’s side.

 

“I’m fine,” Yuuri replied, not finding it entirely a lie. He was better than he had been last night, finding Ren rising easily once the sun had come up. But he wasn’t completely fine, not yet, not until he was on the ice.

 

They quickly found their seats by the side and Yuuri took to the ice to warm up with the others for a few minutes.

 

If he thought there had been tension in the air before, he had been wrong. Now it weighed heavily, pressing on his head until his neck wanted to snap from the weight. He hadn’t missed the divide he’d seen in the audience, some holding signs to show support for Viktor and others holding signs showing their support for Ren. Viktor’s fans had even worn flower crowns, while Ren’s had worn masks on their faces. They shouted and waved and with them, the expectations of what was going to happen today rose.

 

Camera crews filmed the warm ups, the reporters before them opening up their news segments.

 

Commentators, in the anticipation, began to read out fact files of the each skater while the audience sat themselves down and waited for the beginning.

 

Yuuri watched them all, thankful that his mask hid most of his face. He was surprised to see a lot of them watching him, their eyes trained on his form as he warmed up. He’d seen that before, but now it seemed that they were eagerly waiting for something to happen.

 

They were called from the ice and Yuuri waited for his turn.

 

He was last. Quite the advantage it was, to be last. Before then, he would be able to talk it over with Celestino after watching Chris and Viktor and talk about their options to maintain his first place. He’d be able to assess proper risks and be able to make changes when he felt he needed them – not a shot in the dark. No. He would be able to calculate properly and if he played it right, then no amount of fighting Viktor did would secure him a win.

 

As the first skater took to the ice, the audience a thrum of cheering, Yuuri felt the energy course through him. As he had suspected, he felt a little calmer today – no, not calmer, that wasn’t the right word. He felt… less like a victim to his own anxiety. The nerves were still rushing through him, but he felt as if Ren was carefully placed beneath him, ready for a fall. He felt more confident, happier.

 

He cast a glance towards Chris and Viktor, both sitting a little ways away from Yuuri and besides their own coaches. Chris was discussing something with his, a frown on his forehead as he tapped his finger against his cheek. He seemed to be assessing something, but Yuuri couldn’t be sure.

 

Viktor was leaning forwards, watching the first skater carefully, his gaze snapping every time the skater stepped. Yuuri’s gaze shot over to the cameras, seeing one trained constantly on himself, and another trained on Viktor. He looked away before the reporter could spot him looking.

 

Time passed quickly, strangely, differently from how Yuuri suspected it would have gone. He expected every second to drag, his programme a lifetime away. But before he knew it, he was watching Chris removing his guards.

 

The Swiss skater held his coach for support as he gave one last stretch to his muscles, a set expression on his groomed features. His eyes never left the ice, never strayed too far from the surface as he assessed it all.

 

The commentator shot off some facts about the man, as if there was anyone who hadn’t heard them several times by now, as Chris skated into the centre. The lights dimmed and the audience quietened, a hush settling in the air. The tension, for now, had dispersed just slightly – enough for people to breathe. Yuuri had no doubt it would return with a vengeance once Viktor and he took to the ice.

 

The music began its thrum through the air, familiar to any Chris fan by now. His group screamed from one of the corners, stuck between waves of fans of Viktor and Ren. They waved their pink signs, cuddled their cushion hearts to their chests, and shouted out their luck to the man.

 

Chris accepted it all with a beginning spin, graceful and seemingly effortless.

 

Yuuri had no doubt that if Viktor hadn’t chosen this lifestyle, Chris would be at the top of the world and be the one to beat. Before Yuuri, he won streaks of silver, a constant reminder of his skill. And yet, because of the shadow Viktor cast, everyone seemed to forget that. Yuuri never had, not even as he watched Viktor in his years of healing. Wherever Viktor went, Chris was standing beside him. Some saw that as a show of how Chris would never beat the living legend – Yuuri saw it as a testimony to how threatening Chris could be. The most dangerous people were the ones who were underestimated.

 

Chris’s strongest strength in his programmes was the way he managed to capture the audience. He might not have been the one people saw as a real competitor, but he was the one that they would remember for a very long time.

 

As he skated across the ice, he faced the audience and commanded their attentions. He rolled his neck, hugging himself, his gaze flickering over their faces as if he could see each and every single one. As if they all meant something special to him, each individual person. And from the way they gasped and clamoured to get a little closer to where he skated, it was clear they believed it. And people thought it was only Viktor that could compel the audience in such a way.

 

Chris skated into his quad toe-loop without even the slightest hesitancy, and not one little falter was the show of it. His landing was steady, his arms turning to cup his sides, his hair fluttering in the breeze as he skated by.

 

He spun in the middle of their attentions, holding one arm close to his chest while the other curved around his head, as if protecting it. The speed in which he spun rivalled some of the best that Yuuri had seen, his costume a blur of colour and sparkles, the sound carving on the surface of the ice and echoing through the still building.

 

All too soon, his programme was finished with a final pose and he was leaving the ice, picking up a bouquet of roses tied with a red ribbon from the floor. He waved to the audience and made his way to the Kiss and Cry with his coach. However, on the way, he passed Viktor, and they shared a quick whispered word before they parted ways, Viktor stepping closer to the opening in the barrier.

 

Yakov was having one more word with him before he took to the ice, a rushed piece of advice Yuuri suspected.

 

As soon as the room noticed who it was that was about to skate, a reminder that he wasn’t last, that he had gone into the Free Skate second. Not first. Not as everyone expected.

 

Yuuri couldn’t stop the one bubble of laughter that shook his lungs. Phichit glanced at him, but didn’t ask, and for that he was thankful.

 

Viktor had still done something that was the opposite of what the world thought. He’d come second before the Free Skate. It then occurred to Yuuri if the man had planned it – if he was going to come back full force this time around and surprise the audience once again, and to retain his title with more drama than he had been allowed before.

 

Normally, that thought would worry Yuuri. He hated to think that his chances could be dashed so easily because of someone else’s forethought. But not today. Today, it sparked something inside of him, made him want to rise to the challenge with everything he had.

 

He’s playing hard to get, a strange voice whispered at the back of his mind. He flinched, wondered what the hell it was he was thinking and why it excited him so.

 

But who knew? Perhaps a little challenge would make this victory all the more sweeter.

 

Yuuri flinched slightly. Yes, sometimes Ren could be a little scary in his competitiveness.

 

The lights dimmed once more as Viktor stood in the middle of the ice, twisting his joints to make sure they had been stretched properly. The tension was back again, weighing above like a heavy cloud. There weren’t as many cheers as Viktor normally received, all audience members smothered by their own anticipation.

 

As the music started, Viktor skated with it, making the crowd lean in their seats as soon as he stepped out of his pose. Including Yuuri.

 

He watched every step, every spin, every single miniscule movement of the man before him. He tried to gauge to see if there was anything that had changed since the Grand Prix Finals in the way he skated – to see if the man was going to pull out some secret weapon perhaps.

