Actions

Work Header

The Boy Who Watched

Work Text:

The first time Victor notices the boy he’s fifteen and at the NHK Trophy in Asahikawa. He has crept out of his hotel to practice early and has been on the ice for a while, not doing anything flashy but just moving, moving, trying to find that clear, cold place in his head that will let him start winning again. He doesn’t notice the boy arrive, just gradually becomes aware of him—a tiny round-faced boy with thick glasses watching him from the edge of the rink with eyes full of wonder.

Victor has been trained and trained in how to treat his fans. He isn’t doing anything which can’t be interrupted. He should stop, go over there, bestow a dazzling smile and the offer of an autograph.

But Yakov isn’t here, nor Lilia, not any of the older skaters to judge him, and he’s sick of talking to people, watching the pity in their eyes, the sidelong glances, their kindness when they tell him how much they used to love him. Victor’s spent the whole summer falling down, and he didn’t even medal in the Rostelecom Cup, his first senior Grand Prix event, not even in front of a home crowd. He hates everything from the new breadth of his shoulders to the way his hands flop now, too big for the ends of his arms, and he doesn’t want to have to hide behind a smile he doesn’t feel.

So he keeps skating, and the boy keeps watching.

He’s not a skater, Victor decides, catching glimpses of the boy as he sweeps across the ice and lifts his leg into a perfect spin. Other skaters, even the ones who admire him, don’t watch like that. They’re always analyzing, always try to work out how he does it, what he has that they don’t. This boy watches him like he’s the most perfect thing in the world.

For the first time in months, Victor feels like he could be perfect again. Almost without thinking, he tightens up his movements, pours more grace into his spins, lifts his leg more cleanly, makes every step utterly precise. Beauty should cut like a blade, Lilia tells him, and with every slice he feels more like himself again, more like a winner.

He notices when Yakov comes stomping in, Anya and her partner yawning in his wake, but doesn’t see the boy slip away.

The memory of that reverent gaze stays with him, though, keeps his heart in that cold, yearning place it needs to be to come first in the short program. Afterwards, he sees the boy again. Victor watches from the kiss and cry as the judges calculate his marks and the volunteer sweepers gather up the toys that cover the ice like confetti. Victor’s wide-eyed boy is the smallest of the sweepers, and one of only two boys. He looks younger than the rest of them, maybe eight or nine to their twelve and thirteen, and Victor is charmed to see that he races the others to get to the stuffed poodles.

So he is a skater. Maybe he’d stared at Victor like that because Victor inspired him. Awash with the knowledge that he’s just performed something beautiful, Victor loves that idea. He’s been a winner before, but he’s never thought of himself as inspirational. It’s almost as wonderful as all those 6.0s that are now appearing on the scoreboard.

He carries inspirational into his free skate the next day, takes silver with enough marks to make up for that fourth place at Rostelecom, and squeaks into his first senior Grand Prix Final.

 

He forgets about the boy after that. There’s the final, and the Europeans, and his first Senior Worlds, and he’s found his balance again and feels like himself in this new, tall, strong body. The world lies before him, and Victor’s drunk on the glory of it, of pushing to see just how far he can go, how high he can jump, how many quads he can land. The boy with the reverent eyes fades into the back of his memory.

He draws the NHK Trophy again the next year. This time he’s feeling confident, but he still goes to practise alone before anyone else can get onto the ice. It’s become a habit, a way to settle himself before a competition, a moment of private communion between him and the ice he loves.

And there is the boy, quiet as a ghost—oh, that would make a good theme for a free skate, the spirit of the ice made flesh! Delighted by the idea, Victor makes his next flip a quad and actually lands it—still not quite guaranteed, although he’s working on it. He flicks a quick glance at the boy to see if he’s impressed.

The boy is crying, tears streaking down his cheeks in shiny trails, and Victor should really, really go and speak to him, but tears are not something he’s good at, even tears of joy (at least, he hopes that’s joy). He can deal with fans who scream and fans who lunge at him and fans who babble, but he has no idea what to do with fans who weep in silence awe.

Instead, he does a combination jump, lifting his arms, and flipping his head so his hair swirls around him. Don’t cry, he thinks. Smile. Beautiful things should make you smile.

He’s not entirely sure he’s right about that.

When he looks again, the boy has gone. Victor’s a little disappointed, a little guilty. He really should have said something this time.

But it didn’t feel like he needed to do anything but skate, anything except be himself.

He wins gold easily, and is distracted from the scoring by watching the sweepers. His boy goes for the poodles again, and Victor, still a little ashamed of himself, whispers to one of the volunteers as he leaves the kiss and cry. Most of the toys go straight to local children’s hospitals, but there are enough that one less won’t matter much.

Three days later, leaving for the airport, he catches a glimpse of the boy in the distance, hugging a toy poodle to his chest with an expression of such transparent delight that Victor has to look away before he starts to feel like a terrible human being. He should really speak to the boy one of these years.

He tells Makkachin about the boy, and his puppy bounces and wags her tail in glee, but he doesn’t tell anyone else. He doesn’t want a lecture on manners from Yakov or Lilia, for a start. There’s also the fact that he’s starting to think of the boy as lucky. He knows almost seventeen is far too old for such superstitions, but that doesn’t mean Victor’s going to risk jinxing himself by talking about his luck.

In the final, he lands badly at the end of his short program, has to limit his jumps in the free to avoid serious damage to his knee, and only takes bronze. A little part of him thinks he would have won if it had been in Japan, but Victor’s not willing to accept any excuses, especially not ones based on pure superstition, and so he sets out to ensure that it never happens like that again. He takes gold in the Europeans, silver in the Worlds, spends the summer working on his quads, and then comes blazing back into the Grand Prix season. He gets a silver he won’t apologise for at the Trophee de France, and Yakov yells at him for five minutes for messing up a quad salchow that wasn’t supposed to even be in his free program. At the Rostelecom Cup, he moves on a tide of acclaim, lifted on it and yet somehow apart from it. The cheers, the reporters, the fans, all begin to blur together something vast and glorious and unstoppable.

Victor takes their love and transmutes it into gold.

The Grand Prix Final is in Tokyo. Victor floats on the adulation of the crowd, and doesn’t realise that it isn’t enough until Georgi demands, “What are you looking for?”

Victor looks around the rink, and says something airy and ridiculous, just to hear Georgi huff. There are volunteers everywhere, but he can’t see his lucky charm boy. He wasn’t at practice this morning, and after Victor has his turn, he doesn’t appear among the sweepers.

Well, it happens. Not every starry-eyed child keeps skating. Perhaps he’s given up and found some new love. Perhaps he’s playing soccer (ugh). He’s probably forgotten who Victor is, or only remembers him with the shudder of embarrassment which anyone would feel when reminded of the worst excesses of their childhood crushes (Victor will never speak of Plushenko thing again).

But his heart isn’t quite in his short program. He scores well on technical marks, falls down on component marks, and comes in fourth. Yakov is not impressed.

Victor’s supposed to be the favourite, so he’s bracing himself for the press. He’s almost disappointed when they all seem to have vanished somewhere else.

Georgi, flush on being ranked higher than Victor for once, leaves the rest of the Russian team hiding from Yakov and goes to investigate. He comes back looking tragic.

“What’s happened?” cried Anya, hands flying to her mouth. She’s as dramatic as Georgi, and Victor wishes they’d just go out with each other rather than continuously falling for people who live on the far side of the world (or at least stop weeping on his indifferent shoulder about their unrequited love affairs).

What’s happened is that some tiny fourteen-year old Japanese prodigy with a step sequence that would make ballerinas weep has marked his first Junior Final by fainting from nerves at the press conference.

“Poor darling,” Anya cries, tearing up in sympathy.

Victor shakes his head with all the wisdom of his very nearly eighteen years, and says, “Ah, prodigies,” which makes Georgi throw a skate guard at him (so dramatic!).

