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With Fire in Their Eyes

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1. August 2013

Detroit, Michigan is over two thousand miles away from the Pacific coast, and cell phones are forbidden during training. It doesn't stop Phichit from sneaking his out during breaks.

That's how they learn -- sweaty, muscles burning nicely with relentless use, still chuckling at Kareem's jokes -- that San Francisco was just razed to the ground.

"Some viral ad for a new movie," Celestino says with a snort as the giant monster surges again, and confiscates the phone, leaving them all blinking and nonplussed. "Now get your heads back into training, there's only two months before Skate America left."

Yuuri stretches his legs, one heel against the bar at the edge of the rink and lowering himself until he is almost sitting on his other skate. He's not as tired as some -- it's one thing he trusts himself on -- but his flexibility, while... while okayish, could be better. Much better. He's not sure he's feeling ready for Skate America. Maybe if he stays another hour tonight, after the other guys have gone.

The clip looked so realistic. It's crazy what they do with computers nowadays.

--

He lands butterfly-light in a swirl of hair and glittering gauze, and the ceiling crashes to the rink all around him.

His ears are ringing with heartbeats, his efforts, the cries of the crowd. The rink wobbles under him -- must have landed a bit wrong but he can work through it. Only there are things strewn all over the ice; people usually know to wait until the end to throw roses and tokens and --

Not applause. Screams. The light is wrong because a fourth of the ceiling projectors are missing. The sky is dark. No stars.

Something gleams behind the broken sky. And moves. Something he can't -- won't -- something.

Something that's looking at him.

He takes off like a shot and the air whistles behind him; the rink jumps and he jumps with the vibration, over the shockwave and over the rubble. He lands and veers left, sharp corner-turn, to the exit tunnels where Yakov is screaming. Something flashes falling-dark in the corner of his eye; he pirouettes out of the way -- races, races the thing, races the wrong-wrong-wrong tilt of the ice, side-vaults over the barrier, and rolls so hard his bones rattle on impact with the far wall. His air is gone from his lungs and his shoulder is all dull heat but his mind is sharp and so is his body and he has moved with worse -- with strains and fevers and broken bones and this doesn't even rate.

Forward roll, one-knee stop; the bare skates are a pain on the rubber flooring. Yakov comes running at him and he runs awkward and clanging to meet him at the corridor -- blade protectors in hand, held out. He snatches them gratefully as Yakov's hand presses to his back, herding him after the running -- screaming -- crowd, Michele, Christophe, Séverin, Georgi.

He's hopping bent over to put a blade cover on when the corridor floor jumps and he smacks his knees -- smacks his back, his -- huh.

He's face down on the floor. It's dark. Something heavy on his back. He squirms free, dragging himself on his elbows, turns to look back even though it's still too dark to see.

"Yakov? Yakov!"

He already can't hear the stampede of skaters and coaches and judges any longer, but he can't really hear anyway, it's all been muffled-odd since the crash. Maybe he's just not hearing Yakov calling back. No need to panic. No need.

He feels along the ground; finds a hand, rough, square, familiar. Warm. Oh. Thank god. He thought they'd lost each other in the chaos. (He thought --)

It takes him a long while before he admits to himself that the only reason it didn't cool down faster was that he was holding onto it.

--------

2. March 2015

Yuuri has Viktor Nikiforov's last performance downloaded on his computer, saved down a warren of obscurely named folders where he can't run into it by accident. (It's farther down than his porn by about five levels.)

He has only watched it twice. It's gorgeous until the end, where it becomes... He's not sure what it becomes.

Even the first time, he knew beforehand that Nikiforov had survived. But watching boulders of concrete crash right and left of the man and not on him by pure dumb luck is almost nothing to watching him somehow dodge a blur that plants itself in the rink, and stills just long enough for the watcher to recognize an animal's lizard-scaled paw, big as an entire whale.

Usually Viktor always makes everything he does on the ice look effortless but Yuuri can see the hunted-animal strain in his escape, the thundering life-or-death crackle of his every nerve.

The cameras only catch the very edge of the tunnel Viktor just went into crumbling down. Yuuri closes his eyes and tries to stop visualizing being trapped in a landslide, in debris that some kind of unimaginable monster is trampling stubbornly.

He watched it first on TV, on the news, and had to leave the room and hyperventilate for a while; after Viktor -- translucent-white where he wasn't bruise-dark, arm in a sling, ankle in a cast -- gave his post-hospital interview, he went and downloaded it, and watched it again.

It's been two years of trying and failing to organize competitions decried as frivolous in rinks destroyed by attacks or taken over for refugees by the military, fighting to keep a routine even while another attack happens, or a mass panic, or an epidemic, fighting to keep skating. It wasn't a surprise to hear that Viktor was leaving competitive skating after all. It wasn't. Yuuri is still torn between immense, retroactively-frightened compassion and the heart-dropping, sick sadness of realizing you have been abandoned.

Which is ridiculous. They don't even know each other.