 

Yuuri highly regretted that any competition he would ever live through would never be this tense, that it would never compare. He was sure that anything compared would be easy. This was, perhaps, the peak of his career. He was riding a high that he never thought he would ever get to experience. He wanted to make it last for as long as he could.

 

Yuuri felt his heart give a sudden lurch every time Viktor jumped, regardless of if it was a triple or a quad, or one he had seen the man jump hundreds of times before, never once falling. That didn’t matter. And while he wanted to win desperately, eager to make do of his promise, he didn’t want to win because of a rare mistake on the Russian’s part. If he was going to win, he wanted it to be because he beat the man at his best, at both of their bests.

 

As Viktor skated, Yuuri was reminded of exactly why he had come to admire the man. He oozed confidence, even as he skated his combination spin, his form a blur but fluid. With each flick of his wrist, the man commanded more attention, more and more as if he was at threat if anyone ever looked away for even one second. Yuuri saw a lot of Ren in Viktor’s movements, in the way that he curled his arm to cup the opposite side of his face, in the way he connected with the audience, the way he skated step sequences. There had been a lot of the man that Yuuri had adapted into Ren, some unconsciously and others with a lot of awareness. If Viktor’s confidence could be bottled, Yuuri would have bought it many years ago and for any price.

 

Viktor skated close to the barrier before Yuuri, and it seemed as if he was close enough to touch. If he hadn’t caught himself, he knew he would have almost reached out to test it, a moment that would be immortalised in camera and on the internet. But he reigned himself in, knowing that a momentary slip up could cost Viktor the competition, and that was the last thing he wanted to do to the man.

 

But he was close enough for Yuuri to see the sweat pouring from his forehead, the way his brow furrowed only slightly, something hard to see from a distance. It was then that it dawned on Yuuri. The determination was rippling in his form, hard promise set in his eyes. Viktor was always so beautiful in his skating, it was hard to see when he was trying harder because each and every programme he performed was perfect as was. But he was fighting again.

 

Yuuri’s realisation was met with Viktor’s change of one of his triples into another quad, resulting in a wave of gasps. The fatigue should have been catching up to the man after a set of tight quads a feat that even Viktor didn’t attempt regularly.

 

He was fighting again. Viktor was fighting. Against Yuuri, to retain a title he had held for years. Yuuri felt his heart burst at the thought.

 

The cameras and the commentators seemed to pick up a little later than Yuuri, viewfinders trained on the man, his name and a rush of excitement following on the intercom. Waves of increased enthusiasm made their ways through the crowd, building and building until the edges of tension were bursting.

 

Yuuri could feel it in the way his heart beat. He breathed with Viktor’s music and allowed the shield that was Ren to keep the pressure at bay. He could feel some watching him, the audience eager to see his reaction to the legend composing the competition, the challenge. He could feel the camera watching him. For the hundredth time in his lifetime, he was thankful for his mask.

 

Because it always surprised him how many times and to what intensity Viktor could strike him, paralyse him, could render every thought in his mind to mush with a single movement. Yes, he was doomed. He’d known it for a while now, it just surprised him every time.

 

The audience thundered with applause before the man even finished, standing from their seats with face-splitting smiles. He skated into his final pose, facing the judges and throwing a quick wink towards a group waving signs of his name. Said group dissolved into a clump of hearts.

 

The noise and the pressure of the room was suffocating. Yuuri could feel it press at his shield, transforming into nerves, demanding his attention. Ren kept them away, as he always did, but he would be lying if he said that not a little made it through. He was worried, scared, and aware of just how big this situation was – what exactly he had promised if, in these few minutes, the conclusion he wanted was reached.

 

“Right, Ren, your turn,” Celestino whispered, standing from the bench.

 

As Yuuri stood, as Phichit reached to lightly touch his hand passing to wish luck, he was aware of Viktor moving at the same time. He began to skate towards the barrier, reaching for a flower crown that had been tossed his way and gently placing it on his platinum locks.

 

For a second, their eyes connected. Just a second as they came towards each other, before Viktor’s attention was taken by his coach. But in that second, a conversation was spoken. Viktor’s eyebrow rose in challenge, a small smirk on the side of his face. Yuuri hoped he saw the determination in Yuuri’s eyes, the way his hands clenched his fists at his sides. He hoped Viktor saw the answer to the challenge.

 

They passed as Viktor was on his way to the Kiss and Cry and Yuuri was walking towards the ice. Viktor cast him a quick smile while Yuuri sent him a nod, hearing the cameras click their way.

 

Before he knew it, Yuuri was in the middle of the ice, the centre of every attention of the room. He waited while Viktor’s scores came in.

 

They were high, very high, spurring him up to the very top. Something hard to beat, Yuuri thought as he readied his stance. But not impossible. Not right now, not ever, and he would beat it. Viktor could be comfortable there and smile, expecting the title to sit under his name for a while longer, but Yuuri wouldn’t let him get too content. He’d come to upturn the peace.

 

As the crowd died down at the mention of the score, the commentator turned to him. His name flew off their tongues easily, familiar now. It riled the crowd, the journalists readying their notes, all eyes glued solely on him.

 

The lights dimmed. His song filtered through the air. And he competed.

 

He started fast, demanding all attention, and gleamed when he noticed through his eyeholes that no one could look away. The commentators were rushing off compliments like some machine.

 

Capture them, move so that they never wanted to miss anything, surprise them with each turn and take their breath away. Dissolve into the music, step as if each beat was ingrained into his body, dance like the world was singing through him.

 

He stuck his pick harshly into the ground, turning suddenly backwards, arms wide open and his hair fluttering over his mask. A great photo opportunity, he knew, as the cameras flashed to capture the moment. To please them further, he turned one of his quad loops into a quad flip.

 

As he soared, he heard the commentator gasp and question what it was that he was doing, if he was going to push himself up to the challenge posed by the legend himself. As Yuuri landed, cleanly and in beat with the thump of the drums of the music before the crash of lyrics, he heard the commentator mention how yes, this could very well be the day that Viktor was overthrown, or the day he would come close to. Viktor needed to watch out, they were whispering. Viktor needed to watch out for the younger skater that was nipping at his heels.

 

Pride swelled within him. He stepped in beat with each and every riff of the guitar, stepping quickly and with confidence, hoping that he was evoking even a small hint of the same emotion that he felt when he watched people like Viktor.

 

As the vocalist drew out a note, he skated spread eagle along the edges, watching their faces. He gauged their reactions, and saw something akin to awe there. One group in particular, a small one of mostly girls, leaned against the barrier of the stands until they were at threat of falling forwards. Their mouths were gaping open, their eyes wide, their breaths coming out in sharp bursts.

 

The sight brought pride swelling into his chest. As if they had answered his question.

 

Fuelled farther, he pushed himself into his programme until he could feel the energy coursing through his body, searching for a way out. Hours of training settled into his limbs until it was muscle memory, until he could breathe with practiced ease and until he stepped in time with the music so perfectly that people had to wonder if he was the music.