Anya scolds them both and then says, clasping her hands over her heart, “We should go and comfort him.”

Yakov says no. Then he says it again on the way back to the hotel, and again over dinner. And, admittedly, he may have a point about not putting further strain on the poor junior’s nerves the night before his first skate, but Victor feels they ought to do something. They end up sending flowers and a good luck note which they all sign flamboyantly. Victor even chases down one of the hotel clerks and gets him to show them how to write good luck in kanji.

It makes him feel a little better about that fifth place.

He still wakes up early. He gazes out into the brilliant shimmering madness that is pre-dawn Tokyo for a while. Then, moving very quietly so he doesn’t wake Georgi in the other bed, he goes to the rink.

For once, he’s not the first one there. There’s a boy on the ice, circling round and round with his head down.

Victor’s first reaction is annoyance. This is his time, his chance to be alone with the ice. He’s about to demand the boy get off the ice and leave it to actual competitors, but then he looks again.

It’s his good luck charm boy.

He’s grown a little, lost some of that baby fat from his cheeks. Victor’s terrible at guessing people’s ages—too much time spent training with adults—but he thinks the boy must be ten now. Eleven, maybe. Old enough to move across the ice with a graceful, easy confidence.

Then, as Victor ponders what to do—what to say—the boy slides into a routine.

It’s a little rough, a little uncertain, but at the same time it’s good. He can’t even be old enough to compete in the Junior competitions, but his spins are at that level. His step sequence is smooth, and his jumps—well, he’s definitely too young to be making that jump, but for a moment he soars.

He staggers on the landing, falls, stays down for a moment before he pushes back to his feet, mouth turning down in frustration.

Victor should go and help, ask if he’s okay, reassure him that everyone falls sometimes. Instead, he shrinks back into the shadows, hoping the boy hasn’t seen him.

He knows that jump, those spins, the whole sequence. He’s skated them—years ago in one of his first Junior contests. The boy is skating his routine, and Victor doesn’t know what to do about it. He can’t quite breathe past the lump in his throat—can feel his heart racing. He knows this routine and yet he doesn’t. It’s not perfect—technically flawed, without the power that will keep the boy aloft long enough to make the jumps, but the way boy skates is like nothing Victor has ever seen before. Every move is ablaze with feeling, with nothing held back. Victor never skated it like that—never felt anything that powerfully. He can’t remember ever skating without that cool, calm space in his heart which lets him direct his emotions as skilfully as his movements.

He’s known admiration—hero worship—before, but always from a distance. He’s never seen it like this, etched out step by step upon the ice.

It’s amazing.

Then someone comes hurrying down the steps to the rink, a woman with a dancer’s grace who calls out to the boy, her tone light and teasing. The boy slows to a halt, blushes, and then calls back, a quick flurry of words Victor can’t understand.

That’s when the second set of realisations hits Victor. This boy isn’t his good luck charm. He isn’t a symbol.

He’s real, a person in his own right.

He’s going to be better than Victor one day.

And Victor is his hero.

Wow.

He waits in the shadows until they’ve both gone and then ventures onto the ice in a daze. He smiles vaguely all the way back to the hotel and through breakfast, barely aware of the concerned looks everyone else is giving him.

He’s someone’s hero. He doesn’t deserve it. But, oh, he wants to be worthy.

His free skate theme this year is excelsior, but the word that rings in his mind as he approaches the ice is hero. He needs to be a hero, needs to prove himself, not to the judges or his coaches, but to the boy, and all the other boys like him.

He barely remembers the skate in later years, but he breaks his first world record with it.

Later, on the plane home, Anya mentions that the little prodigy they sent the card to took silver, which is nice, Victor supposes, but he’s living through an epiphany here, and doesn’t really care about prodigies. Most of them don’t make it anyway.

 

And then he skates and he skates and he skates. Everything else in the world fades away, becomes unimportant. In later years, people tell him that’s when his skating changed, when he began to cross the line from champion to legend. Victor never tells any of them why, never breathes a hint of what he’s yearning towards, what he needs to prove. Moving his audiences to tears becomes commonplace, but he never loses sight of the wonder of it again, keeps his smiles gracious and his thanks to his fans sincere.

He never sees the boy skate again, but sometimes he glimpses him in the crowds or watching from the side of the rink—in Moscow, Paris, St Petersburg, at the Worlds in Calgary. He never chases the boy, never risks finding out that all this was born out of his own imagination and wishful thinking.

And then the boy vanishes completely. It takes Victor a few months to accept this. When he does, the story spills out of him.

Anya cries.

Georgi cries.

Victor cries, though he’s not sure why.

And then they open another bottle of vodka, and Victor confesses to the ceiling of the rink, “I never even learned his name.”

“So romantic,” Anya sniffs.

Victor sits up enough to eye her with horror. “He’s a child.”

“But he’ll grow up,” she sobs, “and he’ll have always loved you and he’ll have searched the world for you and then with his dying breath he’ll land a quadruple axel and throw himself at your feet and declare, ‘Victor Nikiforov, you will never know how much I suffered for you! Now I give up my very life for you!’”

Victor imagines it and dissolves into more tears. “And my heart will break in two and I’ll swoon to my own death on the ice before him and the whole world will mourn us.”

“And nobody will ever break your world record,” Georgi adds, throwing himself into Anya’s arms. “Or land a quadruple axel ever again.”

Victor sobs, Anya wails, Georgi howls.

And that’s when Yakov arrives to demand what the hell they’re all doing drunk at the rink at three in the morning, and where the devil are your clothes, Vitya, why are you naked, and this is what comes of too much ballet at an impressionable age!

 

The 2008 Worlds are in Tokyo, and Team Romance (”Why?” Victor has asked Georgi and Anya plaintively, but it seems there’s a limit to how many times you can streak in front of people before they stop respecting your genius) are invested now. Operation Fanboy is underway (”I want to name the operations in future,” Victor grumbles. They both ignore him).

It’s not a success. Victor thinks he might have seen the boy lingering by the rinkside during a practice session, but he’s gone before Victor can get to the side of the rink. A whole evening with a list of junior competitors only reveals that there are three Japanese male Juniors this year—a ice dancer, one of a pair of sixteen year olds, and a thirteen year old who has barely qualified. Half an hour guessing their way through the JSF website until they find pictures is enough to tell Victor that none of them is his good luck charm.

“Maybe I’ll beat you this year after all,” Georgi says dreamily.

Victor can barely summon the enthusiasm to sneer at him.

Anya says, “Perhaps he’s just here to watch. Maybe he didn’t qualify. Maybe he’s injured.”

Victor claps a hand to his heart.

“Maybe he’s still not old enough,” Gerogi suggests.

That’s not so bad. “But I can still find him, and thank him,” Victor says hopefully, “and then offer to mentor him!” He sits up, enthused. “I would be a wonderful coach!”

“You?” Georgi says and Anya laughs so hard she falls over.

Victor sags down on the floor again. Nobody appreciates him. Nobody except his mystery fan.

“Vitya,” Anya says, giggling again, “you have an international fan club and three million Facebook followers. Plenty of people appreciate you.”

It’s not the same.

 

It’s another year before the next sighting and that’s just for a split second at Worlds. He’s definitely at the Grand Prix Final in Tokyo—Victor sees him across the rink, leaning on the barrier and watching a Thai junior run through his routine. He looks taller, sadder, but the glasses are the same and the eyes. Victor knows it’s him.

He’s gone by the time Victor gets around the rink and all he gets for his troubles is a sideways look from Celestino Cialdini, who hasn’t liked Victor much since that thing with the glow sticks and the Zamboni at the Vancouver Olympics.

The mystery boy isn’t competing in the Junior competition, and Victor wonders if he’s volunteering again. The thought strikes him as terribly sad. What happened to all that potential?

