Celestino calls them all together for brunch in Brooklyn. It’s winter in New York.
Yuuri loves New York in the winter; he’s always been a fan of the cold. It gives him an excuse to lounge in bed for hours with his dog, reading books or drinking tea.
Got game by the pound, Yuuri listens as he enters the hip café blaring a smooth jazz version of No Diggity and his shoulders move almost instinctively, threatening to send the long black coat (chosen by his stylist) slipping to the ground. He keeps the dark aviators close to his face and manages – for once! – to convince his bodyguards to stay by the armored escalade parked in front of the establishment. A few people loitering by the door recognize him and he gives them a cool, effortless nod as he struts into the restaurant, giving them little time to react. He’s learned through the years that it’s the aftermath, not the shock of meeting a celebrity that makes people do crazy things, like the brain trying to remember to breathe after running a marathon.
In his mind, he’s calculating the time by seconds: He’s late, a usual casualty of spending half an hour staring at the ceiling and making a detailed account of his life to tally whether he’s happy today. It’s not exactly a question he ever thought he’d have to ask himself, but it’s always there. Certainly, that wasn’t something he bothered mentioning to Rolling Stone when he did their most recent cover: Yuuri Katsuki, Prince of Pop and Soul, top of the charts for three months and counting, and sold out world tour. He doesn’t talk about the anxiety meds.
(When Yuuri decided to sign with Celestino Cialdini to become a member of 3XO, he’d been fourteen and naïve with some serious stage fright, mostly following his best friend Phichit into a fantasy that plucked them from a dance studio in one of Detroit’s crumbling buildings to a hit factory in Los Angeles.
His only exposure to celebrity back then had been Viktor Nikiforov. Viktor with his movie-star good-looks – all flawless alabaster skin and platinum blond hair – and his ground-breaking music videos premiering in movie theaters like Hollywood classics. In truth, it had always been Viktor, with his infectious ear worms ruling the charts week after week, reinventing himself with the smoothness of a chameleon, each layer slowly morphing him into the self-proclaimed, eccentric, brilliant King of Pop. It had looked like fun back then, going from playing pretend-pop-star breakdancing in street corners to having Minako Okukawa whispering fame into his ear: ‘Good job, Celestino! You’ve definitely found the next Viktor Nikiforov!’
And Yuuri had believed it, plastering his wall with even more posters of Viktor Nikiforov. He’d sealed his future with sweat and glitter, sacrificing bloody feet at the altar of legend. He’d allowed Celestino and Minako to guide him through celebrity, used his bandmates as anchors to see when the lights blinded him on stage (and his stylist couldn’t find a pair of contacts), and when Phichit and Otabek started shedding their cavity-inducing sugar pop image, Yuuri stripped to beat them, fast with the force of gyrating hips and buckets of fake rain to ice an otherwise perfectly cool music video, earning him a prime place in the wet dreams of a genderless mass between 17 and 35. Or so Celestino informed him, after paying some nebulous corporate entity to run the stats for them. Singlehandedly, like a dog barking at its own reflection, Yuuri had buried 3XO with his success, tricking himself into the permanence of his bandmates.
When they’d chosen to disband before him, he’d felt betrayed.)
“Yuuri!” Celestino greets him, slipping a mimosa into his hand effortlessly. “I’m so glad you could join us!”
“Sorry I’m late everyone,” Yuuri apologizes quietly.
“Don’t worry, Yuuri!” Phichit chirps, already bringing him into a tight hug. “Ah, it’s so good to see you, my little Prince of Pop!”
Truth is that Yuuri talks to Phichit at least once a day. It feels good to bring Phichit into a tight hug.
The problem is Otabek, who studies him from a distance. Yuuri hasn’t seen much of Otabek since 3XO officially disbanded and Otabek began making a name for himself as one of the best DJs in the world, playing to sold out arenas from Shanghai to Paramaribo. It feels strange, like being reacquainted with a missing limb (that now wears solid darks and leather jackets instead of baggy jeans), and Yuuri doesn’t know how to greet his old bandmate, not after how things ended.
(Looking back at it, Yuuri can’t blame Otabek for labeling him selfish, but the words still hurt, and on days when Yuuri wonders if he’ll be able to get his next song to number one, they bite, too. It’s like acid, slowly gnawing at his mind: ‘You’ll never be like Viktor Nikiforov.’ – The reminder is strong that Yuuri has not yet made peace with the fact that he knows he’ll never be as good as Viktor. For one, Viktor Nikiforov is a musical genius, who composes and arranges his own music with the expertise and self-confidence of a man that has given up on relevance long ago. It’s the same reason why Viktor’s last comeback album tanked. None of Yuuri’s songs have yet to bypass number one.)