 

The nerves in his system were pushing and pushing, trying to break through until Yuuri choked on the ice. He could feel their persistence, even as he performed his triple toe-loop. He knew that if he wasn’t careful, he could easily become his own worst enemy and ruin everything for himself. Because while he would have liked to be a traditional hero, one that grew to battle a physical enemy and gained everything he wanted along the journey, it wasn’t so easy. He was his enemy, voices of doubt purring in his mind rather than the mouths of others. Ren was created from a weakness he never wanted to have.

 

But as he skated, minutes before history was determined, his position as world champion or a failed attempt, he found his mind surprisingly calm. Something it hadn’t been for a very long time. His doubted were drowned and he skated to his theme with a strong conviction.

 

Anxiety. A big thing, and a lot of people suffered from it. And yet those who didn’t suffer it sometimes felt as if it wasn’t real, or over dramatized. A debilitating mental illness, and it wasn’t seen as anything terrible by others. He’d made this theme to talk about his own, and along the way he noticed the reaction it brought out in people. The topic was finally being discussed, and some skaters that were current, upcoming or even retired were coming forth and admitting to their own experiences on the subject. At first, it surprised the skating public to see just how many there were, or what forms it came in.

 

Now they were finally talking about it. And with each word they spoke, it drove Yuuri to want to win more. As the chorus hit, the lyrics striking, he performed another quad, set in his second half. He could feel some of the fatigue in his limbs, his muscles just slightly weak, but he didn’t have long to go now. He could do it, his stamina wasn’t famous for nothing.

 

He fought with everything he had, reminded of how Viktor had done the same. Every movement was punched, he made more of an effort to appear graceful, perfected each and every jump until he came to his combination spin. His lungs were on fire as he sat in that spin, the ice rising cool against his costume.

 

Against his shield, he could hear the crowd roaring. Or was that his imagination? He hadn’t finished yet, and his blood was rushing through his head. Sounds were dulled. The air was a mess with noise. He tried to watch the audience but their forms were fused together at the speed.

 

He rose from his spin, curling into himself until he went faster and faster, the air inside his lungs at threat of leaving him.

 

The song came to a sudden end, and with it his dance stilled. Clear now, the audience’s roars were thunderous against his sensitive ears. They crashed into him and he felt his entire being explode with happiness.

 

Even if he hadn’t won, even if he had yet to beat Viktor the living legend Nikiforov, he knew he was proud of himself for what he had achieved. The rush of adrenaline was thumping, euphoria sneaking its way until his cheeks ached to smile.

 

This. This was why he had created Ren. This was what he knew he would be missing out on if he allowed himself to succumb to his anxiety and allow it to devour him. If he stepped back and stopped his love, stopped skating simply because he couldn’t face people, then he wouldn’t be here, feeling this, feeling the best he had ever felt. Because if it didn’t scare and excite you, it wasn’t worth chasing.

 

He left the ice and stepped into the embrace of Phichit, feeling his throat constrict as his eyes threatened to tear up.

 

He thought that being more prepared for the possibility of winning this time would calm his tears. It seemed not. Instead, they were coming earlier. He gripped his friend tightly and didn’t let go, not even as they sat at the Kiss and Cry, Celestino sitting beside them with a nervous sweat sheening on his forehead.

 

The rink churned into a sickening silence as the scores were counted up. Had Yuuri maintained first place? Whispers filled the air like a buzz, a swarming hive of anxious energy, until it grated on all ears.

 

Commentators on the intercom were speaking of the programmes, the strongest points and the weakest, who had stood out for them and who they thought would be a strong contender in years to come.

 

Yuuri wasn’t listening, his eyes trained on the screen for when his scores would finally come through. This wait had been the longest he’d ever gone through, so tense that even Phichit was silenced. He gripped almost painfully onto Yuuri, clinging like a baby to its mother, his eyes unable to look away from the screen for even a second to blink. Celestino looked about ready to tear his pony tail from his head.

 

Yuuri wondered what was going through Viktor’s mind. He wanted to search for the man, to see what sort of expression he had on his face, but he didn’t want to miss the screen. He knew one thing though, Viktor would either be watching the screens as he was, or was watching Yuuri carefully.

 

Like a heart attack, the numbers flashed onto the screen.

 

One second. It only took one second for thousands of the rink to read and process.

 

It took Yuuri less, and it froze his blood, choking his words in his throat. He shook as his breath wracked his body. Phichit was soon after, dragging Yuuri up as he screamed and began to sob. Celestino stood beside them, his mouth gaping open and his eyes never leaving the screen.

 

The audience was next. Cameras flashed, voices cheered and screeched, the commentators running wild.

 

Yuuri followed Phichit and allowed his friend to manoeuvre him into a tight hug, pulled into jumping. His mind was reeling, trying to connect, because while he had prepared for this moment, entertained it in his thoughts, it wasn’t the same as the real thing.

 

His score, a full two points higher than Viktor’s, pushed his name on top of the Russian’s.

 

“Ladies and gentlemen, the new World Champion, Ren Himura-”

 

Now, that was not a sentence he thought he would hear, at least, not in reality. He had entertained that too a lot, but here it was, loud and clear on the intercom, his name along with the title, something that no one had been able to wrestle from Viktor for a very long time.

 

No, he could never be prepared for this. The tears were running down his face just as quickly and just as hard as they had when he had won the Grand Prix Finals. He felt them slip down his chin, and as he came back to himself he followed Phichit and jumped with all of his might, shouting out his pride into his friend’s shoulder.

 

He wasn’t sure how it happened, didn’t really remember it. But next thing he knew, he was on the top of the podium, watching as Chris received his bronze medal. The man bowed and accepted it, then glanced up to Yuuri with a triumphant wink, one that screamed, “finally”.

 

As Viktor’s name was called, he turned to notice the man bowing to receive his silver medal. Silver medal, at the World Championships, a sight rarely seen. And yet there he was, slightly lower than Yuuri. Once placed, Viktor turned, and Yuuri didn’t know what he expected but a gleaming smile was not high on that list.

 

Viktor looked more as if he had won than lost his title. His eyes shone brightly and looked at Yuuri as if he was seeing only him, only the man above, only Yuuri. His heart skipped a beat at the sight, seeing the smile that resembled something closer to a heart than anything.

 

He was ushered to bend forwards to accept his own medal, a bright and shining golden medal, heavy against his neck as it was gently dropped. He shakily brought his hand up to touch the surface, amazed that it didn’t melt into a silver or a bronze.

 

Gold. Another gold. And another title. One had been taken from him a year later, but this one he would milk for all of its worth.

 

He turned to look at Viktor once more, ignoring the photographs being taken, and surprised that the man was still looking at him, still with the same goofy expression.

 

Thump of his chest, his heart hammering through. And now he had only one thing left to do.

 

***

 

The first thing Yuuri wanted to do when he reached the banquet hall was to find Viktor. What he would do after that, he wasn’t sure about the details yet, just knew that he wanted to see the face of the man he loved and celebrate with him.