Victor’s coming to understand that not everyone realises their potential. It’s putting a strain on his friendship with Georgi these days, adding an edge to his newer friendship with Christophe Giacometti, turning old comrades bitter. Everyone on the senior circuit has the potential to be a champion—could have ruled the world if this wasn’t Victor’s moment, Victor’s time to shine brighter than any other star.

He doesn’t want to be beaten, but he’s so tired of the envy and calculation on everyone’s faces. The more he tries to ignore it, the more numb he feels. That cold calm place in him keeps expanding, off the ice as well as on, and every time someone raves about the emotion in his skating he feels a little more alone. When he watches his own performances, the only feeling he can see is the ever growing emptiness.

He takes gold, gold, gold, every now and then a silver (but never in a final), gold, gold, gold.

No one ever told him what a cold metal it was.

He often thinks of how the boy skated, of the rawness of his emotions bleeding out across the ice.

Even if Victor still knew how to skate like that, he thinks he would be afraid to try.

He imagines he sees the boy everywhere that year—in Japan, in America, at the Worlds, the Olympics. It’s wishful thinking. Victor’s never going to see anyone look at him like that again—as if he made their world better just by existing in it.

After a while, he stops looking. It’s a silly fancy, a childish thing to cling to. It’s time to grow up.

So Victor skates and Victor smiles. He poses for pictures, collects sponsors like his fans collect autographs, dates beautiful people of every gender (but never for long). He wins and he wins and he wins, and says, “Wow! Amazing! Fantastic!”

And his heart grows colder and emptier, until he’s not sure it has space in it for anything but the ice.

 

In 2012, his first Grand Prix assignment is Skate Canada. Victor arrives a day before the men’s contest begins, wonders if tomorrow might be more challenging if he didn’t get out of bed at all today, and then gets up anyway, because the call of the ice is a siren song that cannot be denied.

He’s in mid-air when he sees the figure by the side of the rink. He manages to land the toe loop, two-footed but upright, and spins to stare. His mouth’s hanging open, he’s just flubbed a jump Yakov’s newest junior can make in his sleep, and he feels green and clumsy as he never had as a teenager, and none of that matters.

He’s here.

Not a boy any more, but his expression is the same—awe, wonder, joy.

Victor brings him joy.

Victor’s throat clenches and something hot curls in his belly.

He’s taller now, slimmer, in the body of a young man not a child, but some things haven’t changed. His eyes are still dark and wide, his hair is still a mess, he’s still wearing ugly glasses. This time Victor sees other things—the softness of his mouth, the hint of strength in his stance, the blush spreading across his cheeks.

It can’t have been more than a heartbeat since Victor started to stare, but suddenly his lucky boy—man—oh, God, what is his name?—is scrabbling backwards. He yelps, in very American English, “I’m sorry! I’m sorry! I’ll leave you to practise! I’m sorry!”

Victor has no brain left. He cannot string a sentence together in English.

It takes him ten seconds to even summon the ability to throw himself across the ice, but by then he’s gone and shit, shit, shit, Victor’s skate guards are the other side of the rink and he can’t move fast enough.

By the time he bursts out of the rink, there’s no sign of his mystery man, only a few officials hanging around and giving him puzzled looks. The only skater is sight is Christophe Giacometti, who is staring out of the front entrance with an expression of faint surprise.

“Chris!” Victor says, trying for his normal nonchalance, but it comes out shaky and Chris suddenly looks concerned.

“Victor, are you alright?”

“Yes, yes,” Victor says. “No, yes. Did he come this way?”

“Who?”

“I don’t know!” Victor says. He feels like the ground is opening up under him.

“I think you’ve been practising too hard,” Chris says and leads him over to a seat. “Let me get you something to eat.”

At some point in his life, Victor’s going to be very glad that he befriended Christophe Giacometti, but today he cannot quite express his appreciation. He’s in shock. Or maybe in love. He can’t tell.

Without further fuss, Chris puts an energy drink into Victor’s hand, summons a taxi out of the misty Paris morning, and gets Victor back to his hotel. He’s steering Victor towards Yakov’s room when Victor pulls himself together enough to say, “No. Georgi instead.”

Georgi and Anya have been dating for a while now. They are beautiful together and Victor loves and envies that with equal force. They probably don’t want to be woken up this early on their first day in Paris, but they are old enough friends that Georgi takes one look at his face, throws the door open and drags him inside.

Anya sits up and demands, “What happened?”

“I saw him,” Victor says and he’s feeling strange again, not sure if he’s floating empty or on the verge of bursting apart. “He grew up. And he’s beautiful.”

And then, to his surprise, he clenches his fists and bursts into tears.

He hasn’t cried in years, hasn’t felt anything this strongly in longer, but now it bursts out of him as if all the ice around his heart has melted in one hot rush.

Immediately, he surrounded by warm, worried skaters, arms wrapping around him and pulling him close. He cries into Anya’s hair as Chris and Georgi hold him up, lets them bundle him over to bed and snuggle down with him in a pile of tangled limbs and warm skin and reassurance. Victor has never been so thankful to be surrounded by people who communicate with their bodies. Georgi and Anya hold him because they understand, and Chris joins them because he’s Chris and physical generosity is second nature to him. There’s nothing sexual in it, just kindness.

Eventually, Victor curls up in the middle of them all, and listens to Georgi try to explain to Chris.

Chris is, perhaps understandably, confused. “So Victor has a fan who stalks him and never speaks to him, but inspires him to win?”

Anya says indignantly, “He’s not a stalker!”

“I make him happy,” Victor says sadly and for a moment all their lips tremble.

“It’s romantic,” Georgi proclaims. “Like the Phantom of the Opera!”

“The Phantom of the Grand Prix Trophy!” Anya corrects.

“And the Worlds,” Victor reminds her. “And the Olympics, at least once.”

Chris is smiling at them all, albeit a little cautiously, “The Phantom of the—I’m guessing none of you actually have enough of a background in musical theatre to know how that story ends?”

“Yakov has banned show tunes from the rink,” Anya says sadly.

“In perpetuity,” Georgi adds.

Neither of them look at Victor, which is as it should be. He’s still never going to speak of the Plushenko thing. To distract Chris, he says brightly, “But we have ballet!”

“And Disney,” Anya adds.

“And Lilia likes Mary Poppins,” Georgi contributes.

“So much makes sense now,” Chris murmurs. “Victor, are you going to look for your mystery man?”

“How?” Victor demands. “I don’t think he’s a skater and I don’t know why he’s here!”

“Maybe he’s a relative,” Anya says.

“Maybe he’s a boyfriend,” Georgi says and pats Victor’s shoulder. “Don’t despair!”

“There’s only one Japanese skater in this contest that I know of,” Chris says. “Perhaps we could ask him.”

It seems a little too easy—too prosaic—but Victor is willing to compromise if it will get him a name. “Introduce me to him!”

“Not before a contest,” Chris says firmly. “Yuuri gets nervous and you’ll make it worse.”

“Okay,” Victor says and sighs. “But what am I supposed to do now? Search the streets for him? Practise?”

“You don’t have to say it as if it’s optional,” Anya grumbles.

Victor sighs. “I just want a distraction. I want to be amused!”

Which is, unfortunately, when Chris says, “Are any of you on Instagram?”

Three new accounts and one easily misconstrued selfie later, they’re all lying back to enjoy the chaos.

christophe-gc Breakfast with #TeamRussia #Paris #fourinabed @v-nikiforov @georgi-popovich @anya-t-tango

y-katsuki Um, wow, @christophe-gc. I was going to apologise for missing you this morning, but looks like you found better company.

christophe-gc Aw, @y-katsuki, where were you? You missed your chance to come. #plentyofroominthebed

 

Later that day, after an impressive amount of yelling, Victor wonders if its time to start worrying about Yakov’s blood pressure.

 

They never get to ask the Japanese skater anything. When Victor arrives in time for the final group, Chris shakes his head at him and whispers, “In thirteenth with six to go. His nerves, poor Yuuri.”

