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lonely two-legged creatures

Chapter Text

 I could swear by your expression
that the pain down in your soul
was the same as the one down in mine

 


  

Victor Nikiforov spent the days that followed the 2015 Grand Prix Final with a radiant feeling in his chest. He couldn’t go five minutes without his mind wandering to thoughts of Yuuri Katsuki’s warm, strong hands in his own, on his waist, in his hair. At practice he paid little thought to the rink around him, instead picturing Yuuri’s lovely brown eyes gazing back. Victor let himself run away with a fantasy of marrying Yuuri, becoming a world-famous figure skating power couple, choreographing beautiful pair routines for the two of them to skate together before sold-out crowds.

Before the Final, Victor had been privately rooting for the late-blooming skater from Japan who skated so much like he did. Katsuki’s jumps were often shaky, but the performances themselves were just breathtaking. He had a mastery of step sequences that showed a strong foundation in dance, and an earnest, moving expression. He did for Victor what Victor had always hoped his own skating did for others--showed them their own feelings, translated with clarity into the language of ice and music and movement. Victor was surprised and disappointed when Katsuki did so poorly in Sochi. He was even more surprised when the sixth-place skater, reeking of champagne and absolutely dazzling, approached him at the banquet and whirled him away into the best night of his life.

After the Final, Victor scoured the internet for every video of Yuuri he could find. Weak jumps and questionable costume choices aside, he clearly had an extraordinary potential. The right coach to help him through his competition anxiety, the right choreography to let his heart shine clear, and he could be a world champion, Victor was sure of it.

Be my coach, Victor!

Victor grinned and blushed again every time he remembered, but soon his smiles began to fade. He was perfectly aware of his own faults--the forgetfulness, the distraction, the fundamental social awkwardness he hid beneath practiced friendliness and patched with eccentricity. The frightening ease with which his mind slipped to deadness and despair. And he’d never coached before. Yakov in fact mostly kept him away from the younger skaters in St. Petersburg on the logic that he didn’t want Victor’s lackadaisical attitude to rub off on them. You can get away with this Vitya because you keep fucking winning gold but I won’t let the others think just anyone can ignore my every instruction and piss off the Skating Federation and skip sponsor meetings to play with their dog and still be four time world champion.

“What do you think, Makkachin?” Victor asked as he scratched the poodle’s neck. “Should we go to Japan?”

Makkachin panted, then made a curious “Mrroof?”

“Ah, I don’t know either,” said Victor.

He let himself dream of it. He wondered what music would be right for Yuuri, what would give him the best chance to surprise his audience. Victor had been thinking of “On Love - Agape” for his own short program next season, and he thought of its companion, “On Love - Eros,” thought of Yuuri pulling him close in their tango at the banquet with a look of such fierce intent it still sent shivers down Victor’s spine when he remembered it. Oh, perfect, he thought with a smile. At night he lay awake dreaming up choreography.

As the days passed, however, it was not only Victor’s doubts about his nonexistent coaching skills that ate away at his fantasy. He hadn’t heard a word from Yuuri himself since that night, and Victor found himself rationalizing the entire thing away. He was drunk, we were both drunk, these feelings aren’t real, I’m just clinging to the idea of them because the whole thing seemed so romantic, he probably hasn’t given it a second thought, I shouldn’t either. I’m not in love. I’m not in love. Not really.

Within two weeks, the dream faded. Helpless, Victor felt the windows that Yuuri had thrown open to the sunlight shuttering again. He dragged himself day by day through the routines of practice and eating and smiling all on his own, as he always had, and always would.

***

When Yuuri Katsuki returned home after his college graduation, he felt odd and disconnected.

Minako, convinced Yuuri would return to skating, kept offering to put him in contact with coaches. Yuuko didn’t make assumptions and didn’t push, but she was clearly bursting to ask him about his plans. She told him all the rumors she’d heard about what kind of programs the other skaters were planning for the upcoming season, as if that would entice him to start planning his own. She kept saying how incredible his private performance of Victor Nikiforov’s “Stammi Vicino” program had been, how he could have given Victor a run for the gold if they’d both skated it. Yuuri knew she was just trying to help, but hearing all that only made him feel more pressure, and pressure was killing him.