 

But there were so many people who wanted to meet him, so many who wanted to meet the winner of the World Championships face to face, to see the man that had taken the title from the living legend. If he had thought winning the Grand Prix Finals had been busy and too much, he was wrong. This was worse, so much worse. He posed with them in front of the cameras journalists dragged around with them in the hall, finding himself the centre of their viewfinders more times than he had ever been able to count. Their flickers soon blinded him, his legs tired from being dragged about the place, and he had already lost Phichit.

 

Celestino walked with him, a comforting presence close to him among a sea of strangers and eager to show off his victorious pupil. Many of the faces they did speak to, too many names for Yuuri to remember, were ones he recognised from watching Viktor speak to people in banquets previously. Some were very nice, congratulating him and he thanked them back. Others were… less so, seemingly finding it entertaining to spit spiteful praises, a lingering question of his mask and his intentions between the lines.

 

He wasn’t sure how much time had passed, but however long it was, it was much too long for him. When he was finally able to leave, the banquet was in full swing and he searched for Phichit.

 

The boy was speaking to a few other younger skaters, around his age, ones Yuuri recognised from the junior division. Smaller in size than the seniors, they seemed a little out of place, especially with their suits that screamed first purchases. As Yuuri approached, they looked over Phichit’s shoulder and froze in their conversation. Phichit noticed and turned, his smile growing widely upon seeing his best friend.

 

“Ren!” he called eagerly. “Finally out? It’s been ages.”

 

Yuuri sighed, feeling the breath thrown back at him against the mask. “I know. Every time one person left, another three took their place. Did I miss anything?” Yuuri glanced behind Phichit, noticing the two. One he recognised immediately, his eyes glancing over the hard set eyes and the determined grin on his face. It had been a while since he’d seen the younger skater, and in that time the boy had grown quite a bit, almost the same height as Yuuri. Upon noticing Yuuri’s attentions, JJ Leroy crossed his arms before his puffed out chest and stared back, obviously rising to a challenge Yuuri hadn’t set.

 

“Nah, not really,” Phichit answered. “All you missed was someone falling over the champagne table. Don’t know who, but it was a mess.”

 

Translation, Phichit had found it hilarious and taken several photos of it. Yuuri slapped the forehead of his mask, shaking his head at the mischievous gleam in his friend’s eyes. Whoever had done it, their mistake and embarrassment was most likely forever on the internet now.

 

He glanced at the other boy on Phichit’s side, noticing that this boy could have been the complete opposite of JJ, a scowl on his face, shaved sides and a stockier build. Unlike JJ, he was still shorter than Yuuri, and had a far less arrogant feel to him. He stared at Yuuri, his eyes scanning over the mask before over his suit, then glanced back as if he had finished assessing.

 

“Oh!” Phichit said, noticing his mistake. “Sorry, Ren, these are junior skaters. This is JJ-”

 

“We’ve met,” the younger boy said proudly, raising his chin. “Finally won gold, huh?”

 

Yuuri glanced down at the golden medal hanging from his neck. “Yep, I did,” he replied, unable to keep the pride and the breathless surprise from his voice. He gripped it tightly, lightly gliding the tips of his fingers against the surface. “Finally,” he laughed.

 

Eager to stop any one-sided animosity when JJ huffed, Phichit continued, “And this is Otabek Altin. He’s actually planning on joining the senior division next season.”

 

Yuuri held out his hand, surprised by the strength in the other boy’s hand when they shook his. “Oh, really? That’s brilliant. I look forward to skating against you.”

 

The boy nodded, his eyes still on Yuuri’s, and grunted, “Thanks. Me too.”

 

“Okay,” Yuuri muttered and turned towards Phichit. “Have you seen Viktor by chance? I need to speak to him.”

 

Phichit said nothing for a second, his expression taking on a shocked look before it dissolved into a grin and a knowing sheen to his eyes. “Yeah, I saw him talking to his coach a little while ago by the buffet table. Good luck.”

 

Yuuri felt his blush burn brightly on his cheeks. Hoping it didn’t reach his neck, he turned away with a quick word of thanks, but was stopped when Phichit called for him again.

 

“Ren, if you don’t tell me all about it, I’m going to upload a bunch of embarrassing pictures of you. Don’t worry, they all have masks on,” Phichit giggled, his voice haunting Yuuri’s mind.

 

He rushed off without a word, knowing that Phichit would make do on his promise. The boy would probably feel tempted even if Yuuri did tell his friend everything. There were far too many embarrassing pictures of him on Phichit’s phone from training, with or without the mask.

 

He found Viktor where Phichit had said, speaking to his coach and Georgi beside the buffet table.

 

Yuuri halted in his steps, watching Viktor as he reached for something quickly to eat and popped it into his mouth, laughing when his coach crossed his arms and said something with a sour face. He felt something like reluctance sweep its way into his body – not because he didn’t want to do what he was about to do, but because it was such a big step. Something massive, something he never expected himself to do.

 

He took a deep breath, letting it out slowly and allowing it to calm his body down. His heart was lightly thumping inside his chest in anticipation, and he reminded himself again that this was really what he wanted to do.

 

He took a moment to himself, a quick psyche up, reminders, before he set off towards Viktor again. Perhaps he had been walking a little too hard, however, because his loud footsteps had them turning around to look at him.

 

Viktor’s face brightened immediately. “Ren!”

 

“Viktor,” Yuuri replied, his voice cracking just a little. He swallowed and tried to speak again, “Hey, can I speak to you privately?”

 

Viktor answered “Of course!” without a second to think about it. His coach called something, to which Viktor replied in Russian before grabbing Yuuri’s arm and walking towards the exit.

 

With the course of alcohol running through, loud music, too many conversations and distractions, there were only a few who noticed them leaving together, and even they didn’t seem too interested.

 

As they left the banquet hall doors, Yuuri turned their positions, grabbing Viktor’s wrist and dragging him down the corridors.

 

Every few doors, he would open and view inside before deeming the room not suitable enough. He knew, on some level, he was prolonging the inevitable. He’d come this far, he knew what he had to do. But he also wanted this to be perfect, because if it was going to work, it would remain in his memory as a beautiful memory. He wanted to always look back on it fondly.

 

Viktor asked where they were going, but Yuuri ignored his question and the ones that followed, determined to steel his own resolve and to find the perfect place.

 

Eventually he found it, a disused dining hall, much smaller than the banquet hall and dark. But as the light of the corridor hit it, bouncing off of the glitter of the curtains, cascading over the dark mahogany tables and the colours of the gems around the candle holders, he knew it was what he was searching for. He pulled Viktor in and turned on the lights.

 

As soon as the door shut, Viktor whispered, “Yuuri?”

 

Yuuri had his back turned to the man, and he quickly pulled some of the open curtains closed in preparation. He didn’t say anything for a while, his mind a rattle of words, wondering how he should put this, what he should say. How should he say it? How did he want to sound? It was all very confusing, and he hadn’t actually thought this far ahead.

 

He just knew what he wanted to do, but not how to do it.

 

“Yuuri?” Viktor asked again, his voice a little firmer.

 

Yuuri turned, seeing Viktor looking more than concerned. He was a little away from Yuuri, but took hesitant steps as if he worried Yuuri might run if he moved too quickly.

