Yuuri thinks it started at the banquet. He's wrong, of course, but it's not like Victor will ever tell him; and within seconds of his gaze meeting Phichit Chulanont's through the heady smoke of a steaming hotpot in Beijing, he'd understood well enough where they stood.
Weeks later, Phichit will take Victor's hand in full view of Yuuri, turn that irrepressible grin upon his hapless friend and say, hey, let me borrow your fiancé for just one song—
And Victor, a laugh on his lips lighter than any champagne, will catch the fizz sparkling in Phichit's eyes, give himself over to Phichit's lead. He'll let him say in a teasing, playful dance, clear and bright enough for Yuuri on the sidelines: break his heart, and I'll break you, mmmkay?
Step, twirl, and they're a two-sided tango swept up in the swing of the cello, the sweet strum of some Spanish guitar. Someone very literal, apparently, had thought it was appropriate for Barcelona. As Victor tips his head back, he catches sight of the satin trimmings that bleed into gold high along the walls, of Yuuri, profiled in flame-red light as he turns, and Victor feels the ice of his picture-perfect life thawing all over again.
Phichit's hand is warm around his. They peel apart with matching smiles that linger, much to Yuuri's bemusement.
Yuuri thinks it started at the banquet. Victor knows it started before they even met.
"Phichit-kun's going to be at the Cup of China," says Yuuri, dipping a foot into the onsen. He always looks a little startled at the first contact of skin to water, the heat of its embrace and the ripples he makes across the surface of the quiet pool, like he's disturbing the spring and maybe needs to apologise for his presence.
Victor stirs himself from his comfortable position by the rocks, shifts to one side to make room for Yuuri, and looks up at the gentle snow-kissed flush on his face.
I want to touch, thinks Victor, and so he does, reaching out to brush Yuuri's cheek with his bare knuckles. He's prepared, he realises, for Yuuri to tense for a second at his caress; it's only when Yuuri doesn't, when he relaxes, instead, into it, that Victor feels his own held breath washing away in a tender exhale.
"That's good," he says. "You haven't seen each other since you left Detroit."
"Yeah," says Yuuri, smiling. He closes his eyes, leaning back and ducking downwards. "You know, Victor—this might sound lame to you, but—"
Victor waves a hand in the air, flicking water droplets at Yuuri, who squeaks awkwardly. "Yuuri, Yuuri, how many lame sides of you have I seen already?"
Yuuri hugs his knees close to his chest and turns to Victor, earnest. "Well… I know I've been skating for many years, but I think Phichit-kun is still the only other skater I've ever thought of as a friend. And who thinks of me as one, I guess."
It's all Victor can do to restrain his response to a slight eyebrow raise.
"Really," he remarks, and Yuuri nods.
So, too, does Victor, after a moment passes.
"Okay," he says. "I get it."
He lets his voice dip low, then, lets his wandering gaze trace the determined, moonlit set of Yuuri's jaw, the fine tilt of his chin. He thinks he will be endlessly surprised by this, always; tonight, the feeling that bubbles up from within him is one of curiosity, and maybe a little twinge of interest—
Not that Yuuri has a friend to call so dear, but that someone exists at all who, miracle of miracles, has managed to make Yuuri realise how much he matters.
Yuuri's staring at Victor now, a question in his eyes. "Get what?"
Victor shoots him an enigmatic smile. He leans in to sling his arm round Yuuri.
"I can't wait to meet him. You'll have to introduce us properly," he says, and revels in the flustered pink creeping up Yuuri's neck.
Phichit-kun, as it turns out, has an uncanny knack for coincidences, a love for raw, spicy food and wild flavours to rival Victor's own, and a stomach of steel that doesn't seem to care.
"I grew up on street food in Bangkok. This is nothing," he says cheerily, as he accepts Victor's offer of an entire fresh prawn and downs it in one gulp. Yuuri looks on, chagrined.
"You're really missing out, Yuuri—ouch!"
Victor, startled, sets down his chopsticks; Phichit's giving Yuuri a wounded glare across the table, and then it dissolves into pealing laughter and Yuuri joins in.
"Sorry," says Yuuri. "My foot slipped."
"Right into my ankle. Like always."
Yuuri tries, not very hard, to make a credible show of looking apologetic. Victor feels the grin spread across his face, a mirror image of the one now playing round the corners of Phichit's perfectly pouty lips.
"You know me. I'm just that clumsy," Yuuri says, to which Phichit lets out an undignified snort and Victor snickers, at the same time. Their glances shift, meet; Victor ventures a wink disguised as a hint of a smile.
Phichit returns it, and his is tinged with camaraderie.
"You know Yuuri," Phichit echoes, turning to Victor. "Does he play footsie under the table with you so violently?"