From the walls of his room, a dazzling array of beautiful Victors looked down on him. In the past, Yuuri had always imagined them supporting him, beckoning him onward, keep going, skate well, meet me on the ice some day. But now Yuuri had met the real Victor--almost--and all he could think in the moment Victor had turned and offered a commemorative photo was how utterly unworthy Yuuri still was to meet him on the ice. Some day . But that day seemed impossible now, after this last disastrous season. Instead of inspiring him, the Victors made him anxious. He’d had every chance to prove himself worthy of skating against Victor, and he’d blown it.

The Katsuki family remained blessedly neutral on the subject of Yuuri’s skating career, never prying or even bringing it up after his first evening back home. But that too made him anxious, guilt crawling up the walls of his stomach when he thought of all the sacrifices his family had made for him--paying for ballet and skating lessons, coaches, sending him off to a foreign country for five years without a single visit. How would they really feel if after all that he just retired from the sport as a failure?

 

One frigid April morning Yuuri awoke to a weather alert for snow. He peered out his window at the flakes coming down, thick and falling fast in the early morning darkness. Yuuri groaned, knowing he would be expected to help clear the onsen’s paths once it let up a bit. He staggered around bleary-eyed, unearthing winter clothes he hadn’t worn since Detroit, and finally made it downstairs in time to join his family for a quiet breakfast before the guests arose.

“Hey Yuuri, ready to help me shovel the paths?” his dad asked, ever cheerful about the most unpleasant things.

The two of them cleared the snow as best they could, and afterward they shivered together companionably inside the onsen, attempting to warm up with a pot of tea.

“Dad?” Yuuri ventured.

“Yes, Yuuri? What is it?”

“What do you think I should do next season?”

“Enjoy the sunshine! Go for walks on the beach! It’s supposed to be a nice hot summer!”

Yuuri rolled his eyes. “Ha ha ha. I meant, you know. About skating.”

“What are you asking me for? It’s your decision.”

Yuuri hunched his shoulders. “I just--you and Mom have given me so much to get this far. I don’t want to let you down by giving up, but I’m just--I did so badly last season, and I don’t know. I don’t know. I’m just not sure of what I want anymore.” Yuuri felt hot tears begin to well up, and his heart start to race in panic.

His dad gently took his mug of tea from his hands, and set it down on the sideboard, then pulled his son into a tight hug. “Yuuri,” he said. “Your mom and I are so proud of you. Yes, we gave a great deal to support your skating career, and your college studies in America. We were happy to do it, because skating was what you wanted to do, and you were willing to work hard for it, and it made you happy. If skating isn’t what makes you happy any more, we will support you in that, too.”

Yuuri hugged him back. “Thanks, Dad,” he said shakily.

“In the meantime, I hope helping your old parents run the onsen also makes you happy, because we need to make sure the indoor baths are extra nice today since not many will want to be outside! And how do you feel about helping old Chiyoko-san around? You know she only had that hip replacement a couple months ago and we can’t have her falling on the ice. You know she also has to do all those exercises--that was your degree after all, maybe it would be nice of you to offer to help her--”

 

The next day, Mari trailed around after Yuuri saying, “You know, Yuuri, Chiyoko-san wouldn’t shut up about how sweet and helpful you were to her when she left.”

“Oh...thanks.”

“I think she miiight have a little crush on you.”

“She’s just a very nice old lady,” Yuuri scolded.

“Have you thought about, you know. Doing that?”

“Old ladies?!”

Mari snorted. “No, weirdo, physical therapy. That thing you got a degree in.”

“Oh,” said Yuuri. “Well, I--don’t actually have a degree in that, it was just kinesiology, and I’d need a whole other one to get certified.”

“So?” said Mari.

“I mean, yeah, I’ve thought about it. It was nice, feeling helpful.”

“I mean, no pressure but it could be great business for the onsen, if we could advertise that we had a licensed physical therapist--or oo, hey, a massage therapist, I mean that would be even better--”

“Okay, okay, I’ll think about it, alright?”

 

Later, Yuuri went down the the Ice Castle and put on Prokofiev’s Tale of the Stone Flower . He skated without any sort of plan, just let his feet follow the music, sometimes skating over to the speakers to skip over movements he didn’t like as much. Sometimes he slipped into Victor Nikiforov’s choreography from a free skate program from many years ago. It felt so good, out here alone on the ice, just letting the ballet move through him. It felt like freedom, with no one watching, no one tallying his jumps, no one raising an eyebrow and making a mark every time he let his hand touch the ice.