 

Now or never, Yuuri thought. He took another quick glance around, making sure that no door or window was open. Once satisfied, he allowed the ramble of words in his head to be voiced, “Remember I said that if I won, I’d show you something?”

 

Viktor’s face brightened again. He stilled where he was and smiled deeply. “I haven’t actually congratulated you on that yet. Yuuri, you were amazing!” The words brought Yuuri’s gaze down to Viktor’s chest where his silver medal shone brightly over his dark suit, catching the light of the chandelier above.

 

Viktor made to say more, but Yuuri cut him off with, “Thank you, really. Thank you so much for the praise, it means to much to me, but I’m trying to work myself up to do something.”

 

Viktor nodded, catching the desperation in Yuuri’s tone. “In that case, yes, I remember, Yuuri. But you don’t have-”

 

“-to, I know,” Yuuri interrupted again softly, turning so that his full body was facing the older man. His blood was rushing faster than he had ever felt before, pressing on his veins, and his heart was hammering as if it wanted to break through his throat. It always did that whenever he was in Viktor’s presence. “But I want to. I-I’m just nervous.”

 

“You don’t have to be. I don’t want to hurt you.”

 

“I know that too.” Because he did, he really did. But he didn’t want Viktor to force himself either. He had never been confessed to before, but had heard some horror stories of people who felt forced into accepting because they didn’t want to hurt the other person. Honestly, he thought he might be one of those, if it was ever turned around. He hated to see hurt expressions, hated the feeling of guilt. He hated to disappoint anyone. “I’ve just never… It wasn’t this scary with others before.” Because this love was breakable.

 

Viktor waited patiently, holding his chin up and looking a little too adorable to Yuuri in his determination.

 

With a puff of laughter, Yuuri raised one hand to the clasp of his mask at the back of his head. He felt the metal and softly spoke, “If you told me years ago that I would win not only a Grand Prix Final against you, but the World Championship too, I’d have laughed. Or cried. Maybe both. But I wouldn’t have believed it. I never saw myself as good enough, only getting into the sport because it was what I loved to do. I would be satisfied with anything as long as I didn’t mess up. And then I met you and we got close and you’re just so different, so much better than I expected you to be. And you’ve only helped me, encouraged me, supported me, and just…” He faltered, unsure on how to word it. It wasn’t coming across right. He was never good at explaining anything in his head.

 

He took a deep breath and began again, “I suffer from anxiety. It’s stopped me from doing a lot of things, almost stopped me from continuing my figure skating. My friend, Yuko, proposed that if I wore a mask, I could separate a persona from myself and create someone I wanted to be. Give that persona confidence, and then I could do anything. Ren Himura was born out of my anxiety.” He’d never explained it in such detail to someone before. He’d told Phichit, but not at once. He’d answered his best friend’s questions and the picture slowly came together for the other man. But this felt weird, placing all of his feelings out, years’ worth of pain in one sitting. “I just wanted to skate and not embarrass myself. It was so much easier to be someone that wasn’t Yuuri Katsuki, someone who could handle pressure.

 

“But somewhere along the way, Yuuri Katsuki also started to gain confidence. I’m not there yet, but I’m further than I ever expected to be. And, simply, I think you helped with it. A lot. You’ve managed to push me in the right direction, and managed to see through Ren and into me. I guess that was the most important thing. I love Ren, and I always will, but sometimes I felt overshadowed by him. By my own creation.” He gave a lacklustre laugh, feeling it ricochet in his rib cage. “My own creation overshadowed me, and I was scared people would never see me then, that they’d only want to know Ren. That’s why I was so scared of giving you my name, because you might see what a mess I was compared to Ren, and decide it wasn’t worth it.”

 

Viktor opened his mouth to say something, but stopped when Yuuri held out his hand.

 

“I know you wouldn’t and I knew it before too. But… that’s what anxiety is. It convinces you of things you know aren’t true, makes an enemy of your own thoughts. You know it’s impossible but you convince yourself it’s not. Over and over again, the guilt, the doubt, it’s all there. But you make it all okay for me. You make it less noisy. Thoughts of you… they replace the worries and it all becomes more bearable.”

 

He took a deep breath, hoping that he had explained it well enough. Viktor’s face was open, his eyes wide and his expression filled with surprise. As if he didn’t realise the impact of his own existence on Yuuri.

 

“It’s why,” Yuuri continued, “I want to show you my face. I-I want you to see all of Yuuri, all of me. And I want to admit something too.”

 

Viktor didn’t say anything, and Yuuri didn’t let the silence continue on for long. He gave one last gulp, one deep breath, before he undid the clasp and allowed the cool air of the disused room to hit his face. He clutched the mask in his hand and let his arm drop to his side as he glanced up.

 

Some of the strands of his fringe that had escaped the gel fell forwards onto his forehead. He could already feel a light dusting of a blush on his cheeks, and his skin felt naked. He watched at Viktor’s eyes widened, a slight gasp leaving his lips, as his gaze scanned all over the newly shown face.

 

It always felt like this, Yuuri thought. Whenever he showed someone, as he had done with Phichit, his face felt bare and he wondered if he could backtrack time to place it on again. He never had liked attention, that was Ren, and with the mask off now it was harder to call on the persona to protect him. Under Viktor’s gaze, hard and boring into him, he wanted to turn away but resisted.

 

He filled the silence by saying, “I never expected to be doing this, honestly. But you mean so much to me now. And I want you to know me because…” The blush on his face brightened, spreading to the bottom of his neck and to his ears. He tried his hardest to keep Viktor’s gaze, ignoring the thoughts in his head that were trying to convince himself that the look on Viktor’s face meant rejection and not the surprise and happiness he saw. He composed himself, thought the words he wanted to say in his head, repeated them as many times he could and said them. Because, after all, he’d come this far, and if he didn’t take this jump then he might miss something amazing.

 

“Because I love you, Viktor.”

 

He was going to say more, say just how much he loved the other man and for how long. But it seemed the words snapped Viktor out of his haze after the mask had come off. He stepped forwards, his eyes set and still staring at Yuuri, his pace rushed until the space between them was gone.

 

Yuuri gasped as he felt Viktor’s grip on his hip, his other hand reaching for his chin and tilting his head up. He had only a second to feel his heart skip a beat before Viktor’s lips were gently but firmly touching his own.

 

His heart wasn’t skipping beats anymore. No, it had stopped completely. Viktor’s lips were warm, slightly demanding, and pressed against his without a sign of letting up. Yuuri reached until his arms were wrapped around the man’s shoulders and his mask was hanging on Viktor’s back, feeling his warmth press against his own body, past fantasies returning. Viktor’s scent enveloped him, more so than it had ever before, and Viktor’s arm circled his waist until Yuuri had no escape.

 

Not that he wanted to anyway. This is exactly where he wanted to be and he couldn’t help but smile into the kiss at the thought.

 

Feeling the shift, Viktor leaned back slightly just to look at it. He smiled at Yuuri in return, a gentle, heart-warming smile that brought Yuuri’s heart roaring back.