He can't fault Viktor for not finding the heart to come back to the ice. Most days he wakes up and wonders whose ego he's flattering, dedicating so much time and effort to something as utterly pointless as twirling prettily on his toes when hundreds of thousands of people are out there fighting radiation-fueled cancer, losing their whole hometowns, getting eaten. He tells himself that in this kaijuu world people still need beauty, still need distractions, normalcy. They would go mad. But even that benevolent lie he fails at upholding, losing his competitions and losing and losing.

He has lost his heart, too. It's pitiful that it took so little. He didn't even have the decency of getting traumatized first.

--

"No, no no no, this is fantastic! Please tell me everything."

The young woman watches him sideways over her coffee cup and her haphazard mounds of paperwork. Viktor grins wider, bats his eyelashes -- her pretty-but-sad face sours. Whoops.

"I'm not flirting," he assures her, sober for a second. "I just -- you are talking about touching other people's minds to pilot giant fighting robots."

"I know it sounds ridiculous," Doctor Caitlin Something He Forgot says, harassed and white around the lips. "But it's not. It could work, and it's not going to work if I keep getting interrupted when I'm trying to think."

"You're not trying to think," Viktor opposes gently. "You're trying to figure out a way out of your thinking rut, which isn't working because otherwise there is no way you would have come to a noisy coffee shop with classified research and told a random person it was what you were doing." She reminds him of Yuri, the pale blond of their hair and the stubborn tilt to their mouth and the burning eyes, the underfed bones showing through their skin. God he misses that kid. "You're probably stubbornly getting stuck on an idea that is not working but should work, and you don't know why -- and naturally that means you should think about the problem areas more, but it's so obvious it should work, which..." He waves a hand in an endless circle.

Doctor Caitlin is trying to burn a hole through his face to his brain with nothing but her eyes. Viktor smiles some more, knowing his face is impenetrable; he's heard the reporters complain enough.

And then drops it, because there is no avenue to beating the kaijuu so ridiculous that he won't at least hear it out once.

"Touching another person's mind -- I would like to find out how it feels, I think. Do you even know the other person is here, is there a discussion, or do you just both operate together without even noticing, like your body is now merely bigger?"

"... That's something I'll know once I'm allowed to run the tests I want," Doctor Caitlin says with a sigh, and her shoulders sag briefly. "Or..."

She hesitates. Viktor dimples.

"Or once you find someone you want to sneak extracurricular lab time with," he says, because there is no way she isn't thinking it. He's thinking it, and he has known about the possibility for all of three minutes. She looks like a mouse at first glance, but the fire in her, the audacity necessary for that type of out-of-the-box thinking -- he knows that kind of fire always smolders through.

"I'm not doing it with you," she counters, and Viktor snorts.

"Of course not, we barely know each other." He waves his hand dismissively. "Also it would be hard to sneak me on base, though we could probably bluster through if I mention I'm thinking of sending funding your way..."

"... All right, I'll talk at you until something falls out or you fall asleep. Are you sure you're not a spy?" she asks a last time, and he laughs into his coffee cup and whips out his phone to show her his wikipedia page.

------

3. February-May 2016

There is snow piled waist-high in the streets and people dancing in it. The family inn has never seen so many guests crammed before the big TV, chanting, crying, kissing neighbors on the face.

Yuuri spends the night running to and from the kitchens, pouring drinks to anyone who asks and getting his back slapped into shape. There's a grin on his face but he's not --

"To Puma Real!" someone calls out as another channel shows some other angle on the news clip. "To Puma Real!" the whole room calls back. "Kanpai!" And they all to a man gulp it down.

Mikoto-san from the grocery shop shoves a cup in his hand. "You musht drink too! You musht -- must. Celebrate. With us. Mark Two, Yuuri-kun!"

Even her wrinkles look delirious. Trying to dance right off her face. "If you're telling me to... Bottoms up!" Yuuri says, putting on a grin, and downs the flute. It's not champagne but sake; it burns up his nose. He laughs, more nerves than amusement, and frees himself with an apology, pointing at his still half-full platter of drinks and appetizers.

"They're winding down," Mari tells him as he squirms free of the room. "Get out already. You're about to blow an aneurysm."

"I'm not leaving the rest of you alone now," he protests, but his father chuckles and waves him off.

"There, there, son, it's a great time to start bringing them down, or they'll start wandering into the other rooms and being sick here and there. We're almost out of alcohol, at any rate. Go make sure the hot springs are locked up and no one can get lost and drown, will you? And then you should go take a walk outside and cool down a little."

"But," Yuuri protests. Mari takes the platter out of his hand.

"You get clean-up tomorrow morning," she says. "Six sharp. Someone has to, and I intend to sleep in. Shoo!"

Well. It's more fair like that. Giving in, Yuuri slips out through the less used corridor, and goes to make sure the hot springs are empty.

It's not that he didn't... feel happy. Of course he feels happy -- the Jaeger program works, the Mark IIs work, they completely ruined that kaijuu. It was... grandiose. Humbling. He feels so relieved he could float off with the sudden lack of pressure, like he has a balloon for a head.