Instinctively, Yuuri knows Otabek is not a bad person, but his anxiety colors the world in different shades. The Otabek that Yuuri remembers had been blunt and rough around the edges, but he’d also been a good bandmate – a good friend, if Yuuri can take the liberty to not pretend that someone who shared an ice tub with him after a show could be anything else, talented and eager to expose the world to his music. And now he was doing it, just like Phichit.
Yuuri can’t say the same, despite the wall of awards back home. Hours in the studio and authorship credit did not translate into Yuuri making the music he wanted to hear.
Otabek doesn’t say a word, just extends his arms out. Yuuri pulls down his sunglasses and stares for a long while at the offer in front of him. He doesn’t hesitate as tears begin to prick at his eyes and he rushes to hug his old friend, arms tight around Otabek’s middle: When Yuuri was fourteen, it had been Otabek and Phichit at his side – all three against the world. And it really had felt like they were fighting an onslaught of doubtful reviews amid an unsteady and rocky climb to their first gold album. This moment feels like forgiveness. It feels like coming home.
“I’m so sorry,” Yuuri sobs, “You were right, I was being selfish.”
(I’ll never be like Viktor Nikiforov, Yuuri doesn’t say.)
“Hey,” Otabek says, stern and devoid of anger. Yuuri can feel Phichit’s hand rubbing circles over his back. “It’s okay, Yuuri. I was wrong, too. I was hurt. You and Phichit were the closest to a family I ever had back then, but now I’m happy you got what you wanted. You did get what you wanted, right?” – Leave it to Otabek to easily read the world in between blurred lines.
Yuuri only cries harder until his mascara runs and Celestino ushers them out of the establishment through the kitchens. Apparently, the paparazzi have received word that Yuuri Katsuki is crying with his old bandmates in a faux hole-in-the-wall in Brooklyn. When he reads the article later, he tries to pretend not to notice that neither of his friends are mentioned by name (just as bandmates, like it’s a trademarked label).
Otabek learns that Yuuri is a huge Viktor Nikiforov fan when, early in their career, 3XO is invited to a children’s charity in New York. Yuuri is sixteen, then, still incredibly shy in crowds, and blossoming by the day. Technically, the Springtime of Yuuri is hitting them all. Phichit, too, is growing into solid pretty, a term starting to mark his press more and more. Apparently, Otabek is growing into his cool. But Otabek is under no misperception that he’s anything but handsome. Yuuri, though, their Yuuri is growing into beautiful and it keeps people gaping at him for days in ways that Phichit and Otabek know make Yuuri uncomfortable. (Even now, a set of pre-teens are lining the area, scouting for the perfect opportunity to ask for an autograph and a picture.) Yuuri isn’t used to designer this and one-of-a-kind that. He doesn’t have opinions on eyeliner (which Phichit does, because he has sensitive eyes, thanks) or on jean brands (which Otabek does, because he has sponsors, thanks). Yuuri just wants to make music (and apparently fanboy over Viktor Nikiforov).
It's a cute joke right now. Viktor Nikiforov has about nine years on Yuuri, but every media outlet and magazine imaginable has really run with the Yuuri Katsuki has a big gay crush on Viktor Nikiforov byline. Viktor is twenty-five and larger than life. He’s also entirely ignorant of 3XO, but it’s a big event and, as far as Otabek knows, Viktor is known for his charity work – children’s hospitals, animal shelters, and save the planet campaigns. It’s all right up his ally, which means any opportunity to join these is number one on Yuuri’s big asks for 3XO.
“Oh my god, oh my god,” Phichit squeals, squeezing Yuuri’s arm. “And he looks so good! Look at that jacket. He’s right there, Yuuri! Now’s your moment, boy!”
“His moment for what?” Otabek asks, bored.
He doesn’t get the hype. Viktor Nikiforov is a legend, sure, with the biggest selling album of all-time, but he’s yet to beat himself again. In Otabek’s mind, that makes Viktor Nikiforov a strange type of monster – both invincible to criticism and horribly haunted by the same.
“Yuuri’s finally going to say hello to his idol,” Phichit answers for Yuuri.
Otabek nods, “that’s good, right?”
It’s not. Yuuri is so nervous that when Viktor Nikiforov graciously greets the other artists at the event – and gives a special shout-out to my new favorites, 3XO – Yuuri practically climbs over some empty chairs and pushes a set of orphans aside to get closer to his idol. Otabek facepalms, looking at the scene devolve into chaos as Yuuri practically trips on an empty chair as teenagers try to get pictures.