 

“You’re even more beautiful than I ever imagined,” Viktor whispered into the space between them, pressing his forehead to Yuuri’s. Yuuri gave a light sigh at the feeling of their skins touching, no mask between them as the tips of their noses bumped together. Viktor continued, “I’ve been wanting to do that for a long time.”

 

Yuuri smiled wider, feeling the tears pressing at the corner of his eyes. He watched Viktor’s eyes as they continued to graze over every inch of newly exposed skin, taking in every little detail of his face as if he wanted to commit it to memory, as if it was all he had ever wanted to see. It made Yuuri’s body warm at the sight.

 

Viktor’s eyes snapped back up to gaze deeply into Yuuri’s, and with no hesitation declared, “I love you too, Yuuri Katsuki.”

Chapter Text

Yuuri was walking on cloud nine. Each and every minute he was smiling, his chest a warm fuzzy place, his heart beating with dreams.

 

His mind was constantly replaying Viktor’s words, ringing vividly in his mind, and the memory of the man’s warm lips against his had him constantly touching his own to make sure the sensation had been real. He’d never expected it to be like this. He planned an exposure of his face to the man, and the confession had come with it in his moment of euphoria. He hadn’t exactly expected horrible rejection – Viktor wasn’t the type – but he hadn’t expected a confession back. And he certainly hadn’t expected a kiss. It was a dream, it must have been. Or he was finally gaining something good in his karma.

 

Even in the months between the World Championships and the start of the next season, there was never a day in which Yuuri and Viktor didn’t talk – on the phone, skype, messenger. Anything that they could. Yuuri always felt his mind cloud over with love every day he woke up to a morning message, or when he wished Viktor a good night. And with each day that did pass, he was growing more and more impatient to meet with Viktor once more, missing his bright face and his soft voice.

 

He never knew love could feel this amazing. He’d associated pain with it for so long, he didn’t know that it could be excluded. He’d read many stories online about first loves and how they always ended in broken hearts, painful memories and things that wanted to be forgotten. But he never wanted that. He wanted to relive this over and over again, to remember how much happiness Viktor brought him. Viktor was a light in his life, something bigger than him, and he never wanted to be rid of it.

 

As the time came closer to the Grand Prix Final, he grew more and more excited. Just a little away from being able to see Viktor again, just a little away from getting to feel him, feel the heat, the skin, the warmth of his body, the comforting cuddles. Just closer to having Viktor beside him, and he couldn’t wait.

 

Unfortunately, Phichit hadn’t qualified for the Final, just having fallen short in the Trophée de France. His friend hid the disappointment well, but Yuuri could see the weight of years’ worth of failings crushing him. He’d done his best to try and distract his friend, but Phichit pushed that he was alright, that he was still young and would get there one day, and for the time being he would support Yuuri as much as he needed to be.

 

As they sat on the plane, Yuuri asked if it was alright again, knowing that he might have been a little annoying with the amount of times he had asked in the space between the Trophée de France and the Final.

 

Phichit, who had been taking a picture of the wing of the plane through the window, turned and whispered, “Yuuri, it’s fine. I’m getting closer. I am willing to bet you that this time next year, you’ll be worrying about me in a different way.” Yuuri’s face must have held his confusion, because Phichit laughed and explained, “You’re going to need to worry about your streak of podium wins. With me there, you’re at threat.”

 

It sounded weird, but Yuuri hoped so. He couldn’t wait to skate against his friend, longed for it even. He knew just how dangerous Phichit could be, had seen it many times in training. He was a weapon waiting to be unleashed, and he couldn’t wait to see the faces of other skaters when they realised it too.

 

He’d received a message from Viktor nearly as soon as they arrived in the hotel, asking if Yuuri had arrived safely.

 

Yuuri couldn’t stop the smile that pulled at his lips, aching his cheeks as they blushed brilliantly.

 

“Well, well,” he heard Phichit say as he pulled one of their suitcases onto the bed. “You remember what I said about having a room to myself while you’re off riding-”

 

Yuuri had never crossed a room so quickly before. He dropped his phone and had his hands on Phichit’s mouth, silencing the younger man before he could even finish his sentence. The blush on his cheeks deepened, and he couldn’t help but feel embarrassed at the cheeky glint in his friend’s eyes. He squealed and stepped back, letting go, when he felt Phichit’s tongue lick his palm.

 

“Ew, Phichit!”

 

“Oh, stop it, it’s not like you don’t want Viktor doing worse things to you.”

 

Phichit!” His outraged shout was met with a chuckle, so Yuuri picked up his phone again and replied quickly to Viktor. The more he ignored his friend though, the louder the cackles got.

 

As another text from the Russian came through, Phichit sighed heavily, leaning all over Yuuri’s back and glancing over his shoulder. “Why don’t you go see him?”

 

“Because I have things to unpack. And we just arrived here. And you’ll be alone in the room-”

 

“And that’s exactly what I want, I can watch all the TV shows you don’t like.”

 

Yuuri shook his head, still feeling a little guilty. Sure, Phichit wasn’t small, he was nearly out of his teens and could easily look after himself. But Yuuri didn’t want to seem like he was ditching his best friend at the first chance of seeing his… boyfriend. Yuuri’s face deepened in red again at the mention, his chest cramping.

 

Before he knew it though, something was pushing at his back until he was right before the door. Phichit leaned forwards and opened it for him, clasping his mask around his head before throwing him out into the hall.

 

As Yuuri turned, he saw Phichit grinning through the crack in the door as he said, “Have fun!” The door shut with a thud, and Yuuri waited, wondering if it would open again in a second. But it didn’t. He sighed and stood up comfortably, quickly typing in an ask of where Viktor’s room was. The reply came quickly and he made his way over.

 

It turned out it was only down the hall, and Viktor opened it on the first knock.

 

Yuuri’s heart jumped out of his chest at the sight of seeing Viktor again after months, the blurry images of skype never doing him justice. Viktor’s grin widened deeply, his eyes crinkling into half-moons, before he gave a hasty greeting and pulled Yuuri into the room.

 

As the door clicked shut, Viktor brought him into a tight hug, as if worried that he would go missing.

 

Yuuri quickly became unsatisfied, wanting something more, so he quickly reached up, unclasped his mask and cupped Viktor’s face in his hands.

 

Yuuri would always be surprised by the pure love and adoration that shone in Viktor’s face every time the older man saw his own. Just as he had done with Yuuri’s name, he seemed to treasure every bit of skin on Yuuri’s face. And he showed it by kissing it, beginning with light pecks on Yuuri’s forehead, down until his lips trailed over eyelids, kissing his cheeks lightly until the blush was covered, missing Yuuri’s lips – the place he wanted it most – and to follow his face until his chin was the last place Viktor’s lips touched.

 

It made the Japanese man giggle, ticklish in the ministrations, but wanting more. He wanted a kiss, something he had been deprived of for the years he had loved the man secretly. He wanted his breath to be taken away, his lungs starved, a body against his until there was no way they could be separated. He wanted all of Viktor until forever wasn’t enough anymore.

