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in flesh and bone

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He lives by routines, with clockwork precision.

At four forty-five in the morning Yuri drags himself out of bed and into the shower down the hall. He stubs a toe against the sharp corner of a suitcase overflowing with hoodies and t-shirts, and curses under his breath. The suitcase is his whole life, compressed into travel size; tiny bottles of shampoo and shower gel still strewn somewhere along the bottom, for next time, and the one after that.

Hot water is almost too much, but it is always almost too much, and he shudders half from the shock of temperature change, half from the soreness in every major muscle group. Here’s the trick: you’ve got to start stretching right then, when it hurts the most and the water is scalding, so everything that comes later is easier in comparison. Heat masks the agony of joints bending in directions and at angles that human bodies aren’t supposed to bend.

Yuri pulls his right leg up into a split, putting the effort into his thighs and his hands, and if he curses, breathless, through clenched teeth — well, the hiss of spray drowns out any noises he might make. He braces himself, rests his heel on the shower wall, rests his forehead on his shin, and for a luxurious half a minute allows himself to just breathe.

That’s what he does. He braces himself, he hurts himself; he breathes. And again. All over again.

The rink will open in three hours, the studio in two, which leaves him plenty of time to practise at the barre. But, of course, the onsen doesn’t have a barre, and he has to make do with a DIY facsimile: a pair of skis tied together and fastened to the banister upstairs. Where he won’t disturb the other guests. Which he’s not, really; a guest, that is. More of a fixture by now, for as long as it takes.

Mrs Katsudon has long stopped shrieking at the unexpected sight of him in the early morning hours.

Mrs Katsuki. Grow up, Yurochka.

He stretches at the barre for an hour, keeping himself contained. No jumps, no stomping over hardwood that, despite the frigid air, isn’t as cold against his bare feet as he always expects it to be. His leggings are worn but warm, and soon enough the exertion is enough to compensate for the chill snaking up and down his arms and collar bones, where they’re bared by the sleeves of a t-shirt that is a size too big.

He’s halfway into the mindless trance of repetition when his foot catches on the seam between floorboards, tearing open a blister on his sole. But there’s no blood, just shredded skin and slight discomfort, and he ignores it.

A faint noise breaks his concentration, a little shrill, but muted, coming from across the wall. The alarm. It must be five-thirty in the morning now. Eleven-thirty in St Petersburg. Yuri can feel sweat beginning to break over his skin. He’s warmed up. He pads back to his room, flexing his arms over his head. The back of his t-shirt is a little damp at the nape.

It takes a moment before he finds his tablet, burrowed as it is in bedcovers, and then the room is basked in a small, cold glow. Another moment for the wifi to connect. Another for Facetime to sputter its way into a connection across the continent.

That’s why he stretches before calling. Otherwise he will shiver out of his skin, anticipation a live wire spitting electricity with no outlet.

He sits bent over the tablet, cross-legged on the bed, hair spilling down his face.

“—ove, come on.” That’s the first thing he hears, in Russian, and therefore already for his benefit. There’s the shuffle of a fluffy feline body over the laptop speakers, which sounds like rustling paper right beside his ear, and he has to school his expression into blank hostility before the video clicks on.

“Morning,” says Otabek. He looks tired, colour bleached from his face by artificial light. Where he should be all sharp jawline, now there are only flat pixels and a half-second lag. Not unlike the skis, in place of a barre. A facsimile of the real thing.

It’s still Wednesday for him. Strength training and plyometrics: the heaviest day of the week, at this time of the season. It shows in the way that Otabek holds himself, very carefully still, allowing overtrained muscles some reprieve. His t-shirt is a little frayed at the collar, and it slips, revealing a strip of skin, thin and vulnerable.

“You look terrible,” Yuri announces with a vicious smirk. “Yakov finally stopped going easy on you?”

“I’ve been here long enough.” Three months, precisely. In another nine, after the end of the season, his training exchange with Yakov will be finished. They talk about nothing while Yuri tries not to look too obviously at the time, counting down minutes, until Otabek says: “Oh, and Mila told me Jean-Jacques is doing the ESPN Body Issue. Did you know?”

