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Impostor Syndrome

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Twenty-four is too old to sleep with stuffed animals, and it’s too old for posters on the walls. Yuuri left all of his stuffed animals in Japan, but he brought his posters. The career highlights of Viktor Nikiforov plaster every inch of space from the door to the headboard of his bed, pausing only to make way for the window and the view out onto the busy street in the centre of Detroit below.

Fall’s just beginning, and it already feels like it’s getting darker earlier. Yuuri sits in the gloom with only his lamp casting clinical white light over his desk. They can’t afford another electricity bill like last month’s. Phichit’s scholarship money is barely enough to cover the rent, and Yuuri can’t work full-time. Not if he wants to make it big again.

There’s a knock at the bedroom door. “You can come in,” Yuuri says.

Phichit pushes the door open, letting in a sliver of light. “Drinks?”

“Ah, you go on without me,” Yuuri says. “I’m working on that one bit in my choreo.”

“Such a boring flatmate.” Phichit sighs; Yuuri doesn’t notice he’s approached until he’s draped over the back of Yuuri’s chair. “Aren’t you looking for a job anymore?”

“I am. I mean. It’s complicated.”

“Your choreo can wait,” Phichit says. “Come on. Let’s get drunk. Leo’s in town.”

“Say hi to him for me,” Yuuri says, not looking up from his notebook.

“Boring! So boring!”

Phichit is right, but Yuuri is too tired to argue. He spent all of yesterday ringing up software and design firms to get turned down verbally instead of over email, and not thinking about his choreo, and Celestino wants progress by tomorrow, progress Yuuri can’t show him, essentially, because he’s a complete and utter failure of a human being.

“I’ll come out some other time,” Yuuri promises him.

Actually, part of him hates hanging out with Phichit and Leo and their friends, because they’re all students, all some years younger than Yuuri. They still care about exams and assignment deadlines. But more than that—they’ve never fucked up, not on the grand scale that Yuuri has.

Once Phichit’s gone, Yuuri pushes his notebook away and twirls his pen for a few seconds. He gives it too much spin in his flick, and it rockets straight into the bulb of his lamp. The light goes out with a pop.

He sits in darkness for two minutes, maybe three. Maybe ten. Then he puts on the overhead light, muttering, “Sorry Phichit.”

The light switch is next to the door. Yuuri stands with his back to the wood and watches as the space comes to life. His posters of Viktor—all seventeen of them—shine in glorious relief, showing off all the folds and curves from their journey in his suitcase. He didn’t even take the photo of Vicchan from the shrine, couldn’t bring himself to disturb the tableau. Just the posters. Looking at them like this, he notices for the first time that Viktor is looking straight at the camera in all of them, all but one. That one has always been Yuuri’s favourite. Viktor’s glance is off to the side like something’s caught his attention rinkside, maybe someone calling out his name. His hair is short, so it’s a later photo. Distracted.

“What would you do?” he asks all seventeen Viktors. “Would you put a jump there, or stick to the step sequence? Do you think I should quit again?”

Apart from the fact that Viktor is seventeen posters and all the way in Moscow, there’s no way he’d know the answer to that last one.

“Of course I should,” Yuuri says. “You did.”

There’s no malice in his words, though he wishes there could be. Viktor is twenty-eight. Twenty-nine this Christmas. It makes sense for a skater his age to retire. Yuuri wishes it could’ve been different. Wishes he could get angry about it. It’s selfish of him. He has no way of knowing what Viktor was thinking. He wishes, more than anything, that he could’ve skated against Viktor as his equal. Just once.

Instead, he’s stuck with a half-finished choreo and a room full of posters of his idol.

The rink is quiet so early in the morning, especially now that Phichit’s fans have stopped crowding for autographs. Yuuri doesn’t miss that—it only served as a reminder of all that his best friend has achieved, and all that he’ll never achieve. Phichit is the reigning Grand Prix champion, and everyone at the rink parts for him as they make their way to the changing rooms. Yuuri follows through the path he’s cleaved.

“You’re early,” Celestino says. “I take it this means you have choreography to show me?”

Yuuri lets out a weak laugh. “Not really. I’m still having trouble with that same part.”

Celestino sighs. “That’s alright. You’ve got time to work on it—but then you won’t have time to rehearse it. You know the drill.”

“I know,” Yuuri says.

Sometimes, his ambition gets the best of him. He tells himself it’s Phichit’s bad influence. Living with a star is like being caught in orbit by a gravitational force beyond your control, and Phichit’s charisma and flair for social media makes Yuuri jealous. At least he can admit to that. He can admit to wanting to be there too.

He just can’t do anything about it.

“Maybe it’ll come easier when you’re out on the ice,” Celestino says. “Go on.”

Yuuri has been focusing more on step sequences than jumps, Minako’s tutelage in ballet following him here to America. Now, he skates in circles until he’s warmed up, and practices his toe loops. The rink fills up; he pushes his earphones further in and closes his eyes, letting the music consume him and hold his concentration.