As it often did, when he let it, the ice brought him calm. With every spin, every gesture of his arms, he let go of the dream of skating on the same ice as Victor. It was a bad reason to push himself back into a career that had begun to bring him more pain than joy. He didn’t need it. The ice would always be here, and the music. And Victor, perfect and unstoppable, would keep churning out new and perfect programs to release the feelings in his heart. If no one but his close friends and family ever saw him skate them, well, that was actually a huge relief.

Back in his childhood bedroom, feeling sore but content, Yuuri looked around at all the posters. He shook his head, feeling a little ridiculous. Carefully, gently, he pulled each one from the walls, unpeeled their tape and sticky putty, and slid the whole stack under his bed.

He left just one picture of Victor, tastefully framed instead of tacked straight on the wall like he’d done as a kid. Victor at the 2009 Worlds Gala Exhibition, hands stretched high above his head, bangs flopping down over eyes made up in glittery blue eyeshadow, a look of defiant joy. The photo had run in a skating magazine, but somehow Minako had managed to get an 8x10 print of it, which she’d given to Yuuri before he went off to college. It always made him feel stronger and happier to look at it.

“Sorry, Victor,” he said aloud, as if the living legend would care or understand if he’d actually been there. But still, Yuuri smiled. He had always loved Victor for doing everything his own way. Maybe breaking away from the path he’d been on for so many years was a way of honoring Victor, too.

***

The 2016 Grand Prix Final banquet was much more subdued than that of the previous year. However, if Victor mourned the absence of last year’s tango partner, he did have the pleasure of chatting with a delightful young Thai skater named Phichit Chulanont. Victor congratulated Phichit on his success at making the Final, though he’d wound up coming in last. “You have incredible stage presence,” Victor assured him warmly. “I really hope you don’t feel discouraged. This was a very impressive group of skaters this year and you did really well! And you’re still so young--you have a very bright career ahead of you, I’m sure.”

Phichit beamed at the praise, and assured Victor he was far from giving up. “Hey,” he added, “can I get a selfie with you? For my Insta?”

Victor cheerfully complied.

“Thanks!” said Phichit once it was posted. “Man, Yuuri’s gonna be so jealous!”

Victor had been about to move on to speak with someone else, but not anymore. “Yuuri?” he asked.

“Oh, you know, Yuuri Katsuki? From Japan? He came in sixth at last year’s Final?”

“Oh no, I remember Yuuri,” said Victor. “Do you know him personally?”

“Sure do!” said Phichit. “We were roommates for the couple of years we overlapped training under Celestino in Detroit. Great dude, even if he’s kinda weird. I can’t believe he didn’t manage to get a selfie with you last year!”

Victor supposed this was true--Yuuri had never taken out his own phone for pictures that Victor had noticed, and Victor himself had spent the whole evening so entranced with Yuuri that he had left photography to everyone else. “Yes,” he said, “what a shame! And a shame to see he retired after last season.”

“Ugh, I know, don’t get me started,” said Phichit. “I have this dream of doing an ice show back in Thailand though, and I really want Yuuri to be in it! I feel like he might like performing better if he’s not getting graded on it.”

“Well I wish you success then!”

“Thanks!”

“Ah, Phichit?”

“Yeah?”

“Did Yuuri say much about last year’s Final to you? About everything that happened?”

Phichit shook his head. “No, he didn’t really want to talk about it, and I knew better than to push him. Kind of a sore subject, you know?”

Victor nodded, heart sinking. “Sure. Makes sense.”

“Why do you ask?”

Victor shrugged. “Ah, I don’t know. Just curious. Good luck with your ice show, Phichit.”

***

Mari came bursting through Yuuri’s door, then immediately flung herself face-down on his bed.

“Hey, Mari,” Yuuri said. “You okay there?”

Mari responded with a muffled “Yeurgh.”

“Rude guest?” Yuuri guessed.

“No,” came the response, Mari’s face still buried in his pillow.

“Okay,” said Yuuri, and he waited for her to cough up an explanation. At last, she raised her head and flopped it back down facing Yuuri.

“How are your massage classes going.”