Victor’s self-centred, but he’s not heartless. He leaves the poor man alone and focuses on his own program.

Even though he hasn’t found his mystery man, at least he’s got Instagram out of the experience. Instagram rapidly becomes Victor’s new favourite thing on the internet (he doesn’t tell anyone that he’s hoping his mysterious phantom might be one of his thousands of followers).

 

The hotel they’re in at Worlds in 2013 has a glass-roofed lobby and tiers of balconies. Victor’s just come out of his room on the fourth floor when he looks down and sees his phantom standing in the foyer, looking tired and worried.

“You!” Victor yells at him, hampered by the lack of a name. “Stay there!”

But by the time Victor gets downstairs, he’s gone. The clerk tells him, not without sympathy, that she doesn’t think he realised Victor was yelling at him. Unfortunately, she is not sympathetic enough to reveal his name or room number to Victor.

Victor retreats to his room to come up with a cunning plan. There are about five hundred rooms in this hotel, virtually all of which will be occupied by skaters, coaches, reporters and officials—that is, people who will recognise Victor and, depending on past encounters, may or may not be willing to humour him. All he has to do is find a way to knock on every door before someone tips Yakov off.

He’s going to need help.

Georgi and Anya have already disappeared off hand-in-hand. Anya’s partner Kirill is a terrible, suspicious-minded man who does not like Victor at all (he was there for the Plushenko thing). That leaves the youngest members of Team Russia. Mila is here for her first Senior Worlds and little Yuri is finally eligible for the Juniors. Surely, with their help, Victor can prevail.

“You want us to do what?” Little Yuri asks incredulously.

“Mila and I will stand at either end of the corridor,” Victor explains. “You will run along and knock on all the doors and we will be perfectly positioned to see who opens them.”

“Go fuck yourself,” says little Yuri.

“Such language from one so young,” Victor says, wide-eyed and reproachful. “Didn’t you used to be sweet?”

“Then I met you trolls. Leave me out of this!”

“Aw, Yuri,” Mila coos. “Are you scared you’ll get in trouble?”

“I’m not scared of anything, hag.”

“Besides, you won’t get the blame,” Victor says, and pastes on his most charming smile to switch to English. “Oh, so sorry, youthful high spirits. You know how these juniors get. Please, please, accept my apologies. The fault is all mine. Would you like an autograph for your daughter?”

“You make me sick,” little Yuri says, which isn’t a ‘no.’

Yakov’s wrath catches up with them on the third floor. They still haven’t found Victor’s phantom, but little Yuri has now made the acquaintance of almost everyone of note in the ice skating world (see, Yakov, Victor isn’t that bad at this mentoring thing).

Booted out into the cold Ontario night, Victor apologizes by buying them both dinner. Little Yuri glares at his milkshake as if it’s about to leap out of its cup and bite him in the throat, but he drinks it anyway before demanding, “What was that all about anyway, old man?”

Victor shrugs. “I was looking for someone.”

Mila’s eyes widen. “Oooh, you had a sighting of your lucky phantom!”

“You know about this?”

“Victor,” she says earnestly. “Everybody knows.”

“I don’t,” Little Yuri says, sounding cranky. “Not that I want to know.”

Mila tells him anyway. It’s a lot more romantic in her retelling. Little Yuri makes retching sounds and eventually shouts at her to stop. Then he calls Victor a freak of nature. “I don’t even know why I’m here with you people. I should be in bed by now. It’s like two in the morning at home.”

“Nooooo!” Mila and Victor both wail in unison.

Little Yuri scowls at them. “You are both crazy people.”

“First rule of jetlag,” Victor tells him, holding his finger up, “is that you do not talk about the jetlag.”

“Second rule of jetlag,” Mila says, with a two-fingered salute, “is that you never, ever, ever even think about what time it is in Russia.”

Little Yuri sneers at them both, but he’s still asleep on the table by the time they finish their dessert. Victor takes a picture of him for Instagram. It gets hundreds of likes before the bill comes. For a thirteen year old scrap of bad attitude, little Yuri has a lot of fans.

They try to wake him up, but he opens his eyes enough to slur, “I don’t have to practise today, Grandpa,” before passing out again.

They’re only five minutes walk from the hotel, but he’s clearly not going to make it on his own two feet.

“Whatever we do now,” Mila whispers, “he’s going to try to gut us with his teeth tomorrow.”

“They’re not very big teeth,” Victor says. Without the scowl and the shouting, little Yuri is very little indeed. He doesn’t look like he weighs very much.

He doesn’t wake up when Victor picks him up, just turns his head against Victor’s arm and snores a bit. It’s rather endearing.

Mila holds up her phone, grinning manically.

“I don’t think he’ll appreciate that,” Victor says, hefting the boy into a more secure lift. He was right—little Yuri really doesn’t weigh much.

Mila dances ahead of him as they head out into the night. “If we’re going to die, my comrade, let’s go viral first!”

Victor adores these kids.

Little Yuri doesn’t stir all the way back to the hotel, but sags against Victor as if he’s home safe in his bed. His pale hair is still as fine as a baby’s, Victor notices, stirring and rising if Victor breathes past the top of his head.

The only precious thing anyone’s ever trusted Victor with is a gold medal. For the first time, Victor wonders what he’s missed out on in all these years of winning.

Mila keeps up a running commentary as her phone dances in her hands. “Wow, five hundred. No, six hundred. Your fans are very, very crazy people. Do you have any idea how many women have just offered to have your babies? And some men too. Okay, that’s a lot of exploding ovaries for one post! Ew, that thought did not need visual reinforcement! Oooh, it got onto Twitter! So many retweets! Hashtag SkateCute!”

“Just don’t wake him up,” Victor hisses at her. He wants to tell her that they have to be careful, have to look after each other, but he can’t find a way to say it which won’t just make her laugh at him. She’s very young.

They meet Chris on the steps of the hotel, clearly heading out for the night. They’ve got a whole day before the short program, so Victor supposes there’s no reason not to go out. He just doesn’t feel the need tonight.

Chris doesn’t quite manage to smother his laughter at the sight of Victor and little Yuri, but he does say, “I’m heading out. Want to join me later?”

“Not this time,” Victor says. He’s actually quite enjoying being the responsible adult of the team. It’s novel, and Victor loves novelty.

“Are you sure? Yuuri—the other Yuuri—just called to tell me that he doesn’t know where he left his pants and he can’t remember how to do the cancan.”

“Wow,” Mila says. “And it’s not even eight pm yet.”

“The night is young,” Chris agrees. “And we don’t have to skate tomorrow.”

Victor isn’t even tempted. “Have fun. I’m getting up early to practise. Say hi to your friend.”

Yakov is waiting for them in the lobby. He raises his eyebrows when he sees Victor carrying little Yuri, but there’s a hint of approval in his gaze. They get little Yuri to his room, and Victor has to bite back a squeal when he sees the worn plush tiger tucked in next to the pillows. Little Yuri is adorable (Victor’s definitely going to say so when he’s awake one of these days, just to hear him scream).

The jetlag’s starting to hit him too, and Mila’s heavy-eyed, so they all head off to their own rooms. Victor knows enough to sit up and read for a while, skimming through skating news forums. His mind wanders back to that glimpse he had of his phantom. Maybe this will finally be Victor’s chance to meet him. Maybe he’s close enough to come running if Victor calls his name—if only Victor knew his name. Maybe he is connected to Chris’ Japanese friend, though Victor can’t imagine his wide-eyed admirer spending much time with someone happy to dance the cancan.

He falls asleep with vague yearning swilling around his head.

 

At breakfast the next morning, he beams benignly at Chris, who looks more hungover than he did that time in Beijing. Feeling entirely at peace with the world, Victor says to Georgi, “It’s not so bad, being one of the oldest. I think I like it.”

