It’s a surprise, when Viktor opens the door and sees Yuuri standing outside. It shouldn’t be, but it is.
St. Petersburg was depressingly familiar, gloomy and bitingly cold in the way coastal Hasetsu never could be. Viktor had missed the cold, loudly lamenting its loss to make Yuuri laugh as Yuuri pulled on scarf, hat, and gloves for a walk with Makkachin. Now Viktor gripped coffee between his gloved hands and burrowed his nose into his scarf, sending selfies to Yuuri in lieu of taking his hand.
The bare bones of his programs came together easily enough, and it wasn’t as though he’d gotten horribly out of shape, skating nearly every day with Yuuri and practicing their duet. Yakov made Viktor skate both programs for him once a week and left him alone otherwise, the same way he had before. Even the grumpiness and dissatisfaction radiating off him was the same as it had been before Viktor left; the only new part was the betrayal in Yakov’s eyes whenever Viktor flubbed a spin.
His free skate was about Yuuri; of course it was, both programs were, and it only made Yakov frown harder, but how could Viktor skate about anything else, now that he knew love firsthand? The song for his free skate was quiet, melancholy layered on top of contentment, and Viktor had the program perfect before he turned twenty-eight. His short program wasn’t ready, though, and he sat out the Russian Nationals, skating alone in his deserted home rink and trying to remember what joyous happiness felt like.
He took time off practice to watch the Japanese Nationals. Yuuri handily cleaned up, even with the original jump composition in the free skate back in place until Worlds. Minako was at his side to hug him in Viktor’s place. Viktor called him as soon as the medal ceremony was done, holding Makkachin in front of his face as the video connected and waving the dog’s paws in a celebratory dance. He could hear Yuuri’s laughter through the fur.
Yuuri called him on his birthday, putting him on speaker in the middle of the kitchen so all four Katsukis could call out their congratulations to him, before taking the phone out to the onsen to talk with Viktor in private. He started crying when Hiroko called him Vicchan and didn’t stop until ten minutes after they hung up, but Yuuri didn’t notice. Viktor found himself crying a lot, in the weeks after Barcelona, and he’d gotten good at doing so silently, face and body perfectly still, tears rolling down his face and doing nothing to ease the itch between his shoulderblades.
He hadn’t cried this much in over fifteen years. It had felt more therapeutic then. Now it just gave him headaches.
Georgi took gold at the Nationals, the first time in his career. So did Mila, but that wasn’t unusual. Viktor sat in his apartment, watching Yakov hug them both on his television, trying to keep Makkachin from licking the salt trails off his cheeks until after the tears stopped. Georgi’s mascara streaked down his face as Yakov beamed at him.
Chris’ yearly Christmas-and-birthday gift made it to Viktor’s doorstep two days late. Last year Chris had sent him a husband pillow, a fifty-ruble gift certificate for Viktor’s favorite ice cream place, and a copy of Chicken Soup for the Broken-Hearted Soul, full of annotations in Chris’ neat script. Congratulations on your first rejection, Chris had written in French on the inside cover. May you channel it into your first silver in a decade next month. Viktor had laughed and bought himself a silver watch, tagging Chris in the Instagram picture he posted.
This year, Chris’ package included a new toy for Makkachin, a family-sized tub of lube, and a copy of Wedding Planning for Dummies. The inscription this year read, If you choose anyone else as your best man, know that you put their life in danger. My speech has been written since Beijing, and by God I will give it, one way or another. It made Viktor smile a little, which was more than any of his other gifts had.
Fear not. I don’t know any men better than you, Viktor texted Chris alongside a picture of Makkachin and the new toy.
I don’t know whether to be flattered or concerned for your mental health, Chris wrote back.
La mélancolie, mon ami. It will pass. It always does.
Speaking to Yuuri helped, and it didn’t. Yuuri’s voice was full of the same longing as Viktor’s, and when there was video he could see it in Yuuri’s eyes as well. It was a comfort that both of them were handling the separation equally poorly, but whenever Yuuri talked about coming to Russia after the European Championships, all Viktor could hear was Let’s end this over the hole in his back widening a little more.
The trouble wasn’t that St. Petersburg was exactly as it had been two years ago; it was that St. Petersburg was exactly as it had been one year ago, in that transitional period between the last Grand Prix Final and World Championships, when Viktor had been bored senseless and obsessing over the possibility of coaching, trying to decide if the shitfaced Japanese skater had been serious, and if Viktor would be any good at coaching. The answers were no and no, as Viktor knew this time around. “I suppose this time next year I’ll know if Yuuri was serious about staying,” Viktor said to Makkachin. “I wonder what new questions I’ll have,” he added, to avoid the fact that the answer would likely be no once again.
Yakov dragged Viktor into his office and gave him a dressing-down the likes of which Viktor hadn’t had since his Juniors days, once everyone was home from Nationals. Mila had snatched a bit of history for herself during her free skate, landing a clean quad toe loop and a new personal best. “I know you fancy yourself a good coach now, Vitya, but you are not her instructor, and you are not to interfere with her training,” Yakov finished, hat askew from the force of his ire.
Viktor tipped his head down from where it had been leaning against the wall while Yakov ranted. “She came to me,” he said, once it seemed it was his turn to talk. “As soon as she found out I was coming back to St. Petersburg. It’s not as though I was trying to poach your clients, Yakov.”
“All the same! She knew my thoughts on her learning quads, which were not yet, damn it, and you had no right to abet her in disobeying me!”