Yuuri rolled his eyes. “Fine, but that’s clearly not what you want to talk about.”

“I met a girl today.”

“Okay. Oh! Oh, cute girl?” Yuuri asked.

Mari responded by turning her face back into the pillow and producing a muffled wail.

Turning back, she said, “I think I asked her out?”

Yuuri clapped his hands to his face with a big grin. “What? Tell me everything!”

“Ughhhh it’s not a big deal,” Mari said as she rolled over on her back. “She works at the library, she didn’t judge me for checking out YA stuff, we talked about this one series for like ten minutes and then I felt guilty for keeping her away from her work so I asked her if she might want to get coffee and talk about it more sometime, and she was all, ‘Yeah, I only work a half day on Saturdays, could you meet around 1?’ and I was like, ‘Sure that sounds chill’ and she was like ‘Cool see you then.’ Is that a date? I don’t even know.”

“Oh my god,” said Yuuri.

“She is super cute though. How do you get girls to like you?”

“In my experience,” said Yuuri, “being an asexual gay dude seems to help.”

“You’re useless,” Mari groaned, getting to her feet. “You’re gonna be here Saturday afternoon to cover for me though, right?”

“Yeah, I guess,” said Yuuri as she headed out the door. “Not like I have anything else to do.”

“Hey, Yuuri,” Mari said, backing up.

“Yeah.”

“What’s going on with your hair these days, kiddo?” She ruffled her hand through her brother’s ever-shaggier locks. “Is this depression or is this an aesthetic?”

Yuuri sighed. “Can’t it be both. A depression aesthetic.”

“Cause I get if you don’t feel like going to a barber, but I could trim it for you if you want.”

“No, it’s fine. I--I think I am gonna try growing it out a little.”

Mari nodded. “Cool. Well if you want highlights or something, I got you.”

Yuuri huffed a laugh. “Thanks, I’ll keep that in mind.”

“Any time. Hey--for the record, I think you’ll look great with a ponytail. Very young Victor Nikiforov,” she added with a little smirk.

“Ugh, don’t,” said Yuuri.

***

Victor knew it was over the moment his blade hit the ice and his knee went pop . Behind the blinding pain that shot through his leg, there was a strange and perfect clarity. It’s over , he thought, calm as the audience screamed, and people around the rink shouted for medical assistance. He didn’t need to see Yakov’s broken look, or hear the doctor’s assessment later in the hospital. In that moment, it all seemed simple. Right, even. It’s over . He’d always known it was coming, sooner or later. Here it was.

Victor carried that calm with him all the way through the hospital visit and its immediate aftermath, helped along by the generous pain medication that dulled the whole world, even his thoughts. The following day, Victor awoke from a nap to an unpleasant wet feeling on his shin. “Ah, Makkachin, why are you drooling so--” he muttered, waving a hand at the poodle only to feel it brush a half-melted ice pack instead of a curly head. It was then that all his truths hit him at once.

Of course, Makkachin is gone. You tore your ACL on live television and you’ll never skate competitively again, not at your age. All you ever had in your wretched life was Makkachin and skating and in the span of a week you lost them both. You have nothing. You are nothing. It’s all over.

The feeling of deep sunkenness in Victor’s chest welled up into horrible, choking sobs. The tissues were on the kitchen counter, several feet away from where he lay sprawled on the couch. When he looked at the crutches on the floor beside him, he just started crying harder again, and resigned to wiping his disgusting face on the sleeve of his shirt.

***

Yuuri got a text from Yuuko just as he was leaving therapy dog class.

Did you see the news about Victor? It’s so horrible :’(

Heart suddenly pounding, Yuuri stopped dead on the sidewalk, and googled Victor’s name. It usually came up with results about his record-breaking collection of gold medals, but not today. Today, the headlines read,

          Victor Nikiforov, 29, Tears ACL During Skate America Free Skate

          Nikiforov Finishes Last in Skate America Due to Injury

          Victor Nikiforov Forced Into “Early” Retirement?

Horrified, Yuuri took off back home at a sprint, the therapy-dog-in-training thundering along at his side with her tongue waving merrily in the breeze. Yuuri slid into his desk chair as soon as he was through the door to his room, and jiggled his leg as his laptop woke up. Ai lumbered over to sit beside him, bumping her head impatiently against his elbow.