Georgi lifts an eyebrow. “Little Yuri is coming this way and he looks like he’s about to slit your throat with a butter knife.”

Victor turns to see, and then waves joyfully at little Yuri, who really doesn’t look happy. “Yurochka! You shouldn’t check Instagram before breakfast. It’s bad for the digestion!”

He escapes to practise not long after that. Right up until he gets to the rink, he’s hoping that his phantom might be there, already on the ice. He isn’t, but it’s okay. For the first time in years, Victor means some of his smiles. Maybe the only person in the world who ever thought he was perfect has grown up and lost interest in him, but that doesn’t mean Victor has to stop feeling everything. He can watch over his rinkmates, laugh with Chris, reach out to the world online. It’s not the same, but it’s better than nothing.

He’s halfway through his routine when he realises that someone is up in the top of the stands. This time, Victor is careful not to betray that he has noticed his audience, but he puts a little more into his practise, goes beyond technical precision to give it all the hope and passion it’s supposed to convey to the audience.

Look at me, he tries to say with each spin and jump. This is for you. This is how much I want to make you happy. Don’t take your eyes off me.

The watcher is gone by the time Victor finishes his routine, but he carries the knowledge he was there with him for the rest of the day.

He needs it. Mila’s competing first and then little Yuri, and they’re both jittery even before the Canadian swans in. He’s in his first year of seniors, convinced of his own brilliance, and determined to show off to Victor and flirt with Mila.

Victor conveniently forgets all his English. Mila’s smile gets steadily more forced. Little Yuri is almost frothing at the mouth.

The Canadian’s in full flow over how he won’t be one of those waste-of-space skaters who lose all their talent when they hit the senior division when Victor spots the Thai junior behind him. Victor’s seen the kid around a few times. He’s always smiling, always full of life.

Except right now his fists are clenched against his sides and his cheeks are flushed. Victor narrows his eyes, suddenly realising that the Canadian’s snide remarks are neither hypothetical nor generic.

And that is not okay. There are some things you just don’t do. Picking on younger skaters is one of them. Pissing all over skaters for a bad senior debut is another—Viktor’s not the only one who has suffered through a bad growth spurt.

He shakes his head and says, deliberately cheerful, “Oh, so many interesting ideas. If only you could skate yourself!”

The Canadian blinks, but then rallies, “Well, actually, I do—”

“Oh!” Victor cries, clapping his hands to his cheeks. “You’ve come to watch. You’ll learn so much from seeing the best in the world.”

“I’m a competitor,” the Canadian says. The colour is draining from his cheeks.

“This year?” Victor says. “Oh, sorry, I never remember who is in the early groups. Good luck tomorrow, er—”

“JJ,” Mila supplies, while the Canadian’s mouth works silently. Victor deliberately and permanently forgets his name.

“Well, good luck, AJ,” Victor says cheerfully. “Maybe we’ll see you at the banquet.”

The Canadian looks like he’s going to cry. Good.

It’s not until he’s gone that Mila turns to Victor and breathes, “He’s seventh in the world, Victor.”

“Oh,” Victor says airily. “Well, who cares about seventh?” He turns to the Thai Junior and unleashes his best smile. “Hi! Selfie?”

“Um, yes, wow!” says the kid. His grin as Victor holds his phone out is blinding. “Oh shit, I can’t believe Yuuri’s not here for this. Thank you.”

“No problem,” Victor says and makes a victory-sign for the camera. “Good luck out there.”

“Wow, yes, wow. You too tomorrow. Wow.”

Victor looks him up on Instagram later.

Phichit+chu @y-katsuki OMG, you were right. @v-nikiforov is the best! I bow down to your undying wisdom, oh sage and mighty one!

Y-katsuki @phichit+chu OMG OMG OMG OMG OMG

Victor likes both comments, and spends the rest of the day in a glow of satisfaction. He thinks this elder statesman thing looks good on him.

He doesn’t find his phantom, but he takes gold and enjoys it for the first time in a long while. The Canadian finishes in twelfth, just behind Chris’ Japanese friend, who Victor still hasn’t met (he really must make the effort one of these days, because Chris is a good friend and has good taste in people. Victor is probably never going to find true love with a mysterious phantom, but another skating friend would be nice).

 

He doesn’t look for the phantom during the next year. He’s definitely out there somewhere—a shadow watching from the corner, a glimpse across a crowded hotel lobby, an unmistakable silhouette walking down the road ahead of them. Victor doesn’t pursue. It’s taken him years of music and choreography and debate, but these days Victor understands narrative.

The phantom looked at him as if he was a hero. He’s not, not in the ways that count. So, if he wants to meet his phantom, he has to change that. He has to become a true hero.

The simplest way he knows to be a hero is by winning.

So Victor wins—wins the Cup of China, the Trophee de France, the Grand Prix Final (for the fourth consecutive time). He does other things too—promises to choreograph a program for little Yuri, actually creates one for Mila, ups his charity commitments and charms his sponsors into part-funding a program to support young skaters. He doesn’t run away from either Georgi or Anya as their relationship starts to fray at the edges. He attends a party with both Lilia and Yakov and keeps the small talk going long enough that it doesn’t end in disaster. He signs a lot of autographs.

He still doesn’t quite feel like he can breathe freely or like he can skate without the cold settling around his heart, but at least he’s doing something. At least he’s trying to be good enough.

The Grand Prix Final is in Fukuoka this year. It almost breaks him when there’s no sign of his phantom there. Japan’s the only country where Victor feels confident of those watching eyes.

Then, as he takes to the ice for his free skate, he glances up and there his phantom is, perched in the top row of the skaters’ seats, his gaze fixed on Victor. There are no Japanese competitors in the men’s final this year—Chris’ friend hasn’t managed more than sixth all season, and Victor doesn’t think there’s anyone in the other disciplines either. But his phantom has somehow managed to talk his way in.

Victor flashes a smile in his direction and goes on to win gold.

He goes out for drinks with Chris afterwards. Chris flourishes his bronze medal in greeting, says, “Gold medallist pays for dinner, yes?” and smiles, but Victor knows it stings him again.

Victor says, “Your turn next year, maybe. I’m getting old and poor.”

Chris shakes his head, laughing, and then says, “Maybe it will be Yuuri’s turn.”

“Your friend? Has he ever even made it to the final?”

“Not since his junior days, but he’s getting closer every year.”

There are only so many years, Victor knows but doesn’t say. No one can afford a slow climb to glory. “He’s not here, though.”

“He was—came to support his rinkmate. His family live, oh, just up the coast somewhere. Some little town where everyone knows his name. He’s having dinner with them here before he flies back to Detroit.”

That confirms one of Victor’s suspicions. His phantom must be connected to the mysterious Yuuri Katsuki, the skater’s who has never quite made it and probably never will. Maybe he’s part of Katsuki’s team. Maybe he’s a relative. Hopefully not a lover.

“Shame, really,” Chris says. “I wanted you to meet him. He’s just your kind of adorable.”

“Christophe Giacometti,” Victor cries, mock-coy. “Are you trying to matchmake? With me!”

“Absolutely,” Chris says without shame.

Victor laughs it off. Yuuri Katsuki might be a mystery Japanese skater, but he isn’t the mystery Japanese skater Victor wants.

 

Gold at the Olympics, gold at the Europeans, and the Worlds come round again. Victor’s back in Japan, is rewarded by the sight of his phantom from his hotel window this morning, frowning seriously at a programme as he trudges through the rain towards the rink. He looks older with his hair slicked flat with rain, sterner.

Sexier.

Victor sighs a little and heads down to breakfast before little Yuri starts kicking his door in.

“He’s here,” he tells them whole table. Yakov groans. Mila squeals. Anya claps her hands together.

Little Yuri pretends to puke in his yoghurt. His consistency is charming in itself.

Possibly Victor is seeing the world through rose-tinted glasses this morning.