“No,” says Yuri, feeling irritation crackle and spark. As if he needs any reminders that Otabek and JJ are friends, or friendly, or not actively murderous toward each other. As far as Yuri is concerned, everyone should feel at least a little homicidal rage toward JJ Leroy. “And I didn’t want to know, that’s the worst thing I’ve heard all day.”

“You’ve been awake for an hour, give it time.”

“I have to go. Practice went okay?”

Otabek smiles, which is always strange and slightly incongruous. It softens the harsh set of his mouth. He says, “It went okay. Don’t break your legs today,” which is something he always says, and once the connection dies and Yuri locks his tablet and his room plunges back into featureless grey of dawn, there is a lightness to the set of his shoulders that he knows will pull him through the training regimen.

He has a protein bar for breakfast, and a sugar-free energy drink. Mrs Katsuki is the only other person awake at this hour; even Makkachin is asleep, unmoved by Yuri stomping around. Yuri says hello to Mrs Katsuki in awful, halting Japanese that makes her laugh and toss him a sweet bun filled with sweeter jam. Almost motherly, or what is probably motherly to people who care about such things.

She always tosses him extra food. She must know, and never seems to mind, that Yuri will only feed the bun to stray cats to keep them still long enough to snap a photo to put online or send to Otabek. He christens Yuri’s strays with ridiculous names; it tends to be the highlight of Yuri’s days.

He makes it to the studio ten minutes after it opens.

That’s how Viktor finds him, half past seven in the morning: sweaty and irritated and trying to work more at the barre despite the inconsequential but increasingly insistent protests of his body.

He feels the shift in the air, even though Rachmaninov doesn’t; the music continues unabated. Yuri has one ankle pulled up, one hand keeping a light grip on it, hamstrings not as loose as he needs them to be. And then footsteps that he feels more as a peristaltic vibration against the floor, closer, and fingers folding over his where they are wrapped around the ankle.

“Now, look. You’re rushing it,” says Viktor, and pushes until Yuri’s heel folds over his ass. His other hand steadies Yuri at the hip, touch precise and almost clinical, palm moulded into the shape of bone.

“If you hurry through the routine you’ll pull something.” Viktor’s voice is the picture of pleased serenity. He steps away, until Yuri can see him in his field of vision at the far end of the room, settling down comfortably with his legs crossed. “Show me your grand allegro.”

It’s Thursday, and so it’s a lighter training day, but Yuri does a full turn at the barre every day.

“You’re not the boss of me,” he grumbles, a blatant untruth. He pulls out of the stretch and settles into the fifth position, en avant, and begins.

He doesn’t have to think about the routine, or the precise rhythm at which his iPod is spitting out music. Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet, now. All that Yuri could hear of it has faded into the stomp and drum of his feet on the floor, the slide of flat shoes on polished wood. How Viktor is watching him, almost as noisy.

There’s still a shred of open admiration there, unashamed and so the worst kind, that makes Yuri want to never see himself in a mirror again. Mostly, though, there is a cool, analytical detachment as Viktor dissects every minute shift of momentum that Yuri carries into completion or lets peter out and build into something larger instead. It’s as if a tally takes shape behind Viktors eyes: this is where you’re okay. This is where you’re lacking. The odds are always skewed against Yuri.

But for a moment, for an imperfect two and a half minutes, he exists only in the mirror image of himself and in the performance, and in the lie of it. His body not his own.

He finishes arched forward, so that his hair will fall over his face and hide it from sight; so that Viktor won’t see the sweat rolling down the tip of his nose.

It’s been a long time, but he still expects Yakov’s voice and an annotated list of the many ways in which he ruined a perfectly good training routine. But Yakov is training Otabek, now, however briefly, and Yuri has — this.

“Cool down, and then we’ll go to the rink.” Viktor smiles a guileless smile that hides the cast iron edges of his will.

It’s another part of the routine, when they walk from the studio to the rink, and Viktor says hello to some of the people they pass on their way, all that cheerful politeness undeterred by his inability to string two words in Japanese together. It makes Yuri want to put his thumbs through his eye sockets. How long has he been at Hasetsu? Four or five months by now, probably. Anyone else would be making friends with the locals, as Viktor has.

Yuri just wants to go home. He takes pictures of the town and the changing seasons, puts them online or texts them to Otabek, or to Mila.

There is something cursed and humiliating about existing in liminal spaces. Suitcase always almost ready to go. Catching wifi wherever. Yuri had a laptop, but sold it; too clunky.