"All the time. He's heartless like that," says Victor, appropriately martyred.
They both ignore Yuuri's indignant yelp, and Victor raises his glass of Tsingtao, gives Phichit a silent toast before he takes a drink, deep and satisfied.
Celestino shows up right as Phichit's launching into a story of how Yuuri once lost a hamster, or thought he did; Phichit had looked away for one second to make coffee and turned back to see Yuuri on his hands and knees peering frantically under the sofa and the carpet, and he was sweating so hard, says Phichit, that he could barely keep his glasses on his nose—
"And the whole time," Phichit says in a dramatic whisper, leaning towards Victor, "Arthur had run over to me at the kitchen counter and crawled into my pocket!"
Yuuri slumps in his seat and groans, Celestino bursts out laughing, and Victor, one arm resting casually on Yuuri's shoulder, grins and orders another round for everyone, and two for Phichit.
They exchange numbers that night, although Victor can barely remember doing so. He had been, as Phichit so thoughtfully reminds him the next day via an Instagram hashtag, half-drunk, half-naked, and very preoccupied with an armful of Yuuri.
"I'm going to kill him," Yuuri mumbles when he staggers back from a pre-skate interview, only to catch sight of Victor in the corridor, staring at the photo on his phone.
Through the seedy haze of the hotpot restaurant, Phichit's somehow managed to capture all their good sides, even as Yuuri's dishevelled and Victor's hair is out of place. The red background is spectacularly lush. Yuuri looks seconds away from a thorough ravishing. It's clearly a masterpiece of a photo that should be framed and hung on the walls of Ice Castle Hasetsu. The thought makes Victor smile.
He settles for a low, appreciative whistle and a breezy "Wow."
"Wow," Yuuri repeats flatly.
"What's the problem?" Victor asks, leaning down to brush a kiss to Yuuri's ear. "We look great in this picture. Look how pretty your eyes are!"
"I'm still going to kill him."
"How cold, Yuuri. I thought he was your best friend."
"He is," Yuuri whines, petulantly shoving a bottle of water and his backpack into Victor's hands. He takes off on another nervous jog up and down the corridor, and it's a sign, thinks Victor as he looks at Yuuri's retreating figure, of how much Yuuri likes Phichit that he lets his voice go like that when he talks about him. He's usually so very blasé about everyone else. The thought drifts through Victor's mind like a cloud in Beijing's permanently grey winter sky, a breath of fresh, balmy rain on the foggy horizon.
Phichit is the first skater on the ice today. He'll be with Celestino now at the back, warming up, maybe getting a pep talk, though Victor has a feeling he doesn't really need one. Looking back down at his phone, he double-taps the picture to like it, unlikes it just so he can like it again, and then follows Phichit on Instagram.
He's barely lowered his arm when he feels a vibration in his hand, followed by another. When he looks down at his notifications, he's somehow unsurprised.
phichit+chu started following you.
From: Phichit Chulanont
If there's anyone who can seamlessly juggle warm-ups, SNS and texting at the same time, thinks Victor with an arched eyebrow, it would be Phichit. Impressive, as expected.
glad you liked the picture! hehe, reads Phichit's text, complete with a winking hamster sticker.
Absolutely impeccable, Victor types back, and puts his phone away just in time before Yuuri returns.
They grab one last meal before everyone leaves China. This one comes courtesy of Ji Guang Hong, who turns up his nose at hotpot ("it's for tourists!") and brings them out to try his favourite street food instead.
"You can't get jianbing in a restaurant. Only at stalls like this," he tells them proudly, blushing when he notices Victor paying rapt attention to him. The jianbing seller gives Guang Hong an extra egg and a silent, stoic thumbs up.
Phichit gets his with extra coriander and chilli sauce, and Victor grins when Yuuri, who hates the taste of coriander, takes a bite of it and nearly chokes. Their breaths make little puffs of white in the night air. It's one of those long, lamp-lit evenings which feels like a fairytale. Any minute now, thinks Victor as he tucks his hands into his coat pockets and gazes down the tree-lined pavement, he would not be surprised if a pumpkin came trundling down the road and turned into a snow-white coach.
It is a fairytale unlike any other Victor has been in before, and he is awash, alive, with the newness of it; it is a fairytale where he is not the prince for once, for the prince is undoubtedly Yuuri and Victor is but the fortunate interloper in this world of his.
He watches with fondness as Phichit offers a sheepish apology, buys Yuuri his own jianbing—winner's treat!, he calls it, nimbly dodging a side-swipe from Yuuri—and then whirls around with one for Victor too.
Victor accepts it gratefully, takes a hearty bite and pronounces it vkusno with pleasure, much to Guang Hong's delight. Phichit gathers them all for another selfie before they head back to the hotel.