The partying makes him anxious, though -- it's too frantic, too... Too much. Desperate. Frenetic.

The cold outside feels good on his burning cheeks, slows down the pulse fluttering in his throat. There are a few people here and there plowing through thigh-high snow, yelling into the night, but they're mostly not alone, not at risk of falling dead drunk and freezing before morning. He keeps walking in the dark and the blanketing snow, trying to shed the wild energy of the earlier room.

There are people by Hasetsu Castle, partying on the square, and it's probably the most traffic the poor castle has seen in two years. Yuuri exchanges greetings from afar, doesn't stop. The town looks beautiful from here -- like it hasn't changed, like its magic still attracts tourists in droves...

Like half the shops aren't closed and the rest teetering at the edge of bankruptcy. Maybe people will come back once the kaijuu are gone for good and their coasts are safe once more -- but the town had been in decline for a while even before that.

There's no one at the ice rink -- it's approaching two AM and Yuuko has long since gone to bed, if she isn't still fighting to corral her girls, dancing over the curbstomping death of Reckoner.

He has keys, though, and the code for the alarm. Yuuko slipped them to him when she told him the owners in Tokyo cut her hours and fired the custodian and it's probably closing soon, and she and her husband were thinking of moving away from the sea, at any rate -- for the girls' safety -- so it wouldn't matter if she was fired for this.

It aches, using them. It's the first time he has dared.

It's the first time he needs the soothing control of the ice so much he can't wait for her shift.

He skates circles, and then figure-eights, and then bits and pieces of his failed programs, tying them together in nonsensical loops, and then bits and pieces of programs he has seen and loved.

It's not really a surprise when he regresses to the first Nikiforov routine he ever practiced with Yuuko, back when they were enamored kids staring at their TVs -- or when he flows into the next, and the one after that, taking the parts he loved the most out of each and stitching them together like a Viktor Nikiforov Through The Ages display.

For a brief, endless moment when he has run out of moves to copy he keeps moving anyway, taking flight and spinning -- spinning, reversing his rotation and taking flight again, thighs shaking, sweat flying right off him, and he fancies that if Viktor had kept skating he would have come up with something very much like that.

--

It's only the third time he gets to visit the Los Angeles Shatterdome in person, but the techs and the pilots on standby wave at him in the corridors anyway.

"Hey, Nikiforov, nice show yesterday," the biggest of the Kaidonovskis tells him, lumbering by, and the smallest smirks all red-lipped and toothy. Viktor grins back and regrets he can't ditch his current hanger-ons to go wandering after them. The place is grimy and dusty and bustling with life, flaking paint or not; he hasn't yet met anyone in its walls -- from the marshal in charge down to the lowest bolt-sorting wrench monkeys -- who doesn't burn with holy fire and spite.

"You look on good terms with the locals," one of the politicians he charmed into visiting says oozingly, and the other one snorts and says, "they had better be, after all that money he's been swindling in for them." Viktor paparazzi-smiles, mouth closed.

Old, stooped Marshal Kaine isn't supposed to speak Russian, but he sneaks Viktor a side-look anyway like he doesn't need a translation to know he ought to be rolling his eyes.

Viktor's good at talking to the press, and it turns out he's even better at talk shows. Most of the base won't have wasted their evening on him and other B-list celebrities trying to sweet-talk people into handing over their loose change with stock footage and sob stories -- but the hard numbers at the end were probably of some interest to them all.

"And here is the variant prototypes hangar," the Marshal says in English. Simpery obligingly oohs and ahhs and then asks what the heck it's for; Sneery frowns.

"Why are you bothering to waste money and time on trying to build in several directions when you still need to produce more normal ones? Those work fine."

"Because," Marshal Kaine says, very patiently, "the kaijuu are evolving as well. If they keep showing us more variety we will need to meet them where they are and specialize as well."

"Specialization is for insects! Just keep on making the generalist models better and switch in tools and weapons as needed, it's insane how much a single frame even costs. This is unconscionable."

Viktor says nothing as he wanders to the side to peer at Jaegers in all stages of the construction process -- rotund ones and four-legged ones and a winged one even, and one covered in blades along the arms. Most are still over eighty percent girder skeletons but all the conn pods are already installed.

"How goes wrangling the suit monkeys?" a mechanic asks him from the corner of her mouth. He thinks her name's Marcia.

Viktor grins at her, bright and meaningless. "You wouldn't happen to need to test a rocket launcher or anything, would you?"

It's not like he's alone with Sneery and Simpery, but the rest of the hangers-on are not much help, mostly gushing in the direction of the last one who spoke.

"Haha, that bad, huh. Think they'd shut up if we took them up in a work lift?"

"If you dropped them, maybe..." He hums. "Very tempting. I'll ask."

He doesn't need to ask; Marshal Kaine offers on his own. Only Simpery and his secretary take the marshal up on it, cramming themselves in with Viktor and Marcia as an impromptu lift operator.