“Shh, hang on girl, I’ll feed you in just a minute.”

He went searching for footage from the competition. Victor’s free skate wasn’t available on the official site, but someone had uploaded a pretty high quality video shot from the audience. Victor’s program began beautifully, perfect as always, his body expressing the music to its fullest in every moment, and then came a triple Salchow, and when Victor made contact with the ice again, he yelled, and crashed to the ground. At first, he attempted to get back on his feet to continue skating, only to collapse as soon as he put pressure on his right knee again. Someone shut the music off, and Victor was forced to just sit on the ice, helpless, as EMTs made their way out to help him off the rink.

Yuuri was crying.

He was intimately familiar with the shame of doing poorly in a competition, something Victor had probably never experienced in his life, but not like this. He ached for Victor, who had up to that point skated flawlessly in defiance of everyone who said he had clung to the sport too long and should have retired years ago, that his body would soon reach its limit. How awful, to not only have all those whispers come true, but in the middle of a competition, in front of everyone. He lost his shot at a medal, at any more medals at all, and he didn’t even get to finish his free skate. It wasn’t fair. A skater like Victor deserved to retire on his own terms, after medaling at Worlds for the millionth year in a row. Not by falling on his face in front of a stadium of onlookers, not to mention the whole internet. Yuuri felt disgusted at himself for giving in to the urge to watch. What a callous, horrid thing to do.

Athletes could recover from ACL tears, but it took months and months. It would be a long time before Victor could even hope to recover the strength and agility he once had. At Victor’s age, it was probably too long. He was nearly thirty, and few skaters ever made it even that far.

Yuuri knew how much Victor loved skating, and it broke his heart, thinking of how it had all been taken away from him.

And his dog had just died just a week ago, too. Yuuri knew that pain as well.

Yuuri shuddered with quiet sobs, and crumpled to the ground to bury his face in Ai’s thick fur. Tolerant as always, she sat and snuffled quietly until he calmed down. At last, he got himself cleaned up and sent off a text to Yuuko before taking Ai to the kitchen for her treat.

                          I just saw it. Poor Victor.

Later that evening, after finishing up his duties around the onsen, Yuuri learned that Victor had put all speculation to rest. He was officially retiring.

Yuuri felt another hot wave of tears come down, knowing at last that it was real.

He looked at the photo of Victor by his desk, with that glorious, triumphant smile.

This is how I’ll always remember him , Yuuri thought fiercely.

Victor would probably become a coach now. Yuuri wondered what young skater would be lucky enough to train with him.

***

In the darkness that followed his injury, Victor spent a lot of time staring at his walls. He unplugged his tv and left his computer uncharged in a corner. He turned on his phone once a day in case of some emergency, but refused to take calls. In the occasional mood of optimism that moved through him, he thought of how at least he now had plenty of time to read. But every time he sat down with a book, his thoughts wandered away from the pages to walk the maze of dead ends in his mind.

You’re broken.

Everything’s gone.

You’re nothing.

Sometimes he looked at the bottle of pills they’d given him, and thought, That’s an option.

But the thought of that thought always scared him more than the future did, so he just took one, stretched his leg, and tried to sleep.

 

One afternoon following his surgery, while once again staring at the second page of 1Q84 without reading the words, a loud bang on his door jolted him back to full consciousness, followed by a bellowed, “VITYA! ANSWER YOUR PHONE!”

Victor scrambled off the couch and opened the door to a red-faced Yakov holding a large paper sack.

Victor ran his fingers through his hair, aware that he’d put off showering for several days now. “Yakov, what are you doing here?”

“I’m here to make sure you’re still breathing and doing your physical therapy exercises!” Yakov shouldered past him and set the sack down with a loud thunk on Victor’s kitchen counter. “What’s wrong with you?”

“What’s wrong with me?” Victor felt angry all of a sudden. There were at least two things wrong with him, both of them, he felt, painfully obvious.

“If you don’t manage this recovery correctly to the letter you may never skate again, what do you think about that!”

“I know!” Victor yelled back, then screwed up his face as he felt tears burning in his eyes. He hadn’t cried in front of Yakov since he was fifteen. “What, do you think I’m going to skate another season after this? Win more gold for Russia?”