Viktor blew air out of his cheeks. “Yes, Yakov, she knew your thoughts, which is why she’d been practicing them in secret for months.” Yakov blinked. “She nearly had it too, all I did was fine-tune her technique, try and prevent her hurting herself without a proper instructor.” Viktor could feel the tears creeping up and staining the backs of his eyes with salt. He stood. “If you want skaters with no minds of their own, go back to the Novices and pick a new set to mold.”
“Vitya, are you - are you crying?” Yakov stammered, as Viktor picked up his coat.
“And for the record, Yakov,” Viktor said, one hand on the doorknob, “I don’t think myself a good coach. I’m not, and I know that. But that doesn’t mean I can’t help, or that people aren’t better for having me with them.”
Yakov sighed. “That’s not what I meant.”
Mila and Georgi were in the hallway, blatantly eavesdropping, and Mila winced in sympathy at him. He winked at her, clapped Georgi on the shoulder, and skipped the day’s training.
Lilia took him to lunch one day, after an early training session in which Yakov had barely done more than nod in greeting and tsk when Viktor fell. Her house was gaudier than he’d expected, all creamy marble and polished mahogany. There was a small pile of cat toys in a corner of the entryway, and Yurio’s scowling face flashed down at him for a moment before he disappeared behind a door.
“Sit,” she said once they were in the kitchen, pointing to the chair he was to use. Viktor sat and watched her put the finishing touches on something in a slow cooker, finally ladling borscht into a huge bowl and putting it in front of Viktor. “Eat.”
“Aren’t you eating too?”
Lilia shook her head, sitting. “I hate borscht. Eat,” she repeated. “You’re dropping too much weight, it will start to come from your muscles soon.”
The borscht was delicious, although Viktor felt the lack of bread. Lilia sat in silence until he finished, chin propped on her hand. “I’m doing my best with Yakov,” she said suddenly, as Viktor placed his spoon down. “He is behaving in very poor form.”
That was a surprise. Viktor blinked and shrugged. “You needn’t, not on my account. I should have expected it. The fact that I didn’t is my own fault.” Looking back, Viktor had never really believed Yakov wouldn’t forgive him, even with all the sniping in public and shouting at press conferences. He’d assumed Yakov would come around easily enough, especially once Yuuri took silver and and Viktor’s own world record. Viktor had thought of Yakov as a father for so long, he had forgotten it wasn’t mutual.
“Yes, well, it isn’t all on your account,” Lilia said, snapping him out of his thoughts. “He sets a bad example for the other skaters under his care, treating you this way just because you disappointed him. They will fear the same, and stand in their own way to avoid it.”
Viktor hummed, tapping his fingers against the handle of the spoon. “When does Katsuki come?” Lilia asked.
“Katsuki. You are continuing to coach him, yes? When is he coming to continue training?”
“He’s coming to the Europeans,” Viktor said, swallowing. “And then to St. Petersburg after, to get ready for the Four Continents.” The damn crying started again, but he didn’t dare reach up to wipe the tears away while Lilia regarded him.
“Hmm.” Lilia frowned at him for a long moment, then raised her voice and called, “Yuri Plisetsky! Eavesdropping is an ugly habit!”
Yurio appeared in the doorway, Potya clutched in his arms. “Can I have some borscht?”
“One bowl, but first you must package up the rest for Viktor.” Lilia stood and swept out of the kitchen. Yurio glared at Viktor as he put Potya down.
The last portion of borscht was heating on the stove for lunch when Viktor realized that the itch between his shoulders hadn’t bothered him in hours. “How about that, Makkachin,” he said, turning the heat off and pouring the stew into a bowl. “New year, new start.” Makkachin blocked his way to the table. “Oh, someone wants their own lunch, do they? But they have to let Viktor put his bowl on the table first, so he can use his hands!” Makkachin allowed Viktor to put his bowl onto the counter, and Viktor counted that an acceptable compromise.
The itch between his shoulders, a persistent nagging irritation that sometimes flared into pain, had been there since Yuuri waved him onto a plane in Japan. He should have realized that it would only stop if he and Yuuri were once again in the same country.
Viktor flings the door open at two minutes to midnight, call still active on the phone in his hand. “Happy New Year,” Yuuri says into the phone he holds to his ear. Viktor hangs up, throws his phone onto the table by the door, and pulls Yuuri into a hug.
Yuuri fits as well as he ever did. He smells of travel, of sharp Russian air, of the chemical interior of a sanitized cab, and his skin is warm under the cold.
Down the block, people start to shout the countdown. Viktor kisses Yuuri from seven to Happy New Year, and Yuuri kisses him again after that for good measure. “I’m sorry I couldn’t be here for your birthday,” he murmurs, forehead pressed to Viktor’s.
Viktor shakes his head, grabbing blindly for Yuuri’s suitcase and tugging them all inside the warm house. Makkachin is losing his mind, nearly knocking Yuuri down to get at his face and lick. Yuuri laughs and hugs him, crooning, “Hello Makkachin, yes, I missed you too, your fur is so warm.” Viktor stands, watching them, trying to catch his breath. He presses a hand to his chest.
Yuuri prises his way out of Makkachin’s embrace and stands. He’s bashful now, face flushed, hands twitching at his sides. “Hi,” he says.
Viktor lets out a helpless laugh and tugs Yuuri back into his arms. “Hi,” he breathes into Yuuri’s neck. Yuuri’s arms come up and wrap around him, one hand coming to rest between Viktor’s shoulderblades, and Viktor bursts into loud, wrenching sobs.