That’s his strength, if nothing else: he understands the rhythm and cadence of a song, tunes his steps to a lyrical metre. His mp3 player is full of piano pieces, minuets and sarabandes and Liede ohne Worte, and some orchestral works, some chamber music. He had thought about studying music, maybe majoring in composition, but it would have rendered him even less employable than his career in figure skating has, so in the end he went for something practical. Although you wouldn’t know it for all the job offers he’s been raking in since he moved back to Detroit, a grand total of zero. So he does all he can—he skates.

He’s pulled out of his reverie by Phichit’s hand on his shoulder. “Come on, Yuuri, you can’t skip lunch.”

Watch me, whispers some absurd voice at the back of Yuuri’s mind; he blinks, and the voice shuts up. He slips out one of his earbuds. “I know. Don’t worry; I’m coming.”

“Good,” Phichit says. “You’ve been blanking Leo all morning. It’s the least you can do to—”

“Huh, Leo’s still here?”

“Don’t be daft,” Phichit says. He swats the second bud out of Yuuri’s ear. “Have you been paying attention to anything lately? He’s here for the whole week until New York.”

“New York,” Yuuri says. There’s something he’s forgetting. “Um, yeah.”

Phichit takes him by the hand. “Well, come on then.”

Yuuri gives in and glides along behind Phichit. Leo’s waiting for them at the edge of the rink, and he greets Yuuri with a hug.

“It’s been a while,” he says. “How’s your preparation for this season going?”

“Great,” Yuuri lies. “You’ll have to watch out for me.”

“I won’t lose,” Leo says.

“You’ll both lose to me,” Phichit says, slinging his arms around their shoulders and pulling them close to him—and down, because he’s that little bit shorter. “Come on. I’m starving.”

They head to the rinkside cafeteria, the cheapest and quietest option. The tables are white plastic and the chairs match, legs rickety and uneven. It’s comforting in its decrepitude. Yuuri happily lets the scenery subsume him. Phichit and Leo make easy conversation, and Yuuri convinces himself that it isn’t dissociating if he’s haunted by the vivid mental image of the slits in the seat of his chair swallowing him whole.

It hasn’t been this bad for a while. The worst part is there’s really nothing specific that could’ve brought it on, but a stream of little things piling up like steady snowfall that blocks the door from turning on its hinges. He needs to snap out of it, and fast, if he’s going to get anywhere.

“I’m hoping for Cup of China again,” Leo’s saying. “I miss hanging out with Guang-Hong, y’know? But I guess it might be interesting to see Russia.”

“I want to do Rostelecom too,” Phichit says. “What about you, Yuuri?”

“Oh, uh,” he says eloquently, “I guess I’d like to do NHK? It’s close to home. I’d like to be able to visit my family while I’m there.”

“I get you,” Phichit says, nodding. “Do you think there’ll be anyone in New York who knows?”

“Knows what?” Yuuri asks.

Phichit reaches across the table and flicks his forehead. “Our semifinal allocations. I know it’s early, but—”

“You’re forgetting I haven’t even qualified yet,” Yuuri says.

Even he forgets sometimes—he’s unseeded now, so there’s no guarantee that he’ll be chosen as one of Japan’s representatives. First, he has to go back home and skate in a qualifier competition, where he’ll be up against all the top Japanese skaters. Again. He went through this same anxiety years ago when he started going professional, before he stopped worrying whether he’d make it. Then, he’d stood on the ice knowing that the further he went, the closer he was to competing on the same stage as Viktor Nikiforov. Now, that’s not even there to entice him.

Commemorative photo? Sure.”

Those were Viktor’s first words to him. Not you did well or you’ll do better. That was a year ago. Yuuri wishes he’d learnt not to worship false idols over all this time he’s had to wallow.

Now, Phichit and Leo are giving him apologetic looks, which may well be worse.

“You’ll find out soon enough,” Leo says. “Anyway, everyone knows you’re the best skater in Japan. You’ve just got to get back up there.”

“I hope that’s the case,” Yuuri says.

It’s not unheard of for skaters to skip a season, but it’s not common either. That only serves to motivate Yuuri. He’ll come back stronger than he was before. Viktor Nikiforov kept skating until soon after he turned twenty-eight, so Yuuri’s got at least four more years in him. He wants to be the best again, prove himself to everyone who’s ever doubted him. But more than that, he wants to prove himself to himself, that he’s earnt this, worked for it with everything he has, and that he deserves to be the top male figure skater in Japan, maybe even in the world.

That’s the thing about impostor syndrome—the better you are, the more you notice your flaws. And the more you notice your flaws, the less likely you are to think you belong at the top of your game, where everyone else sees you.

Leo follows them home that night with two six-packs of beer and a bag of Doritos. They don’t have a TV, although they’re saving up for one, so they settle for watching old figure skating videos on the internet and assigning their own scores for nonsense like how sparkly someone’s costume is, or how many landings they botch. Phichit is a lightweight and it doesn’t take him long to get loud and garbled. Yuuri is also a lightweight, so he avoids drinking altogether.