“Vitya,” said Yakov firmly. “If you try to skate another competitive season after this injury I will personally kill you. No matter how well you recover you are only going to be more vulnerable to injuries after this. Plisetsky can win plenty of gold without you around hogging the spotlight anyway. No Vitya, I want to make sure you can skate again for yourself, because skating brings you joy, and you need it.”

“Yakov, I--” Victor struggled to get his composure together. “I’ve been doing the exercises, okay? They showed me everything at my first appointment and they’re very simple. I’m handling it. It’s fine.”

“Fine, hm?”

“Yes,” said Victor. “Fine.”

Yakov took in Victor’s apartment, then said, “You need a vacation.”

“A what?”

“You need a vacation. Get out of this apartment, it looks like no one even lives here. Get out of St. Petersburg. Go find a nice beach somewhere. You’ve been working every day of your life since you were a child, you deserve some--” Yakov spit out the last word like he didn’t approve of its taste. “--fun.”

“Fun,” said Victor.

“Are you even eating? This is the most depressing kitchen I’ve seen in my life. And wash yourself, you look like shit.”

“Okay,” said Victor dazedly.

Yakov turned back to the door, his tolerance for mother-henning Victor already depleted. “If you leave town tell me, and keep your damn phone on!”

“Sure, Yakov,” said Victor. “I’ll do that.”

Yakov slammed the door behind him.

Victor investigated the sack Yakov left on his counter. It was full of food.

He put the perishable goods away, then showered, realizing he’d been a fool to put it off, because he felt significantly better after. He microwaved one of the frozen dinners Yakov had brought, deciding he could graduate to actually preparing food himself tomorrow. He ate, swiped away notifications from his phone, and thought about a vacation.

He didn’t want to go somewhere too crowded and busy--if he was going to go on a vacation, he wanted it to be somewhere the press wouldn’t find out about right away. Somewhere quiet and relaxing. A mountain lodge, or a hot spring.

Unbidden, his wild night at the 2015 Grand Prix banquet came back to him. Victor had tried not to think too much about his enchanting dance partner and what might have been, in the years since, but every now and then it all resurfaced, and he relived every moment. Including the part where a half-naked Yuuri had invited Victor to visit his family’s hot spring resort in Japan while cheerfully grinding on his thigh. Victor smiled for the first time in days. He knew it was foolish to still be a little hung up a man he’d only met once, almost three years ago, but that night still glowed in his memory as one the happiest of his life. He had felt so much joy, so much life while dancing in Yuuri’s arms, things that felt impossibly distant to him right now.

Maybe he’d made a mistake back then, thinking he should wait for Yuuri to reach out to him. By now Yuuri was surely married. He might not even live in Hasetsu anymore. If he did, he might want nothing to do with Victor. But a quick search revealed that the Katsuki family indeed still ran the modest but well-reviewed Yu-Topia hot spring resort. What the hell? He thought. He truly had nothing to lose, and if Yuuri was not there to show Victor how to live again, then at least he could look forward to pleasant days soaking in the healing waters of a rural hot spring, where no one was likely to bother him.

Feeling energized further by the existence of a plan, Victor did a load of laundry, hauled out his largest suitcase, and bought a plane ticket.

***

Yuuri heard a knock on the massage room doorway, and looked up to see his mom poking her head around the corner.

“Sorry to interrupt, dear” she said, “but there’s a guest out front who only speaks English. Will you come get him checked in when you’re done here?”

Yuuri nodded.

Hiroko left, then stuck her head back in just a second later. “Actually, you know it’s funny--he reminds me of that cute figure skater you love so much!”

Yuuri laughed. “What, Victor Nikiforov?”

“Yeah!” said his mom. “He’s got that blonde hair just like him.”

“Oh, okay,” Yuuri said with a smile. “Thanks for the uh, warning, Mom.”

A minute later, he sent the massage guest on her way, tidied up his things, and jogged out to the front desk.

The foreign guest was indeed a tall guy with platinum blonde hair, and Yuuri got a shiver of recognition just before the man turned around at the sound of Yuuri’s approaching footsteps.

Yuuri’s brain fritzed. His heart pounded so hard he thought he was going to die right there on the spot. “V-Victor Nikiforov?”

A bright smile lit up Victor’s face. “Hello! Yes, that’s me!” He held out his hand. “It’s nice to see you again, Yuuri!”