He wants to go home, but where is that? All he knows is that Hasetsu is not it.

Around the onset of 2018, in the space of time between the Grand Prix Final and Pyeongchang, three things happen in such a rapid succession that they all bleed together, into one tectonic upheaval of a life that’s already hectic, and later Yuri finds himself incapable of pulling them apart into separate events.

First: after the GPF, he ditches the nagging duumvirate of Yakov and Lilia and stays with his grandfather for two weeks. It isn’t as though he misses practice, even if all he can do after the spectacular failure of his second Grand Prix Final is upper-body strength training. It still leaves him as sore as he would have been in St Petersburg, or perhaps more, since he has no supervision. But he gets to sleep in the guest room of his grandfather’s apartment in Biryulyovo, cramped like a wax cell in the honeycomb of old, half-derelict tenements. His suitcase stays unpacked beside the fold-out sofa bed. Its liminality undiminished even here.

“Are you going to see her?” asks his grandfather, sleeves rolled up, as he chops onions that will go with the filling for varenyky. That’s how all of the conversations that matter happen between them, Yuri thinks: over food. Food that, most of the time, he eats only to skip the next meal while his grandfather isn’t looking.

He shrugs. The gesture goes unnoticed, with Yuri straddling a chair and facing his grandfather’s back, one leg stretched out before him to accommodate the brace that’s keeping his knee immobile.

His grandfather says, “She called last week. You could go up to Yekaterinburg for a day or two. I’m sure she would find time.”

“No, she wouldn’t.” Yuri almost laughs. He would, if he didn’t know how deeply it would cut. If there is one thing that Svetlana Nikolaevna Plisetskaya could never find for him, it was time. Not when she spent her life after retirement trying to build herself back up so as not to depend on her son to support her.

If she could find time for him, she would have taken him with her to Yekaterinburg all those years ago, and perhaps under her tutelage Yuri would be a pairs skater, continuing her tradition in deed instead of only in faith. But she never could. She never did. Yuri can’t blame her. She probably would have made a worse mother if she’d tried to be one. As it is, he knows that she watches most of his competitions. It’s just that it’s difficult to travel on crutches.

His grandfather says nothing. Nothing of substance. He tells Yuri to start frying the onions, moves around the kitchen with singleminded purpose: gets the dough from the fridge, rolls it flat over the tabletop, starts cutting it with the blunt rim of a glass.

“I should — I need to tell you something.” Yuri isn’t certain where the words come from, or the impulse. Once he says them he wishes he could swallow them back, and he watches his grandfather’s back tense. As if he’d known. “There’s, uh. There’s someone I like.”

“Yura. Turn the gas down.”

Yuri turns the gas down, and scrunches up his nose at the smell of burning oil. “I wanted to tell you. He’s —”

There’s a snap, sudden and sharp, as his grandfather shakes out a dish towel. It doesn’t echo, but the air shivers in the disturbance, flecks of flour spreading across the room in a cloud of painted dust.

“You’re young. Very young. Don’t tell me what I don’t need to know.” His grandfather says it very gently, and Yuri can pinpoint the precise moment in which the knot in his throat renders him incapable of speech. “What no one needs to know. Set the water to boil, this is done. I’ll get the filling ready.”

It’s as if a truth cannot exist until Yuri gives it voice. He knows about the times his grandfather has lived through, the history. The power of privacy and the power of information. As if there’s anyone these days who would want to use that information against either of them. There’s someone. You’re young; don’t tell me.

Yuri has skated despite fractures, so what’s another? This one, this feeling of a bone cracked and raw before it accrues scarring: it won’t even show on an x-ray. New and incautious, and it could hurt him if he let it. So he doesn’t let it.

He nods, twice. To his grandfather in assent, and a second time, to clear his head of emotion he has no need for.

He sets the water to boil.

That’s one.

Two: after the surgery, he gets an offer. It’s a plain, undramatic email that Yuri desperately wants to find fault in and therefore allow himself not to respond. Suspicion makes a festering well of jealousy open inside him. The email is from Viktor, with none of his usual flair. They haven’t kept in touch after Viktor had retired a second and final time. He’s been known to show up on occasion in Yuri’s Instagram comment fields. A few texts, here and there.