He uploads the group photo on Instagram, and sends Victor another, for his eyes only: he and Yuuri standing off to one side, silhouetted in the soft glow of a passing bicycle's headlamps. Yuuri's smiling into the distance. Victor is smiling at Yuuri.
sappy!!!! says Phichit, in his accompanying text.
Victor sends him back a series of spinning hearts and air-kiss emojis in response.
The next morning, they part. So it goes: street food in Beijing, another meal, another drink in Barcelona, a whirlwind of skating and pictures and scratches and reflections on ice, fleeting words and hugs in the pockets of time they catch each other, rinkside or in some corridor with cameras at their backs. It isn't easy, Victor knows, to keep up friendships long distance, but perhaps it's because everyone here knows how hard it is that they never expect too much.
Victor doesn't text Phichit for a long while. But when they meet again in the hotel lobby over breakfast, Phichit's face lights up and he barrels into them both with the biggest, brightest hug anyway, and it's like no time has passed at all.
"It's always been like that with him," Yuuri says later, crawling beneath the covers with a huge yawn. "I'm not… not good at being a friend. But he is."
It's a big admission for Yuuri, Victor knows, that he's not good at anything. Victor chalks it up to some combination of nerves and jetlag and rare sentimentality, and lets him sleep, brushing Yuuri's hair off his forehead as he takes the glasses Yuuri hands to him, folds them and puts them gently on the bedside table.
In truth, Victor knows, he is the same:
By all standards of the conventional, he is a terrible friend; he is, as Yakov, Georgi, and a countless host of others have constantly reminded him, capricious and forgetful and self-centred, and he's always laughed it off and returned to the ice just as he is, thrown off everything but enduring beauty. Frozen in time, he could have gone on like this forever. Yuuri had come into his life like a breathtaking collision.
The sky above is streaked with clouds, like wisps of trailing daydreams. Victor wraps his scarf around his bare neck, takes a deep breath of the morning air and makes his aimless way down the promenade.
The warmth he's been given comes in many forms. It takes a patient, tireless kind of sunshine, Victor's realised, to illuminate a glass heart like Yuuri's, beautiful hairline fissures and all.
Chris snaps Yuuri up for the dance after theirs at the banquet, and Phichit straightens his tie, joins Victor by the bar, and casts a meaningful glance at the champagne flute in his hand.
"Hey," he says, nudging Victor with an elbow, "are you saving that for Yuuri?"
Victor laughs and shakes his head. "Only if Yuuri wants it."
"Ahh, I want to see him pole dance again… he was really good at it in Detroit, you know?"
Victor arches an eloquent, inquiring eyebrow at Phichit, and slides another flute of champagne towards him. Phichit picks it up. They clink glasses and take dainty sips.
"He didn't want to go. He was so self-conscious," Phichit continues, with a long-suffering sigh.
"How did you convince him?"
Phichit grins. "I thought it would be fun. But I thought it would be more fun with Yuuri. I told him that. And I was right, it was!"
Victor looks out across the floor. Chris and Yuuri are taking turns leading, and Yuuri's hair is mussed. He's starting to laugh, letting himself go bit by bit in a way that's entirely different from when he's skating. It's a sight to make Victor's heart leap, the two of them like this, and he reaches for his phone to snap a picture. Phichit's already got his out, of course.
"Yuuri looks so happy," he says softly, to the background click, click of his camera.
Victor nods. "Yeah."
Phichit shoots him a look that's clear-eyed, hopeful, and more than anything, honest.
"Tell me something, Victor," he says, in earnest. "You already broke Yuuri's heart, right?"
Victor stares at him. "What do you mean?"
"I mean, you made him cry. I could tell, you know! In China."
"Oh," murmurs Victor, caught in an inconvenient truth. He has no plausible deniability, and he's absolutely certain somehow that well, he made me cry too isn't going to hold any water with someone like Phichit. It doesn't really work like that, anyway; what he has with Yuuri is nothing so tawdry as a tabulation of rights and wrongs for the comparing.
He lets his brief silence and the faint blush on his cheek be his mea culpa, says, lightly, "So, are you going to break me now?"
Phichit leans closer unexpectedly, turns to him with a conspiratorial smile and a finger on his lips.
"I'll let you go this time. I think it was good for him. But don't tell Yuuri, okay?"
Victor smiles back. He sets his champagne flute down on the bar behind him, and reaches out to envelope a surprised Phichit in a sudden hug.
I think you were better for him than you can imagine. But he can’t find the words to say something like that, he never could; and so he holds Phichit close, counts on all that they share and this common language of affection to tell him what little he can convey. It’s a mere fraction of all that’s welling up inside. He dearly hopes it’s enough. He thinks, maybe, it is.