Viktor holds onto the safety bar with both hands -- and for a long weightless moment, as the platform rises under his feet and his stomach catches up, he wants to lift a leg en pointe and do a bunny hop. He laughs under his breath, staring out at the cavernous hangar. The sheer size of the room is staggering, and he knows this is one of the smaller hangars. And...

"This one is really thin, isn't it," he says, pointing.

"Yes, and look at all the balls and bearings on the frame," the mechanic woman says, pointing at the appropriate places. "Most of the other girls are built for toughness first, but this one, we're trying for speed and flexibility. It wouldn't have enough mass for a knock-out punch, which is bad, but we wanted to see if a dance of blades approach would also work."

"Potentially it could work a lot faster," the marshal says, "if she can slice through the spine straight away."

"Oh! Hm," Simpery says, looking interested. Viktor is still thinking about the dance of blades, trying to visualize the Jaeger with a sword in each hand, whirling.

"Of course they'd have to be red-hot to cauterize along the way and not spill a ton of kaijuu Blue," the mechanic goes, eyes alight with passion, "and that's still a bit of a technical problem because it warps the metal after use, but... The biggest problem is still that we don't really have pilots in the pool to even test her right. She's not as stable as the others, and at this height, lugging this much mass, the smallest balance problem will turn into a fall real quick. We'd probably need tightrope walkers."

"Hah!" Simpery says like he just came up with the smartest joke in the world. "How about it, mister Nikiforov? That'd be another thing from glad-handing on TV."

"Oh, you're right, glad-handing is so very pointless," Viktor says to the politician on campaign, with a long look between his eyelashes. The secretary coughs and suddenly finds a pressing need to look at his papers.

"Well, we'd be glad to have you," Marshal Kaine tells him, a tad gruffly. Viktor ducks his head, gives a polite chuckle. "Just have to find you a copilot first, unless you already have someone in mind."

...Oh. He's serious.

On the copilot front, though -- that would be a no. He doesn't -- there's no one he's close enough to he would want them in his head, no one who understands him well enough for that kind of synergy. When he tried pair-skating as a teenager -- all of one week -- he kept getting frustrated with his partner's inability to keep up, and kept... running into them, off timing, discordant emotional displays, it never...

He's been projecting a persona for the whole world since he started competing. No one has ever known him in any kind of depth apart from Yakov, and Yakov loved him in spite of all the clashes that Viktor gleefully or carelessly provoked -- and while he understood that Viktor was a chaotic typhon of a person, that didn't mean he could guess which way Viktor would jump more than half the time. And if not even him, then who?

"You could test for compatibility with strangers, too, it works sometimes," the marshal says, voice quieter, as Marcia starts the platform on the way back down.

"Heh. Alas, I know nothing about any kind of self-defense discipline." He got to watch a spar once. He could see them clicking. It looked choreographed months in advance.

"It works with video games!" Marcia retorts. "With ping-pong. Anything you can do with someone, you can sync a Drift on."

Viktor chuckles politely; and when the platform is close enough to the ground he swings over it, showily, and is glad that he can't see the blade-dancer Jaeger from down here.

He doesn't get home until three AM, weary and annoyed, feet sore, feeling pointless.

When he recharges it, his phone has a couple messages on it.

*~chris~*

Subject: Hey, cruel ;3

See, not everyone has forgotten you!
http://www.youtube...
(ps nice talk show but seriously what were those shoes.)

It's not obvious why he's watching security footage of an ice rink at night until about five minutes in.

(He doesn't go to bed until sunrise.)

------

4. May 2016

"Pilot a Jaeger with me," the impossibility says. Yuuri blinks, takes off his glasses with both hands, looks at them. Starts cleaning his lenses, but his hands shake, because as much as he'd love to pretend he's dreaming, he knows he's not -- he knows the voice.

It's just not coming from someone he ever expected to see sitting in the locker room at the Ice Castle, his tiny, half-abandoned, some-backwater-corner-of-Japan rink.

Viktor Nikiforov keeps existing on the bench, hands pressed to the edge, legs crossed underneath, leaning toward him. His head is a little tilted and his eye peeks out from between long bangs, a winter-sky blue. Despite all his time abroad Yuuri never quite got used to blue irises and his are especially ... contrasty.

"I. Pardon?"

Wait, that was Japanese. He tries it again in English. "Pardon?"

"Yuuri Katsuki," Viktor says, again, his eyes spearing him through, his chin lifting like a challenge, "will you do me the honor of piloting a Jaeger with me."

It... Doesn't sound like a polite question, it barely sounds like a question -- his name sounds a little odd in Viktor's accent, in the European order, the U too short like it's almost another name --

"I saw you skate my programs." He's standing now, all at once, he's too tall and too close and his hand closes on Yuuri's hand; Yuuri flinches like he just touched a live wire. "I saw you and I -- need --"

He says some more impassioned words and Yuuri thinks his overstrained brain glitched out on English for a handful of seconds before he realizes it's not English at all.