“Hey,” Phichit says, “related videos: Viktor Nikiforov lands his first quad flip in competition.”

Before Yuuri can suggest that maybe it’s time they did something else, Leo’s leaning over him to click on the thumbnail.

It’s a performance Yuuri’s seen many times, on nights alone in his bedroom with his earbuds in tight to block out the raucous guests outside. He’s memorised every step of this routine, mesmerised by the way Viktor’s long hair arcs behind him, and he remembers waking up early to practice it at the Ice Castle. Although he hasn’t ever been able to land the quad flip, he can recover from whatever he’s managed instead in time to the music in his head. If he were to stop to analyse it, he might question why he puts more effort into mimicking Viktor’s programmes than perfecting his own. But thinking too hard about anything has never gone well for Yuuri. It’s when he goes with the flow—that’s when things start to go right.

“I can see why you’re obsessed with him, Yuuri,” Phichit says.

“What?” Leo, three beers in, elbows Yuuri a little too enthusiastically. “You’re really obsessed with Nikiforov?”

Yuuri tips his head backwards, staring at the ceiling like it might answer the question for him. “I’ve looked up to him since I was a kid,” he says. “I wouldn’t call it an obsession.”

“You should see his posters,” Phichit says.

Leo laughs awkwardly. “Posters?”

“I don’t think there’s anything wrong with being inspired by another skater,” Yuuri says, flopping down to lie on the floor. This way, he doesn’t have to look at the video. “It’s not like I’m trying to be him.”

“Still.” Leo pauses, and Yuuri can hear him scratching the back of his head. “It must be tough to think that you’ll never get another chance to compete against him.”

“It is,” Yuuri says. It’s not worth lying about it.

“Hey, hey, he’s modelling now, right?” Phichit interjects.

Yuuri recognises it as an attempt to lighten the tone. “That’s right,” he says, sitting up again. “Gucci menswear S/S ‘14 was his latest.”

“Obsessed,” Phichit says.

“Imagine being so famous that you could step out of one career and right into another,” Leo says, as Phichit types “nikiforov gucci ss 14” into a new tab.

“I don’t think any of us really have back-up careers,” Yuuri says. “It’s hard to focus on the future when we’re so wrapped up in the present.”

“Deep,” Leo says. “You should make that your theme this season. The present and the future.”

Yuuri is grateful he doesn’t mention the past—the less he’s prompted to think about the past, the better. “That’s a good idea. I’ll keep it in mind.”

“You have to tell everyone it was my idea, though,” Leo says, poking a finger into Yuuri’s arm.

“There’s plenty of time to think about that,” Phichit says, scrolling through a tiled image search which is picture after picture of Viktor Nikiforov posing lithely in haute couture. “For now, we should talk about what we’re going to wear in New York—Leo, do you think I’d look good in one of these floral suits?”

“I don’t think anyone looks good in these clothes but models,” Leo says.

Yuuri takes it as his cue to fade into the background. He lets them talk about New York without him, planning their hotel room and their transport and their suits—it’s got nothing to do with him. He slinks off to his room and shuts the door gently.

“Hey,” he says to the poster where Viktor isn’t looking at the camera, “I think it’s time for me to step out of your shadow.”

“The choreo’s coming along nicely,” Celestino says. “Yuuri, with this, I’m certain you’ll be selected for the Grand Prix series. They can’t ignore your history, either.”

“Thank you,” Yuuri says. “I hope that’s the case.”

Celestino ignores his pessimism. “And you, Phichit—keep up the good work. We may yet get another GPF gold under your belt.”

When Celestino turns his back, Phichit sticks his tongue out at Yuuri. And then, “Celestino, wait—I have a question.”

“Fire away,” Celestino says.

“I’ve been thinking about the gala dinner in New York,” Phichit says. “I know the invitation came through you. Was there anything about bringing plus-ones?”

“All invited guests can bring plus-ones,” Celestino says, “but I didn’t mention it because I know you don’t have time for a girlfriend.”

Phichit laughs. “Well, that much is true. But, I was thinking… I would like to bring Yuuri along.”

“Huh.” Celestino purses his lips in contemplation. “That mightn’t be such a bad idea. In preparation for his second debut, you can reintroduce him to some of the big names.”

“Isn’t a second debut called a comeback?” Yuuri asks. His thoughts are messy with confusion, trying to remember exactly what the gala dinner in New York is for, and why Phichit was invited but he wasn’t.

“Don’t get smart with me,” Celestino says, not with rancour. “Yuuri. Do you want to go?”

“It’s all the top skaters in America, plus all the internationals like us who’re training here, and then some,” Phichit says, like he can read Yuuri’s boggled mind. “It’s a good opportunity for you to show yourself off. Hell, I’ll show you off—I’m the star guest, after all. I can re-establish your career before it’s even begun.”

When he puts it that way, it does seem appealing. A fresh start. Not a comeback—a second debut, a brand new Yuuri Katsuki.

“Alright,” he says. “I’ll come with you.”

And he’ll leave the past behind. For good.