Everything stays wonderful. He gets three more glimpses of his phantom. Little Yuri savages his way through the Junior competition like the tiger he claims to be. Mila skates a short program so beautiful it makes Victor cry. Anya and Kirill dance like their skates are on fire. Georgi makes it into the final ten.

And then there are the little things, and Victor drinks them all in, appreciates this world—his world—with all his heart. Here are the strange Italian twins alternatively weeping and screaming at each other in the hallways. Here are the soft-voiced officials in sensible shoes, the logos painted everywhere that no one will remember next season, the brightly clashing team jackets of countless different countries, the smell of nervous sweat and boot polish and chapstick, and under it all the clean, cold bite of artificial ice. Here are the Korean who marches off his nerves to the sound of muttered calculations and the still-growing American who bobs along to the music pouring through his headphones and Cao Bin in a yoga pose against the fire exit and Celestino Cialdini talking urgently to a closet door.

Okay, that last one isn’t quite so routine.

Victor’s group aren’t up for a while, so he leaves off his wanderings to say, “Ciao ciao, Celestino.”

“Not now,” Celestino mutters at him, and then says to the closet, “You know you can land it in practice, Yuuri. You just have to believe in yourself.”

So this is the mystery skater! Well, there are probably worse places to warm up. Victor can’t think of any, but he’s never really tried. Still determined to be a hero, he says encouragingly, “Good luck, Yuuri! I hear you’re very good.”

Celestino makes frantic fanning gestures at him and hisses, “Go away!”

“Who’s that?” The voice sounds shaky, but clear—not the voice of the drunken playboy Yuuri’s been imagining since last year. Yuuri Katsuki sounds young and shy and, well, rather nice.

“It’s only Victor, Yuuri. He’s just leaving.”

The skater inside the closet lets out a high-pitched sound of horror very much like the one little Yuri had made on his last birthday when he arrived to find Mila had lined the changing rooms with caricatures of him as a sparkly unicorn.

“You’ll be amazing!” Victor says and backs away before Celestino can start yelling at him. He’s heard Celestino yell a few times and doesn’t fancy having to explain that to Yakov.

He must have helped, though, because Japanese Yuuri goes from seventh after the short program to fourth overall. Victor rather regrets not watching the earlier groups. He’d like to see someone who can keep dragging himself higher and higher, even when it all goes wrong.

Victor takes gold, of course, floating through more lyrical, lovely routines with a heart as cold as ice. He saves his tears and joy for watching the others. Being selfless doesn’t make him happy, but it doesn’t make him feel as small as selfishness did either.

 

He drifts through the year, not quite connecting to anything but not quite lost either. He feels like he’s waiting, but he doesn’t know what for. He doesn’t mind. It’s sort of peaceful, not struggling to command attention any more.

But maybe, just maybe, this will be his year.

“They’re all your years, Vitya,” Georgi tells him bitterly.

“Not like that,” Victor says. They’re in a bar somewhere in St Petersburg, the river running below the terrace, the summer night bright with sunshine overhead. Victor doesn’t know what time it is—whether it’s still late or has fallen over the line to early. He’s stopped caring about the little details. “This year my story changes. This year I’ll finally deserve to meet him.”

“He’s not a prize for you to win,” Anya tells him. Her sarcasm has barbs these days.

“Ah,” Victor says, waving at her to acknowledge her point. “Then perhaps he is a new opportunity.”

She shoves to her feet, mouth twisting. “Or perhaps he’s a person in his own right, not just part of some stupid story!”

She storms out and Georgi doesn’t follow, just watches her go with heartbreak in his eyes. Victor’s heart hurts for them. He looks around and signals the bartender. Victor knows he’s not always a very good friend—there are so many people calling for his attention that it’s hard to make them all seem real in his head—but he’s always been good at this part of friendship.

“Perhaps,” Georgi says as Victor lines up the shots, “there are no narratives, no happy endings, nothing but heartbreak!”

“And hope!” Victor insists.

“And hope,” Georgi echoes, as if it’s the last cry he’ll utter before charging into battle.

They lift their shots, click glasses, and drink.

 

By the end of November, Victor’s starting to think Georgi was right. He hasn’t seen the faintest hint of his phantom all season.

Logically, this just means his hypothesis is correct and his phantom is following Yuuri Katsuki around the world, not Victor.

“Logic is not the language of a broken heart,” he tells Mila and little Yuri.

“Go tell someone who cares,” little Yuri snarls. “If you’re standing here bothering me, you could at least show me how to land a quad flip again.”

Victor does, but then drifts over to practise with Georgi, who at least has a concept of romance.

“There is still a chance,” Georgi tells him. He and Anya seem to have patched things up and Georgi’s been landing jumps like a mountain goat all week. “Katsuki took silver at Skate Canada and the Trophee de France. He might just make it to the final this year. Perhaps he will deliver your phantom to your waiting arms!”

On second thoughts, Victor might be better off listening to little Yuri yell.

Victor goes to Skate America and the Rostelecom Cup, and takes gold at both.

He practises harder than usual, pours every drop of emotion he can feel into Stammi Vicino—into stay close to me, stop slipping through my fingers, tell me who I am and what you see when you look at me.

He also buys a new wardrobe, gets his hair trimmed, and spends hours practising introductions in the mirror while Makkachin watches in delighted confusion.

Victor is pretty sure even his dog is laughing at him now.

 

But when he gets to Sochi, his phantom isn’t there.

He doesn’t come to watch the practices in the morning, doesn’t materialise in the hotel or on the streets or anywhere within the rink. Victor thinks he sees him once, right after the short program. He glimpses a dark hoodie out of the corner of his eye, dark hair, a achingly familiar line of shoulder. But then the man turns a little, and Victor realises its not his phantom. This man has his hair slicked back, wears no glasses, has the cool, remote look Victor sometimes sees in his own reflection.

This must be Yuuri Katsuki. He’s pretty, Victor thinks, but his eyes are too blank. There is no joy in them, no wonder.

All the same, Victor does want to speak to him. He should have introduced himself years ago, and he’s sick of waiting for fate to bring him his phantom. Maybe Yuuri Katsuki can help.

But as Victor starts towards him, Katsuki’s phone rings. He frowns down at it, answers. “Mari?” He sounds surprised, as if he isn’t expecting the call.

Victor leaves him to his conversation. They can always talk tomorrow, after the free skate.

But Yuuri Katsuki’s free skate is a disaster. He goes fourth, and Victor can see it on the screen as he warms up. After the third fall, he stops stretching to watch, his hand over his mouth.

It’s a horror show. There are tatters of grace in there, spins which make Victor’s heart ache, a step sequence which is technically perfect and emotionally a bizzare judder back and forth from simulated joy to absolute despair.

He jumps when Chris’ coach turns the screen off and barks, “Stop watching! You’re on next!”

Chris closes his eyes, switches on his smirk, and goes back to stretching.

“You too, Vitya,” Yakov growls. There’s a tiny hint of sympathy in his voice, though (Yakov’s heart is secretly as soft as any of his skaters, Victor knows—it’s why he shouts so much).

Victor is still thinking about it when he takes to the ice, about the way emotion had destroyed Katsuki’s program. It’s almost the opposite problem to his own. Is there no place in-between these extremes, no hope for heart but the choice between breaking and freezing?

Victor stands in the middle of the rink, perfectly poised as he waits for the music. He gazes across the tiers of seating, feels the ice settle around his heart, and thinks, Are you out there? Are you still watching me?

And then he wins.

Again.

 

Little Yuri wins as well, and Victor gives up on scanning the crowds to go and congratulate him. Mila joins them, hanging back a little as Yakov and little Yuri argue. Little Yuri is sulking in that way that means he clearly has a guilty conscience about something, and Victor turns back to ask Mila if she knows what he’s done.

And there he is.