The email reads, in Russian: I hope by now you can read this, and that Yakov isn’t hovering too much — we both know how he is, worse than a grandmother. Yuuri and I saw your SP last week. Outstanding work, as always. If you’d managed to land those quads more gracefully, it would have been grounds for a gold medal performance. But the choreography was a little too flimsy for you, you’ve outgrown this style.

Which brings me to my point. After discussing it with Yakov, I’d like for us to talk about your plans leading up to 2022. I have a few ideas, and you still have potential to break records. It would be a shame to waste it.

Let me know when you have time for a video chat! )

Despite misgivings, and a knee-jerk, automatic fury at being discussed without being present, at decisions made above his head, Yuri replies. He agrees to a Facetime call and remains civil throughout. It must be a sign of personal growth, when everything in him is threatening to spill out in an ugly, ugly torrent of emotion.

A month later he’s on a plane to Japan, seconded to the training and care of Viktor Nikiforov. He imagines that the hyperfocus that lasts for the duration of the flight is that of a soldier going to war. But he’s been at war from the moment he had first set foot in a rink, and his mother deemed him appropriately small and flexible — malleable — to shape into something worthwhile. Something usable. An instrument.

And on the flight to Fukuoka, he thinks the same thing he’d thought then, as a child, and so many times since: if he is to be a tool, he might as well excel at it.

That’s two.

Three: after Pyeongchang, which he watches on a live stream, there is a text, and all that unspools from it in threads of consequence.

otabek-altin yakov is going to be training me for a year. he said you’re not in petersburg?

Yuri doesn’t respond for two days, unsure of how to do it. The uncertainty sits over his tongue, stapled to it like a fish hook no matter how much he tries to dislodge it, and he wonders briefly if he’s supposed to apologise. He’s never been considerate, and it is a wholly new experience to wonder whether he should be. Whether he should try. In the end, he doesn’t.

If Otabek wanted generosity of heart and kindness of spirit, he would have looked elsewhere. It isn’t them to apologise. It isn’t Yuri.

So in the end, he writes back: utc 9, i’m training with viktor in japan. you can come visit his boyfriend’s dumb ass hot springs. or i’ll see you when i kick your ass next season.

That’s three.

He will always remember the smell of recycled cabin air on the flight to Fukuoka, reminiscent of his grandfather’s kitchen, dry and stuffy before steam had filled it. His time training in Japan with Viktor will always carry an aftertaste of a freshly broken bone, unscarred yet and therefore capable of hurting him. If he lets it.

And thinking of his grandfather will now always make him think of someone else, and of flying to Japan wound tight with a curious uncertainty. Forgetting to say goodbye.

He’s running late. He’s hungry, and sore, and he should have taken the bike despite the sweltering humidity and the threat of storm clouds hovering over the sky. When he’s late, Viktor always makes him do an additional half-hour at the gym, at weights. Yuri’s protests — the last thing he needs is more strength training when he’s already doing all he can to limit the increase of muscle mass, and weights won’t help him land a quad Axel, that unattainable Holy Grail — tend to fall on deaf ears.

In five minutes, he’s going to be late.

There is a large tabby cat sitting in the middle of the road, its head tilted to one side. No cars coming or going, not where Yuri can see. Orange and white, the cat looks as though it’s taken a nap in a puddle of spilled flour and it still clings to its belly. It watches Yuri. Yuri stops walking.

He looks to both sides, but still no cars come. Then he drops into a squat. Roots in his backpack for the little zip-locked bag of treats he carries besides his skates and tablet and training schedule notebook. The last is mirrored in his phone calendar, synced with Viktor’s, but Yuri likes to have backup. In case Viktor nukes the calendar by being technologically illiterate, or something.

He waves the treat, a little, until the cat decides to give in to temptation. Its tiny pink nose twitches, and then it crosses the street, and starts to nibble delicately but ruthlessly at Yuri’s fingers.

Yuri takes out his phone, waits only for the autofocus to zoom in on the cat’s quivering whiskers, snaps a picture.

yuri-plisetsky this one
image sent ✓
otabek-altin tsaritsa margarita andreevna rumpelstiltskina
yuri-plisetsky what, that’s it?
otabek-altin the third.