 

He made some sort of whine as Viktor continued to kiss his cheeks, trying to move his face until Viktor got the idea of what he really wanted. But as he noticed the other man was teasing him, he gripped Viktor’s face tighter in his hands and willed the man to be still while he took what he wanted.

 

Viktor’s lips were soft and warm, a tiny hint of coffee flavouring the pink. He could feel the Russian smiling against his own lips.

 

Viktor pulled back slightly, only enough so that he could speak while their breaths mingled. “A little impatient, are we?”

 

Yuuri sighed and pressed his face into the crook of the man’s neck, inhaling his unique scent. Viktor’s arms wrapped around his shoulders and he found he could sink into this body, could lose himself completely in this happiness that his first and only love provided. “Shut up,” Yuuri grunted. “I haven’t seen you in months.”

 

“I have missed you too.”

 

Yuuri didn’t just liked the kisses, though they were a big plus. He liked the excuse of being able to hug the man whenever he wanted, to feel his heat and not worry if Viktor would take it the wrong way or even the right way and back off because of it. He liked being able to press himself into the man without worrying about how his mask dug into the skin around his face. He liked the way Viktor silenced his anxiety. He liked being close to the other man and knowing that for years, while he worried that, just as everyone said, his first love would end in disaster, it had worked out – for the time being. His anxiety sometimes liked to whisper to him in the middle of the night, in hours he couldn’t sleep, that everything good came to an end and there would be a deep fall to compensate for something so blissful. But with Viktor here, he could ignore it.

 

He snuggled closer into Viktor and said, “I’ve really missed you.”

 

The hug around him tightened.

 

A few minutes later, they were settling in Viktor’s bed and switching on a film, cuddling close. Yuuri placed his head on Viktor’s shoulder, smiling softly to himself when he felt Viktor’s head rest against his own, and found himself too distracted to watch the film playing. He could almost hear Viktor’s heart beat steadily beneath his head, could feel and see every time he breathed. Yuuri was in love with the way Viktor’s right hand was drawing circles in the skin on the top of his hand.

 

He didn’t think he could be happier.

 

***

 

But good things did come to an end, one way or another. And never in the way one would expect.

 

It was the day before the Grand Prix Final. Yuuri was putting in some extra hours of training before the big day, hoping to win back his title from Viktor and have both Grand Prix Champion and World Champion at the same time under his belt. It had been a good day. He’d spent the morning in practice with Celestino and Phichit, eaten lunch with the other skaters, and his practices had been going well.

 

Until Celestino interrupted his last run through of his programme to tell him he had a call.

 

He took himself off to the bathrooms to receive it, the locker room still busy with the other skaters getting ready to go back to the hotel.

 

He hadn’t checked the caller ID, and was surprised to hear his mother’s voice. At first, his heart lifted as it always did when his parents called. But soon he figured there was something wrong. She was quiet. Hesitant. She kept repeating his name in place of something else she wanted to say.

 

“What’s wrong?” Yuuri asked, fearing the worst. Had there been another car accident? Someone was in hospital. Something had gone terribly wrong.

 

Yuuri…” his mother whispered, still reluctant. “I’m sorry.”

 

Yuuri’s heart dropped and every good feeling inside of him crashed into ice, chilling his body, stopping his blood, splintering into tiny shards of glass. That was never good. The last time he heard such words, his tutor was lying in a hospital bed, never to wake up again.

 

“What is it?” he pressed, noticing his own voice devoid of emotion.

 

I-I didn’t want to tell you, tomorrow is your big competition, but your father… he thought it wouldn’t be right…”

 

Yuuri didn’t like the reluctance, his mother was always a ball of sunshine and never hesitated to say anything. Her voice was the sun itself, bright and cheery, perhaps a little loud on occasion, and could bring happiness to any situation. Any but this it seemed.

 

Yuuri gripped his phone with both hands, feeling his muscles tense up. A little desperately, he asked, “What? Tell me what? Is dad alright?”

 

Hastily, his mother replied, “Yes, yes, your father, Mari and I are just fine.”

 

“But?”

 

It’s Vicchan, Yuuri. He’s gone.”

 

“Gone?”

 

We took him to the vet, Yuuri. There was nothing they could do. He passed away.”

 

His breath was gone, taken away with just a few words. He wasn’t inexperienced to having his breath being taken away, not since finding his love for Viktor, but this was worse. This was harsh, a violent steal from his lungs, choking him up until he couldn’t breathe again.

 

Guilt washed over him like a wave, drowning him until his anxiety was in complete control. Five years. He hadn’t seen his dog in five years, had taken advantage of how young Vicchan had seemed despite his age. It was the sea air and the open beaches that he could run to his heart’s delight that kept him young, the vets had said. He could live well beyond the expectancy, they told him. They’d given him false hopes when he worried about his dog on his decision to move to Detroit. He’d promised Vicchan he would see him again once he came back.

 

He should have gone home at least once in that time. He should have spent even just a week away from training to see him. One more time to see that fluffy face, the soft fur, the small, bouncy spirit.

 

It reminded him too much of his tutor and the tragedy that had befallen him. It reminded him too much of the pain, of the sudden tear between them. He’d never see them again. They’d been taken so suddenly, no warning, no time to grieve properly or to come to terms with it.

 

His chest clenched and he bent low, pressing his head in between his knees and attempted to breathe.

 

Yuuri?”

 

He grunted a reply, letting his mother know he was still there.

 

Yuuri, dear,” his mother attempted to console, but stopped when she realised that she didn’t know how.

 

Blood was rushing too quickly in his head. An ache burned in his forehead. His hands were shaking, his grip losing the phone. His breathing was jagged and deep, hardly satisfying his screaming lungs. His eyes burned until the tears were flowing against his mask.

 

Yuuri.”

 

He took a gulp and strengthened his voice to say, “I’m fine. I need to go train for tomorrow. I’ll call you when I’m back in the hotel, okay?”

 

Okay, please do.”

 

He cancelled the call and wrapped his arms around his stomach, feeling the gulps of air violently fill his stomach as the sobs wracked his body. He curled in on himself and his mind wouldn’t stop filling with images of his dog, of Vicchan, of the guilt of not seeing him grow up. Vicchan had probably forgotten about him in that time. They said pets didn’t have the best memories. Five years. He was probably a long forgotten blurry image in Vicchan’s mind.

 

But to Yuuri, Vicchan was like a treasure, a momentum of a confusing time in his life. But now he was gone.

 

Yuuri didn’t stop crying for a long time. He wasn’t sure just how long, but long enough for there to come a knock on the bathroom door. A familiar voice, Phichit’s he thought in the blur of the moment, was calling and asking if he was alright. He called back in a shaky voice that he was, that he wanted to be left alone. The other did so reluctantly, but for that Yuuri was thankful.

 

Some more time passed. Yuuri had calmed enough to get up and wipe the tears from his chin.

 

For just a second, he wondered if he should continue training, but knew he was not in the right frame of mind. He left without warning, aware of his coach and friend calling for him, but didn’t turn back.