There's something off-balance, desperately determined in his wintery eyes, something that -- needs help.

Yuuri reverses the grip, closes both hands on Viktor's wrists. "It's okay," he says, "I'm listening. I am." He takes a deep, bracing breath -- is slightly startled, and then relieved, when Viktor does it too and the man's shoulders sag a little. "But you need to explain from the start, I. I'm still." He can't have understood right. A Jaeger? "Um. What?"

"I'm not asking you to fight," Viktor assures him, too intense by half, and his hands turn up, grip back. His palms are shockingly cold against Yuuri's inner wrists. "Just -- I don't know how to fight either, there's no worries, but there's this -- you probably don't know I've been working with the Jaeger program -- very peripherally, just bringing in what money I can, but this is... not going at all like I planned it to," he finishes, chagrined.

Yuuri can't help it; he laughs, a quick surprised burst. He immediately feels guilty and ducks his head but Viktor is smiling back, rueful, and then Yuuri's glasses slip from his awkward pinch between middle and ring fingers and clatter on the floor. He has to let go of Viktor to pick them back up.

When he straightens back up, shoving them on his face, there's a slightly more normal amount of distance between them, but also slightly less electric despair, so it's... It's okay.

"I, um. I knew about your. Jaeger program... thing. I watched the show last Friday night." It's Monday. Did they film earlier in the week?

He turned it on in the background, but he couldn't bear to listen too closely. Listening to Viktor drag out of his guts that first kaijuu attack he was caught in hurt. Yuuri knows horror and compassion and sheer prurient voyeurism will bring in money but he, personally, did not need to watch that blank, odd smile as Viktor talked his way around the too-clear fact of his coach of fifteen years dying in arm's reach, in the dark.

"I've been -- I heard about the other things you've been doing, too -- the gala...? You weren't in great shape," he can't help but add.

Watching Viktor skate for money and not for joy...

"I've let my training slip a bit, I'm afraid," Viktor says with a charming, deflecting grin. "But anyway! ... Anyway."

He sinks back onto the bench, slowly; Yuuri imitates him -- side by side with a person's width in between, though their trailing hands could touch with only another five or six inches.

He thinks about Viktor's heartbeat fluttering in his wrists and curls his fingers on his lap.

"They've got this new Jaeger they can't test, because no one has a good enough balance to keep her up, and she's -- she's not beautiful," Viktor admits quietly, voice a little rough along the edges. "She's all girders and elbows. They don't even know if she could walk even with the right pilots -- there's pressure to scrap her, scrap all the more extreme variants. They haven't even put a test-pilot in them yet."

"Oh."

"I'm not asking you to fight," Viktor repeats, and then the impossible words he's been throwing since he came in click together and Yuuri finally, truly understands the thing he's asking for.

Those -- giants of metal, those man-made demigods -- terrifying and epic like the oldest tales -- facing impossible monsters like equals, like...

The world riding on their shoulders.

It would be at a remove -- neither Yuuri nor Viktor can fight, they can move but cannot fight -- Yuuri was thirteen the first and last time he threw a punch -- they wouldn't fight with her, just test how she handles and how she...

And be responsible later if she fails.

Yuuri's shoulders are barely wide enough to handle the weight of his own failures.

"I can't."

The weight of a small, sleepy town's whimsical hopes still sends him stumbling some days, and they never complain when he loses, like they're proud of him just for trying. This -- this is not something where failure is any kind of option.

"I can't -- I -- why me? I don't get -- Viktor," he snaps, exasperated and despairing, "I get performance anxiety sometimes walking out of an airport! Where on Earth did you find the notion that I could -- we don't even know each other, we -- why?!"

He's on his feet; he's pacing between the benches, he's raking his hands through his hair and flitting them around himself, trying to shape for Viktor Nikiforov the size and shape of his inaptitude.

"You skate like you've already been in my head," his idol says, but soft and quiet like disappointment, like heartbreak. "What you did at the end... You skated there like you were more me than I am these days. There's nobody else," he concludes, stark, tired.

Yuuri stands still, and closes his teeth on an instinctive, thoughtless 'yes'. This isn't just giving somebody a hand with his stalled car because he likes to be useful and it doesn't cost much, isn't something where he can allow his desire to please, to impress someone he admires lead him. He can't say yes just because Viktor wants it. It could cost him everything. It could cost hundreds, thousands of people everything.

"You said -- you felt like I knew you. But you know nothing about me."

Viktor looks up at him, face serious, eyes searching Yuuri's face.

"I saw you skate," he says after a few seconds -- lining up his words, figuring out what to say, and Yuuri feels bad that he wonders if he was just planning out what almost-lie to feed him. Yuuri has watched enough interviews to know that Viktor is gifted with words, with making them sound the way he wants people to think he means them. "You bare your soul on the ice, and you know it'll break, eventually, and you don't flinch from it."

Yuuri does flinch from his words -- too pretty, too well-turned for him. "That's your interpretation," he says, quieter. "That's what I project when I'm playing a theme. You don't know I'm really that." Viktor's shoulders sag.