Yuri nods, satisfied. The cat peers at him with cautious tolerance, but if he were to try to touch it, it would either dash away or bloody his hands. It’s still tempting to reach out and touch something that doesn’t want anything from him, that doesn’t want or need him at all. Small and so infinitely breakable, all those fragile bones.

The cat blinks, very slowly.

“You can go now, Your Majesty.” He waves one hand in a half-baptismal gesture, and the cat starts into movement as if electrocuted. It dives under a hedge that’s vibrantly green this close to the rainy season, and all that’s left in its wake is a rustle of branches.

And Yuri is off again. Late. He doesn’t care. There’s a weightlessness that comes from comfort, even a flash of it, not unlike the moment you kick off into the air and, right up until you hit the ground again, there’s nothing. Nothing else. You’re weightless. There isn’t even a little pain.

Then it all comes back. Blades hitting the ice, and every square centimetre of joint and muscle that worked for the jump now screams.

Both Viktor and Yuuri are at the rink, waiting for him, and that’s what it’s like. Like hitting the ice after a jump. Yuri grits his teeth and doesn’t let it rattle him, just tosses his backpack into a corner near the boards and kneels to start digging in it for his skates. Yanks them on, more forcefully perhaps than is needed. He feels that one irritating blister on his sole tearing, but it’s too late. If there is blood, when it dries it will at least keep his socks from slipping.

He’s not going to show weakness in front of Yuuri. Viktor might have already seen him at a few low points — inevitable, given their positions — but Yuri would rather eat a fistful of nails and chalk than have Yuuri witness it.

“Who the hell asked him here?” he asks, in Russian, so that he won’t have to look at Viktor to address him.

“I invited him.” English. Asshole.

“Great. That’s great.” Yuri ties the laces with such force that they dig into the flesh of his palms, leaving thin welts. He pulls out a scarf to tie around his neck, and gloves. He marches himself onto the ice. “Well? Do you want to get started, or do we need some sharing and caring? Kumbaya and everything?”

“Ah. Yuri, mind your manners.” This with a hint of vicious glee, as though it pleases Viktor to place himself in the role of a reprimanding teacher. He has always loved theatrics. But it’s children who get reprimanded, and Yuri skates toward him with murder in his eyes that he doesn’t bother to hide.

“Here’s manners: it’s detrimental to have him here at this stage of training.” He jerks his chin at Yuuri, who smiles with his particular kind of awkward, guileless serenity. But then why would he come, if he really hated this kind of social awkwardness? He’s as much of a theatrical vulture as Viktor. “I don’t have the routine down yet. He’s going to distract me, and I don’t need distractions. You don’t need distractions, either,” he adds, the lowest blow he can afford. “I want my coach in top form, not swooning like a lovesick spaniel over his codependent has-been boyfriend.”

“Codependent has-been partner,” Yuuri corrects, despite the colour rising in his cheeks as he does so.

“Yeah, right, in your dreams.”

Viktor ignores their exchange. He shrugs, without a shred of remorse. “I think if you can master the routine with Yuuri here, distracting you, it will be overall beneficial to how you skate it under pressure.”

There is no arguing. There is never any argument with Viktor, who can laugh and perform and steamroll a person into obedience, the world’s most enticing tyrant. Yuri wants to strangle him, then Yuuri. It helps to remember Barcelona; and to remember both Viktor’s brief return to skating, after. There is a depth to his teaching method, brutal and armed with concealed knives though it is, that Yuri has never seen before with other coaches.

Maybe that’s what makes him angriest. That he’s getting better. That he can feel himself getting better.

“Or we can do plyometrics today,” says Viktor. He shifts, so that his hair falls over his eyes and Yuri can’t read his expression at all. But he never really can. He fights the absurd impulse to sweep Viktor’s hair aside, force him to at least pretend to be human.

He looks at Yuuri. Notices, belatedly, that Viktor stands close enough to him to keep one hand resting comfortably over the dip in Yuuri’s spine. Very casual. As if Yuri needs a reminder of who, precisely, is the third wheel in this arrangement. Who always has been a background extra, thrown in to add colour to the poetic ruin of Viktor Nikiforov’s ebb into retirement. He fell and rose and fell again, but he was always going to come back to Hasetsu.

Yuri starts skating away, hot all over under his shirt and scarf. “Don’t get in my way. Ponimaesh?”