 

Once back at the hotel, he threw his mask away onto the floor and buried himself in the covers of the bed. The lights were off, there were voices coming through the open window. The light of the setting sun was casing strange shadows onto the floor. He buried himself until he was facing the wall, almost pressing to it, and not a single part of his body was on show. He found himself sobbing again, unable to stop it.

 

Time passed slowly. Perhaps it had only been ten minutes, but it felt like a lifetime. The bedroom door was creaking slowly open, as if someone was reluctant to come in. It clicked shut and Yuuri had a second to wonder if that person had decided to leave before he heard the soft patters of feet.

 

The bed dipped behind him and an arm settled itself around his waist over the covers. Warmth enveloped his back and a soft voice began to lull a softer song.

 

Phichit had seen Yuuri like this enough in university, in times when Ren couldn’t help. Yuuri felt bad for being the one to make his friend an expert in how to deal with his fits. Only more guilt piled onto what he didn’t need.

 

When enough time had passed for Yuuri to settle and speak, he simply muttered, “Vicchan’s dead.”

 

Phichit didn’t need a second to understand. He cuddled closer to Yuuri’s back, pulling a little of the covers down for Yuuri to breathe properly, and comforted him.

 

***

 

Yuuri didn’t sleep at all that night. Phichit had demanded to stay in his bed, but he had fallen asleep early despite assuring Yuuri that he would stay up for as long. Yuuri couldn’t blame him, however. Phichit had had a long day, and he couldn’t expect the younger skater to go without sleep simply because he had.

 

Every few hours, his phone would buzz. He hadn’t checked to see who it was yet, not wanting to speak to anyone, but as his phone buzzed twice in a row at three in the morning, Yuuri finally decided to check between his fits of sobbing.

 

There were numerous missed calls and texts, some from his family but many from Viktor. Viktor’s became progressively more concerned as they went and Yuuri felt a sudden rush of more guilt to fill the space left.

 

As the tears began again, his body shaking under the warm covers, he decided to text Viktor of his condition and his reason for it, then ask what he was doing up so late the day before a big competition.

 

The reply came through immediately. Yuuri held it close, reading over the worry, the words of support, the question of if Yuuri needed someone right now. Self-hatred washed over him again. He shouldn’t have been keeping the other man up. He had a competition, they both did, but Yuuri could survive on little sleep. He didn’t want to hinder Viktor just because he was feeling like shit.

 

He quickly sent off a text saying that he was fine and that the other should go to sleep, and ignored any reply that Viktor sent through shortly after.

 

After a while, the buzzing stopped.

 

***

 

The next day was no easier. He rose from bed with bags under his eyes, skin sticky with tears, his face pale and a sore throat. Phichit attempted to cheer him up, but it wasn’t working.

 

It wasn’t until they arrived at the rink that he realised how much damage had been done.

 

The nerves hit him hard upon seeing the cameras, the audience, the bright lights and the other skaters. He could feel the anxiety clawing at his chest, hitting the back of his throat, pulsing in his head. His heart was hammering, and he curled in on himself. An interviewer attempted to ask him questions but he walked away without a single word.

 

Once they were sat at their benches, Yuuri attempted to call Ren to protect him. He wanted nothing more than to be numb right now, to be safely tucked away in a shell and let Ren control everything. He didn’t want to feel what he was feeling right now, felt sick to his stomach with worry.

 

But Ren wasn’t there.

 

He tried harder, calling on his persona’s confidence, almost desperate to chase away the pain. His mask was clasped on his face, he wore his programme costume, he should have done it as easily as he had for years. Ever since Ren’s creation.

 

But Ren wasn’t coming.

 

Panic rose inside of him. The nerves were bubbling inside of him. His breathing was coming out in short, sharp bursts. He ran his hands through his hair and noticed how the sounds around him seemed to be blurring until there was nothing anymore. He couldn’t see.

 

Phichit was shaking him, trying to calm him down, but he couldn’t. Yuuri couldn’t call Ren. Yuuri was alone. Where was he? Where was his own creation? Why couldn’t he find him?

 

“I need-I need to go to the toilet,” he rushed to say, sprinting off to where he remembered them to be in the hall.

 

He heard someone call out his name – no, more than one person. He remembered passing a group of journalists. There were bright lights and cameras clicking. He knew that they had captured him, but couldn’t find it within himself to care about something that seemed so miniscule in the grand scheme of things.

 

He slammed the door behind him and paced the floor, holding his hands so tightly in his hair he was near to tearing the strands out. His chest was constricting, his blood running cold. Panicking. He hadn’t panicked in so long, he had forgotten how bad it could get.

 

The door opened and he was aware of seeing two blurred figures, both easily recognisable, before the door was locked. Phichit rushed to sit him beside the sinks while Viktor asked him questions. Not that Yuuri could hear. Their touches and voices were numbed. The bubble he had spread around himself was too thick. But it wasn’t as safe as Ren’s. Ren’s was impenetrable.

 

Someone was carefully prying his hands from his hair and stroking his skin, someone else unclasping the mask and removing it. Soft fingers wiped away the tears that Yuuri didn’t know he was crying.

 

“-ri?”

 

Slowly, Yuuri began to come to himself again. He still wasn’t sure what they had been asking him, the words clearer but not making much sense. He choked out a quick, “Ren isn’t coming. I can’t call him,” and hoped that that was enough to explain what it was that was worrying him.

 

He didn’t need this, not right now. He felt guilty enough that he had never seen his beloved dog in five years before his sudden death, he didn’t need to feel guilty about losing Ren too. He didn’t want to be out on the ice alone, a victim to thousands of eyes as just Yuuri. He’d make mistakes. He was going to fail.

 

Two figures hugged him closer, holding him tightly as a new wave of sobs shook his body. He was weak. He was alone. He was Yuuri.

 

“Maybe once you calm down, Yuuri, he’ll come?” someone said, but he wasn’t sure who.

 

It made sense, but he wasn’t sure how he to calm down. Each time he tried, he was reminded of Vicchan, or how close he was to never being able to call on Ren again. And the panic rose once more until it consumed him. This was exactly why he wanted to create Ren in the first place, to avoid this. To avoid this terrifying fear.

 

“It’s going to be alright,” someone else said.

 

He would have loved to believe that. But he wasn’t so sure. He really wasn’t sure.

 

***

 

Yuuri usually loved to watch all of the skaters, just to see their own take on certain songs, or how they expressed themselves on the ice. He loved to see the programmes and how they developed over the time in the season, if there were any changes they made to surprise the crowd.

 

Yuuri usually liked the competitions. He liked looking forward to them, to being able to show himself to the world and do a good job at something that he loved.

 

But not today. Today it felt like hell, with too many demons watching his every move. The air was too hot, the voices too loud and shrill, where even the cheers of the audience were like a condemnation to his soul. He could feel eyes on him, feel the tension and the pressure. None of the joy he used to feel resided in his body, he only felt stressed, anxious, and wanted nothing more than to go back to the hotel room and hide under the covers for the rest of his life.

 

He wasn’t aware it was his turn to skate