Though he can't see Phichit's face, he feels him softening, beaming in his arms.
In a sparse, modern apartment in St Petersburg, two suitcases side by side in the hallway, Yuuri leans back against the wall and looks down at his phone. He's still wearing his puffy down jacket. Dim dawnlight dances through the cracks beneath the door, through the frosted glass and the shadows.
Victor runs a fingertip over the shelves as he walks in. Dusty.
He hasn't been back for nearly nine months. It's surreal now, to be here with Yuuri; he wonders if this was how Yuuri felt when Victor showed up at his home, and as he turns around, he sees Yuuri smile and look up.
"It's Yurio. He sent me the recipe for katsudon pirozhki. Because you won't get any katsudon for a while, fatso," Yuuri recites, in a hilariously terrible imitation of Yuri Plisetsky that's less angry cat and more slightly ruffled puppy.
"He likes you, you know," says Victor, throwing his windows open just for a breath of air. A familiar wind sweeps in, fresh and pale, beyond, the banks of the Neva are frozen over.
"I know," says Yuuri. There's a soft, steady certainty in his voice that makes Victor smile to himself.
"You finally realised, huh? You have more friends than you think, Yuuri."
"Funny," Yuuri murmurs, as he shuffles off his shoes. "Phichit-kun always said the same thing to me. Although the way he said it was like scolding, sometimes."
"I can say it to you in a scolding way too," Victor offers, magnanimous, and Yuuri shoots him a petulant frown.
"No thanks. The last thing I need is for you and Phichit-kun to gang up on me."
Victor smirks, and Yuuri, after a moment, smiles too.
As he hangs up his jacket and crosses the apartment threshold at last, a tentative, bashful wonderment in his gaze, his footstep, Victor leaves the window to hold out a hand to him.
Yuuri takes it, lacing their fingers together. In the distance, the cry of seagulls welcomes them home.
After they spend shogatsu back at Hasetsu, Phichit invites them to join him at Koh Lanta for a short getaway.
"Since you're in this part of the world anyway, and it's so much nearer than Russia!" he insists over Facetime. He's walking down the crowded, bustling streets of Bangkok in a T-shirt, not a drop of sweat on his face, naturally, though Victor can only imagine how terribly warm it is in the city.
"I burn on the beach," Victor protests. "You know that, Yuuri."
Yuuri grins. So does Phichit, a second later, and Victor groans.
"We'll see you there," says Yuuri to Phichit, who pumps the air with a fist and goes yeah!
Victor flops back on Yuuri's bed, resigned to his fate.
"Makkachin," he whines, "you're the only one who's truly on my side."
Makkachin lets out a bark in commiseration, curls up on the floor and nuzzles Yuuri's feet.
They go, of course. It was never really a question, and even Victor has to admit there's something kind of refreshing about a change of scenery.
"Did you love Yuuri?" Victor asks on a lazy Sunday afternoon, and with a smile like a tropical sunrise, Phichit leans back in his deckchair. Cocktail in hand, he reaches for the yellow paper umbrella bobbing gaily at the rim of the glass and gives it a little stir, a little twirl.
"Of course," he says, easily. "Who wouldn't love Yuuri?"
There's a long pause then, as Phichit takes a sip of his drink, and Victor contemplates the simple truth of that statement. It's not an uneasy silence, by any means; punctuated by the occasional splashes of Yuuri's float drifting on the waves and jangly 90's pop ringing out from someone's old radio, Victor thinks he could sit here like this for the rest of the day.
He does not ask Phichit if he still loves Yuuri. It isn't really necessary, not to mention decidedly rude to all parties involved.
"Who wouldn't, indeed," he murmurs instead, an echo that floats away on the salt-sea breeze. Whether it is for himself or Phichit's ears, he doesn't quite know. Perhaps it doesn't matter.
Phichit lets out a long, contented sigh.
"Victor," he says, "I'm glad we're friends."
Victor looks up into the blue sky.
He feels the hours, the rest of the day, stretch out languidly and unhurriedly before them like the ebb and flow of the tide; time rarely affords him the luxury of being philosophical, and he's learned to take it when he can. He's been around long enough to know that this, too, shall pass, and they will go their own ways and meet again—by the rink, on the smog-soaked street corner of another city, another roadside stall selling new and exciting snacks—
But there is warmth, and it is generous and constant, and maybe a part of it is his to keep now.
Gazing out at the fading ripples on the shore, Victor reaches for his own drink, and extends his too-pale legs out into the welcoming sunlight. There's still sand caught between his toes. It tickles pleasantly, reminds him of where he is now, here, the ever-shifting ground beneath his feet.
"Me too," he says to Phichit, and smiles.