"I know they said you were about to quit, but here you are, at seven, training." His eyes are still searching Yuuri's face, but a little wearily now. "I think as stressed out as you get, as badly as you judge yourself, you never, for one day, planned on quitting."

"I didn't," Yuuri admits, heart in his throat. "But."

"But?"

"Quitting is what you're asking me to do."

Viktor closes his eyes, breathes out pained, and Yuuri hates watching his expression, his hope fall with every word out of Yuuri's mouth -- and then Viktor scowls at Yuuri and he throws, "It's not quitting as in giving up, it's moving on to something you want more."

"How do you know I could even want this?!"

The locker room is too small to raise his voice so much. Yuuri deflates. Viktor deflates, too.

"... I don't. You're right. It's arrogant. I'm really arrogant, everybody will tell you." He tries on a smile; it doesn't settle right. "I want it so much and I want you for it, but this is not the kind of thing that would work if we don't both want it just as much. So I'll just..."

Give up, Yuuri thinks he is about to say, and clenches his fists, mouth opening to say no, don't. Viktor giving up on anything is. Is. No. It's wrong.

"... May I let you think for a few days, and ask you again, or do you already know...?"

Yuuri wants to say no, ought to say no, he does not have the skills or the strength or the purpose, he doesn't...

"I... Let me think about it," he says, defeated, and turns his face away.

Viktor thanks him very quietly and sees himself out of the locker room. (Probably to go untie that friendly-lonely poodle that Yuuri had to walk past earlier.)

Yuuri doesn't skate that morning, just sits in the bleachers watching the ice, thinking of nothing much.

--

He's going to say no. He's just too polite to say it head on. He's going to have a whole week to doubt himself into the ground and to have his family be scared shitless at him.

It's a beautiful country. For days Viktor floats along, taking little coastal trains, following his dog down long streets and to random bus stops, looking for an inn whenever it gets too dark. He counts the days in the back of his mind, but.

So pointless. His life is pointless. What he's doing now is pointless. He told himself he was contributing enough, whoring himself to tabloids and housewives for Jaeger money, for how little he is suited to war efforts he was doing enough -- drifting aimless with no competition to train for, no one to corral him toward a single goal. He told himself it was enough to live like this in this world where skating is without its luster and challenge and everyone is moving on without him.

He told himself it was enough and then there was the blade-dancer Jaeger and how is he meant to go back to talk shows now he knows he's been lying to himself?

Makkachin whines, and then barks reproachfully, and Viktor realizes he has a stick laid at his feet he has neglected to throw. "Ah, sorry, girl." They're in a park. He throws. It's a nice end-of-spring day and there are little flowers everywhere. Not the famed sakura, and he thinks, vaguely, that maybe he should come back at the right period and see...

Makkachin barks again. The stick is back. He looks down at it, and looks at her hopeful face, and sighs; sits on a bench, digs his fingers into her tightly curled, fuzzy fur. The feel of it always soothes him.

"I'm sorry, I'm not being very fun right now."

He's at least not attracting looks for being a gaijin talking to his dog -- this is a pretty remote part of the park. He's been haunting it since this morning.

"I just..."

She tilts her head, eyes on his face with intense attention. He loves that about dogs, how they always seem to listen to your every word, without judgment.

"I wish I could just kidnap him," he says with a rusty laugh -- in Russian, he's not stupid enough to joke about kidnapping in Japanese even if they look alone. "He'd go along with it after a couple days, I'm pretty sure. We'd get into that giant robot girl and he would be so amazed, he would..."

He would nothing. Viktor has only ever been on the periphery of Shatterdome life but even he knows how crucial the bond, the trust between pilots is. How none of them, not a single one, act subservient to the other one. One might take the lead in some situations, but... Just because in public Aleksis Kaidonovski talks seldom and his wife Aleksandra is a ball of attitude and smirks, it doesn't mean she dominates the bond and he's just here as her yes-man.

It wouldn't work if Yuuri was his yes-man.

"The problem is that... He's going to say what he chose to say. And what he chose is to say no."

It's ... ridiculous to be so distraught, it's. "Maybe I'll find someone else," he tells his dog, who yips and wags the stub of her tail, and he stands up. It's getting close to lunchtime. He should find something to eat.

He's approaching a food cart when his phone rings. It's a number he doesn't know. Huh.

"Hello?"

"Where are you?!" Yuuri Katsuki's voice bursts through.

It's... not a small-talk voice. Not a 'come back and let's have a nice long talk' voice. "Tokyo? Yoyogi Park, by the stadium -- why?"

There's a whole second full of crackling, disbelieving silence.

"Get out of town now. Get out, there's a kaijuu coming, aren't the sirens--"

Sirens howl to life and Makkachin yelps and tugs on her leash; Viktor grabs for her collar, heart in his throat, already seeing her getting lost in the crowd. He drops the phone, scrambling for her; picks it up a second later, his squirming, whining dog held tight against his leg.

"--tor? Viktor!"