Yuuri sighs. “Da, da, ponimayu.” His Russian is atrocious, but Yuri swallows a mocking retort. It burns his tongue.

And Yuuri does understand. He keeps to the side, and lets Yuri focus on nothing but the routine. At this stage it is the bare bones, a set of figures without much of a choreography staggering it into a whole performance. Viktor is keeping the music he’d chosen for it secret; he wants Yuri to master the groundwork first. He’s never been kept in the dark for so long. Usually, by this time, he’d have had the music.

All Yuri knows is that the theme of his set for next season is going to be sacrifice.

He projects as much of it as his body can contain: tapers off the edges of arrogance and will, and allows himself to wade ankle-deep into the uncharted waters of helpless subservience. Slave to perfection, like Viktor had described it. Betrothed to an idea that won’t ever let him make it out alive.

Cooling down, not only after a training session but after a day, is agony. But it’s always agony. Yuri can feel every part of his body that never wanted to be used for this. The barely-there shiver in his muscles that makes him drop things, miss steps on stairs, his limbs’ one last bid for futile self-preservation when Yuri has no strength left to bully himself into submission.

If perfection takes effort, then this is it. His body is not his own.

It’s only nine, but he’s had dinner, and at this stage of the training cycle his day ends at eight, after Viktor has pinned tomorrow’s calorie schedule onto a corkboard in the kitchen once Yuuri had translated it into Japanese, and added Yuri’s name on it next to a drawing of a hissing cat. It’s there mostly for Mrs Katsuki’s benefit, since Yuri knows his diet by heart; but she prepares his meals.

One day he will tell her not to bother erring on the too generous side of small portions. Sometimes, when Yuri is too weak and his discipline slips, he actually eats all of what she gives him, and has to hide in the bathroom for a while. It’s a pain in the ass, but it’s worth it, to have one more layer of control nailed into place. And the discomfort, his palate scraped raw from vomiting, seems appropriate punishment for weakness.

After he slides the screen door of his room shut, he can breathe. Without bracing. Just breathe, alone in his own company, in a pocket of silence among the onsen’s regular noise. There are a few other guests, but the sounds of life outside are muted.

Yuri turns on the desk lamp and drops onto the bed, sprawling upside down. Feet on the window sill, head down so his hair almost spills to the floor.

He scrolls through the notifications on his phone, until he finds a message he actually feels like opening.

mila-babicheva i almost want to try some lifts with him………
mila-babicheva but we’d probably die
yuri-plisetsky ??????????
mila-babicheva is sending a file…

It’s a video. Yuri thumbs it open. Shaky, with medium orange light of the rink translating into a film of grain and noise. And the music is terrible, tinny and full of static, like a corrupted file trying to force itself into coherence. It doesn’t matter. Yuri feels breath die in his lungs.

Otabek skates as if it’s a competition, not training, gunning for gold over the dying protests of a body cowed into bankruptcy. He must be exhausted, it shows in the stiff set of his shoulders, hidden only by the plain black of his training uniform. But he has momentum, and it pulls him through. When he passes the camera, Yuri hears the screech and grind of ice beneath the blades of his skates. Then it’s gone. Then he turns, a good running start, and if the first sight of him made Yuri stop breathing, the quadruple Salchow that Otabek lands with barely a stumble makes him suck in air. Like someone drowning.

The jump was so high. And he only keeps going, ignores Mila’s excited whoop as she cheers him on, voice mangled by her phone’s speakers; he gives himself space to gain back breath and speed and jumps, again, triple Lutz and triple toe combination. Watching Otabek is like watching a predator, every line of his body polished and poised, in a natural habitat instead of just a cage.

In the privacy of his own mind Yuri can admit that it’s beautiful. How he compensates for inflexibility, for the closed set of his hips. Yuri wants to take a scalpel to his will and determination and see where the seams will be loose. See where he could cut a grove deep enough to push his fingers inside. Feel what’s in there.

He knows what he looks like when he’s skating: dead behind the eyes. He wants to know where Otabek finds the lie of emotion, because he has it, it’s in him, but the pretence doesn’t pollute him like it does Viktor.

He rewinds the video. And again. His hand lies flat on his stomach, and he shifts on the bed until his knees are open, ignoring the discomfort. Rewinds the video again and doesn’t move his hand. The walls here are so thin.