“Wow,” Viktor Nikiforov says, laughing for the camera as Yuuri looks up at him from the perfect spot by his Italian loafers. “Teen idols, getting younger and rowdier, aren’t they?”
Phichit remembers things a bit differently. When Yuuri is twenty-one, they party all night in Vegas. Apparently, Viktor Nikiforov really likes Vegas. He goes shopping there all the time and brings a couple of reporters with him to show the world he is very much not broke. A week later, he tends to go back and return almost everything, which ends up sending signals to paparazzi everywhere that, well, yes, he must be broke if he can’t keep his spur of the moment purchases. Whatever. Phichit doesn’t follow all that as much as Yuuri. More importantly, Viktor also always grabs drinks at the Light nightclub in the Mandalay Bay, which is probably the only reason they go there that night – because Yuuri gets a tip that Viktor is in Vegas again and he’s a big enough fan to know Viktor’s casual spots. Of course, that’s where (and when) Yuuri loses his shoe in the VIP section.
“How did you not notice it was gone?” Phichit laughs, clambering behind his friend as they keep their eyes glued to the ground. The VIP section has filled up fast, which means there’s some big name mingling with the common people, or people are there for them, or both.
“You sure you lost it here?” Otabek arches an eyebrow, looking between people’s feet for the shoe. So far, none of them have had any luck. “It could’ve landed anywhere with the air that thing got.”
“Yes, we’ve spent most of our time circling the VIP area,” Yuuri sighs, sobering up by the minute. “I didn’t kick that high. Look harder. I don’t want to be tomorrow’s headline: Yuuri Katsuki Drunk in Vegas, Hot Mess at Mandalay Bay!”
“Well, we definitely don’t want that,” Viktor Nikiforov had interrupted them then (or Phichit doesn’t remember the details between Yuuri whining about being a potential headline and going blind because of Viktor fucking Nikiforov, living legend), bright smile shining bright enough to rival the strobes over their heads. “You’re missing a shoe? Because I found one. It hit me on the head, actually.”
“Oh my god,” Phichit squeaks, trying to take the shoe reverently from Viktor’s gloved hands. His fingers are long. Phichit takes notes for Yuuri. He also can’t get the shoe from Viktor’s grip. “We are so sorry about that, your highness, Mr. King of Pop, Sir. I guess we’re celebrating a little hard tonight. You didn’t get hurt, though, right? – Oh my god, did we tussle the royal hair? We did. Yuuri, we fucked up the royal head! There’s a little spot here—”
“No, no, don’t even worry about it,” Viktor grins, stepping back before a drunk Phichit can poke at the top of his head. Instead, he turns his attention to Yuuri. “So, your shoe?”
Yuuri nods mutely, stretching out a hand to take it back, when Viktor gets down on one knee. He watches in half-panic as Viktor’s hand gently rests against his ankle, “May I?”
Otabek rolls his eyes. Phichit isn’t fast enough to start filming.
“Ah, it’s okay, really,” Yuuri struggles, but allows Viktor to lift his foot gently. Viktor slips the shoe back on smoothly. “T—thank you!” Yuuri squeaks, face flushed red as he watches the scene. Phichit will, thereafter, forever more hear about the time Viktor Nikiforov touched Yuuri’s ankle. Otabek will always pretend to hurl whenever Yuuri would wax poetically about what a gentleman Viktor Nikiforov had been. They don’t make them like that anymore, Minako had always told them, but that doesn’t mean we can’t try to make you all like that. Start running. Strong thighs don’t make themselves!
“No problem,” Viktor nods, getting back up. His bodyguards are behind him and it’s obvious he’s about to depart. Viktor winks at him as he strolls past them, saying, “Happy birthday.”
Once he’s gone, Yuuri turns to his friends, “Oh my god. Did that just – Viktor Nikiforov knows my birthday? Oh my god. You don’t think he really does listen to 3XO, do you guys?”
Otabek pokes at the giant pin on Yuuri’s jacket. “Well, this thing on your chest does say Birthday Boy in bright neon yellow. He’s old enough that he can read.”
Phichit shoves Otabek, “Stop raining on his parade. Like the pin says, he’s the Birthday Boy. Ah, Yuuri! This is so exciting! Viktor Nikiforov just go down on one knee for you! Was it everything you ever thought it would be?”
Yuuri nods, “I almost want to take off my shoe and hug it tight to my chest, guys. I think I’m drunk.”