"Yes, I'm here. I don't think I should take the subway," he says, eyes scanning the street, the people starting to run, to gather their children. He knows where the ocean is, though -- he starts jogging in the exact opposite direction. His mind is oddly clear. "I doubt I'll have time to recharge my phone in the next few hours, so I should hang up for now. Do you have any advice?"

"--Water bottles? And, and keep going due North. No, wait -- go West for a dozen blocks or you'll run straight through Kabuchiko and Shinjuku, and they're going to be lousy with people."

"Good point," Viktor says lightly. Crowds are kaijuu-bait like no other.

"But after that you just go north," Yuuri says, and he sounds like his jaw is clenched, like he's about to attempt a seventh quad flip in a row and is damn well determined to land it. "I'll find you."

Yuuri is eight hours of train and a whole island away, and the trains won't keep running for much longer. Viktor smiles into his phone. "I'm sure you will," he lies, and hangs up.

--

Viktor helps grandpas back to their feet and throws lost toys back to panicky children dragged away by their parents, but otherwise for the next three hours he wends his way through blocked streets and around riots, jogging steadily. It's not that he's not sweaty and exhausted, because he's in good shape but he's not conditioned for a marathon either, but Makkachin needs to stop and drink more often than he does.

At some point there he has hit his stride and his legs just feel warm and faraway, moving like a metronome without much input from him. He's going to feel them tomorrow.

He's out of the heart of Tokyo, at least. Which is good because he can hear the screeches from here.

The Tokyo Shatterdome was hit first. He doesn't know if they had time to get their Jaegers ready and out. He doesn't turn around to look. He knows he would stare like a stunned rabbit until something crushed him to death.

Of course then he reaches a river.

Which would be fine -- even the detour to find a bridge -- if the bridges weren't crammed stupid with cars and panicked herds of people, and no one can get through.

It's May. He wraps his cell phone in several layers of t-shirts and abandoned plastic bags, takes off socks and shoes, and then he catches Makkachin by the collar and the hair on her rump and chucks her into the river. He's following in the next second.

The water is not clean. He doesn't try to swim a straight line across; that'd be too exhausting. He lets the current drag him off-course, and thinks with every second that the apocalyptic crashing sounds are coming closer, and reminds himself with cold clarity that it's fine if they do, because the kaijuu is unlikely to go for a single floating human that might well be already dead when there are several bottlenecks full to the brim with penned-in targets a few gigantic steps away.

The kaijuu will go for the bridges first. Legs batting steadily, dragging an exhausted Makkachin, Viktor practices his flotsam impression.

Land.

He takes a few seconds to pant, on his side in the mud, legs still in the water. A few minutes maybe. Over the horizon of houses and buildings he can see things moving. Clouds of dust. Black fire smoke. He tears his eyes away before he can get too involved in trying to find a gleam of metal in there.

"C'mon, Makkachin, up."

Makkachin won't stand up. He pets her quietly for a while, gives her the last of the bottled water, then slings her over his shoulders like she's a lamb and he's a rugged and rustic shepherd. She barely protests.

He's going to get a weird sunburn, shirtless like this, but at least he won't overheat. Her fur is like a sponge, rivulets running down his back nonstop.

He walks.

He walks.

He doesn't want to check the time on his phone, he doesn't want to check the local maps on his phone, he doesn't want to know for sure that his phone was ruined by the swim and now he's cut off from everything.

When it rings he almost flings his dog right off.

It's five forty-three.

"Where are you now?"

Yuuri. Viktor closes his eyes, slowly sinks to the ground to sit on the edge of the sidewalk, legs between two crashed-parked cars, allows Makkachin to slip off his shoulders. She wobbles and then sits against him.

"I can't read the road signs, Yuuri," he reminds the other man patiently, eyes still closed, savoring his voice.

"... Landmarks?"

"There's a little park in between two one-way roads. Lots of trees, I have no line of sight!" He pauses. "I guess I could turn on my GPS..."

"... Yes, please do that," Yuuri says drolly. Viktor laughs. Then he gives him his coordinates. Yuuri spends a few seconds humming thoughtfully. "I've got it on my map. If you keep going up the same road you should reach a little shrine."

"Holy land, Yuuri?" Viktor inquires lightly, trying to talk himself into standing back up. "The beast shan't enter?" His feet are a mass of bruises and cuts and without the constant pressure of walking they're pulsing hot and stinging at him. He's regretting having jettisoned his shoes.

They would have been so heavy once waterlogged, though.

"It's just the first recognizable landmark..." Yuuri sounds distracted. "There's a parking lot and probably a public bathroom. You should be there in thirty minutes. Just try to rest and wait for me. I won't be too long. I've got to go now."

"Wait," Viktor says to empty air.

He's coming. He said he would find Viktor, and he -- it hasn't been six hours since the attack. Hasetsu is...

Viktor can't calculate it. He didn't come to Tokyo straight on and his mind is too tired to figure out speeds and distances. It's like hearing Yuuri's voice, his promise, made all the fatigue he was ignoring fall on him like a bearskin cape.