Victor’s never been so close to him before. Only a couple of metres separate them. Victor takes in the slump of his shoulders, the tired lines around those sad eyes, how young he looks and yet how far from being a starstruck child. Victor wants to wrap his arms around him and tell him everything will be okay.

He also doesn’t want to scare him off.

All his polished lines drop right out of head. He has to speak—has to find out his name—but he doesn’t know what to say. This is the boy who made him a hero, who made him more than ice and gold and selfishness, who—

Who is still looking at Victor as if he thinks he’s wonderful, even though there’s an edge of sadness to his smile now.

This is the boy who has been watching Victor for over a decade and all Victor has to do is hold his attention long enough to start a conversation. It isn’t that hard to think of something to say. He flashes out his best smile and offers, “Commemorative photo?”

His phantom’s face clouds over with dismay and he turns away, presenting Victor with his back. Victor watches him walk away—slumped shoulders, skate case, dangling ID badge all somehow communicating bleak despair.

Wait.

What?

There’s a little bubble of silence and stillness around Victor. Mila and little Yuri are both staring at him.

In a moment or two, Victor might be able to feel pain. It’s like slamming into the boards too hard. Everything goes numb first.

“Victor,” Mila breathes. She sounds shocked. Does it show on his face?

Little Yuri says, “Even for you, that was low.”

Yakov’s tone is cold. “I know I taught you better than that.”

“What?” No, wrong question. “Who?”

“Victor,” Mila says slowly, as if she’s not quite sure whether to take him seriously, “that was Yuuri Katsuki.”

“You skated against him this afternoon, moron.”

No. No, that couldn’t be right. “But Katsuki has the—the hair, and the cool, and he doesn’t have the glasses, and he—cancan. Cancan!” It’s not his most coherent moment ever.

“He doesn’t wear his glasses to skate, stupid.”

“No,” Victor agrees faintly. “No, I suppose he wouldn’t.”

What has he done? Oh, God, what has he done?

Mila says firmly, “Victor, that was Yuuri Katsuki. You’ve been skating against him for years. He is the nicest skater in men’s singles. He looks up to you. And, according to Sara who heard it from Darcy who trains with Ayane, his dog just died!”

Little Yuri flinches. So does Victor.

“And,” Mila continues, her voice rising, “this is his very first Grand Prix final since he left Jumiors and he’s—”

“My phantom,” Victor says. All he can think is, His name is Yuuri Katsuki, his name is Yuuri Katsuki. “Yuuri Katsuki is my phantom.”

Mila stops mid-word. For a moment, she just stares.

“You idiot!” she wails and throws her arms around him.

“Idiot!” Little Yuri screams in the same moment and dropkicks him in the side.

Neither of them are wrong.

 

Victor returns to the hotel in a haze of panic and regret. He has to find Yuuri Katsuki—has to apologise—persuade him that Victor knows who he is and respects him as a colleague and fellow skater.

He has never seen more than a few seconds of Katsuki skating. So, first, he must rectify that.

It’s a revelation. It takes no more than five minutes before Victor sets aside the last of his doubts. This is definitely the same boy he once watched skate his own Junior routine so sincerely it broke Victor’s heart.

“Oh, Vitya!” Anya wails over Skype from the screen of Mila’s phone. “You shouldn’t be alone!”

“He’s not alone,” Mila protests. “He has me and little Yuri.”

“I don’t know why I’m here. You people are crazy.”

“But are you all drinking enough?” Anya demands tearfully. “How many of you are naked?”

Victor’s never seen little Yuri bolt from a room that fast, even after the unicorn incident.

Yuuri Katsuki is the most inconsistent skater Victor has ever watched. His best routines bring a lump to Victor’s throat and tears to his eyes. His worse make Victor want to cover the same eyes and whimper. He has so much potential and has realised so little of it.

They watch every video they can find until deep into the night. Mila finds his JSP page, his wikipedia entries, his fansites (”Sign me up,” Victor says and wishes almost immediately afterwards he hadn’t let her choose his username—he deserves better than futuremrskatsuki1225), a very odd google translation of an interview in his hometown newspaper the first time he went to Junior Worlds.

Yuuri Katsuki is 23, four years older than Victor assumed. He was the fainting prodigy in Tokyo, and already competing as a senior when Victor was searching for him among the juniors. He’s the top male figure skater in Japan. As a junior he was third in the world for a couple of years. He slid in the standings when he started competing in the Senior Division, but has always been in the top twenty in the world. He has competed in many of the same competitions as Victor, but almost never in the same rounds. Five years ago, he moved to Detroit to train with Celestino Cialdini. He has done better since then, slowly climbing up the rankings again.

In Japan, they call him the Skater with the Heart of Glass.

Mila sniffles.

Victor sobs.

Little Yuri, who has just slunk back in like a cat who refuses to acknowledge it wants to come in from the rain, yells at them both and leaves again. He takes the last of the vodka with him.

Mila chases after him, and Victor carries on alone. Yuuri Katsuki has very little social media presence—a few official accounts, an Instagram he uses mainly to like his rinkmate’s posts.

His rinkmate, on the other hand, is a gift from god. Phichit Chulanont’s Instagram keeps Victor enthralled until well after dawn.

As the sun rises, Victor reaches a level of internet stalking that impresses even himself. All he has to do now is actually talk to the man.

“All you have to do now is skate in the gala,” Yakov tells him. “Have you slept at all?”

“Sleep is for the whole of heart!” Victor says, without moving from where he is still lying on the floor in yesterday’s costume. “Yakov, Yakov, Yakov, what do you know about Yuuri Katsuki?”

“Second-rate,” Yakov says, “although his spins are better than yours. Which you would know if you had listened to me talk about your competition once in the last five years.”

“I don’t care about him as a competitor,” Victor says. “I’m in love.”

“Vitya,” Yakov says with the weary tone of the long-suffering. “This time yesterday you didn’t know who he was.”

“But I wanted to.”

Yakov mutters something which Victor thinks might include the words ‘Plushenko’ and ‘restraining order’ which is not fair at all. That was another Victor, one who had never seen Yuuri Katsuki’s lovely, lovely eyes.

“Victor Dmitriyevich, get off this floor and take a shower! Eat breakfast!”

“How can I eat when my heart is in shatters?”

Yakov yells, Yakov curses, and eventually Yakov threatens to call Lilia.

That is a true act of selfless devotion and all that could move Victor (it has nothing to do with the fact he is still terrified of Lilia).

He obediently gets off the floor, takes a shower, and eats breakfast, all with his head full of Yuuri Katsuki’s skating and Yuuri Katsuki’s pretty, earnest face. He ignores Yakov all through breakfast, spends the whole meal scanning the room to see if Yuuri is here (he isn’t) and doesn’t realise Mila has been carefully topping his eggs with raspberry jam until little Yuri snatches the fork out of his hand and yells at her.

“Idiotic children,” Yakov grunts.

“They’re young,” Victor says, afloat on hope and anxiety and the lingering effects of too much vodka and too little sleep. “Let them enjoy their youth while it lasts. Disappointment comes too soon.” He feels like he understands Georgi for the first time in years.

Yakov smacks him round the back of the head.“You’re more stupid than the pair of them combined. Stop eating that.”

Victor tunes him out again and goes back to looking for Yuuri. He isn’t here. What if he has gone back to Detroit already? What if Victor has driven him into a terrible decline and now he will never skate again and will instead spend the rest of his life living along on the edge of a cold northern sea, cursing the name of Victor Nikiforov to the uncaring skies?

“I still don’t see why I have to skate to stupid ballet music all the time!” Little Yuri says.

“No Junior skater under my charge will take to the ice to that kind of noise!”

“So, I can skate it next year when I beat Victor in the senior final!”

“What makes you think you will even get to the senior final if you don’t learn to respect your elders!”

Victor tunes them out again, as he spots Celestino stride into the room. Surely he wouldn’t still be here if his skater has gone home.