The Top of the Pop Charts (TPCs) Awards mark exactly three years since 3XO officially disbanded. It also marks twenty-five years of Viktor Nikiforov rocking the world with infectious ear worms and groundbreaking mini-movies. At 37, Viktor can proudly boast a body that won’t quit, a voice that won’t tire, and hips that won’t lie, even if he hasn't exactly released anything recently to prove it. Naturally, the TPCs had asked 3XO to reunite to commemorate Viktor’s achievements. No one is under any pretense: 3XO has been asked because Yuuri tries to avoid performing for the award show circuit when he’s preparing to tour. This is TPC’s way of exploiting Yuuri’s name without the liability of Yuuri dropping out at the last minute. Of course, they accept.
The weeks leading up to the event are a fog of tears and anxiety – from Yuuri.
“It has to be perfect, guys,” he tells his friends, sweating buckets as he tries to take in a breath, “just, just one more time.”
“Yuuri, you need to calm down,” Phichit reminds him gently, trying to stuff a water bottle into Yuuri’s grip. “You’re going to kill yourself practicing here and then practicing for your tour. It’s going to be okay. You’re the best performer in the world right now.”
“It has to be perfect,” Yuuri repeats. The pressure is high and he just feels so limited, so very limited. He’s been dreaming of a moment like this for years. “I want Viktor to see just how much he’s inspired me all this time.”
The Take is the most-watched show in afternoon television with a panel of women in entertainment commenting on the latest on everything. Phichit is obsessed. Every afternoon, he takes a break from practice to get his hamsters, a bowl of popcorn, and his old 3XO blanket to tune in. Today’s topic of conversation just so happens to be his best friend, who is cuddling by his side, half-asleep after a grueling set of back-to-back gym and choreography sessions. Phichit lets his fingers comb through Yuuri’s thick hair, humming gently.
“Okay, so, real talk time: Who else is obsessed with Yuuri Katsuki?” Tricia, one of the presenters, raises her hand. The entire audience claps. “Me too! Okay, so I’m not alone in keeping Eros playing on loop all day, right? – Well, Eros just went platinum, which means at this point it has sold over 1 million physical copies. Completely unbelievable in the age of iPods. But there you have it. Yes, definitely claps! That is clap-worthy!”
“I’ve been listening to Still At It all week!” Ashley, a petite bobbed blonde, admits to the surprise of the group. She’s a self-certified country girl at heart, and Still At It is probably one of Yuuri’s most petty pieces of music – a mixture of head-bobbing, hip-shaking pop-meets-hip-hop with more spoken word than song, in which Yuuri Katsuki, Prince of Pop, struts all his frustrations with critics for the world to see: After I went solo – boy (what a) rollercoaster (rollercoaster), he’s such a monster, (they say I’m) such a monster (such a monster). “I think Yuuri Katsuki’s the hardest working man in show business. He’s everywhere: Rolling Stones last month, Vogue this month, on a cereal box, about to go on tour, he’s on television, he has a small cameo in a movie, a perfume ad – I mean, he’s all over the place. And now 3XO is reuniting!”
Phichit gasps, thinking of elbowing Yuuri to wake up, but he’s fast asleep. The crowd has gone absolutely insane on the television, their claps and whistles becoming almost white-noise. By their feet, Vicchan lifts his head before lazily resuming his nap.
Helen, Phichit’s personal favorite with her purple hair, speaks up next. “I’m kind of a little in love with Yuuri Katsuki. I got to interview him early in the year and he is such a sweetheart, so sweet and gracious and so soft-spoken, really completely different from the performer we see on TV. I like to think we had a moment.”
The other presenters laugh.
“Like I was saying,” Ashley continues, full excitement radiating from her, “3XO is reuniting to put on a performance at the TPCs to celebrate Viktor Nikiforov and someone leaked some footage of Yuuri Katsuki performing a mash-up made by probably Otabek Altin of Viktor’s Ooh with Yuuri’s new song Eros, which already samples it and it is so hot. It is looking like Yuuri is gonna help us all celebrate Nikiforov’s bondage age with the whip and everything, so parents you might want to keep your kids from seeing the show until after you’ve seen it first.”
“Apparently,” Tina, who is from Thailand as well (and Phichit always roots for her), finally enters the conversation, “a reporter asked Viktor Nikiforov the other day what he thought of people calling Yuuri Katsuki the new King of Pop and, well, take a look, folks.”
“People are saying Yuuri Katsuki is the new King of Pop. What do you have to say?"
Viktor Nikiforov blinks a few times, obviously caught by surprise, before he steeples his hands and presses his fingertips close to his lips. He takes a few seconds before he says, “You know, I’ve been following Yuuri’s career for a very long time. I think he’s incredibly talented and a very hard worker and I’ve thought many, many times that if I ever had an opportunity to collaborate, to produce someone else’s album, I would love for it to be Yuuri’s.”