"God, I don't want to stand up," he whines to his dog. Makkachin is panting quietly, and she looks at him with trust but also exhaustion. He doesn't know if he should carry her again. The thought of bending over to pick her up makes his back and neck ache.

"Okay, fine, let's try it. He'll call again if he gets there first." He catches handholds on the crashed cars and drags himself up. His feet are probably bleeding from exploded blisters, but he's not going to look; it would manage to hurt worse if he knew for sure. "Onwards, noble companion."

He takes a step, and then a second, dragging one. "Onwards."

Makkachin on his heels, he walks the rest of the way.

--

They get there first and Viktor would panic if he wasn't so tired. Instead he goes to the bathroom and then finds a tree stump to sit on, and dozes. He tries not to think about Yuuri crashing, being stomped to death by the kaijuu, crushed by a crowd.

The car that honks at him from the other side of the street is sleek and very yellow. Viktor has a brief flash of panic -- what if the noise attracted the kaijuu -- and then jumps on his feet (and sways.)

Yuuri's strained, grim eyes and finger-tangled hair are the most gorgeous thing he's seen in, oh, probably years.

"Nice car," Viktor says woozily as he lets himself fall in the passenger seat, Makkachin almost tripping him in her haste to get into the footwell.

"Thanks," Yuuri says. "I stole it."

He floors it the second the door is closed. Viktor clings to the door handle and blinks.

"I stole a car, Viktor," Yuuri repeats, only slightly hysterical behind the steely calm. "Right off the side of the street. The owner's going to come back and be very annoyed with me."

"Maybe you can put it back where you found it," Viktor suggests, grinning so wide his cheeks hurt, and when Yuuri slides him a chiding glare he lets it go and laughs. "God, you knew before the sirens--"

"There's an app," Yuuri says, eyes on the road and going way too fast for a sleepy suburban street. "My friend sent it to me. It monitors all Breach activity."

"Oh?"

Viktor's eyes are closed. He makes a half-hearted effort to buckle up and then gives up. Yuuri won't crash them now. It'd be too ironic, not allowed.

"The Breach opened this morning at nine but they didn't know where the kaijuu would make landfall yet, but. Just in case. I didn't have your number -- why didn't I have your number, you were trying to seduce me into piloting with you, you should have given me it -- so I spent basically two hours calling everyone I knew to ask if someone would know, and I think I still feel a little unclean because Christophe Giacometti had really weird ideas of why I would want your number, and then he didn't want to tell me before I promised to treat you well, and anyway I was on the phone with him when they figured out it was Tokyo, and then Christophe said, that's probably where he is just because it's the worst place to be, and somehow I knew he was right! And he was right. You're impossible, Viktor."

"Just unlikely," Viktor mumbles through a smile, and pretends to fall asleep.

A couple of miles later, Yuuri pulls to a brief stop and buckles him in properly, hands careful guiding the strap over his bare shoulder, tilting the seat back. Viktor sighs and takes his hand. Yuuri's thumb rubs against his knuckles, back and forth. He doesn't try at any point to pull free.

--------

Epilogue

They're just test pilots. Everyone on base knows they're just test pilots. They skate in the mornings at the closest Los Angeles rink to bring their flexibility and stamina closer to being in sync, and Drift in the afternoons in a Jaeger without name, (because her name will be her real pilots' choice) a Jaeger that sways and whirls on a dime and has never yet needed to actually impact with anything at all.

On the screens Siluriforme drags Horizon Brave under the water and then screeches so loud they can hear it through the windows, never mind the mike pick-ups.

Puma Real still won't stand back up.

No other Jaeger is ready.

Viktor is standing by the guardrail that leans over the cafeteria with his hands fisted white-knuckled tight, his hands that he has never raised to another person in his life, not even to an aggressive dog or a wild raccoon or anything. He wants...

He can't do what he wants. He dodges; he dances, he is never where they expect him. He calculates the odds, cold and remote. He doesn't stand his ground with more bravery than sense, he doesn't charge head-on. It's not in him, it's --

"Let's go suit up," Yuuri says with the simple finality of a decision made, a competition that can be nothing but conquered.

He's standing at Viktor's side with a hand trailing on the guardrail and he looks up at Viktor and there is fire in his eyes, there is diamond-hard certainty.

"Yuuri--"

"Let's go, Vitya," he says, softer, like he knows the knot in Viktor's throat and the want in his bones and the fear of becoming something he never was, something he maybe can't be...

Not alone; but that's the point.

Viktor takes Yuuri's hand, and lets him drag him at a run to the pilots' dressing rooms to put on battle armor over their body suits.

--

(Salchow Kick? he will suggest later in the Drift, mind to mind, laughing with exhilaration and beautiful terror. For her name? and Yuuri will take them through another whirl-and-slash and giggle back, No, come on, it's got to be Knife Shoes, and they will laugh in the conn-pod as the monster with the blue dripping blood tries and fails to lay a hand on them.)