He doesn’t know how many times he watches the training routine. How many is too many? His breath comes fast and shallow, and he has every point and angle memorised. He opens the messaging app again.

yuri-plisetsky tell him to watch the landing. that was disgraceful

It takes fifteen minutes for Mila to reply, tell him yourself. Yuri throws the phone away from himself like something poisonous.

Later, he sits in bed with the lights off, and plans his stretches for tomorrow. His routine for the barre. Something to ameliorate the pain in his foot from blisters torn open thrice over. His sock had come off stiff with blood, and he had to soak it in cold water before tossing it into the basket with the rest of his laundry.

He bends his toes inward, as far as they’ll go; then he pushes them further with his palm, and rotates his foot without needing to see the shift of bone and ligament beneath the skin. His fingers catch on the rough fabric of tape. First one foot, then the other. It barely even hurts.

Footsteps, then quiet conversation.

Sometimes it’s strange to think that Viktor and Yuuri are at the onsen as well, stuck in the same liminal space despite being firmly grounded in concrete, undeniable reality. Yuri stops breathing, trying to make out individual words as Viktor and Yuuri pass right next to his room. The screen doors give a barest modicum of privacy, but he can only hear murmurs. Easy and comfortable. The way people talk to each other when they’re close, when their nearness is not a threat.

And then it gets quiet again, and Yuri is left wondering. Does he try to imagine? Of course. Not that he’d admit it under torture and pain of death. What must it be like, to hold someone falling asleep? Probably uncomfortable. All those limbs to coordinate, and bones in the way. Angles. Yuuri didn’t drop his fighting weight, and Viktor has always been all lean muscle, and Yuri can’t make his mind skitter away fast enough to avoid thinking of what they’re like together.

If it’s easy between them. All that emotion boiling over, cresting in simple animal need. If Viktor stays in charge. He probably doesn’t, not when Yuuri lets go. When push comes to shove, and Yuri has pushed things many times to the point of just that, he knows that Yuuri’s higher impulses take a back seat. What comes out is always hungry and sharp-teethed. Maybe, for Viktor, that’s the appeal.

Yuri hears a thump, very faint, from down the hall. And again. Other noises that he doesn’t want to hear. When he holds his breath, he can almost make out the shape of a sigh, or perhaps a moan.

He has to wonder. He can’t not. What would it be like to touch someone whenever and however he wanted, to have that freedom of proximity. If it would be easy without the breadth of a continent between him and who he wants.

But down the hall Viktor and Yuuri belong to themselves, and Yuri’s body is not his own.

All he can do it cover his mouth with one hand and use the other on himself, with his back to the wall, swallowing every noise, unsure of where to hang his imagination: Otabek taking to the air with the grace of a panther, or what’s right here, down the hall, bodies in motion. And later, when he’s wiping his fingers in a tissue and willing his heart to slow, maybe he feels a little empty, maybe that’s how it’s supposed to feel.

It helps him fall asleep, though. He’ll deal with muscle cramps in the morning. He’ll call Otabek in the morning, too, after stretching, after he’s banked this useless need.

Yuri had skated in the 2017 Grand Prix Final, or rather, he’d skated his short program, and left an acceptable eight-point gap between himself and Nekola in second place.

During morning practice before the men’s free skate, Yuri had never seen Lee Seung-Gil coming at him, and Lee hadn’t seen him. Only Lee had been lucky enough to get away with a concussion and a nosebleed, dramatic at first glance but ultimately harmless. Yuri would have gladly skated through a concussion. He had, on a different occasion.

Instead the blade of Lee’s skate had nearly sawed through the back of Yuri’s knee, shredding the collateral ligament.

Yuri had watched the men’s free skate and medal ceremony from a hospital wheelchair, so angry he’d thought it would leave him blind. He’d been on crutches by New Year, his participation in every event of that season long withdrawn, wondering if that’s what his mother felt after her own career-ending injury, before she’d known it would actually end her career.

Perhaps this is what made him agree to Viktor’s offer of coaching. Because Viktor had said, during their Facetime call, with all apparent sincerity, “If you train under me, I promise you won’t finish another competition off the podium.”

It is never painless, and sometimes there is blood, and maybe he will rend himself in the process, but what’s a little pain? Perfection takes effort.