“Have you listened to Eros? Yuuri has said many, many times he was fully inspired by you.”
“Yes, of course. It samples a bit of one of my songs so of course my team had me listen to it first to give permission and I was thrilled. It’s a really fun take on Ooh. I’ve had it on loop for a while, but I haven’t heard the whole album. I hear it’s really good though.”
“What’s your favorite line?”
“Girl put on those high-heels, slip up those stockings, let me bill you later for the show,” Viktor croons, laughing. “Of course I’m going to like my part the best. Ooh is very special to me.”
“And what would you say to the people who do think you’re done, that Yuuri Katsuki is the new King in town?”
“I don’t get into petty fights with people, Julie. We’re all trying to make it. I take as much pride in being number one today as I did twenty years ago. I’ve been around for a long time. I didn’t stay up here picking fights, but making good music. That’s what I do. I let my music speak for itself.”
“You have to hand it to Viktor,” Astoria, the older of all the presenters and in the music industry, says as she claps. “He’s been around long enough and when you still, after some fifteen years, still have the best-selling album of all time? – You have nothing to prove. That’s it. Game over. Yuuri Katsuki is brilliant, but Nikiforov was dancing circles all over the world years before Yuuri Katsuki ever had a hit single.”
“But that’s the thing, right?” Helen pipes in, “He hasn’t had a hit in a while. He hasn’t toured in five years. His last album took him four years to make and it tanked.”
“Tanked by whose standards?” Astoria reprimands, “Look, Kingdom premiered at number one all over the world, all around the world. It stayed number one for weeks. The RIAA certified it platinum in a single month, just at the start of the people-don’t-buy-CDs age. Yuuri Katsuki’s Eros just made it to platinum in three months. Come on, guys. I think everyone wants to see Viktor Nikiforov fail and the reality is that at his worst, he still gave us the best we’ve seen. And now he’s all over the news for what? For doing nothing, the man has released nothing in five years. He leaked one song and it was all over the net. Come on.”
“Okay, sure,” Tina waves them both off, “but Kingdom also cost like $30 million to make. It is the most expensive album of all time and I don’t think it recouped the cost at all.”
“Diamond. Certified diamond sales worldwide – over ten million copies sold worldwide. At around, what, $15 per unit, we’re talking millions. I think it made the money back. I like Yuuri Katsuki, guys, I love him! I love my Yuuri boo. We are both huge Viktor stans, and he can single-handedly tell you that he thinks Kingdom is a masterpiece that was just too far ahead for its time. We’ve had that conversation. But comparing Viktor to Yuuri is unfair to both. Viktor is happy making the music he like best—”
“And his sound is dated,” Tina sighs.
“Viktor Nikiforov’s dated sounds still sell more than Yuuri Katsuki in three months, though. I’m done with this conversation, guys. Yuuri is amazing. Viktor is amazing. Kudos to them both and may the music gods bless us with a collaboration.”
The crowd claps. Phichit stuffs his mouth with more popcorn. It's a good thing Yuuri is asleep.
“I think,” Ashley nods, “that there is an interesting point here, though, right? Sex sells a lot and that’s kind of what Yuuri is selling now. It’s a formula that worked for Viktor, so no judgment there, and it’s worked for many, but it’s a young person’s game and Viktor Nikiforov is thirty-seven now, guys. We like to forget, but he’s pushing forty, whereas Yuuri is still pretty comfortable in not-quite-thirty. They’re at different levels.”
Helen nods, “that’s right. Who knows? Maybe Yuuri will go on to have the best-selling album of all time, right? Maybe? While we go on break, tell us, do you have a favorite? Are you also obsessed with Eros? Still polishing those old Viktor Nikiforov albums? Talk to us at www.thetake.com.”
Phichit stares at the television in shock as he feels Yuuri stir next to him. He looks down at his friend.
“Hey, Yuuri?” he asks, still pushing Yuuri’s hair back in a soothing motion. When Yuuri hums that he’s paying attention, Phichit asks, “What do you think about Viktor Nikiforov’s Kingdom?”
Yuuri stretches, eyes focusing on Phichit from behind his glasses, “Kingdom? – Underappreciated musical genius. I bought three copies, one for each of the different covers. I love it so much. Why?”
“What would you do if someone said it tanked?” Phichit tests the waters.
Yuuri frowns, slowly beginning to rise, “I’d fight them. Why?”
Phichit chuckles, “No reason, Yuuri. Just something silly I heard on TV on The Take. Go back to sleep.”
TBC – Possibly.