There is yet hope!

Victor goes to the gala, skates terribly until about halfway through his routine when he realises that not only is his phantom probably watching, but that Victor desperately needs to win back his respect.

This programme was getting a little stale anyway. More jumps and spins mean more fun, right?

For some reason, Yakov doesn’t seem to agree.

By the time the banquet rolls around, Victor still hasn’t come up with a plan to court Yuuri. It isn’t until they arrive that he remembers that Chris is Yuuri’s friend.

“Introduce me,” he commands Chris.

“You better had,” Mila advises. “Or he’s going to be unbearable until Worlds.”

Chris looks intrigued. “Okay. Who am I introducing you to?”

“Yuuri,” Victor says. “My phantom.”

He’s never seen Chris speechless before. Then, very slowly, he begins to grin. “Oh, Victor, my friend, this banquet might just be fun after all.”

“Is he here?” Victor asks. His palms are damp, and he’s half afraid he’s going to drop his champagne.

“He’s been here a while,” Chris says. “But Victor, he’s… He hasn’t moved from the champagne table all night. I think he’s a little—”

And that’s when the uproar breaks out in the corner. Victor hears the scandalised whispers, the unmistakable sound of little Yuri yelling, and something about a dance-off, and heads that way as if drawn by a magnet.

 

The rest of the evening is a revelation. Yuuri Katsuki is nothing like Victor’s expectations.

He’s better.

He’s as graceful as he is drunk, his words stumbling between languages as his feet never miss a step. He’s bright and brilliant and shameless. He’s warm arms around Victor’s neck and warm breath slurring words in Victor’s ear and warm eyes that look at Victor as if he is the sun and everything in Yuuri’s world is orbiting him. He’s a man on a pole, a man with a champagne bottle in each hand, and man who pulls Victor straight into his warmth as if he hasn’t even noticed that he has the power to melt the ice around Victor’s heart. He’s break-dancing and tango and paso doble and a waltz.

He’s the most beautiful thing Victor’s ever seen. He’s inspirational.

Yuuri Katsuki inspires Victor, but he is not the only one who looks like they feel alive and overjoyed at a banquet for the first time ever. Everyone’s dancing, from little Yuri to the Canadian and his girlfriend. Cao Bin’s on the pole, Chris has coaxed a retired Olympian into a tango, and even as retribution approaches, in the form of their furious coaches, Mila cries, “I’ll create a distraction!” and spins the female Italian twin out to the end of her arm for a wild, giggling twirl.

Yuuri Katsuki—beautiful Yuuri, laughing Yuuri, Yuuri who has begged, “Victor, be my coach!”—seizes Victor’s hand and they run out into the mild Sochi night.

And Yuuri’s still dancing, and it takes a moment before Victor realises what he’s seeing—his own free skate, translated to solid ground and yet still more heartfelt than Victor’s best attempt. He sinks down on the nearest wall and cries, “Bravo! Encore!” as Yuuri leaps and pirouettes across the grass.

Then others come stumbling outside—Chris and his boyfriend, Mila, the Italian twins, a Japanese girl Victor doesn’t know, all ejected from the banquet and carrying purloined champagne in the crooks of their arms. They cut Yuuri off, but the rest of them keep drinking, passing the bottles from hand to hand as they wander through the night. Victor can never quite piece together the night in his memory later, but he knows there is endless laughter and dancing. At some point they all rise into arabesques on the sea wall, later Chris and Yuuri coil themselves around lamp posts and have to be tugged away. At some point Mila joins hands with the other girls and they all start to sing, and Victor doesn’t understand why Chris falls over with laughter when they all purr out, “And the cold never bothered me anyway.”

They’re on the beach when Yuuri’s legs finally go out from under him and Victor has to catch him before he slides into the sea. Victor hoists him onto his back and Yuuri loops his arms around Victor’s neck and babbles at him in a mixture of languages. The Japanese girl keeps trying to translate and then collapsing into giggles after a handful of words.

“He likes you very much,” she tells Victor solemnly. “Very, very much.”

“And I like him very, very, very much,” Victor declares, enchanted, and joins in the next song.

They’re heading back to the hotel now, Yuuri half-sleep against Victor’s back. The female twin keeps saying, “I never realised Victor was actually fun,” until Yuuri lifts his head and tells her dreamily in English, “Victor is everything.

Victor had enough champagne that he bursts into tears at that.

“Don’t worry,” Mila tells them rest of them heartlessly. “He’s famous for this. Just be glad he’s not naked.”

Yuuri sighs against Victor’s neck and says clearly, “I’d like Victor to be naked.”

Chris falls over again and has to be supported by his boyfriend the rest of the way back. For such a very good skater, he has terrible problems staying upright.

They get Yuuri to his room, have a few moments of panic before they find his key in his pocket, and then Victor lowers him softly against his pillows. Yuuri doesn’t seem willing to let go, but tells Victor earnestly, “Stay close to me.” Then he starts to hum it.

Victor sniffles again, but pulls away gently, kissing Yuuri’s forehead. So lovely.

He makes it out into the hallway before his own legs give way and he slides down the wall as elegantly as he can.

“Are you alright?” Chris asks.

Victor hasn’t slept for two nights. He’s skated three extraordinary programs in three days, landed multiple jumps no one else can, has discovered the love of his life, and consumed countless glasses of champagne. He informs Chris happily, “I have no legs.”

“Not how I’m planning to beat you to gold,” Chris says and offers him a hand. Victor shakes his head and sways forward enough to grab handfuls of Chris’ trousers and blink up at him.

“Chris,” he says solemnly. “Chris. I’m going to marry that man.”

“Are you?” Chris asks, his smile kind. Chris is always so kind.

“Yes, but first—first I am going to sleep. Right here.”

Chris gives up trying to move him. Instead, he brings Victor a pillow and a spare blanket, because he is good and wonderful and yes, very, very kind.

Victor drifts off to sleep on a champagne-laced wave of pure happiness.

 

Little Yuri kicks him awake a few hours later.

“Why are you on the floor?” he demands. “You’re stupid and Yakov is going to scalp you.”

Victor’s still more than a little drunk. He blinks up at little Yuri as the events of the last few days unfold in his mind. Oh, wow.

“I am the happiest man alive,” he tells little Yuri and closes his eyes again.

Little Yuri makes very ugly noises for a while. Then he goes quiet, before poking Victor in the shoulder hard.

Victor opens his eyes.

“What are you going to do now?” Little Yuri demands. He actually looks almost upset.

“I don’t know,” Victor says blissfully. “It’s going to be a surprise.”

Little Yuri scuff his shoes against the carpet, glances from side to side, and then leans in to snarl, “You’d better not fuck this up.”

“Aw, Yura,” Victor coos. “I didn’t know you cared.”

“I don’t! I don’t care what you do. You just need to know that I’m going to beat you both at next year’s final!”

Victor waits until little Yuri is halfway down the corridor before he calls cheerily, “If you do beat me next year, shall I buy you a kitten?”

And Yuri Plisetsky, Junior Grand Prix and World Champion, walks proudly down to breakfast on his bare and blistered feet, simply because he has thrown his shoes at Victor’s head and is too uncompromising to ask for them back.

Victor seriously considers adopting him.

Instead he stumbles to his feet and takes his aching joints to bed. Lying there in the soft light of morning, he considers little Yuri’s question.

Be my coach, Victor, Yuuri had said.

It’s an interesting thought. Maybe Victor has had this all wrong. Maybe he’s not the one who needs to be the hero. Yuuri’s been looking at him for years, after all. Maybe it’s Victor’s turn to look back.

Maybe it’s his turn to make someone else a hero, to lift them up and show the world how beautiful and brilliant they are.

Victor’s not sure how to do that. He’s not sure Yuuri will still want him to, once he’s sober. He does know one thing for certain.

Whatever happens next, it’s going to be amazing.